(Part One of an essay written for Geist)
In the middle of October 2011, some two hundred poets and friends of poetry from across the country descended on Vancouver for four days of readings, talks, discussion, gossip and high-level binge drinking. The event was the second Vancouver Poetry Conference (the first took place forty-eight years ago), the full name of which, to mark the city’s quasquicentennial was the Vancouver 125 Poetry Conference, and it occupied three downtown venues in succession: a recycled Bank of Montreal and two recycled department stores. Less formal venues extended to several east side bars and restaurants, the Listel Hotel in the West End and the Arts Club in the recycled industrial park on Granville Island.
No one could remember, or imagine, so many poets in the city, in public, at the same time. The first panel session (there were twenty-five in all) opened in the ex-Bank of Montreal on Granville Street—an Edwardian temple with immense vaulted and coffered ceiling, marble pilasters, bronze newel posts and “decorative fire hose cabinet.” One of the panelists—an “avant-gardist,” I was told—presented a summary of Robert’s Rules of Order in place of a poem, or perhaps as a poem, and exceeded his allotted time while demonstrating the “wind it up” signal (circling the hand in the air with index finger extended) employed by the Occupy movement to urge long-winded speakers to a close.
The Occupy movement had coalesced on the lawn in front of the Vancouver Art Gallery two and half blocks from the ex-Bank of Montreal, and over the next four days the flow of energy and ideas, confrontations and contradictions generated by the Occupists flowed into sessions of the Poetry Conference, where, as it turned out, Robert’s Rules, even in the modifed form developed by the Occupists (described by a tweeter as “Robert’s Rules on ecstasy”), were not required, despite the misgivings of organizers (and some of the poets) who feared that poets in large numbers might get out of hand.
On the second and third days of the Poetry Conference, I attended several sessions in the recycled Sears department store a block north of the ex-Bank of Montreal. Several panel moderators in their opening remarks cited the unceded status of the Coast Salish territory on which we were meeting and which the city has occupied since its founding in 1866, and one of them offered thanks for being welcomed onto that land by First Nations hosts at the opening ceremony)—sentiments that one might be tempted to dismiss as merely polite, but as the discussions unfolded, and more poems were read aloud, recited, and talked about, these polite comments began to take on an edge, for the range of subject matter, the scope of imagination explored in the poems and in the discussion surrounding them, extended to the land and its occupiers at many levels: economic, historical, cultural, ecological, geological, technological. Every moment of the Poetry Conference could be said to be troubled or textured by occupation; it soon became clear that every moment was in some way politically charged.
(to be continued)