New Shoots: fostering creative writers in local high schools

There was a wonderful celebration of student writing last night at False Creek Community Centre with the launch of the most recent New Shoots anthology of high school poetry, prose and artwork! New Shoots Coordinator, Erin Biberdorf emceed the student and mentor readings.

Gene Derreth, teacher at Vancouver Technical Secondary, Erin Biberdorf, New Shoots Coordinator, and Logaine Navascués, former New Shoots Coordinator

Ever since 1986, the New Shoots program has sent graduate students from UBC’s School of Creative Writing into Vancouver School Board high school classrooms and student writing clubs to hold 6-8 consecutive workshops on poetry, scriptwriting, comics, and fiction. The harvest? A beautiful annual anthology showcasing student writing and visual art.

​English teacher Ian Macleod, who has been involved in New Shoots for over 20 years (many as a coordinator), informed me in an email that several prominent and award-winning local authors began as either New Shoots participants or mentors. This illustrious list includes Wayde Compton, Nancy Lee, Billeh Nickerson, Madeleine Thien, Charlotte Gill, Andrew Westolle, Kevin Chong and Deborah Campbell, among others.  

I was a mentor myself at New Shoots at Ideal Mini School and my alma mater Eric Hamber Secondary in 2000. I loved the interactions with the keen, creative minds that I encountered in both schools. Some terrific and highly imaginative work emerged from the writing prompts and themes we explored during those workshops.

My friend, colleague and co-instructor at SFU Continuing Studies, Evelyn Lau had poetry published in the New Shoots anthology when she was 13. It was the year before she ran away from home. You can read about what the support from New Shoots and from her high school teachers meant to her, plus read her poem, “Sun” in an article about the New Shoots program in UBC’s Trek Magazine here.

Long live this excellent, longstanding partnership between the VSB and UBC’s School of Creative Writing! May fledgling writers continue to be nurtured and nourished by this fertile educational collaboration!

The Canine Library: a dog poem blog

I was pawsitively thrilled to volunteer at the VPL and Vancouver Park’s Board second ever Canine Library event on Saturday, September 17 at Trout Lake Park! Kids, families and dog-lovers queued up early to sign up for a 15 minute spot to read to one of the thirteen therapy dogs from St. John’s Ambulance with their handlers.

VPL’s Candie Tanaka organized and coordinated the event, which was last held in 2019 before the pandemic. There was a children’s tent with colouring sheets and crayons, Mad Libs, stickers, magnets and more with the VPL’s amazing children’s librarians on hand to assist. Right next to them, the VPL’s Jonna Milledge and I were there to greet potential poets of all ages with dog poetry worksheets and magnetic poetry sets. I’d chosen some dog poetry books that were displayed on a table for people to pick up and peruse. Some of these actually disappeared for long periods of time before being returned–a good sign they were being read and enjoyed!

Wonderful published dog poems by well-known poets such as Mary Oliver, Mark Doty, Mark Strand and others were hung around the tent for inspiration. (See the list below for a sample.) Some folks were even taking photos of their favourite poems! One of my favourites is a haiku by Basho:

Like a saint

dog stepped on by

cat in heat

I witnessed moments of authentic connection during the event. One young woman was moved to tears while writing a lyrical poem of loss about a beloved dog in her life. Another woman picked up Mary Oliver’s book, Dog Songs on display at our table, and sat nearby for half an hour to savour the poems. One fellow stood by the table with a magnetic poetry set for over forty minutes while creating an original poem. A few people wrote poems that they read aloud to me, in preparation for their dog appointments. I took a short break to walk around the 13 dog tents to witness all the human-dog love and affection being given and received.

Here is a handout with a selected list of dog-themed poetry books for kids and adult that was available at the event. Over 70 books were distributed among the therapy dog tents, compiled from a list curated by local poet, Alex Leslie for the 2019 Canine Library, along with books curated by the VPL’s Children’s librarians, augmented by some dog poetry books suggested by me.

