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Land-locked prairie poets bring the sea to the heartland

By Andrew Wedderburn

Booty, a collaborative pirate burlesque performance poem by Calgarians Jill Hartman and Brea Burton, starts with a shape: the deck of a ship. Forget the mast in the middle–have a look over the side of the crow’s nest and say what that reminds you of, floating there in the water. This is the vulvic deck from which our intrepid poets plunder all the sexualized tropes of swashbuckling language, from bearded clams to Moby’s dick. This is feminism with a cannon, and it’s not so drunk it can’t pick off its targets on the shore.

Booty (published by The Mercury Press) grew from a manuscript of Hartman’s exploring the poetic opportunities of her recent experiences learning Middle Eastern dance. Fellow University of Calgary grad student Brea Burton, and occasionally Kara Hedley, used the text as the pretext for some opportunistic academic travel. “We came across this poetry sexuality conference in Stirling, Scotland,” says Burton, “and we all really wanted to go, so we cooked up this unholy trinity of a project.”

The poets quickly realized they were on to something with this nautical burlesque voyage. Booty readings quickly became Calgary events– raucous, drunk and interactive, with heckling from both sides of the microphone and emphatic Yaars hollered during particularly juicy bits. In the context of Calgarian poetry (relentlessly experimental but not what you’d necessarily call fun) it was a revelation. There had been a sharp divide between the more cerebral, avant-garde University scene–mentored under Fred Wah and elbow-deep in taking apart language–and a long-standing spoken-word community. Booty brought everybody into the same tent.

“Poetry in Calgary is definitely anti-establishment,” says Hartman. “Whether it’s the experimental writing that we’re into or the spoken-word scene; none of us are making any money, none of us are being listened to. So we can say the rudest thing or scream as loud as we want. It makes for a lot of freedom.”

That freedom, coupled with the stress of grad school and a bubbling sense of anger at the way language positions and decides sexuality, led Hartman and Burton in more sober moments to continue sharpening the keen feminist weapon that is Booty, the book.

The narrators spit out every cliché and careless euphemism about femininity, about our bodies and what we do with them, then kick the whole motley assortment over the side and dance on the deck while they sink. Along the way there are the real-life stories of women pirates: passing as men at first, then free to be women, after enough violence, and finally just pirates, past reduction and summary:

so she fights bare-chested, all comers, until she is the leader, the jolly roger, the master, masthead come to life, wooden limbs splinter. she is the vessel, the salty fish, the mother of it all, mother-fucking mistress of the seas.

The language is complex, tricky, and rife with puns and double entendres, burlesque in the classic sense: the sly Vaudevillian bait-andswitch, riling up the crowd with a hint and a tease but always staying in command of every part of the proceedings. And there are our landlocked prairie poets, in command of the proceedings, confronting the reader with all of this eroticized language, throwing elbows instead of nudges and demanding, again and again: What did you expect me to write about?

“Originally I was really interested in shocking people,” says Burton, “in being vicious and angry. I realized I like using words and humour as a weapon in this way, turning these things upside-down, and taking what you think poetry is all about and doing something completely different. At the same time I think we traversed that fine line between being completely ridiculous and wanting to be taken seriously.”

“The problem with humour in writing is just because your writing is funny, doesn’t mean what you’re writing about is funny,” says Hartman. “It became this line we were walking because we were having so much fun performing, but we don’t want to be ridiculous. The writing was always serious–we certainly weren’t drunk when we were writing.” They may not have been drunk while writing, but at the Scottish poetry sexuality conference Hartman and Burton dressed as pirates as they read their poems, taking shots of rum between each one. Hartman remembers people were concerned about how much they were drinking. “It wasn’t really rum: It was partly rum. Anyway, it’s frightening to think that someone might write us off–they might see us perform and think it was ridiculous and not listen to what we were saying.”

No one who listens is going to write this off: there is enough gorgeous language and lusty catalogues accompanying the polemic cannonballs to make Booty a deeply affecting piece, on the page or in the room with you. But it’s the cannonball, the anger that stays with you a long time after you’re finished luxuriating in the language, and it’s a polemic which is a long way from settled.

“Both sides are very much about the way that language describes us and delineates us and traps us, and how tactics for changing that have limited success,” says Hartman. “It’s not that easy to repurpose language but it’s definitely worth trying.”

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