Nanaimo Art Gallery hosts athut/Words Bounce reading series

Patrick Cruz's Step Mother Tongue. (Nanaimo Art Gallery)
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On March 24 and 31, the Nanaimo Art Gallery will host the athut / Words Bounce reading series, which consists of two afternoons of poetry from emerging and celebrated poets.

The Nanaimo Art Gallery annually devotes an entire year’s programming to a specific thematic inquiry. This is the gallery’s third year in which they’ve come up with a theme that takes the form of a question. This year’s inquiry: “scekwul yuxw ‘alu kws nec’s tu sqwal ct,” which is in Hul’q’umi’num, the language of the Snuneymuxw people, and translates to “how can we speak differently?”

The athut / Words Bounce reading series is connected to the exhibit athut / Words Bounce, a collaborative exhibition by artists Joi T. Arcand, Patrick Cruz, and Susan Hiller. The three artists approached language as both a subject and a means of articulation, amplified through art. Some of the works in athut / Words Bounce see the possibilities of understandings and mistranslations, while others highlight the importance of language advocacy to cultural resurgence.

The English title “Words Bounce” came from a two-word sentence found in a verse novel by Canadian author Anne Carson. The Hul’q’umi’num title, “athut,” was provided by Gary Manson and Adam Manson, language advocates from the Snuneymuxw Nation. “Athut” is not a translation of “Words Bounce,” but a parallel title responding to the exhibition.

The first reading on March 24 is organized by SPIT, a project run by the current curatorial intern at Nanaimo Art Gallery, Christian Vistan, and previous curatorial intern, Emma Metcalfe Hurst. SPIT engages with text, writing, and publishing through writing workshops, performances, podcasting, readings, and publishing experiments.

“It’s about thinking about different ways languages exist, function, and behave,” Vistan said. “The reading is a way to activate that line of thinking.”

Vistan said the thematic inquiry came from the gallery thinking about different questions for Nanaimo, while also thinking about the mandate of the gallery, which is to challenge the community through art.

Featured poets reading on March 24 include Whess Harman, Selina Boan, Christian Vistan, and Emma Metcalfe Hurst. The readings will be held in the gallery within Patrick Cruz’s installation titled Step Mother Tongue. Cruz’s installation uses floor-to-ceiling murals, glyphs and symbols inspired by graffiti, cave drawings, alchemical symbols, and written languages, including the pre-contact Tagalog syllabary Baybayin, to engage with culture and linguistics.

Athut / Words Bounce is an exhibition that responds to the malleability of language,” said Jesse Birch, Nanaimo Art Gallery Curator. “So the poetry readings are a way of activating that malleability through speech in the gallery space.”

Birch said that thinking about how people can speak differently also involves thinking about how people can relate to each other differently, and, in turn, how people can show care to one another.

“Poets are constantly thinking about how they can speak differently,” Birch said. “Their practice is attention to language.”

The second reading on March 31 will feature distinguished Vancouver-based poet Fred Wah, as well as poet and VIU professor Sonnet L’Abbé. Both readings are free to attend.

L’Abbé said the question of how we use language to tell stories about who belongs in our communities has occupied her for most of her writing life, and she’s also deeply interested in how socialization into speaking English has created and disrupted communities.

“How can settlers on unceded Indigenous territories speak responsibly as they use English to create their stories? Asking how we can speak “differently” is a question that opens up other questions: who is ‘we’? who is asking on behalf of ‘we’? why would we think we need to speak differently? What are the reasons that we speak?,” L’Abbé said. “These questions are important because speech creates public discourse, and the ways we create public conversation shape our society and reinforce our values.”