Even the statue of a woman with long flowing hair tilts her head up as if in song or praise. If she could dance she would, but tonight she holds her enthusiasm inside and stands guard in the floral gardens of the Lawrence House Centre for the Artsin Sarnia, Ontario, Canada. We exchange winks.
A warm welcome from the statue in the garden outside the Lawrence House Centre for the Arts.
Behind me, local poet Don Gillatly and his wife Heather follow me up the stairs to the main entrance. It’s the first evening of Open Stage since the summer break and probably my fifth or sixth visit since the event was launched in April 2016.
I’m pleased to see Don and Heather. It means they are happy to return for another season.
Once inside, we sign our names on the roster of performers and scan the Turret Room for empty chairs as we wait our turn for sharing. The excitement builds as evening light shines through the stained glass windows. The serene yellow walls showcase local art headlined by bold white words like Literary Arts, Performing Arts, and Art Matters.
Missy Burgess, hostess of Open Stage at the Lawrence House Centre for the Arts, Photo Courtesy of Karen Flanagan McCarthy.
“Has everyone signed up?” Open Stage hostess Missy Burgess, holds up her notebook. Several local musicians and writers nod their heads. “We have nine performers tonight so we’ll do two sets: one of five, one of four, with a break in between…maximum two songs or two stories”.
The atmosphere remains warm and casual. As Missy says, “it’s a safe place to share”.
I wait for the magic to unfold on stage.
For over a decade, this historical building housed a regular Spoken Word event where local writers (and a musician or two) gathered monthly to share their work with like-minded individuals.
Established writers like the late Peggy Fletcherand the late Hope Morritt(the first literary reps for the Lawrence House board), created the event as a way to showcase the work of local authors. As co-hosts, they treated everyone like family and embraced both new and established talent.
Over the years, Spoken Word evolved with each new host or co-host. A few songwriters and musicians stopped by. One year an actor shared skits. Rap artists and comedians and out-of-town guests would pop in too! Then like a ghost, the monthly open mic faded away. The local literary community was aging and changing. It was difficult to find a new emcee and organizer. A fresh start was needed and one day it happened.
You could say, “the stars lined up”. Others might describe it “as a Phoenix rising from the ashes”. In April 2016, local songwriters/musicians (and Lawrence House board reps) John Pilat and Missy Burgess invited and introduced area musicians and writers to a new open mic event. Called Open Stage, it would be held on the second and third Mondays of each month. Statutory holidays were excluded.
The first season proved to be a huge success, attracting a house full of musicians and a handful of curious writers.
The second season appears just as promising.
On this particular night, Monday, September 11, 2017, the number of performers grows from 9 to 12 people, as three more musicians slip in late. Most on this month’s roster are male but there is usually a cross-section of ages and a nice mix of musicians, poets, songwriters, storytellers, and writers. Everyone is welcome.
“I come here because I enjoy it,” said Don holding tight to his notebook of poems.
Heather, who prefers to watch versus participate, elaborates, “Don enjoys listening but he also enjoys sharing his own work.”
Tonight’s performances are eclectic: a memoir about worm-picking and selling magazines, a vocal performance of Frank Sinatra songs, a poem influenced by a writers’ retreat in Ireland, another one about letting “the bright light shine”, a poem about art and one about ash trees, a tune on a music box and a story about a moonlit adventure on the lake, several musical performances of original material, and plenty of laughter.
Each musical note and literary word twirls & swirls like autumn leaves.
Singer Rob Rooke loves the sound of the Turret Room.
“It’s a nice venue,” said Rob Rooke, one of the regular vocal performers. “It has one of the best sounds….really nice with the turrets….Also I’ve seen people get nervous on stage but Missy calms them down and makes the artists feel comfortable.”
At the end of the evening, Missy thanks Daria (the sound engineer for her help), the performers and those in the audience who stopped by to watch and listen. Everyone helps with putting away the chairs. It’s like a family gathering…a fun night out.
A few days ago, I had a chance to chat with Missy about this relatively new event. Below are her responses:
First of all, thank you for welcoming writers to your open mic. I cannot speak on behalf of the literary community but I am pleased that there is a place in Sarnia for poets and storytellers to share their work in front of an audience. I hope this article will encourage a few more writers to stop by. In your view, why are open mic events so valuable for a community?
