THE VEHICULE POETS:
The following essay was written collectively by the Vehicule poets as a dialogical account of what the Vehicules meant in the seventies and eighties, and what poetry means to them today. A much abridged version of this collective piece, in combination with Ken Norris's short essay "The Vehicule Poets and Second Generation Postmodernism" appears in print in the critical collection Language Acts: Anglo-Quebec Poetry, 1976 to the 21st Century, edited by Jason Camlot and Todd Swift.
Essay Table of Contents:
Let it be known at the outset, The Véhicule Poets were never a school, a movement or an aesthetic. At least not for me. The Véhicule Poets were a figment of other poets’ imaginations. They made us up. We were a group of young writers who were beginning to hang around Véhicule Art Gallery.
I don’t really remember how I met Claudia Lapp. I know she and Michael Harris ran the first reading series at Véhicule. I think it was through Richard Sommer and Tai Chi in Chinatown. I was into motion as meditation and as poetry and vice-versa. I was reading the Beats, I was smoking grass and dropping acid. Actually, I think I stopped acid by that time.
I was in my mid twenties and back from the commune and enrolled in a Creative Writing Masters program at Con U. John McAuley was in that first year program but I think I had met John before. I’m not sure.
By that time I had met Ken Norris once. We smoked some grass in the stairwell of Concordia. I didn’t know that he was a poet at that time and after that one encounter I don’t remember seeing him again, until I was running a reading series at Véhicule.
Artie Gold, I first saw at a reading at the Karma, Concordia’s Coffee House. He was featured and I was smitten by his hip/flip cynical, vulnerable poems. I was too awed to speak to him. This was in ‘72 or ‘73.
Tom Konyves, I first met playing soccer as an undergraduate at Sir George Williams University. I lost track of him until I met him again when I, along with Artie, were running the readings at Véhicule and we turned him down for a reading.
Steve Morrissey, I honestly don’t recall the circumstances of our meeting.
I was drawn to each because of a shared passion and their varied beings and ways. Claudia, because of her sensuality and sexuality in her and her poetry. She was so flyée! And she wasn’t afraid to show it. Read her “Fuck Me Shoes” and “Horses”. John had a mind for metaphors and puns that could wrap you around the block. He truly was a poet who lived out of his imagination. It was an imagination based on ‘book learnin’ and a fascination with the arcane and the esoteric. Read Mattress Testing and What Henry Hudson Found. Too bad that he has stopped writing.
Ken was the ‘Our Gang’ pusher, pushing us to do collective publishing projects: individual books and anthologies. He was also the historian who knew how what we were doing fit into the great literary scheme of things. He was also the prolific one who believed in the democracy of poetry. We needed our transplanted American to make us conscious of ourselves. I was always amazed at his drive. Ken was also the book/page oriented poet who was always ready to get involved in our performance schemes. I really think that he was the real working class poet among us trying to create a union to fight the establishment. He knew then that those who control the means of production have freedom and control over their destiny. I think he got that from Louis Dudek. He also saw that there is family in the collective. He, being without family and the most recent exile among us, looked to us to be that family. Also, he was the one who could mediate between all of us. And on occasions we needed mediating.
Steve was the one most at unease and who wrote some of the most soul-baring, bare bones poems. He wrote out of loss. He exuded a nervousness that comes from insecurity and which makes for good art. He had the cherub’s face that belied the pained life he was trying to come to terms with. He was the more philosophical/clinical side of Claudia’s Jungian/erotic side.
Tom was the real neo-dadaist. He always dressed like he was going to a go-go and after he gave up on mystical love poems and came back from boycotting the Véhicule readings, he became a mind-bending writer. His clean cut look would have your mother asking you why couldn’t you be more like him although my aunt once warned me about him. Tom wanted to make it new and he did with his video poetry. And even though, of the group, it was with him that I had the hardest time, (our competitive history), I enjoyed his acts, videos and sympathized with what he was trying to do. I think that he was the most avant-garde of the group. The poem “No Parking” is an under-appreciated masterpiece. It will stand the test of time.
Artie was the most accomplished and knowledgeable of the group. He was also the quickest wit and could be the “smallest and meanest”. His poetry had a confidence that didn’t need to show it. He had a voice that was a genuine and clear window into joy and pain. I dare anyone to find a better first book than cityflowers.
And me? I was constantly surprised that I was in this company. And though I had been accepted into Con. U.’s Creative Writing program and was publishing, I felt like I was faking it. And them not thinking that made me love them and think that they were fools.
The Véhicule years were years of hanging out and learning the craft and learning that learning was not really done in schools but in moments shared. They were the times of getting into the same Véhicule for a ride to different destinations.
What did we do? It’s been pretty well documented in Véhicule Days by Ken Norris. Before we came on the scene there wasn’t much. Occasional readings at Concordia, a book now and then, maybe. We made things happen on a regular basis. Readings every Sunday at Véhicule at two o’clock. In the winter you kept your coat and gloves on because the heat was off. Out of this came Véhicule Press. Once Ken and Artie & I became editors of Véhicule Press, books started to appear on a regular basis. And as much as Simon Dardick, owner and publisher of the press, wants to rewrite history, we were the ones fighting to have Véhicule become a literary press while he and the others were more interested in it becoming a viable printing plant that occasionally did “artsy” things. However, once we started to get grants for the books, well, he saw that literature was good.
We hung out together in different permutations and combinations at the gallery, at the El Dorado, at each other’s places, though I don’t remember ever going to Steve’s. As a result of hanging out, we came up with plans for magazines, readings, books and events. It’s good to be young and fearless and arrogant, to have a sense of humour and have people you can share with.
I also hung out with dancers and painters and composers and performance artists (new concept then). So did Tom and Steve and John. This resulted in cross-pollination. Tom and I were the most involved in the collaborative process (maybe had something to do with the Hungarian socialist genes). I loved working with Contact Improvisational dancers. It was so physical and I got to (through them) make the text move! During this time, Tom made anti-art video-poems, Steve collaborated with Pat Walsh (visual artist) to make concrete (literally) haikus. John collaged and was cast (literally) into sculpture. Artie looked on bemused.
We got named the Véhicule Mafia. We became a force because we did things and because others made us powerful! I was having a gas. We started getting attention outside of Montreal. All this activity also made for more activity and not just by us. Others in reaction against us started magazines and publishing houses.
In the late seventies Véhicule Art Gallery split from the Press or vice versa (I don’t remember which). The Gallery moved up the street to a bigger, more lavish space (which lasted only for another two or three years before going under). The Press also wandered about town. The Chinatown location was my favourite but it was also where we got stabbed in the back. It was my favourite location because it was in Chinatown—enough said. It was also here that Simon Dardick decided he wanted to go respectable. We, the editors, had started to get funding for books while the printing side was not generating the finances that they had hoped for. In order to continue getting the grant, Simon felt that he had to “simonize” the press. So while we weren’t looking he brought in Michael Harris and wrote us a “nice” fuck-off letter. But by then the Véhicule Poets started to collaborate less and run out of collective ventures, energy, or desire.
However, for those four or five years 1975-80 we explored and made the world of contemporary poetry not by theorizing or imitation but by doing and instead of building schools of poetry, driving the Véhicule of poetry all over the place.
I from the start resented this Véhicule Poets (Press, Gallery etc) seeing it as an affectation since every last soul among our group was 100% English (as opposed to 1 or more % French)
I confess to a convergence sometime during those early 1970’s for there we suddenly were, a bunch of us poets, in the same space at the same time—but who’s to say there was just the one spider in Robert The Bruce’s prison cell? Which is to say we were a “Petrified Forest”, a “Bus-Stop” aggregate—a defaultive assembly—more the dregs who’d no recourse to the facilities of McGill & Sir George Williams (now Concordia) than a ‘first pressing’.
I’ve said that all 25 years ago when asked by Books in Canada for several hundred words on the (then) current Montreal Poetry scene. I’ve since referred to it as my ‘disclaimer’ vis-à-vis there being a Véhicule school—hell, had there been 40 spiders in with Bruce, they eventually might have turned out another Hamlet (-or would, after Archie & Mehitabel, Cockroaches be more apt?) but that would make them neither neo-Elizabethan playwrights or ‘throwbacks’. . . .And Hell again! Though we dregs were banned from Acadème, our own efforts to be more expansive (often alas exhaustive!) did not preclude our inviting those very poets who sought to exclude us to come and read among us. We were not gastronomy but possessors of the common Montreal English language. Soup Kettle and our efforts had too many ingredients in them for any succinct name. ‘Vehicule’? Phooie! This was ‘soup-bone’ school at its basest.
