The Arts in Vancouver

When the poetry arrives

There’s something so special about reading a book by someone you’re acquainted with after it has finally been written and published.

When I came home from an evening walk and saw a slim cardboard box leaning against my apartment door, I knew right away what it was.

I ordered it from Indigo way back in February (which I realize isn’t that long ago but now feels like another decade). The poet created it over 7 years.

I was sad the poet couldn’t see me rip it open. That would have been gratifying for her, I’m sure.

Her name is Tanja Bartel, the “j”, the Finnish give-away, perhaps.

She was one of my SFU Writer’s Studio peeps and by day she’s a high school English teacher in Mission, something she’s done for a very long time. She appears to be one of those high school teachers kids talk about into their futures and at reunions.

She’s been published in a bunch of literary journals: Geist, New Poetry, Antigonish Review, Rusty Toque, Grain, Maynard and others. This is her first book of poetry.

She’s of Finnish heritage with white blonde hair. She’s a wife and a mother to two children, now grown, including a son who lives with a rare genetic mutation. It’s almost guaranteed that she must be the only poet to have written an article that’s been published about a member of her family in the American Journal of Medical Genetics.

She has an old yellow lab named Romeo who, in Facebook photos, I love.  She loves to walk Romeo on the dikes near her home in Pitt Meadows. And she’s a woman with a mind full of intrigue and eccentricities as I expect poets to be.

What I have just told you is pretty much everything I know about Tanja.

Her book is called Everyone at This Party, published by an imprint (icehouse poetry) of Gooselane Editions in New Brunswick. It’s 71 pages. And it has a fantastic cover you can see above by artist/photographer, Alexey Turenkov.

She’s agreed to let me write this blog post and to share a poem from the book with you. I picked the poem, Whisper Street, because it really captured me, including the line about the “caged hamsters,” or maybe especially that line. A commentary on suburbia that anyone who has ever lived in suburbia could relate to. While the themes can be dark, there’s a lot of humour in the poems as well. 

When I told Tanja which poem I’d picked, she told me it was the last poem she wrote, added to the book in the eleventh hour and one of her favourites.

There are so many other poems I loved every bit as much, like Oxygen, Everyone at This Party, Sawmill Town, Backyard Wedding, Best Laid Plans and others.

Whisper Street

People are not as friendly as you’d expect

in places that run on friendliness.


Work, parties.

Work parties.


I came to see all co-workers and all partygoers

as one rude unit.


And to view myself as an only

(a single rude unit).


On my street, crumbled clouds, a half-eaten sun.

Agony rolls underground.


Something stings my wrist in the fattest vein.

The day ahead itches and I embark on a radiant


laziness in an effort to mimic the way

of dogs, envying their thoughtlessness.


My deaf dog’s hauled his shapeless old self to bed.

I’d follow, but for all the noise:


One thousand caged hamsters crack

sunflower seeds. Neighbour removes the Earth’s crust


around his property with a pressure washer.

Toddler next door screams blue murder


that he won’t go to bed. A mirror busted in half.

Rubber gloves snapped off and flung to the tiles.


I want to live on Whisper Street where a lounging

willow tree soaks up all our consequences.


Where nobody kills dandelions and everyone

grows yellow roses that hug one bee per blossom.


Violins play from tree houses.

No one mows their lawns and laundry blows by


like sails down a stream.

Green traffic lights that say you’re allowed to keep going,


but you don’t have to.

Good luck that won’t let me be.
Congratulations Tanja. I’m savouring them.

COVID-19 & supporting your community

photo by gayle

If your employment isn’t impacted at this point and you’re feeling really grateful for that or you’re just fine when it comes to money, (How do I know you?), there are so many places you could support during this difficult time.

I’m worried about all the artists and musicians and writers who are barely making it as it is.

I’m worried about all the places I like to frequent here in Victoria because without them the city would be so much less, and there are so many restaurants and arts organizations that will really suffer given that the economy here is so focused on tourism.  

Either order take-out or pick-up from them (doing your own risk assessment on that) or donate to them. 

Places like Intrepid Theatre and The Belfry and the independent bookstores and the hole in the wall restaurants and the Victoria Symphony, Pacific Opera and Dance Victoria and Il Sauvage Brewing, Nourish and Hermanns because of the musicians who rely on that venue to make some money, and to do what they love.  Here’s a blog post by Frankies in Vancouver about supporting the musicians who normally work at the club.

