By Madonna Hamel
“If you love truth, make silence your friend,” wrote St. Isaac of Ninevah, a hermit monk. I woke at 5 a.m. to the sound of a plane flying low overhead. I forgot where I was, and sat bolt upright. “What’s happening?” And then, “Oh right, I’m in Regina.” I’ve been invited by Robin Poitras, dance maverick and maven, to share the Apron Pocket Archive stories. For the past week I’ve been watching dance, soaking up the lessons from a master in her field, as she builds a legacy of artistic expression and intention, through movement and gesture. I’ve been moving through the chapel-gallery, getting ideas.
I met Robin in 1996 in Quebec City, when I was still part of that art scene. She was doing her White Buffalo Woman dance, I was singing and crawling my way along a blues history timeline performance. The festival was held in an empty shopping mall. The audience comprised of local artists and the public, happening strangers dressed in odd outfits, emitting primal sounds, gesturing in abstract ways. I remember at the time trying to stay grounded, human-sized, sane. There were few people I actually could relate to, and most of them were not my fellow artists, but the technicians and musicians who supported us.
I was, however drawn to Robin’s spare and concentrated movements. Apparently, she found what she was looking for, her calling. I knew I loved voice and language, but I was still looking to belong. One night I just quit the performance scene to form a band. Here’s what happened: a young woman was accelerating her reputation by repeatedly performing pieces that, in any other venue, would have been identified as self-mutilation. She was standing on a chair under a hanging box of nails. She jumped up and down until her head nudged the box open. I looked at my friends on either side of me and said:
“Let’s form a band.”
“Sure,” said Denis. “But first, let’s stop this.”
Our intervention was not appreciated by the performer, the organizers or the blood-thirsty audience. In many art circles her disturbing behaviour is branded as “brave”, “risky”, and “avant-garde”. Most often it is the young who fall for these labels – believing they are the first to go naked, jump from extreme heights, get up and fall down repeatedly, cut and pinch and twist their flesh out of shape. However, if they took a good look at the dissipated faces in the crowd, they’d see a clutch of burnt-out old art-stars with scars, bad knees, permanent limps and the lingering after effects of concussions. Most of them would be on their fifth beer and probably got stoned before they arrived. In my experience, there’s no escaping permanent damage when you pit the psyche against the flesh. No one can pay you enough money or compliments to risk psychosis.
While I was making music and learning to read novels in French and writing stories and finding self-expression in collage and monologues based on the lives of the saints and characters in history and literature, moving into broadcasting, radio plays and documentaries, Robin was still dancing, moving elegantly and resolutely through the strange world of art. She never stopped. Today, one look around her home and it’s evident, as I observed: You live and breathe art!
“What else is there?” She asks, in all earnestness.
A friend once said to me, “You are art to the bone.”
Thank you, I say. But if you are making art like you make up, like you make friends, like you make meaning then there is nothing else. If you make art to make money, you are more than likely pitting the psyche against the flesh, you are setting yourself up for a long hard fall into darkness. And you can’t pay me enough to do that.
Twenty years after that festival in Quebec, I met Robin as we passed each other in the Swift Current Library. We both looked up and pointed at each other and laughed, blurting, “You!” We filled each other in on our lives, our art. Neither of us have ignored the call. We may have mentioned men. I don’t recall.
And now I’m in a café in Regina. The snow sits in tree boughs, not going anywhere soon. I am still culling the archival material I’ve been collecting for my performance on Sunday, turning it into rhyming couplets, or rhythmic patterns. I read and edit and write and collage until the last minute, gathering bits and pieces of conversations, anecdotes and songs. My pieces expand and contract like a grouse in full swollen glory. This is my process; who I am. This is what we win, our payment, our intimate glory. The gift of making art from the bone, for showing up, for answering the call, no matter how tenuous or faint, is knowing how you work, and ultimately, how your work can jiggle in others a sense of shared humanity. You don’t have to be an artist to do this, you just have to heed the call.
When I woke my first mornings in Val Marie I would jump out of bed, happy in my neat nun’s cell. I’d head up with my books to the kitchen, light the stove, make coffee and porridge, then climb another set of stairs to the chapel and plunk my books down on my desk and begin writing. After an hour or two, with coffee in hand, I’d head to the grain elevator at the end of the road and watch the sunrise, the birds ecstatic with song.
“Don’t get caught up in anthropomorphizing,” warned the scientists from Cornell, staying at the convent, their days spent in the park recording bird calls for the Audubon website. “We know they warn, they mate, they let others know their location, they establish territory but beyond that we cannot say.”
“You cannot say they sing because they love to sing?”
“We can say they sing because… Well, they sing. We don’t know if they ‘love’ to do it. Or are experiencing joy. Anymore than you write because you love to write, or experience joy writing.”
“What if they sing because they can’t not sing. I write because I can’t not write.”
“I’ll accept it’s in them to sing, like it’s in you to write. But you wouldn’t die if you didn’t write.”
“I might as well.”
“We won’t ever know, because…” And he drops his stiff professorial stance, jumps to his feet, runs for the door of the schoolhouse like a kid at the sound of the recess bell, microphone in hand.
“It’s a Baird sparrow,” explains his co-hort. “We don’t hear it that often, actually, never. So, why is it necessary for you to believe birds are experiencing emotion?”
“I’m not sure if it’s necessary. I’m just curious: is it just inherent poetry or sheer talent or following a calling?”
“A birdsong is not a talent, it’s a function.”
“Is it a calling? I mean: is ‘to call’ their calling?”
“A calling is not the same as: ‘built like that’. You can choose not to answer your call.”
“And be miserable.”
“I couldn’t say.”
“Really, you wouldn’t say recording calls your calling?”
“I love it. I always wanted to do it. I’m doing it now and I’ve long since retired.”
“You’re following your bliss. You’re at the centre of the universe, you’re in the game, at the heart of your own story.”
“You’re terribly earnest.”
“Look, I understand your hesitancy to attribute human behaviours and emotions onto animals. I hated the gendering of squirrels in Disney. The girl squirrel, with her eyelashes, the boy squirrel with his big muscles and boyish grin. But look at the names of some of these birds. You have to admit, some ornithologists can be pretty poetic in their naming of creatures. Vesper sparrows, nighthawks, winnowing snipes and shrikes.”
It was a conversation between two different views of the world. Somewhere inside that dance was a new story. No one was too bent on convincing the other, as much as listening. I can’t help feeling the silence of the territory had as much a part to play in our friendly exchange as our own confidence in our own paradigms. On the top of the stack of books by my bed, here in Regina, is the poet, Mary Oliver, who says of her work, written in the country:
“When I’m doing my job well, I vanish.”
Surely, that is the goal of every artist, to be like the ammas and abbas disappearing into the desert. The silence allows the authentic to rise, unhindered by distraction and diversion. My work is anything but silent, which is why I must live in silence. And why I admire the voiceless dancer, speaking volumes with the body.
But in the end, we are all telling stories, if ultimately to give space and expression to the stories of others, so that, to paraphrase Joan Didion, we might keep ourselves alive.
Madonna Hamel is a writer and performer. Her radio documentaries have won awards for CBC for whom she’s worked as writer, producer, reporter and broadcaster covering the arts, religion and current affairs for over 20 years in Quebec City, Winnipeg, Windsor, Toronto and Kelowna. Born a Westerner, she calls Val Marie, Sask. home.