The four years, 1969 to 1973, when I attended Sir George Williams (now Concordia University) as an undergraduate were wonderful years for me. It was a creative and expansive time, for me personally and for poetry in Montreal. Two professors in the English Department organized a poetry reading series and I tried to attend every reading they put on during my undergraduate years. I heard American poets Robert Creeley, Jackson Mac Low, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginsberg, Diane Wakoski, and many others. Canadian poets who read their work included Alden Nowlan, David McFadden, Patrick Anderson, Michael Ondaatje, Roy Kyooka, George Bowering, and Gerry Gilbert. Over at McGill University I heard W.H. Auden read to a packed auditorium and met F.R. Scott at the McGill Faculty Club after another reading.
While at Sir George Williams a high school friend asked me for some poems for a chapbook. Another friend typed the poems on an IBM Selectric typewriter and had the chapbook printed. Poems of mine had been published in my high school’s literary magazine and school yearbook. My first chapbook, entitled Poems of a Period, was published in 1971. Around that time I also remember meeting Endre Farkas for the first time. I was impressed that he was already editing a magazine. Since then, Endre has become an integral and important part of the poetry community in Montreal.
I met Guy Birchard, a poet from Ottawa who later became a friend, at one of the readings at Sir George Williams. Guy introduced me to the poet Artie Gold. Artie was intelligent, intense, humourous, and dedicated to poetry. Artie’s favourite poets were Jack Spicer and Frank O’Hara. Artie also led me to American poets that were new to me--James Schuyler, Bill Knott, and Larry Eigner come to mind--as well as to the music of Charles Ives, a composer whom he mentions in one of his poems. I particularly remember visiting Artie Gold at his flat on Lorne Crescent during the spring and late summer of 1974, the year I also spent six weeks in Europe. As soon as I met Artie, I felt he was an original poet and someone I wanted to know.
I also took Richard Sommer’s creative writing class at Sir George Williams around 1972 and it was there I became good friends with Keitha MacIntosh. Later she published a little magazine, Montreal Poems. In 1973 I began my own magazine of experimental and concrete poetry, what is. Richard Sommer helped by giving me an extensive mailing list of poets, many of them in Vancouver, who might be interested in receiving what is. Those were the years that I was most interested in experimental poetry. My writing was influenced by William Burrough’s “cut-up technique” and John Cage’s writings on Eastern philosophy and randomness as a way of making art. The readings I gave during those years reflected these interests.
By 1977 the concerns in my writing changed. I lost interest in both concrete and sound poetry. I felt that a good graphic artist could produce better visual poems than I was capable of creating. I remember Artie Gold commenting that there were so many concrete poems you could fill a room with them. The important breakthrough in my writing was my long poem “Divisions”, written in April 1977. I found that I could address my concerns best in confessional poetry. This became the main focus of my writing for many years, including The Shadow Trilogy, published in the 1990s, comprised of The Compass (1993), The Yoni Rocks (1995) and The Mystic Beast (1997) all published by Empyreal Press in Montreal.
Later, in 1978, I began publishing The Montreal Journal of Poetics. I felt there was a need for critical writing on our work; sharing of ideas regarding poetry and poetics; and reviews of poetry books. All of the Vehicule Poets published in one or the other of the two magazines that I published and The Montreal Journal of Poetics didn’t cease publication until 1985. My literary papers from 1963-1998; back issues and papers relating to both magazines; my memorabilia of the Vehicule days, including numerous photographs of poets, tape recordings of readings, posters for readings; and all of my manuscripts for those years, are placed at the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections at McGill University and can be consulted for research.
Richard Sommer had a student in one of his classes, Bob Morrison, who published a literary magazine, Anthol. There was a meeting of the contributors at Richard’s flat on Draper Avenue that I attended. That was when I met Tom Konyves. It was a few years before the stunning performance of his poem “No Parking”, accompanied by a musician playing the cello, a poem that reflected the influence of Dadaism in Konyves’ work.
Next door to Richard Sommer’s home was where Marie Brewer lived. Her daughter, Diana Brewer, later married John McAuley. I met John McAuley and at one point we organized the poetry series at Vehicule together. I organized readings for the American poet Clayton Eshleman as well as the Toronto poet bpNichol and The Four Horsemen. Tape recordings and numerous photographs of these and other readings are in my literary papers housed at McGill.
The first poetry reading I gave was in early 1973 at the Karma Coffee House, in the basement of the Sir George Williams’ Student Union building at the corner of Crescent and de Maisonneuve Boulevard. I was influenced by bill bissett at that point in my artistic career, and performed my sound poems as well as read other poems I had written. My first reading at Vehicule Art was later that same year. I met Claudia Lapp and Ken Norris at Vehicule. It was Claudia who helped bring in Ann Waldman from the United States, and I remember talking with Ann Waldman on the phone before her visit to Montreal. Ken Norris, during his years in Montreal, encouraged and supported many poets. Many of us have benefited from Ken’s dedication to poetry and to poets. Ken Norris’s multi-volumed Report on the Second Half of the Twentieth Century is an important contribution to Canadian literature.
I remember walking up Mansfield Avenue in downtown Montreal one evening discussing Louis Dudek with Ken Norris; this was around 1975. Ken’s literary career in some ways follows Dudek’s career; both believed that poets should have a hands-on involvement in publishing poetry books and literary magazines. Ken was one of the younger poets who helped get a new generation excited about Louis Dudek’s poetry. Louis realized that the poets at Vehicule Art had the same inclusive approach to poetry that he had and his openness to us resulted in the collaboration found in A Real Good Goosin’, Talking Poetics, Louis Dudek and the Vehicule Poets (1981). We Vehicule poets were outsiders to the literary establishment in Montreal, and Robin Blaser, in his introduction to Louis’ Selected Poems, has described Louis as “a walking loneliness”. In retrospect, Louis Dudek was one of the few older poets who was supportive to us and many of us will always be in his debt.
I was a student in one of Louis Dudek’s graduate seminars at McGill University in 1974-1975. I visited Louis in his office in January 1975 and he read my new poems. He said that he liked the poems and that if he were still publishing poetry books he would do a book for me. Louis told me I would make a name for myself. I remember leaving Louis’ office that afternoon and walking across the campus to Sherbrooke Street. Something lifted from my shoulders at that meeting. I was elated that Louis Dudek, whom I had known of and respected, since first reading his poems while I was still in high school, had affirmed my writing. When I wrote “Divisions” Louis Dudek offered to publish it in book-form.
Every Sunday afternoon for several years I was at Vehicule Art. Those were wonderful afternoons of meeting poets, hearing poetry being read, giving poetry readings, and associating with other like-minded poets. Then Artie Gold, Ken Norris, and Endre Farkas became poetry editors at Vehicule Press and asked me for a manuscript. They published my first book, The Trees of Unknowing (1978). I remember meeting one evening in Artie’s kitchen while Ken Norris selected the poems for the book. Louis Dudek wrote a short preface to my book. The book launch was at Powerhouse Gallery on St. Dominique Street: I remember glancing across the room at a group of people that included John Glassco and Marian McCormick.
Other memories of those early years include hearing the British critic and poet William Empson lecture at the Vanier Library of Loyola College. Empson spread his voluminous notes on a table in front of him. He came across as quite eccentric. I heard Frank Davey read in the same auditorium at Loyola; a few years later Davey edited my second book, Divisions (1983) published by Coach House Press. I also heard Earle Birney read his poems at Loyola College and at a reception after the reading I enjoyed a long conversation about poetry with Birney.
Artie’s Gold’s flat on Lorne Crescent was dubbed “Fort Poetry”. Poets who met at The Word Bookstore on Milton Avenue often continued their conversation at Artie’s. West Coast poets Carolyn Zonailo and Cathy Ford met Artie Gold and Ken Norris at the Lorne Crescent flat during the weekend of the League of Canadian Poet’s Annual General Meeting in 1978.
In 1988, Carolyn Zonailo edited and published Tom Konyves’ collection of poems, Ex Perimeter with her Caitlin Press, in Vancouver. She also edited and published my third poetry book, Family Album (1989). It wasn’t until 1991 that I met Carolyn Zonailo while she was at John Abbott College for a meeting of The Writers’ Union of Canada. We have rarely been apart ever since, and we married in 1995. During her twelve years in Montreal Carolyn Zonailo has edited several of my poetry books, including The Shadow Trilogy and Mapping the Soul: Selected Poems 1978-1998. Empyreal Press published three of Carolyn Zonailo’s books during the 1990s here in Montreal, Nature’s Grace (1993), Memory House (1995), and Wading the Trout River (1997). Carolyn Zonailo and I divide our time between Vancouver and Montreal. This experience has allowed us both to develop a national perspective in our writing. Our poetics differ but our collaboration through giving poetry readings, traveling, and knowing poets across Canada, is a rich addition to my Montreal perspective.
