Flowing words: Water-Themed Poems and Music!

This afternoon, I rehearsed Elizabeth Bishop’s wonderful poem, “At the Fishhouses” with fiddler/violinist David Goldberg at Early Music Vancouver’s office on West 7th Avenue. It’s a poem with both humour and depth, with vivid descriptions that touch upon the profound. David’s expert, soulful fiddling really makes the poem come alive.

This rehearsal was in preparation for the opening concert of the 2022 Vancouver Bach Festival at the Chan Centre at UBC on Wednesday, July 27th! Early Music Vancouver’s Suzie LeBlanc (EMV’s Executive Director and Artistic Director) has organized a sparkling programme which includes Handel’s well-known Water Music, as well as compositions by Telemann and Alasdair MacLean. The superb Pacific Baroque Orchestra and EMV’s Artists-in-Residence, David Greenberg and David McGuinness will be performing.

Christina Hutten’s programme notes for the concert sets the stage for Wednesday’s concert. She writes, “Perhaps, in this city wrapped by river, sea, and rain, you have experienced the wonderful attraction of water; watched mesmerized by the eddies and flow of the Fraser River’s current; or plunged into the water of Burrard Inlet to feel the chop of waves over tide. This program celebrates water with music depicting the timeless tides, music about the sea and its mythical inhabitants, and music to enliven a Thames River cruise.”

There will be a pre-concert talk at the Royal Bank Cinema with Bill Richardson, Celia Brauer of the False Creek Watershed Society, author Bruce Macdonald and myself. Celia and Bruce will discuss a map of Vancouver’s original ecosystem that draws upon nineteenth century surveys. 

In the second half of the concert, I’ll be reading Nobel Laureate, Seamus Heaney’s “Lovers on Aran.” After Suzie Leblanc told me that Heaney was an admirer of Bishop, and was influenced by her work, I had to read more about their connection. An academic article by Christopher Laverty discusses how “Heaney read her Collected Poems in the 1960s, taught her work at Queen’s University Belfast, and the two would become friends in the spring of 1979 when he was a visiting lecturer at Harvard University, after which they maintained contact until she died in October of that year.” (Heaney’s lecture about Bishop’s poetry is also contained in his book, The Redress of Poetry.) Toward the end of the concert, I’ll also be reading my poem, “Lost Stream” which was featured recently in UBC’s Trek Magazine’s June issue (reprinted from my book, Odes & Laments).

If you’re curious how David merges Bach and Cape Breton fiddling, please listen to his recording here of baroque and traditional Cape Breton music with other musicians, but there’s nothing like hearing live music in the concert hall. There are several chances to hear him play during the festival!

For those of you who live outside Vancouver or who aren’t comfortable going into a concert hall, you can watch many of the live-streamed concerts online too by purchasing digital tickets here.


Poetry in the Park

The Royal City Literary Arts Society has organized a terrific free summer poetry reading series at Queen’s Park in New Westminster through the dedicated efforts of RCLAS President, Janet Kvammen! Each week, there are two featured poets plus an open mic. There’s an excellent range of established and emerging published poets of diverse backgrounds.

July 20th was a perfect warm summer day for our reading. Over a dozen readers signed up for the open mic! Alan Hill, former poet laureate of New Westminster, was an excellent emcee, and read two of his own poems. My favourite poem by featured author, Jude Neale riffed off of the line, “You’re just like your mother!” I also loved her two poems inspired by music–one based on the “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” theme from Mozart, and also one based on a well-known lullaby.

Canuck the crow with a knife with his beak in photo posted to Canuck and I

During my set of nine poems, the audience responded very warmly to “Ode to a Crow,” a poem about and dedicated to Canuck the Crow, who was voted Metro Vancouver’s unofficial ambassador in a 2018 CBC poll, but who went missing before the pandemic. The poem was originally commissioned for Migration Songs, a collaborative chapbook that paired scientists and poets for the 27th International Ornithological Congress held in Vancouver in 2018. I still remember how I looked up to see a couple of crows appear just when I started introducing the poem at the public reading/launch at the Vancouver Convention Centre.

Recorded by Wendy Cymbal, Queen’s Park, New Westminster, July 20, 2022

I also read two other audience favourites, which are also from my book, Odes & Laments, “Ode to Chopsticks” and “Lost Stream” (both recorded by Janet Kvammen). During the break, I met Chief Rhonda Larrabee of the Qayqayt First Nation, and discovered we’re distantly related by marriage through her Chinese Canadian father, Art Lee (of Lee’s Taxis) who was the brother of my mother’s sister-in-law.

I encourage poetry-lovers and poetry-writers to come out to at least one of the weekly readings this summer. Bring a picnic supper, sit at one of the benches, and listen to some local poetry–maybe even read a poem of your own at the open mic!


