Ian Ferrier, poet, musician; curator of the monthly Words and Music event at Casa del Popolo; organizer of the annual Mile End Poets’ Festival; collaborator of the music, poetry and dance project For Body and Light. Klara du Plessis and Isis Giraldo talk to Ian about poetry, music, and the Montreal arts scene.
Klara du Plessis: Maybe we can start by talking about your history in music versus your history or education in poetry, Ian.
Ian Ferrier: Well I used to do both until second year at university. I was in this music class sitting with these three guitar players around me, all of whom were to various degrees much better players than I was, I thought, and all of them were also to various degrees much less articulate than I was and didn’t think about much other than music. So I decided at that point that I was probably more of a natural for language-based stuff. This didn’t mean that I dropped music, but that from then on I concentrated on language-based stuff.
KduP: When you say you were able to “articulate”, do you mean expressing the theory behind your music or writing lyrics for it?
IF: It’s like what comes easy to you. It’s much more natural for me to work with language than it is to work with music. Even though I love both of them. I could work for the rest of my life in music and get to a pretty amazing level, but not to the level of someone who starts off and that’s the level their brain works at already. My brain really works for language and image, it always has.
KduP: So did you develop gradually, starting with music, then writing lyrics for your music and then writing more poetry per se?
IF: It was music and poetry, and then I dropped music for ten years to just do writing.
Isis Giraldo: What were you writing?
IF: I wrote my first book when I was like 19.
IF: Yeah. And then when I got out of university I started doing journalism for journals and newspapers and stuff, and then I ran a company that did documentation for computer companies. Pretty much since that time I’ve been doing a little bit of teaching, I teach once a week, like a writer-in-residence gig at Concordia. But pretty much full-time on the [creative] work that I do.
KduP: I kind of hate the concept, but I guess there is some distinction between stage poetry and page poetry. I’ve heard you perform poetry with music, but do you still write poetry that’s meant to be read from the page or is meant to be published?
IF: Yeah I think so, I don’t differentiate. The thing about performance is that it only goes by once, pretty much, you know.
KduP: Every time you perform, it’s different.
IF: Yeah. Well that’s true on the page too, but on the page you can stop and examine the poem and think about it, whereas with performance your only choice is to go back to the beginning and hear it again. I mean CDs help a lot or MP3 or video.
The original reason for oral literature was so that people would remember their stories of what happened, people would go from place to place and tell what happened, tell their own mythologies. And often they would sing them or present them with music. And so they’re very deeply connected, voice and music. And today we use the same tricks, we use choruses. Something starts, then there’s a segue and a return. And it’s all about what you can understand in real time in contrast to page time when you’ll always have the choice of going back.
KduP: When you experience a performance, your memory of it might not be 100% accurate, while if you’re reading a text on the page you can go back again and again and again towards a more analytical interpretation.
IF: Yes. All of these things are imaginative anyway. The image you build won’t be the same as the image that Isis builds. And for me that’s one of the huge great things about music and poetry, it allows you to take your own inner self-experience and make that the piece too. If I say “giraffe”, what each of you imagines is a different thing.
IG: I want to direct the conversation toward your music, poetry and dance show [For Body and Light]. I thought it was really cool and just want to know how it came to be.
IF: It took a while. It started about two years ago. I got this residency at Banff to do spoken word. At the time I was doing the kind of show that you saw, for voice and music, or voice, music, video, and every time I did it somewhere I would have to explain to the presenter what it was, which was a real drag because I would say, like, it’s a multi-media spoken word show and what does that mean, you know.
KduP: That’s a medium that’s really only developing now though. Probably partly because of your work.
IF: I don’t know, maybe. If I say, oh I’m doing a dance show, everybody goes, oh OK, and they think they know what they’re getting and then when they do get it, they like it. The problem that remains though, is that I’ve discovered that dancers get paid less than poets. So this idea that I had is a road, maybe to fame, but not to fortune.
KduP: Do you see dance as being a kind of three-dimensional illustration of the text, or do you see it as being interpretative, or do you see it as being a collaboration between the three different media?
IF: It’s like if we go back to the three giraffes. If you’re watching the performance, I don’t want you to ever have to think that what you’re imagining is being focused on one image. I want you to have what you imagine. And have the dance be something that either resonates with that or conflicts with it maybe, but doesn’t exemplify. It’s more like creating the atmosphere with the soundtrack and the images, and then everyone is in the same space, the dancers live in that space, the audience lives in that space. But it’s not exemplifying, that was the one big rule. Because I really hate it when somebody says, oh we’re going to go on a voyage on a ship and then they present a picture of the ship, and I’m going, fuck, that’s not my ship! I had a perfectly good ship in my mind.