The Vehicule years were a time of community, poetry, and creativity. This time allowed for the meeting of other young poets, as well as meeting older and established poets. These were my apprenticeship years of learning the craft of poetry. A few years ago I met poet Tim Lander in Vancouver. After reading my book Mapping the Soul: Selected Poems 1978-1998, Lander stated that I had entered the canon. This had never occurred to me before; but Tim was right. The Vehicule Poets have entered the canon of Canadian poetry. Most of us have continued writing, building a body of work, publishing poetry collections, and living the life of poets that we began so many years ago.
This past summer, I was asked to facilitate and emcee a weekly poetry series in the outdoor courtyard of a non-corporate pizza parlor in Eugene, Oregon. As I happily introduced featured poets and listened to their voices and the open mic offerings that followed, I was reminded of what I loved about Sunday afternoon readings at Vehicule Gallery that took place from 1972–82. The poetic ambiance is both the same and different now, in post 9/11 America, from the rich post-Expo decade in Montreal. Now, as then, it’s refreshing to have a non-academic venue, (complete with cloud mural, in the case of Cozmic Pizza) in which seasoned writers, new poets and complete novices can share the stage. Now, as then, it’s exciting to see warm connections forged between members of the writing community, to coax introverts out from their caves, to encourage lapsed poets to kick new poems into orbit, and to provide fledgling poets a chance to deliver passionate eco-rap by heart. Now, as then, it’s a bore to sit through self-absorbed poems that cry out for editing, and sheer joy to hear sestinas by a fresh new voice, given without any need to flaunt Ego. And, at a time when we need the Medicine of beauty and joy more than ever, I saw a very mixed audience (from teens to octogenarians) sigh, brighten up, laugh and cheer for Poems, delivered by naked voice.
I think the world of poetry is more visible and accessible to North Americans in 2002 than even 15 years ago, via poetry websites. (You can educate yourself this way. All I had to do was google to find out about David McFadden’s current books, read interviews and poems.) Photocopiers and color Xerox have replaced malodorous mimeographs. PC printers have made it easier to send out neat copies from the home desk, or even publish right fromt home. Another “new” development is the Slam phenomenon, said to have originated in 1986 in a Chicago jazz club, and which has been gaining popularity since the early ‘90’s. Slam has its detractors, who point to it as a showcase for bad poetry. Yet slam often brings relevancy and vigor to the scene, and really pulls in the young. Here in Eugene, population c 135,000, there are monthly slams at Fools Cap Books. A recent one drew about 150 people, most of whom appeared to be in their mid 20’s. Some of these kids are GOOD – their delivery makes the performance pieces we did at Vehicule seem tame and from a different world!
I recall the very physical, sometimes costumed pieces of Endre Farkas, the video collaborations of Tom Konyves. The pre-Rap, pre-Slam audiences at Vehicule got to witness poetry breaking free from traditional boundaries. Since returning to the States in 1979, I’ve missed witnessing first-hand, the evolution of my Vehicule partners as they kept expanding the edges of poetic possibility.
As I reflect on the 11 years I lived in Montreal (1968-’79), I can echo Stephen Morrissey in saying they “were wonderful years for me.” Three important foci of my creative energies were the Montreal Museum of Fine Art, where I had the good fortune to work just after graduating from Bennington, Vehicule, and John Abbott College, where I taught for seven years. Other poets in the English Department were David Solway, Peter Van Toorn, Endre Farkas and Matthew von Baeyer. Vehicule was in part responsible for my being hired at the CEGEP, as some on the hiring committee had been to my first Vehicule reading in 1972 (with Michael Harris). I formed important friendships with the writers at John Abbott and loved inspiring my students to attend Sunday readings at the gallery. I invited local poets to come to Ste-Anne-de-Bellevue and read for my Lyric Poetry class, among them Artie Gold, Carole Leckner, Anne McLean, Janet Kask, and Carol TenBrink. I remember also setting up readings and musical performances for the campus café. I believe bill bissett was one of the featured poets.
As Stephen noted, George Bowering enlivened the writing scene those days via his classes at Sir George Williams University, by facilitating readings by major poets like Michael Ondaatje, Margaret Atwood, and Jackson Mac Low, and by editing the literary magazine IMAGO. It was at SGWU that I first heard Atwood as well as Gary Snyder, reading to a packed hall. I was deeply moved by his integration of Buddhist thought and environmental activism, as well as his scholarship, modesty and kindness.
When Snyder read a few years ago at Oregon State University and the University of Oregon (in halls packed to suffocation!), those same qualities were unchanged, along with a tender humor and compassion.
It was at SGWU that I met Roy Kiyooka, who gave a reading as well as having an exhibit of paintings & photographs there (or was it at MMFA?). Roy became a friend and mentor and I visited him in Vancouver after I moved from Canada. Roy’s work ethic was impressive (never stop working hard!) and he was one of the first multi-media artists I knew. Roy introduced me to West Coast writers and their very different aesthetic, among them Daphne Marlatt and Gerry Gilbert. Roy’s STONED GLOVES (Coach House Press) and TRANSCANADA LETTERS (Talonbooks, 1975) are two of the most treasured & worn books in my library. After Roy’s death in 1994, his friend, painter Francois Dery, sent me the book Roy had been working on when he died (at the computer screen) - MOTHERTALK (NeWest Press, 1997), edited by Daphne Marlatt, a tribute to Mary Kiyoshi Kiyooka, as well as PACIFIC WINDOWS: Collected Poems (Talonbooks,1997), edited by Roy Miki.
When I try to remember how and when I met whom, I don’t come up with many details.
I spent most time with Ken and Endre. Ken gave me lots of editorial help with my books. I appreciated his ability to keep after us all to get things done. After returning to the States, I continued to enjoy copies of CROSS COUNTRY and his many books, which arrived regularly at my door. Endre and I both had offices at John Abbott and were neighbors in the multi-cultural ‘hood off of Van Horn. I loved the physicality of Endre’s presentations, as well as his slant on English that came from it not being his native tongue.
With John McAuley, I shared metaphysical interests, but can’t say I knew him well. I recognized in Steve a scholarly introvert and an explorer of spiritual paths. So we had some common ground. Maybe we met at Richard Sommer’s house. I think we took the same Tai Chi class in Chinatown. Steve included an interview with me in his mimeographed Montreal Journal of Poetics. We shared an appreciation for the dreamlike, poetic prose of Anais Nin.
Artie always seemed an enigma to me. I greatly respected his craft and intellect. Artie was way more worldly than I. He was always very sweet to me. I still have a note he left on my office door at John Abbott, pasted into one of my journals. Tom I remember for his stylin’ way of dressing. Most male poets I knew were wearing tee shirts, flannel shirts & jeans, but Tom had shiny purple shirts that opened onto lots of chest, and fancy shoes! Whatever he wore, NO PARKING was and still is an all-time favorite of mine. I always loved his voice and accent. I have seen very few of his videos, much to my regret.
East Coast To West
In 1991, my husband Gary and I loaded up the Toyota and traded the Northeast for the Northwest. I’d always appreciated that part of the continent from visits to Seattle and Vancouver, BC. Of my former Vehicule collaborators, I mostly stayed in touch with Ken and Endre as they edited various anthologies. I had an occasional note or email from Tom Konyves, who was living in Vancouver. In 1999, I returned to Vancouver to give a reading at Black Sheep Books. I was the elder amidst two live wires, Andrea Thompson and Ahava Shira. Tom attended, the first Vehicule pal I’d seen in years. An old Montreal friend, itinerant kabbalist/gemologist/poet Joseph Mark Cohen appeared from out of nowhere, bestowing hugs in his velvet cloak.
Montreal has remained the source of poetic projects for me. In 1998, Canadian composer David Gossage and poet and ex-John Abbot colleague, Matthew von Baeyer, completed MELOPOIESIS, an LP recorded at Concordia University and Fast Forward Studio. This is a collection of 20 poems (including Neruda, Yeats, Olds, and Cummings) read by von Baeyer with musical settings in many genres by Gossage. “On a Black Horse”, from HONEY, my first Vehicule book, is included.
Though I have connected with many poets in Eugene, heard many greats (like Denise Levertov, Sharon Olds, Eavan Boland and Wendell Berry, though not a single Canadian!) and done many readings at bookstores, cafes and schools, I have yet to find a group as active and edgy as the Vehicule Poets. A collaboration with two friends, D.M. Wallace and Jenny Root, at Tsunami Books, called POETS ON FIRE, December 2000, reminded me of the kind of intensity and enthusiasm that was expressed for a decade at 61 St. Catherine Street West. It made me feel – This is what I’m made for! The crowd of 100 -plus loved the performance element – mask, movement, call and response.
