the most exquisite adorkable poetry: Jessica Ruano and Nadine Thornhill debut at The Spoken Word Plot
The most exquisite moments of our lives are often the result of chance meetings.
Ten minutes past five on a Sunday afternoon, I found myself walking through the Byward Market with my partner Jes. She was carrying a bag filled with avocado, cucumber, tomato, and broccoli sprout sandwiches.
We were going on a road trip.
Alright, so Almonte’s not exactly far enough away to count as a road trip. Still, it’s well outside of my usual theatre of operations—it takes quite a powerful force to draw me out even as far as Nepean.
There’s a bit of backstory here. You may recall the Academy Awards happened a couple of weeks ago? Well, earlier that evening I decided to go for a walk in the Byward Market, having nothing more pressing to do. On my way out of my favourite tobacconist’s, intending to return home and crawl into bed for an early night, I ran into Jessica Ruano.
Not so far away, in fact, just across the street outside the Mercury Lounge, was where I had first met Ms. Ruano. I’d buttonholed her after her performance at a Capital Slam event to tell her how moving and impressive I found her poetry.
Now, when you corner someone after a performance, you can usually expect one of two things: some performers, while expressive and outgoing in front of a crowd, are shy and borderline antisocial one-on-one. I quickly discovered, to my delight, that Jessica fell firmly into the other category; my friends and I were invited to follow her (as she led the way on her trademark bicycle) to SAW Gallery, where we found ourselves at an Agnostic Mountain Gospel Choir show.
Since then, every chance meeting with Jessica Ruano has been the beginning of some kind of adventure.
On this particular evening, she was returning from a meeting with Nadine Thornhill, where they were working on a new collaborative spoken word set called the most exquisite adorkable poetry, a name cleverly grafted together from the titles of their blogs. Jessica showed me, in her notebook, a list of themes that were common to both their poetry: food, family, sex…
“I’m going to play Nadine’s clitoris,” said Jessica. I blinked. “Like an instrument?” I asked, as if this were the sort of thing I discussed on street corners after dusk all the time. She laughed, and after a few more minutes chatting, she invited me back to her apartment to watch the Academy Awards.
So there we sat, on her futon, wincing at Alec Baldwin’s Seagal-esque performance alongside Steve Martin, critiquing the fashion and hairstyles, and eating popcorn from a mixing bowl with chopsticks. During commercial breaks, she treated me to a preview of a few of the poems she and Nadine were going to perform together. After the show was over, Jessica ushered me out the door as she had to be up early the next morning.
It’s easy to mistake Jessica Ruano for much older than she actually is; hardly because of her looks, but rather because of the way she speaks and carries herself. Granted, she’s a trained performer, but even in private she still holds herself with a natural grace that seems rare. Couple that with her constant smile—not the stewardess smile that never wears off, but a genuine, heartfelt smile—and you understand immediately why it’s hard to resist when she says, “you should come.”
Even as far as JR’s Downstairs Pub in Almonte.
(Oh, and she offered a ride.)
Jessica was still fixing her hair when we arrived at her apartment; the other two passengers were waiting patiently in her kitchen. We did a round of introductions and headed out to the car. As, for a change, the only person bearing an iPhone, I was elected navigator. Jessica slid The Fugitives into the car stereo, and we headed for the 417.
Navigation turned out to be a mere matter of memorizing one exit number, so I was able to concentrate on the sandwiches and eavesdropping on the conversation, which had gone from theatre, to the ukulele, to accordion music, to Marie-Josée Houle, back to the ukulele, to tiny instrument bands… I looked out the window as the road opened up and we could see white clouds and rays of sunlight beyond the raincloud passing over us towards Ottawa, and for a moment the impression was of the Prairies, with the distant horizon in all directions, the fields and fences, and the feeling that I would happily drive the whole way across Canada with these people, if it was all this beautiful.
We reached Almonte sooner than I expected (although Jessica was, thanks to a series of careful drivers in front of us, going no faster than the speed limit), and found JR’s easily enough. It had the look of a country club restaurant. I could see an older couple eating dinner through the window upstairs; it crossed my mind that they probably weren’t the target audience for a poem about the clitoris. It’s a good thing we were going downstairs.
Once in the pub, we were met by Danielle K. L. Grégoire, curator of The Spoken Word Plot, who took our donations. She is also credited as the catalyst who brought Jessica and Nadine together to perform, and for that she deserves at least a laurel wreath. Already seated around one table were some familiar faces: Wayne Current, Sterling Lynch, Johnathan Koensgen, and his mother Laurie. Ren Tomovcik and photographer Jesse Hildebrand arrived shortly thereafter. A sizeable contingent of Ottawa’s young creative community had come out to see Jessica and Nadine.
(By the way, if you want to hear really great music, experience really great theatre, and read really great literature, the trick is to find out what the creative professionals, the musicians, actors, playwrights, artists, and writers are into, and go immerse yourself. Probably a good place to do that is Ottawa Tonite. Just saying.)
