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:
AND THE COLLECTIVE ENDRE FARKAS
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
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
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.
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.
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,
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.
FROM THE START RESENTED THIS VEHICULE POETS] ARTIE
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
Early Years Stephen Morrissey
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.
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’
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
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
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
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
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.
Take On Vehicule And Those Days
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
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.
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:
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
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
effect on the audience was not meant to be satisfying
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
IS STILLPULLING MY STRING]
(Someone is still
pulling my string:)
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
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.
THE VEHICULE POETS KEN NORRIS
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
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,
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.
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
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,
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”.
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.
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
THIS REUNION MEANS... STEPPHEN
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
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.
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
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.
THOUGHTS ABOUT VEHICULE CLAUDIA
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
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).
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
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."
GOT TO BE SAID FOR THE OTHER SIDE
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.
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!
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.
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
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
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
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
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.