Christakos and Ruffo: Cosmic Communications and Multi-Media Identities

by Emma Croll-Baehre
Poetry London November Reading, Wed. Nov. 16th, 2016

As a Poetry London volunteer, I attended the organization’s most recent pre-reading workshop with the task of introducing the visiting writers, Margaret Christakos and Armand Garnet Ruffo, whose works were framing the workshop. I had just rushed from the Wortley Roadhouse where I had caught a glimpse of the writers amidst Poetry London representatives, munching on pub food before their talk.

Poetry London members (and distinguished poets) Blair Trewartha and David Huebert were facilitating the discussion. The group was small. Eclectic even. Some participants had been immersed in poetry for ages, while others were exploring it for the first time. One participant who caught my attention was impressively working in his second language.

Blair and David first cracked out Ruffo’s poem entitled “Indian Jesus Christ”, a poem based on a painting of the same name by the Ojibway/Anishinabe painter Norval Morrisseau. The poem depicts the image captured in Morrisseau’s painting; an Indigenous man (who Ruffo portrays as being riddled with both physical and psychological pain) kneeling before a statue of Christ. The discussion which stemmed from the poem quickly drew me in.

The group’s opinions were divided on the poem’s meaning; while some saw it as Morrisseau’s positive (re)identification with spirituality through art, others argued that it describes Christianity’s haunting presence, which plagued Morrisseau throughout his life. Despite their varying perspectives, the group agreed that Ruffo’s poem powerfully captures Morrisseau’s sense of spiritual disjunction.

The group then probed Margaret Christakos’s “Iphigenia, ii”. Her poem plays with an at once hyper-sexualized and de-sexualized character who is both “Siri” (the iPhone voice) and Iphigenia (the princess of Argos from Greek mythology). The character, in tight bike shorts, is painted in an erotic light as she travels about a community on her bicycle, yet she is ignored by all she passes.

Workshop members seemed to have diverging perspectives on what Siri/Iphigenia signifies. Is she the symbolic “monster” of a socially disconnected technological era? Or perhaps, others offered, she’s just another sexualized product of a patriarchal Capitalist system. After much conversation, the group moved on, eagerly awaiting Christakos’s explication of Siri’s/Iphigenia’s meaning.

Such varied viewpoints on the poems created a productive workshop environment. Not one interpretation overshadowed another. Instead, the participants’ readings of the poems brought forth fascinating insights for us all.

After a couple of writers had shared their works, the workshop participants filed into the main room where the readings were about to take place. The space was humming with energy. The room was filled to capacity with an array of people: young to older writers, general poetry lovers, and a class of Western’s English students. Margaret Christakos, sporting her iconic bright purple glasses, and Armand Garnet Ruffo, in a sharp black bowler hat, sat amongst the crowd.

Christakos was the first poet to read. She exuded a dry wittiness and warm energy which charmed her audience. Beginning with her earliest book, Not Egypt, and moving to her newest mixed genre collection entitled Her Paraphernalia: On Motherlines, Sex, Blood, Loss & Selfies, Christakos intimately revealed her endlessly transforming sense of womanhood. She recalled her young adult days when she, in response to her (what she deemed as laughable) sense of fleeting time, anxiously strove to define herself from her family. A much more serious sense of fading time apparently returns for Christakos as she faces mid-life’s tribulations, like the serious ailments inflicting her aging mother. From abortion to divorce, the poems she recited tenderly documented her shifting (female) identity as she has aged.

Christakos’s fascination with social media, she also pointed out, remains a central part of her work. The un-concrete nature of social media speaks to Christakos of the “cosmic” quality of human connection. Yet at the same time, Christakos told the group, social media platforms also have the potential to create intense disconnection between people. Christakos’s character of Siri/Iphigenia, she clarifies, represents the sexual slave of our society’s patriarchal technological realm. “Siri”, like the character of Iphigenia, is forced to submit to everyone’s commands. The character is the epitome of sexual subjugation. Hence, explained Christakos, Siri/Iphigenia represents the inequities that exist between people even in the technological ether.

In stark contrast to Christakos’s poetic inspiration from social media, Ruffo’s muse for his recent poetry collection, The Thunderbird Poems, was visual art. Various works by Norval Morrisseau inspired Ruffo’s poems, which richly capture the visual elements of his paintings, while depicting the brilliant and complex inner-workings of Morrisseau’s mind. As he recited his work, Ruffo brought up, on a PowerPoint slide show behind him, each of the paintings that had inspired his poems. Through delicate imagery, Ruffo probed the multi-layered meanings of Morrisseau’s images; paintings which capture the artist’s continuing trauma, the historical colonization of his Ojibway/Anishinabe culture. In a way, Ruffo seemed to communicate with Morrisseau through his writing. The artistic merging of visual art and poetry created a powerful conversation between Ruffo and Morrisseau’s experiences as self-identified Ojibway/Anishinabe.

From the stimulating readings of Margaret Christakos and Armand Garnet Ruffo before a packed room, I could see that London’s writing community is alive and thriving. Poetry London attracted both young and old to its November sixteenth reading. Evidently, the events’ success can only amplify as more people learn about this facet of London’s arts community. This latest reading has hooked me. I will certainly seek out future Poetry London events. In fact, I am already looking forward to hearing Michael Prior and Nyla Matuk read their work in January 2017.