Stephen Osborne reflects on the Vancouver Poetry Conference, the Occupy movement, and a brunch with NaNoWriMo novelists.
In the middle of October 2011, some two hundred poets and friends of poetry from across the country descended on Vancouver for four days of readings, talks, discussion, gossip and high-level binge drinking. The event was the second Vancouver Poetry Conference (the first took place forty-eight years ago), the full name of which, to mark the city’s quasquicentennial, was the Vancouver 125 Poetry Conference, and it occupied three downtown venues in succession: a recycled Bank of Montreal and two recycled department stores. Less formal venues extended to several east-side bars and restaurants, and lounges at the Listel Hotel in the West End and the Arts Club Theatre in the recycled industrial park on Granville Island.
No one could remember, or imagine, so many poets in the city, in public, at the same time. The first panel session (there were twenty-five in all) opened in the ex-Bank of Montreal on Granville Street—an Edwardian temple with immense vaulted and coffered ceiling, marble pilasters, bronze newel posts and “decorative fire hose cabinet.” One of the panelists—an “avant-gardist,” I was told—presented a summary of Robert’s Rules of Order in place of a poem, or perhaps as a poem, and exceeded his allotted time while demonstrating the “wind it up” signal (circling the hand in the air with index finger extended) employed by the Occupy movement to urge long-winded speakers to a close.
The Occupy movement had coalesced on the lawn in front of the Vancouver Art Gallery two and half blocks from the ex-Bank of Montreal, and over the next four days the flow of energy and ideas, confrontations and contradictions generated by the Occupists flowed into sessions of the Poetry Conference, where, as it turned out, Robert’s Rules, even in the modifed form developed by the Occupists (described by a tweeter as “Robert’s Rules on ecstasy”), were not required, despite the misgivings of organizers (and some of the poets) who feared that poets in large numbers might get out of hand.
On the second and third days of the Poetry Conference, I attended several sessions in the recycled Sears department store a block north of the ex-Bank of Montreal. Several panel moderators in their opening remarks cited the unceded status of the Coast Salish territory on which we were meeting and which the city has occupied since its founding in 1866, and one of them offered thanks for being welcomed onto that land by First Nations hosts at the opening ceremony—sentiments that one might be tempted to dismiss as merely polite, but as the discussions unfolded, and more poems were read aloud, recited and talked about, these polite comments began to take on an edge, for the range of subject matter, the scope of imagination explored in the poems and in the discussion surrounding them, extended to the land and its occupiers at many levels: economic, historical, cultural, ecological, geological, technological. Every moment of the Poetry Conference could be said to be troubled or textured by occupation; it soon became clear that every moment was in some way politically charged.
Who were these poets who had appeared in such numbers? At a glance: women and men in equal numbers; youngish and slightly older, new poets and old poets; lyric poets, formalists, traditionalists, avant-gardists, nature poets, and perhaps even landscape poets and at least one geological poet. Those of us who are not poets (it seemed to me that we all resembled poets) wondered what it would be like to be a single poet among so many others. The book tables in the foyers were strewn with poetry titles; just to see so many pristine volumes awaiting their first owners was an unexpected thrill. Poets and non-poets strolled in the hallway, browsing through the books, conferring in twos and threes: everyone seemed to be surprised or delighted, at the very least to be on good if not best behaviour; some seemed bemused by some perceived absurdity. I could discern there to be no typical poet or archetypical figure who could stand for all, a fact that was confirmed for me by A Complete Encyclopedia of Different Types of People by Gabe Foreman, a copy of which I picked up at the book table, and in which there is no Poet-type to be found, although poets no doubt can be found within the types listed in its pages, among the woolgatherers, underdogs, sweethearts, snoops, piano tuners, house-sitters and adulterers among the lovesick, innocent bystanders, couch potatoes, control freaks, doormats, day traders, eulogists, frequent flyers, history buffs, late bloomers, optimists, optometrists, colonels of truth, etc., etc.
