Dispatches from Banff - 12 days at the Banff Spoken Word Programme

Ivy's photo of Gerard Harris at the Banff Centre

I'm very new at this and not looking forward to the next part and now I’m required to describe myself as an artist, I don't think I know what an artist is. I do know that I don’t resemble a spoken word artist. What I have been doing for the last 5 years in public performance is storytelling in a manner not rooted in the traditional folklore styles nor the packaged and polished modern formula made popular by The Moth, although I do share with the practitioners of the latter an obsessive focus on the Self (and in my case, the perpetual curation of its past). In the last few years, my shit has gotten increasingly psychological, philosophical and scatological but if I am to consider myself anything, then it’s as a comedian who tells long-form stories that try hard to adhere to the truth of the thing.

 

Last year a few poets saw me performing in Montreal and suggested I apply to the Banff Centre’s Spoken Word Program. I had no knowledge of the centre or the program, but I had quit my job only a month before and was looking for something to help me generate more work for myself and legitimize this really terrible decision I had just made.

My proposal was to create an hour-long show about personal encounters with death in all its glorious forms, and happily I was accepted. The theme that year was Words and Music, a fortunate coincidence since I had started working with a musician to develop a semi-scripted show in which I talk and he plays.

 A month before the course, I began doing voice and scriptwriting on a video game being developed in the UK about Tourette's Syndrome (working title: Twitchcraft). I have had Tourette’s since childhood, but I’ve developed many techniques to disguise, distribute or suppress the majority of my motor and phonic tics. I have gained so much control over them that I have no ability to relax it, but in the course of recording vocals for the trailer, I managed to let out a hefty torrent of Tourettic sounds and words. When the engineer played them back to me and suggested we loop a few phrases, what came out was so musical that I lost all interest in my initial idea and decided to investigate the possibilities of using my tics for entertainment.

I told the Banff Centre that I was going to work on something else during my time there and they gave me 48 hours to submit a new proposal; a hateful task but it forced me to think it through properly. Happily they agreed, so I am going to Banff on Sunday with an electric guitar, a fancy looping pedal and a handful of non-narrative fragments, which suggests to me that I may finally create a show for once that is more than simply telling stories interrupted by so many recursive deviations and philosophical investigations. My musician friend is on board with this new project, which will be a better use of his considerable talents.

For many unfortunate reasons (see my shows for details), I remain an outsider to any community I have spent time with, and I also have more than a few difficulties with my learning process these days, so the next two weeks are probably going to be a tough time for me.

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Day One

My knowledge and understanding of spoken word in general and slam poetry in particular was formed in the usual way: I caught a 30-second clip of sommmmmme-one in-to-o-o-o-oninnnggggg RE-vo-LU-tio-NA-ry verse about sommmmmmme-thinnngggg un-IM-p-o-r-r-r-r-TANT to me-e-e-E-E-e-e-e, probably from some British youth TV report about all the cool things going on in America, live from the stage at the Nuyorican Cafe in the early 90s. I wrote off the whole field as an enormous, unnecessary body of footnotes to Gil Scott-Heron, Amiri Baraka and the Last Poets (all heroes from my confused youth). Then 15 poets stood up one by one at the orientation held in the Banff Centre’s Writers’ Lounge and rapped that nonsense right out of my head. The other big event of the first day was being introduced to my soundproof cabin in the woods, With a desk, a chair, a lamp and a proper working piano already in place, I rented a good cheap amp and a microphone from the Centre and set to work/play.

Day Two

There are two other storytellers here, thankfully. One comes from Yellowknife, the other from the Appalachians, and both can hold a room in thrall when they talk about the history, the folklore and the many myths that come from their respective communities. Storytelling has been rendered into a woefully hollow buzzword by the increasingly convergent arts/social media/business “shared” lexicon, but these gentlemen both do something much older, more vibrant and with a loftier purpose than anything that falls under the current misusage, where simplistic ideas are sold through the telling of relatable stories. They are also both very skilled musicians with much published work incorporating music and storytelling. I am feel less of a storyteller than ever but they don’t seem to care and treat me as an equal anyway.

Day Three

The group is friendly, talented and extremely diverse. A friend who had worked at the Centre in previous years later told me that the happiest and best-integrated groups she had ever come across during her tenure were always in the Spoken Word Program. Between the interesting people, the deregulated liquor stores and the genuine challenges of the program in the first few days, it has been hard to focus on the show. Losing my ADHD meds somewhere in transit has not helped. In the evening, we performed for a crowded bar at the Centre, backed by the band jamming throughout the show while we all jumped up and did bits from our repertoire or improvised along with them if spirits moved us. It was a glorious piece of super-groovy chaos, and it went down way better than I expected. Regardless of my own difficulties with naming myself and what I do, in the minds of about 70 people that night, I was a spoken word artist. I will now do my best to stop protesting that.

