Introduction to Vehicule Days:
An Unorthodox History of Montréal's Poets
by Ken Norris
Published by NuAge Editions (1993)
ABOUT THE BOOK:
This group of poets who gathered in the mid-70s around the alternative gallery Vehicule Art Inc. and the printing operation Vehicule Press was initially interested in gaining access to the means of production. But a funny thing happened on the way to print. The various poets coalesced into a group, feeding off each other's experiences and innovations. Inspired by the experimental environment of the gallery, the Vehicule Poets worked at the cutting edge of mixed media, poetry and video art. They took poetry out of the closet and put it on the buses, in the parks, on the dance floor and in the subway. The Vehicule Poets were an irreverent, adventurous lot, provoking both praise and vitriol from the public and the critics. Vehicule Days is an important record of literary and cultural history. The collection includes articles, essays and interviews, as well as a sampling from the works of the Vehicule Poets then and now.
"In the 70s two English literary movements expressed other realities of 'montréalitude,' to borrow a term coined by Clark Blaise. In prose, then youthful literati John Metcalf, Ray Smith, Ray Fraser, Blaise, and Hugh Hood banded together—'a jolly band of prose-troubadours'—to form the original Montreal Story Tellers... Simultaneously, a group of young poets associated with the experimental gallery Vehicule Art began to challenge the conservative and academic mindsets which had once again beset the English-language poetry scene. Experimenting with 'form, content, and collectivity,' the original group consisted of Ken Norris, Artie Gold, Stephen Morrissey, Claudia Lapp, John McAuley, Tom Konyves, and Endre Farkas." —The Montreal Gazette
EXCERPT: from the Introduction by Ken Norris
In the beginning there was one Véhicule:
Véhicule Art (Inc.), a parallel gallery, located at 61 Ste. Catherine Street West. Founded by thirteen young visual artists, the gallery opened its doors as an exhibition space in October of 1972, hoping to provide experimental artists with a venue denied to them by the commercial galleries. In December of that year the gallery also hosted the first of many Sunday afternoon poetry readings, giving impetus to a renaissance in Montreal poetry and to the Vehicule Poets movement in particular. In a back room of the gallery a printing press was installed (initially to print up publicity flyers and posters for the gallery), giving birth shortly thereafter to a printing cooperative which, with time, came to be known as Véhicule Press. The gallery, poets, and press all shared a space and time and cultural commitment which revolutionized the Montreal cultural scene. Had the gallery never opened in 1972, the cultural community of Montreal would now be much poorer on a number of fronts.
A decade later, what had once been one Véhicule had splintered into three or four separate entities. Véhicule Art (Inc.) had become La Musée d'art vivant Véhicule, which inhabited a more trendy space up the street at 307 Ste. Catherine Street West. Prime Video (Véhicule's video division) had split off from the gallery, leaving the exhibition space to the visual artists. The press had moved out of the original gallery space in 1977 and set up shop in Chinatown. The Vehicule poets had abandoned the gallery, severed their editorial ties with the press, and held a "Last of the Vehicule Poets" reading at Concordia University in 1981. When the gallery closed its doors in June of 1982, it confirmed the death of the concepts of community and collectivity that had been at the very core of Véhicule.
With these shared origins in mind, this book takes as its subject the (unorthodox) history of the Vehicule Poets (hopefully we will see discrete studies of both Véhicule Art and Véhicule Press in the not-so-distant future). These seven writers—Endre Farkas, Artie Gold, Tom Konyves, Claudia Lapp, John McAuley, Stephen Morrissey and Ken Norris—were all involved with the operations of the gallery, a number of them serving on the gallery executive—and all published books with Véhicule Press circa 1973-80. Three of them—Farkas, Gold and Norris—served as the Véhicule Press editorial board from 1975-81. In 1979, they published a collective anthology, The Vehicule Poets, with McAuley's Maker Press (deciding to forego the accent on the "e" of "Véhicule" because they were a group of poets who wrote in English).
What initially brought the Vehicule Poets together, beyond the proximity of the gallery, is that they shared an interest in hip American poetry and experimental European art movements. Their poetic tastes were certainly individual and eclectic, but they took great interest in introducing one another to their own specific poetic enthusiasms. Looking out onto the Canadian literary scene, the poetry that made the most sense to them was being published by the Coach House-Talonbooks nexus, which built upon the innovations of the Tish group and experimental poets such as bill bissett, Gerry Gilbert and bpNichol. In emulating these proponents of literary community and poetic experimentation (two ideas which ran counter to the rather conservative literary trends in Montreal at the time), the Vehicule Poets bonded together to form the most cohesive poetry movement in Canada since the Tish days of the early 1960s.