Of the literary disciplines, poetry is the most economical; it requires the least space, the fewest pages, the shortest duration; it pays the lowest rates. Poetry lacks the focussed attention of a large public; it is forever seeking an audience with ears to hear; its practitioners are dedicated to clarity rather than meaning, and the struggle for clarity is itself troubling and uncomfortable, and can lead into the arcane, the complex and the weird. The poets invited to speak on the panels were new enough to the art or craft to have had their first books published after 1990; older poets gave keynote readings; over the four days dozens of sonnets were read aloud, several rants, poems of love and loss and geology; one poet, a Canadian from Brooklyn, plucked a thumb piano as he read aloud, a response (thumbs up or thumbs down?), he implied, to the avant-gardists and their arcane attentions to constraints and controls, technologies of erasure, grammar, syntax, genetics, artificial intelligence. A poet from Montreal proposed a tactical rather than a procedural approach to achieving clarity: that being simply to track every moment of melancholy sadness. The politics of the family was not much in evidence until a poet from Commercial Drive observed that so many present were parents as well as poets, and that for them the task of poetry was informed, surrounded, blocked, circumscribed, by the task of parenting, the uncomfortable, difficult gerund derived from the Latin, to bring forth. Someone in the audience proposed that poetry is a dialogue with the dead. I love this question, said one of the panelists. The border between yes and no is porous, observed another poet in another context (the context of poetry implies all contexts); the same poet spoke as well of my dear, difficult, departed ones.
Poetry is inherently of the moment—the moment of composition, of memory, of speaking aloud; the moment extends far from the present instant, from the poet’s desk, this keyboard, this podium, this lectern. A poem yearns for space in which to be uttered, in which to be received. At the Poetry Conference such a place was staked out in these halls once intended for shoppers and bankers, all of this, as we learned, on unceded land, land that remains in a profound way unowned. Poetry within itself is also contested: genre wars are part of the struggle for clarity; excavation and discovery are applied to the body of poetry, as well as to one’s experience of the world, and to continents and subcontinents. A poet who applied an eraser to a sonnet by Shakespeare came up with nothing / is more / beautiful. On introducing it, he said, this one is for Wall Street, and thereby reassigned it to a moment in hand.
On the evening of the third day I walked over to the art gallery and observed the Occupists in the plaza using the wind-it-up signal in their general assembly; the human microphone was in evidence as well, and slow ripples of speech moved through the crowd. A repertoire of hand signals had been drawn on a sheet of cardboard, indicating consensus, disagreement, point of process, repeat, block, clarify, but the wind-it-up sign was not there. Among the tents and the loitering police officers were signs of occupation exhorting passersby to occupy their minds and hearts, to have hope, to $top corporate power, to wake up and smell the oppression, and citing, among other things, the contested status of unceded Coast Salish lands. The art gallery, with its Ionic columns and vast central dome, is another recycled venue: it had originally housed the Vancouver Courthouse and served as a point of public display for visiting kings and queens; after its conversion (when the city began post-modernizing itself in the 1980s), it became a contemporary site of protest and demonstration; it retains on its exterior staircase a pair of enormous African lions carved en couchant from Nelson Island granite and whose stern, sightless gaze, fixed on the limitless domain of Empire, disregards equally the demonstrators, the police, the passersby and the passage of history.
On its final day the Poetry Conference moved east along Hastings Street another couple of blocks, to the ex-Woodward’s department store, recycled recently into a vestige of itself (original bricks and signage) fronting for various arts organizations and non-profits (Geist being one of them), certain departments of Simon Fraser University, and in particular to a glittering add-on structure called the GoldCorp Centre for the Arts, a venue whose provenance was itself a troubling if not a vexing point; here in space endowed by GoldCorp (pronounced “gold corpse” by most of the speakers), one felt most clearly a poetics of tension, anxiety and contradiction. The closing panel, on the topic of “directions in contemporary poetry” opened with a reading of messages from Guatemalan villagers whose lives and livings, land and culture are the object of devastation perpetrated by GoldCorp, whose headquarters are just down the street from the art gallery (and which in September was removed from the Dow Jones Sustainability Index in light of “ongoing allegations of human rights violations and evidence of environmental contamination”).