Every community needs an Open Stage. Three years ago, I returned to Sarnia from Ottawa where I was used to attending open stage events on a regular basis. It’s an event where musicians and writers from all levels can hone their skills, be heard, and grow confidence in performing in front of an audience. There are open stages in the majority of cities across Ontario and Canada.
Many of the great performing and recording artists started their careers at an open stage. It’s a great training ground whether you decide to pursue a professional career or just do it for fun. When I first started performing, I didn’t even know my guitar was out of tune. It takes time and some people won’t be on the big stage and that’s okay. For some, performing is therapeutic. Everyone comes for their own reasons. Having an audience is crucial. To be able to perform in such a beautiful building and room with all the turrets is a bonus.
When I first started attending Open Stage, most of the performers were musicians. Now, there is an eclectic mix of performers. What dynamics are you seeing when individuals of different creative disciplines gather in one room?
I can only speculate from my point of view but from the reaction I am seeing, no one appears to be objecting to the mix of performers. I see the same response towards a singer as I do towards a writer. For me, I really like the mix. It’s always a grab bag from event to event: a surprise. Some weeks are stronger than others. Sometimes you hear new talent and say “wow”! Some evenings, it all flows together and the energy is there.
Poet Don Gillatly has been sharing his poetry at the Lawrence House Centre for the Arts for a decade or more.
Think of it as a Greenwich Village (an artist’s haven). People can suck or be great but I run the event as a safe place. Everything goes: keeping in mind this is open to families and people of all ages. Everyone respects each other and if there is a problem or if anyone shows disrespect, I usually remind people about the rules. If people don’t like it, they don’t return.
It would be a loss without the writers. We learn from each other.
This is your second season as MC for the event and I understand this year you’re on your own, as John has decided to pursue other interests. What made you decide to take on this role? And what made you decide to stay for the second season?
First of all, I’m not alone. Daria has replaced John as a co-organizer. She is my sound engineer. Her help is invaluable.
I first took on the role because I’m a singer from Ottawa who went to open stages to keep up my skills. When I came to Sarnia in October 2015, a friend of mine was performing at the Lawrence House and shortly afterwards I was hired to perform as well. The idea for an open stage developed from there and I was happy when it launched in April 2016.
I can’t see not running the event. I have lots of skills and experience from Ottawa and I enjoy hearing and watching the unknown, the new people who no one knows, the people who perform on smaller stages. For that reason, I want people to know that Open Stage is a safe place to share their work or the work of others.
Not everyone who attends Open Stage is a performer. Is an audience composed of non-performers important? Why or why not?
Yes, having an audience who only want to listen is a BONUS! At a bar, people often come to the open mics to drink. At the Lawrence House, people often attend Open Stage to listen. We are starting to draw a regular audience of these listeners and that makes everyone feel good. We are fortunate to have that support from the community.
Open Stage is held on the second and third Monday of each month. It's an open mic for both the literary and performing arts community including musicians and songwriters.
What plans or goals do you have for this season?
One of my goals is to offer workshops in writing, in handling a mic, and in presenting yourself on stage. The Lawrence House can offer these public workshops at a reasonable price. I’m looking at a mid-November and/or January/February date. People should check the Lawrence House website and/or follow its Facebook page for announcements and/or updates.
Another goal is to continue to support the variety of performers and writers and to thank the audience and the community for their interest.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
Yes, the Lawrence House is doing all that is can to support local artists. Leonard Segallfrom the board is extremely helpful and supportive and he’s a great leader. He is a huge supporter of creative things.
The Lawrence House is filled with activities including concerts held on Friday nights and Sunday afternoons. Additional information can be found on the website.
Thanks for sharing your comments Missy! I look forward to the next Open Stage.
Missy Burgess is an accomplished singer/musician who recently returned to Sarnia. According to her website, “Missy has performed on stages from The National Arts Centre in Ottawa, Canada to The Angola Prison for Women in Louisiana. She has recorded 3 albums, Pour Me A Song,Lemon Pie and, her most recent, Play Me Sweet.”