Dharma And Poetry
Gary Snyder’s North American-style commitment to the Buddhist path was an inspiration to many of us. Montreal was fortunate to receive visits by many great dharma teachers in the Seventies, among them Roshi Philip Kapleau, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, Sri Chinmoy, and Pir Vilayet Khan. Though I spent some years learning about Sufi practices, it was Trungpa (1939-87) whose books and presence made me recognize Tibetan Buddhism as the form for me. It was thanks to his influence that I traveled to Naropa Institute in the summer of 1976. Course offerings included daily lectures on Crazy Wisdom attended by thousands, a class on the Japanese Tea Ceremony and, icing on the cake – SPIRITUAL POETICS, co-piloted by Allen Ginsberg, Diane di Prima, George Quasha and Jerome Rothenberg. (Bowering included some of di Prima’s Revolutionary Letters in IMAGO.) When Ginsberg died in 1997, I realized just how much his teaching style (encouragement and generosity) and views on writing had been absorbed by my psyche: “first thought, best thought”, and the notion that one of poetry’s purposes is the voicing of Mind to relieve suffering, a “proclamation of your own cheerful neurosis, proclamation of original mind”. Ginsberg’s prolific essays and poems, and his use of mantra gave me courage to see the value in writing about the same old samsara, and in sharing mind’s particular attributes.
Another prominent Naropa presence was Anne Waldman, also a Bennington grad and dharma sister. I was able to arrange for her to read at Vehicule in the Spring of 1977. I always saw her as a worldly, jet-age Dakini with voice that Awakens. She came to Eugene in the late ‘90’s and read along with local hero Ken Kesey.
My interest in Tibetan Buddhist views and imagery led me to appreciate the work of Richard Sommer. I also enjoyed the dance performances of his wife Vicky. Richard’s LEFT HAND MIND (New Delta,1972?) inspired my own left-handed poems, a practice which I continue to this day. Steve Morrissey was also a fan of LEFT HAND MIND and reviewed it in MJP. A later work of Richard’s, MILAREPA (New Delta, 1976), moved me greatly as well. The tradition of ecstatic songs and verse a la Rumi, Kabir and Mirabai has always felt like home to me.
The longer I live, the less interested I am in elaborate literary manifestos and complex aesthetics. I continue to be more a poet of the present moment (Poet with a Pentax) than a member of a particular “school” of thought. I like to hang out with poems of Issa, Basho, Han Shan and Li Po. Or Jane Kenyon, William Stafford and Anna Swir. In terms of creative process, Chogyam Trungpa’s words really sum it up for me:
“Inspiration has two parts: openness and clear vision, or in Sanskrit shunyata and prajna. Both are based on the notion of original mind, traditionally known as Buddha mind, which is blank, non-territorial, noncompetitive, and open.”
(from DHARMA ART, Shamballa, 1996)
And In The End
In the end, maybe what it all came down to, this lucky convergence of seven young writers in Montreal in the early Seventies, was a “karmic” connection. Our affinities (and dissonances) created the Velcro which held us together for a brief while. We worked, clowned, taught, performed, collaborated on an LP (SOUNDS LIKE) and published more than a few books. We were friends of the same generation but were NOT united in a common Poetics at all, as Artie made clear in his Introduction to THE VEHICULE POETS.
We anticipated the popular bumper sticker – HONOR DIVERSITY. We witnessed each other in our individual expressive styles. We helped each other out, one interviewing, editing or reviewing another. We created a press and then others, as well as ‘zines to launch ourselves into the world. We assembled around an open Space to give out what we had inside of us. We invited master poets to mentor and inspire. We were able to create a literary scene that was contemporary and relevant, a happening place in the community. This was our gift. We wrote love notes to each other, appeared in each others’ dreams and now, we continue on separate creative paths, recalling the fortuitous, or maybe karmic ripening that made our paths cross with love and friendship and poetry.
ThE effect on the audience was not meant to be satisfying Tom Konyves
When I left Montreal for New York in 1975, I was leaving behind more than a broken marriage and a mind-numbing dead-end job with a trash-tabloid publishing syndicate. I had also spent six years wrestling with the possibility that the reason I persisted in writing poems had little to do with the cynicism of a disillusioned graduate of Concordia’s English Lit program.
Far from the reach of academia, in the dark, smoke-filled “open reading” rooms on Bleecker St., I began to discover that the small still voice within was indeed the authentic voice of a poet, whose works did not need the colour and sound of the “tradition” to be valid. Living in New York, my poems were turning from lyrical meditations to surreal snapshots or “micro-dramas”. These new poems were “experimental”, but they were also expressing the freedom I was feeling, so I mixed brief streams of consciousness with deliberate wordplay, juxtaposed abstractions to images of the fleeting present, combined journalese and fantasy, deconstructed the flatness of everyday speech to render it ironic if not outright meaningless, all ultimately the application of a Dadaist principle — the union of opposites. Months later, I returned to Montreal and, having walked and talked with Allen Ginsburg, with half a book of fresh poems under my arm, I knew I had more than enough enthusiasm to storm my hometown.
Returning to Montreal, I made the rounds of readings and, almost immediately, met Bob Galvin, a displaced New Yorker, who introduced me to another American, the young poet Ken Norris. We became friends, and our circle quickly grew to include the seven poets who eventually got tagged The Vehicule Poets - by Wynne Francis, an English prof at Concordia. At first, the group’s get-togethers were spent in talking about poetry and socializing. As we exulted in our camaraderie, I began to believe that the poems we wanted to read and hear, the poems we were all yearning for, had never been written; that all the master poets put together could not create the poems we needed, the poems we so yearned for - so we had to write them.
We agreed on some basic principles: that poetry should reflect the new (contemporary) in content and form; that experimentation should be encouraged; that conservatism and traditionalism should be dismissed and openly opposed; and that poetry should reach its audience in a more immediate way.
We watched our poems appear in public almost immediately after we wrote them - our first poetry magazine was the mimeographed Mouse Eggs. Poetry was alive, and Montreal was the right place to be a poet. I was feeling the freedom poetry is after. Experimenting with form could never have become so attractive in isolation; I was having serious fun! There were so many ways to express a poem that I began running, running until I ran off the page into visual performance, eventually video. And I kept asking, what has not yet been done?
The group was for the opposite of isolation; therefore it was inevitable that we would write collaborative poetry. As a matter of fact, the first night we really came together was when we followed a few beers with a blank sheet of paper which we passed around for a couple of lines.
What made the Vehicule Poets unique was this collaboration. Our Collaborations created Partnerships, at times a rare Union; there was a sense of Solidarity, we exulted in the Camaraderie, at the gallery meetings we displayed Comradeship, in our private lives we were Close, we were Friends.
The support of the group certainly facilitated my efforts in collaborative work. The one (and only) performance of Drummer Boy Raga: Red Light, Green Light was satisfying partly because I initiated it, witnessed its evolution, and saw it through to its performance; but sharing a collaborative spirit was such a unique feeling that I continued working with other poets, artists, and musicians for many more years. My performance oriented poems culminated in working in video, creating "videopoems" - the word I used in 1978 - again with the support and participation of the others.
When I discovered Dada, my biggest surprise was that I hadn’t known of it earlier. It fit well with my cynical, deconstructive side, with the word permutations I had learned from my reading Cabalist texts, with the performance art I was witnessing at The Vehicule Art Gallery, and with my obsessive love of word-play (my magazine Hh was named for “Hobbyhorse”, the French definition of “Dada”) . Dada had played itself out primarily in French; I believed there was still unexplored territory in English.
Once we accepted the fact that we were an identifiable group, we began to explore ways we could express ourselves: publishing magazines and books, broadsides and chapbooks on a frequent basis, and of course, collaborating/performing together. But all these activities resulted from a common meeting space, the Vehicule Art Gallery.
As members of the Vehicule Art Gallery, we vacillated between obsessive involvement in the gallery’s affairs and utter boredom with it. Our reading series was a common responsibility, but the highly politicized environment at the gallery resulted only in strengthening the bond between us, the poets of Vehicule. As we became familiar with the operations of the gallery, we learned the advantages and disadvantages of organization. We also witnessed the use and abuse of administrative power and artist politics.
On the positive side, I can’t overemphasize the significance of arriving at the space to find a thought-provoking, if not shocking, exhibition of young experimental visual artists; as well as meeting and getting to know painters, sculptors, musicians, performance artists, video artists, dancers from all over the world. The atmosphere was almost always intense, electric. It was inevitable that we would examine our own expression, poetry, in the light of what we were seeing around us. Unlike university faculty lounges, libraries and bookstores, the gallery made poetry come alive; it was more than just a venue for readings. (Coffee houses were different, but ultimately the poets there did not control the space. At Vehicule, we did.)
