Sunday, August 16, 2009

On Friday I attended the first act of The Line Has Shattered, a remembrance of the 1963 Vancouver Poetry Conference (aka English 410, a summer credit course offered through the University of British Columbia). The '63 conference featured Margaret Avison, Robert Duncan, Allen Ginsberg, Denise Levertov, Charles Olson, amongst others, and was organized by UBC Professor Warren Tallman and poet Robert Creeley. The Line Has Shattered was organized by Simon Fraser University Assistant Professor Steven Collis and featured a number of poets, scholars and poet/scholars who had either attended the '63 conference or, as local practitioners, were influenced by it. The event (a panel discussion, a lunch, then a reading) was held at SFU's Harbour Centre campus.

I went to the panel with an awareness of the '63 conference, having recently completed an essay ("Expanded Literary Practices") for the Ruins In Process: Vancouver Art in the Sixties website. While researching my text, it seemed there were at least two Modern literary tendencies in Vancouver: a "straight" Modern literature influenced by Donald Allen's New American Poetry (1960) (TISH newsletter, The Georgia Straight Writing Supplement) and an interdisciplinary project that owed something to a collagist form of composition, one that began with then-resident Malcolm Lowry's "Through the Panama" (1954) and continued on with Al Neil (a musician who wrote, collaged and made assemblages), Roy Kiyooka (a painter who wrote poems), bill bisset (a poet who painted and published blewointment magazine), Judith Copithorne (a concrete poet who performed with a dance company), Maxine Gadd (a poet and extended-vocalist who engaged in what we would now call performance art), Gerry Gilbert (a potter who wrote poems and took photos) and Michael Morris (a visual artist and participant in that epistolary form of collage known as "mail art").

Collis began the panel with a question, one that came out in fragments, with numerous asides, but one that ultimately bore fruit, concerned as it was with the difference between "presence" and, for want of a better word, product; whether the conference had a greater impact on its participants, in the moment, or on what they made of it, as art.

Moving south to north...

Judith Copithorne did not attend the '63 conference, though she spoke of her familiarity with Ginsberg and Duncan, and of Stein's Camden recordings, and what those recordings meant to her. Clark Coolidge remarked on how insecure Duncan and Ginsberg were about their writing, how they spoke of it as "bankrupt." Coolidge had taken a bus to the conference (from the northeastern U.S., via San Francisco) and was surprised and encouraged by the poets' humility. Maria Hindmarch spoke of the conference as the "main thread" in her conversations with Roy Kiyooka, one that lasted "everyday for the next six months." Daphne Marlatt recalled how inspired she was by Denise Levertov, a woman reading alongside literal and figurative giants such as Olson and Ginsberg, while noting how women in Vancouver were still being treated as if it were the 1950s. Marlatt was the first to bring up the importance of Duncan's "Composition By Field". Jamie Reid, the only panelist to have grown up in Vancouver, recalled a Tallman essay he had seen in the Evergreen Review, entitled "Kerouac's Sound", and how that essay lead him to study with Tallman. Michael Palmer (who, like Coolidge, is from the U.S.) spoke carefully about Creeley's syntax, McCarthyism, Vietnam, the southern U.S. poets (Dickey?) "who liked to build pretty things," but especially of Creeley's warning: "If this is something you don't have to do, don't do it." He was also the first to mention the relationship between different mediums: "visual art, music, poetry, dance -- these were all one undertaking." Bernice Lever told us how the move from rural British Columbia (Rossland) brought with it "language problems" (how she took words like "hip" and "cool" literally), but also how attentive Duncan and Ginsberg were to her writing, despite the at-times "impatient sighs" of her peers. Lionel Kearns tried to downplay the impact of the conference by elevating the poems and teachings of Earle Birney, who "started creative writing at UBC," and how with Birney the move to a local Modern literature was already underway. Robert Hogg spoke of coming to Vancouver from rural Abbotsford, forty miles east of Vancouver, and of the Writers Workshop started by the UBC English Department's Tony Friesen, amongst others. George Bowering recalled the "paperback revolution," how it put books in people's hands, as well as his incredulity at seeing Ginsberg break into a recitation of a Shelley poem while on a scenic walk, how it caused him to rethink his disdain for Romantic poetry. (Later, Bowering addressed what Kearns had said of Birney's influence, how the Birney version of the English Department believed that Canadian Literature should be a branch of British Literature, "and thankfully we managed to rescue one of them -- his name was David Bromige.") Fred Wah, who had over an hour to consider Collis's question, suggested the word "coalescence" instead of "presence" -- how if it wasn't for the conference, he might never have understood Olson's "mysterious breath line." Wah finished by saying that after 1963 people from Vancouver moved on, many of them to graduate schools (he followed Creeley to New Mexico). Of course this was not the case for those outside academia, people like Al Neil, bill bissett, Judith Copithorne, Maxine Gadd and Gerry Gilbert, who, if not here, were almost always on their way back.

