It was a packed house at Rhizome Cafe on Thursday evening, as literary enthusiasts poured through the doors on the Main Street Magazine Tour, a unique event featuring readings and magazines at hip venues around the Main Street area.
It also happened to be the launch event for Ricepaper’s hot-off-the-press Food Issue and wordsmith Ray Hsu’s new book, Cold Sleep Permanent Afternoon, the long-awaited follow-up to his critic-slaying poetry collection, Anthropy, which earned him comparisons to Anne Carson and Michael Ondaatje.
Sipping fair trade coffee and munching cake, attentive listeners (many of them standing due to lack of seating) got to hear a recital of Linda Mei’s excellent play featured in the current Ricepaper issue, “Culinary Contributions”.
In a simple dialogue revolving around food, the play reveals the many heartaches and miscommunications between a mother and daughter who are trying to fit into Canada while holding on to their culture.
The dialogue was performed by Fiona Tinwei Lam, Adrienne Wong, and Linda Mei herself, their smooth delivery getting reactions from a mostly non-Asian audience. The cranky, hard-to-please immigrant parent is recognizable not just by the Ricepaper crowd, but anyone who has dealt with people pining for food and culture they left behind.
The excellent play was followed up by a reading by poet Ray Hsu, looking dapper (and vaguely like MJ in his glory days from Smooth Criminal) as he read from his new book.
Perhaps in keeping with the food theme from the previous reading, he started off with an ode to pork, the pig’s eerie similarities to a certain religious figure that got me worried about the reactions from the crowd.
In the middle of Hsu’s reading, I immediately recalled an eccentric university history professor who taught 20th century world history through art and poems, on the basis that artists — real artists — interpret their era, helping others make sense of the chaotic and seemingly disconnected symbols and events around us.
That’s precisely the feeling we get from Hsu’s reading — his poems aren’t about the literary canon, but more about the present age in which we live and our shared humanity. In his reading, he tackles about current topics such as the Tamil Tigers, QR codes, and baggage checks by the US Transportation Security Administration. He even qualifies our present age with a specific colour — far more exciting and iconic than any analysis you’d read in Foreign Affairs magazine.
“Orange is what I think to be the colour of our present age,” says Ray Hsu, pointing to the bright orange jumpsuits of Guantanamo Bay detainees that have been seared into memory over the last few years. It’s the colour of youth and vibrancy, but also controversy and revolt.
“Orange — on the verge of always becoming red,” he says ominously, pointing to the Homeland Security Advisory System.
Touching on everything from Tamil Tigers to child soldiers, Vivienne Westwood to the ever-trendy Eat, Pray, Love, Ray Hsu is an inspiration to those who use poetry to engage with the world and be a relevant part of it, not just as a vehicle to air out dirty laundry.
For more of Hsu’s writing, check out this interview with local poetry mag Poetry is Dead, and read a few of his poems here.
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