A printing press donated by the artist Tom Dean became Vehicule Press, through which we began to publish our books. The press, the performance/reading space, the video recording equipment, the gallery network, the resident and visiting artists, the communication tools (access to telephone, mass mailings, stationary), not only enabled us to participate in an active art scene, promote each other’s work, and keep up to date on contemporary art issues, but also to take poetry wherever we desired. We also became aware of the power of the group - allowing us to reach farther, inside and out.
In 1977, poetry was still writing and reading. While some performance artists were experimenting with poetry at alternative galleries and performance spaces, the mainstream poetry scene was - not unexpectedly - print-oriented. The Canada Council, wielding significant power through its grants to poets, defined poetry primarily by the publication of poetry in book form— 48 pages minimum.
While organizing a reading series at Vehicule, I had specific tasks: invite the poets, print posters, write press releases, set up chairs, introduce the reader, make coffee for the intermission, sell books, fill out forms for the poet to get paid and lock the doors after everyone left. Sometimes we set up the video camera and documented the reading. My interest in video began when I realized that once framed, the poet did not move out of the frame, and an audio recording could have served equally well.
The medium of video was not being challenged or explored by poetry. Poems were for the page and for the ear. There were poems for the eye- experiments in concrete poetry, conceived with the page in mind. Letters, words or phrases were blown up, cut up, strewn across the page, upside down, backwards, sideways, out of order, stenciled, outlined; typefaces were mixed, picture and text were juxtaposed; finally, collages appeared as poems. Minimalist art thus explored poetry and the experience of a poem. The experimental artists at the time were fiercely interested in the non-narrative, producing mostly conceptual works, culminating in not one but two new forms— performance art and installations. The video artists were creating conceptual works (video as fishbowl), bizarre exhibitionist fictions (performances created uniquely for the eye of the camera), or a combination of the two (video monitor as participant).
I saw two distinct directions for poetry: towards the page and away from the page. Choosing the latter meant severing ties with the majority of poets, which ultimately meant being marginalized or simply ignored. The fact was that the mood was favouring the new (or so it appeared within the friendly confines of the gallery) and the medium of video was accessible at the gallery. I approached video with concerns about the poet as performer as well as a trial ground for a novel treatment of text. I immediately liked the fact that, unlike the poem on the page, I was able to unravel the poem at my own speed. What finally differentiated my videopoems from poetry and video art was this ability to simultaneously present a work and also question the role of the poet.
[SOMEONE IS STILLPULLING MY STRING] ARTIE GOLD
(Someone is still pulling my string:)
"More words, Mr Gold! _ _"You were there!" O.K. O.K., "there" _ _ spirit of the place. Then (there) _ there was a certain spirit of place. . .
In the land of backbiters/the guile-less man, otherwise gregarious, becomes egregious_ _ egad, whatta load of rhetoric!
Vehicule Poets scenario #? ? ?!
Solway falls on Harris who falls on Van Toorn who turns to krishna (who dogs Solway?). Geddes. . .needs no man. Dudek, Layton, Gnarowski, Siebrasse /are locked in a scrum. Richmond takes tickets for the Montreal Star Literary page (7 1/5th of Canadian club=i dance).
Sweet Leonard Cohen has not the stomach for this Byzantine excrescence _ _ nor in any case the need).
These left, some straggling, some struggling, carry the ball down through to the Muse's 5 yard line. . And they are. . .well, before you know it, The Vehicule Poets; if not compatible with the label—at least comfortable with each other's company.
REGARDING THE VEHICULE POETS KEN NORRIS
I returned to Montreal in January of 1975, after spending the previous eighteen months in New York, playing lead guitar in a New Wave band called Bogart. By that time I had decided that what I was really interested in being was a poet, not a commercial songwriter on Tin Pan Alley. My first book, Vegetables, was already in the planning stages at Vehicule Press, and wound up being published in March. Starting in February, I began attending the weekly Sunday afternoon poetry readings at Vehicule Art where, little by little, I got to know the other poets who would eventually come to constitute the group.
Poets tend to be a rather solitary lot, so it is always interesting when they are drawn together to pool their energies. I would say that the Vehicules tended to organize themselves around Artie Gold, who, at that stage, was clearly the most talented of all of us. Perhaps the one thing the other six of us most shared was our admiration of Artie. And, for some reason, the six of us were the six other poets in Montreal with whom he had no major disputes. His calling other poets “assholes” in our presence seemed to confirm that we shared an opinion, and sharpened our sense of a perhaps shared personal and poetic aesthetic. We were all in awe of the poetry he was writing, and we were all somewhat frightened of his caustic wit and sharp tongue. Sometimes I think I understand in quite personal terms how the other Beatles felt about John Lennon.
It was a very rare occasion when all seven Vehicule Poets were in the same place at the same time. Usually, there were five of us. I remember five of us being out for the day in Ste. Anne de Bellevue circa 1977. There are a few photographs of that in Vehicule Days. Perhaps there were six of us sometimes at the weekly meetings that went on for a while, but usually there were five. Someone was always missing but there in spirit. When “The Last Of The Vehicule Poets” reading was held at Concordia University in early 1981, I was in the South Seas and Claudia was in Virginia. On the day we shot the cover photo for The Vehicule Poets in early 1979, I remember being amazed that everyone actually showed up. But there we all were, at the same time. In the same moment.
A lot of Vehicule Poets lore tends to get restated, but one thing I have been thinking about lately is how some of us studied with Louis Dudek (myself, Stephen), while some of the others studied with George Bowering (Artie, Tom, John). In either case, I think what you received was a good Modernist—Postmodernist orientation. And perhaps the distance between Louis and George was actually less than the distance between McGill and Concordia. We all tended to be anti-intellectual intellectuals anyway, and all of us were looking past the academy (Louis and George included) the moment we began thinking about poetry.
Another thing worth drawing attention to, I believe, is that five of us didn’t originally come from Montreal. Endre and Tom were Hungarian immigrants, Claudia and I were American immigrants, and Artie was born in Brockville, Ontario. Only Stephen and John were native Montrealers. For me, going to Montreal was initially like Hemingway or Scott Fitzgerald going to Paris in the twenties. But I very quickly lost all interest in being an ex-pat American, and found myself wanting to become Canadian/Quebecois as soon as possible. Whether or not we were born in Montreal, we all became committed Montrealers.
I also think it’s worth pointing out that, in my opinion, there was a very strong Jewish spin to the Vehicule Poets. Artie, Endre, and Tom were all Jewish; I was born and raised in New York City where, to my way of thinking, everyone is Jewish. Cohen and Layton were obvious poetic influences. And everyone in English Canada always thought Louis Dudek was Jewish, even although he was a Polish Catholic. Perhaps everyone in Montreal is Jewish and Catholic at the same time.
And the Jewishness I’m emphasizing here is cultural, not religious. Perhaps what I’m indicating here is that we were all favorably inclined towards a European cosmology of art, culture and learning.
I think it was via that European connection that we were all at least peripherally interested in Dada and Surrealism. And interest in Dada and Surrealism quickly lead in the direction of collaboration and performance.
Being one of the more page-bound poets in the group, I remember working on collaborations with a particular affection. Because they stretched me, got me out of my solitary space. Somehow the others got me to stand in front of an audience shouting, “Red light! Green light!” Or to read something simultaneous with six others reading something. Or to write an absurdist text and then put on a costume to perform it for the video camera. In other words, to play and have fun with language.
I was always the one who was far too serious.
Endre and I did most of the mimeographing of the magazine Mouse Eggs. Although the Vehicules, collectively, produced quite a few different magazines of different stripes, I tend to think of Mouse Eggs as the central one. Because it was the most spontaneous and irreverent. Because it was the most interesting for us. Because, in the eyes of the world, it was invisible. And because it made us laugh.
Just when you thought everything had gone quite far enough, the next issue would push it over the edge. Again.
When the Vehicule Poets were together, I knew I always had an audience of six for whatever I wrote. We were always showing one another poems, or reading them to one another over the phone. We were young, and in the creative zone. And every day we incited one another to further creation.
Artie, who, for the most part, has tended to be like Harpo Marx when it comes to talking about the Vehicules in the past, has made a couple of provocative statements. I find that I am pretty much in agreement with the spirit of them. Anyone who knows me knows that I always pronounced it “vehicle.” To me, it was always the Vehicle Poets as well as Vehicle Press. Because we were English-speaking poets, not French-speaking poets.
