Touring Canada with the Poem

I've twice had the opportunity to tour Canada with The Plains of Abraham, initially in 2000 (when I was first experimenting with the poem) and subsequently in 2005, when, with significant sponsorship by The Dominion Institute (now part of Historica Canada) and a patriotic Toronto patron, the poem reached more than 1600 audience-members, making it (I believe) the biggest poetry tour in Canada since the days of Pauline Johnson.

Rhapsodic Tour 2000

The basic idea behind Rhapsodic Tour 2000 was to test out whether performative epic, as I had imagined it from reading Homer and modern scholarship on Homer, was actually viable. Could I really stand up in front of an audience and tell a story in metrical verse for half an hour?

I didn't have a lot of experience in public speaking. I'd been a pretty successful highschool debater, and I'd had small roles in highschool plays, and I'd always loved the limelight, but I had not done much but read and write for the previous five years. Yet the power of Homeric epic convinced me that it could be done, and that the magic of verse was waiting to be reactivated.

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My friends in Montreal (specifically at the Copacabana bar/café, pictured here) expressed some skepticism when I announced that I was going to tour the country with my epic poem. The word "quixotic" was deployed gently but firmly. Yet it seemed to be worth a try, and I loved motorcycling (though I really only became an experienced rider on the Tour itself . . . somewhere on the north shore of Lake Superior, if I recall correctly. There's nothing like doing a jump over unexpected roadkill at 110km/h to give you confidence).

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So I set forth one day in mid-June from Ottawa, where my bike was undoubtedly sad to leave the company of my brother's and father's motorcycles; yet it was a good machine. I met several GS850 riders on the course of the tour -- or, more often, people who wanted to reminisce about the days when they had one. They are known to be ultra-reliable, steady on the highway, but not exactly rockets. Passing, for instance, required a certain amount of faith.

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I was surprised that the poem worked, but once I realised an audience could and would follow along if I let it, the poem began to improve substantially. In terms of content, too, it was a learning experience. The story, I found, simply had to follow logically or the audience would be lost; digressions were alright but description for its own sake soon grew wearisome for them; and most of all I was amazed that the meter of the verse had the effect of lulling them into a sort of trance, so that length was never much of an issue. About a tenth of the lines of the poem as it currently stands are survivors from the working version of Rhapsodic Tour 2000.

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Looking back, it's extraordinary how much media exposure the poem received (thanks almost entirely to my excellent pro bono publicist at the time, Moira Johnson), but I like to think it wasn't just the strangeness of the endeavour which interested Canadians nationwide. I was taking Canadian history to Canadians directly, in the rhapsodic spirit, and learned more about Canada, and more about performative epic poetry, on this trip than I could have done in many years of library study.

Here is a map charting the course of Rhapsodic Tour 2000 from the East Coast to the West Coast:

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Rhapsodic Tour 2005

This was a much bigger deal than Rhapsodic Tour 2000 and involved extensive planning for more than a year in advance. We started in Vancouver on April 12th, 2005, and ended in St. John's May 31st. In total we reached more than 1600 Canadians of every sort: young and old, rich and poor, anglophone and francophone, with or without much knowledge of Canadian history.

Tour Blog

We kept a Tour Blog throughout the Tour; unfortunately the images seem to have vanished from Blogspot, but the text is still there. Start at the bottom to follow our progress; at the top are some End of Tour Statistics, which I reproduce:

Total days of Tour: 50
Days featuring a performance: 28
Days driving: 15
Days off / devoted to logistics: 8
Ferries taken: 7
Total kilometers travelled: 11 675
=Total miles travelled: 7,254)
Total cups of Tim Horton's coffee enjoyed: as countless as the grains of sand in the Libyan desert
Total hours of documentary digital video footage filmed: 46
Total gigabytes of documentary digital video footage: 552
Number of print interviews given: 4
Number of radio interviews given: 7
Number of TV interviews given: 1
Number of blog entries: 61
Total schools performed at: 16
Total school performances: 29
Total public performances: 13
Total performances: 42
Total audience for school shows: 1315
Total audience for public shows: 292
Total audience: 1607
Average length of performance, in verses: c. 450
Total verses performed: c. 18900
Total verses in the Iliad: c. 16000
Average length of time to deliver one verse, in seconds: c. 5
Total length of time spent performing verses, in hours: c. 26

Tour Pictures

Tour Materials

The Dominion Institute produced a fine Tour Brochure and put out a press release announcing the start of the Tour on 6 April. I also created a Teacher's Guide to the Siege of Quebec and Homeric Epic Poetry, some Activity Questions for students, and A Quick History Lesson.

Epic Tour Team

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Myself, performer of poem and main writer of Tour Blog.

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David Mitchell, my brother, general consultant on and documenter of the tour.

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Annie Forget, Programme Coordinator for the tour at the Dominion Institute.

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Alison Faulknor, Managing Director of the Dominion Institute.

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Rudyard Griffiths, founder and executive director of the Dominion Institute.