Text in the City: Seriously Serial Series

by Garry Thomas Morse

Now, I’ve already said a great deal about the diverse and vibrant literary community in town, but I still wanted to give a bit of a nod to two popular and intense reading series in Vancouver that I particularly appreciate.

“The Night of the Dead Poets” series began in 2007 when John Fisher of Upstart Crow Books in North Vancouver asked acclaimed poet David Zieroth to help co-ordinate a special reading series. Although I was quite happily a veritable recluse at the time and did not get chance to participate in this series, I was a frequent visitor to Upstart Crow Books, as Fisher showed impeccable taste (with respect to all the potpourri holders and patio furniture at our National bookstore chains) and would have a small shelf of choice poetry selections at the front counter.

Rob Taylor, author of The Other Side of Ourselves from Cormorant Books (if not in Zambia you might run into him on the local poetry bus)

In 2011, three past participants in the series (the very cheery Christopher Levenson, the very lively Diane Tucker, and the very lovely Rob Taylor) pooled their powers to take the reins from Zieroth, and they have been running the revamped series at the charming Project Space (on East Georgia close to Main Street in Vancouver’s Chinatown), which serves as book shop, publisher, programming space, and studio.

Earlier this year, Project Space was host to Arte Factum, an exhibition of chapbooks from across North America that featured twenty contemporary works—including stunning tangible lookers by poetry movers and shakers Jordan Abel, Cynara Geissler and Dina Del Bucchia, commissioned by Poetry Is Dead and accompanied by curator Daniel Zomparelli’s personal chapbook collection along with additional donated chapbooks from derek beaulieu and Warren Dean Fulton.

Del Bucchia’s discreetly disseminated “How To” chapbook series forms part of her upcoming book Coping With Emotions and Otters (available from Talonbooks in Spring 2013).

The Dead Poets Reading Society even has their own rigorous “empathy test.”

As for the reanimated Dead Poets Reading Series, to the best of my knowledge, each reading has been packed to capacity. Last January, when I got the rare chance to read from Jack Spicer’s The Holy Grail, at the event itself, I was particularly struck by Miranda Pearson’s elegant reading of verse by Stevie Smith (her adolescent love) and David Zieroth’s reading of Thomas Hardy’s work. Heidi Greco gave a more comprehensive report of this reading on her out on the big limb blog post.

Moi, Miranda Pearson, Diane Tucker, David Zieroth, and John Donlan read from work by dearly departed poets.

Somehow, the series retains a light-hearted near-Colonial air, and there’s an interesting crossover between poetry that has been anthologized for at least a century or so and more contemporary work. Of course, on occasion the poets break into the claret early on and go wild, denouncing Hardy’s novels in favour of his poetry, disown the entire Western history of epic verse as dead white dude poetry, or blurt out something as odious and verboten as “British Columbia”. Yet it is all in good fun, surely.

Susan McCaslin’s Demeter Goes Skydiving (UAP) – winner of the Robert Kroetsch Poetry Book Award

At the last reading I attended, I was especially impressed by Susan McCaslin, who can recite a fair amount of Coleridge off the top of her head, and also by Wayde Compton’s mesmerizing reading of part of Roy Kiyooka’s serial work “Pear Tree Pomes”, which you can find in The New Long Poem Anthology and in Pacific Windows.

Another newer reading series I am musing over is Lunch Poems @ SFU, which reputedly began with a proto-event in late 2011 in a relatively airless grey-green room at the downtown Harbour Centre campus of SFU, where Renée Saklikar pulled out the City Lights Pocket Poet Series edition of Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems and a room of people became somehow convinced they were “poem-crazy.”

Frank O’Hara reads Fantasy from Lunch Poems.

For those unfamiliar with Lunch Poems, in the 1960s, when poet Frank O’Hara worked at MoMA in New York, he would often spend his lunch breaks roaming the streets of midtown Manhattan, finding inspiration in the bustling city and its people, and writing poems about his encounters.

After Saklikar sought out enthused SFU staff, including Writers Studio Director Wayde Compton, Katharine McManus, Shauna Sylvester, Kim Gilker, and Robin Prest, a plan was hatched. In March 2012, Lunch Poems @ SFU opened to over a hundred people with City of Vancouver Poet Laureate Evelyn Lau and her guest Daniela Elza (author of The Weight of Dew from Mother Tongue Publishing).

