THE ROSE LEE CAFÉ YEARS:  A MEMOIR  CELEBRATING THE 25th ANNIVERSARY OF SASQUATCH 

BY PHIL MADER



Hello from the Kootenays.  First things first. My heartfelt salute to all Sasquatchis who , in the end, are really the ones who make or break a Reading; then , my hats off to the Sasquatch Board of Directors whose laborious attention to nuts and bolts have permitted Sasquatch to continue on the chosen path.
Finally, "un abrazo grande de felicitaciones" to Sasquatch's founder and my old buddy, Juan O'Neill.

 

This memoir is limited by the colour of my glasses, meaning, by the way I, personally, saw it all happen, and by my fondness and devotion to a particular era. Perhaps for the reason only that we were all younger and more vital. In fact, you may say to me, the Sasquatch you speak of is exactly what we have now, and maybe you are right. Secondly, it's limited by my not so great memory – hopefully, Juan, whose memory is considerable will fill in the blanks.  Yes,  it focuses on samples of a specific era of Sasquatch, the one that followed  the period of The Wildflower Café where it made its very first home -.  So now a quarter of a century has gone bye – a remarkable life span for a populist poetry reading.  Finally, it is impossible for me to speak of Sasquatch without explaining how I met Juan back in 1977.

 

So I begin this memoir with a scene.  The scene is a print shop cum bookstore in 1977 Ottawa on the corner of  Rideau St. and Chapel called Cheriton Graphics. It was there that I came across a poetry reading entitled Folk and Poetry, run by someone with great expertise in managing poetry readings, from Toronto to the now legendary Le Hibou Coffee House.  Her name was Jane Jordan.  When I set eyes on Jane Jordan on my first evening of attendance, I was first struck by her charm , warmth and physical beauty, and  then more so by her abundant talent as a poet.  Soon, the setting of Folk and Poetry changed to Pestalozzi College of notoriety where a café was installed on the 22nd floor and where I resided with my family in an 8th floor apartment.  What prompted my meeting Juan remains cloudy to this day, but it was tied to my nascent involvement in poetry. 

 

I do remember our first meeting. He was dressed in a very handsome dark suit and had the gentility of a diplomat.  We were at fellow poet, Rob Craig's place in Lower Town.  We spoke little, just the usual platitudes but as time went on, we began to fraternize.  One time,  after a verbal fight with my former wife Lina, I showed up with a bottle of whiskey at his place in Lower Town, where he lived with his wife, Nancy and their tiny daughter, who happened to be up, and running after their wizened cat, Caliban, who appeared flustered at being forced into the role of play companion. I know I left a favourable impression on Juan when I left a full bottle of whiskey behind for their enjoyment.

 

I don't remember attending the first Sasquatch ever at the Wildflower Café but I believe I showed up that first month.  And I would continue attending Sasquatch readings regularly ( I mean for almost every reading) for the next fifteen years.  I was even hired by Juan when he became owner of the Wildflower Café to serve coffees from the gigantic, brass, locomotive –like coffee machine.  There was enough steam clouding the atmosphere when I pressed the lever to electrify a small village. The Wildflower Café was a New York style café of the sort not found anywhere else in Ottawa, very stylish, very youthful in its modernity, slickly seductive.  I still have a copy of  Ottawa Citizen coverage of a Wildflower Sasquatch evening  that occupies an entire page.   When it came to me, the article began, "Consider the case of Phil Mader…".   It was during the Wildflower Café days of Sasquatch that I took notice of how much showmanship went into Juan's introductions of the  poets.  They might be Joe-Shmoes off the street but after a Juan O'Neill introduction they glimmered, they glittered, they shone with promise and possible glory.  Also, I was introduced to a new ritual and custom called, "passing the hat". Jane Jordan  had never passed the hat. Did she suffer from some incurable impairment that prevented such a vitally indispensable activity?