Nadine and her husband Phil came in a bit later; we’d saved them seats at our table (alright; it was next to everyone else and it had plenty of empty seats, but that doesn’t sound as nice). This was my first time meeting Nadine in person. It was immediately apparent why she and Jessica work together so well; here is another of those rare people who lives up to their stage presence. Nadine claims to be awkward. In truth, she’s possessed of a deliberate grace; a subtle, gentle yin complement to Jessica’s incisive, fiery yang. Nadine’s smile rarely fades, although it’s often replaced by a wide-eyed expression of childlike wonder.
Danielle opened the evening by introducing the theme: The Evolution of You. Each of the open mic poets were to perform an older poem and a newer poem, representing different stages of their poetic development. Danielle started by reading a poem she had written in 1990. Next, Inez Decker, a slightly older lady with the mien of a school librarian, took the stage and read a poem she had kept in an original Expo ’67 folder. Reflecting on what would have happened if she had come of age in a more recent decade, she said, “I would have been goth! I would have been so goth!”
The following four poets, interspersed with more of Darlene’s performances, shared their own and other’s poems; there was a recurring theme of sexual assault, with the notable exception of Lauryn Kronick’s rousing interpretation of “The Woman Who Loved to Make Vaginas Happy” from The Vagina Monologues.
Before the intermission, Danielle gave out a number of notebooks inscribed with inspirational quotes. Anticipating only a brief break, Sterling and I went outside to enjoy the fresh air. It’s a good thing we did, because we weren’t going to be leaving our seats for at least the next hour.
If I had to describe the character of what Jessica and Nadine bring to the stage, I would call it lounge poetry. The impression is one of jazz singers in a smoke-hazed piano bar; rather, Jessica singing jazz and Nadine singing the blues. This is not something you can afford to miss, if you have the chance to see it.
Thankfully, I don’t have to describe that soul-gripping intensity. I can show you (some explicit verbal content):
As an aside, “Poet’s Revenge” is my favourite piece of Jessica’s—the first poem I ever saw her perform, and the one I always hope she picks for radio appearances (despite the distinct possibility of a CRTC fine). This set, however, is filled with pieces I had not previously seen, ranging from deeply moving to ribald and hilarious, always provocative.
Towards the end of their set, Nadine and Jessica gave out Jessica’s own haiku magnets—probably the least secret thing in all of Ottawa is Jessica’s love of haiku—one of which I picked up for my own refrigerator door.
On our way out, I asked Ms. Decker about the Lanark County Live Poets Society, which itself was spearheaded, again, by Danielle. I was particularly curious about gender representation; in Ottawa the spoken word community seems predominantly male (especially if you consider slam poetry), but the highly successful Voices of Venus series proves that there’s an equally significant host of female performers as well. By contrast, there’s only one male member of the Live Poets Society at present. Clearly, many of these poets had used poetry as a vehicle to confront and conquer personal emotional trauma, as a form of catharsis. I found myself wondering if this was merely a result of circumstance, or if there was something more fundamental at work. At any rate, there was a sense of community among the poets that evening, and it lent them strength that they might not otherwise have had.
Since my partner and I were returning to Hintonburg for the night, we (and our remaining sandwiches) switched cars and rode with Nadine and Phil. On the road, I mentioned how, as a parent, how deeply Nadine’s poem about their son had touched me. She proceeded to share the story of taking him home from the hospital; any weariness she might have felt from performing was wiped out by the characteristic sound of a mother talking lovingly of her child. The rest of the way back to Ottawa, we discussed the question of whether the fierce attachment for one’s children fades over time, or whether it remains the same, and parents simply become used to it.
Once we had arrived home, my partner pulled out a couple of old notebooks from a shoebox on a shelf; they were her poetry journals dating back to her high school years. She read some of the poems to me. We were laughing (some of them were downright hilarious), yet she was nervous to read them aloud, even in that private space. I could not help but wonder how much more courage it must have taken for those poets to read some of their most personal poems earlier in the evening.
Or maybe the poetry gave them the courage; like a protective umbrella.
In the words of Jessica and Nadine, “We should all have umbrellas on hand… just in case.”
Jessica Ruano and Nadine Thornhill will be performing the most exquisite adorkable poetry as part of the Dusty Owl Reading Series on May 2.
To borrow a page from Jessica and Nadine’s book, I digress briefly onto the topic of food:
I don’t eat meat or dairy, but my partner does. When I saw that JR’s Downstairs Pub had smoked duck poutine on the menu, I insisted (against absolutely no resistance) that she get it. It passed with flying colours. The smoked duck poutine, alone, is worth the trip to Almonte.
Pack some sandwiches for the drive.
Andrew Snowdon is a theatregoer, concert attendee, and writer living in Lowertown, Ottawa, sandwiched between a MacBook and a typewriter, with a cup of coffee.