Trillium Book Award Author Readings June 16

Profile on The TREE Reading Series, with a few questions

 
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Rod Pederson

For years, The TREE Reading Series was simply the most consistent game in town, given the flux of literary activity that Ottawa saw throughout the 1980s and into the ?90s, nearly until the founding of the writers festival in 1997 and the additions of David O?Meara?s Plan 99 Series and Max Middle?s AB Series (my own series, The Factory Reading Series, goes back to January, 1993). The TREE Reading Series goes back to May 9, 1980 and was founded by a small group of Ottawa writers including Juan O?Neil (who later created the Sasquatch Reading Series) and Marty Flomen (who later created the Orion Reading Series). With an open set and featured reader(s), the readings occur on the second and fourth Tuesday of every month (taking a break off only for Christmas), making TREE the third-longest- running (continuous) reading series in the country, alongside Toronto?s Harbourfront and Montreal?s The Yellow Door. Due to this consistency and near-exclusivity, TREE was where dozens of Ottawa writers were able to hone their craft of public readings, thanks to TREE?s long-established and engaging open set. The series introduced or re-introduced writers such as Pearl Pirie, Marcus McCann, Stephanie Bolster, Amanda Earl, Sandra Nichols, Dennis Tourbin, Sandra Ridley, Stephen Brockwell, Melanie Little, Max Middle, Michael Blouin, Blaine Marchand, Christine McNair, Nadine McInnis, Susan McMaster, Karen Massey and Clare Latremouille, Monty Reid, Colin Morton and John Lavery. It has featured some of the best writers from Ottawa and across Canada, many of them in their first Ottawa appearance. In the early 1980s, they even hosted a 24-hour reading at SAW Gallery that included Patrick Lane and Lorna Crozier, who were joint writers-in-residence at the University of Ottawa.

Over the years, the readings have been organized by a number of writers, including Sylvia Adams, John Barton, Dean Steadman, Chris Sorrenti, Lynne Alsford, James K. Moran, Jennifer Mulligan, Oscar Martens, Nadine Miller, b stephen harding, E. Russell Smith, Catherine Jenkins, Rhonda Douglas and, from June 1994 to the end of 1998, myself. To mark the 25th anniversary of the reading series during their tenure, Moran and Mulligan co-edited the anthology Twenty-Five Years of Tree (BuschekBooks, 2005), featuring short histories by current and former organizers and writing by a wide array of authors who had read at the series over the years. During my own tenure as organizer, some of the readers featured included Lisa Robertson, Ken Norris, David O?Meara, Tricia Postle, Lynn Crosbie, Christopher Dewdney, Eliza Clark, William Hawkins, Gabriella Golliger, Dennis Tourbin, David W. McFadden, George Elliott Clarke, jwcurry, Stephanie Bolster, Judith Fitzgerald, Michelle Desberets, Michael Dennis, Stan Rogal and Rhonda Batchelor.

Currently, The TREE Reading Series exists within a wide array of reading series in Ottawa, including The Factory Reading Series, the in/words reading series, The Dusty Owl Reading Series and The Plan 99 Reading Series, as well as the semi-annual Ottawa International Writers Festival, all of which can be found listed online at the monthly calendar featured at Bywords.ca.

In December, 2009, Edmonton-born poet and retired Canadian Air Force Lieutenant-Colonel Rod Pederson took over the reins of TREE, and added a number of elements, including regular workshops, special features and the ?dead poets reading,? as well as confirming TREE as a poetry series. He established the controversial move to limit open-set readers to those who have been published in print form. The readings are currently held in the library at Arts Court and are organized by Pederson, alongside Rona Shaffran, Claudia Coutu Radmore, Joanne Steadman and Aaron Kozak. Pederson was also the main force behind the founding and continuation of VERSeFest, Ottawa?s annual poetry festival that incorporates all the reading series in the city. The third annual VERSeFest comes up in March, 2013. Pederson was good enough to answer a couple of questions on TREE, and where he sees it going.

Q:

What were you doing before you became involved with TREE, and what prompted your involvement? How difficult was it for you to take over a reading series with such a lengthy history, and what do you think you have brought to the series?

A:

Poetry called me for many years before I was able to answer. I retired as a Royal Canadian Air Force Lieutenant-Colonel after having carried with me, for over 20 years, where ever I went, T.S. Eliot?s ?Collected Poems.? It?s a small book but a complex work that buoyed my spirits when the artlessness of my occupation got me down. After retiring in 1998, it took almost ten years to ?take off the uniform.? Around that time, I met my wife, Liz, who took me to TREE. TREE filled a need in me and I just kept going. Gradually, I met other poets, developed friendships ? like the one I enjoy with you - and, now, I feel a strong sense of community with Ottawa poets. They're wonderful people. But I don?t have to tell you that.

