Words as Sustenance

Ten keen writers came out this past Thursday to the Oppenheimer Park Field House to participate in a monthly free public workshop run through the Poetry in the Parks program! It was a busy afternoon at the Field House with three concurrent workshops being held there! I loved the Lunar New Year and Valentine’s decorations that decorated the windows, creating a welcoming and cheerful space. A large jack rabbit (a local resident’s pet) even hopped around and beneath the tables!

This month, the writing theme was sustenance. As I chatted with local resident Carl about his Ontario sister’s love of poetry while they were growing up, I set up the room and arranged a display of fruit, vegetables, plus other food items and eating implements at the centre of the table to inspire the group. I distributed photocopies of some superb food-based poems by a diverse range of acclaimed poets such as Joy Harjo’s poem, “The World Ends Here” reveals the symbolism of the kitchen table, Yusef Komunyakaa’s “Blackberries,” Lorna Crozier’s “Onions” (from her Sex Lives of Vegetables collection) and others which I read aloud at the start of the session to invoke these poets’ lyric vision and stimulate our own flow of words. A platter of frosted sugar cookies was kindly provided by staffer David for us to snack on.

We went around the table mentioning our favourite foods or dishes (e.g. oranges, Campbell’s mushroom soup, squash, mac and cheese, sushi, shish kebab, kibbeh, congee, roast beef dinner, chicken) which generated some terrific and evocative draft poems. For the second round, we went around the table to state our least favourite food (e.g. stinky durian, an inedible mush served at school, watery slimy Lebanese moussaka, mushrooms). This definitely inspired some vivid writing based on strong memories. We even managed to squeeze in a third round of writing!

Next month’s poetry workshop facilitator will be Vancouver’s wonderful past poet laureate, Evelyn Lau (March), followed by former Thursdays Collective Coordinator and present Vancouver Manuscript Intensive co-director, the warm and engaging Elee Kraljii Gardiner (April) in advance of the eagerly anticipated Downtown Eastside Writers Festival that will be held at the Carnegie Centre on May 25-27, 2023.

Thank you to Oppenheimer Field House coordinator Jennifer Taylor and Carnegie Centre coordinator Beverly Walker, as well as all Oppenheimer Park Field House staffers for their invaluable support and assistance over the past three sessions!

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Dead Poets Reading Series resumes!

After a two year hiatus, the Dead Poets Reading Series has come back to life! Four members of the organizing committee kicked off the year with a reading at Massy Arts that featured presentations on Etel Adnan (1925 to 2021), Don Domanski (1950 -2020), Steven Heighton (1961 – 2022) and Phyllis Webb (1927-2021).

We had a full house of 50 attentive attendees who registered for the free public event. In the audience were poetry lovers of all ages, including past organizers Rob Taylor (and family) and Christopher Levenson. Massy Arts community engagement coordinator, Romila Barryman provided a wonderful land acknowledgement at the commencement of the event.

How did the series begin? North Vancouver poet and professor, David Zieroth initiated the series in 2007 as “The Night of the Dead Poets” at the former Upstart Crow Books on Lonsdale Avenue in North Vancouver. (I participated at the inaugural reading, presenting poems by Bronwen Wallace, alongside fellow readers David, Russell Thorton, Cathy Stonehouse and Harvey de Roo.)

If you look at DPRS’ history of past readings, you’ll see the enormous range of diverse poets that have heen covered since 2007, from antiquity to the recent past, from countries and cultures all over the world! Do check out the full origin story of the series on the Dead Poets Reading Series site.

Other notable poets in the local community have been on the organizing committee over the years including Christopher Levenson, Rob Taylor, Diane Tucker, Sandy Shreve, Kate Braid, Joanne Arnott, Jane Munro, Raoul Fernandes, Shazia Hafiz Ramji, Kevin Spenst and Isabella Wang. A huge, long-time fan of the series, I recently joined the organizing committee this past December. The venues for the series have also shifted from North Vancouver (Upstart Crow Books, The Contemporary Art Cafe) to downtown Vancouver (Project Space in Strathcona, the Central Branch of the Vancouver Public Library).

Massy Arts, the current venue for the bimonthly series, is located at 23 East Pender in Vancouver’s Strathcona neighbourhood. Not to be confused with Massy Bookstore on the east side of Main Street, Massy Arts is located in the former Ming Wo Hardware building opposite the Chinese Cultural Center and Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Gardens.