And then there are all the market vendors on Salt Spring who depend on the next 7 months of the year to make a living. Some are set up for online purchasing but many of the smaller ones are not.

I’m worried about the vulnerable people I see on the street every day and know that donating to places like Mustard Seed and Our Place and Women in Need Thrift Store and Megaphone Magazine vendors  or Union Gospel Mission, the YWCA, the Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre or Atira Society, The Bloom Group or Covenant House for Youth or Victoria Women’s Transition House or Youth Empowerment Society can make a difference.

Think about where you live and your favourite places or social service and arts organizations and donate if you’re able to.

Don’t forget that you can write donations off your taxes (for next year). Find out more from TurboTax if you’re Canadian: https://turbotax.intuit.ca/tips/tax-benefits-of-charitable-donations-5414

Here are some places that are either delivering or doing take-out in Victoria, B.C., although I’m sure there are many more since this list was created: https://www.victoriabuzz.com/2020/03/these-greater-victoria-businesses-are-offering-special-services-in-light-of-covid-19/

Obviously you are only one person with limited resources, (and those have taken a big hit recently) but you are better off than someone else. That’s indisputable.

Just figure out which group in your community you would feel good about donating your limited resources to and Just Do It! Today. By the end of this week. No procrastinating.

The fastest trip to Japan from Vancouver

I spent most of this past weekend at the Powell Street Festival which has got to be one of the best entertainment deals in Vancouver taking place at Oppenheimer Park and the streets around it with events at the Firehall Arts Centre, the Japanese Language School, and the Vancouver Buddhist Temple.

This area was home to the largest concentration of Japanese people in Vancouver prior to WWII before they were banished from the West Coast in Canada and the U.S. as a result of Japan’s bombing of Pearl Harbour and a build up, prior to that, of racism and fear-mongering.

I had to get my little fix of Takoyaki (Osaka Balls),  those tasty street vendor treats that instead of the traditional style which are filled with octopus, these are filled with shrimp and scallops, a creamy middle with a crunchy deep-fried outer and with fish shavings on top. I stayed traditional but you can get the wasabi version or with mayo. 

So many interesting offerings  at The Firehall Arts Centre. We were introduced to a HAPA comic from L.A., Katie Malia and her Almost Asian vignettes which are being picked up by Netflix in the near future.

Listened to Dr. Asato Ikeda from Japan talk about a Third Gender in early modern Japan, a spin off from an exhibit at the ROM in 2016 A Third Gender: Beautiful Youths in Japanese prints. Descriptions of wakashu or boys between the ages of 12-18 who fulfilled the pleasures of men and women and how to hear about that part of cultural history in Japan without imposing contemporary North American values on that part of Japanese history which has been kept under wraps mostly because, if I understood the speaker correctly, of how it fits into the Kabuki theatre in the Edo period. Since Kabuki has been designated the official theatre of Japan, there’s a reluctance to acknowledge the roots of it in this expression of sexuality. Super interesting!

Introduced to two men (both Gaijin or caucasian) Jay Rubin and Ted Goossen, Americans who are elders in the translation of Japanese literature. They spoke about the novelist Haruki Murakami and mostly that stood out for me because it’s always amazing to me how some people just fall into their professions without any effort on their part and that becomes their entire life.

Admired that Joy Kogawa who is looking very fit and in her eighties was open to participating in an experimental performance that included her poetry, a young Hapa poet Soramaru Takayama and a wonderful mime (whose name I can’t find, unfortunately)  as part of a 20 minute performance.

 

Also took in two interesting short films called Born with it and Blasian Narratives about Black-Asian kids’ experiences. I’d never heard the word “Blasian” before.

Listened to a wonderful shakuhachi player who resides on the Sunshine Coast.  Alcvin Ryuzen Ramos, is one of the leading teachers and performers of the shakuhachi in North America who teaches at the Bamboo-In Retreat Centre.  His performance was exquisite and a rare treat. I love the breathy, haunting sounds of the shakuhachi, an instrument that may be the hardest instrument to learn taking years of mentorship and practice.

And of course George and Noriko, a crowd favourite. He’s known as the Japanese cowboy and she’s the Tsugaru shamisen player. Together they have a fun and unique sound. 