The learning curve was eased through the help of my predecessor, Dean Steadman. I became aware over time that TREE is an important part of poetry in Canada. I have to say that I didn't fully appreciate that when I took over from Dean. However, it did become apparent to me and I began to work toward sustaining TREE's reputation and trying to develop it. I had some remarkable help along the way, notably from Rona Shaffran, my Co-Director. Between us, we had years of organizational experience that was directly applicable to TREE. We analyzed TREE's program and position in the poetry community and set about enhancing it. When we began, the TREE program was simple, an open-mic was followed by a feature reader, which was followed by tilting a jar or two at the end of the evening. What didn't change was that we still tilt a jar at the end of an evening.

What did change began with the open-mic. One evening, we noticed that of the 20 or so people at TREE, 16 were there for the open-mic, and, frankly, a good deal of it was appallingly bad. So for a time, we insisted that those to read at the open-mic had to have been published somewhere, be it an online journal like Bywords or a print journal like Prairie Fire. In place of the open-mic for those who were still developing we began the Tree Seed Workshops, which are given by first-rate poets in the hour before TREE. There were a few "dissidents" from our policy, but over time, the workshops have proven themselves. TREE's open-mic is regularly complimented by our featured readers. In that respect, the program works very well.

We've done a few other things, as well. We run an annual open-mic contest called the Origami Crane Open-Mic Poetry Competition. All poems read at TREE?s open-mic are eligible. The winning poem is folded into an origami crane which is presented to the author. It's a lot of fun. Judges have been Susan McMaster, Monty Reid and Phil Hall, so the judging is of a high calibre.

We've also begun a Tree Press to publish chapbooks of deserving local poets. The first two were by Murray Citron ? his wonderful translations of Itazk Munger's Yiddish poetry ? and David Blaikie, who has burst onto our scene.

So I think we've added to TREE's bag of tricks in an okay fashion.

Q:

Under your tenure, the series confirmed itself as a poetry series, replacing a long-running previous system of featuring both writers of poetry and fiction. Why the shift?

A:

At some point, you have to decide what you want to be and who you are. We decided that we were poets who enjoyed poetry and wanted to present it well. I think that presenting poetry, prose and playwriting represented a lack of appropriate focus. We wanted to do a good job of whatever it was that we did. And that meant focus. Virtually everyone who read at TREE's open-mic was reading poetry. Poetry was our artistic mode, so we went with that. And, I have to admit, prose doesn't always come across as well as poetry at a reading.

Q:

What do you think accounts for the longevity of the series, and where do you see the series heading?

A:

Tree is an important component of Ottawa?s cultural community. There are others ? Max Middle's A B Series is a wonderful series, and David O'Meara?s Plan 99 is an excellent series too ? but TREE seems to me to be a sort of base upon which poetry in Ottawa can flourish. If TREE goes well, we all go well. I know that sounds somewhat egocentric, but it?s not, it?s a recognition that TREE has been going in Ottawa for 32 years now and that its health is signal of the general health of poetry in Ottawa. Our work has been to secure that health.

I think that TREE is in a position to become one of the most important series in Canada, and I think we can not only develop what we've already begun but can do considerably more. I think, in particular, the Tree Press can expand and develop into something quite exciting and productive.

Q:

What brought about the push to expand TREE?s reach by forming the annual multi-series poetry festival, VERSeFest?

A:

When Liz and I were married, we went to Cobourg?s inaugural poetry festival, Poetry? Zone, on our honeymoon. On the way back, we asked why Cobourg could have a poet laureate and an annual poetry festival and Ottawa didn?t. The answer was that there was no good reason. So I thought about how Ottawa could have a poetry festival that wouldn?t collapse when the current organizer lost interest and how Ottawa could regain its poet laureate. The answer was VERSe Ottawa, an gathering of all the poetry groups in the city to do three things: to present a common voice to cultural planners ? we did that and Ottawa will have a poet laureate in the coming year or two ? to stage an annual poetry festival, VERSeFest, now going into its third year, and to provide administrative support to all the poetry groups. We?ve had two admin support incumbents and are now looking for the third. Things seem to be working pretty much as planned, although it's important that we find our new admin support person; that position works a little like a "glue" holding the organization together. So if you know someone .....


Born in Ottawa, Canada?s glorious capital city, rob mclennan currently lives in Ottawa. The author of more than 20 trade books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction, he won the John Newlove Poetry Award in 2011, and his most recent titles are the poetry collections Songs for little sleep (Obvious Epiphanies, 2012), grief notes: (BlazeVOX [books], 2012), A (short) history of l. (BuschekBooks, 2011), Glengarry (Talonbooks, 2011) and kate street (Moira, 2011) and a second novel, missing persons (2009). An editor and publisher, he runs above/ground press, Chaudiere Books (with Jennifer Mulligan), The Garneau Review (ottawater.com/garneaureview), seventeen seconds: a journal of poetry and poetics (ottawater.com/seventeenseconds) and the Ottawa poetry pdf annual ottawater (ottawater.com). He spent the 2007-8 academic year in Edmonton as writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta and regularly posts reviews, essays, interviews and other notices at robmclennan.blogspot.com.

Photo of rob mclennan by Stephen Brockwell

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