Here are some of the terrific dog poems (thanks so much from helpful suggestions from Aislinn Hunter, Billeh Nickerson, Anne Simpson and Alex Leslie) that we displayed around the Dog Poetry Tent that you can also find online here:

And here are a few more book titles for those who are keen to read more dog poems:

  • Bark in the Park! Poems for Dog Lovers by Avery Corman
  • Name That Dog! Puppy Poems from A to Z by Peggy Archer
  • A Dazzling Display of Dogs: Concrete Poems by Betsy Franco
  • I Could Chew on This and Other Poems by Dogs by Francesco Marciuliano
  • Unleashed: Poems by Writers’ Dogs by Amy Hempel & Jim Shephard

Besides digging around for good dog poems, I prepared for the Canine Library event by reading Pablo Neruda’s “Ode to a Dog” to my next door neighbours’ little dog, Hunter (who clearly was blissed out by belly rubs), as well as reading Ted Hughes’ “Roger the Dog” and Eleanor Farjeon’s “Bliss” to Theo, a big friendly dog who recently joined my friend Analee’s household.

I laughed out loud at the hilarious, irreverent short poems written from various dogs’ perspectives in Francesco Marciuliano’s pithy little book, I Could Chew on This and Other Poems by Dogs. But as I plunged further into the realm of dog poetry, I was transfixed by Andre Alexis’ award-winning novel, the apologue Fifteen Dogs, winner of both the Scotiabank Giller Prize and the Rogers Writers Trust Fiction Prize, which I read cover to cover on an airplane trip. The gods Hermes and Apollo make a bet over what will happen if a group of dogs at a Toronto veterinary clinic are granted human consciousness and language. The point of view of each of the dogs is explored as they struggle with their newfound abilities. Somehow Alexis manages to channel the voice and perspective of a dog in an utterly convincing way. Of particular note are the poems ostensibly authored by the dog, Prince, which are judicially sprinkled through the novel, that were inspired by Canadian poets and the Oulipo movement in France. I’ll be thinking about that book for a long time.


Why Poetry Videos?

Why poetry videos? They expand the reach of poetry by making it accessible to people across borders and backgrounds. There are many folks who are intimidated or confused by poetry. Maybe they had a bad experience in school with analyzing and dissecting a poem to death. They might not “get” a poem and turn away, thinking it’s too difficult or esoteric. They might not know where to find a good poem among the shelves of poetry available.

One issue is that many poems are meant to be read aloud. Poetry videos can allow a poem to be heard of course, but most importantly experienced through visual imagery, colour, pattern, sound effects, music, narration and more. Filmmakers might be inspired by a poem’s metaphors and distilled, compressed language, which might serve as a spine or screenplay for a sequenced collage of visuals and sound.

What’s very cool about poetry videos is that they can extend and deepen the meaning of the poem itself because of how the images, music, sound effects work in synergy with the spoken or written word. The visual images and sound design can tap into the unconscious, the unspoken, and universal, drawing upon the white space of the poem on the page. As many poetry video commentators have noted, the best poetry videos do much more than illustrate the poem: they create something new that can transcend the words. Some poetry videos actually might not even need any words at all–the images and sound effects themselves create a kind of “poem”–hence the term “videopoem.” Not all poetry videos are videopoems, and not all videopoems involve actual written or spoken poetry.

For those of you who are curious about poetry videos (or videopoems)–what they are, how to make them, what they look like–I’ve put together a list of resources that includes examples, websites and essays about them here. The page includes a link to an excellent essay by Moving Poem’s Dave Bonta, “Videopoetry: What is it, Who Makes it and Why?” 

Most importantly, don’t miss an amazing retrospective of 40 years of videopoetry curated by Tom Konyves, author of the highly influential Videopoetry Manifesto. The free exhibition is entitled Poets with a Video Camera at the Surrey Art Gallery, opening on September 17th and on view until December 11.

There will also be a free symposium entitled “Two or Three Things One Should Know about Videopoetry” on Saturday, November 5, from 12-6 pm at the gallery, featuring various speakers on the topic of video poetry, several from outside of Canada. (A free tour of this exhibit and another exhibit at the Surrey Art Gallery will also be offered by curator Jordan Strom on Saturday, November 26, 2-3:30 pm.) Come check out the diverse videos/films and the stimulating discussion!

