Building community here and abroad: Pearl attends the last SLOWest monthly coffeehouse

Part of the crowd during SLOWest's last monthly coffeehouse (Photo credit: Brian Pirie)

Pearl Pirie is an Ottawa arts enthusiast. Her last poetry collection was Thirsts from Snare Books (2011). She coordinates the Tree Seed Workshop Series, the second and fourth night of each month at the Arts Court, 6:45-7:45. It is a free drop-in space provided with the Tree Reading Series for people to explore poetry.

This past Saturday night marked the last of SLOWest’s monthly coffeehouses with us after 2 years of bringing musicians, artists, a choir and poets. It brought a good turnout of around 20 which filled the back corner of Bridgehead, with a few snagged from the coffee shop who were leaning and listening in at the side, now and then. 

SLOWest — which is short for Sustainable Living Ottawa West — will continue other sustainability/community-building activities, including The Great River Project on April 19 (with Ottawa Riverkeeper Meredith Brown,who did a summer-long expedition that traveled 900 kilometres of the 1,271 kilometers of the Ottawa River), a Community garden gathering May 3 and a guided cycling tour of solar panel installations on May 12.

Tom Lips, Karen Second, Pearl Pirie

During the evening, Karen Second gave a description of what she saw and experienced while seeing stoves being installed in Guatemala as part of the Guatemala Stove Project — the happiness and pride of a Maya woman setting up the stove in her home. Second, a freelance writer, has an article on Tom Clarke, who started the project, coming up in the May edition of 55-Plus. Clarke has seen both a Perth and Ottawa branch of the project established. Since 1999, the Guatemala Stove Project has seen about 4,000 stoves built, including two through the efforts of SLOWest’s own group. But more on that later.

The reading evening started with some poetry by Montreal-area’s Czandra, who played in sound and interstitial spaces before reading a tan renga with Grant Savage. Shai Ben-Shalom put on his poet hat (literally, although those photo turned out blurry) and brought us some witty poems of cats and men and the holy grounds of the body. Over the break, John DeMers, who just came to listen, was volunteered to get his guitar from his car and play us some musical interludes.

Czandra, Marilyn Irwin, John DeMers

People from various directions of community got a chance to chat before we came back with coffee or treats and heard some excerpts from Czandra’s chapbook, In Air/Air Out. Poems of rob mclennan, Kevin Spenst and Danielle Susi were read by Marilyn Irwin. Jorge Etcheverry read from some work in English, and then, to give a taste of the language, he read a poem of his in Spanish as well. So much of language is intonation and in the body. We forget that when we only listen to English when we think we can understand every word.

Following him, Monty Reid read from Flat Land, a series of poems from La Gunilla, Mexico, where he was working on development projects, watching the people move stone with homemade shovels:

“the women/who built the road, who left their flesh in the ditches, who/insisted then that to walk is to remember”.

He recounted watching kids at an orphanage play baseball where it was a kind of collaborative agreement on what all the plays were:

“Every pitch is invented. There is no equipment, no ump, no one keeps/ the stats. Here everybody hits.”

In Guatemala, it’s a similar scene. The sixty percent of Guatemalans who are members of indigenous Mayan groups own only six percent of the land. Most live on less than $2 a day. Basic resources, such as health care, electricity and potable water are extremely scarce in the highlands, where the majority of the Maya live. The Guatemala Stove Project was started by Tom Clarke in 1999 to address some of the gap. The stoves burn wood more efficiently than open fires, freeing time for looking for wood and/or freeing money towards other uses. They make a safe cooking surface with kids running around. Each stove, costing $225 CDN, increases life expectancy of the women who cooks by 15 years, allowing the (average) family of five to get more healthy hands continuing to work without breathing smoke and without living in creosote covered walls.

Monty Reid, Shai Ben-Shalom, Jorge Etcheverry

As a sort of sweat-equity in the project, those receiving stoves are trained and assisted as masons and are given materials to add these cinder-block stoves and chimneys to their homes. A simple step but it leverages the communities and lives forward. In fact, after this past weekend, we have now tipped the third stove — enabled through local poetry! Thanks to everyone who put us over the edge, including this project of  In Air/Air Out chapbooks, the reading on the weekend, SLOWest passing the hat (as well as giving all their donations), book sales of the evening donated by Jorge Etcheverry and Monty Reid, the sale of chapbooks, and a couple donors who topped up the total.

Here’s the whole group who were part of that last reading at SLOWest Coffeehouse: those who were the planned readers, organizers of SLOWest, and people who got roped in by coming to either read or play music. (Back row, L-R) Monty Reid, Jorge Etcheverry, John DeMers, Shai Ben-Shalom, Grant Savage, Tom Lips (Front Row, L-R) Czanda, Pearl Pirie, Marilyn Irwin and Donna Colterman.

The whole gang

Thanks for sharing this memorable night, Pearl! SLOWest and the Guatemala Stove Project are both great ways to get involved with the local community.