As young writers, all of the Vehicule Poets were very much concerned with standard writerly issues, among them being the gaining of access to the means of production. The members of the group produced a number of little magazines (among them Morrissey's what is and Montreal Journal of Poetics, McAuley's Maker, Konyves' Hh, Norris' CrossCountry and Every Man His Own Football, and the collective mouse eggs. This magazine activity enabled them to establish contact with other writers and gave them a forum for their initial poetical works; at a later stage, it enabled them to give an airing to work that did not feed into mainstream taste. Their ready access to Véhicule Press, CrossCountry Press and Maker Press enabled them to produce their early books without much outside editorial interference. Relying upon one another for guidance and feedback, they produced their early books in a spirit of collectivity and collaboration. This collective spirit is very much in evidence in the early published work.
As a number of the Vehicule Poets suggest in various texts within this book, the gallery left an indelible mark of its own upon them. Exposure to what was going on at the cutting edge of visual arts, video and performance art led many of the Vehicule Poets to think beyond the page when it came to their own work. The poets first encountered the gallery as a reading space, which they utilized on Sunday afternoons; but it very quickly became for them an "artistic atmosphere" that was always in flux and was constantly challenging them. As the gallery "internationalized" its exhibition schedules, and the poets became more involved in the everyday operations of the gallery, the inspirations for their poetry became blindingly diverse. By 1977, a number of the Vehicule Poets had started to move into videopoetry (Konyves' term) and poetry performance.
An initial concern for "documenting" poetry readings had yielded to a growing interest in mixed media and performance art. While Véhicule Press produced books of their more conventional texts, it was within the gallery space that the Vehicule Poets presented simultaneous readings, poetry and dance performances, poetry and music performances, video installations, and mounted exhibitions of concrete poetry. Eventually feeling somewhat constrained by the friendly confines of the gallery, they went on in the late seventies to put poetry on Montreal's city buses (poésie en mouvement), visual and performance art on Montreal's cable channel (Art Montréal), and even performed Pound's "In a Station of the Metro" in Montreal's metro system. A number of them recorded an album of experimental sound texts in 1980 (Sounds Like). Several of the Vehicule Poets organized road tours for poetry performances which they took out to parallel galleries and other arts centers across the country.
As with their magazine and book activities, a number of the cultural and performance projects the Vehicule Poets undertook had collective and collaborative origins. They worked in consultation with one another on the cultural projects, and often collaborated in the writing of performance and video pieces (sometimes also serving as stagehands and bit players). This was a modus operandi that served them well for a number of years.
However, as with many other artistic and literary movements, as they developed as writers they began to pursue their own individual initiatives more and more. By the early 1980s their collaborations were few and far between (and certainly not without friction). It was at this time that the group was officially dissolved. The motivation for a public dissolution of the movement was the logical recognition that after the group comes the individual, that, as the Vehicule Poets, they had done as much as they could do.
In offering this history of the Vehicule Poets, I've tried to come at their "historical moment" from a variety of angles. Perhaps one of the most curious angles is that this book is edited by someone who was a card-carrying member of the Vehicule Poets. So much for cool objectivity (but perhaps as a culture we are done with that fiction anyway). Beyond this introduction, however, the book has no other editorial apparatus, and I have tried to let the material contained speak for itself. It is my hope that the book combines the best qualities of "document," "documentation," and "oral history."
The book's first section is essentially a collection of documents, poetry and poetics essays from the "Véhicule days." The three initial articles offer an argument between critic David O'Rourke and me which gives a sense of the poetic environment in Montreal at the time, and perhaps reveal what everyone thought was at stake (while also recalling earlier literary debates like the Preview-First Statement antagonism of three decades earlier). Artie Gold's introduction to The Vehicule Poets accompanies a selection of work excerpted from that anthology, offering the reader a sampling of what the poets were up to on the page at the time. A Real Good Goosin': Talking Poetics reveals the Vehicule Poets not cracking under interrogation by Louis Dudek; instead, an interesting discussion of postmodern poetics ensues. The balance of the section consists of poetics essays written by individual authors, almost all of which made their initial appearance in Stephen Morrissey's important Montreal Journal of Poetics.
The second section of the book consists of retrospectives and interviews which reflect back upon the "Véhicule days." An older and wiser George Bowering, often cited as a significant "mentor" of the Vehicule Poets, reflects on how he taught several of them "creative writhing" at Sir George Williams University. Claudia Lapp, in an essay from which the book takes its title, tells us of how "Montreal has always been my poetic home and Vehicule my 'tribe.'" In interview, Konyves, Farkas, Morrissey and Norris try to make sense of their "Véhicule experiences," while also offering insight into their later development as poets. The book's concluding section offers an intriguing sampling of new work from each of the seven Vehicule Poets, now all in their forties.
In this book I've tried to present a number of significant visual documents that amplify the print documentation of the Vehicule Poets. Much of the activities of the Vehicule Poets that took place beyond the bounds of printed books have been invisible for a number of years. In his Poetry in Performance, Tom Konyves was the only Vehicule Poet who ever attempted to put into book form examples of videopoetry, videotheatre and performance poetry. Much of the mixed media work that was done at the time has gone undocumented. I'm hopeful that these reproductions of posters, photographs and texts will help to round out a sense of the atmosphere of those ground-breaking Véhicule days.