The laureate of zoom and sway

There is a lot to be said for the spontaneity and unexpected intimacy of a live reading on Zoom, especially for fans of poet bill bissett. Yes, it would be better to be in the same room as bissett as he performs his poems, but in any conventional setting would we have had the chance to meet his beloved companion, the cat called boo boo? Not likely.

A live online bissett event on May 27, organized and hosted by University of Glasgow poet and lecturer Colin Herd, started at 8 a.m. for a listener on Vancouver Island. Joining in, we could see bill, in a white t-shirt stamped with the word “breth” and a green John Deere baseball cap, chatting casually with a Zoom attendee in a nearby frame.  The backdrop for his reading was a white wall hung with more than a dozen of bissett’s eye-poppingly colourful, symbolist canvases.

The location was, bissett told us, “a little house by the river” somewhere north of Toronto, where he’d gone with his cat just before the pandemic imposed self-isolation. bissett had been preparing for a big reading tour that was subsequently cancelled because of COVID-19. The paintings, small enough to pack for air travel, constitute his movable set.

Host Herd introduced the poet, whose oeuvre encompasses more than 60 books and innumerable drawings and paintings, as the “laureate of zoom and sway,” words that aptly anticipated bissett’s musical delivery. Reading poems from his 2019 book breth /th treez uv lunaria (Talonbooks) and from a suite he’s working on under the title Meditations from Gold Mountain, bissett, holding a sheaf of printed pages, launched into something akin to an oratorio.

Embedded in the sound/concrete poetry movement since his earliest published works in the 1960s, bissett is always advancing his unique, multi-faceted art form. This excerpt from a recent “pome” adheres to the bissett orthography:

whn what happns

n th day is continuing
n th day is continu
n th day is contin
n th day is cont
n th day is
n th day
n th
n
what he sd n what he sd n what he sd
n what he sd  n what he sd n what he
sd n what he sd n what he sd n what
he sd n he sd n he sd n he sd n he

But reading and listening to bissett’s work are two entirely different experiences. Chanting, humming, mouthing sounds like a jazz singer in scat mode, bissett brings the lyrics alive in unexpected ways. Segueing seamlessly from a recitative about “the bugs on the windshield” to a casual observation, “I haven’t lost my sense of humours,” this poet/painter is a marvel.

Forthright, genuine, alive in the moment, bissett at 80 is as vital and as vital to our culture as ever he was.

breth /th treez uv lunaria (Talonbooks, 2019)

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