"Jumping Joe's Canadian Adventures"
Interview by Cathie Leblanc
First published on the website of the New Brunswick Filmmakers' Cooperative.
Cathie: I guess my first question, Joe, to get the dialogue rolling, is how on earth did you end up in Labrador?
Joe: From what I've been able to figure out, there are two main coordinators who have been doing the Labrador Creative Arts Festival for a number of years: Tim Borlase, who is with the Labrador School Board, used to be the Labrador East School Board, but now it's all one; and a woman named Noreen Heighton, who hasd been teaching, I think, for 20 or 25 odd years in the Labrador school system.
She contacted me the week she was moving to Halifax, to go to the University of King's College. This after teaching for 25 years. She said she'd gone to, I think it was the League of Canadian Poets' website; that they were looking for writers, and she was really excited because mine had said that I had done workshops, with students from elementary grades, and that I said on the site, "grades 5 or 6 to post secondary." They were really excited by that latitude, because usually they didn't have people with that range.
Cathie: It was usually really young kids, or much older?
Joe: When I was in Scotland I had done some elementary classes in schools. But I wasn't doing kindergarten, or anything like that. When I got to Labrador, I was.
Cathie: Which is cool.
Joe: Oh, yeah, but I had no idea beforehand. So that's where it started: Noreen had gone to this website and found out some stuff about me. Then she e-mailed and asked if I'd be interested.
Cathie: When was that? How far in advance to the event?
Joe: I'm guessing it was July or August.
Cathie: So they contacted you well in advance of the event?
Joe: Well, I think my name had been put on a list that immediately went in to the Canada Council Festivals Program. It had to be July or August, because when I was in Ottawa in September for the Writersfest [Ottawa International Writers Festival] I was talking to a friend of mine who had been on the jury that approved the funding.
Cathie: It's always nice to have friends on juries.
Joe: Oh, yeah, the Council is very excited and supportive of this Festival. Sheri-D Wilson said that they were really excited, really glad to see my name on the list too. They've had a number of writers over the years. Michael Crummey had been up there, and last year Sue Goyette from the Halifax-Dartmouth area had gone up. She was one of the Governor General's Literary Awards shortlisted poets. And there's a real mix. This year there was Lindsay Marshall, chief of the Chapel Island Reserve in Cape Breton, who's also a poet.
Cathie: Do you know if Sheree Fitch, and other people who write children's books go up to Labrador for this festival?
Joe: There were children's authors there this year. I don't know if Sheree Fitch has done that circuit or not. I think it's quite likely. I'd have to look through that handbook on the festival, it identifies everyone that's been there every year. I do know this, there are some poets I know who do work for children, I think Sonya Dunn had been there, and a few others. I think there'd be quite a few writers, but it's a Festival for the full spectrum of the arts, so there will be dancers, there will be musicians, there will be singers, there will be carvers, and bookmakers.
Cathie: That's what I find interesting about this festival. Usually these events have a main theme, and a lot of things are carried around that. I find it quite fascinating that they're able to put all these different things into it and it doesn't become too convoluted, it actually gives a person experience in each artistic specialization.
Joe: I would say that this festival does have a main theme: the children's own creativity.
Cathie: So the focus is the children, what they are doing, and to encourage them in their creativity.
Cathie: And they could be creative in so many different things.
Joe: Right. That's why there are so many different options and exposures. You get a jazz singer who goes into a town like Hopedale and gets the kids singing along with her. Katrein's a solo act, except when she's actually doing the jazz band scene, and then she has a back-up band. She worked with a group of school kids who came after class, after school every day for a week of the Festival, and they rehearsed. Then they performed in the Festival. The same thing happened with another group that I didn't get to see because I was out on the coast.
There was an a capella group from Saskatchewan called Streetnix. It's a four-boy band, except that they don't have musicians hidden behind a screen. All of their music, all the rhythm, percussion and everything, is all made by them with their mouths. They're doing all the drums, all the vocals, everything.
Cathie: So how did they sound, Joe?
Joe: It's incredible. I've got a CD of theirs, and you'd never know that it was only recorded vocals. One of the members, B.J., would go from doing the bass drum, with some overlay, and he's doing this with his voice, to singing. And then go back and just pick up the beat. It's absolutely incredible.
