February 3, 2011

Geist blogger and Editor-In-Chief of Poetry Is Dead, Daniel Zomparelli, will be organizing an ongoing series of interviews with poets, and people doing interesting things with poets. If you are a poet doing interesting things or have a tip off for Daniel, you can email him at

Elee Kraljii Gardiner is a writer/poet who started a Collective in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver call the Thursday Writing Collective. The collective meets every Thursday at the Carnegie Centre providing free workshops on writing and editing. She will be reading at the Carnegie Centre (401 Main Street, Vancouver) February 9th at 7pm as part of the launch of Walk Myself Home an anthology covering the subject of violence against women.

Daniel Zomparelli: What got you started with Thursdays Writing Collective?

Elee Kraljii Gardiner: In the spring of 2007 I got an email from TWS (The Writer’s Studio at SFU) director Betsy Warland looking for someone to lead a four-week course at Carnegie Community Centre to help solicit written memories of Vancouver for the Memory Festival (a Geist, SFU and Roundhouse Community Centre collaboration).

I hadn't been to Carnegie before but the idea of meeting with other writers four weeks in a row was appealing. Another TWS grad, ElJean Dodge, also replied to Betsy and the two of us zealously over planned the mini-course. Five people showed up but we had a ball.

Of the four pieces submitted to the blind-jury competition, three were selected to be printed and hung in SFU's Harbour Centre. It was so thrilling, and effective.

ElJean and I wrapped up our last day at Carnegie with goodbyes and thank yous to the writers who looked at us and said, "Well, we'll see you next week, right?"

I didn't know who to ask or why we wouldn't; I was like a kid who had been told she could choose whatever she wanted from a candy store. I asked Carnegie's director, Ethel Whitty, also a TWS grad, about it and she arranged for us to have a room.

From there ElJean and I showed up every Thursday for two hours to write with anyone who was interested. Word spread and new people came every week. These DTES writers are committed and productive. There is no hesitancy about sharing their writing or agonizing over "voice." Right away I thought, hey, we need to publish! I had heard about chapbooks, never seen one in real life, but I thought it was a good format for what we were doing.

At this point I thought it might be a sharpie and photocopier job.  Then one of the writers, Bakir Junaideen, offered to design it and came up with a beautiful cover and format. On our last day in class we batted names around for the chapbook and settled on the rather prosaic "Thursdays: poems and prose from the Downtown Eastside." We became the Thursdays Writing Collective from that.

The whole thing was rolling along: someone stepped up with a donation to cover the printing costs. We launched the anthology with a reading and it was well enough attended that things sort of snowballed. We had a website up within a week thanks to Mhairi Petrovic from Outsmarts Marketing who heard me talking about the launch the next morning at my daughter's school.

ElJean got busy with other things and I just kept rebooking the room at Carnegie. The eighth course begins February 3, 2011. We have about 100 participants in the Collective and have done four chapbooks now, seven public readings and have been involved with the Candahar Art Bar during the Cultural Olympiad, the StoryBox Project with Urban Ink, Heart of the City Festival, and we've done a residency at the Roundhouse that led to a video collaboration at the 2010 Memory Festival called "Rewind: Memory on Tape."

And the list of guest authors who have visited to write with us is amazing: John Asfour, Fiona Lam, Cathleen With, George McWhirter, Angela Mairead Coid, Michael Turner.

I guess, more to the point, the thing that got me started was the fun of writing with people who were hungry for it, open to experimenting and absolutely committed to their expression. The strangest surprise for me was the immediate bonding at the table and the respect and delicacy the participants show each other's writing. Really, the whole thing is about the writing. It's not an encounter group about poverty issues or addiction or abuse even if some of us in the group have experienced or are experiencing those things. Those things are part of our writing but not the point of it. It's the least judgmental and competitive group of writers I have been with, which is not to say unambitious.

DZ: The Downtown Eastside contains a variety of writers in different social classes. I've been teaching at community centres and addiction centres there for a couple years now and my experience in working with those in the Downtown Eastside is that the writers are working with writing in a very life or death manner. It is so very dear to them that it is almost a life-sustaining act. Can you speak of this in your class?

EKG: I’ve heard some TWC members say that writing together and looking forward to our meetings has saved them. Whether they mean spiritually or mentally or creatively, it all boils down to the same thing, in a way.

Being stifled or misunderstood is a basic human frustration. When silencing is systemic—due to poverty-related issues or cultural practices of abuse and prejudice, or other reasons—asserting one’s expression is life-sustaining. It’s heroic, too.

When I see the effort people make to get to Thursdays, I’m staggered. Many people are swimming against a wicked rip tide, dealing with mental illness or dressing the scars of having been silenced, or battling bureaucracy for necessities. Imagine a twist on a poetic image developing in your head while you’re stuck waiting in line for a bed for the night. For some writers there’s no peace and quiet for thinking until the two-hour block we have on Thursdays. That’s a long time for an artist to hold off.


February 3, 2011

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