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 email@example.com.
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.
When someone reads aloud a sculpted, unusual phrase they discovered in a writing prompt we’ve just done, that moment is transcendent for all of us. It’s easy to see why over the summer and winter break when we’re not meeting we get a little peevish. The hiatus can be bleak. Pain is a dominant trope in the DTES but it isn’t the only one. My experience in writing with the Collective is one of playfulness and experimentation and that’s not because the subject material is light. It’s not. But the spirit of engagement is. The relief and excitement and the rush of creativity are self-sustaining.
DZ: I've worked with several participants of the Thursdays Collective—including Antonette Rea (published in Geist 76)—and they have amazing personalities. The clash of personalities can be common in most collectives, but do you find this in Thursdays?
EKG: Thursdays writers are strong, self-possessed people. Even the shrinking violets are forceful. But personality clashes? No. You have to be up in each other’s business for that. Sure, people rub each other the wrong way or have different tolerances and predilections but we aren’t there because we’re looking for friends. We’re there for the writing. This keeps things really clear and respectful. It’s probably self-selecting on some level, because if people don’t like the vibe they don’t have to stick around.
DZ: You are working on an anthology right now, can you tell me more about this? What is the concept and what are the poems/prose pieces looking like?
EKG: Through An Open Door, is a collection of writing on all topics in essay, poetry, fiction, memoir and experimental forms from writers who have been a part of the DTES community at some point, in some way in their lives. The DTES is shorthanded as being the poorest postal code in Canada but few people realize it’s also one of the areas with the highest per capita rates of artists. My co-editor, John Asfour, and I felt compelled to highlight that and allow people to recast the community for themselves. The result is this gripping mix of work from people who have been affected by the area firsthand.
We made sure it was easy for people without computers and publishing experience to get their writing to us. We also invited some writers who don’t have issues with access to contribute. So inside the book you’ll find people you haven’t heard of yet next to authors such as Wayde Compton, Madeleine Thien and Michael Turner.
The poems you contributed, Daniel, for example, refract an experience that is far from the hackneyed portrait of despair at Hastings and Main but represent the experience of someone with close ties to the people and institutions. What develops from this sort of editorial mandate is an intense choral representation of the community. And because of the unrestricted topics, the anthology ploughs through the regionalism of the V6A district and becomes a commentary on urban centres across North America. The manuscript is with a publisher right now so we’re waiting to hear about the next steps.
DZ: You are currently working on a special project with Thursdays Writing Collective. Can you tell me a bit about your project and your hopes for bridging different communities within Vancouver. Can you also speak a bit about what you believe bridging communities can do for both the writers and the community of writing.
EKG: One of the most dynamic things about writing as a group every week is the contagion of creativity. As a collective whole we’ve benefitted from doing things with other organizations and we were thinking about how we could maximize that cross-pollination. We came up with a pilot project, The Writers Caravan.
It’s a simple idea: we invite writing groups of different backgrounds and interests to come one at a time to Carnegie and generate some pieces with us. Within the month they invite us back to their neighbourhood for a public reading. We’re collaborating with three groups: one is a class of constitutional law students from UBC who are keeping journals of their experience, another is a batch of emerging writers from SFU’s Writers Studio and the third is private group of writers who formed as an offshoot of the Momoir Project.
In order to pull this off, the Thursdays Editing Collective, a group of engaged and experienced writers, is kicking into overdrive this spring. On top of the weekly one-on-ones they do after class, we’re launching “Thursdays Revised,” a program of Saturday workshops to help participants hone their revisioning skills.
At the end of the series of writing encounters we’ll hold a celebratory reading on June 21st at the Roundhouse with local editors, writers and publishers in attendance. And then over the summer we’ll produce a publication with our guest editor Michael Turner, which we’ll launch in November at the Memory Festival.
The notion of moving about the city and expanding our context, both creatively and physically, is ideal for all of us. When we link with people we would not normally meet via creative production the results are spectacular precisely because they can be so unexpected. These contacts deepen our sense of legitimacy because we relate as people with pens in our hands, who are stumped or delighted by a prompt, instead of assigning echelons related to publication experience or income or whatever else freaks people out.
The notion of community grows quickly among writers when we write and then read together to an audience.
For some participants writing is an act of “otherness.” Maybe they were considered the “weird” kid because they carried a notebook after school or their adult friends think they are wasting their time with something unremunerated. Imagine expanding a circle of support across areas that were off-limits to you previously due to socio-economic or geographic reasons. Imagine coming out of your intellectual comfort zone to experience the literary equivalent of parkour! I love that boundlessness.
DZ: What about your own work, have you been working on any projects with your own writing? I heard you’re a terrible skater but a great writer.
EKG: I think I’ve just been dealt a kiss and a slap! But I’ll take it.
I’ve been working on a nonfiction book that’s partially about figure skating. It’s a photo and essay project about my mother, Tenley Albright, who won a silver and gold Olympic medals for the US in 1952 and 1956. She had polio as a little girl and then became a surgeon after the Olympics. I fell into the role of archivist and have been pouring through her papers. The problem is she keeps doing amazing things so the archive is expanding every moment and I am experiencing a Borgesian reality in my basement office instead of actually getting to the rink to skate. And of course I have been accruing poems towards a manuscript of my own.
DZ: Note: I have seen Elee skate before and she is a great skater. I am the terrible skater.