From there the panelists spoke amongst themselves, eventually taking questions from the audience. In reviewing my notes, I was surprised to see how often the name Ginsberg came up, often in relation to Vietnam, where, prior to his stop in Vancouver, he had been on a civilian fact-finding mission. Kearns, not content to see the '63 conference triumphant, revived his anti-conference campaign, this time championing UBC's Ron Baker and his course on the "structure" of the English language (Baker went on to head the English Department at SFU, hiring Jack Spicer, who died before he could take the position -- a position which was then offered to Robin Blaser, who held it for almost thirty years)). More Ginsberg (Maria Hindmarch brought up "Deliberate Prose") before Coolidge turned the discussion back to formal matters, remarking on the aesthetic shift that had begun in the mid-50s, around the time he was playing drums with Cecil Taylor's former bassist (Taylor being a musician whose work ran parallel to what pianist Al Neil was doing in Vancouver). It was only after reading "Projective Verse" and "Composition By Field" that Coolidge could say: "Thank God we can do this now with words."

Someone in the audience raised the question of social class, and the discussion, led by Wah, turned to those who came from rural areas, how it took a while before people could talk about what that meant. Robert Hogg spoke of arriving at UBC in his father's suit, how self-conscious he felt. I was curious to hear what Coolidge and Palmer might have to say on the topic, given the historic uneasiness those in the U.S. have with respect to class, but they were silent.

Something that did not come up, apart from the odd mention or two, was the parallel literary tendency I spoke of earlier (Tallman had once referred to bissett, Copithorne, Gadd and Gilbert as the "downtown poets" -- because they lived downtown). Kearns invited Maxine Gadd to speak, and she told us she did not attend the conference, having been busy with a new-born baby and trips to California. Judith Copithorne, who at this point had left the panel to wander the room, provided a comment from the back. I can't recall what she said but the mere re-arrangement of her presence -- from panelist to audience member -- seemed in keeping with an artist for whom poetry, movement and equality are one. Indeed, it occurred to me that this is what Collis might have been alluding to with his question. To reduce once more: the difference between an object-based practice (books of poetry) versus a more gestural presence (poet at large).

A final observation concerned the lack of discussion on the local, something that was addressed very nicely at the end by Robert Hogg when he brought up Olson's conference-time revelation that maybe place was not as important as voice -- place being not what's under foot, with yourself in the midst, but that which is in your throat, on the verge of breath, a presence?


  1. Thanks Michael, since I could not be there and wanted to be. Any further reflections, comments, photos I'd value.

    The Vancouver Poetry Conference was unprecedented in power & variety of poets' mind & feeling language. And it has only a second contender in the Berkeley Poetry Conference of 1965 which I was also fortunately a participant.

    Please see Vancouver's Landmark 1963 Poetry Conference

    larry goodell

  2. Hi Michael

    Having sat in on the panel discussion behind you - by the way your head was blocking my view - I appreciated your outline, both outlines, of the afternoon's events. I was thankful for your comment that place versus voice, and the latter's triumph over the former, ended up being a key dichotomy that was set upon by a number of the speakers - as you say, most succinctly, at the end by Hogg. While it would have been interesting to have Palmer and especially Coolidge chip in on class, I had the sense that they deferred
    due to a sense that Wah's original reference to the subject had been posed in relation to the out-of-town Canadian participants specifically. I have no specific evidence for thinking this, only that I faintly recall that it may have related to Wah's narrative of events prior to the class comment; and/or perhaps it had something to do with Palmer and
    Coolidge, as old guard lang-po writers, being less taken by this question as it relates to their own literary formation, as they might
    have been as it related to their approach to poetics more broadly (though Bruce Andrews would have more readily jumped on this had he been there/there). I was unaware of Copithorne's movements between panellist and audience member that afternoon, but I agree with you that her democratic itinerancy was certainly indicative of her (and perhaps the cause of her under recognized) writing more broadly and it was a
    transgression that mirrored the breakdown between conference-goers past and present, panelists and eye(ear)witnesses that joined in that afternoon. What also struck me as a central focus that afternoon had been, through Collis's wilful coaxing, a situating of the "conference" - an unfortunately dull title
    for such a rollicking-sounding grab bag of happenings - within a broader socio-political milieu of the time - specifically in this case, the early awareness (west of "Montreal" as someone pointed out) of Vietnam and other south-east Asian conflicts along with the gradual wave-lapping of the beat movement that had been insinuating itself up the coastline like some flagrant reddish tide. (I think this explains Ginsberg being more ubiquitous and wide-eyed than Waldo during the course of panel preceedings.) While the overall angle on things produced various narco-nuggets (the VPD - or was it RCMP? - posing as not-so-inconspicuous students in various leafy literary vignettes) I had the sense that this angle on events prevented more in-depth discussion about some of the direct influences, situations, relationships, debates between Duncan, Olsen, Ginsberg, Levertov and Creeley during the course of this so often - at least in the Vancouver instance - mythified collective moment. Not that things had to be demystified completely - what of the parties, periodically alluded to but then withdrawn like so many momentary glimpses of illicit substances in the open, then closed, palm of memory?

    Jordan S.