Poetry ‘Commutiny’ in the Couve (It’s a Riot!)

Garry Thomas Morse

After about ten years of writing in veritable reclusion in an overpriced garret I had lost the ability to hang onto, one morning I emerged to realize that Vancouver was changing.

So, I gave up my small business and moved to a light industrial area around Main Street, as it was after all time for my “Balzac phase”, time to become in some way involved with the “means of production” in order to help get said what is relatively incomprehensible. I left behind all traces of the tech. sector and accepted a job with my publisher. I even began to attend events and prove to others that I was more than just a holographic meme. Just no touching and we would get along just fine…

Now, it should be obvious that I am bullish on the arts scene in my city. In a recent interview for VIA, I even declared a Vancouver Renaissance. WTF.

To clarify, what I am getting at is a newer generation of poets addressing the city in a more experiential way that is at the same time informed by earlier traditions we have deemed important to our National poetry scene (eventually). Slice out any piece of the pie and you get a picture of the whole. The most eloquent statement I found on the local scene in the Vancouver 125 Issue of subTerrain was by the formidably talented Catherine Owen, who encourages us to expand our poetic vision:

“…instead of concerning ourselves with calling our prolific poets “lesser” solely on the basis of the amount they produce, we need to attend to their individual oeuvres in terms of how they are shaping themselves through unique traditions of both sound and scholarship. Or, rather than dismissing page poets as “boring and elitist” or spoken word artists as “dogs on their hind legs,” a chasm apparent in Vancouver’s writing community, we might spend a little time exploring each realm in greater, more critical depth.”

I am disinclined to touch upon the spoken word scene or the page poets, as even this “chasm” seems less topical right now, when there are other poetry collectives and communities popping up all the time. What I am aware of is more overlap in these activities and less divisiveness. We do try to keep up our imaginary turf wars and our rifts and pusillanimous bickerings but in a way, it’s just too much work to keep those bridges burning. Like Lucia Frangione in her efforts to save the Vancouver Playhouse from closing, we elect to write our words across them. This energy is being repurposed, and one may hope, more effectively.

As an example of city life, for about a year I have run a reading series at the small but cozy Kranky Cafe near 4th and Main that has featured writers Alex Leslie, Shannon Rayne, Cathy Stonehouse, Daniel Zomparelli, Catherine Owen, Daniela Elza, Miranda Pearson, Heather Haley, Dina Del Bucchia, ryan fitzpatrick, Amy De’Ath, Elee Kraljii Gardiner, Wanda John, Rob Taylor, Deborah Willis, Lucia Frangione, Jordan Abel, Gurjinder Basran, Rebecca Keillor, Kevin Spenst, Jenn Farrell, Sandra Huber, Mariner Janes, and Nikki Reimer.

Generally, not including the launches for a stable of astounding Talonbooks authors of which I now consider myself the little literary “goat”, often on the same evenings or at least in the same week at nearby cafes Rhizome, Prophouse, or Montmartre, there have been diverse events – book launches, activist and culture-specific readings, spoken word, and mixed variations of these things – you name it. This is in addition to independent booksellers such as The People’s Co-op Bookstore and Pulpfiction Books, who frequently and graciously host many events for local authors. There is something to be said for the way in which they cultivate and engage a community of readers, unlike big box bookstore chains that are clearly too busy selling potpourri and patio furniture to even bother putting prize-winning poetry on display, or restocking poetry titles that are in demand, etc.

In terms of how Talon’s poetry list is evolving, in addition to well-established authors you know and love, there are poets that spring to mind who might appear to be “entrenched” in the life of a particular Vancouver community, although this does not always take into account their unique and individualized style, aesthetics, and approach to poetics, nor their overlapping activities in various literary communities. I am thinking of Cecily Nicholson’s Triage and Daniel Zomparelli’s Davie Street Translations at present, just as I am looking forward to new books of poetry in 2013 that intersect these issues of community and local history, along with some intriguing forays into visual and erasure poetry.

I was recently honoured by an invitation to participate in a reading to open a Fran Herndon gallery show, which included readings by Meredith Quartermain and George Stanley and felt to me like the opening of a time capsule flowing from the pages of the Jack Spicer biography Poet Be Like God (University Press of New England) to this spacious gallery in Vancouver. The next evening at Project Space gallery, there was a launch for Alex Leslie’s People Who Disappear (Freehand Books), with a guest appearance by Mr. Zomparelli (still fresh from his spectacular drag show reading at the Cobalt) reading his poetry to Poet Laureate Fred Wah in the front row. Alex Leslie is also the author of the exquisite chapbook of microfictions Twenty Objects for the New World (Nomados). This story has no real point, but I hope it goes a little ways towards explaining why I am enjoying my city and its poetry so much and why there are a thrillion things to do even if your team loses.