Taiko. Walking tours. Ikebana. Martial Arts. My god. It’s a veritable trip to Japan without the hell of the long flight.

Must do a shout out to Leanne Dunic (seated in photo) who led the curation in her first year as the new artistic director.  It’s been a busy year for her. She’s a writer, singer and multi-instrumentalist who plays with the band The Deep Cove. Her book To Love the Coming End published by Chin Music Press was released this year as well.  The weekend was awesome and it didn’t cost a dime. The only thing wrong with it was that I didn’t win the trip to Japan for two or dinner for six put on by Hapa Izakaya restaurant chefs.

To fuel creativity, write from a place of curiosity

photo by gayle mavor, Prachuap Khiri Khan, Thailand

I went to this wonderful animated feature last night called Window Horses by Canadian filmmaker Ann Marie Fleming. The creativity of imagination through storytelling and drawing, poetry and music flowed across the screen in unique and refreshing ways. Perhaps, because of the degree of collaboration that went into the film, the end result was that much richer. It sounded as if the film had been percolating for a long time.

Ann Marie Fleming had drawn the character, Stick Girl, about 20 years ago and at the preview at VanCity Theatre on Mar. 2, her connections from Emily Carr (Veda Hille), a meeting from the past, a poem, all lay in wait, mingling and transitioning in a quiet process of the subconscious to come together for a wonderful project.  

And doesn’t that just describe creativity in general?

We see something. It reminds us of something else. We meet someone whose work is leading us to follow a different path in our own or to raise an awareness about a way of being that isn’t working. We bring two things together, dismiss one of them, a third comes into consciousness. Creativity is taking a journey in  real time and then leaving us with gifts of conversation, mind pictures that stay with us being dredged up to fill in a scene we never imagined would stay with us. The way the light falls on the wall in a moment that has never left us or a memory of a person from the look on their face when they said goodbye. The sounds of a kitchen while lying in bed one floor above. What was going on with us emotionally at that time and how that emotion, like a thin veil, a transparency, was a contributor to interpretation. It’s endless.

Maybe that’s why I like writing to an image. It’s the smallest way we have to examine what is not possible to know about the depth and breadth of what’s really there in the muck of our minds and our hearts in any given moment. 

Writing to an image for a short time isn’t really about writing at all, actually. That’s the least important thing about it for me. It’s about introspection and the surprise of what’s there.

Having said that, I am going to post a photo tomorrow at 8 am (PST) and I encourage you to step out of your comfort zone and give it a shot. Write for 5 Don’t focus on the writing.  It’s about the amazing things that will come to you, when you stare at an image.

What do you focus on first? What next thought does that bring you to? Even if it doesn’t happen immediately, stay calm. It will. You will begin to make connections from whatever image you look at. Your mind can’t help itself.  What’s the most pleasing thing to you about the image? What questions immediately come to mind?  Do you think of people? Who might inhabit the space? What about this person in the image, if there is a person? Do they remind you of anyone?  How would you feel in that space? Would you like being there? Would you be there alone or who else would be with you? 

A demand for curiosity.

I really want you to see what comes up for you if you’re brave enough to give it a try on Saturday. Let’s have some fun.  And, this time, I’ll give a prize like last week except this time I’ll just choose someone who participates because something about their response touches me. I’ll choose it for you from books I already own and I’ll mail it to you with a note.

Have a happy Friday.

Elevating the Ordinary

Creative Commons photo

One of my intentions this year is to do something that lifts the day out of the ordinary every single day. It doesn’t have to be anything big and let’s face it, most of what I find interesting doesn’t typically cost a lot of money. It’s usually related to the Arts or being in a natural environment or dredging up questions and memories, if not stuff, at thrift shops.

It might be as simple as going to a different library. It could be cooking a new type of soup. Maybe I’ll visit a natural space in the Lower Mainland that I haven’t yet been to, or have been to and would like to visit again. I merely have to find enjoyment in the thought of doing it and then, here’s the tricky part, I actually have to follow through on those original intentions.

So yesterday on CBC Radio when I heard that it was PWYC (PayWhatYouCan) Wednesday at The Firehall Arts Centre and that there was a play there called And Bella Sang with Us by Sally Stubbs, I walked to the train for the requisite 35 minute sit into Vancouver and got off at the Chinatown station.

I walked down past T&T, past the Sun Yat Sen Garden, up past the Chinese grocers and herbalists and turned left at Gore Ave crossing Main Street, then walking back across the street to The Firehall.

