Margaret Christakos reads Sooner at York

On Oct. 5, York’s Canadian Writers in Person course and reading series presented poet Margaret Christakos. York teaching assistant Chris Cornish sent the following report to YFile.

What springs to life at the mention of touch, how the word arcs and bobs in the air on its path to making contact with skin, brain, palette of the outthrust tongue…

-from Sooner
by Margaret Christakos

The beeping presence of an electronic device signalled an appropriate beginning to the Oct. 5 reading by poet Margaret Christakos. One could almost imagine bpNichol channeling into the room: “beep…beep…bp…Nichol” (the late sound poet was one of Christakos’ mentors at York). The electronic intrusion also provided an opening for her poetry collection, Sooner, which is about the relation between poetics and our media and technology-saturated world.

Right: Margaret Christakos

Christakos’ work is alienating to the senses at first, mainly because it reflects the reality of our existence in a world flooded with technology. True to her sound poetry roots, she is often more concerned with the “acoustic resonance of words together” than the images they may conjure. When some students questioned her on the difficulty her poetry presents, she replied that she “doesn’t consider poems a refuge”. In other words, she resists the urge to make her poems pretty, choosing instead to “punch holes” in her lyrical poetry. In some cases, techno words like “Edit Save” are dropped intrusively into sensual passages like “this soft of linen”. The effect is that certain words appear misaligned or syntactically rearranged (“Salad the pass”), challenging the reader’s perception of things that don’t quite fit.

As a poet, Christakos manipulates gender in a similar fashion, suggesting aspects of human sexuality that also don’t quite fit our understanding of he or she. Body parts and gender designations fly apart, isolated and recombined like a Jenga puzzle. This deliberate disorientation reflects our apparent inability to relate to each other as complete individuals, despite our desire for true human touch.

Many of her poems contemplate the human panorama of interactivity in public places. On subways and trains, Christakos notes that we rarely talk to each other anymore. In the poem “Lucent”, a man feels “protected by the pall of ordinariness…he’d always been interfered with in public space and enjoyed slipping by incognito whenever possible.” The same man is also a stranger in his domestic space, “especially if it meant keeping his family safe from the aspects of privacy that were not private but shared privately.” Christakos captures in the poem the struggle to reconcile the differences between public and private perceptions of self.

The park is a magical place for the Christakos, a place where domestic and public spaces overlap. In her poem, “Grass”, she builds the multi-perspective scene in the park with the dramatic tension of a one hour TV show. It is a kind of condensed time that we seem to crave, playing with the idea that we need to be constantly entertained. “We’re also inhabiting real time which is kind of boring. Part of what we do in our culture is to wait for pleasure,” explained Christakos. Thus the tension in the poem dissipates because, true to real life, nothing really happens. There is only our common existence with each other in this natural/artificial world and as she concludes the poem, “Everybody’s in.”

The Canadian Writers in Person series of public readings at York, which is free and open to the public, is also part of an introductory course on Canadian literature. The series is sponsored in part by the Canada Council for the Arts. On Thursday, Oct. 19, Betsy Warland read from her poetry collection Only this Blue. John Unrau, an acclaimed York professor and poet, will read from his poetry collection Iced Water on Nov. 2.