Introduction to VEHICULE POETS_NOW
by George Bowering
I have always liked the idea of a group of poets. I disagree with that critic who called poetry the "sullen art." Sullen means all alone, and that may be an okay way to write a novel, but for most of our history good poetry has been produced by poets working with each other, or against each other. Wordsworth and Coleridge made their great odes as arguments with one another. Keats and Shelley fed each other's imagination. The English Romantics holed up during storms and concocted nineteenth century classics. A hundred years later the Imagists slapped poems like poker cards on the table around which they sat.
Right after the Second World War, there were two lively poetry groups working the streets and salons in Montreal. They turned their city for a few years into the poetry centre of English-writing Canada. The small presses with which Louis Dudek was involved, for example, would print the books that collectors and critics go to now when they want to understand how modern Canadian poetry got going.
I am not about to tell you that the seven youngsters in Montreal in the Seventies were Byrons or even John Gould Fletchers. I don't think they got tyro poets in Regina saying that they wanted to band together and become western Vehiculars. But in the history of recent English-language poetry in Montreal, the Vehicule group, Ken Norris, Stephen Morrissey, Tom Konyves, Claudia Lapp, Artie Gold, John McAuley and Endre Farkas, provided a very welcome radical chapter.
I lived in Montreal from 1967 till 1971. For me, Montreal was of course a storied site. In the Forties Irving Layton and Louis Dudek had joined Torontonian Raymond Souster to create the fabled Contact Press and rescue Canadian poetry from the genteel tradition that Montrealer F.R. Scott had made fun of in his poem "The Canadian Authors Meet." Leonard Cohen had emerged, published by Dudek, befriended by Layton, to act out the role of blessed poete damné. Milton Acorn met Al Purdy in Montreal, and got published by Contact Press. Soon there were dozens of whippersnapper poets, guys like Seymour Mayne and K.V. Hertz and Avi Boxer, who would start their own little poetry mags in the early Sixties.
But by the time I arrived there in Canada's centenary year, English Canadian Montreal was a poetry ghost town. The old guys were still around, at least part of the time, but they were not causing any trouble. Cohen and Mayne had moved out. Roy Kiyooka was there, but his best poetry was in the future. There were some English-language poets in their thirties, but they were staid. They resembled the academic poets in Iowa and the versemakers trying to get something together in the postwar desert that was the English tradition. They fashioned metaphors and crafted stanzas and considered the spirituality of nature as opposed to the disappointments of contemporary city life.
They may have thought of poetry as the sullen art.
I felt a little lonely myself. Thank God I was involved with the paradox that was the Sir George Williams University reading series. Into this time-trapped world we brought the news—Victor Coleman, Michael Ondaatje, Michael McClure, John Wieners. I also taught creative writing, if you can imagine, and what a strange contradictory world we lived in. It was the late Sixties, the time of great radicals and obstreperous youth. My "students" knew about Malcolm X and Franz Fanon and the Velvet Underground. But they had not read Charles Olson.
There I was, in the middle of Montreal, holding up a poem by Charles Olson. There were the English Canadian poets, wondering whether Robert Frost might be a little too daring. These were the people who thought it was okay to use the word "whereupon" in a poem. They were conservative, I thought, largely because they were insular. They must have been aware, minimally, that there was a post-Imagist poetry out there, but they were quick to protect against it, calling it names. They favoured the conservative British arts scene, where the ability to be clever with name-calling was apparently an asset.
I left for the west coast in the spring of 1971, having enjoyed Montreal, having talked with a few youngsters who seemed happy to hear from the outside world. Artie Gold, for example, could quote from Frank O'Hara, while downing a couple dozen latkes at Ben's.
A year and a half later a hip new arts gallery named Véhicule opened just about where Ste. Catherine Street started being west, and before anyone knew it there were Sunday afternoon poetry readings in the gallery. Those seven youngsters I mentioned began to cohere as a group, and you could be pretty certain to hear them doing their stuff on Sunday. Before too long, the gallery took its place among alternative arts spaces across Canada, and became the hip Montreal site for poetry readings by people from out of town.
Then, as these things went in those days, a poetry publisher named Vehicule was born, and three of those seven poets formed the editorial board from 1975 till 1981. Vehicule Press took its place among the little poetry presses of the country, learning its direction from, say, Talonbooks and Coach House Press, where the concerns for contemporary modes in poetry were accompanied by a desire to make interesting art of their books. Printer Simon Dardick and poets Farkas and Gold bent their heads together the way printer Stan Bevington and poets Victor Coleman and bpNichol used to do. The first book was Ken Norris's Vegetables. Affixed to the cover was a seed package with seeds in it. My copy featured, if I remember rightly, eggplant.