The next Open Stage will be held on Monday, October 16, 2017. The event runs from 7 to 9 p.m. Arrive early to sign-up is at the door. Audience members welcome. Admission is free.
According to its website, The Lawrence House Centre for the Arts is “an all-volunteer registered charitable organization in the historic City of Sarnia owned Lawrence House”. Its goals are to promote “the visual, literary and performing arts”.
It looks like it snowed last night and I believe it is still quite cold out there. Yesterday I checked with our local bus company on how to get to a location to see an apartment.
Unfortuntely for me, they made a mistake and I took the Abetrdeen bus and the round trip took one hour! The only sign of Bay Street was way up on Aberdeen and on such a vey cold day (cold weather warning even), I was not about to try and find my way down to Hunter.
What a waste of time and a little frustrating.
I will try and go today, but phoning them first to make sure the apartment is still available. Some friends have told me the correct bus numbers to take to where I need to go.
I certainly was glad to get home to my warm and cozy apartment.
I spent the rest of the day watching a Miss Marple video from the library and reading.
a place to find my poetry, books, and other writings
Tuesday, 26 April 2016
Rishma Dunlop 1956-2016
photo: York University / Rishma Dunlop
Rishma Dunlop, a gifted poet and professor at York University, passed away this month after a long battle with cancer. She gave a memorable reading at Poetry London back in 2006 and I was deeply impressed with her poems and her eloquence. She had been a recepient of the Emily Dickinson Prize for Poetry as well as being received as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada.
In additon to being an editor of several literary anthologies, Rishma Dunlop authored five books of poetry including Lover Through Departure: New and Selected Poems (Mansfield Press, 2011).
A friend enquired, "Where does your power come from? Not the kind that moves the body. The sort that gives you life." I suggested it comes from My beliefs, philosophy, From religions, accomplishments, From recognition and friends, Acceptance and respect.
"How about from loved ones, From being loved?" he proposed. Especially that, I concurred, That's the essence of it all. What is love But the recognition of Spirit that moves in all things, The soul giving life to body, Surfacing as personality– My innate talents– Giving me a purpose in life?
When one loses the connection Between body and soul, The spark is lost, And with it the reason for living.
He interrupted, "Perhaps your power comes from what you do." You mean as an educator (in my case) Teaching survival techniques, Or as an entertainer, Creating wonder and joy with magic?
Yes, I do feel fulfilment And power when I give. Perhaps that's it! Power comes from sharing your talents, Like music, art and dance Power comes from sharing gifts with love. There’s that word 'love' again, The essence of all power.
Kano, Nigeria - She was taken out of primary school at the age of 12 to marry a man in his 40s whom she had never met before. At first, Balaraba Ramat Yakubu enjoyed the presents she received at the wedding and the golden ornaments decorating her new home, but she had no idea what marriage was about.
Today, that illiterate girl who didn't even know how to boil water and who, one year and eight months after the wedding, was finally sent back to her father's house in disgrace, has become one of northern Nigeria's most well-known writers and the first female Hausa-language author to be translated into English.
"If you know where I came from, you'll realise how much I have fought," says the 57-year-old author of nine novels.
Resentment resounds in her voice when she speaks of the end of her first marriage. "It still pains me," she says. "My husband never told me that he loved me, that he wanted me. And then one day someone just came and took me back to my parents.
"He said I was too young. Didn't he know that when he married a child?"
Yakubu used this traumatic experience in her novel Wa Zai Auri Jahila? (Who Would Marry an Ignorant Woman?), published in 1990, in which 13-year-old Abu gets pulled out of school to be married off to a big-bellied man more than three times her age.
But like Yakubu, Abu does not remain a victim: She finds a better life through education.
The book is a statement against child marriage as well as a plea for girls' education, something that was not the norm during Yakubu's childhood in Kano, the largest city in Nigeria's predominantly-Muslim north. Girls in her father's family were not allowed a Western education; they were sent to Quranic schools until they were ready to marry - preferably before they had their first menstrual period.
According to a National Literacy Survey from 2010, almost half of the women in northern Nigeria cannot read or write in any language.