This heritage building was built in 1913 by one of the first known Chinese Canadian architects, W. H. Chow, in the characteristic “Chinatown architectural style,” featuring four stories, a recessed balcony, and metal cornice. Ming Wo Hardware, one of the longest operating local businesses in Chinatown, had a store here from 1917 until 2020. (Ming Wo Hardware still exists, with stores elsewhere in the city.)

Please mark your calendars: the next reading will be on Sunday, March 12, 3-5 pm with future readings currently scheduled for May 14, July 9, September 10 and November 19th). You can register to attend for free through Massy Art’s EventBrite listings.) Check the Dead Poets Reading Series website for more information about upcoming readings!

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Art & Poetic Inspiration!

Writing and reading poetry are wonderful ways to start the new year! This past Thursday, DTES writers came out for a Poetry in the Parks workshop at Oppenheimer Park Field House. We had fourteen participants in total (plus some intermittent writing from Field House staffer Rui, who was up and down serving tea and coffee and getting extra chairs and an extra table when more people arrived).

This session was focused on how visual art can provide profound inspiration for writing. At the beginning of the workshop, I passed around a few books of ekphrastic poems (poems inspired by art) as examples, including the recently launched Quarandreams, a collection launched this past fall that was curated and edited by CBC videographer, Maggie MacPherson, who had asked to respond to her gorgeously surreal photographic art during the height of the pandemic. (Two participants attending the workshop, Phoenix Winter and Gilles Cyrenne, had poems published in the book!)

I also set out art postcards that I’d collected over the years on the table, featuring a few of Georgia O’Keeffe’s abstract flowers, Hokusai’s famous woodblock print (Great Wave off Kanagawa), Van Gogh’s iconic Starry Night, an autumnal forest scene painted by Tom Thomson, as well as more surrealist pieces. Besides Starry Night and the White Rose, other favourites included an image of fox trapped on broken-up ice sheets (from a David Suzuki Christmas card I received), a lithograph of a crow, and a man flying with birds. Participants could also choose to write about any of the paintings and drawings by neighbourhood residents that were pinned on the walls.

I handed out photocopies of a few notable examples of ekphrastic poems by Wislawa Szymborska (Brueghel’s Two Monkeys), William Carlos Williams (Fall of Icarus), and Anne Sexton (Starry Night), and read out a poem (by US poet, Sharon Hashimoto) as well, just to get the creative juices really flowing in terms of form and metaphor.

Twenty minutes before the workshop formally started, the first participant arrived, sat down, asked for a pen and paper, and started writing without pause, without any prompts or prompting, filling two full pages with tiny script. He might have set the stage for everyone else! During the two rounds of art-based writing, the larger group of participants wrote with incredible concentration and focus.

For the first round, each participant chose an image, noted down sensory associations, and then built a poem around those associations. The second round was similar. Everyone was given space to share their work, and almost everyone did.

And the writing was amazing—powerful, vivid and evocative! The art cards definitely served as a portal into the subconscious, into memory, into story, and much more. The creative energy and imagery, the metaphors and symbols, the leaps and turns rose from each person’s page. In wrapping up the workshop, I talked about how each piece of art contains a trace of the artist’s spirit, which can provide a pathway for writers to connect to own creative spirits, as well as the artist’s.

Thanks to all the participants and to staffers Rui and David who helped set up the tables and chairs, made and served coffee and tea, and even brought us a tray of foil-wrapped Christmas chocolates, to Jennifer for giving us the space and making the photocopies and ensuring we had a flipchart, markers and pens, and to Beverly from the Carnegie Centre who came by early to say hello. See you all at my third and last session at the Oppenheimer Field House on Thursday, February 2, 1-3 pm! (Other poet- facilitators will take the baton in the months ahead!)

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Heading into Poetry Video Season!

It was exciting to see the poetry videos produced by students enrolled in SFU Surrey’s IAT 344 Moving Images course this term! Several student teams made poetry videos based on a selection of shortlisted adult poems from stage one of the City Poems Contest held earlier this year. (This term served as a trial run before the upcoming launch of the contest’s second stage, which focuses on poetry videos produced by pre-selected public post-secondary classes.)

Most teams worked on the shortlisted site-based poems through the fall, while others worked on different projects. I visited the class early in the term to introduce poetry videos. A few weeks later, guest curator and noted video poet Tom Konyves gave students a tour of his exhibit, Poets with a Video Camera: Videopoetry 1980-2020 at the Surrey Art Gallery.