They worked with a group of boys. It hadn't been intended that it be all guys, but that's who signed up for it. They worked with them on performing one of the standards, "The Lion Sleeps Tonight", and then there was a song of their own choosing. Since I wasn't there that night, I don't know what they picked. I do know that they were very interested in early Aerosmith, that they wanted to do "Money" by Pink Floyd, but Streetnix said they couldn't do "Money" easily because it's a 7/8 song, it's too fast.
Cathie: So they're touring around, are they?
Joe: Streetnix tours North America continuously.
Cathie: Wow, so they must be doing quite well.
Joe: Without the big music splash, they've been doing very well.
Cathie: I was thinking, it's so unusual, do you think they'll break out? Just like for example, Ricky Martin?
Joe: Yeah, I think they will because they're a boy band with this difference. They are making all their own music with vocals. Yes, they have something.
Cathie: That's a real challenge, though, to make noises that sound like musical instruments?
Joe: And to keep all the rhythm and all that, but they're all trained musicians as well. Aaron who's the lead singer, and I would say the frontperson, as in an organizing sense, said he has never had a "real job" in his life. Early on he was trained on piano, and when he was still in school he started getting hired to play piano for a ballet school, in Regina or Saskatoon, wherever it was, where he grew up. He just sort of continued from there. He's been in music forever.
Cathie: What a lucky guy.
Cathie: So, Joe, more about you!
Cathie: Basically, you received this email from Noreen and you were sent an itinerary.
Joe: Oh, that was much further down the road. First I had to send some poems and some stuff. There was some funny correspondence in there, because they were concerned that the work not be offensive, or too heavy on the sex orientation, because it was in the school system.
Cathie: You had to give material that was along a particular theme suitable to kids?
Joe: Well, I sent a range of my poems. I had no problem about doing that, and to talk about what I wrote, because there's a lot of people's poetry and poems with animals and places. At some point, she sent an e-mail that just said, "You're hired." That was the subject line.
I met Noreen at Word On The Street in Halifax, at the end of September. Because she was in Halifax, she was interviewing Newfoundland writers as part of her course work. I think she was taking the one-year Journalism intensive at King's. We met there and talked a bit, and that was late September. It was early November before I actually had an itinerary. In between that I had to produce what they called a menu, which I didn't get at first. Because I thought I was just going to do readings. But they said, "No, no." Because there's a whole spectrum of artists being asked "What type of workshops or presentations would you do? What materials do you need to do them? What group size? What age range?" I said, "I don't know. I'm not the one setting this up."
Cathie: But they wanted you to sum it up, basically.
Joe: Yeah, which is very awkward, it's like I was to develop workshop modules. Then, seeing them, they would present them to the schools. It took a while for me, because of their wording, to clue in that this was what they were going to do. They would send our workshop proposals out to the schools for the schools to respond and say "Yes, we're interested in this. This is what we want. We would like Joe to come into our class[es], and this is what we want him to do". What I offered, primarily, I think there were three options, or three that were accepted. Obviously, poetry reading was one: readings of my own work, my own poetry. Another was to do poetry slams with the kids, because that got them writing, which went back to the core of the festival, their own creativity.
Cathie: It was probably fascinating, not knowing a lot about it. What is this, oh we've gotta try this. It sounds really cool. Even the name sounds cool.
Joe: I devised something, along the lines of: "If it's a class-sized group we should be able to start all the students writing poems, and get them to stand up and read their poems within the length of the class period." I had to find out how long class periods were: about an hour, usually. The other workshop, or presentation, that I suggested was journal writing. These were proposed without having any idea what they already did in the schools. I was flying blind. They were interested in the journal writing. I received this itinerary which gave me my flight times. Another thing they asked was if I was interested in going to the Coast, going to some of the coastal communities. I said, "Of course."
Cathie: You're hardly going to say "no".
Joe: I really wanted to go the Coast. Why would I go to Labrador and not take the opportunity? When I received the itinerary they had me down for two trips to the Coast, to Makkovikthat I'd been pronouncing Makk-o-vik, which was actually pronounced Ma-ko-vik (laughter)and to Postville. I went looking on maps of Labrador to find these towns.
Cathie: Hard to find?
Joe: Very tiny. Postville is the smallest community in Labrador. It has 250 people. There were 66 students in the school.
Cathie: You couldn't burp in your backyard without everybody knowing.