 

 

I now jump to the Rose Lee Café years.  Rosie Lee Café was Iocated in the premises next to the Royal Oak where you are now seated.  Now a restaurant and gift shop run by the devotees of Sri Chimnoy, the Rosie Lee was originally conceived as an English tea shop. Later it became a cafe restaurant under the scrutinizing gaze of its Cape Breton, hands-on style owner (he practically lived there), George  Morrison.  George acquiesced to Juan's request to hold poetry readings.  When George had a smirk on his face you could  tell George was happy with his decision to allow poetry readings at his café.  The only trouble was that when George had a smirk on his face, it could also mean that he was UNHAPPY that he'd agreed to allow poetry readings at his café.  So, one became a diviner.

 

Why, of all the epochs of Sasquatch, am I most attached to the Rosie Lee Café years? My reply:  The Passion, The Anarchy The Bad The Sweet and The Beautiful, in concentrated doses.

 

First the bad:  there was a character, whose name I forget with beady  spectacled Himmleresque eyes, whose very presence produced anxiety and fear in me. I remember him speaking but gibberish over a glass of gin.  He never did anything; he just radiated evil.  Then there was a poet named Maviglio (I think). He had a scar down his face that made Al Capone look like Bambi.  He once threatened a local politician if Ottawa did not set gondolas on the Rideau Canal .  For that he was arrested.  He was apparently schizophrenic.  His poetry was full of intimidation but passionate and unyielding at the same time.  

 

Anarchy? Passion? Yep, you never knew what could pop up …a fabulous poem, a weirdo, a particularly acrimonious exchange between Juan and Marty Flomen.   Poets came there to tell it like it was, perhaps with the spirit of Tolstoy who claimed the role of the writer is to tell the truth.  For me Sasquatch was diametrically and happily opposed to my day to day grind at the National Archives, a shamelessly elitist but "nice"  Department in those days whose workplace ethic was best exemplified by the habits of the Othello character, Iago and where telling the truth was invited with the same glee as swallowing a cup of poison. Sasquatch, on the other hand,  was a populist poetry venue with an authentic sense of  connection, solidarity and community.  Jane Jordan pulled no punches in her feminist challenges to society.  Juan dramatized his brilliant poem, Junkie's Prayer, a rail against consumerism,  with gesture and a gut full of fire.  Parts of Patrick White's epic poem , Homage to Victor Jara about the murder of the Chilean poet singer(translated into Spanish by Juan), sent chills down my spine.  Allison Boston , a former Vancouver radio broadcaster, mingling with the audience, thundered  and exploded her verse in the tiny café.  Antonino Mazza, one of the most accomplished poets I have ever heard in any reading anywhere, read with the wire tight intensity of his southern Italian roots, releasing mystical images so rich they still float in my memory. 

 

There was room for the innocent and the sweet. A fellow named Richard produced an epic story about Little Richard..which went on and on and on, but , for me, here was an endearing innocence backed by a fertile imagination. I hardly think there was any solid narrative to speak of but for me it was a fragile, magical flower that could not be disturbed.

 

As for the beautiful, one of the constants of Sasquatch in those days  was the presence of music.  I remember a very lovely evening of operatic singing by a singer named, Klimowska. I remember a fiddler playing sprite Norwegian tunes that got us toe tapping.  A very friendly but also masterful African drummer whose name I forget came a few times to entrance us with his rhythms. 

 

Of course this is a walk down memory lane but it's also meant as a warm tribute to the perseverance and dedication of Juan, who enlisted his energies and inspiration to help poets share their work with their fellows in a spirit of community. Between the Rosie Lee  and Royal Oak years , it was a struggle to find a venue.  This place didn't work out; that place cancelled because not enough cash came into the till from poets drinking beer.  But Juan kept going.  I venture  the sense of meaning, identity and harmony he receives from it will keep him in there forever.  And he is a survivor. Of that there is no doubt. 

 

So, Happy Birthday and many happy returns to ALL Sasquatchis.  And as the title of one of the poems I first read at the Rosie Lee Café years ago exhorts:  BE THANKFUL.

 

Kootenay Phil  - formerly Phil Mader aka The Consul for Sasquatch in the Kootenays.