The play is a glimpse into the lives of two female constables showcasing a part of Vancouver’s early history that I knew nothing about. That alone made it interesting. The cast was really good and the script was interesting.

I sat down and a woman sat down beside me in a small audience of mainly retired folk. It was 1pm. We chatted a bit, enough for me to learn that she’d recently graduated from Photography at Emily Carr. That little bit of info was enough for me to know I wanted to chat more with her.

After the play was over, we talked briefly before she asked if I’d like to go for a walk if we picked up her dog in her nearby co-op. So, we walked a little deeper into Strathcona and she returned with a curly-haired poodle named Bodhi. He was more than ready to get some fresh air.

We walked into Strathcona Park, passed a professional dog walker, watched as some other millennial dog walkers chased Bodhi around. “He loves to be chased,” she said, as we watched him scurry the way happy, fast moving dogs run, back slightly arched as his little legs took him on a big excited swath of a circle, the smile on his small black lips almost discernable.

We continued down a street near Union Market and then back up a street past Strathcona Elementary. Another woman walking a small cream-coloured poodle stopped to let the dogs interact before continuing on her way.

“Do you know who that is?” asked my new acquaintance.”

“No, but she looks familiar,” I said.

“That’s Daphne Marlatt. She lives around here.”

“Oh, I love Daphne Marlatt’s long poem on Steveston,” I said, a poem I’d read years ago and I’ve never forgotten its effect on me at the time, way back in the early 1980s. Long poems still amaze me in their complexity.

We talked about the challenge of being the age we are and finding work. We talked about art and photography and we made a plan to meet again, to revisit the Walker Evans exhibit at the Vancouver Art Gallery before it ends on January 22nd.

And there you have it, a fine example of elevating an ordinary day.

Word Vancouver: From Comics to Kids Lit

WORD2015

This year at Word Vancouver, I decided I’d go to sessions that I might not typically be drawn to, especially comic books and Kids Lit.

First stop was a panel of children’s authors. One of the authors walked us through the steps she takes to create an animal character as the subject of a rhyming poem.  I really enjoyed that. Four authors spoke about how much going into the schools and reading to kids is an integral part of what’s required of children’s authors. That sounds like a fun thing. And as always happens, which is why it’s important to attend events such as this if you write, my own ideas came bubbling up as background all throughout the talks. Think of it as creative mind mapping, silently but stealthily, a running commentary of possibilities mingled. Creative thought begets creative thought.

I listened to Caroline Woodward, who had worked in the publishing industry for 30 years. She was speaking about living at the Lennard Island Lighthouse at the entrance to Clayoquot Sound near Tofino. Being one half of a lighthouse keeper has enabled her to get back to her first love, writing. Her latest book, Light Years, is about her time at the various light stations where she and her husband, Jeff George, started as relief lightkeepers. George’s photographs in slideshow format were a nice touch. Woodward’s favourite lighthouse is Nootka because of its history and its natural beauty.

I didn’t even know there were still people working at lighthouses anymore. Apparently seven of the 23 people who are stationed at lighthouses in B.C. are couples.

I listened to John Vaillant whom, of course, I’d heard about but had never seen in person or read before. He gave a compelling  intro to his book  The Jaguar’s Children and the life and death crossing into the USA of an illegal immigrant.  His reading and the prose was so precise that it was a clear lesson in how a compelling presence mixed with vivid language does indeed go a long way towards selling books. He said a teenage boy’s voice came to him clear as day one day while he was working on something else. He felt compelled to carry that voice onto the page.  This happened while he spent nine months living in Oaxaca with his wife who is a potter. Perhaps the spirits visited him. Perhaps they knew he was someone who could do their story justice.

It was cool to hear the journey of The Flour Peddler by brothers Chris and Josh Hergesheimer. Their original focus on local grains and farmers’ markets in B.C. (starting in Roberts Creek) eventually took them on a global journey to South Sudan. Their bicycle-powered flour mill is adding efficiency to small farmers there. Chris is now in Ecuador doing Ph.D. work through UBC’s Land and Food Systems faculty.

