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October 24, 2002 Star of spoken-word scene Catherine Kidd hears voices



Catherine Kidd during a perfrmance.

Photo by François Gaudet

by James Martin

Since she grew up with a father who spoke in tongues and transcribed heavenly messages, it’s no surprise that Catherine Kidd is guided by voices.

“The pressure of ghosts at my back compels my work,” Kidd said in an interview. The occasional Concordia writing instructor is a longtime fixture of Montreal’s spoken-word scene.
“Nothing moves me more than the attempt to speak, and with writing and performing, I think I’ve finally hit upon the thing that makes me happiest.” It’s a balance that’s been a lifetime in the making.

Born in Quebec, raised in British Columbia, Kidd spent “the first 20 years of my life just wanting to act.” But theatre school frustrated her with its emphasis on body over mind.

Kidd rebelled by pursuing “the furthest possible extreme,” moving to India to pursue philosophy and religious studies. Living in a tiny, 1,500-year-old meditation cell overlooking the Ganges, she became what she now laughingly dubs “a floating chess game: all mind and no body.” There she began writing fiction, using characters to work through her heady philosophical preoccupations.

“But the longer I stayed in India, the more it seemed absurd to be writing about these esoteric things when the physical landscape demanded a response. In India, there’s an intensity of having the most beautiful smells and the most hideous smells at the same time, the most beautiful things to look at and the most hideous things — you just have to engage with the physical at the visceral level.”

Kidd returned to Canada to do a BA in creative writing at Concordia, then an MA. After writing and performing a chapbook (everything I know about love I learned from taxidermy), she was pretty sure that’s what she wanted to do — until a publisher floated the idea of tackling a novel.

Calling it “one of the hardest things I’ve ever done,” Kidd worked for six years on what would become Bestial Rooms. The novel tells the story of a single mother, living with her own mother, revisiting her past with a newfound compassion.

In keeping with Kidd’s interest in voice, the novel is about the spoken and the unspoken; about characters locating the stories they want to tell (and confess); about family secrets and the recognition of metaphorical elephants in the middle of living rooms. Since completion, the book has shuffled between publishers (not unusual for the publishing world), but Kidd is optimistic that Thomas Allen will finally release Bestial Rooms sometime this year.

She is currently concentrating her efforts on live performances of Sea Peach, a CD-book collaboration with DJ/mastering engineer Jack Beetz. A sort of Bestial Rooms re-mix, Sea Peach reworks various passages into a audio-visual “bonsai performance version” of the novel. It is a project born out of frustration with the novel’s prepublication limbo, as well as Kidd’s desire to re-connect with other people.

“Writing a novel is a shamanistic journey, an exile into the wilderness. The fictional landscape I was making was just as compelling to me as the more diurnal one which I hardly saw because I was in my room typing away.

“I love the book, but by the time I was finished I really wanted to go back to performance and community. That’s the thing about performance: you bring a story to a roomful of people, and it’s almost like their energy facilitates the story. It’s not the lonely-writer-in-the-garret kind of thing, which can feel more like you’re studying life than participating in it.”

Kidd says that writing Bestial Rooms helped her reconcile with her late father, giving crucial insight into why she does what she does. “In retrospect and, sadly, posthumously, I realized what a chip off the old block I am,” she said.

“One of the things I try to teach is the importance of finding an authentic narrative voice. If you hit on a narrative voice which is true and wants to tell a story, the reader will follow you anywhere. Then you allow the story to be told rather than force it.

“I feel that my position as a performer is more of a vessel than a decrier of things. The story is already written, so I have to be the vehicle for it to work in this room full of people. So what on earth is it that I do if not go into trances and speak in tongues? That’s pretty much my job.”

Catherine Kidd performs from Sea Peach at the Voix d’Amériques festival on February 15 and 17, and will debut a new piece at the Canadian Centre for Architecture on Feb. 26. She will also perform at the Blue Metropolis festival in April.