Day Four

I think I have wrangled every scrap of my life with Tourette’s onto a single page and it makes for desperately grim and intensely boring reading. There’s just no arc I can find beyond the following: I was born into a stressful situation, developed a wide and wild variety of painful nervous tics with an equal amount of compunctive shame at 9, further embedded and viciously defended by some highly pernicious mental malware i picked up in my teens and which, decades later, maintains a level of discomfort that still fucks with me most minutes of the day and night. The end.

I reckon it’s like trying to document on film what it’s actually like to write poetry. I’m starting to understand the implications of not thinking this through properly (my second proposal was an exercise in convincing myself as much as the Centre that this new idea was worth entertaining). The upside is that during the workshops held by the faculty over the last few days, I’ve been forced to express myself in alternative ways rather than relying on simply telling stories and offering perspectives on those stories. I’m reminded of a period in my childhood when I used to play with words a lot more and wanted to be a writer, an ambition that sat in perfect congruence with footballer, athlete, racing driver, secret agent and assassin.

 Day Six

Something’s changed: I’m sleeping 4 or 5 hours a night, waking up at 8am, leaping out of bed and running to my hut to keep on writing and composing. I forget to eat, look at Facebook or pee for a whole day. I managed to get some new ADHD meds, which haven’t held me back (except from eating), but this focus is highly unusual, no matter what regime I’m trying to follow. It’s particularly rare when there’s no deadline, fear of failure or need to impress looming around - 3 classic motivations to action, each of which know the contours of my shoulders very well. It’s almost as if I feel comfortable here.

Day Eight

I’ve accepted that I do have to make movies about Tourette’s. I’m going to make some short animations anyway because I just wrote some. The working title of this show is now “Mr Ticcy”. Starting to draw the boundaries of what this will cover, I am realising how much wider they are than I first expected. With no obvious beginning-middle-end narrative emerging, I am thinking about doing a series of “vignettes about Tourette’s”. Clearly the poetry in the atmosphere is rubbing off on me. In fact I ought to try making “32 Short Films about Tourette’s”, but that implies a much more achievable order and symmetry than anyone with ADHD could muster (though my Tourette’s and OCD both demand exactly these things). For now, I’m thinking of it as “17.something Random-Length Pitches about Twitches”.

 Day Nine

I try to grab a few moments to take in the extraordinary views in this place. It’s a great leveller to be reminded at every sunrise and sunset that there is no artistic project that any of us will ever do which can hold a candle to the blinding sun on the horizon that melts neatly between the two mountains in front of us and into the valley below. It’s even better when there’s a thunderstorm or a blizzard raging around, both of which happened today. I’m grateful I’m not here to write about nature, because what can you possibly say that’s as good as what you can see, hear, touch, smell and feel? That said, we are given a decent amount of valuable work to do by our faculty which serves to get everyone both writing more and tossing out our usual rhythms and rituals. While “Mr Ticcy” continues slowly to take some shape, the great surprise for me is that I’ve been writing something I had considered to be a bit of a waste of ink, which is to say: poetry. I don’t know if any of it is good, which is normally a strong reason for me to avoid writing in the first place. Here, I let it come out anyway and if I don’t hate it, it stays in. Two of the pieces are about Tourettes and one of them is a found poem (a concept I was just introduced to this week) - a letter my mother recently wrote me, which I read as if it were verse. See if you can spot a connection between them.

Day Eleven

For our big end-of-program public performance, every member of the group and faculty takes the stage for two hours and is directed to collaborate with each other. We were guided by Tanya Evanson, The Banff Centre Program Director, who was operating under the ANU methodology laid down by Iraqi-Canadian Visual Artist Jabbar Al Janabi. I take the 3 poems I’ve written onstage with me and find myself reading the letter from my mother while my new friend Mark Haynes rips lithe slices of funk from his bass. I leave the stage feeling nothing untoward. This is a welcome surprise.

 Day Twelve

I never went to summer camp; it wasn’t the done thing in the UK, which prefers to send its children away for the school year and take them back just for holidays. But today is how I imagine the last day at camp must feel, saying goodbye to a special group of new friends and an inspiring, playful and productive two weeks planned out and delivered by a very talented and committed faculty that, with the Centre, has figured out how to create an environment that promotes doing lots of good work. This is so effective it benefits even for the most distracted among us (ie. me)……

*****

Gerard Harris is a writer, storyteller, comedian and still says he's not a spoken word artist. Currently touring Australia and New Zealand, he will be bringing 3 storytelling shows - A Tension To Detail, Attention Seeker and whatever the new one gets called - to Canada this summer for Fringe Festivals in London, Montreal, Ottawa, Winnipeg, Saskatoon, Edmonton and Victoria.

http://gerardharrisdotcomistaken.com

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