What I take from Artie’s sense of the “soup-bone school” of poetry is that we came together because we were all similarly hungry. Hence, needed to make a collective meal off the one soup bone. We were living in Montreal, but Anglo Montreal was a dead scene. Certainly, the English Montreal poetry scene had died the death in the sixties and, in terms of anything interesting going on, nothing was happening. Just as Vehicule Art sprang up to revive a moribund visual arts scene, the Vehicule poets came into being because there was nothing going on in English language poetry in Montreal that was fundamentally interesting. In the process of discovering one another, and exchanging ideas and visions, we found that we could make things interesting, at least for ourselves. And, frankly, I don’t think we really cared too much about the fate of anybody else; we were all just so relieved to have encountered kindred spirits. Out of that sense of relief, and then the ensuing excitement, we built our club house.
“Though we dregs were banned from Academe”—I think this, too, is mostly true. I was attending McGill at the time of the Vehicule Poets, but, aside from Louis and a couple of other friendly professors, I never felt like there was any support there for anything that I was really interested in doing. The interesting place was the gallery. None of us wound up teaching in a Canadian university, myself included, and I had to take up academic employment in a different country. Others among us had even more troubled relations with Canadian universities.
As Dudek once pointed out (in A Real Good Goosin’), we were, essentially, outsiders. Outsiders in relation to academia, but also in relation to Anglo Montreal “culture,” such as it uninterestingly was. In 1975, English Montreal was duller than Toronto, which at least had Coach House Press. We had to pretty much build Vehicule Press from the ground up, in the spirit of Coach House. And that spirit held for five or six years, until the regime change went down at Vehicule. After that, The Muses’ Company tried to do the same work. Early Vehicule Press, and The Muses Company from 1980-1995, were certainly oppositional, outsider presses.
CONFESSIONS OF A COLLABORATOR ENDRE FARKAS
In the late Seventies and early Eighties, I wanted to write, I wanted to play and I was in love. Two out of the three involved collaboration. I wanted three out of three. I believed in collaboration. I wrote the first part of “Confessions of a Collaborator” for John’s Maker magazine around this time. “Confessions of a Collaborator” was supposed to be a series of articles about the collaborative creative process: inspiration, approaches and execution. I never did get around to the other parts because I was busy working on collaborative projects and didn’t want to waste my time explaining what and how I was doing what I was doing. At the core of it was finding ways to reunite, to counter all the ways the world seemed to be coming apart. And maybe that is why I am still fool enough to be doing it.
After our editorial association with Véhicule Press came apart, I spent from 1980 to 1985 collaborating with artists from other disciplines, touring and getting my publishing house, The Muses’ Company, off the ground.
During this time Catpoto, an all female Contact Improvisation group from Montreal, commissioned me to create a text for them. This resulted in a three-part piece “Face-Off/Mise au Jeu”. Then I was asked by Fulcrum, a Vancouver based Contact Improvisation Company, to do something along the same lines: text & movement. This resulted in “Sound Bodies”. In these collaborations I was looking to make the texts kinetic, to make the words move, combine and recombine them, to make them dance the way the dancers did. These collaborations, forced, taught and led me to create “modular poems”, texts to play with.
These pieces led to one of my strangest collaboration. Composer Ted Dawson asked me to work on something that became “Close-up”. I, being very unmusical (tone deaf), couldn’t understand why he would want to work with me but the challenge and the irony was too great to pass up. The piece consisted of me on stage, half naked, wired to eight or nine sound sources which, in turn, were hooked up to a computer programmed to randomly select no more than three sound sources (text, breath, heart, muscle, brain, etc.) at a time. My body’s silent sounds were the orchestra, the instruments, and the lyrics.
As well, I worked with various actors and dancers to develop, produce and tour performance pieces. My most complex piece to that point was “An Evening With the Muses’ Company” It consisted of four pieces that seemed to be heading towards a post- modernist, cabaret-theatre.
In looking back, I realize that my performance collaborations were rarely with the Véhicule poets. Ken, the page-based poet was the only one who participated in a couple of sound pieces. He can be heard on “Er/words/ah” er-ing, ah-ing, breathing hard and screaming on the L.P. “Sounds Like”.
On the literary collaborative side, I was publishing. The Muses’ mission was to publish new voices, like exiled Chilean poet Elias Letelier, Somalian poet Mohamud Siad Togane, queer/punk poet Ian Stephens and Ruth Taylor, who can not be labeled. The Muses was also now the publishing home for Ken Norris, Artie Gold, Tom Konyves and Cel (Claudia Lapp)
By the late Eighties, the formerly known “Véhicule Poets” were drifting off, physically and/or creatively, into their own solo spaces. In my solitary work, I was returning to the page using a “straight poetry” approach to deal with the mysteries of being human, of creating new life, and dealing with demons of forced exile. In How To I was looking to renovate the poem and my life. The fact that I had children led me to deal with the quotidian in a stripped-down fashion, because “When a little one comes into your life/you have little time./So you write little poems/about the little things she does/with her little hands, feet and tooth.//Little do you realize/that little by little/she takes over//And there is little you can do.”
And even though it was a quickie, there was a fun collaborative interlude with Ken and Ruth (for which Ruth did not get credit and she has not let me forget it). We worked on Howl To, Eh, a book of parody and satire.
Surviving Words followed in 1994. It was about my past, through my parents’ concentration camp experiences, our escape from Communist Hungary in 1956 and the present horrors of the world. I adapted this book into a play Surviving Wor(l)ds which was performed at the Centaur Theatre in 2000. Through this adaptation, I reentered the collaborative world. My new collaborator was Liz Valdez, a director. She helped me to shape my multi-voiced texts into a theatrical experience. Since then, we have collaborated on a number projects; Voices being the most recent. At the same time Ruth Taylor and I co-wrote “Radio Love”, a commissioned text and musical collage for CBC radio. The collaborative addiction is a hard habit to kick and in the grand scheme of things not a bad one to have.
It was those Véhicule days that gave me, and continues to this day, the freedom to explore the ways and means to push the limits of poetry and allowed me to share in the spirit of the times with others who were responsible for regenerating a decaying poetry scene globally and in Montreal locally. We opened the doors & windows to let in fresh air. I am glad to have been a part of it.
WHAT THIS REUNION MEANS... STEPPHEN MORRISSEY
For me, this “reunion” of the Vehicule Poets is a time of reflection on what we did together; what we have accomplished since we went our separate ways; and what we are doing now. I am grateful for having met and known Endre Farkas, Ken Norris, Artie Gold, Claudia Lapp, John McAuley, and Tom Konyves. They were the poets of my youth and will always have a special place in my heart.
The five intensive years of being associated with the Vehicule Poets were a time of belonging to a poetry community. I attended numerous poetry readings and served an apprenticeship to poetry. In my own poetry I began to articulate who I was and where I belonged in the greater world around me. I don’t remember having any doubts about being a poet or questioning the necessity of what I was writing. Writing poetry was not something I felt that I had any choice about. I appreciate that my teaching profession has also been in the service of poetry and I have had the privilege of teaching Canadian literature over these past years. I have continued to read poetry and biographies of poets, and to write and publish poetry.
During a three-day period in April 1977 I wrote the long-poem, “Divisions”. Writing this poem was important for me, as it was my first significant confessional poem. However, the time of germination needed to write this poem took place over many years before I actually wrote the poem. It included finding a form for the poem, and being able to “scribble down your nakedness” as Allen Ginsberg advised, a phrase that had made an impression on me ten years prior to when I wrote “Divisions”. By “confessional poetry” I refer to poems written out of a sense of emotional urgency. They are not therapy, but contain content that demands to be written because of its psychological, spiritual, and emotional importance to the poet.
But “Divisions” was not my only confessional writing. Family Album (Caitlin Press, 1989) is a collection of short poems--snapshots of significant events--that explore and reveal family life. During the 1990s I wrote “The Shadow Trilogy”: The Compass (1993), The Yoni Rocks (1995), and The Mystic Beast (1997), all published by Empyreal Press, in Montreal. These books explore marriage, family, sexuality, grief, and the renewal of a life through romantic love. To explore consciousness deeply requires going beyond our hesitation to discuss subjects that we find overly personal or that we are afraid to inquire into. Beginning with “Divisions” and continuing to the completion of “The Shadow Trilogy”, the development of the confessional aspect of my work becomes apparent.
Who have been my influences? They include Charles Olson, Allen Ginsberg, and Robert Lowell. But I also had poet mentors who encouraged me and treated me with kindness and respect, including Louis Dudek and George Johnston. Some of the Canadian poets I read in my youth were A.M. Klein, Leonard Cohen, bill bissett, and Alden Nowlan. I met Vancouver-born poet Carolyn Zonailo in May 1991, and since then she has been an on-going influence, professionally and in my everyday life—we married in 1995. She is a lyric poet of great beauty and intensity. Knowing CZ transformed my life and awakened love where love had diminished.
