Last spring, I attended the Spring Pulse Poetry Festival in Cobalt, Ontario with my father. This year the Festival is happening from May 29th-31st, 2014. It’s a remarkable experience. You can find more details on their website: http://www.springpulsepoetryfestival.com/
When my father asked me to come with him on an 8 hour bus trip to Cobalt, Ontario for a weekend of poetry to act as blogger and reporter, I was decidedly skeptical. And a little terrified. My family has had its share of ups and downs over the years, but there has been no relationship more up-and-down-y than the one between my father and I. Over the past couple of years, however, my mom, dad, sister and I have rebuilt the family bond beyond what I imagined possible. And this gave me hope. I decided to agree to the poetry weekend; the chance to connect one on one with my dad was worth taking. Besides…think of all the free poetry! The first day, May 30th, got off to a rocky start. We were running late, and my dad nearly throttled his long-time – but chronologically challenged – friend Mick Burrs while the rest of the family stood by awkwardly. We piled into his station wagon as he gunned it to the bus stop. There was no bus. After about ten minutes the bus pulled up, and I piled in with a hodgepodge collection of poets, writers, and professors. There were beards, vintage t-shirts, shell necklaces, and frizzy hair as far as the eye could see. The bus was abuzz with excitement. Few of the passengers had properly slept; many of them had gone to Cobalt last year and couldn’t wait to return. As the engine of the bus revved up and we hit the road, the poets settled into their routines. Some read, some ate, others stood up to make announcements about accommodations or the availability of water bottles and apples. One such announcement – made by Bunny, an older woman who ran her own volunteer poetry organization – was the request for bus poetry (about an experience on the bus that was “profound, perplexing, amazing”), which we would read upon arrival at Cobalt for the first event of the evening. I wrote and read what approximated slam poetry (I was later told). We arrived many hours later, taking a rest stop at one point in a trucker convenience store. It had a lot of equipment I couldn’t begin to understand.
We received a tour of Cobalt shortly after we checked into our motel and dropped our bags off. The motel, which was where I would spend my off-time relaxing and watching Netflix, was one floor of small rooms, right near the beach of a small and cold lake. It was beautiful, quaint, and charming. As befits a small historical town like Cobalt. Our tour began in a gem store. Cobalt was once the mining capital of Northern Ontario. The crown jewel, if you will, of the region. It was filled with thousands of people until the mine closed. Then it shrunk tenfold, becoming a shell of its former self. A historical hamlet with the infrastructure of an enormous industrial outpost. During our tour I had the pleasure of meeting the wise-cracking mayor, Tina Sartoretto, a tough broad with a sports car and a cane. The staff of the gem store pulled out a ceremonial neck chain made of uneven silver disks for her to wear. She asked if we wanted to “cop a feel.” She said it was so quiet in Cobalt that “you could hear a mosquito pass gas.” After the event she gave me a ride in her convertible and told me about her dream of building the commercial core of the town, and growing events like the poetry festival to encourage more tourism. She talked about the new Cobalt website, her two dogs, and how she was a jock in high school. She told me that Cobalt rivaled the size of Sudbury with miles of mining pipes running underneath the town which used to pump compressed air to run the mining operations. She spoke passionately and knowledgeably about her town. I learned that Haileybury has roughly 4,500 people, but the amalgamated tri-town region (including two nearby towns) is closer to 10,000. The amalgamation left out Cobalt. I also later found out that despite its small size, Cobalt has a gang and drug problem that amounts to one apartment fighting another apartment. Since everybody knows each other, everybody knows who is involved in drugs. It’s almost charming, given the historical nature of the town. I remember seeing a police vehicle parked downtown. I was told it was a “stake-out.” Later that night we headed to nearby Haileybury City Hall for cut fruit, cheese and crackers, cheese curds on toothpicks, and fruit punch. We gathered in the Haileybury council chambers for a series of poems, written by the bus poets and various local poets. The poems were funny, thoughtful, and cute. The poet laureate of the region, Ann Margaretson, was there. She is cute, funny, old and British, and all her poems are rhyming couplets about having nice times in nature. Honestly. Every single one.
There was a man with a beard, plaid shirt, blue jeans, and a big brass belt buckle. He rambled for a while about traditional Maori and Indian shamanic healing, and having a wordless relationship with a French woman who was his daughter in a past life. He mentioned that he is “known for his hugs.” I didn’t get a chance to hug him, so I couldn’t verify his claim. My dad read a poem about Chicago blues legends. A twelve year old girl read a poem called “Fire Flower”. We then left the chambers to go outside and howl like wolves (for real). And then we all went back to the motel and went to bed.
