#2Experiencing Canada
Art and poetry events in Alberta

One of the main aims of visiting Canada was to develop my research on Margaret Atwood.  The New Central library in Calgary, which opened in 2018, provided me with all the facilities I needed.  It is a huge building that stretches on the East side of the City Hall with two sculptures of human shapes in striped pastel colours looking like skittles on the front.  Inside, it is incredibly spacious with birch coloured stairs and ceiling.  A convoluted vault is at the top and floods of light enter from the wide windows.  At the first floor there is a playing area for children with toys, books and a protected area for the little ones.  There is also a Café that serves an excellent cappuccino where people chat sitting on comfortable soft chairs and sofas.  Upstairs there are areas for young adults, computers, printers and photocopy machines.  At the top floor there are more studying and reading areas as well as exhibitions and displays of special and rare books and an original tepee.  There are also spaces for workshops and story-telling where children can learn Indigenous legends and languages.  I spent delightful hours at the Central Library not only reading and taking notes but also relaxing, listening to the children singing and playing and browsing the bookshelves.  Besides, I could use all the facilities available, such as printing, photocopying and the Wi-Fi.  In this way I continued my research and also kept in touch with my family with WhatsApp, Skype or Facebook during the day, which was usually at lunchtime when in England was late afternoon or evening.

The other library in Calgary is smaller; it is an early twentieth-century edifice in the Central Memorial Park, a beautiful garden in Victorian style with gorgeous flower beds and bronze statues remembering the soldiers of the First World War.  At the top floor of the library the Wordfest hosts literary events and in a street nearby there is Shelf Life, one of the most known bookshops in Calgary.  Besides books, they sell intriguing writer’s pins and unusual cards with butterflies, moths and minerals printed from original watercolour paintings.

I attended some literary events at the Wordfest, then poetry readings at Koi Café and Good Earth Coffeehouse and a poetry workshop at C-Space, a thriving cultural centre with language courses, art displays and surprising multi-media frescoes on the walls.  I was also invited to the launch of John Williamson’s poetry pamphlet at Loft 112 and I attended an incredible performance of the poet Miranda Krogstad at Arts Commons, ‘Why We Tell Stories’.  She performed her poetry with confidence and expertise, alternating acting and singing.  Behind her, tremendous videos illustrated her words.  Though her poetry is mainly in English, French and American Sign Language were part of the show as well.  Her poems were about her story, told in funny, ironic and sometimes moving ways.  It was highly entertaining.  Videos of her performances are on youtube, but seeing her performing live in a theatre is something else.  My favourite poem was ‘Ode to Pasta’; it celebrates shapes of pasta and seasonings in a spicy love relationship.  At the end of the show there was a Q&A session with all the people who took part in the project; this included people from different ethnic backgrounds as well as deaf and disabled people.  Another example of the Canadian emphasis on diversity and inclusiveness.

I had an extra cultural opportunity at Prince’s Island, a park at a bend of the Bow river, where I attended A Midsummer Night’s Dream performed by the Theatre Calgary’s Shakespeare by the Bow with six amateur actors who study at drama schools in Alberta.  It was a stunning summer evening, the breeze blew at the top of the majestic trees and occasional black squirrels wandered around.  An ideal setting for Shakespeare’s fairy tale.

In this thriving cultural environment, a friend of mine took me to a poetry event farther away at Stephansson House where a nineteenth-century Icelandic poet, Stephan G. Stephansson, lived after moving to Alberta with his family.  He led a successful farm and was a prolific writer who wrote at night as he suffered from insomnia.  He is recognised as one of the most influential modern Icelandic poets.  In his work he blended traditional prosody, extensive vocabulary and experimentation.  Here are some examples of his work translated in English:

In Iceland it’s not happenstance
Whatever life’s afforded
All their thoughts and circumstance
They’ve in verse recorded.

If you listen and you’re told
Their rhymed repertory literature
To your mind will then unfold
Culture, land and history.

(‘Icelandic Poetry’)

Copes wood dot the blue hazed lea
Frame the verdant meadows
As far as human eye can see
West to the mountains’ shadows.

Abundant growth enhances the scene
Seasons clement weather
Sunny fields so lush and green
Up to the distant glacier

Steel gray peaks, their crown in blue
Bask in sunshine glowing.
“Iceland”, here’s a toast to you
from goblets overflowing.

(‘An address delivered at Marketville.  Alberta, August 2, 1904’)

The performances not only included poetry, mainly in English, but also in Icelandic and bits of other languages such as Romanian, Italian, French and Spanish, but also songs by singer-songwriters.  Blond young ladies in pink and blue dresses toured us around the house and offered Icelandic homemade biscuits, delicious gingerbread and shortbread made just for us.  Once more I was impressed by the way that different cultures and groups maintain their distinctive languages and traditions that coexist with their Canadian identity.  It is challenging and engaging at the same time.

During my stay in Calgary I also experienced Canada Day and the famous Stampede, all in my next piece.

Carla Scarano © 2019.

Memorial Park 7.
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Stephan G. Stephansson.
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