Ordinary Objects as a Lens or Portal for Creative Writing

Thanks to the Vancouver Writers Festival’s wonderful Writers in the Classroom program, I had a chance to visit Magee Secondary last Wednesday, accompanied by VWF’s Senior Education and Development Coordinator, Leena Desai.

Each of the twenty-six grade eleven students in Helen Kuk’s classroom used an ordinary object as a writing prompt. It was very cool to hear about the variety of objects that served as a lens or portal into their writing–a toy soldier, a candle, a toothbrush, a lucky red envelope (usually distributed to kids at Chinese New Year), a hoodie, a cell phone, a calligraphy brush, a cookie cutter, a shell, and more. A very creative group! Helen has told me about all the talent in the classroom too. I am really looking forward to reading the work generated by the classroom exercise!


High School Talent

I was honoured to be invited to visit Stephanie Leechik-Belonio’s terrific grade 11 class at my alma mater, Eric Hamber Secondary, on May 3 through the wonderful Writers in the Classroom Program organized by the Vancouver Writers’ Festival!

I was delighted and impressed by the draft poems that some of the students shared with me that were generated by the in-class writing exercise. (She’ll be forwarding me some more poems to comment on soon too!)

Stephanie prepared the class in advance by showing a couple of my poetry videos made in collaboration with recent animation graduates of Emily Carr University of Art & Design (“Omelet” and “Plasticnic“). I described my journey as a writer and the position of poet laureate, and read a few poems. I also talked about the revision process, establishing a sustainable writing practice, doing public readings and publishing your work. At the end of the session, there were lots of excellent questions during the Q & A. It was a lively exchange!

When I attended Hamber from grade 8 to grade 12 decades ago, the lockers were painted orange and yellow, but everything else was the same–the office, the showcases in the main foyer, the names of top students in athletics, citizenship, academics. (I wasn’t a star in anything, by the way–just a geeky, nerdy, socially awkward introvert who wrote a lot of morbid and angsty poems.) I’m pretty sure I had a class or two in Room 209 too (probably French with Mr. Herring.) A new earthquake-proof building is being built where the track used to be, so this current building probably won’t be around too long. The demographics of the student body and faculty appear to be quite different too than when I was there.

Thanks to Leena Desai, the Senior Education and Development Coordinator at the Vancouver Writers’ Festival, for facilitating the visit and for taking photos! I’m looking forward to visiting Magee next week.


Earth Day

My Earth Day piece for The Tyee, “Connecting to Planet Earth Through Poetry” has just been posted which may whet your appetite for some recent environmentally themed poems and anthologies published locally. Of course, there are many poets who have committed themselves to writing environmentally themed poems over the past decades! Wish I could have included them all.

In his book, Where is the Fiction About Climate Change? Amitav Ghosh stated, “Why does climate change cast a much smaller shadow on literature than it does on the world? Is it perhaps too wild a stream to be navigated in the accustomed barques of narration? But the truth, as is now widely acknowledged, is that we have entered a time when the wild has become the norm: if certain literary forms are unable to negotiate these waters, then they will have failed – and their failures will have to be counted as an aspect of the broader imaginative and cultural failure that lies at the heart of the climate crisis.”

This may or may not be true about fiction, but climate change has played a huge part in poetry. Think of two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning American poet, W. S. Merwin, his poetry and his lifelong work to reclaim a deforested former pineapple plantation on Maui that turned it into a lush biodiverse conservancy. There’s a fabulous documentary about Merwin’s life and work, Even Though The Whole World is Burning which I highly recommend. (He reads a few poems in a short fundraising teaser about the making of the film as well.)

I hope you enjoy the poems, recordings and books mentioned in my Tyee piece. And just in case you have room for one more poem, here’s a link to a poem written and read by Rita Wong, “Holders” from her book, undercurrent (Nightwood, 2015) which was recorded for Poetry London that you can watch here. Happy Earth Day, everyone!


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:


“Each Poem is a Journey”

I was honoured to be be interviewed by Ingrid Rose for Writers’ Radio recently! This 23 minute program is airing now from April 18 to May 1 at the beginning of each hour on the hour. Besides reading some of my favourite past poems about childhood, motherhood, family and grief, I describe how I started writing poetry as a kid, and discuss the Poet Laureate position and the City Poems Contest that recently closed for submissions.

Ingrid is a warm and engaging host, plus Gary’s lyrical piano interludes are really lovely. I encourage lingering to listen to them before and after to savour them fully.

(This program will then be replaced after May 1 with a new broadcast featuring another writer. You’ll be able to find it after May 1 alongside recordings and interviews of other notable writers in Writers’ Radio’s Podcasts Library)

Thank you to the terrific team behind Writer’s Radio: Ingrid Rose, Gary Sill and Carole Harmon.

I’ll be reading some new poems at a live reading with Adrienne Yeung and Britt McGillivray through SFU Lunch Poems on Wednesday, April 20th, 12-1 pm, and on Verse Forward Online with Host Phinder Dulai, poetry editor of Canadian Literature, on Thursday, April 28, 4:30-6 pm.