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Stephen Collis, a member of the Kootney School of Writing collective, organized The Line Has Shattered, a symposium held at Simon Fraser University on August 14, 2009, to reunite some of the most successful writers that attended the Vancouver Poetry Conference of 1963. The average age of the symposium attendees may have been seventy years but the language and humour was that of rebellious twenty-somethings. A joke was made about hearing aids for the panel members, which resulted in fits of laughter: this panel was not filled with average poets.
The symposium at SFU ran as a discussion between twelve poets from the original conference. The panel was composed of Bernice Lever, Maria Hindmarch, George Bowering, Daphne Marlatt, Robert Hogg, Michael Palmer, Jamie Reid, Judith Copithorne, Fred Wah, Clark Coolidge, Pauline Butling and Lionel Kearns.
The poetry conference of ’63 brought together young poets from across Canada when they were just finishing high school, getting married, dropping out and changing philosophies. It was inteded to be nothing more than a credit course for UBC writing students but the three-week poetry program turned out to be a crossroad for many young poets. With Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan, Allen Ginsberg, Denise Levertov and Margaret Avison running the workshops and lectures, the conference was just as much about political awareness and change as it was about the technique of writing.
At this year’s symposium, the panel reflected on a summer spent getting high amidst narcs, cops, Allen Ginsberg and other poets, and how it all changed their lives. Many had been affected by the political charge that the lecturers brought to Vancouver in ’63. Forty-six years later, the panel inspired and reminded the audience that art can be more than a beautiful artifact; it can be a powerful tool for change.
When a man from the audience stood up and asked a question about getting published, the panel members responded that in those early days, it wasn’t a matter of who would publish them but how they were going to get people to read their poetry. They weren’t getting published because of their new style and content matter so they worked on a magazine called Tish (an unfortunate anagram). Their rebel poetry turned Tish into a rebel magazine, which helped change the way Canada looked at poetry.
This year’s panel discussion may not have changed the lives of the audience, but it was a reminder that poetry isn’t about being published in magazines but about creating meaning, something that has been lost in this postmodern world.
You can hear the recordings of the readings and some of the lectures of the Poetry Conference of 1963 at slought.org.