Poetry is the voice of the human soul. Whether written three thousand years ago in ancient Greece, or yesterday in Montreal, poetry has an urgency and relevance that is never dated, always human, and able to communicate across time and geography. My poetry is a life-long confession; it is the voice of the soul found in images, emotion, and the music of language. Mapping the Soul: Selected Poems 1978-1998 (The Muses’ Company, 1998) is the journey of a single poet through the many experiences of the first half of an individual’s life.
Looking over the years since I began writing poems, when I was fifteen years old, I can see the unfolding of my life story. It is a drama in which experiences are lived, emotions felt, and challenges are met or avoided. My poetry affirms both mundane living and the spiritual dimension of life. We may think our existence is meaningless when we are young, but age gives us a different perspective. From my early poems until now I have gained an appreciation of the value and meaning of what it means to be human, from the simplest details to the most complex situations.
MORE THOUGHTS ABOUT VEHICULE CLAUDIA LAPP
When I consider the entity we call “The Vehicule Poets”, I find that, despite a desire for solidity, in fact, this construct no longer exists. The impermanence of VEHICULE is not changed by the fact that none of its erstwhile members have, as yet, left this incarnation. I am truly grateful to be able to reconnect with my former poetic companions, to rekindle friendship and stir the cauldron of memory. But I have no illusions as to the enduring importance of our small “team”. This is not to deny that we made a contribution to the Montreal and even, Canadian, literary scene, or that all we did had great value for us as individual young writers. Yet I have no interest in making the Vehicule Poets into any kind of hype.
What feels important to me, now, 25 years later, is to ask:
WHAT ARE WE DOING NOW AS POETS THAT’S INTERESTING/ RELEVANT/ FRESH?
WHAT CAN WE DO NOW WITH OUR LOVE OF LANGUAGE AND THE ARTICULATION OF LIFE EXPERIENCE?
WHAT WILL HAPPEN WHEN WE MEET AGAIN, NO LONGER YOUNG, TO CREATE, SHARE, AND PERFORM?
HOW CAN OUR DIVERSITY INTERACT TO CREATE SOMETHING OF INTEREST OR ASTONISHMENT FOR AUDIENCES WHICH MAY NOT KNOW US AT ALL?
I DON’T WANT TO BE SENTIMENTAL ABOUT WHO WE WERE, BUT RATHER, ENGAGED IN WHAT WE HAVE BECOME AND HOW WE CAN POUR THAT OUT TO AN AUDIENCE.
For we have that in common – the love of giving out the words we discover, invent, recover. As Emerson wrote : “… The poet is the Namer or Language-maker, naming things sometimes after their appearance, sometimes after their essence, and giving to every one its own name and not another’s.” (quoted In THE NAMES OF THINGS, Susan Brind Morrow, 1997).
Cataloguing my poetic activities since leaving Montreal in 1979 is less important than expressing where my current directions as a writer seem to be leading. All of us have read at countless bookstores, classrooms, cafes, and gatherings. We’ve probably all presented and sometimes danced/enacted new poems in living rooms for our closest friends. We all feel connected to a global circuit of poets who have not forgotten how precious it is for humans to give language and song for free, to anyone who happens to be around to listen. We are all from another planet as far as seeing what we do as simply products to market. And we’ve all received some recognition, including monetary prizes, however small. Whether we write “full-time” or not (how many of us get up before dawn every day to write, as William Stafford used to?), the name POET defines most clearly our essence, the way we respond to, and even “understand” life.
What I’d like to collaborate on with this team would be an exploration of our current hot “tracks”. For my part, I’m focusing on writing poems/prayers for Peace, and exploring a language which parallels and antidotes the techno/advertising/ combat-focused speech being churned out today. (My prose poem in progress, BLEAK TALK, is an example of the latter.) I’d love to see us create a multi-voiced series of pieces that would integrate our past connections with present interests. This is not something we can have all figured out in advance. It awaits our next reunion.
Also, I’ve realized that since I began noticing rain-puddles-with-sky-reflections, which I now happily photograph and which have evolved into greeting cards and enlargements (“Sky Pools”, by the Poet with a Pentax), my image-making energy is less directed at written forms. I would like to find a way of incorporating some of these photos into whatever kind of show/exhibit/performance we do. With Tom’s video expertise and all the electronic “toys” we now have available, a multi+-media event makes sense. Whatever we create together this time around, I'm sure it will be, to quote Adrienne Rich, "green with the flare of life in it."
SOMETHING'S GOT TO BE SAID FOR THE OTHER SIDE TOM KONYVES
The avant-garde did not yet exist. In the late sixties, the milieu was shared by two universities and a couple of bookstores: SGWU (Concordia) was spending on poetry readings by “name” poets while neighbouring McGill was fast becoming a steady publisher of young poets, through its Literary Supplement to the Daily. Two bookstores also sponsored readings and, located as they were on the perimeter of the universities, managed to mirror their respective styles: book launches were usually hosted by The Double Hook (its audience was ultra-wasp Westmount mixed with Sir George hippies accompanying their profs), while The Word was an informal, intimate reading room (stacked from floor to ceiling with books, the small storefront room was quickly filled to capacity with McGill students). Of the cafes, the Kharma coffee-house put on some evenings of readings, and it was here that I encountered the living breathing poet in my Lit-Crit professor, Richard Sommer; here, under a spotlight directed at a simple red brick wall, less than a block away from the bureaucratic doublespeak of our institution, in an atmosphere of relative freedom and equality, he became a friend (and, for a short time, a genuine practitioner of experimental writing, even at the potential expense of being alienated from the Concordia English Department elite). His wife, Vicky Tansey, was a dancer, and he sometimes read his poems accompanied by Vicky, dancing.
The Department-sponsored readings at the university Hall could hold no real meaning for me, stamped as they were with institutional legitimacy, their all-too-civil decorum wafted in from the classrooms above. The English Department’s agenda was clear: maintain a “conservative” policy of supporting and protecting “mainstream poetry” while ignoring the rude postmodernists. No wonder some well-heeled profs later became the object of ridicule and a symbol of opposition to many of us.
In the early seventies, the breakthrough for the experimental, the avant-garde, was realized with the sudden introduction of poetry to two of the new artist-run galleries, Powerhouse and Vehicule. Removed from the influence of the universities, Vehicule was also removed from the commercial influence of bookstores (although the gallery was occasionally used for book launches, primarily by small presses). Of our group, I became most intimately involved in the running of the gallery, at one point representing the poets on the board’s executive.
My political involvement at Vehicule Art also strengthened my poetic “principles” (I can’t help but think of Louis Dudek, who asked if we had “any” or did we “just churn it out”) which, in view of the gallery’s orientation to the experimental and the multi-disciplinary, I was in the process of formulating, as to what was or was not avant-garde poetry. These principles were based partly on my growing interest in Dada and Surrealism, but even more so on the visual art exhibitions and performance art I was witnessing at the gallery, works which ultimately inspired me to create what I called “videopoems” (1978) and to collaborate with other poets in “performance poems” like Drummer Boy Raga, Red Light, Green Light (1979). At the same time, most significantly, I learned to use the status of Vehicule as a non-profit organization to produce projects such as Poesie en Mouvement/Poetry On The Buses (1979), Art Montreal, the TV series (1979-1980), as well as an exhibition of Concrete Poetry (1981). The precedent for these “gallery-sponsored” activities was already provided by Endre Farkas and Ken Norris, who had become editors of Vehicule Press while the press was still under the “umbrella” of the gallery, enabling all of us eventually to publish our books, thus creating an alternative publishing power to the established presses. (Ken Norris is the authority here.)
Two significant others.
Opal L. Nations arrived from England and, almost immediately, collaborations and performances were happening. Opal was a prolific writer of dense, convoluted prose with a biting wit, always humourous, always reading for what seemed like hours. He told us of collaborations and “parlour readings” back home, and was always bursting with energy. The collaboration on DrummerBoy Raga began when I handed Opal my poem To Dawn, which he then cut to pieces (literally), inserting his lines between mine. He then scotchtaped it all together and handed it back to me. It was then passed to Endre, then Stephen, then Ken. By the time we were ready to perform the piece, we added a flute, a conga drum, and a dancer. For some reason we couldn’t perform it at Vehicule, so the one and only performance took place in April 1977, at the Powerhouse Gallery. It was a blast!
Steve McCaffery was part of The Four Horsemen, who performed sound-poetry, touring the parallel-gallery circuit, eventually arriving in Montreal, hosted by Vehicule. I found Steve to be well-versed in the avant-garde, interested in video, and we became friends, staying in touch for many years. We met soon after I had just completed my first videopoem Sympathies of War, and I remember how excited we were about the possibilities of poetry on video. In performance with the Four Horsemen, Steve displayed the gestures of a true Dada, playing with absurdity in as authentic a manner as I’ve ever seen.