If you’d like to hear a live reading of poems by several of the poetry-filmmakers attending the Symposium, please consider attending the reading on Sunday, November 6th at 7 pm at People’s Co-op Bookstore in Vancouver! Come hear poets from far afield, including Adeena Karasick, Valerie Leblanc, Daniel Dugas, Kurt Heintz, Matt Mullins and Sarah Tremlett, as well as locals Heather Haley, me and curator Tom Konvyes.

How I got involved with poetry videos

It all began in 2009. While sitting in the playground watching our kids run around, I asked a former high school classmate who was teaching documentary film to collaborate with me on making a poetry video to promote my new poetry collection. He agreed! With a miniscule budget, we worked on Chrysanthemum which was selected for screening at Vancouver’s poetry video festival, Visible Verse, curated and organized for years by local poet and performer, Heather Haley.

I never looked back! I learned a lot after that first poetry video. I’ve been extremely fortunate that my friend, Martin Rose, an animation instructor at Emily Carr University, recommended talented animation students from his classes for several other poetry videos: Omelet with Toni Zhang; Aquarium with Chelsea Ker; Drunken Laundry Day: A Poem by Henry Doyle with H. Kristen Campbell, Sitji Chou and Carolina Gonzales; Plasticnic with Tish deb Pillai. Sound designer Tinjun Niu recommended Art Institute grad, Nhat Truong to animate two of my plastic pollution-themed concrete/visual poems in Plasticpoems.

At the REELpoetry festival in Houston in 2019, I met Mary Macdonald who had made some beautiful poetry videos with Ontario poet, Penn Kemp. Mary and I ended up making Utility Pole together. I also met experienced US filmmakers Pamela Falkenberg and Jack Cochrane at REELpoetry. They consulted me in producing and directing two poetry videos based on my poems (Legacy and Neighbourhood) at their own expense. I was also commissioned to write a poem for Erin Trudell, a Montreal choreographer who had done a video of her movement/dance piece, Of the Sea.

This summer has been a busy one collaborating on two climate crisis-related poetry videos–the aforementioned live action one, Neighbourhood with Pam and Jack, and an animated one, Merry with Lara Renaud and Quinn Kelly, two keen young animators studying in Portland. It’s incredible how many hours let alone days (or weeks or months…) goes into making a minute or two of animation.

Each poetry video has intentionally had a different approach, look and style. I usually start the process with a good audio-recording. Then I will type up a chart with my vision of what words and phrases should go with what images and sound effects. I might also do a sketch or two to illustrate my ideas to communicate the overall concept. A UBC screenplay course taught by Peggy Thompson that I took while doing my MFA has helped me understand the interplay of words and visuals, as has my work with an illustrator on the children’s book, The Rainbow Rocket, as well as viewing poetry videos at festivals and online through Moving Poems.

I’ll watch the early versions several dozens of times over (if not more), replaying sections repeatedly, in order to give detailed input on pacing, flow, colour, sound effects and more. I also often source images (or take photographs myself) that I want incorporated into the body of the video or in the credits. There are usually a number of revisions and fine edits before the final version is ready to submit to festivals through FilmFreeway.

The best part of the process is the to and fro. Sometimes my initial ideas don’t work. Sometimes the co-directors’, animator’s or sound designer’s suggestions are much better. Other times, their ideas don’t fit my vision. Many times our discussions will inspire me to think of alternative approaches to address a problem. It’s a journey of discovery, and it’s exciting to see the end result come together.

Because I feel so very honoured, privileged and most of all lucky to have worked with such creative and talented people, I want to encourage other poets and filmmakers to make poetry videos too. Poetry film and poetry videos have long represented a legitimate form of cultural expression in Germany (the first. largest and longest running poetry film festival, the Zebra Poetry Film Festival began in 2002), as well as in France, England and the US. Canadian poets and poetry deserve the same support and coverage.

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!