The Collaboration – “Drummer Boy Raga: Red Light, Green Light”
There was a kind of explosion.
A dadaist urge overtook me when I returned from New York in the winter of '74. New York had been
inspiring; public readings every day of the week, in every type of environment – from the Feenjon Bar on
MacDougal to a stately drawing room on West 20th Street, from Village lofts to a church on 125th Street.
A year previous I had taken the advice of a friend, an anti-prolific young poet named Martin Newman,
and began writing short, minimal poems. New York became a testing ground for these poems or
"immortal brevities" as John Robert Colombo called them at an open reading in Toronto's Hurbourfront,
my first stop before heading to New York earlier that year.
Back in Montreal, I started to work for a wholesaler in prints and reproductions. It was there that I
came across Francis Picabia, Marcel Duchamp and, before I realized it, Dada. About the same time, I met
Ken Norris who was working on his BA at McGill University. He had a gift for smoothing over
personality differences between poets and became a catalyst, under whose wings the seven Vehicule
Poets finally came together.
I felt quite removed from the kind of writing I saw around me. The more my poems veered to the
experimental, the more I felt apart, isolated. The reassurance I sought came in the guise of one Opal L.
Nations, who had come east to take up temporary residence around the block from Ken Norris.
Ken urged me to meet him as soon as possible. "We have a lot in common," he said. A 1978
contributors' note lists Opal as the author of more than 40 books, but when I met him I was under the
impression that he had published more than twice that number. His readings/performances drew large
audiences and he never disappointed them. He could go on for a couple of hours after most thought he
was through, reading long absurd narratives, a belly-laugh per paragraph. Familiar with experimental
forms, it was not surprising that his work was rich, textured, multi-layered. He encouraged us to think of
collaborating, of holding recitals in our homes, of taking poetry "beyond limitation, to the extreme." His
energy was infectious.
One night, after a reading, five of us went to a bar where we decided then and there to collaborate by
writing a poem together. I wrote the first two lines, Artie Gold the last two.‘ This led to a series of poems
entitled 8 ½ x 11, the size of the sheet to be used. Significantly, form became our subject. The poems
were published in a mimeographed magazine we titled Mouse Eggs. We published the magazine on every holiday/occasion – Christmas, Easter, Halloween, etc. It became our "house organ" and we published 14 issues over a couple of years. Blank mimeograph sheets were circulated among the poets, the submissions run off, stapled and brought to Adrian at The Word Bookstore, mailed to the contributors and a few select subscribers.
On February 8, 1976, I read at Vehicule Art. It happened to be the 60th anniversary of the birth of
Dada (according to Jean Arp). For the occasion, I asked Ken Norris to assist me in performing a
simultaneous poem. We found a local tabloid, selected two unrelated pages and proceeded to read them,
simultaneously, sometimes alternating phrases at a brisk pace, to the pleasure and laughter of the
Later in the spring, Vehicule hosted the second Annual Poetry Marathon. Again, I asked Ken to assist
me in a simultaneous poem. He was enthusiastic We then asked others to participate. When we stepped in front of the audience, there were 11 of us! The noise was deafening. Most of the audience rose and began walking about. Some whistled, yelled, and at the end of the 5-minute provocation, a quarter of the
audience had left. Or was left. In those magical 5 minutes, the spirit of Dada was reincarnated and
reverberated through the Vehicule gallery. I was particularly moved. Rimbaud‘s derangement of the
senses was swimming in my head. Each time I looked up, something had changed – the walking-about,
the audience in motion – until all I saw was a pagan ritual, primitivistic Dada. Here, for me, was the cry
of Poetry in the seventies, in Montreal.
(Sometime later, at a poetry performance of Stephen Morrissey and Pat Walsh, sheets inscribed with a
few phrases were distributed and the audience was asked to participate. Except for a few of us, the udience remained in their seats and "good-naturedly“, even piously, recited the poem. Opal Nations tried
to infuse the occasion with humour by yelling from the balcony above but, generally, the atmosphere was
quite relaxed and everyone actually seemed to be enjoying the experience. Needless to say, simultaneous readings abruptly came to a 'stop‘.)
The "Raga" collaboration was based on my long poem "To Dawn”. Long-poem writing had always
been something of a curiosity in my work. In 1972, I wrote a series of mystical-lyrical poems called 13
Poems Of The Witness, 13 poems written in lunar cycles over a period of 13 months. It was these poems
which prompted poets around me to suggest I change my writing “style”. Although I didn't listen to
everyone, I decided not to be obstinate. I was willing to shed the skin of the mystic and the pantheist, too.