Tom was also one of the two judges awarding prizes to the student teams at a reception and screening held at the end of term. Given the course requirements, the student teams doing poetry videos (which had to be under 5 minutes in length) also had to film short documentaries where they interviewed the poets. These interviews with the poets often provided fascinating insights into the history and significance of the sites on which the poems were based.

I want to applaud the hardworking student teams and Jay Tseng, the sessional instructor who filled in at the last minute for Kate Hennessy. Kate had originally been set to do the trial run this term, but was pulled away to cover another instructor for a different course, although she’ll be back next term. I was heartened that both Kate and Jay were so open to making poetry videos an optional class assignment. I’m also very grateful to the poets chosen this term who made time to collaborate with their student teams.

Next term should be great too with a new set of SFU IAT 344 students (taught by Kate Hennessy), plus participating classes in animation (Martin Rose) and film studies (Christine Stewart) at Emily Carr University, as well as digital storytelling with UBC’s First Nations & Indigenous Studies (David Gaertner).

Meanwhile, youth finalists from stage one of the City Poems Contest are being offered the opportunity to participate in a free poetry video workshop in the new year to make their own poetry videos/films, facilitated by a local film collective based at the Moberly Arts Centre.

I’m very much looking forward to visiting all the classes and the youth workshops in the new year! There was some very promising work this term, and there’s bound to be more to come. Heather Haley will be judging the contest in the spring. There’ll be an award ceremony and public screening of the winning poetry videos at the Museum of Vancouver on June 11th!

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Poetry in Oppenheimer Park!

I am so glad that the Poetry in Parks program has resumed since past poet laureate, Rachel Rose initiated it in 2015! Kevin Spenst and Natasha Sanders-Kay have recently facilitated a few of these free monthly community workshops now being held at Oppenheimer Park. I offered to facilitate the winter monthly writing sessions on December 1, January 5 and February 2.

This afternoon, ten Downtown Eastside writers came by to participate in writing exercises on the theme of ordinary objects. (Next sessions will be on ekphrastic/art-based poems and on food/famine.) Several participants were members of the Downtown Eastside Writers Collective that meets weekly on Thursday afternoons at the Carnegie Centre nearby, including its coordinator, Gilles Cyrenne who is working on his second collection of poems. I loved seeing many familiar faces from my past visits with the Collective over the years, and really enjoyed meeting new writers too!

After introductions, I began with Pablo Neruda’s poem, “Ode to My Socks” and my poem, “Utility Pole”, and talked about Don McKay’s poems about a knife, fork and spoon We looked at how imagery, structure and sound work in synergy in a poem.

We then did two rounds of writing and sharing. There was some great writing inspired by objects that had been set out on a nearby table or were already nearby. There was writing about a glow-in-the-dark star ornament, a tiny wooden canoe, a yellow plastic toy shovel, a clam shell, a pen, a baseball, a mango, and a paper cup among other items. I asked the participants to use personification, i.e. to take on the persona of the object they had chosen, using the first person “I” which clearly demonstrated how even the most everyday item could have quite a personality!

The second round of writing involved participants drawing from a bag of folded pieces of paper, on which each of them had written the name of an ordinary object that might be interesting to write about. This time I asked them to write a scene from the any point of view using the prompt, “the way…” (for depicting a process), “he/she/they/you/we don’t remember…” or “ “he/she/they/you/we will never forget….” Items included a picture frame, a cell phone, a plank, chalk, and a table—objects full of symbolic potential!

Thanks so much to Carnegie Centre coordinator Beverly Walker, and Park Board staff Jennifer Taylor who arranged for photocopying, and getting me a flipchart and markers, plus Field House staffers David and Rui who helped set up a small Christmas tree, chairs, tables, plus coffee, tea, hot chocolate and donated sweet and savoury pastries. The group and I felt very well-supported (and well-fed and hydrated) throughout the two hour workshop!

Afterward, I stuck around to play the outdoor upright piano which was in pretty good shape and mostly in tune except for a few lower keys (F, G and A in the bass), but it was close to 0 degrees Celsius, and my fingers were pretty chilled after stumbling through a few easy preludes (Bach, Chopin and Debussy). I soon walked back over the icy sidewalks to climb the famous winding marble staircase past the stained glass windows of Shakespeare, Milton and Spenser inside the Carnegie Centre (a historic building built in 1903 as one of 125 Canadian libraries funded by philanthropist Andrew Carnegie) to return the unused pens and paper pads to the office, before hopping on the #16 bus on East Hastings to get home before dusk.

These free poetry workshops helmed by diverse local poets will continue to be offered from 1-3 pm on the first Thursday of each month, well into the spring!

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