The art of the webfoot
Baseball, poetry and other cultures
There is a poet in Vancouver who calls himself Canada’s National Magazine and carries a pet slug with him when he goes to parties or across the gleaming country for poetry readings. Yet he is one of Canada’s most serious artists and was once called the best poet in the nation by a man who was speaking out of my motel TV screen on the CBC program Viewpoint.
There is another poet out here who once declared himself mayor of Vancouver, provoking Maclean’s to run a full page picture of him, and that’s back when the pages were bigger. Since that time he has worked at the city morgue, got himself elected to UBC’s senate and appeared on CTV’s Mantrap, billed in TV Guide as a “Hollywood agent.”
A third, yours truly, picked himself up off the floor and kicked a four-foot-ten-inch women’s lib reporter and ne’erdo-well on the seat of the shorts during a basketball war, then apologized at half time and later joined the women’s team, only, for his trouble, to have his thumb dislocated by a teammate’s snappy pass.
The poetry scene in Vancouver has changed over the past 10 years, and if the past record holds, those changes will be felt in the eastern portion of the country in short order. ’Twas ever thus — at least since the beginning of the Sixties.
The Sixties was the decade of what Raymond Souster, the Toronto poet, called “New Wave Canada.” The wave started in the Pacific and washed eastward over the country, effecting a great change in the outlook and quality of Canadian verse. The anthologies of the decade began to be filled more and more with the works of young poets from Vancouver, which generally meant young poets from the hillside towns of BC, and for the first time the publishing houses in Toronto featured books by West Coast writers such as John Newlove, Bill Bissett, Lionel Kearns, Daphne Mariait and Frank Davey. At the end of the Sixties there were about 50 Vancouver poets whose work was known to readers in Ontario and perhaps 100 more who were known to the local scene here.
The original assumption these poets held was that poetry was a vocal art not a rhetorical one, and certainly not a printoriented one. At first this assumption was attacked and scoffed at by the poets and critics in Toronto and Montreal, but soon the most important younger poets in the east were seen to be riding the wave. Victor Coleman, Margaret Atwood, bp nichol, David McFadden all sounded as though they had never heard of Gutenberg and his cronies at McGill University.
But that was the Sixties. In those days the Vancouver poets used to speak of their community and they meant largely a community of artists, writers, painters and candlestick makers who collaborated on their works and turned their backs upon the upward striving individualism of the Toronto culture scene, where the publishers and galleries were. Now the community has settled comfortably in what the Toronto magazines might call the avant-garde, not dazzled by art at all but expecting its grace in everything they do.
That is to say, the artists, writers, potters, dancers now see themselves as a nation here. It is called the Pacific Nation at times, or the Kosmik League, or the New Era Social Club.
The New Era Social Club proper, if that’s the word, is a grungy collection of rooms over some höpeless store on east Powell Street, in the gritty heart of what used to be called Japtown. It’s a centre, one of many, for cooperative work on the arts, floor space for traveling rhymesters, or just plain social rubbing. Like, for instance, the weekly Hot Stove League sessions where poets and painters talk about their aesthetics over hot tea and warm wine. The New Era Social Club is mainly disorganized by Flakey Rosehip, Taki Blues Singer and the poet calling himself Canada’s National Magazine. Flakey Rosehip is the nom de paix of Glenn Lewis the potter, Canada’s National Magazine is Gerry Gilbert, and nobody seems to know the original name of Mr. Blues Singer, a long-haired photographer from the land of the rising sun.
Those are some of the Kosmik names currently in vogue in Vancouver artistic circles. There are at least two possible schools of thought about them. They may be attempts to add glamorous mystification such as we used to see in the successful rock scene these people envy, or they may be another conscious attempt to get away from the career game played by artists who sign their names big on their works. Maybe it is some kind of bizarre combination of these motivations. But it should be noted that Vancouver’s arts scene is dominated now by cooperative and collective organizations, all with funny (un)pretentious names — the aforementioned NESC, Intermedia, Chicken Bank, Image Bank, Butch Bank, The York Street Pentagon and the East End Punks, to name a few.
