The hardest thing about turning an airsickness bag into a book of poetry is getting through the plastic lining at the very bottom. Obviously, you have no scissors on a plane to do the single cut needed to make a butterfly book, so you have to bend the last fold back and forth and back and forth again. With all this manual labour on my flight from Winnipeg to Montreal, I was astonished that no one expressed the slightest shred of curiosity as to what I was doing. Perhaps, they detected my expertise and didn’t want to disturb a master at work. (“He’s like Michelangelo freeing the form from that barf-bag,” the woman across the aisle from me might have alliteratively thought.)
On my reading route at google maps, I’ve listed all my flights as venues and on my four flights across the country (Victoria to Calgary, Calgary to Saskatoon, Saskatoon to Winnipeg, and Winnipeg to Montreal), I’ve written and read work on all but one. Saskatoon to Winnipeg was at the unamusable hour of seven in the morning. I started talking to the man next to me and he curtly agreed with my point. (Me: “You’d think they’d have the technology to match up big and small people next to one another on flights” Him: “They do. They know more than you think.”) He then put his earbuds in and crossed him muscular arms (with an old-school calculator watch bulging off his wrist.) I figured that a brainy jock (athletic nerd?) was the least likely to appreciate a poem at such an early hour.
My first flight, however, produced a poem written on the outside of an air-sickness bag. At the beginning of the flight, I queried the stewardess as to whether the pilot would read my poem. “He can’t read anything political,” she instantly replied. I explained my hundred readings. “And if I write something that’s beautiful and you read it and you think it’s beautiful, could you ask the pilot to read it?” She agreed.
I looked out the window of the plane and here’s what I came up with:
Mountains rise like waves
in a sky-high view that oceans
the land. As if a snap-shot
of stormy waters was our to
ponder. A heart’s resilience
relaxed within the blue of this sky.
The stewardess loved it and took it to the pilot who reportedly loved it, but it couldn’t be read. “Some people might be upset that he’s using the radio for non-essential purposes,” she explained. In the end, I read it for her and the people around me and even got some applause from the systems analyst and financial advisor (who hated living in Calgary but were there for the money!)
Days later, on next flight, I gave myself the challenge of making a book out of the air-sickness bag. A butterfly book is a Japanese trick for making a book out of a single piece of paper. (Quick tutorial with old-fashioned words: You fold a paper lengthwise, then in half, and then in half again. Open it up and then fold it in half (differently than your first fold), and cut the middle crease. Once you open it again you can push the sides together to make a six-page book (plus the front and back cover.)) You can apply the same origami technique to a barf-bag.
The second poem wasn’t as much of a success, but I read it nonetheless to the wholefoods sales rep seated next to me. She said that she loved it. We talked about poetry for a while and I recommended some Canadian authors and poetry apps.
Winnipeg to Montreal produced the most successful chapbook of all. I wrote a poem about a bearded woman’s exotic travels around the world. It felt like the perfect fit for its format. The woman next to me didn’t speak English and so I read it to the flight attendant who wanted my name and seat number (Maybe I’ve been blacklisted and I won’t be able to fly on a plane again with a pen.)
In all seriousness, I haven’t read as much of my own published work on this tour as I thought I would. In part, I don’t want to get sick of hearing myself read the same poems again and again. Writing something on the spur of the moment not only feels fresher but is also something that I genuinely want to share with others. Poetry can sometimes be for a niche audience of other poets, or sometimes simply the quiet and concentration of the page. If I’m doing a reading for strangers, I would like to bring some shared context. A lot of my work is about growing up in Surrey with a schizophrenic father. It’s quite specific. I want to help destigmatize mental illness with my work, but I believe in a gradual approach. The poet shouldn’t impose awkwardness on an audience, rather he or she should leave that to the poem where there’s all manner of love, hatred, and awkwardness swirling in a strange alchemy of sounds and images. It might sound like a stomach in need of an airsickness bag or the contents of a poet’s head as poured into a poem.
– Kevin Spenst
Thursday: En Montreal, see views play.