For me, what defined the Vehicule Poets as a group (despite Gold’s objections) was not simply experimentation, whether in structure or method on the page, in the subject matter of the poems or in their combination with other media; more unusual than these, not withstanding the collaborations, was the freedom expressed in our joy of poetry (and more transparent evidence of this cannot be found than on our faces for the cover photo of The Vehicule Poets), writing it, talking about it, sharing it, performing it, and when not up to our standards, dismissing it!
At the time of writing my poem No Parking (1977), we had a reading set up in Burlington, Vermont, and I wanted to surprise the others by including them in this poem, which I was about to read for the first time, across the border. The single word allusions to the others (dakini/Lapp, hostie/Farkas, Houdini/Norris, inspector/Opal L. Nations, window-maker/Sommer, pasta-maker/Gold, cloud-maker/Morrissey) demonstrate the freedom of wordplay I particularly enjoyed (I would insert addresses, phone numbers, some found, some known to me, and other specific references into my poems). Similarly, the title of my video-play Ubu’s Blues, The First Voyage of the Vehicle R, alluded to Vehicule Art. The “vehicle” reference was also intended in other titles: my first book No Parking, the videopoems Yellow Light Blues, as well as our collaboration Drummer Boy Raga, Red Light, Green Light. In retrospect, it was a celebration of us, the Vehicule Poets, the Vehicule Gallery, the City, the times.
We ripped poetry out of the poetry books and the poetry readings and the universities and the poetry magazines and hurled them into the streets and the buses and the newspapers and the television sets, we pasted them on the walls of our galleries and the doors of our houses, we transformed our poems into visual experiences and we danced the poems and chanted them, we published them within days of writing them, we performed them with musicians, we read our poems together out loud, we cried them and sang them, we delivered them deadpan to the silence of a crowded room. We were the vehicle of the avant-garde, and the vehicle had arrived.
POSTSCRIPT JOHN McAULEY
My father was pretty skeptical about the poetry thing. He thought it was an excuse to stay on the pogey and smoke “funny cigarettes”––perhaps because I had written a Beat-like poem when I was ten, read it to parents and neighbours, and said I was dreaming of bathing in Chablis. Maybe I should have been a little less naive. As Ken Norris somewhere wrote, “We live here and we’ve been part of trying to make things happen here & we want to continue to try to make things happen here & anywhere else we can get things going too.” Maybe if I’d been more awake, I wouldn’t always have been the last to find out what the boys were up to. Sometimes I’d get a phone call or it would be time for a love-in: “John, John!” Tom Konyves would begin with a conspiratorial smirk. Tom was the messenger. I always suspected Ken and Endre Farkas were up to something (with Artie Gold’s okay). It’s taken me until the twenty-first century to find out that there were no Vehicule poets, except maybe me in my own mind.
Endre (or Andre, his name in 1970) had more hair than a Hun when I first met him (before the Vehicule poets) in Henry Zemel’s cinema class at Sir George. I was living in a commune in lower Westmount where writing poems was a challenge in the smoky atmosphere of seances and attempts to levitate the White House. My major influences were underground comic books, cheap art posters, and encyclopedias, though like many of my generation I dog-eared Donald Allen’s New American Poetry and started trying my hand at concrete poetry after staring long and hard at Olson’s essay on projective verse. My desk was a plywood board bolted to four wobbly legs. Being minorly dyslexic and majorly uncoordinated, I made a lot of typing errors pounding away on my old Royal portable typewriter, so I kept my poems short. Punctuation was something of a hazard too, but who really knew how to punctuate back then?
Around 1971 or 72, Endre and I went to a Booster & Blaster magazine meeting at Patrick Kelly Lane’s place on Milton. Artie might have been there doing something or other for the magazine. About the same time, Endre took me somewhere in Cote des Neiges where we met Seymour Mayne, who was driving a VW van with Very Stone House, minus the “d,” painted on its side. Endre and I had volunteered to collate an anthology of women poets. We danced the pages round and round a dining room table.
By 1975 I had also met Claudia Lapp. I remember her tripping onto the Park Avenue 80 wearing a long tight green skirt that made her look dangerous. Artie, too, impressed me because he’d been to the City Lights Bookstore on the West Coast and didn’t have to hold down a job. He had an unsettling way of standing at the back of the room at any local poet’s reading, frowning and relentlessly moving back and forth in the reader’s line of sight. He could certainly make me flub my lines.
In late 1974, Michael Harris invited me to submit some work to the 10 Montreal Poets Reading at the Cegeps anthology, which also included poems by Artie, Endre, and Claudia. I gave Glen Siebrasse the name of a printer and took some flack from him for what he said was the printer’s lousy job. All ten of us read at the cegeps. What I remember best is being ambushed at Champlain by the stutters. Poetry can be brutal.
In 1976, after I wrote Stephen Morrissey a fan letter commending him for publishing concrete poetry in his magazine what is, he generously sent me a copy of his mailing list to help me get started on Maker magazine. I was also designing concrete poetry kites, building a zoetrope with too few slits, and––my favourite––making concrete poetry slides for a stereoscope. Maker magazine lasted exactly three issues, the first photocopied, the other two offset printed at Vehicule Co-op in Chinatown. Maker went to poets and art centres in twenty-three countries. By the third issue, Maker’s layout had become an eclectic canvas for prose and poetry of varying lengths and types. Submissions came in every few weeks. South Americans sent a lot of political concrete poetry in Spanish. I loved the whole thing, but mailing out Maker got too expensive, so in 1979 I sent an obit to everyone and that was that.
By 1976, the Vehicule poets had been publicly named and Ken Norris had moved to Montreal. One (unspoken) rule of the Vehicules was to never criticize anything another Vehicule was doing. One time I put my foot in my mouth when I told Ken that he seemed to be writing a prose line. In return I got a public flogging in The Tatooed Mouse, where my work was mercilessly parodied. The piece began with a speaker offering “a ballantine across disneyland borders checkpointed by stars” and ended with a castigation of my “strange images” and “weird syntax.” I (mentally) retaliated with who’d drink Ballantine anyway? Yet being a Vehicule poet was better than sitting on a mattress meditating.
In the summer of 1976, Trevor Goring and Chris Richmond engineered a takeover of the executive at Vehicule Art (Inc.), including the poets. Some tables and chairs were kicked around. Somehow I was appointed interim chairman and secretary of the gallery’s executive. The latter position I held for two years. In 1976-77, with Bob Galvin and Stephen Morrissey, I also helped run Vehicule’s poetry reading series. With sixteen individual or paired readings and one poetry-based performance, New Delta and Vehicule Press book launchings, an open reading, and a marathon, poetry became an integral part of the gallery’s activities. The big splash in 1977 was Montreal English Poetry of the Seventies (with yet another ungainly title) edited by Ken and Endre. Endre helped himself to ten pages, Ken eleven, and I still have a hard time finding my work in the anthology. That year I became coordinator at Vehicule Art and worked at the job into June 1978, overseeing dozens of international, national, and local performances and exhibitions, and Vehicule’s cross-Canada video tour.
Then publisher Simon Dardick decided to take Vehicule Press in a new direction, and Ken, Endre, and Artie were editors no longer. As usual, I wasn’t privy to what actually happened; maybe Simon needed to earn a living. That’s why Maker Press was established in late 1978. I did the layout for The Vehicule Poets anthology, a surprisingly smooth operation. Simon (my former library boss at Sir George) had taught me the art of putting a book together, and I enjoyed doing layout at the Co-op in Chinatown. But with only four other titles, Maker Press ended up an ephemeral venture.
The last collective reading by five of the Vehicule poets at Concordia on February 20, 1981, brought the curtain down. After this farewell performance, I suppose I went back to sleep.
Vehicule Poets--Endre Farkas, Artie Gold, Tom Konyves,
Claudia Lapp, John McAuley, Stephen Morrissey and Ken Norris--were
a collective of poets living in Montreal in the 1970s who who
shared an interest in experimental American poetry and European
avant-garde literature and art. While they were each distinct
in their own writing, and published books as individuals, they
were collectively involved in organizing readings, art events,
and in controlling their own means of literary production through
the development of a variety of periodicals and collective publishing
ventures. In 1979, John McAuley’s Maker Press published
a collective anthology, The Vehicule Poets. Six of the
original Vehicule poets are still active as poets, artists and
teachers. Artie Gold passed away in February, 2007. The collective
essay that appears here was written as a retrospective assessment
of the significance of this collective’s work for Anglo-Quebec,
and Canadian literature. The essay was written between 2002 and
2003, and a condensed version of it appears in Language Act:
Anglo-Québec Poetry, 1976 to the 21st Century, edited
by Jason Camlot and Todd Swift (Véhicule Press, 2007).