Within these organizations people with national reputations forget about the latter and work at teaching each other and immigrants from the hills how to use cameras, printing
presses, video machines, politics, etc.
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WEBFOOT from page 47 Besides the community energy thus developed, there is a second effect that is very interesting, especially in view of its contrast with the explosively deteriorating state of Vancouver’s official city government, downtown real estate and freeway threats, as this city begins to look more and more like the hideous concrete graveyards in the United States. In the decade previous to this one the Vancouver artists got together as a family, but as artists, as poets who took the usual bourgeois path to the city where they would remain pious outsiders writing lyrics in basements, while outside the little windows the politicians and police and realtors ruled their turf.
But the cooperatives have brought the artists together so that they can’t help but see that they are people, with similar vices or histories. Now they not only shun the individual-career trip; they also turn away from the collective “art” trip. The poems and sandals and movies are some things they are interested in doing together, but not the things. If you ask Lionel Kearns what he is, he’s not likely to say, “a poet.” More likely he’ll reply “third baseman for the Granville Grange Zephyrs.” At least during the season.
The Zephyrs are one of the banner teams in the famed Kosmik League, the community alternative to the professional sports run by foreign businessmen in Vancouver. The freak spirit prevails on the diamond, where the scores are soon forgotten, the standings are not kept or published, and all the ballplayers with their funny names share a joint with the second baseman when they manage to hit a double. The scene is not Jarry Park and it is not Grossman’s Tavern. But then the Grape Writing Supplement is not the Tamarack Review.
I suppose a lot of readers will know that Tamarack is the archetypal establishment literary magazine in Canada, or at least Toronto. There a subscriber will find most of the big names in Canadian poetry and fiction, and sometimes a poem or story. More readers will know that Grape is Vancouver’s belabored Freak newspaper. Probably a very few in eastern Canada will know about the Writing Supplement. Writing Supplement is simply the literary magazine with the largest circulation in the country. The usual press run is about 20,000 compared with 2,000 for Tamarack and 300 for the average little mag. Furthermore, all copies are given away free; many stuffed into Grape, others passed out at schools or on the beach.
Writing Supplement is printed in tabloid format, designed for offset, and given to, again, cooperative production. It has the highest quality work of any litmag in the country. But its most interesting feature is its timeliness. Because an issue can be gathered and distributed on short notice, it can be planned to coincide with any event of literary interest. When American poet Ed Dorn and English poet Jeremy Prynne visited the city for a series of lectures and readings, the WS put out a Dorn-Prynne issue, with photos, poems, criticism and notices of the public readings.
An energizing figure on the WS ground is Stan Persky. He is one of the ex-San Francisco poets who play an important part in the local writing scene. It is largely by his organizing that the WS has for the past two years been making books — and they can be made just about as fast as the magazine is.
Persky is the balding, bearded exmayor mentioned at the head of this sprawling piece. He gets up every morn-
ing at five and reads Marxist-Leninist books as the beginning of a long work day. He lives in a commune, natch, and that is the quietest time of his or the house’s day. Nobody knows just how many activities he handles because nobody gets to all the places he has to go, but a few among them might be noted. He has recently finished a sociology thesis concerning his work at the morgue. He is taking another postgraduate degree in philosophy as well as teaching at UBC. He is on the UBC Senate and Student Council, and also writes two book reviews a week for the student newspaper, articles for Grape, poems, a journal, philosophy papers, etc. And he edits the Writing Supplement books, typesetting them personally before they go to be printed. Persky does not play softball because he can’t stand still as long as a left fielder has to. His sport is tennis, at which he will defeat you while drafting an analysis of post-Seventies Marxist-Maoism.
