You might think a city as young as Vancouver, founded only in 1886, wouldn’t have a lot of literary history. But it’s been home and inspiration to many writers in many genres. Rather than trying to condense more than a century of literature into a short article, I’m focusing on the work of women poets in Vancouver. And it seems only fair to make it clear that I’m not deterred by the intrusion of an inlet or bridge. If a woman lived in North Van or even Richmond, I’m pretty sure her work was coloured by the experience that is Vancouver.
Among the city’s earliest celebrities was Pauline Johnson, the poet who’s buried in Stanley Park. Aside from that dubious claim to fame, she was certainly one of Canada’s first performance poets. Clothed in calfskin and other supposedly-traditional regalia, Johnson (billed as Tekahionwake) filled theatres across the country—a feat accomplished by not even a handful of poets today. Aside from the arena-filler, Leonard Cohen, the only candidate who might currently outdraw her would be Margaret Atwood.
The best known of Johnson’s books is Legends of Vancouver, a collection she apparently wanted to call Legends of the Capilanos. Popular though she may have been, marketers had their way. After all, she was only a woman.
But Johnson played other roles besides that of Mohawk Princess. For the first half of performances, she’d wear the genteel fashions required by ladies of the day. Dressed in such finery, she’d have fit right into the newly-founded (in 1916) Vancouver Poetry Society, or VPS, as it was known. Comprised mainly of men, its goals were lofty and included the still ambitious-sounding objective, “The development of public interest in the work of contemporary poets.”1 Among early members of the VPS was Florence Randal Livesay, mother of Dorothy Livesay. Livesay, of course, is namesake of the annual prize given for British Columbia’s best book of poetry.
Livesay’s first book, a sixteen-page chapbook, Green Pitcher, was published in 1928. It consisted of short lyric poems, and may well have been printed at the behest of the poet’s mother, who knew the publisher. Later in life, Livesay remarked, “Without my parents being in it at all I most likely never would have published. Later I grew to resent it and felt embarrassed—most people don’t have that kind of start.”2 When Dorothy went off to study at the Sorbonne, she seems at first to have put poetry aside. But while in Europe, she began reading men who were writing about social causes, and when she came home, she moved in that direction too.
Just as the 1960s were a time of protest that resulted in huge shifts in societal attitudes and behaviours, so too were the thirties. As is so often the case, times that are tough seem to prompt art that challenges the wrongs of the day. With thousands unemployed, Livesay (by then a social worker) began writing about the wrongs she witnessed, “…breadlines, riots, police brutality and the mass movements of the unemployed…”3 This presented a substantial shift—not only for her, but for much poetry writing in general, especially for those still considered the “fairer sex,” a term that to me has always suggested the weaker-of-mind sex. Her long poem, “Day and Night” (first published in 1936) “…was the first poem by a Canadian unashamedly to preach social revolution.”4 It is about this time that Livesay came to British Columbia. She lived for a while in Vancouver, and then for many years in North Van.
By the 1940s, Livesay was certainly not the only woman writing about subjects that mattered. But she remained the one getting the most recognition, winning two Governor General’s Awards during that decade.
Yet Livesay was doing more than writing poetry. She was one of the co-founders (with several others, including Anne Marriott) of Contemporary Verse, a poetry magazine that was the precursor to today’s CV2. Despite involvement in such collegial projects as starting up a magazine, Livesay was known for not always getting along with others. She had ongoing feuds with a number of writers, and occasionally wrote unflatteringly about those she disagreed with. In my own experience, though she could be very good at playing the role of crinkly-eyed grandmother, it was a rare visit when she didn’t manage to instigate an argument between my then-spouse and me. I still believe that this was purposeful, and that she found a kind of glee in stirring the pot of discord.
All said, although she may be the best-known of the women poets who spent part of their lives in Vancouver, she is not necessarily the most important.
As far as my own writing goes, a much more influential writer is Anne Marriott, who lived in various places around the province, but spent a number of years in North Vancouver. Like Livesay, she was also inspired to write about the hardships of the thirties and is best known for her 1939 documentary poem, The Wind Our Enemy, an account of the dustbowl era on the prairies.
But it was another of Marriott’s poems that was a turning point for me. The piece affected me greatly—and made me realize that my own limited world experience as a single parent was one that might be worthy of poems. It was Marriott’s poem, “Battered,” that led me back to writing. Its simplicity and brutal truths reminded me that I could write about day-to-day realities, especially ones that weren’t attractive. Here’s an excerpt from its midsection:
…They loosen her fingers so gently one by one
the smallest still
in its tiny cast
from that earlier strange fall
pointing at dead ends
all around the room.
cry darling to the blotched face
through their bent lips
the blue bland surface of their eyes
drawn tight tight tighter
scarcely holding until they reach
the ’67 Chev
where all the poison in their heads
can split the iris
spurt out stab
with hate hate hate
each other’s child
most of all that wretched child
each of them was.5
Kapow! When I first discovered it, “Battered” seemed like the most honest poem I’d ever read.
It wasn’t long afterwards that the work of Pat Lowther came to my attention. Like Marriott, she too wrote about the mundane realities of everyday life in a way that was anything but mundane. Yes, she was hugely influenced by Pablo Neruda, and some of her strongest work reflects that, but of more importance to me was the fact that she was another of those poets who showed me it was okay to write about ordinary things—the paraphernalia and people who were part of my daily life as a woman—babies, kitchen utensils, the mixed pleasures to be found in observing the slow lives of slugs.
Lowther, maybe more than anyone, must be considered a Vancouver poet. I still can’t drive past Fraser Street without thinking of her, can still hear the sound of her voice, calling from the pay phone up the street from her house. These lines from her poem “Intersection” serve as a word-painting specific to a Vancouver I know:
…The Blue Boy Motor Hotel
try our comfortably
with colour TV
…the bus stop bench
is painted blue, it
advertises Sunbeam bread
…you could walk into
that phone booth
and step out between the planets
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An excerpt from “Writing Groundwork” by Heidi Greco
From Issue #54/55. On newsstands any day now!