When I decided to write this article, I didn’t realize how hard it was going to be. I’ve just realized how complex the Vancouver poetry scene is. It’s not something you can describe easily, like biking or jogging. Poetry in Vancouver is very similar to music in this city; the best word I came up with to describe it is ‘organic.’ It has its own mind, and it’s walking and talking all over the city.
I have a word to describe it, but just one word is hardly enough. I realized I needed a better writer than me to help. I could use a part from George Stanley’s first book-long poem about the city of Vancouver, “Vancouver: A poem,” but then I thought that maybe something newer would be more appropriate. As some of you might know, the Vancouver International Writers Festival is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. The festival commissioned Vancouver Poet Laureate George McWhirter to write a poem to celebrate this special event. Here is the part of the “wf The Legend” poem that I feel captured some of Vancouver’s poetic nature brilliantly.
For twenty years, a festival of phrases thinks
To do like, lands books, these bi-fold birds,
On the Isle of Gulls, where vision turns to ink
In the liquid obsidian of the words.
I’ve always been very fond of poetry, and in my opinion Vancouver really is the place where “vision turns into ink.” Everyone can find a bit of a poetry that will make him or or a little happier for the day. Vancouver’s Cafés are just asking for slam poetry hosts, while the Vancouver International Writers Festival hasn’t been the only one to award Vancouver’s poets for a long time. There are numerous magazines about poetry with good (sometimes disputable) taste and almost every bookstore in the city has recognized the need to provide a supply of quality poetry to Vancouverites. Let’s have a look at the poetry magazines first.
Where to Read about Poetry in Vancouver
There are tens of magazines about poetry in Vancouver, but I’ve decided that I’m going to limit my choice to just four of them. I think every Vancouverite interested in poetry reads at least one.
Sixty-four pages of poetry, art, reviews, and essays with new content coming out of Canada, Poetry Is Dead is a bi-annual poetry magazine written for a younger generation of readers. Its ambition is to show those who have scorned poetry that there is a lot of quality material that Canadian writers can offer. It presents an edgy, humorous, and not-to-be-taken-seriously attitude toward poetry. It provides a fresh and unbiased outlook at a number of Canadian poets.
PRISM International has been around since 1959, which makes it the oldest Canadian literary magazine on the market. PRISM international is a quarterly magazine out of Vancouver whose mandate is to publish the best in contemporary writing and translation from Canada and around the world. It was established as part of the University of British Columbia Creative Writing Program and has held the tradition until today. PRISM is best known for its fiction and poetry sections. I have to say that as the editor of the poetry section is doing a terrific job.
PRISM International also opens a literary competition every year, and every year the competition reveals hidden talents in poetry. Just take this year’s winners for example:
- Grand Prize Winner: “Self-Portrait” by Susan Steudel
- 1st Runner up: “Ghazal of Perpetual Motion” by Kyeren Regehr
- 2nd Runner up: “Toward a List of Definitions According to my Scottish Mother” by Patricia Young
My only advice to you is to read them! If you’re interested, check out the previous PRISM contest winners page. It’s really worth the time to discover these poets if you don’t know them already.
OCW Magazine is a print magazine published by OCW Arts & Publishing Foundation, the non-profit that also runs Project Space. OCW Magazine is an interdisciplinary art project dedicated to the cultivation of new ideas, new voices, and new ways of experiencing art. Each issue explores a theme from, let’s say, unusual perspectives and covers a variety of disciplines — from visual art and design to literature and essays — “creating an object of art, a forum for discourse, and a vehicle for engagement with art, culture, and ideas.” The poetry featured in OCW is flat-out crazy, and that’s why I can’t wait to get my hands on another issue. It’s a shame they don’t give more space to it.
The Vancouver Review is a quarterly of new writing and reviews published by the Vancouver Review Publication Society. This is my least favourite of all four, but I found some very interesting and stimulating reviews here as well. Although I believe Vancouver Review’s poetry editor Caroline Harvey is doing her best, the poetry section feels somehow restrained. Naturally, not every magazine can be like Poetry is Dead, but I think a bit more of a playful approach would do VR good.
Where to Look for Live Poetry — Places and Events
There are quite a few regular readings, open-mic nights, and other live poetry events in Vancouver. Here are some of them that have the best atmospheres and are really worth the time. You can always find more on your own — almost every community in the city has poetry reading groups with weekly meetings.
Vancouver Poetry Slam
The Vancouver Poetry Slam has been has been around since 1996, making it the longest-running poetry slam in Canada. If you’ve never heard about slam poetry, you need to know just two things. Firstly, it’s entertaining, and secondly, it’s incredibly entertaining. The poet must perform a poem of their own creation, in any style, within the time limit without the aid of props or music. Five randomly selected audience members will become judges and are given score cards to score the poet from zero to ten — no props, no costumes, no musical instruments. Poets have three minutes or less to perform their poem. The poet must be the primary author of the piece. The top five highest scoring poets move on to the second round where they perform another poem (with a time limit of three minutes again).
Vancouver Poetry Slam takes place every Monday at 8:00 P.M. The first, third, and fifth Mondays are open slam nights, while the second Monday features an alternative or themed Slam and the fourth Monday is a Youth Slam night for ages 14 to 22. The entrance fee is from $6.00 to $10.00.