The only reason Yakubu attended primary school at all was because her mother had sent her there in secret. At the time, she recalls, she was the only girl among her grandfather's 80 female grandchildren who went to primary school. When her father discovered it, his response was the arranged marriage.
Balaraba Ramat Yakubu in writing mode [Femke van Zeijl/Al Jazeera]
Her older brother, Murtala, was vehemently opposed to the wedding, but could not stop it. He was the one who had encouraged her mother to send his little sister to primary school in the first place. "My brother had only my best interest in mind," says Yakubu, who still does not like to talk about his death. Forty years ago, her brother, who was by then Nigeria's military ruler, was assassinated in his car on the way to Dodan Barracks in Lagos.
Yakubu was 17 years old when her brother died. Until today, she refuses to read anything about Murtala Muhammed's murder, and she has never visited Lagos' National Museum, which exhibits the bullet-riddled Mercedes in which her brother was shot. But she misses him every day.
After her first divorce, her mother again became her co-conspirator. Yakubu had pleaded with her father to allow her to enrol for knitting and sewing courses. What she didn't tell him, though, was that those courses had introduced her to a centre for adult education.
So when she went out with her sewing machine, it was actually to learn how to read and write Hausa, the language of the largest ethnic group and the lingua franca in the north of Nigeria. "Only my mother knew," Yakubu remembers. "She helped cover for me when my father asked where I was."
In the meantime, she sewed as many baby dresses as she could in order to sell, this serving as an alibi for all the time she spent away from home.
When one day her father found her primary school diploma in her bag, he reacted by revealing to his daughter that he'd found another suitor. Yakubu was 15, but gladly accepted the marriage: She was happy to have completed elementary education and felt she was now mature enough to face a relationship.
Very quickly, though, it became clear that she had learned too much to fit into the role of the obedient wife. Always reading the newspapers and asking questions, always looking up words she didn't know, she was too independent for her spouse's liking. In this marriage, she had her first child, a son, but after three years, she was again sent back to her parents.
When she returned home, she announced to her father that this time she was insisting on continuing her education. And he accepted. "Maybe because he'd grown older, he was now much softer. That was my hallelujah moment," she says.
At 18, she started her studies at the Kano State Agency for Mass Education, where she would eventually teach Hausa to other women.
Able to provide for herself and with a fulfilling career, Yakubu still hadn't given up on matrimony. But in Hausa society, a single adult woman is not respected, and she tried marriage two more times and had five children in total. Her fourth and final marriage, which she describes as a happy one, ended when her husband decided to take a second wife. "I knew what I wanted now and refused to take the abuse that I'd taken before," she explains.
Balaraba Ramat Yakubu's nine novels [Femke van Zeijl/Al Jazeera]
Now, she is no longer looking for a man, even though she knows how the community perceives her.
"A happy divorcee is viewed with suspicion. People describe me as strong-headed because I don't need a man."
The bookshelves in her modest two-bedroom bungalow display all nine of her novels - well-known titles, some of which are even listed in the secondary school curriculum.
"These days, I'm fortunate: When people see my name on something, they want to read it," Yakubu says, leaning back in the couch in her sitting room and rearranging her white chador.
Her popularity did not come overnight. After she published her first novel in 1987, religious leaders would preach against her, and she would receive threatening letters denouncing her and her children, which she described as "the most hurtful thing you can do to a mother".
Hausa-language romance novels are popular among women in northern Nigeria [Femke van Zeijl/Al Jazeera]
As a female Hausa writer, Yakubu is seen as one of the pioneers of the "soyayya" genre. These romance novels (soyayya means love) written by northern Nigerian women, have become very popular among female readers in that part of the country. At every market in Kano, stalls sell these books and female customers - from veiled schoolgirls to grandmothers - can be seen browsing through the books.
When I write, I feel lifted. I grew up with a strong father whom I could not confront. My books gave me a window to express myself. I write my stories as if I was in your house, or at your neighbours'. Women recognise them. I feel I have an obligation to society to tell those stories that otherwise would not have been told.
Balaraba Ramat Yakubu, author
The books tell everyday stories of the lives of northern women and address issues like rape, polygamy and domestic violence.
