Sunday, September 30, 2007


Happy 800th birthday to Rumi. Born in 1207 in Balkh, now part of Afghanistan, Rumi's life, as much as his poetry, offers incredible resonance with the present. He was driven from Balkh by invaders, and lived in exile in Anatolia, where he wrote his masterpiece the Mathnawi, about exile, loss and the spiritual longing for reunion.

800 years on, controversy and division reign online, with his family claiming to run the only true Rumi site, which identifies the poet as Anatolian and embroils him in religious and geneaological disputes., and a surprising number of Rumi bars and restaurants also pop up on Google, however. Perhaps the global location of the eateries is a more profound indication of one of the central tenets of Rumi's work, which goes beyond nationalism, in the spirit of the wandering dervish.

It's a thought that's beautifully expressed in Sally Potter's film YES, which took some of its inspiration - for a story about the relationship between an Irish-American scientist and a Lebanese Armenian doctor, both living in different kinds of exile in London - from Rumi's ecstatic verse. Rumi was a religious poet, a Sufi mystic, but his poems emphasise belief as an opening of the heart in love.

Here's Rumi's vision of a world in which love, rather than the lust for power, rules, in Shahram Shiva's translation:

"This is a gathering of Lovers.
In this gathering
there is no high, no low,
no smart, no ignorant,
no special assembly,
no grand discourse,
no proper schooling required.
There is no master,
no disciple.
This gathering is more like a drunken party,
full of tricksters, fools,
mad men and mad women.
This is a gathering of Lovers."

"There is no high, no low... No proper schooling required." How radical a thought is that, on the eve of the Conservative party conference?

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Gone Down to Sedna

This blog it becoming an obit list. Morbid. But it seems like attention only turns to some of the most moving and important artists of the day when they go into the night. None of them gently.

Katerie Akiwenzie-Damm drew my attention to the passing of storyteller, artist, raconteur and rager Alootook Ipellie, forwarding a link to her reading at his memorial service. Although Ipellie was recognised as a major figure in Canadian letters, his death did not make any of the Canadian national broadsheets, although there's a wry and warm note in the Ottawa Citizen.

for example by this article in Studies in Canadian Literature, which asks why so few Canadian First Nations, Métis and Inuit writers are widely known, either nationally or internationally?

It's a damn good question. The UK broadsheets are wetting their knickers this week over the new Michael Ondaatje novel, and undoubtedly the new Margaret Atwood/Alice Munro/Alistair McLean would have the same effect. Don't get me wrong: I moved 3000 miles across the pond to study Canadian literature, inspired by In the Skin of a Lion.

But what I found when I got there was a storytelling and poetic culture of vast inventiveness, resilience, humour and rage that's barely known: writers as lauded as Beth Brant, Tomson Highway, Greg Scofield, and others whose work has largely been published by indigenous presses such as Theytus and Kegedonce (Akiwenzie-Damm's press), or regional and feminist presses. Their work connects with the land in a way that Ondaatje's catalogue of city buildings can only faintly echo.

I'm more excited than I can say about the film adaptation of Fugitive Pieces that opened the Toronto Film Festival this month. But I'd be even more excited to see the second film by Métis director Clint Alberta. But it's not going to happen, because he's dead. Likewise another book from Ipellie, a follow-up to the magnificent, surreal, wonderful, scary, sexy Arctic Dreams and Nightmares.

Poet and one-man publishing army rob mclennan paid tribute to Ipellie on the Ottawa Poetry blog -- by quoting from the MSN Encarta article on him! Cmon, this is a writer who toured, read, published, made friends and enemies tirelessly and internationally.

mclennan gives a link to one of Ipellie's essays, which glints with shards of his sharp wit and precise eye for gorgeousness and horror. If you can find it, track down Akiwenzie-Damm's anthology Without Reservation for Ipellie's answers to everything you ever wanted to know about having sex in the Arctic but were afraid to ask. When NASA (or whoever) accepted Sedna as the name of the planet, or planetoid, or planetlike object, found in the Kuiper Belt, Ipellie's story "Summit of Sedna" should have appeared in the New Yorker. Or projected onto the sky.

Those Inuit party girls remember you, Alootook. They're waiting for you with Sedna, down under the sea, combing her hair.