The 2021 Griffin Poetry Prize will be announced on June 23, 2021.
The East Side of It All is very much constructed as a book-length project. As the copy tells us, the book is “written from the perspective of a drug user and single-room occupant in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, explores the ongoing process of healing through reconnection with family, the natural world and traditional Indigenous (Kwantlen) storytelling.” How did the project first present itself to you, and what did you learn through the process?
For this book of poems I had been working downtown east side and I would always arrive early either for a reading or a workshop with the Elders of the community and I would stand at Hastings and Main where there was a gathering of other Indigenous folks. Most were selling cigarettes and weed, and I would sit there and watch all the characters and sense the emotions of the world around me. I would store these images and characters and when I sat down to write I would begin with the emotions I had seen, and the characters of the city would become the characters of each poem. I had already written 3 books of poems on this world and so the voice I had was already there for me and so I wrote the book like I write all my work these days and that is one poem a day.
Given your extensive work as a storyteller, how important is sound on the page as you work? Do you feel there is anything lost at all in sound or cadence through working on the page? What is the difference?
write like I would read it out loud and this has gotten me into trouble with
publishers in the past as my use of the word ‘and’ in my poems is for me a
breath and when you hear me read you will definitely hear the pauses and
breaths that the word ‘and’ allows me. That is what I find funny sometimes when
I am reading with other writers and they tend to sing the last word of the
sentence or stanza and I think to myself…do they write like this? Do they sing the
last word when they write or is it some sort of poetry reading style? Anyways I
do not feel I lose the cadence when I write as I write every piece to be read
aloud and it seems to work and…
When I first encountered you during our days in Mark Frutkin’s poetry workshop at the University of Ottawa, you were simultaneously composing poetry and plays. Since then, you’ve produced books of poetry, plays and short stories, as well as works for younger audiences. How do these different genres interact with each other? Do you see each genre as a separate thread, or all part of a singular, ongoing project?
Ahh Frutkin! The only thing he taught me that I use when I teach kids writing workshops…poetry does not rhyme! Always stuck with me. When I am near completion of a new manuscript of either poems, short stories, or a new play, I am already thinking about the next project. I may take a few days off but the desire to work gets me back to the next work and I write every morning. Now I think my use of different genres are joined as now my last 3 manuscripts of poetry are all the same with 3 paragraphs in each and each a scene and in some cases, they are not joined but, in the end, they become the scene of the piece. My plays have always been poetic. My short stories are new to me, so I am still working on a style, but they are simple as most of our old stories were simple and not written down. We tell our children that each of us has a gift and I have friends who can hear songs that are floating in the wind and they begin to sing these songs and when they are done with them the songs go back and I feel that if I have a gift then it is one where I am gifted with stories and images for poems and ideas for new plays. Writing for children began with an old play I had written after school and I wrote this play that is now produced and is now turned into a film and is being translated to Dutch. For short stories I needed them for all the kids I teach on a weekly basis. So I am now working on my 3rd book of short stories and am 3 stories into it and I am allowing the stories to find me and allow me to use my gift to create.
Given you work in multiple genres, how do you decide where a particular story or idea might land in terms of structure? Are there ideas or subjects that you find more condusive to exploring through poetry over storytelling, and vice versa, or is it more organic than that? How does a project begin?
I always am thinking of what to work on next as I am finishing a project. So if I am working a book of poems I am thinking of perhaps a new play or a book of short stories. I go from one form to another. I guess that is organic? A project begins with some music in the back and then I begin with the title and the work begins.
Have you been writing much in the way of poetry since The
East Side of It All was completed? What have you been working on since?
Since covid I have written several books of poems, a
few plays and am working on a new book of short stories for kids. With my
publisher I am good for a few years. Being a recluse before covid and now with
self isolation I have no excuse but to write and so I do. I have a new children’s play I am about to begin to
workshop and I am also working with an illustrator and my publisher on a new
children’s book. Have been so busy as zoom has allowed me to travel the world
and read and listen to others. As AD of the Vancouver Poetry House we have just
completed out Festival Verses 2021. Next for me I am teaching and taking care
of my 3 kids 2 dogs now 5 with new pups a cat a fishing net that needs mending
and I await the river to be open for us to catch the first fish of the year.