Vancouver, British Columbia | 30 May 2007
Vancouver: You can’t buy a carton of soya milk at your local grocery without bumping into a poet. This city has spoken word poets, closet-poets who gaze at the mountains, Wreck Beach poets who scream their lines on the sand nakedly, tending bar poets, poets who bicycle anonymously through the rain, poets who write screenplays or paint houses, coffee shop poets guzzling Canadianos, reading-poems-on-city-buses poets, and up-and-coming poets who haven’t yet left grade school. Vancouver has recently hosted the Individual World Poetry Slam (2007), the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference (2005), and the Robert Duncan Symposium (2005). Multiple reading series operate out of Simon Fraser University, The University of British Columbia, the Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design, the Kootenay School of Writing, the Vancouver Public Library, and at various cafés around the city.
In my five years in this city, I’ve met a lot of poets. And one thing I’ve noticed about these Vancouver poets, whatever their school or clique, is that they value community. Nearly every poet I’ve met is in some kind of writer’s group—whether it is a workshopping, reading, writing, or sharing-new-work group.
The poetry collective I’m a part of is called vertigo west. Started in 2002 by Brook Houglum, Colette Gagnon, Kim Minkus, and me, vertigo west didn’t get its name until 2004. (We were nameless, and then we had a name we didn’t all like, and then one day a Shakespeare book fell off a shelf in Brook’s apartment, and from the open page we chose two words: “vertigo” and “west.”) Originally, we were a workshop; we met bi-monthly and critiqued each other’s poems. After awhile, we invited some other poets to join us: Helen Kuk and Emilie O’Brien came on in 2003, Cristina Viviani joined in 2004, and Meliz Ergin in 2005. These days, we meet monthly and workshop occasionally, but we also read/discuss poems by others (we’re all big fans of Anne Carson, Lisa Robertson, Kathleen Fraser, and Alice Notley), eat good food and drink tea or wine, and write individually or collaboratively. Recently, we did a “postcard project” where we wrote poems on the backs of postcards and sent them to each other. At another meeting, Kim tore apart a fashion magazine and we wrote from the pieces. Currently, we’re working on a collaborative series in which we rearrange the words in each others’ poems to create new poems. We give two readings a year, and we’ve published two limited-edition chapbooks: vertigo west/one (2004)and vertigo west/BONE (2006).
Hardly anyone in Vancouver is from Vancouver, and vertigo west is true to this trend: not one of us is originally from this city. We come from Edmonton, Kodiak Island, Istanbul, Toronto, Portland, Ottawa, Santiago, and Scarborough. We range in age from thirty to sixty. In terms of aesthetics there is also a range, as well as much overlap; in this way, we reflect the multiple poetics operating in Vancouver. Many of the vertigos work with research or use language from outside sources in their work. Found poems can be found among us: a poem of Colette’s consists of phrases from a perfumer’s website; Emilie once gave a “poetry reading” of excerpts from an old English phrase book. We all dig collage, although some of us use it more than others. Several of us (Christina, Emilie, Colette, Kim) also do visual art, and you will notice a preoccupation with color, shape, and objects in many of these poems. Meliz and I are sort-of surrealists, or at least entertain surrealist moments in our poems. White space, and the way the words are organized on the page, is a major concern for many of us, as is the use of fragments. Several of us also write prose poems; Brook, Emilie, Meliz, and I all have at least one prose poem as part of our selection. I would call many of us—at least some of the time—lyric poets. Not necessarily in the “using the first person/talking about emotions” sense, but in the sense that we are all concerned with sound/music and more interested in moments than an entire narrative. Many of these poems are song-like, or chant-like—they are poems for the ear as well as the eye. And don’t forget the eye! Imagery is the poetry-wine that keeps me drinking vertigo. These poems may make you think, or sleep, but it is my hope that they get you at least a little drunk.
has been chasing poetry since her undergrad years at Emerson and Bard. Later, her thirst took her to the desert, where she received an MFA in Poetry from Arizona State. She’s worked as a poetry editor for Hayden’s Ferry Review and an associate editor for Nightboat Books. Jen currently teaches creative writing at Langara College and Vancouver Film School. Quite a few journals—including VERSE, Goodfoot, The Fiddlehead, Washington Square, River City and Cream City Review—have been kind enough to print her poems. Jen has published one book, The Sleep of Four Cities. She hopes her second book, Hagiography, will be out soon.