Jack Mitchell

Taking Performance Epic on the Road

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.

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So I set forth one day in mid-June from Ottawa, where my bike was 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 had one. The GS859 had a reputation as an ultra-reliable bike, steady on the highway, but not exactly a rocket. Passing, for instance, required a certain amount of faith.

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As the tour began, 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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Tour 2000 Print Coverage

Tour 2000 Radio Coverage

  • CBC Radio 1 (National): As It Happens (12 July 2000) with host Jennifer Westaway. Picked as one of As It Happens' best interviews of 2000 and rebroadcast 26 December 2000.
  • CBC Radio 1 (National): Richardson's Roundup (1 August 2000) with host Bill Richardson.