REGARDING THE VEHICULE POETS

 Ken Norris

I returned to Montreal in January of 1975, after spending the previous eighteen months in New York, playing lead guitar in a New Wave band called Bogart. By that time I had decided that what I was really interested in being was a poet, not a commercial songwriter on Tin Pan Alley. My first book, Vegetables, was already in the planning stages at Vehicule Press, and wound up being published in March. Starting in February, I began attending the weekly Sunday afternoon poetry readings at Vehicule Art where, little by little, I got to know the other poets who would eventually come to constitute the group.


Poets tend to be a rather solitary lot, so it is always interesting when they are drawn together to pool their energies. I would say that the Vehicules tended to organize themselves around Artie Gold, who, at that stage, was clearly the most talented of all of us. Perhaps the one thing the other six of us most shared was our admiration of Artie. And, for some reason, the six of us were the six other poets in Montreal with whom he had no major disputes. His calling other poets “assholes” in our presence seemed to confirm that we shared an opinion, and sharpened our sense of a perhaps shared personal and poetic aesthetic. We were all in awe of the poetry he was writing, and we were all somewhat frightened of his caustic wit and sharp tongue. Sometimes I think I understand in quite personal terms how the other Beatles felt about John Lennon.


It was a very rare occasion when all seven Vehicule Poets were in the same place at the same time. Usually, there were five of us. I remember five of us being out for the day in Ste. Anne de Bellevue circa 1977. There are a few photographs of that in Vehicule Days. Perhaps there were six of us sometimes at the weekly meetings that went on for a while, but usually there were five. Someone was always missing but there in spirit. When “The Last Of The Vehicule Poets” reading was held at Concordia University in early 1981, I was in the South Seas and Claudia was in Virginia. On the day we shot the cover photo for The Vehicule Poets in early 1979, I remember being amazed that everyone actually showed up. But there we all were, at the same time. In the same moment.


A lot of Vehicule Poets lore tends to get restated, but one thing I have been thinking about lately is how some of us studied with Louis Dudek (myself, Stephen), while some of the others studied with George Bowering (Artie, Tom, John). In either case, I think what you received was a good Modernist-Postmodernist orientation. And perhaps the distance between Louis and George was actually less than the distance between McGill and Concordia. We all tended to be anti-intellectual intellectuals anyway, and all of us were looking past the academy (Louis and George included) the moment we began thinking about poetry.

 

Another thing worth drawing attention to, I believe, is that five of us didn’t originally come from Montreal. Endre and Tom were Hungarian immigrants, Claudia and I were American immigrants, and Artie was born in Brockville, Ontario. Only Stephen and John were native Montrealers. For me, going to Montreal was initially like Hemingway or Scott Fitzgerald going to Paris in the twenties. But I very quickly lost all interest in being an ex-pat American, and found myself wanting to become Canadian/Quebecois as soon as possible. Whether or not we were born in Montreal, we all became committed Montrealers.


I also think it’s worth pointing out that, in my opinion, there was a very strong Jewish spin to the Vehicule Poets. Artie, Endre, and Tom were all Jewish; I was born and raised in New York City where, to my way of thinking, everyone is Jewish. Cohen and Layton were obvious poetic influences. And everyone in English Canada always thought Louis Dudek was Jewish, even although he was a Polish Catholic. Perhaps everyone in Montreal is Jewish and Catholic at the same time.


And the Jewishness I’m emphasizing here is cultural, not religious. Perhaps what I’m indicating here is that we were all favorably inclined towards a European cosmology of art, culture and learning.


I think it was via that European connection that we were all at least peripherally interested in Dada and Surrealism. And interest in Dada and Surrealism quickly lead in the direction of collaboration and performance.


Being one of the more page-bound poets in the group, I remember working on collaborations with a particular affection. Because they stretched me, got me out of my solitary space. Somehow the others got me to stand in front of an audience shouting, “Red light! Green light!” Or to read something simultaneous with six others reading something. Or to write an absurdist text and then put on a costume to perform it for the video camera. In other words, to play and have fun with language.


I was always the one who was far too serious.


Endre and I did most of the mimeographing of the magazine Mouse Eggs. Although the Vehicules, collectively, produced quite a few different magazines of different stripes, I tend to think of Mouse Eggs as the central one. Because it was the most spontaneous and irreverent. Because it was the most interesting for us. Because, in the eyes of the world, it was invisible. And because it made us laugh.


Just when you thought everything had gone quite far enough, the next issue would push it over the edge.

Again.


When the Vehicule Poets were together, I knew I always had an audience of six for whatever I wrote. We were always showing one another poems, or reading them to one another over the phone. We were young, and in the creative zone. And every day we incited one another to further creation.


***


Artie, who, for the most part, has tended to be like Harpo Marx when it comes to talking about the Vehicules in the past, has made a couple of provocative statements. I find that I am pretty much in agreement with the spirit of them. Anyone who knows me knows that I always pronounced it “vehicle.” To me, it was always the Vehicle Poets as well as Vehicle Press. Because we were English-speaking poets, not French-speaking poets.


What I take from Artie’s sense of the “soup-bone school” of poetry is that we came together because we were all similarly hungry. Hence, needed to make a collective meal off the one soup bone. We were living in Montreal, but Anglo Montreal was a dead scene. Certainly, the English Montreal poetry scene had died the death in the sixties and, in terms of anything interesting going on, nothing was happening. Just as Vehicule Art sprang up to revive a moribund visual arts scene, the Vehicule poets came into being because there was nothing going on in English language poetry in Montreal that was fundamentally interesting. In the process of discovering one another, and exchanging ideas and visions, we found that we could make things interesting, at least for ourselves. And, frankly, I don’t think we really cared too much about the fate of anybody else; we were all just so relieved to have encountered kindred spirits. Out of that sense of relief, and then the ensuing excitement, we built our club house.


“Though we dregs were banned from Academe”—I think this, too, is mostly true. I was attending McGill at the time of the Vehicule Poets, but, aside from Louis and a couple of other friendly professors, I never felt like there was any support there for anything that I was really interested in doing. The interesting place was the gallery. None of us wound up teaching in a Canadian university, myself included, and I had to take up academic employment in a different country. Others among us had even more troubled relations with Canadian universities.


As Dudek once pointed out (in A Real Good Goosin’), we were, essentially, outsiders. Outsiders in relation to academia, but also in relation to Anglo Montreal “culture,” such as it uninterestingly was. In 1975, English Montreal was duller than Toronto, which at least had Coach House Press. We had to pretty much build Vehicule Press from the ground up, in the spirit of Coach House. And that spirit held for five or six years, until the regime change went down at Vehicule. After that, The Muses’ Company tried to do the same work. Early Vehicule Press, and The Muses Company from 1980-1995, were certainly oppositional, outsider presses.

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