I found it kind of sad to hear the trials of cartoonist David Boswell and the trajectory of his comic, Reid Fleming, World’s Toughest Milkman. What began as just a one-off, one pager for The Georgia Straight back in the day, developed a small cult-like following with a script eventually optioned for a movie at Warner Brothers Pictures only to be quashed at the 11th hour by the executives who just didn’t get the humour.  That’s funny actually! The script remains locked in the vault there, stuck in limbo, history.  Boswell showed a movie that one of his nephews made about him with guest appearances by Matt Groening and others who sang his praises and the genius of the character, Reid Fleming.

The last session I attended was by Michael Kluckner. The local artist and heritage advocate has put together a graphic novel, a love story, called Toshiko.  I was surprised to learn that not all Japanese families were interned during WWII. Some lived independently, specifically up in Tappen, B.C., and Squilax near Salmon Arm where they worked on a farm called Calhoun’s.

I really tried not to buy but resistance is futile when it comes to books. I have to laugh at my purchases though which are more a reflection of proximity and mood than a strategic plan since I didn’t actually end up buying The Jaguar’s Children. I bought The Flour Peddler, Toshiko and Amber Dawn’s How Poetry Saved My Life.  Boswell was selling his comic book, a signed copy for a Toonie, so I got one of those as well. Go figure?

Did you go to Word this year? What stood out for you?

Conceptualizing a new Gallery for Vancouver: Herzog & de Meuron

The Orpheum Theatre  in Vancouver was packed with cultural creatives this past Tuesday. They were there to listen to one of the world’s architects of note speak about how he and his Swiss firm Herzog & de Meuron conceptualize the projects they’ve worked on since their company’s beginnings in 1978.  They are located in Basel, Switzerland and will design the new Vancouver Art Gallery.

HerzogatOrpheum

The first thing that stood out for me in the introduction is that Jacques Herzog gets to work with his childhood friend, Pierre de Meuron.  Imagine what it would be like to become friends with someone in childhood and then to continue that friendship into an educational focus, through university, into your life’s work and to build a thriving career and international architectural practice? That seems extremely lucky to me that two people’s lives could converge that way over such an extended time period.

They’ve worked on such well known sites as the conversion of the Bankside Power Station in London, transforming it into the Tate Modern that draws 5 million visitors a year and now their newest addition to that, Tate Modern 2, is in the works.

There’s the Beijing National Stadium, the Bird’s Nest, designed for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and a place that still attracts the Chinese people who love, according to Herzog, to congregate.

There’s the Prada Toyko building, more a sculpture than building, its stylized glass exterior like a marbleized magnifying glass of geometric shapes with each thick concave piece creating a sort of picture frame, a way of guiding the eyes to zero in more closely on the fashion on display inside, with the exterior as standalone object d’art.

The design process includes learning about the history of a footprint, past incarnations of the piece of land or buildings being utilized so that the new building is not a separate entity but finds its place as part of the community that surrounds it, improving upon that and providing new collaborations of human interaction and a new destination for everyone, even those who wouldn’t normally find themselves attracted to an art gallery.

In Vancouver, Herzog & de Meuron have the task of designing the new art gallery on a piece of land that is currently a parking lot with the Beatty Street Armoury flanking it to the south and the Queen Elizabeth Theatre on the north located at West Georgia and Cambie.  This place actually has a name – Larwill Park – but I’m willing to bet the majority of Vancouverites, including me, have never heard that reference before. After all, to most of us it’s just a parking lot. A place that Herzog said was used in the past for marching practice and military parades from the adjacent armoury.

A friend reminded me that this piece of land had also been the old bus depot at one point and she had memories of her first venturings at 13 years of age, taking the bus from Burnaby to the Charm School at The Bay downtown. Her memories elicited my own vague recollections of silver buses, exhaust fumes and revving engines as customers huddled under a long shelter, more just an overhang to keep the rain off, people scurrying from one bus to the next.

Currently the space seems to get used as a parking lot that houses the buses of visiting artistic groups performing at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre, of trucks from movie companies, and as a pedestrian shortcut to the Chinatown Sky train station.

How could an art gallery not be a better use of this valuable city owned space? It’s really exciting to imagine the uniqueness they’ll conceive for this space. Although my first thought when I saw the location is that we have to hope that there’s never another crazy Canuck’s fan riot since this new gallery will be right in that vicinity.

If you’d like to learn more, check out Material Future: The Architecture of Herzog & de Meuron and the Vancouver Art Gallery to October 4th at the Vancouver Art Gallery.