Gritty, Hard-Scrabble Poems from the DTES

I was thrilled to hear that No Shelter by Henry Doyle, a Downtown Eastside writer, was shortlisted this year for the Dorothy Livesay BC Book Prize for Poetry! Joe/Henry (his actual name is Joe and Henry is his penname) has a unforgettable and vivid way of depicting characters and telling memorable stories. Brian Kaufman at Anvil Press had faith in Joe/Henry’s work and did a terrific job arranging for the cover design (Derek Von Essen) with illustrations by Richard Tetrault. Crows and alleys have featured prominently in Joe/Henry’s work.

I edited the manuscript and coached Joe/Henry to write several new poems to supplement those from his past chapbooks, including poems about his childhood in foster care, his time in prison and as a boxer, his work at an Ontario junkyard and most importantly, his work as a janitor at the historic public men’s washroom at Main & Hastings.

During the pandemic, we often generated and edited poems by phone. Joe/Henry would either type out or dictate lines (when his laptop wasn’t working, which was often) of a poem to me. I would email him back with what he’d dictated along with suggested spacing and line breaks. He’d read the version aloud so I could make further edits and adjustments, or I’d ask further questions to deepen the piece or elicit further images. Then he’d read the next version aloud for another round of edits. Poem by poem, the manuscript came together.

Joe/Henry was a long-time member of Thursdays Collective run by the inspired, ebullient Elee Kraljii Gardiner for eight years at the Carnegie Centre. (The group is now called the DTES Writers’ Collective). I’ve worked with him since being assigned to be his mentor in 2012 through the DTES Manuscript Intensive program that was co-sponsored by the Carnegie Centre and The Writers’ Studio at SFU.

Elee, Joe/Henry and I at Bean Around the World Coffee shop on Main & Broadway in 2019 where he and I worked on his poems

In 2014, I produced and directed an animated poetry video based on his wonderful poem, “Drunken Laundry Day with Charles Bukowski” that has been selected for screening in festivals from Montreal to Moscow. Joe/Henry narrates his poem with his distinctive, warm, gravelly voice. The small team of animators led by H. Kristen Campbell did a terrific job incorporating artwork by two DTES artists.

Joe/Henry and I at the DOXA festival screening of his poetry video in 2017 at SFU Woodwards (photo by Elee)

Joe/Henry and I wrote about how we have worked together in an essay, “Poet to Poet: Writing Across Divides” that was published in Write (Spring 2020, page 8-9). In that piece, I also describe some of the background behind the creation of Thursdays Collective, which showed how so many people and organizations came together to build a writing community there.

We took a ferry for Joe/Henry’s first reading outside of Vancouver for the Planet Earth Poetry Series at Victoria’s Russell Books (photo by my partner Ted)

I’m so proud of Joe/Henry and honoured that I was one of many writers and teachers who have been part of his journey, including Elee, Brad Cran (Vancouver’s second poet laureate) who advised Joe/Henry to turn his journal entries into poems (advice he never forgot), Kevin Spenst, Betsy Warland, Anne Hopkinson, and Joan Flood locally, as well as Patrick Holloway and Annabel Buckley, his writing teachers in Ottawa. You can hear Joe/Henry read a short poem from No Shelter here: