Creating & Sharing during the Downtown Eastside Writers’ Festival

Last Thursday afternoon, Downtown Eastside writers gathered around five tables set up behind the Oppenheimer Park Field House as part of the Create & Share Workshop and Open Mic event during the Downtown Eastside Writers’ Festival. The Festival is in its second year and provides a wide range of stimulating and engaging activities and events, including readings, author talks, workshops, panels and much more.

At Thursday’s Create & Share event, Claire Matthews (writing coordinator at UBC’s Humanities 101), Kevin Spenst (poetry mentor at SFU’s The Writers’ Studio) and I each facilitated a writing table. Additional tables were facilitated by DTES writers Phoenix Winters and Ghia Aweida. Festival staff Teresa Vandertuin and Lalia Fraser along with volunteers and Oppenheimer staff made sure everyone there was well-supported with coffee, tea, snacks, and pens, paper.

At my table, I set up my old manual typewriter (appropriate given the festival program cover!) and laid out several art postcards and ordinary objects as writing prompts. I also wrote out some writing prompts on a flipchart. It’s always fascinating to see who is drawn to the typewriter and the sounds of typing. I urged passers-by to try it out. One fellow pulled up a seat and slowly, painstakingly typed out a delightful prose poem based on one of the postcards that skillfully integrated the vantage point of the viewer. (I wished he’d typed or signed his name before he left!)

Award-winning DTES poet, Henry Doyle sat in front of the old manual typewriter I’d set up and typed out the start of a short ode to one of his antique typewriters purchased years ago at a store uptown on Main Street.(He grew this short stanza below into a longer poem later at home.)

The Typewriter

I have it on a throne.

As one walks into my place

down a small hallway. It is there.

A 1912 Remington typewriter

that weighs 50 pounds.

The writing session then moved into a chance for writers to share their new work at an open mic. I loved watching the sign language interpreters as they interpreted the poems that each poet who came up to read. They were so graceful, and used their faces and body movements to vividly express each line. Below is a photo of Gilles Cyrenne, the coordinator of the DTES Writers’ Collective that meets weekly at the Carnegie, who read two pieces he wrote during the session.

Somehow, surfing the waves of creative intention generated by all the assembled writers, I also managed to draft a quick poem.

Writers’ Picnic 

            –Dedicated to DTES Writers and staff at the Carnegie, Megaphone and Oppenheimer Field House

Time to write a poem

under the trees, sunlight raying through

the lush filigree of green leaves onto thirsty pages.

Around each table, writers as focused as sunlight, 

filtering words through fingers and pens— 

bare words    scraggly words    lavish words

Stuttering     muttering      fluttering       uttering

a feast of quickening metaphors

about to burst into verbilicious harvest.

I read this short piece that afternoon as well as a tweaked version the following Friday evening at Megaphone Magazine’s launch of its yearly Voices of the Street anthology.

Given that there had been a reading of work by dead DTES poets the night before, I decided to first read an anthologized poem entitled “Compass” about homelessness by Robyn Livingstone, a long-time DTES resident and creative spirit who passed away in hospital last year. Many people in the audience knew and loved him.

This year’s Voices of the Street anthology is a flip book, with one side containing writing by DTES residents on the theme of “losing hope” and the other side containing writing about “finding home”—an inspired concept executed beautifully by Managing Editor Paula Carlson. Evocative and powerful work was read by contributors Jathinder Sadhu, Michael Cloutier, Nicolas Crier, Eva Watterson, Henry Doyle, Gwen Lagimodiere, Peter Thompson, Yvonne Mark and James Witwicki.

Congratulations to the contributors to this year’s Voices of the Street anthology and to the dedicated team who organized the DTES Writers’ Festival, to Megaphone staff, plus staff at the Carnegie Centre and Oppenheimer Field House, along with all the participants who made the DTES Writers’ Festival such a success!


Literacy Day at Queen Alexandra Elementary

Last Tuesday morning strolling down the hallways of Queen Alexandra Elementary School, I had so much fun looking at the teachers and students dressed up as characters from favourite books. I spotted several Harry Potter characters, some Princesses from various movies, and a Hungry Caterpillar, among others. I loved all the fabulous student art adorning the walls. Principal John MacCormack told me about the inner city school’s diverse student body. About 40% of the students are Indigenous, with many students from racialized backgrounds. There’s a hot meals program at the school for breakfast and lunch. I’d visited the school over ten years before to do a writing workshop for an after school program called The Writers’ Room (part of wonderful The Writers’ Exchange program), and it was great to be back.

Captain Underpants, also known as Grade 3/4 teacher, Cindy Nickel, wearing a red cape and magnificent white underpants, had arranged for me to do two separate presentations in the gym. For the primary students, I talked about how we can express grief, loss, and difficult feelings through art. I told the students how I’d lost my dad when I was 11 years old, and then how my son lost his grandma (my mom) when he was in kindergarten. Everyone’s hand went up when I asked who had experienced the loss of something or someone important to them–be it a pet, friend, or family member.

While the radiant illustrations by artist Kristi Bridgeman were projected on a screen behind me thanks to the technical assistance from his royal highness, King Keith Bryce, the imperially garbed and crowned teacher-librarian, I read from my kids’ book, The Rainbow Rocket. The story is based on my mother’s gradual cognitive decline from Alzheimer’s Disease, but I informed the students that I had fictionalized it. In real life, my son was too young and my mother’s dementia too advanced, so they didn’t have much opportunity to interact as much as we would have wished. In real life, they made a bit of music but not art together. Fiction was a great way to imagine a different reality.

(Teacher Cindy Nickel’s sister, Barbara Nickel, is an acclaimed poet and children’s writer, who has visited the school virtually and live, to encourage students to read and write poetry. Barbara helped me immensely to hone and shape the very first rough draft of The Rainbow Rocket years ago. Reading the spring haiku in the photo above, noting the delightful images of cherry blossoms as cotton candy and flamingo feathers, I wondered if it was Barbara and Cindy’s influence that kindled the imagination of these students.)

I also talked about the importance of ritual to help us to both celebrate and grieve. I mentioned how many cultures have different rituals around dying and death. In The Rainbow Rocket, the mother and son celebrate the Chinese festival of Ching Ming, where they visit the cemetery and burn incense and bring food the memorialize the dead. Others have similar or different practices. Some of the students talked about their traditions.

After recess, I did a presentation for the intermediate students. I discussed the origins of the poet laureateship role, and read a few of my poems. There were lots of questions after I read “Ode to a Crow” about Canuck the Crow who became world famous after being caught on camera stealing the evidence from the police at a crime scene. We all wondered what might have happened to Canuck. I showed a map of Vancouver’s hidden and lost streams, and read a poem inspired by one near my home which used to be located where Connaught Park is now. After talking about concrete or visual/shaped poetry, I also showed two of my poetry videos, “Utility Pole” about the massive loss of trees for human use, and “Plasticnic” about plastic pollution. At the end of my visit, I told interested intermediate students that they could send draft poems to me in the next week or two through their teachers for positive feedback before the end of term. I’m looking forward to reading their work!

The school brims with creativity, fostered by committed and enthusiastic teachers and staff. I was fascinated to hear about the recent Indigenous artist-in-residence at Queen Alexandra whose project involved students making shadow puppets and performing a play that integrated all the classes. It sounded like an memorable and amazing experience!


National Poetry Month

Poetry & Place

To kick off National Poetry Month, I facilitated a writing workshop on writing about place for the Museum of Vancouver. I also participated in an online webinar about Poetry & Place, hosted by The Writers Union of Canada, moderated by Montreal poet, Greg Santos, with Toronto’s outgoing Poet Laureate, Al Moritz, and Saskatchewan’s Poet Laureate, Carol Rose GoldenEagle to discuss our activities and projects as laureates. I discussed my main focus of the past few months, my Legacy Project, the City Poems Video Contest.

City Poems Poetry Videos Now Online

I was extremely impressed at the results of the hard work and creativity of student teams from SFU 344 (Surrey campus), UBC FNIS 454, and Emily Carr’s Foundation 160 and 2DN 211 Animation classes for the video poetry stage of the City Poems Contest. Their instructors were key to the success of the project: much gratitude to Kate Hennessy and Jay Tseng of SFU, David Gaertner of UBC’s Critical Indigenous Studies, and Christine Stewart and Martin Rose of Emily Carr University of Art & Design, and their committed students. There were so many excellent and varied interpretations of the poems, ranging from animation, to documentary, to experimental. I wrote a brief article about the journey for The Tyee recently and was interviewed by Margaret Gallagher for North by Northwest, a weekend morning show on CBC Radio focused on the local literary, music and arts scene.

With a lot of logistical support and help from my sister, Shona, a retired librarian and tech wizard, VPL staffer, Greg McLeod, all 33 poetry videos that were submitted to the contest are now available to watch online on the VPL’s YouTube Playlist for Audience Choice Online Voting until May 25th at 5pm. There’s a table with the poems listed in alphabetical order by title, along with links to the text of the poems and the poetry videos based on them here. Although voting will end on May 25, the videos will remain online through the summer. The winners as judged by Contest Judge Heather Haley and the Audience Choice prizes will announced at a public ceremony and screening at the Museum of Vancouver on June 11th.

Already some of the student teams have had connected with audiences outside the province for their poetry videos. One team had their video shortlisted by the Duemila30 festival in Milan, Italy for young filmmakers focused on sustainable development and social inclusion. Another team had their video selected as one of 8 screened by the Canadian Roots Exchange (CRE), a national Indigenous-led youth organization which had a recent gathering in Banff, Alberta. I’ve encouraged all of them to submit their videos to festivals around the world through the FilmFreeway hub and to let me know of acceptances.

Meanwhile, the shortlisted youth finalists from last year’s contest had the opportunity to participate in a workshop to make their own poetry videos. This was run by the mim multidisciplinary artist collective (Dora Prieto, Daniela Rodriguez and Michelle Martin) at the Moberly Field House in the Fraserview neighbourhood where the EPFC is doing an artists’ residency. I enjoyed seeing the rough cuts made by some of participants and look forward to seeing their final versions before the summer.

Verses Festival of Words

I attended some of the events at the wonderful Verses Festival of Words April 20-29. (The festival began in 2011 with spoken word individual performances, panels, and workshops, featuring the first Canadian Individual Poetry Slam championship.) This year’s theme was “Gathering Found Family Back Around The Table.” At the Famous Last Words comedy evening at Wise Hall, the four poets entertained the audience with puppets and balloon-balancing and other improvisational rounds. There were master classes and performances galore by top notch spoken word artists. A few days later at SFU Woodwards, there was much snapping of fingers and murmurs of acknowledgement from the audience as we listened to the hard-won truths expressed during the slam championships, coordinated by Trevana Spilchen. Weary spirits were replenished by the drumming, rich vocals and poetics of multidisciplinary Métis artist, Moe Clark.

Congratulations to Artistic Director Johnny Trinh who curated and coordinated Verses this year (and ensured that there was always delicious local snacks to nourish attendees and performers), and to all the performers, mentors, master class leaders,Vancouver Poetry House team and volunteers who worked hard to make the festival such a success.

More to come….

The weeks ahead promise to be just as hectic with the LiterAsian Festival and the Downtown Eastside Writers’ Festival in May, more school visits, co-hosting the May 14 Dead Poets Reading Series reading, plus attendance at other literary fundraisers, readings and the ExplorAsian Festival, along with more outreach and publicity to encourage folks to vote for the City Poems student poetry videos before the upcoming Awards ceremony and screening in June!


A Busy Spring


There has been a flurry of activities over the past few months! I facilitated an online workshop for Family Physicians in early February. As I have a lot of respect and admiration for our medical professionals and frontline health care workers, I wanted to create a safe, supportive and nurturing space for them to engage in imaginative word play. Some of the participants had never written poetry before, but everyone plunged in and wrote wonderful, very creative short pieces. It was heartening to see the smiles of delight and satisfaction at the end of the session. (I also co-teach a course at SFU Continuing Studies at SFU Harbour Centre with my esteemed colleague, Evelyn Lau, in the spring and fall.)

Community Events

For Valentine’s Day, I joined local spoken word poets Brandon Wint, Angelic Goldsky, and Hari Alluri at Waterfront Station during the afternoon rush hour, 4:30-7 pm to perform our work for Moving Lines—an I Love Transit Week Poetry and Music Event. A violinist and a cellist from the VSO provided lively musical accompaniment to the poems. Many passers-by going to and from the SkyTrain and Sea Bus paused to listen and record footage on their phones. We set up a poetry table where people could create their own poems by responding to prompts, or cutting and pasting lines on coasters. They could request a poem be composed for them on a manual typewriter manned by yours truly.

The following week, the Sixth Annual Places That Matter Community Celebration was held at Heritage Hall with a variety of community tables and speakers. I was honoured to be invited to read a few poems at the event. I enjoyed the other speakers too, and was especially moved by the stories of the Japanese Canadian group that is working to set up a museum at Hastings Park. They spoke about the way 8,000 Japanese Canadians who lived in town throughout BC were brought to Vancouver and incarcerated in Hastings Park before being deported to internment and work camps. Over 21,000 Japanese Canadians were interned in 1942, with their businesses and property confiscated.

I also visited Kitsilano Neighbourhood House to do a reading for preschool students from my kids’ book about a boy grieving the cognitive decline and death of his grandmother, The Rainbow Rocket, for an intergenerational storytelling event. The following week, I was interviewed for a podcast by Dr. Joshua Black for his Grief Dreams Podcast about the same book.

School Visits

There were school visits too: a grade two class at University Hill Elementary, grade 11-12 students at Churchill Secondary, grade 11 students at the University Transition Program, as well as the visit to Tecumseh earlier in the year (mentioned in the previous blog). Also, I was one of three judges for the national Poetry in Voice’s Vancouver Team Regional Finals for recitation held at Prince of Wales Secondary this year. Several school teams competed. It’s always impressive to hear the students recite memorized poems, expressing complex passages with confidence and feeling.

City Poems Contest

What kept me especially busy from January to April was my Legacy Project, the City Poems Contest. The first stage was held last January-June and focused on generating poems about local historical, cultural and ecological sites. (I did a trial run of the video collaborations this past fall at SFU (Surrey Campus) with instructor Jay Tseng’s IAT 344 class to iron out some of the wrinkles in setting up this brand new project.) For the second stage of the City Poems Contest this year, I focused on collaborations between students from four local public post-secondary classes to make poetry videos based on some of the shortlisted poems from last year’s contest along with a few additional site-based poems. The classes included SFU IAT 344 (Surrey), UBC FNIS 454, Emily Carr Foundation 160 and 2D Animation 211.

The contest kicked off with an official launch in January 2023 for the instructors and students at the Central Branch of the VPL with panel presentations and discussions of sample poetry videos by me, Contest Judge Heather Haley and noted videopoetry curator and filmmaker, Tom Konyves. During the course of the term, I visited the four post-secondary classrooms to introduce the project. I reviewed rough cuts and watched the final cuts of poetry videos, sometimes in person, sometimes online.

New Poetry Video Screens in Lisbon

Somehow in January, I also managed to complete “Un/Write,” a collaborative poetry video project using erasure and reversed erasures with two talented animation students at Portland’s Northwest College of Art, Lara Renaud and Quinn Kelly. It recently screened at the JA Poetry Film Festival in Lisbon, Portugal. Lara will be screening the poetry video at her college’s term-end event!

(I collaborated with Lara and Quinn this past summer on “Merry” which is a concise, but darkly humorous animated poem about consumption, consumerism, and plastic pollution inspired by the excesses of the Christmas season, based in another of my concrete poems about plastic waste. It has been selected for five festivals. One of my earlier animated collaborations, “Plasticnic” was selected for screening at the Colorado Environmental Festival last month.)


Poetry at Tecumseh

I had a lot of fun visiting Amanda Low’s split grade 3-4 class and Marion Elizabeth Collins’ grade 6 class at Tecumseh Elementary School in East Vancouver on January 31! The visit was sponsored by the national Poet in School program run by the acclaimed non-profit organization, Poetry in Voice.

