Robert McTavish’s new film The Line Has Shattered (Non-Inferno Media) illuminates a turning point in Vancouver’s literary scene. In 1963 a small group of newly established American poets (and one Canadian) arrived at the University of British Columbia for the Vancouver Poetry Conference, where they combined classroom discussion, a literary salon and wicked partying into a three-week intensive seminar on poetry.
Charles Olson, Robert Duncan, Robert Creeley, Allen Ginsberg, Denise Levertov and Margaret Avison (the Canadian) taught three seminars to students from both sides of the border. The female instructors were welcomed but had a smaller role in the conference proceedings. In fact, both Avison and Levertov left after the first week, making it, in Pauline Butling’s words, “pretty boysey.” Avison, meanwhile and tellingly, does not even make the front or back cover of the new DVD. The decision to have Phyllis Webb narrate the film helps to address the gender imbalance.
The 1963 Vancouver Poetry Conference changed the careers of many Canadian writers, including George Bowering, Daphne Marlatt and Fred Wah, and McTavish interviews many attendees who offer specific insights into how they were altered by the experience. Although the “Poetry News” segments of the film feel contrived, McTavish makes a valuable contribution to the understanding of this event by combining original footage and recordings with firsthand accounts by participants. The VPC has acquired mythic status in both Canada and the United States, and inspired many echo conferences—from Berkeley in 1965 to Vancouver in 2011.
This film celebrates the 50th anniversary of a true event in Canadian literary history—in Alain Badiou’s sense of the word, where “an event is the creation of new possibilities.”