Persky’s idea for the book series is that the local scene be made clear, here and elsewhere. The books cost a little more than a dollar each and there will be one from each poet who has contributed nonacademically to the city’s verse in the past decade. The idea of the city has been of prime importance to the Vancouver poets all that time — maybe because it’s the only one we have, maybe because it is so visually definable, and because its shape defines us as it designs our poems, and maybe because without it we would all still be living between the mines and packinghouses in the rest of the province, a few thousand miles from the nearest bookstores and universities.
But New Star Books, official publishing name for the series, is only one of many little presses on the West Coast. The big presses are all in a distant capital called Toronto and there are as many poets in Vancouver as there are country and western singers in Nova Scotia.
Talonbooks specializes in the new poets and Canadian plays. It was the first press to take a flyer on the nation’s dramatists and hence, in the usual fashion, a Vancouver prelude to the inevitable emergence of drama publishing in Toronto. Sono Nis publishes the young academically oriented writers from the University of British Columbia. Bill Bissett’s Blewointment Press emits dozens of books or something from the smudgeconcrete cosmos. Poetry books are printed by a dozen other underground or up-in-a-tree operations who will be enraged or tickled pink as a salmon that they weren’t mentioned here.
But with all this, the publishing of poems has always been secondary to the out-loud reading of them here. For most people in the late Fifties and early Sixties, public poetry readings were a joke
perpetrated in a coffee shop decorated with bullfight posters somewhere in Montreal. But in Vancouver, which has always taken San Francisco more seriously, the readings were the primary experience of poetry. This was both a necessity and a blessing.
In 1960, Canadian TorontoMontreal-Fredericton) poetry was unknown and nearly unavailable in Vancouver. If poetry was to become familiar to Pacific ears, the local poets would have to invent it, and in those days it was easier to read it to an audience than to get it circulated in print. That’s a simplified version of how the vocal tradition was re-invented in West Point Grey, and a nicer thing never happened to Canadian verse.
Now it is possible to attend a public reading practically every day of the week here, and there are a lot of private ones, too. There are some poets in the city who make a major part of their modest incomes by reading at the various campuses, art galleries and arbutusshaded backyards. The longest one-man reading on record was by Charles Olson at UBC in the summer of 1963. It lasted seven-and-a-half hours and was terminated by a janitor who turned off the light and went home to bed, presumably to read prose. The shortest was by Bill Bissett, the chanting poet, at the Bau-Xi Gallery in the fall of 1971. Bissett finished his last incantation and headed for the door as soon as the hat had been passed — 14 minutes flat.
Sometimes the theatre at these readings is accidental, or at least spontaneous. There was once a reading held at the New Era Social Club as a benefit for the grimy mimeo mag being published by one of the club’s charter members. The benefit had been well publicized in the Georgia Straight, so the candle-lit rooms were packed with Freaks and Freakettes in their winter outfits, mainly logging boots, jeans and duffle coats. There was a mixed smell of sweat and hippie perfume, incense and some ignited vegetable matter. Several large dogs squeezed their wet frames among the bodies on the floor. Children slept with limbs hanging from back packs. Tape recorder microphones hung from a loose electrical wire nailed in places to the ceiling, and one corner of the largest room was lit by bright spotlights in aid of the video tape machine perched next to the table where the gallon jugs of Caloña Red were placed when they weren’t circulating.
It was to be a group reading by several of the better-known downtown poets and a few stragglers, but the West Coast predilection for free form took care of that. It all started when the first poet, a former Vancouver luminary who now lives in a tent in the interior, was halfway through his presentation. He was
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WEBFOOT continued reading a delicate poem about his love or some such person removing his clothing from his thin frame, when a young woman from the audience approached him and began doing just that.
Everyone, or at least this reporter, thought at first that it was the usual bit of hokum, especially because the poet kept on reading, as if this was in the act. But then he started to remove her clothing. Soon some socks and shirts began to be thrown into the floodlit area from the darker corners of the room. I had recently returned here from the east so I was probably the last person in the building to continue suspecting that the whole thing was choreographed. Then a pair of hands started working on my boots. Soon the poetry reading was forgotten but the community solidarity was at high energy. I should add that we have yet to see a subsequent issue of the little magazine that was purportedly benefiting.