I was so impressed by the openness and enthusiasm of the teachers and students! This was my second time visiting Tecumseh. Last June, I gave a certificate of recognition to teacher Tilia Prior and her grade 7 class to thank them for all the poems that the students had submitted about Hogan’s Alley in Vancouver’s historic Black Strathcona to the City Poems Contest. Grade 7 student Sharon Pan won third place with her poem about Vie’s Chicken & Steak House.

(Note: The Vancouver School Board’s first Chinese Canadian teacher, Vivian Jung, was hired by Tecumseh in the 1940s. (Over half a century of racial segregation had prevented Asian Canadians, Blacks, and other visible minorities from various professions including teaching.) A lane is named after Jung in Vancouver’s West End, near the former “public” Crystal Pool (long gone) at Sunset Beach where she was famously barred from entry during a time of informal segregation in the city, prior to Asian Canadians finally getting vote in 1947 and 1949.)

For both classes, I read my poem “Z” (that was selected for TransLink’s Poetry in Transit program a few years ago), and handed out bookmarks based on the bus poster. It’s a light-hearted, accessible poem that employs metaphor, personification, alliteration, assonance, rhyme and half rhyme, and is meant to encourage and empower readers and writers of all ages to have fun with words.

With the split grade 3-4 class, we focused on concrete, visual or shaped poetry. I showed some of my plastic-themed poems shaped like a cup, bottle, and artificial/cut-out Christmas tree, as well as the short animated poetry video, “Plasticnic” (a wry commentary on the plastic used at picnics) that I made with talented ECUAD graduate, Tisha Deb Pillai. We looked at a few concrete poems by other poets, including ones shaped like a spider and a flowerpot too.

Fun with Concrete Poetry (Grade 3-4)

Next, I asked the students to think about a favourite thing—e.g. a creature, game, food, activity—and then try to create a picture using phrases or words associated with that thing. There was a fabulous array of word-pictures created related to a variety of topics: bunnies, cats, birthday cake, cherry blossoms, basketball, video games, TV, sleep, bubble gum, the city of Hamburg, and a stuffed toy duck, and much more! Here is a sampling of some of the students’ poems below:

After the other kids had gone outside for recess, one student with special needs stayed behind to proudly present his poem about his stuffed toy duck to his teacher, teaching assistant and me in front of the classroom! (Concrete poems seem to engage kids of all backgrounds. I had a similar experience last year with a split grade 5-6 class at David Lloyd George Elementary, where several students with learning challenges were inspired to create and present terrific pieces.)

With the grade 6 class, we looked at two of my poems and how I collaborated with animators and a filmmaker to turn them into poetry videos. “Merry” (made in collaboration with second year animation students Quinn Kelly and Lara Renaud) is about overconsumption, plastic pollution and the climate crisis, and “Utility Pole” (made in collaboration with Ontario videographer Mary McDonald) is about the 130 millions of trees logged to make telephone poles and the issue of deforestation. Students loved the slide of the beautiful lyric shaped poem by Luann Hiebert in the League of Canadian Poets’ anthology, Heartwood.

Collaborative Tree Poems and Poetry Videos (Grade 6)

Next, I asked the students to stand and to pretend to be trees by doing the tree pose in yoga, first rooting their feet, then balancing on one leg, then the other, trying to stand still and then to sway as if it were windy with their arms held up like branches. Energized, the students then paired up to read aloud excerpts of their recent class assignment where they pretended to interview trees. Each partner would listen and suggest a favourite line or two that would be written from the point of view of a tree on strips of paper. After my visit and their lunch break, the students continued to work in larger groups to assemble and order their lines into collaborative poems that you can see below:

They went even further and made terrific poetry videos based on their poems with the help of their teacher, paying attention to integrating sound, image and voice. These poetry videos can be found in an Update that is posted below!

UPDATE – Poetry Videos by Tecumseh students

Here are some of the videos that the students put together. Click on the images to go to Vimeo and then click the play icon to watch the videos.