CONVERGENCES AND THE COLLECTIVE
Let it be known at the outset, The Véhicule Poets were never a school, a movement or an aesthetic. At least not for me. The Véhicule Poets were a figment of other poets’ imaginations. They made us up. We were a group of young writers who were beginning to hang around Véhicule Art Gallery.
I don’t really remember how I met Claudia Lapp. I know she and Michael Harris ran the first reading series at Véhicule. I think it was through Richard Sommer and Tai Chi in Chinatown. I was into motion as meditation and as poetry and vice-versa. I was reading the Beats, I was smoking grass and dropping acid. Actually, I think I stopped acid by that time.
I was in my mid twenties and back from the commune and enrolled in a Creative Writing Masters program at Con U. John McAuley was in that first year program but I think I had met John before. I’m not sure.
By that time I had met Ken Norris once. We smoked some grass in the stairwell of Concordia. I didn’t know that he was a poet at that time and after that one encounter I don’t remember seeing him again, until I was running a reading series at Véhicule.
Artie Gold, I first saw at a reading at the Karma, Concordia’s Coffee House. He was featured and I was smitten by his hip/flip cynical, vulnerable poems. I was too awed to speak to him. This was in ‘72 or ‘73.
Tom Konyves, I first met playing soccer as an undergraduate at Sir George Williams University. I lost track of him until I met him again when I, along with Artie, were running the readings at Véhicule and we turned him down for a reading.
Steve Morrissey, I honestly don’t recall the circumstances of our meeting.
I was drawn to each because of a shared passion and their varied beings and ways. Claudia, because of her sensuality and sexuality in her and her poetry. She was so flyée! And she wasn’t afraid to show it. Read her “Fuck Me Shoes” and “Horses”. John had a mind for metaphors and puns that could wrap you around the block. He truly was a poet who lived out of his imagination. It was an imagination based on ‘book learnin’ and a fascination with the arcane and the esoteric. Read Mattress Testing and What Henry Hudson Found. Too bad that he has stopped writing.
Ken was the ‘Our Gang’ pusher, pushing us to do collective publishing projects: individual books and anthologies. He was also the historian who knew how what we were doing fit into the great literary scheme of things. He was also the prolific one who believed in the democracy of poetry. We needed our transplanted American to make us conscious of ourselves. I was always amazed at his drive. Ken was also the book/page oriented poet who was always ready to get involved in our performance schemes. I really think that he was the real working class poet among us trying to create a union to fight the establishment. He knew then that those who control the means of production have freedom and control over their destiny. I think he got that from Louis Dudek. He also saw that there is family in the collective. He, being without family and the most recent exile among us, looked to us to be that family. Also, he was the one who could mediate between all of us. And on occasions we needed mediating.
Steve was the one most at unease and who wrote some of the most soul-baring, bare bones poems. He wrote out of loss. He exuded a nervousness that comes from insecurity and which makes for good art. He had the cherub’s face that belied the pained life he was trying to come to terms with. He was the more philosophical/clinical side of Claudia’s Jungian/erotic side.
Tom was the real neo-dadaist. He always dressed like he was going to a go-go and after he gave up on mystical love poems and came back from boycotting the Véhicule readings, he became a mind-bending writer. His clean cut look would have your mother asking you why couldn’t you be more like him although my aunt once warned me about him. Tom wanted to make it new and he did with his video poetry. And even though, of the group, it was with him that I had the hardest time, (our competitive history), I enjoyed his acts, videos and sympathized with what he was trying to do. I think that he was the most avant-garde of the group. The poem “No Parking” is an under-appreciated masterpiece. It will stand the test of time.
Artie was the most accomplished and knowledgeable of the group. He was also the quickest wit and could be the “smallest and meanest”. His poetry had a confidence that didn’t need to show it. He had a voice that was a genuine and clear window into joy and pain. I dare anyone to find a better first book than cityflowers.
And me? I was constantly surprised that I was in this company. And though I had been accepted into Con. U.’s Creative Writing program and was publishing, I felt like I was faking it. And them not thinking that made me love them and think that they were fools.
The Véhicule years were years of hanging out and learning the craft and learning that learning was not really done in schools but in moments shared. They were the times of getting into the same Véhicule for a ride to different destinations.
What did we do? It’s been pretty well documented in Véhicule Days by Ken Norris. Before we came on the scene there wasn’t much. Occasional readings at Concordia, a book now and then, maybe. We made things happen on a regular basis. Readings every Sunday at Véhicule at two o’clock. In the winter you kept your coat and gloves on because the heat was off. Out of this came Véhicule Press. Once Ken and Artie & I became editors of Véhicule Press, books started to appear on a regular basis. And as much as Simon Dardick, owner and publisher of the press, wants to rewrite history, we were the ones fighting to have Véhicule become a literary press while he and the others were more interested in it becoming a viable printing plant that occasionally did “artsy” things. However, once we started to get grants for the books, well, he saw that literature was good.
We hung out together in different permutations and combinations at the gallery, at the El Dorado, at each other’s places, though I don’t remember ever going to Steve’s. As a result of hanging out, we came up with plans for magazines, readings, books and events. It’s good to be young and fearless and arrogant, to have a sense of humour and have people you can share with.
I also hung out with dancers and painters and composers and performance artists (new concept then). So did Tom and Steve and John. This resulted in cross-pollination. Tom and I were the most involved in the collaborative process (maybe had something to do with the Hungarian socialist genes). I loved working with Contact Improvisational dancers. It was so physical and I got to (through them) make the text move! During this time, Tom made anti-art video-poems, Steve collaborated with Pat Walsh (visual artist) to make concrete (literally) haikus. John collaged and was cast (literally) into sculpture. Artie looked on bemused.
We got named the Véhicule Mafia. We became a force because we did things and because others made us powerful! I was having a gas. We started getting attention outside of Montreal. All this activity also made for more activity and not just by us. Others in reaction against us started magazines and publishing houses.
In the late seventies Véhicule Art Gallery split from the Press or vice versa (I don’t remember which). The Gallery moved up the street to a bigger, more lavish space (which lasted only for another two or three years before going under). The Press also wandered about town. The Chinatown location was my favourite but it was also where we got stabbed in the back. It was my favourite location because it was in Chinatown—enough said. It was also here that Simon Dardick decided he wanted to go respectable. We, the editors, had started to get funding for books while the printing side was not generating the finances that they had hoped for. In order to continue getting the grant, Simon felt that he had to “simonize” the press. So while we weren’t looking he brought in Michael Harris and wrote us a “nice” fuck-off letter. But by then the Véhicule Poets started to collaborate less and run out of collective ventures, energy, or desire.
However, for those four or five years 1975-80 we explored and made the world of contemporary poetry not by theorizing or imitation but by doing and instead of building schools of poetry, driving the Véhicule of poetry all over the place.