Deadline for City Poems Contest Approaching

Just 6 days left before the April 15th deadline for the City Poems Contest! But that’s still plenty of time to write and/or revise a poem about a historical, ecological, or cultural site within the City of Vancouver that relates to the city’s origins or its multifaceted history.

Image of the Arbutus Corridor railway, Places That Matter,

Poems can be as short as a haiku or a couplet, or as long as 400 words. Prose poems are welcome too, as well as concrete or visual poems. Feel free to use an epigraph or quote a headline or a line from the Vancouver Heritage Foundation’s Heritage Site Finder or Places that Matter sites, which are superb resources that are accessible with a few clicks on the keyboard.

“Force of Nature” Location: 2335 Granville. By Phil Gray
“In the Garden” Location: 1523 West 8th Ave. By Grace Cho
“The Reflection” Location: 61 East 5th Ave. By Dimitri Sirenko
“Resilient Chinatown” Location: 251 Union Street (in laneway) By Paige Jung

Or perhaps write about something you’ve seen at the Museum of Vancouver, Maritime Museum, or Museum of Anthropology–an artifact, carving, weaving, canoe, photograph, the buildings themselves. How about that crab statue/fountain in front of the Museum of Vancouver? The war canoe exhibit at the Maritime Museum? Or the monumental Bill Reid sculpture, “The Raven and the First Men,” in the Museum of Anthropology? There’s also so much public art in this city that could be written about! The controversial poodle on a pedestal on Main Street? Murals from the Vancouver Mural Festival abound.

“Blanketing the City IV – Cathedral Square” Location: 566 Richards St
By Debra Sparrow, Chief Janice George, and Angela George


There’s an online submission form set up to facilitate your poetry submissions, but you can also print off a form to email in your poem, or just mail it in to a post office box that I’ve rented just for the contest. More information is available both on the VPL poet laureate website and on a contest webpage on my website.


Writing Place-Based Poems

Here’s a 30 minute presentation I recorded for the Vancouver Public Library (to follow up on the March 19th workshop) for those writers who couldn’t attend. I do a quick overview of some of the major elements of poetry, give a few examples of place-based poems, and suggest some approaches and strategies to write poems of your own. Hope you find it helpful!


Short Video about the City Poems Contest

Here’s a short video featuring possible places around town to write poems about. I also offer a few words of encouragement to anyone thinking of submitting to the contest! Deadline is coming up soon, on April 15!

(Thanks so much to videographer Holly Hofmann at Word Vancouver for creating and posting this on Word Vancouver’s Facebook Page and social media, and to Executor Director Bonnie Nish for initiating this and for her continuing support!)


Some approaches for writing place-based poems

There are so many places that have meaning for us that we could write about. How to start?

In my recent Tyee piece, I provide three examples of Vancouver-themed poems, written in very different styles. Henry Doyle takes plainspoken, direct approach to describe working at the Main & Hastings washrooms. Former Vancouver poet laureate, Evelyn Lau, weaves together lyric depictions of her neighbourhood, including the last remaining hold-out, a woman with an old home sandwiched between condo developments. Alex Leslie’s hyperbolic prose poem is terrific parody of the typical scenic postcard, transforming English Bay into a surreal and disturbing landscape.

In my March 19 online workshop with the Vancouver Public Library, I discuss various approaches to writing place-based poems. Here are some of the strategies:

  • Ask a grandparent/elder to point out a favourite place on a map and describe a specific event or scene. What did they smell, taste, touch, hear (conversation, stories, nature sounds) and see (colours, objects, animals, plants, people)?  Turn that interview into a poem.
  • Use headlines from an old newspaper or magazine or postcard as a writing prompt
  • Research and write a poem about the history of a significant home, school, restaurant, playground, park, garden or gathering place using an actual scene from your memory or someone else’s (refer to my Possible Resources Page for websites and books about local history)
  • Address a person, place or thing, or have that person, place or thing address you (a speech, a story, a letter, a conversation/dialogue)
  • Read at least 4-5 place-based poems, and then write about the changes you’ve witnessed in your own neighbourhood (see poems listed on my Possible Resources Page)

Once you have managed to put a draft poem on the page, it’s a wonderful feeling! But once the clouds of glory from creating something new have dissipated, it’s time to take a closer look at your draft. Mary Oliver wrote about needing 40 drafts of any one poem, or even more. It take time and effort to refine a poem. What steps can we take to better communicate our vision of the poem to readers? Here are some questions to ask your draft poem:

  • Where does the poem really begin, and where does it end?
  • Is there something contained or not contained in the poem that I am avoiding?
  • How can I hone my poem further? 
    • Word choice: can I use any stronger and more vivid verbs, and can I spot any abstractions or clichés?
    • Figurative language: inserting metaphors and similes
    • Are there places that need “unpacking” (further development) or need further compression or cutting out altogether?
    • Does it flow well? (Read it aloud!)
    • Can I improve my use of white space? (line length, line breaks, stanza breaks)
    • When to “show” and when to “tell”? Where is it best to be indirect (e.g. to imply and connote) and when is it better to be direct (to state)?
    • Are there other layers running beneath the poem to tap into? (temporal, emotional, spiritual)                          

I also recommend this article by Ann Gardner, “Place-based poetry: one step at a time.” It is geared toward high school students, but it provides an excellent illustration of the revision process for anyone who is new to creative writing.                                                     


Museum of Vancouver

I cycled over to the Museum of Vancouver today to meet with MOV education staff to prepare for some upcoming poetry workshops with elementary school students in May. I had a chance to go through the fascinating exhibits currently on display, some of which are terrific resources for anyone looking to learn more about the city or seeking material in order to write a poem for the City Poems Contest. There’s of course the eye-catching Neon Vancouver display, but there is the c̓əsnaʔəm: the City before the City exhibit (about what some call the Marpole midden), as well as the comprehensive A Seat At the Table exhibit, both of which contain a treasure trove of artifacts, videos, and stories. The latter illustrates the history of Chinese immigration and settlement in BC in a very engaging and interactive way that will appeal to people of all ages. I loved the focus on food too!