KduP: In a way, you were inviting your audience into your show at the point when you pointed the spotlight at us. It’s like this awkward moment when I’m like, I can’t see, it’s shining in my eyes, but also makes me realize, oh the spotlight is on me, I’m as much a part of this performance as the dancers or you are.
IF: Well hopefully. I don’t like being an audience member. I like going to shows where I come out thinking there were really interesting ideas and if that idea were mine, this is what I would do. I much prefer the idea that we all participate.
KduP: Yet at the same time, it didn’t feel invasive. I’ve also been to performances where I feel like I’m being forced to participate.
IF: Yeah that’s not fun either. Although some people seem to be good at that, they get everyone to sing along or something like that.
IG: Talking about interdisciplinary projects, it’s hard to translate one art form into another art form, or to get more than one art form to say the same thing. I found that really challenging when working on Medusa [Shaved] because there are such different languages. Even if the dancers interpret what you want perfectly, their movement and just the reality of their art is going to say something different. So it’s cool that you have a take on collaboration that keeps the fusion open.
IF: Well yes, we did a lot of work on that. For a time between when I initially decided to do that and when we actually started collaborating there was about 8 months when we were working at Body Slam—a voice, music, dance improv project—you know, just trying to figure out how that worked. And it was only after doing that for maybe 40 hours of shows and stuff that we said, oh we want to do more choreographed stuff. Stéphanie [Morin-Robert] and I. By that time we understood the environment pretty well. Plus I now understand the way her mind works. It seems easy now, but it was probably a lot of work just to figure our togetherness out.
KduP: It’s about meeting the right collaborators, getting to know each other’s minds.
IF: I still remember the rush when that first started to happen, when the image I was thinking of would get resonance back. It was fantastic! I totally love doing it, it’s so much fun! Gorgeous to watch.
IG: Maybe you could talk a bit about the way you paint a picture with your words, how you work, how your writing style makes words come to life.
KduP: Your writing is very evocative.
IF: I started writing the way I do probably in my 20s. The closest description would be like film, the poetry is the image content and the music is the soundtrack. So you get the whole environment, except that it’s you who does the imagining.
KduP: In a way your poetry has also become musical. If you’re working with different media, I’m still trying to get at the degree to which they start to overlap or integrate. I’m putting words in your mouth! But maybe your poetry has taken on an evasive quality of music rather than having a very linear narrative?
IF: I see them connecting more on an emotional level than on a structural level. It’s like that chord sounds like how I feel when I say this, it’s kind of true.
KduP: That’s almost synesthesia.
IF: Yeah kind of like that. Like when I play the first chord in that dance performance I’m transported to that place, there’s a sense of loss, exploration too. The music comes second for me.
IG: So your 20s were spent working. You were also teaching. How was the journey to where you are now?
KduP: Getting to the gritty questions!
IF: What was I doing, drinking and going to parties, traveling. It was only really in my 30s that I starting doing this stuff, the stuff I do now.
KduP: When did you start having the series at Casa [del Popolo]?
IF: In 2000, so it’s been 14 years.
KduP: The series has really become a cornerstone in the Montreal scene.
IF: It’s super fun. This weekend is going to be great. I love the collaboration between Mike [Bjella] and Simon [Labbé]. And Guadalupe [Muro] is fantastic.
KduP: I saw her perform elsewhere, she leafs through a book as rhythm for a song.
IF: She was at Banff at the same time as I was articulating all this dance stuff.
IG: This is something I’ve asked people in the past, the idea of drive, or losing artistic drive, how do you keep that fresh and how do you keep yourself going after doing it for so many years?
IF: Well I hate stopping because it’s so hard to start again. Usually I’m doing five things at once and one of them is in the foreground, but as it starts falling away there’s already something else.
IG: Have you ever had a moment in your life when you felt that there was nothing propelling you toward a next project?
IF: No hope? Yeah totally. When I got to the end of that documentation company, I had no idea. I’d already trained my brain in journalism which is about going somewhere and figuring out the story but it’s not about you, you know. And then there’s documentation which is about figuring out the logic , but it’s not about you. So the turning back to being about you took me quite a long time, it was very painful. Especially when you’re just starting out and you don’t know to trust your own soul and your own vocabulary, so when it stops it’s really awful. It’s like, oh I’ve got nothing. Whereas once you’ve had nothing 42 times or 60 times, you know that after there’s nothing there’s something, this makes it easier. It gets easier with time, at least I find that in my own life. I trust that even though I have no idea how to do something, that I will be able to do it.
KduP: Do you ever find that if you have different simultaneous projects that they conflict or that you have different languages that you use for different projects?
