Several years ago I was an invited to perform in an annual creative arts festival here in Canada that centres itself around the artistic creations of students within the far-flung schools and communities of a geographically vast school board.
I was asked to give poetry readings and/or to lead workshops on specific topics selected within the schools.
Before one of the poetry readings the teacher, visible nervous, asked what my poetry was about and was any of it sexual. I tried to describe my poetry and its content or subject matter without knowing why she asked so I concluded by asking her why.
A few years earlier Newfoundland poet-novelist Michael Crummey had been a performer in the same festival. In one of his readings he performed a poem that mentioned a penis or possibly "his penis." I’m still not clear which, and I don’t know which poem of his includes the offending penis. I still haven’t asked him about this story on any of the occasions we’ve met since then.
The teacher asked that I please not read any sex or sexual poems or any poems containing sexual body parts (which, internally, made me wonder which body parts were not potentially sexual). I replied that it hadn’t been my intention to read poems like that but now I would pay extra attention to my selections before I read them aloud. This would, I believe, be polite self-censorship.
A few days later in the festival I was on a pre-dawn Twin Otter flight into a community where, upon arrival, I found out that I was to perform the full school day, class-after-class just like one of the teachers. Not only that but, in this K-12 school, that I was to do readings or workshops with every student at every grade level in the school starting with the Kindergarten class. In every class I was accompanied by the teacher. For lunch I went with one of the school staff to her home and was shown her teenage son’s windowless, basement bedroom where I would kip for the night—walls and ceiling postered with wrestlers and metal bands—while he took the livingroom couch.
After lunch, I worked the upper grades and came to have the combined 10-12 class for last period. By this time I was quite mentally burnt or fogged from having been going flat out all day. I decided to breakup my reading my own poems by playing recordings of other Canadian poets. The teenagers seems very intrigued. Several of them recalled seeing videopoems on MuchMusic.
One of the poets I chose was a longtime friend—Calgarian Sheri-D Wison and her poem "I Am a Closet New Yorker" from the Word Up CD. Things proceeded fine until about halfway through the poem when Sheri-D said, "DON’T FUCK WITH A FUCK!." The teacher gasped. His face turned ripe tomato red. The students laughed at his shock and discomfort. I let the poem finish. Then I apologized. Making the teacher look bad, feel like a fool in front of his students, is not something I intended to do. Thankfully, the school day ended minutes later.
Over supper I learned that the teacher, who was also the school principal, was also town mayor and a church elder. Until a few years before the public school had been a church school, run by the conservative Moravians. That evening, a steady stream of school kids dropped by the house to visit the kids who lived there but also to see me again. They all knew that I had embarrassed their principal. Once I left, they knew that I would not be invited back.
Call for submissions
The coordinators of the Freedom to Read Review 2006, published by the Freedom of Expression committee of the Book and Periodical Council, seek thoughtful fiction, non-fiction and artwork—short articles, questions for our experts, snippets or quotations, experiences, poetry, prose, comic strips, and political cartoons—related to the following: freedom to read, self censorship, freedom of expression, intellectual freedom, censorship; what these terms mean or don't mean to you and where your boundaries lie. Content with a Canadian angle is of particular interest to us.
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