Even though soyayya novels are deeply pious in tone and portray marriage as the single most important goal in a woman's life, in the strict Islamic north of Nigeria - where senators defend the right to marry 13-year-old girls, and where, especially in the lower-income rural areas, women are expected to remain indoors - these entertaining and affordable books challenge taboos and empower women.
Nowadays, soyayya stories are even broadcast on radio, giving the female authors an almost star-like status in communities where women traditionally don't play significant public roles.
Even for the authors, the experience is empowering. Yakubu explains in English, every once in a while resorting to Hausa when her words fail her: "When I write, I feel lifted. I grew up with a strong father whom I could not confront. My books gave me a window to express myself. I write my stories as if I was in your house, or at your neighbours'. Women recognise them. I feel I have an obligation to society to tell those stories that otherwise would not have been told."
Lost in her story
When Yakubu starts writing, she writes everywhere: in the kitchen, in the car, and even on her phone when there is no pen nearby. Her grown-up son Muhammed remembers how he and his siblings would know their mother was in her writing mode. They would find her on a mat in the living room, resting on a pillow: a pen in her hand, lost in her story.
Her children knew better than to try something naughty though, because however enthralled their mother might seem, she always kept an eye on whatever her offspring were up to, Muhammed adds.
With a smile, his mother recounts how she involved her children in the writing process. "My handwriting is bad, like an old doctor's. So I used to let my children copy what I'd written. That's why I was certain I wasn't doing anything wrong, and I knew Allah would see that, too. Do you think I'd write anything unfit for my children's eyes?"
Experts describe Yakubu's style of popular fiction as transcending the level of the general soyayya novel, but for a long time, only readers of Hausa could enjoy her work. This changed in 2012, when Indian publisher Blaft translated her second book as Sin is a Puppy That Follows You Home. This made her the first female Hausa writer to be translated into English, and since then, she says, she has not been able to keep count of the number of journalists and researchers who have come to see her to discuss Hausa literature.
Balaraba Ramat Yakubu with her third child, Muhammed. A picture of her with all five of her children hangs on the wall [Femke van Zeijl/Al Jazeera]
Incidentally, the translated title was also her first book to be made into a movie. Kano has a lively Hausa-language film industry: It is not uncommon in the city to stumble upon a film crew on the street and the DVDs of local movies are among the traffic hawkers' best-selling products.
Yakubu was involved in the production process of her book's movie, and subsequently, she took greater interest in the film industry as she started producing her own projects. Recently, she had gone scouting for a location for her new movie, an epic about Hausa royalty a century ago. Asked for the reason she chose this subject, she says: "Only learned people know about Kano history. I want all our people to know. Without knowledge of your past, you don't know your roots, and you can't stand up for your rights."
That Yakubu's achievements go beyond the entertainment industry becomes clear when you visit her at her office at the Murtala Muhammed Foundation, where she is a programme officer coordinating trauma counselling. Over the past few years, with the rise of Boko Haram, her job has become almost entirely about supporting the victims of bomb blasts.
Balaraba Ramat Yakubu works at the Murtala Muhammed Foundation as a programme officer for trauma counselling [Femke van Zeijl/Al Jazeera]
With her team, Yakubu goes to meet the wounded in hospital and identifies who to refer to counsellors. That isn't easy because most of them refuse to talk. "They often say, 'What good is talking? You can't bring back the dead or return my body parts.'"
Yakubu understands. She feels her own traumatic experiences make it easier to communicate with these casualties. "I know how it is to feel powerless and unable to speak out."
Her own struggle to regain control over her life and claim her voice as a woman has made Yakubu an outspoken advocate of women's rights. She sees northern women claiming more and more public territory. At one time, she was the only female writer in Kano; now, the local association for women authors that she founded in 2005 counts more than 200 members.
And she can name many more examples like that. "These days, we have women in politics, business and the military. We even have female pilots. To the West, it might not seem like much. But to women here, it is progress."
With the enrolment of girls in schools and universities on the rise, she is optimistic that the position of women will improve. The next generation of women will continue the struggle more effectively, she thinks.
"When I was fighting, I did so with passion because I lacked an education. But the young women today will fight with knowledge."