Incidentally or not, at the Vancouver 125 Poetry Conference last year, I moderated a panel of writers that are part of the Aboriginal Writers Collective in Vancouver, including Joanne Arnott, Russell Wallace, and Wanda John, and there was some very interesting conversation and some timely issues were raised, although this did not make its way into the dominant dialogue in terms of conducting or evaluating the conference.

In addition to that, I was piqued by the omnipresence of the Poetry is Dead Issue 4 (Vancouver Influence), which is a bit of a bragging point for our fair-weather city, and I thought it to be one the highlights of the conference. Seeming to indirectly respond to Michael Lista’s kvetch about literary journals in The National Post, Zomparelli is in earnest, emphasizing that he wants to see good reviews of poetry. Even if I am gushing a bit, I will freely admit that I love him. He’s a hard guy not to love (or as he and Cher pronounce it, lurve). I feel he has jumpstarted something wonderful with his journal, and this impossibly reminds me of the good old days in Vancouver surrounding the beginnings of TISH and beyond. George Bowering probably remembers even more than I do about them days. Figures.

There are two other massy poetry projects of note from nearby: The Enpipe Line and V6A.

Organized by Christine Leclerc, a skillful and quirky poet in her own right, The Enpipe Line is a collaborative project consisting of 70,000+ kilometres of poetry written in resistance to socially and environmentally destructive projects, in particular Enbridge’s proposed Northern Gateway Pipelines. This project began online and then appeared in printed form from Creekstone Press, and I understand that the proceeds from the sale of the book go into an Enbridge Northern Gateway pipelines resistance legal defense fund.

John Mikhail Asfour, a Montreal-based author of five volumes of poetry, has co-edited V6A: Writing from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside (Arsenal Pulp Press) with Elee Kraljii Gardiner, a poet and director of the Thursdays Writing Collective in the Downtown Eastside. “Selfishly, John and I are poets, so there’s a definite appreciation for that genre,” Kraljii Gardiner told Cheryl Rossi of The Vancouver Courier. “And poetry is alive and thriving in the Downtown Eastside. It’s amazing how many people are writing poetry.”

Last but not least, one of my favourite ongoing projects, quite possibly because of its sheer practicality, is Megaphone Magazine, which gives homeless and low-income writers opportunities to sell the publication, and also access to a program that helps develop their writing skills.

The 2012 literary issue of Megaphone acknowledges the generous efforts of writing workshops facilitators, including Elecia Chrunik, Warren Dean Fulton, Leanna Greenway, Maya Lee, Alex Leslie, Steve Locke, Rob Peters, Shannon Rayne, Jamie Reid, Rhonda Shanks, Jenny Uechi, Elaine Woo, and once again, our eminently lovable Daniel Zomparelli.

Two weeks ago, there was a Voices of the Street launch at the Waldorf Hotel, as Megaphone’s Executive Director Sean Condon describes:

“Nine courageous writers published in this special issue read their pieces in front of an excited crowd. It was an incredibly emotional night with lots of laughter and tears. I feel it really symbolized what Megaphone’s writing workshop program is all about: providing a platform for these wonderfully talented voices.”

Alana Lee Reading at Voices of the Street at the Waldorf Hotel

(Alana Lee reading from the Megaphone 2012 literary issue at the Waldorf Hotel)


I will close with a few lines from the literary issue, those of Ruth Dato from her poem “Patient Anticipation”. I am biased, because I am fond of her and she may have the record for attending the most readings I have organized or participated in. Perhaps it is this mode of concentration and act of attenuating to poetry that most interests me.

Or perhaps Dato’s words seem fitting to my mood at times under that gigantic cloud that seems to loom over Mount Pleasant, unless that is merely the spectre of gentrification in the form of high-rise projects that continually present a threat to this neighbourhood, much as they already have to any notion of affordable housing in the Downtown Eastside, for those who are looking for the completely immersive big-box experience:

sadness glistens
like a sugar granule
that has lost its sweetness
where have the people gone
from the shadows of what is past

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