"To Dawn" was returning to the long poem. It contained elements of the sound poem. The text is a
fusion of surrealist lyric with dadaist anarchy. The first two words of the poem, "Dawn, dawn" evokes the
lyric and the anarchic (da...wn da..wn). The 16 repetitions of "left right" recreate the left-right of soldiers
marching but are actually based on the left-right symbolism of William Blake. The poem is a haunt of
1916 and the literary movement it later spawned – surrealism.
The form of the collaboration was like a chain letter, passed around, everyone writing between the lines. Opal was the first to contribute. Predictably, the result was outrageous humour plus a double-whammy of surrealism. At this early stage, the collaboration was dangerously tipped and tilted. The dissection of Opal's contribution followed, assigning myself a voice (Aisha, identified by the letter A and Opal another (Ravisheen, identified by the letter R). How appropriate for Ken Norris, third in the collaboration, to choose T for Time (creating A,R,T). I thought his bursts of “Red Light!” and “Green Light!” were comparable to Duchamp's "3 standard stops”. A structure was becoming evident. While Opal and I, compass-like, circumscribed the piece with narrative, Norris added a 'third foot' to make it stand, like a tripod. Stephen Morrissey's contribution was eagerly awaited.
Like a collagist, selecting and snipping, Stephen (F) immersed himself in the text, emerged with bits of phrases, words, even syllables. Sometimes, his selection was to introduce fragments of what was to come, sometimes a reflection (refraction) of what had just passed. His breaking up the text in this fashion turned the piece in on itself, its meditative aspect . The work was now reaching inward as well as outward. He did not add one original phrase, not one external element, yet his contribution was instructive. In visual terms, he zoomed in on the fabric, the material, offering the work as "object", built with breaths, words, thoughts.
Endre Farkas' contribution was next, almost diametrically opposite to Stephen Morrissey’s collaboration. Four-word phrase commands poked fun of and mildly cursed the audience. His was a formula best described as the “verb-your-noun sing.-noun pl.” formula: "defrost your chain eyelashes" or "vacuum your angel elbows". This contribution completed the form of the "exquisite corpse". As Stephen Morrissey examined the content of our collaboration, Farkas examined the form. It was also a parody of the form.
John McAuley's voice, deep-throated, goofy, provided the counterpoint to Opal's high-pitched British
accent. Both were comic, situated at opposite poles of the octave. While Endre experimented with sound
"effects", the primitivistic elements of the piece were evoked as much by the imagery as the sounds of the words.
Once the written collaboration was complete, it only remained for us to rehearse and perform the work, which we did at a one-performance-only appearance at Powerhouse Gallery.
Robert Van Wyck played the flute (FL) for the piece. I suggested an overture, or prelude, based on "The Blue Danube". He played it slightly off-key, with a tortured, struggling movement. Throughout the piece, the flute mirrors the lines in intensity and duration, responding to the lines immediately preceding.
The drums were played by Tom Ezzy, better known for his poetry and prose than his ability as a
percussionist. He used a conga drum, played also slightly off-beat. The spirit of the collaboration was one
of enthusiastic spontaneity. The desire to collaborate, with no promise of financial reimbursement, was
the basic motivating factor of the participants.
Vivian Katz, then a 16-year-old student, was spontaneous to the point of folly. She danced with
abandon. A couple of months before the collaboration, Stephen Morrissey and Pat Walsh performed at
Vehicule under the name Cold Mountain Review. It was during this performance that l first met Vivian; l
literally 'bumped into her`. Unlike the rest of the audience, who were seated, Vivian was walking about,
reading from her text. Soon she was dancing, beginning with small swaying movements, then leaping
about, falling on the ground, etc. Following the performance, I asked her if she was interested in dancing
during the Raga and she enthusiastically said yes. Vivian's dancing completed the collaboration of poetry,
music and dance. Her spontaneity and abandon was in perfect harmony with the work; without her, the
work would have been static, ear-oriented. It was her participation that provided a visual context and
therefore enables us to impart the term “performance poem” to this event, this experience.
Back Row: (Farkas) Stephen Morrissey, RobertVan
Wyck, Opal L.Nations,
Front Row: Ken Norris, Tom Konyves, Tom Ezzy
– Tom Konyves, Montreal, 1982
Back Row: Endre Farkas
The introduction and stills from the performance first appeared in my 1982 book Poetry in Performance
(The Muses Co.). The scans of the original script are from Endre Farkas’ copy. A video recording of the
performance has sadly disappeared. There does exist an audio cassette of the performance in Box 14 of
Stephen Morrissey’s papers held at Rare Books and Special Collections, McLennan Library, McGill
– Tom Konyves, White Rock, BC, 2013