Joe: No kidding. There's only 32 communities in all of Labrador. It's very tiny popoulation but very spread out. So they gave me this schedule, then gave me names of the schools: St. Mike's, or Our Lady Queen of Peace, which is a name I still want to stumble over. Some them were Moravian missionary schools, from when they had secular school boards up until about a year and a half, two years ago? There were Roman Catholic, Anglican and Pentecostal school boards, then the province got rid of them, and put them all together as one public school board. But they still have the old names. Our Lady Queen of Peace still had a 5 or 6 foot high white statue of the Virgin Mary over the entrance. (laughter).
Cathie: Well, it's sort of hard to get rid of Mary.
Joe: Well, yeah.
Cathie: So you travelled to Makkovik on the first day.
Joe: The very first day. On the Tuesday before the festival started proper, I flew from Fredericton to Halifax, Halifax to Goose Bay by way of Deer Lake. There were other people on the flight that I looked at, and thought, "Hmmmm, these people are likely going to the same place." I saw that some people had similar materials to mine, so I started tapping on shoulders and saying "Hi, are you going to the festival?"
Cathie: How many were going to the festival?
Joe: Fourteen of us on the plane going to the festival, on the one plane, all flying up.
Cathie: Did you end up talking with a lot of them?
Joe: Yes. Even the coordinator, Noreen Heighton, was on the same flight. She was one of the participants, doing workshops in the elementary schools. Which was a switch for her, being a presenter instead of just being on the coordinating end of it. There were people on the flight from Saskatchewan, from Manitoulin Island in Ontario, who had already done flight hops from Sudbury to Toronto to Halifax, or from Regina to Toronto to Halifax, to get on this flight.
Cathie: Long trip.
Joe: It was really long. I had no idea.
Cathie: So why did they schedule a trip on the first day you get there, though? Isn't that a bit tiring?
Joe: It was a little bit of a surprise.
Cathie: How long was the trip to get there?
Joe: Umm, much longer than I thought.
Cathie: How many hours?
Joe: Oh, it probably was . . . I don't think I got in to Makkovik until after 10:30 in the morning. But that's because I flew from Goose Bay "down" (northward) the Coast to Nain, which was an hour and a half, then all the short flights, the hops south along the coast were usually 20 to 25 minutes each. We flew from Nain to Davis Inlet, then we flew to Hopedale, and then to Makkovik, where I got off the plane. I had this big excursion along the coast of Labrador to get to where I was going, because that's the way the planes were, there weren't direct flights to these towns. It was one plane that stopped at every place along the Coast: a Twin Otter. Very sturdy plane. That's why, I flew out at 8 a.m. and arrived around, 10:45 a.m. It was after 11:00 before we got to the school.
There was another festival writer who got on the plane, though I didn't know it at the time, in Davis Inlet, who was going to the same school. We were instantly thrown into a couple of classes to do some half sessions, because we came in the middle of a period. It was that abrupt. They said, "Ok, you're going in here. It's a kindergarten class." I went, "What? Kindergarten? You didn't tell me I was doing kindergarten! No one told me I was doing anything with kindergarten kids! I'm not prepared." I mean, it's a big difference from saying you're going to do workshops with grades 5 to 6, and then being thrown in with kindergarten kids.
Cathie: But you know what, Joe, you've been doing all this stuff for so long, it wouldn't take you long to get into the swing of things. It's just very unsettling to arrive somewhere and just be tossed right into it. You usually you have a little bit of prep time.
Joe: A little bit of time to orientate yourself.
Cathie: And to relax, like maybe have a bite to eat.
Joe: Oh, we got a bite to eat afterwards. When it was lunchtime for the entire school. That was good. It was a little bit of a shock, and I had to do a very fast scan inside my head of all the poems I'd brought with me, to pick out some that would be appropriate for very young kids. I chose to read ones about basement wolves, because they are all fixated on wolves up there, and about wormsbeing a school kid getting worms and putting them in my coat pocketsthat sort of thing.
Cathie: So they enjoyed them?
Joe: Yeah. Of course, I did other things. I got the picture taken of myself with the kids in that classroom. A lot of what I did was just rapport, the "I'm out here so I can talk to them about what I do. They'd ask me questions about where I lived, how old I was . . . those sort of things. They were very curious that someone would just appear out of nowhere, and then be gone.
