Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Around ten years ago I was hired by Capilano University (then College) to teach in what they were calling the Writing Practices Program, “a tonic,” as instructor Ryan Knighton put it, to the "success-oriented" college and university creative writing programs proliferating across Canada and the United States.

There were ten of us, a group that included George Bowering, Stan Persky, Lisa Robertson, George Stanley, Sharon Thesen and myself, and approximately twenty students. The idea was that each of us would devise a three week mini-course and at the end of the day the students would know more about writing.

Problem was, the program had advertised manuscript evaluation, something none of us were prepared for. By the time my turn came, after Christmas, the students were ready to revolt. In fairness, I allowed them to vote on the exercise approach, based on my laboured-over custom courseware package, or manuscript evaluation. The result was overwhelmingly the latter.

So now I was faced with forty one-on-one, before-and-after meetings, and a thousand pages of reading. But it wasn’t so bad. In fact, I learned a lot.

Many of the students were older, with specific stories in mind. I helped them as best I could. Of the younger students, all three were promising and continue to write. Lindsay Diehl has just completed a Masters in Creative Writing at UBC Okangan and is a regular contributor to Geist Magazine; Camilla Pickard, the most Ondaatjian of the group, is closing in on a novel-length manuscript; and Justin Lukyn, whose Program-era manuscript showed Melvillian tendencies, self-published an intriguing suite of poems entitled Henry Pepper, which was reissued by New Star Books in 2008.

Henry Pepper employs a spatial conceit based on the telephone poles and garbage bins that line the alleys between Strathcona’s Clark Drive and Gore Street. These are tight little poems, carefully wrought, mostly in single stanza blocks -- like the blocks between Clark and Gore. Pepper patrols these alleys, watching, following, shrinking and hiding.

This is a book I recommend to anyone interested in a poetry that comes out of the ordered nowheres many of us take for granted – and rarely see as sites of creative expression.

Here is one of them:


From on top of the Heatley hill
he looks out beyond the city limits
to Burnaby. Henry Pepper has a
Burnaby heart. In his left rib cage
there is a ticking, nondescript
municipality. The heart of Burnaby.
Up and down the alley hills, he who
hates to move, who only likes to
stand in puddles, passes like other
alley people through the telephone
pole structures entirely dominated
by thoughts of Burnaby.

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