There are lots of Vancouver poets who have gone to jail in the past 10 years. I just thought of seven while writing that sentence. But Michael Sawyer was the first to be arrested for his poetry. This is because he is a Neon Poet, a kind of nighttime switched-on Concrete Landscaper. His work shines on the skyline because it consists of neon advertising signs altered to produce illumi-
nated social criticism. He yanks switches or unscrews bulbs to create large red or green messages such as BANK OF CO ERCE or HELL OIL OF CANADA Or GEORGIA OWERS HOTEL. The newspapers printed copies of his poems on their front pages and what academic poet can claim as much? He was apprehended on the roof of the Hotel Vancouver with his bardic burglar tools, so we can only imagine what poem might have graced that Georgia Street landmark.
Pacific Rim consciousness is bolstered by the presence of numerous Japanese poets and artists around town. One of the most notorious is Taki Blues Singer, sculptor, actor, poet and official photographer for the Kosmik League. Taki was discovered by someone on the streets of Tokyo and told that he looked just like a Vancouver freak. So he wound up in Japtown and Gastown, where passing motorcycle cops greet him by name and friends struggle heroically to make out what he is saying in his superfast but elliptical English.
I was able to make out at a party the other night that he is now putting together a hippie philharmonic. The orchestra already had dates at the ubiquitous Vancouver Art Gallery last summer, for a program called by a long name with “Taki Ozawa & Friends.”
The classics are not forgotten in the New Era.
Many people, such as my wife, are suspicious of all this surreal theatre in the arts and letters out here on the edge of the U.S. earthquake zone. They believe that the jackanapes will drive out the serious fellow in any artist, or worse, that we will take the Tomfoolery (Tom didn’t run for mayor again last year) seriously. But I point out that the theatrics are a lot more relaxed at least than the scene at a Governor General’s awards ceremony or a cocktail lunch with a Toronto publisher.
Besides, how could we take the Dadaact seriously when we remember, for instance, the first Granville Grange Zephyrs practice last spring? (That’s late February in BC.)
There is an old game kid ballplayers play called “500.” One guy bats fungoes out, and you catch them, getting 100 points for a fly, 75 for a one-bouncer, and so on. If you miss them you get minus points. The Zephyrs were playing a game of 500, and the team mascot, a fat old female dog named Joe, companion of right fielder Mr. Blunt, was sweating it out with the rest of them.
Half way through the first game, the poet Lionel Kearns had 100, poet Dwight Gardiner had 75, poet Brad Robinson had minus 150, poet George Bowering had 25, and Joe the dog had 250. She’s terrific at hard one-bouncers, and she would make the Zeds’ lineup but she can’t throw any better than Mr. Blunt, and he can outhit her.
That is not poetry, and it is probably not even art, but it is the West Coast, where the showers grow ingenuity like a rain forest, where you forget weeding and crop management and walk where you can, trying not to step on the slugs. If you do step on a slug, Gerry Gilbert, the poet, will write in revenge. If you step on Gerry Gilbert you step on me, my friend, and that’s the way things are out here.
Right now it’s raining outside the window in front of me but the kids are playing without any of those fancy yellow rain capes they have back east, those city slickers. I’ve just come back from Bill Hoffer’s bookstore where I had a cup of tea and a game of Go, and^tomorrow we’re playing the East End Punks. Back in Montreal, where I used to live, they’re in the chic bar, wondering if they can get the snow off the ballpark so they can get those turnstiles spinning, and the poets are arguing in the newspapers about their careers, using their real names and hoping the newspapers spell them right.
Out here we couldn’t really care. We turn on the CBC and get the news three hours later; then the poets write it and send it back five years earlier, in Canada’s Natural Magazine, which is coming out any day now. ■