The discussion that followed in this contested space moved from processes of extraction that underlie our economy, to the problem of publicness, the place of poetry in our time, the contest between formalists and lyricalists. The moment from which poetry emerges is often a moment of crisis: in the GoldCorp Centre for the Arts, crisis permeated the air we were breathing. Poetry is the struggle between language and time, said one of the poets on the panel, and a moment later he asked: what is to be done? Poetry, which has so little purchase in the world, has nothing to lose; precisely for this reason, in poetry everything is at stake. At the close of the session, the city mayor entered the hall, along with four elders from the Coast Salish Nations, who offered a speech of welcome that did not overlook the unfinished business of history, and then performed a powerful, almost overwhelming song of welcome with drum accompaniment that in its emotional and formal power offered a challenge of its own. Brad Cran, the Poet Laureate of Vancouver, whose brainchild, or brainstorm, the Poetry Conference had been, read a splendid “civic” poem written on the occasion of a gray whale swimming into the middle of the city via False Creek before the astonished eyes of citizens and children who thronged to the seawall to express their wonder. He had given his poem an ambitious and risky title: “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Gray Whale, After Wallace Stevens and ending with a line from Rilke,” and the risk proved fully worth taking. When he came to the last line, I recalled the erasure poem from Shakespeare’s sonnet that we had heard two days earlier, and heard the two come together: nothing / is more / beautiful / you must change your life.
Hannah Arendt observes that the common element connecting art and politics is that they both are phenomena of the public world. Works of art, in her words, “must find their place in the world,” just as the products of politics—that is, words and deeds—also need some public space where they can appear and be seen, where they can fulfill their own being in a world common to all—that is, the public commons. Here in the GoldCorp Centre for the Arts, a glimpse of that commons revealed itself, as it had at the site of Occupiers at the art gallery.
When the Mayor of Vancouver (who, as I write, has unfinished business with the Vancouver Occupists) rose to introduce Evelyn Lau as the new Poet Laureate of Vancouver, I remembered what we call the old days, when mayors would call out the police to break the heads of poets before they would countenance standing up with them in public. In those old days, the contest for space was cloistered; today it is revealed: signs of unfinished business are everywhere. The Occupy movement, the First Nations presence, the challenge to make and to remake a relevant poetics in the recycled settings of a North American city: such are the entanglements and the preoccupations of a civil art.
A week after the poets had gone home, and records of the poetry conference had been lodged in the city archives, and the new Poet Laureate had been welcomed to her desk, a hundred or so aspiring novelists met for a NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) brunch at Moose’s Down Under Restaurant Bar and Grille, a walk-down joint that shares a wall with the Vancouver Bullion and Currency Exchange, two blocks from the recycled Bank of Montreal in which the Poetry Conference had opened its deliberations. The novelists, several of whom had visited the Occupists at the art gallery grounds, were a slightly more homogeneous group: predominantly twenty to thirty years old, a sprinkling of teenagers, one or two sexagenarians; a few were costumed (my young friend identified a “very good Doctor Who” and a “wonderful Carmen Sandiego”), and all were ebullient at the prospect of writing a novel in thirty days. Included in the “delegate kits” distributed at the door were strips of yellow crime-scene tape for securing privacy while writing, a 30-day calendar indicating an accumulative word count at 1,667 words per day; a lapel badge consisting of a large, elegant semicolon; and instructions for making a “plot-device generator” that resembled the bug snappers used by children as aids to prognostication. A woman with an air of experience sitting at the end of our table advised those who wished to hear to “simply start writing and don’t stop for anything at all.” A young voice in the middle of the room rose above the hubbub to testify that there is “nothing cooler than having fifteen or twenty friends and writers around when you hit the fifty-thousand word count.” An informal poll at one table elicited a sampling of novels-in-prospect: a Snow White remake; a post-apocalyptic quest; a re-look at vampires; crazy ass crap about Santa’s daughter; stories of my mother and me; people doing stuff that could turn into adventure, tragedy, horror or scientific miracle. A young man in glasses gazed along the table and said, “I’m not convinced that Harry Potter is over yet.” I want to tell you something: here is where the story starts.
ing at a Gray Whale.”