ANOTHER TAKE ON VEHICULE AND THOSE DAYS

 Claudia Lapp

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 voice.


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 who 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.


SELECTED SOUVENIRS
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.


Another prominent 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:


“Inspiration has 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 POETS.


We anticipated 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 and poetry.