IF: Lately it’s all become the same thing. The only project I did differently recently was when I started working with Geneviève Bujold, who’s a simultaneous deaf interpreter. And we were doing simultaneous conversations, one in poetry and one in sign. But for me that was the same as the other stuff I do.
KduP: That’s fantastic! So it’s almost like language becomes dance through gesture.
IF: Exactly. Plus I could speak in English or French, she didn’t care. It’s beautiful to watch, especially once we started staggering it so that when I’d finished talking she’d still be talking, and you’d just watch her hands. And I found a great word for river in Quebec sign language [he moves his hands in parallel slalom towards the interviewer].
KduP: How am I going to transcribe that?!
IF: Two hands waving together. Because I’ve been doing this for a long time, I don’t take on projects unless there’s a reflection of what I want to be doing anyway. And I used to think when I was younger that I have to work with the best musicians and with the best dancers or the best writers regardless of personality, but I’ve discovered that that’s totally not true. And that the only thing that works for me is working with people I really love, people I find amazingly fantastic and attractive, then I like working with them, they like working with me, everybody’s happy and it works really well.
IG: Have you ever encountered some heavy personalities to deal with?
IF: Oh yeah, before I made that rule. Sometimes you’d work for a year on something that would come to nothing. It’s pretty easy to determine chemistry. We learn that just from social interactions. If you like somebody and you trust them, those are good things to go by, you know.
KduP: This is not a question, but more of a compliment, you’ve become a kind of mentor figure for the local scene, in terms of providing a space and a context in which to perform.
IG: Oh yeah, providing opportunity.
IF: You guys are doing the same thing, that blog [Écho] is fantastic. Listening to Mike talk with William Parker. William Parker is so fucking great. I still remember doing a show at Casa and he saying about music: “It’s like your brain melts…!”
IG: When I talk to older musicians it seems like there used to be a lot of places in the city for music, like maybe in the 80s or something, now it’s transferred mostly to the web, but there aren’t that many physical spaces anymore. It’s important that there are a few people in the city who still provide opportunity because this kind of thing has gone down tremendously. It’s hard being a young artist. It’s a labyrinthine world, where you kind of need to do a lot of different things.
IF: Well I found that to always have been true. But there is less money now, it is harder that way. What you guys [Résonance] do is exactly the right thing to do. You have the space, you can invite people who you want to see, you can write commentary on what’s going on. And that kind of thing drives itself.
The nice thing about having a space is that you can still allow yourself to be attracted to the stuff you already like. It’s a natural function of that, that you’d still support these. But I can also sit through anything for 15 minutes. And so there’s a big wide open window at Words and Music [Casa del Popolo series] for people who want to do something, as long as they do it for a short period of time, then let them do it and see how it turns out. What is their level of dedication? Do they need this chance because they’ll come back a second time and their work will be much better? And if what these people do is fun, then they bring their own audience, and they bring their own mind to the event.
KduP: Are there figures that really inspired you or new spoken word poets or musician you feel one should really watch out for?
IF: Well yeah, there’s tons of stuff, I like what you do! Kaie Kellough is a super fantastic language brain. Cat Kidd is, well you’ll see, we’re doing a show together the 29th[May] to launch her newest record and it’s fantastic. She’s been working with the same DJ, tech guy, Jack Beets (aka Jacky Murda) since her first record, and now it’s been 15 years and it’s stunning.
IG: Do you find that Montreal is a good platform for the arts because there are so many going to school here, there is so much flux?
IF: This scene is really, this is the best you get! Right. What you guys have here is the best you get. I hope you realize that.
KduP: In terms of Résonance or in terms of us?
IF: In terms of you, in terms of what goes on here, in terms of taking what you do and bringing it somewhere, in terms of the input like being able to read that blog, talk to somebody, once a week see something that really inspires you, wanting to go to more stuff. This is the best. And as for Résonance, I love this place, that’s why I’m here all the time.
Ian Ferrier is one of the core writer/performers in the North American performance literature scene. His work is known across Canada, in New York and in Europe. Rooted in poetry, his live performances are an absorbing blend of whispered and spoken word and trance guitar. His signature is the quiet, compelling voice at the centre of every piece. Ian Ferrier co-founded the poetry/music label Wired on Words, which won public radio’s Standard Broadcasting Award in its first year. He is a founder of theCanadian Review of Literature in Performance the Mile End Poets’ Festival and Montreal’s monthly Words & Music literature show, now in its 14th year. A winner of Canada’s Golden Beret Award for lifetime achievement in spoken word, Ian Ferrier has released three CDs and a book, all of which can be heard from time to time on CBC—Canada’s national radio station— as well as on public radio stations in the USA and Canada. He resides in Montreal, where he creates voice and music works and performs with the dance company For Body and Light.