Cathie: And they always wonder about what other areas of Canada, probably, what it's like? What did you do for the rest of the day?
Joe: I did other classes in the afternoon.
Cathie: You were probably a little more relaxed after you had eaten.
Joe: Oh, it was better, they were older. Obviously, if I start with kindergarten, and the entire K-12 is in one school, you're going to get older kids later on. I was mostly with junior high classes in the afternoon. They were mixed class groups because it wasn't planned beforehand. I thought that was just doing readings. They didn't tell me, and they hadn't specified workshops. I can do some of this stuff off the top of my head so it wasn't really a problem.
Cathie: The thing is, when you've been doing something for so long it's very easy to ad-lib, to be free flowing, it's actually fun once you get going.
Joe: Oh, it's really easy. And that's where I think the radio show helps a lot, too, because that is an ad-lib thing I do on air. You just talk and you do it, as part of that routine. You change your props and you keep talking, and people don't realize that the props have changed, because they're listening to the voice, and they're paying attention, and all of a sudden something new happens, and they say, "Where'd that come from?"
Cathie: You really like that, don't you? The radio show?
Cathie: Yeah, I listen to it and some of my friends do as well.
Joe: It's six years old this month.
Cathie: Wow. Are you going to have a little anniversary party?
Joe: I should.
Cathie: Ok, so back to Labrador we go. You have the older kids anyway in the afternoon.
Joe: Yeah, I didn't get the high school kids. Louise Profeit-LeBlanc did. She was the other writer, the one who got on the plane in Davis Inlet.
Cathie: So you just had just older elementary?
Joe: And junior high, Grades 7, 8, 9.
Cathie: Would you have liked to have done something with the high school kids?
Joe: Yes, because I think it's really important.
Cathie: Because a lot of your poetry they would really groove with, I would think.
Joe: Yeah, there's that, and theres also the fact that it's a very crucial age to encourage them, to say, "You know what's incredible about poetry? Poetry brought me to Labrador. Go figure . . . You know, some of you are itching to get out of Labrador, and it makes you wonder how poetry brought me here. It's incredible that a poem could do that."
Cathie: Did you stay there overnight or go back to Goose Bay?
Joe: We did classes till 3:30 in the afternoon. We weren't in the school for very long, four hours at most. Got taken back out to the airport, waited for the same plane, the same crew, they'd been flying the same flinght circuit all day. They picked us up, and took us back to Goose Bay, over an hour's flight because it's all the way down [west, inland along] Lake Melville. We came in at sunset. On the plane is a group of students and teachers from Postville, the other town that I would be going to. I talked with them.
I didn't have time to go to my billet, still hadn't seen where I was going to stay. We were dropped off at an A&W and told, "Buy yourself some food." Then we went to Goose High, where all the evening performances were held. The performances were primarily two or three or four plays by student groups that come in from schools all over Labrador, with a few of the visiting artists doing short presentations. After that there was a soiree. We went to one of the organizer's house, and we had a huge spread of food, music, and talk, talk, talk into the wee hours of the morning.
Cathie: There's no little spot, where you can relax, it's just straight from one thing to another?
Joe: Oh, some of it was so flat out. Some days were like that. Of course, the teachers didn't have sympathy for us saying that this isn't how we normally do workshops and presentations. Because that's their cruel life: day after day they do class after class after class continuously. We weren't getting breathers. We'd finish a workshop and be shuffled right into the next class, instantly. You didn't even have time enough to turn around and stretch. It's like being at a tradeshow or something, and going from finishing a pitch to starting the next pitch.
Cathie: The first day sounds like it was just jam-packed full of things.
Joe: Oh, yeah. I couldn't believe I'd flown to all those places on the Coast that I'd heard about. My publishing company had published a book by a writer from Nain. I never imagined ending up there. I was told that going to Makkovik and Postville. But no, where I was on the ground in Nain, where this writer's from. Everyone on the plane knew my author. They were all government employees, involved with community health, social services . . . They all knew him. It was very weird. Then we dropped into Davis Inlet, with all the problems that Davis Inlet has had. It was just amazing. To do all of that, do the workshop, fly back to Goose, and then just go, go, go.
Cathie: In just one day.
Joe: Yes, that was just one day.
Cathie: Enough to last you for a while.