Vancouver Poetry Slam traditionally meets in Café Deux Soleils. This is one of the places that have a lot of minor faults, but you’re willing to overlook them because of the atmosphere. Apart from slam poetry nights, they also feature live music, and their jazz evenings are something you wouldn’t want to miss. The casual atmosphere and the crowd makes this place very hip. I advise you to come way ahead of the slam poetry night if you want to sit because the place will be crammed. The place is ideal for vegetarians, and the food is just incredible. It has a great, friendly neighbourhood vibe and there is always something fun going on in the evening. Very kid-friendly during the day as well.
Twisted Poets Literary Salon
Twisted Poets Literary Salon offers an evening of literary surprises wrapped in a warm and encouraging environment. “Connect, read and enjoy.” This sums it up quite nicely. You can discuss poetry and meet some very interesting people who really know their poems. I can say I found some really well hidden gems during the Salon. Salon evenings are held by the Pandora’s Collective on the first and third Thursdays of every month. There is a suggested $5.00 donation at the door. The evening starts at 7:00 PM.
Twisted Poets Literary Salon meets in the Prophouse Café. The Prophouse Café is known to to be an East Vancouver den of music, food, and fun. The Prophouse gets its name from being an actual prop house for movies and TV shows filmed in Vancouver. Many of the productions have thanked the owner, Ross Judge, and you can see many of them up on the walls. The entire place is filled with funky lamps, chairs, instruments, records, sculptures, and pretty much anything else you can think of. The owner has been collecting these items for decades and is passionate about everything he owns and loves to share them with anyone who is lucky enough to spend time in the café. The Prophouse Cafe has a fantastic staff and great coffee, and when I say “great,” I mean the best coffee I’ve had in a long time. It’s nothing like all those hi-tech, super expensive cafés where the coffee is prepared in a bland environment. No, this is a traditional cup of nicely served energy in a place where you can feel really comfortable drinking it.
Poetic Justice brings you featured poets and open mic every Sunday from 3:00 P.M. to 5:00 P.M., except holiday weekends and the month of December. Poetic Justice is a diverse group of poets and poetry admirers that meets in the Herritage Grill. It’s right beside the Columbia Station Skytrain, so it’s very easy to access.
Heritage Grill is in the heart of the historic downtown New Westminster. The place has a long tradition, and I have to say that although it is not right in Vancouver, I go there from time to time just to feel the atmosphere of it again. They have something going on every day of the week. The only problem I have with the Heritage Grill is the food, which can occasionally surprise, but it’s not good in general. Also you can smoke on the patio, which is not very nice — especially if you’re eating there. Still, it has something very attractive. Maybe it’s the superbly friendly attitude of the owner and staff.
Spoken INK is a reading series presented by the Burnaby Writers’ Society on the third Tuesday of each month, except for July and August. These are evenings of featured author readings, and of course, open mic nights. It features all genres and both emerging and established writers. Featured readings begin at 7:30 P.M. Open mic sign-up is at 7:00 P.M.
Spoken Ink meets at La Fontana Caffe. The cafe has a lovely ambiance, with its tight-knit community of older, Italian men who come in for cappuccinos and espressos while playing cards or watching soccer on TV. They have quite impressive paninis, mainly because of their homemade bread. They add something special to the menu every day. When you go to La Fontana, you can’t miss the owner, who is very friendly and helpful. It’s clear that he wants everybody to like his place and feel at home. On top of that, there is a large viewing room for movies and TV shows too. La Fontana hosts a wide variety of events, from science fiction film screenings to truly fantastic poetry evenings with the Burnaby Writers’ Society.
Dare to be heard!
The days of public stoning are long over. Daring to be heard ultimately is something great you do for yourself. It’s giving your poor, withered soul some fresh air and sunshine. It becomes your chance to fly.
A bit from How Much Joy Can You Stand by Suzanne Falter-Barns is the main theme chosen by The North Shore Writers’ Association to present their Dare to Be Heard! open mic nights the first Wednesday of each month at 7:00 P.M. at Mollie Nye House. This beautiful heritage house is owned by the District of North Vancouver and is operated by the Lynn Valley Seniors Association and the Lynn Valley Community Association.
Vancouver-Based Poetry Festivals
The annual Vancouver International Poetry Festival harnesses the diversity of spoken word in Canada and beyond to present a world-class spoken word festival that showcases the best that Canada has to offer as well as exploring and expanding the boundaries of contemporary spoken word. It’s an opportunity for Vancouverites to experience some of the most cutting-edge spoken word presentations in Canada and the world, supporting the expansion of the local spoken word community to support outstanding artists to present their work on an ongoing basis. This year’s VIPF took place from April 23rd to 28th, and if you’ve missed it, you’ll regret it. I know. I don’t like this phrase either, but missing world slam champion Ian Keteku is just not acceptable.
The Vancouver International Writers Festival is one of North America’s premier literary events, held annually over six days in late October. It was inaugurated in 1988 as the brainchild of founding Artistic Director Alma Lee. Currently under the artistic direction of Hal Wake, the Writers Festival attracts the world’s best writers to our very own Vancouver. Internationally renowned and undiscovered authors along with 14,000 readers flock to informal settings on Granville Island, heaven for every literary fan. In its 25 year history, the festival has presented luminaries such as Martin Amis, Margaret Atwood, Maeve Binchy, Peter Carey, Roddy Doyle, Timothy Findley, Tomson Highway, John Irving, P.D. James, Thomas Keneally, Rohinton Mistry, Frank McCourt, Alice Munro, Michael Ondaatje, Anita Rau Badami, JK Rowling, Salman Rushdie, and Carol Shields. I hope I’m going to see you from 16th to 21st October on Granville Island.