Worth More Standing: a poetic homage to the world’s trees

Poets paid homage to trees on beautiful, sunny Saturday afternoon beside an organic farm and heritage buildings among stands of Douglas Fir at the Ta’talu Festival, held at the A Rocha Environmental Centre in the Hazelmere Valley along the Little Campbell River in Surrey.

Nine of us read from a very special new anthology, Worth More Standing: Poets & Activists Pay Homage to Trees (Caitlin Press, 2022). Trevor Carolan, Bibiana Tomasic, Daniela Elza, Jacqueline Pearce, Calvin Wharton, Susan McCaslin, Renee Saklikar, Heidi Greco and I read poems in honour of trees and forests. There were also musical performances by the Hazelmere Heritage Fiddlers, Celtic songster Marlowe Ferris and The Mountain Dew musical duo.

During this family-friendly festival, people could take tours of the grounds. Artists had their easels set up. On sale were organic farm produce, delectable homemade baked goods and colourful bouquets of local flowers, as well as delicious bannock, crepes, and pizza offerings from nearby food stands.

Thank you to organizer and host/emcee Heidi Greco for all her efforts to organize the reading at this wonderful local festival. For decades, she has advocated for poetry and poets, plus fostered poetry-writing in varied community settings for writers of diverse backgrounds. She is a true poetry pillar!


Voices of the Street on the Climate Crisis

The incredible team at Megaphone Magazine organized the launch of their annual Voices of the Street anthology on Wednesday! This collection focuses on the theme of the climate crisis.

The week before the event, I enjoyed meeting the readers during a workshop on effective performance tips that I co-facilitated with my colleague, Wax Poetic Host, RC Weslowski at the request of Megaphone staffer, Holly Sakaki.

The launch at SFU Woodward’s unfolded with moving readings and speeches by James Witwicki, Horace Daychief/Bear Whisperer, Henry Doyle, JT Sandu, Ghia Aweida, Yvonne Mark, Peter Thompson, Stephen Scott, Gilles Cyrenne, and Louise Boilevin.

Yvonne Mark read a piece about her childhood and talked about the transformative influence of Megaphone.

I felt honoured to be asked to say a few words of commendation for the readers and the Megaphone team. I also read a tree poem from my last book, one that is reprinted in the tree anthology, Worth More Standing, edited by Tofino Poet Laureate Christine Lowther. It alludes to a history of deforestation and short-sighted logging practices, and the urgent need to protect our precious rainforests in face of the relentless pace of the climate crisis.

Megaphone staff and volunteers were cheering the readers on, alongside a warm and receptive audience of supporters. It was a wonderful and special evening.


Grade 7 Class Writes Moving Poems about Hogan’s Alley

I visited teacher Tilia Prior’s terrific and talented grade seven class today at Tecumseh Elementary School to thank them for submitting poems about Hogan’s Alley to the City Poems Contest!

The entire class of 25 students learned about this historic and significant Black community in Strathcona that was gutted in the late 1960s by the municipal government’s freeway plan to modernize transportation routes. Strong community resistance prevented the plan from being fully implemented, but the Georgia Viaduct was still built, razing Black homes and businesses.

Tilia Prior was inspired by acclaimed local writer and instructor, Wayde Compton, who was doing daily tweets with facts about Hogan’s Alley during Black History Month this past February. She showed the class poetry videos and short documentaries about the area too, and encouraged every student to write and submit a poem for the contest. She taught them about various poetic techniques such as repetition and alliteration.

As a result, the poems were moving, thoughtful, and written with care. Vivid images rose from the pages. It is incredible how poetry works like a magic spell to bridge time and place: here were students born long after the demise of Hogan’s Alley, who were not Black, who may never have even visited that part of town, learning about and empathizing with Black residents of the era. In fact, student Sharon Pan’s poem about Vie’s chicken House won third place in the youth category!

An interesting fact to note about Tecumseh Elementary School is that Vancouver School Board’s first Asian Canadian teacher, Vivian Jung, was hired by the school in the 1940s. Over half a century of racial segregation had prevented Asian Canadians, Blacks, and other visible minorities from various professions. But the activism of Jung and her classmates led to a breakthrough in 1945.

She taught at Tecumseh as a beloved teacher for 35 years. A lane is named after her in Vancouver’s West End, near the former “public” Crystal Pool (long gone) at Sunset Beach where she was famously barred from entry.

(Some Canadians might not be aware that segregation wasn’t just a US phenomenon. Racial segregation was actively practiced in Vancouver, in BC, and elsewhere in Canada at that time—in “public” pools, movie theatres, restaurants, hospitals, housing, civic employment, and more.)

It was cool to see this kind of interracial solidarity being forged in the present about the injustice faced by the community of Hogan’s Alley in the past, paralleling the interracial solidarity that Vivian Jung and her classmates marshalled back in 1945. Kudos to Tilia Prior and her amazing grade seven class!