If you don’t see her in 111 West Coast Literary Portraits (Mother Tongue Publishing) you are still likely to see the ubiquitous Dr. Elza around town.

Here is one of many positive responses from the public about the Lunch Poems @ SFU reading series:

For me, Lunch Poems is a chance to take part in something completely new and apart from my everyday world. It’s an opportunity to rub elbows with a diverse crowd of poets, poetry enthusiasts, and curious community members like myself. At Lunch Poems, I get to share in the beautiful, provocative and sometimes even contentious works of local artists. I get to learn from the questions posed by fellow audience members, laugh as poets like Rob Taylor joke in rhyme, and feel chills as poets like Renee Sarojini Saklikar describe the inspiration behind their poems (in this case Air India flight 182).

Saklikar very graciously filled in more than a few lacunae for me:

For the second session, Wayde Compton read with his guest Rahat Kurd. She sang from the Koran and read ghazals that suture history into form poetry. The series was taking shape, with much guidance from Wayde, who has this knack for pairing poets together, and we welcomed Lyric and L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, rhythm and form, history and narrative, object and subject, published authors and emerging poets.

Dorothy Trujillo Lusk and Jen Currin answer questions

There was a reading with Dorothy Trujillo Lusk and Jen Currin. “Dot” read from Redactive and Ogress Oblige and she was Dot-like, intense, with red hair glowing in the light of the Teck Gallery. Her poems dense, conjugated body into sound into syntax, drilling subject into object. She also read a snippet from the chapbook Oral Tragedy. This, too, was a talisman for the road. Then Jen Currin read in her clear light voice that is about sound, that is post-Ashbery and short, image-fractured, of the city.

The series was also host to Aislinn Hunter and Jamie Reid, the author of I. Another. The Space Between (Talonbooks) and Prez: Homage to Lester Young (Oolichan Books).

Aislinn read from her poetry book, The Possible Past as well as a set of new poems – she has a beautiful voice. She spoke about writing novels and about writing poetry. She spoke about communing with the departed and speaking the names of the dead. Her poetry sits astride lyric and a kind of ongoing essay of science and exploration.

Jamie read poems about war, about suffering, about music – he read from Prez (!) one of my all-time favourite books of B.C. poetry (about which I first heard from Wayde). Jamie’s introductions of his poems flowed and flowered into his performance.

I was fortunate enough to slip out of work long enough to enjoy a delightful reading by George Bowering and Cecily Nicholson. It struck me as another savvy pairing by Mr. Compton, taking into account Nicholson’s ongoing poetry project about aspects of civic and local history vis-à-vis Bowering’s staunch emphasis on localism in poetry (he might point out this word is from the Latin locare – to locate, as opposed to regionalism – from regere – to rule).

Nicholson read from Triage, one of my favourite books of poetry in the past decade or so, and Bowering shocked the audience by announcing that “Lana Turner has collapsed.”

Hear Frank O’Hara reading his original poem about Lana Turner from Lunch Poems.

I especially enjoyed Bowering’s poem about writing like Henry James writing in his later years, and also Nicholson’s reading and her eloquent responses to audience questions.

George Bowering and Cecily Nicholson shake on a job well met

Earlier this week, I was invited to read at the pseudo-anniversary of the series’ origins, a special holiday reading that included an open mic component. Now, I’m not always a fan of open mic events, which tend to vary, although I was fully prepared with a snarky accent and stock vituperative commentary for an X-Factor-style reality show format (cry faces included) but ALL the readers turned out to be in top form and I enjoyed listening to their poems very much.

Emily Ross was kind enough to put together this SFU feature about my appearance at this December event.

I opened my reading with the poem “Music”, also from Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems, which seemed suitable to the brief spell of snowfall and passing bluster of holiday shoppers, a poem that ends thusly:

     As they’re putting up the Christmas trees on Park Avenue
     I shall see my daydreams walking by with dogs in blankets,
     put to some use before all those coloured lights come on !
             But no more fountains and no more rain,
             and the stores stay open terribly late.

Maybe green is the new poetry. Daniel Zomparelli’s Davie Street Translations (Talonbooks) and Elizabeth Bachinsky’s I Don’t Feel So Good (BookThug)

Poets Daniel Zomparelli and Elizabeth Bachinsky will be reading at the next event for Lunch Poems @ SFU at the Harbour Centre downtown campus on January 16 2013 at Noon. Not to be missed, I promise!

Hey, even Don Draper digs Frank O’Hara’s poetry!