The next day, after breakfast, we headed to a reading at the Haileybury library. An argument raged over a table being used for poetry books. Bunny wanted to put her juice on it. Mick was concerned her juice would spill on the books. Voices were raised. The library shook with the rage of old poets. More poems were read by Mick Burrs, Julie McNeill, Nancy Bullis, and Giovanna Riccio. Poems about black flies, silversmiths, apes, and Stalin’s hands. There was a lot of talk about ravens; talk that would continue for the rest of the weekend. I can’t stress enough how much people wrote about ravens. Throughout the weekend I had a chance to watch my dad in an entirely new context. He interacted with these other poets as a friend, a poetry ‘veteran’, an organizer and a colleague. He wasn’t playing the role of my dad; he was being a guy hanging out with pals who just happen to be into this peculiar hobby. I guess dads are people too. After the reading I had the opportunity to speak with David Brydges, the Artistic Director of Spring Pulse Poetry Festival. He spends much of the year working in the oil sands, the rest of the year writing and organizing this festival. In 2007 he discovered that it was the 100 year anniversary of the death of Dr. Henry Drummond, a poet, businessman, and in the early 20th Century one of the most popular authors in the English-speaking world. Drummond spent much of his time in Cobalt, Ontario, investing in silver mines. Thus the festival was born, in memory of Dr. Drummond. It has since expanded – with help from the League of Canadian Poets and Ontario Tourism – to become the largest poetry festival in Northern Ontario. My dad and I (along with two other local performers) then ran a small songwriting panel before we all trotted off to dinner at one of a very small handful of restaurants in town, followed by a lecture about Dr. Drummond, including the following exchange:
“Poets in the 19th century were not considered…employable…” –David Brydges …”unlike today.” – Allan Briesmaster
More poems were read, this time by locals and about – or in the style of – Dr. Drummond. Ann Margaretson, John Dore, and Gallant McQueen all read their poems. Then awards were announced, won by these people, including a remarkable English professor named Deborah Cox. After the awards, we headed to a park for a First Nations ceremony. Awards were once again handed out, the Mayor showed up in her convertible to crack some jokes and make proclamations, and after speeches, drumming, and meditation, we all gathered by the gazebo for food and tunes. A variety of folks played their songs for the crowd. My dad and I got the crowd going by playing some standards. I was particularly pleased to see Ann Margaretson dance to “I’ll Fly Away.” My dad is an expert at banging out standards. It’s something he did for a long time as a gigging musician. We took turns playing songs in our own style. He would guess his way through songs shouted out by the audience, and I would fake the chords. I would find a song on my tablet, and play the changes. People clapped and the gazebo concert turned out…fine.
On Saturday, our last full day in Cobalt, we started off with breakfast and another reading in the Cobalt Mining museum. Bunny, Mick Burrs, Galen McQueen, Marsha Barker, my dad, and Deborah Cox all read poems from their books. My dad’s poem asked “where do the missing socks go?” He got some laughs and an applause break. The museum was dark, and filled with remnants of Cobalt’s historical mining glory. There were cardboard cut-outs of miners, photographs of old trains, pieces of mining equipment. It was a strangely meditative space. Also, they had juice and muffins.
Shortly thereafter we moved on to the library for another awards ceremony, followed by – yes, you guessed it – a poetry reading. Local poets and travelling poets all read. After a certain point, I think I hit poetry overload. My right-brain started to shut down, chockablock full of metaphors, similes, descriptions of nature, and wordplay.
David Brydges, Alan Briesmaster, poet laureate Ann Margaretson, Chantel Johnson, Margaret Code, Julie McNeil, Julie Caranay, Linda Chambers, Peter Martin, and a huge number of local poets read. They payed tribute to a poet who died, Jim Seargent. They read about ravens, crows, and how they don’t like rap music. They read about nature, walking back and forth from the podium amidst a whirlwind of dad jokes, loose clothing, and dangly jewelry. Then, we ate cake.
As the day goes on, the Festival becomes less about reading and more about blessing, eating, celebrating, and awarding. Awards were endlessly given out to just about everyone, speeches are made, and we all retired to our hotels to get ready for a night of drinking and chatting at the bar. A small group of us (not including my dad, who needed to take a nap as dads often do) hung out together on the dock of a large lake bordering the town. We had drinks and talked about life, kids, poetry, and politics. We threw a ball for a local dog and swatted mosquitos. Finally, it was time to head out to the bar. The final night was a celebration of the weekend before we had to leave on Sunday. We got to know each other, and though I wanted to keep in touch, sadly life got the better of me. As far as my relationship with my dad goes, I’m glad I had the chance to see him in a different light. At the same time, I’m glad he had an opportunity to see me through the eyes of these other poets. Perhaps not as a son, but as a writer, musician, friend, and all around cool guy. Or at least one of those. The Cobalt Spring Pulse Poetry Festival felt like art camp for grown-ups. A chance for all of us weirdoes to gather in a beautiful place and express ourselves. Though I am not a poet myself, nor am I part of the Toronto poetry community, I felt a sense of belonging in this small collective of artists, teachers, and writers. At least for one weekend. I’d recommend it to anyone.
For a sample of Kent Bowman’s poetry, check him out here. All photographs inexpertly taken by Josh Bowman.
Edit: correction of Dr. Henry Drummond’s name.