Joe: Oh, yeah.
Cathie: Ok, let's go to Day 2.
Cathie: Was it relaxed somewhat? I'm getting stressed out just listening to this.
Joe: Oh, well, no, the real stress was the waterbed that I had at the billet.
Cathie: You had a waterbed?
Joe: Yeah, I never try to sleep on waterbeds, if I have a choice.
Cathie: So that would be really uncomfortable.
Joe: It was pretty horrible in a funny way. I'd hold on. Just trying to balance, thinking, "It's going to calm down. Don't roll over, because you're going to sink and hit the bottom of the bed."
Cathie: Oh, yeah. If you're not used to it that would be hard.
Joe: That was more stressful than when I was travelling.
Cathie: You were staying with who?
Joe: I was staying with a teacher from St. Michael's, a junior high school in Goose Bay itself. He was hardly there and he was ill. He had been building a loppett trail, a cross-country ski trail, out in the bush. He was quite sick, from the weekend before. He'd gotten very cold and wet.
Cathie: So you had the place to yourself?
Cathie: It's probably good, because you need some down time by yourself.
Joe: You need some down-time. At the same time I had my computer with me, and I was using his phone for doing my dial-up to try to keep up on the e-mail, and all that work. I wasn't really trying to do much actual publisher work unless it was really pressing. But I was trying to keep abreast of the e-mail, because there's just too many of them in the course of a day. I had no problems at all doing that. What took longest was finding a local dial-up number for Happy Valley. (laughter)
Cathie: Ok, continue.
Joe: Day 2 I went to St. Michael's School, an elementary to junior high. Mostly I was with Grades 5, 6, 7, and it was mostly poetry slams. Getting them to write their own poems. I'd hand out paper and give they key words. I'd made up notes on themes, general themes, and a list of improbable words, then get them to pair the two together in a poem. That is what happens in the slams that are held in The Cellar in Fredericton. I was using those rules. I'd give them 15 or 20 minutes to write. Then encourage them to get up to read their poems.
Cathie: Were they nervous?
Joe: Some of them were very nervous. Of course, some of them just wanted to get up and do it. The thing that surprised me the most was that some of the kids got right into it. There was one group where I had a CBC [radio] reporter in the classroom, as well. The reporter was recording bits of the entire workshop, my presentation to them, the kids writing . . .
Cathie: And that's the footage you were saying that you wanted to get from them?
Joe: Well, this was just audio. But I want to get the radio piece, because it has me talking, and the students talking amongst themselves, or talking to her about what they were trying to do in their poem, or what they thought of it. That's very precious, I think, to have.
Cathie: So you would add it to your reel of stuff that you've been involved in.
Joe: I have boxes and boxes of cassettes.
Cathie: It's just to pick and choose, eh? What you want to represent as your body of work.
Joe: Yeah. This CBC piece was going to be on their local Information Morning program.
Cathie: So you had three classes in a row. Grades 5, 6, 7. That's a lot of poetry slams in a row.
Joe: Yeah, back to back. That's the thing. You know, 9:50, 10:50, 11:20. There was, I think, a half recess in here, a 15-minute break.
Cathie: Like you said, teachers have very little sympathy for any breaks.
Joe: Yeah. Then I got picked up and driven to another school during my lunch break, so I'm eating on the go. The drivers were very important too. We were totally dependant on them. Sometimes funny things would happen, I actually ended up driving a bit up there, I got dropped off one day after my sessions, and I'd wanted to go back to this gallery, because I'd seen a few carvings that I was interested in. The driver was busy, because there were other people there, too, and he said, "Do you have a license? Do you want to go pick up Tara down at the school?" So there I was hopping in his half-ton, and going down the road. I'd never expected to be driving in Labrador. Was good to get out on my own, too. It was excellent.
Cathie: What next?
Joe: More slams in the afternoon with high school kids.
Cathie: And then in the evening, what did you do? Another performance, social?
Joe: Another one of the performances at Goose High. There were performances every evening.
Cathie: And then the soiree, nice food and stuff like that?
Joe: Not every evening. There were three or four soirees. I still have my schedule for those that they gave us. But what would happen on the other nights, often, was that a bunch of us artists would get together, sometimes with some of the teachers from the coastal schools, and we'd go off to Mulligan's or one of the other pubs in the neighbourhood.
At times we could just wander off to wherever. It was all be very close. Which is good. The only times that I didn't have to attend the evening theatre was when I was out on the Coast. I just sat in the [billet's] livingroom, and I was the entertainment. A student I'd met would show up with a bunch of girls from the school, and then there was a constant stream of kids in and out of the house all night.
Cathie: That's funny, Joe. You became a source of entertainment. That has many connotations.
Joe: (laughter). It was very bizarre. Oh yeah, when I realized there was only 66 kids in the school I realized that 20% of the school population was in the house at times. (laughter) It was very bizarre.
Cathie: Ok, so we'll move onto Friday.
Joe: I was doing journal workshops because I asked, "Do you do any journal writing?" I found out they actually kept journals in the elementary schools, journals where they would have writing assignments, and they'd have to do one thing a week.
Cathie : What were they writing about?
Joe: It was often assigned subjects: one was an story from the lives of their grandparents.
Cathie: That's interesting. I didn't have anything like that when I went to school. I don't know if they do it in schools here in Fredericton.
Joe: I've heard that they do it here now, but they weren't doing it on their own.
Cathie: So you introduced them to something that was a little more free-flowing.
Joe: Very much so. I asked, "Do you have journals?" I took out my journal. It was bulging, and it got bigger as I added more stuff to it, and said, "This is my journal. Everything is in it, everything I do, everywhere I go."
Cathie: They must have been fascinated by that.
Joe: Very much so. What they started doing was drawings, and copying out some of their own poems and stories, and giving them to me to put in my journal. They want to be in it.
Cathie: But what about their own journals.
Joe: I think some of them were definitely interested in that. Some of the other artists in the festival have started journals because of that, too. There's any number of ways you can start a journal. I started my first one by going on a trip to Europe. I realised before I went, that I was going to be on the road for four months, and there's no way I was going to remember all the things I'd take pictures of, so the journal was the solution.
Cathie: Just to be able to look back over it, and recollect; it's quite sentimental.
Joe: Well, I go back and mine my journals, for my own writing, for my poetry. I've published pieces out of them. I also make artworks based on them. Someone mentioned that I could display the books themselves as pieces of art. (laughter)
Cathie: Ok, so on to another day, Friday. Another reception-type thing?
Joe: Well, first was the student plays, which were very interesting. The ones from the Coast were usually issue plays: racism, anorexia bulimia, et cetera. A play performed by a group from Davis Inlet was done without words. It was about gasoline sniffing, healing, and trying to move into a better life. I thought that was very interesting, that all the coastal communities were doing these serious issues. Except for some from the southern coast, they actually did a piece incorporating more expected Newfoundland comedy. That's because the people on the South Coast of Labrador really are Newfoundlanders. There's a distinction one can see.
The same goes for the group from Churchill Falls, which is mostly a white, middle class, community that run the hydro power plant, or the ones with the mines down in Lab City. It's a constructed community. They had a totally different sensibility, and they did a totally different type of play. The group from Labrador City did a history play, in the sense that it was a series of vignettes from the history of the town. It's quite amazing what the elementary school kids had created in some of their plays.
Cathie: They've gone through so much in those more isolated areas, at a very young age.
Joe: I can't say too much about certain areas and I didn't spend time in Davis Inlet. although I know there is very low morale in the school. Where I was billeted in Postville, one of the hosts was a teaching assistant who had two teenage sons who spent all their time at home down the hall listening to Korn, Limp Bizkit, and groups like that. They were totally up on it. They were obsessed with watching wrestling via their downloadable satellite system onto a hard disc attached to the TV. They could also get Hollywood movies there and all that sort of thing. There was no video rental in the town. Yet there was a community radio station that was on air for 5 hours a day.
Cathie: So all the stuff they're watching is not based in reality.
Joe: Not at all!
Cathie: Do you feel this gives them a warped perception?
Joe: I think it gives them a very warped perception. What they see is everything they're not. And it's all adventure and action and . . .
Joe: Money. It's so totally removed from what they are, they're thinking, "That's what I don't have." It frustrates them. Then they go down to the food storeand in Postville there were two storesand they'd buy junk. They didn't even call it junk food.
One of the student groups with Joe Blades in Postville, Labrador.
(End of part one of "Jumping Joe's Canadian Adventures," January 24, 2001)