For five or six years the Vehicule collective produced nice little poetry books that quickly became bookdealers' collector items. A quarter-century later, one still likes to sit and reread John McAuley's Nothing Ever Happens in Pointe Claire or The Trees of Unknowing by Stephen Morrissey. When one was in town, as one was in those days of the mid-seventies, it was nice to drop in at Véhicule and check out the art on the walls or wherever it was, scan the page proofs of Artie's new book, sprawl on the floor and listen to Claudia Lapp chant her new poems. It was nice to know that it was there, and that Montreal was here, with us.
They were a restless bunch, this collective, and the backlist from the Vehicule Press does not cover their activity in the small-press inky business. McAuley ran Maker Press (which published an anthology of the collective's poetry), Morrissey started Montreal Journal of Poetics, Konyves ran the peculiar item called Hh (he was always the one most involved in the history and course of the central European avant garde) and Norris had an international mag/press called CrossCountry. There were other scraps of publications, too, the charming ragged edge of the paperback scene.
Here is what happens with any young arts collective worth paying attention to: the individuals that make up the group are restless and creative, and begin to pursue their varying interests while cherishing their early collaborative work in their memory, a place into which any artist will reach all his/her life. Tom Konyves, for example, became fascinated with the possibilities of videotape when that medium was new. He made something he called "videopoetry," and is now a west coast video-arts doyen. Endre Farkas started a press and organization called the Muses' Company, and gave his attention to collaborations between poetry and dance. Claudia Lapp moved back to the USA, eventually to Oregon, where she and her poetry are involved with visual artists and spiritual healers.
While the gang members were getting to be thirty, and some of them taking up teaching jobs, and most of them exploring multi-media and performance arts, the urgency of their poetry press declined. In 1982 Vehicule Press published an interesting compromise anthology called Cross/Cut: Contemporary English Quebec Poetry, edited by Ken Norris and Peter Van Toorn, the most interesting of the young conservatives. That anthology was a turning point: from then on the press would do a severe turnaround to publish the neo-con poets who had been the antithesis of the movement, and the Vehicule poets (they had first been called that by Wynne Francis, a professor at Concordia University) would be a name for a former collective. So goes the history of poetry, including the local history.
So this new anthology. It is an opportunity to see the widely diverse recent poetry of seven former Vees. Tom Konyves tells me that they are ordered according to their astrological signs or some such fortunate nonsense. The present-day Vehicule Press is not interested. They recently had a 25-year anniversary party, at which there was apparently no mention of these middle-aged folks. On the Internet you can find a picture book of Montreal writers as seen by Vehicule Press. None of these seven is anywhere to be seen.
The life of English language poetry in Montreal is now in the hands of two remarkable women—Erin Mouré and Anne Carson. They made it into the picture book, despite the radical contemporaneity of their work. One senses that there is some animosity being exercised to handle history.
Ken Norris's first poem in our collection is a good introduction to that history as seen from within. It ends:
had the freedom to create
something out of nothing, to fill the air
with music when there was nothing
going on at all.
I have a notebook full of clever insights into the verse in this volume. But I am less interested in those than in the recent directions taken by these kids I have known so many decades.
I like the new, more venturesome Norris. He used to be very strictly realistic and plain-spoken, the ideal student of Louis Dudek. Now his syntax is straight, but his images tilt: "you don't love the real; you love your mind playing across it." Morrissey has, in a way, gone in the other direction. He used to turn every poetry reading into an experiment in delivery; these poems delve into autobiography and family history. His work resembles that of Marty Gervais, insisting without any easy moments, on recovering the events that lie under a carpet of years. Konyves is witty, terse and cynical. He chose his surrealist roots, and they, along with his years as a video artist, have led him away from exposition. Like Norris, he addresses the function of this update:
There are poems and there are poems,
we used to say, for we were defenders
of the poems, the guardians of the poems,
and our habits changed and our families grew
until we forgot what we were defending
and we secretly relinquished the poem
Lapp now writes hearty poems denouncing the enemies of the earth. She has become what one would hope and expect from an artist in the US northwest, an environmentalist, one who lends her strength to the anti-war movement and favours the wisdom of pre-propaganda children. Gold still offers us outrageous poems that flip like intellectual fish just out of the water, not quite graspable in the bottom of the boat. You can hear his voice even if you don't know it—his lines compel companionship. McAuley has grown pleasantly weird. He translates the Roman poets with iambs and anapests, setting us up for his other poems, in which he presents such things as Virginia Woolf brushing her hair on her last day of life, imagining eating the little bits of fat under her scalp. Farkas has always been the most French of these English-language poets. Here he offers us a brave long Quebec love poem.
Any anthology that has anything to do with a moment from so many years in the past is going to make you a little sad, the kind of sad that mortality has so much to do with. In this case, of course, that sadness is bound up with the fact that the neo-cons have infiltrated the magazines and universities in the little community of English Montreal.
But here it is anyway, a reminder of those wonderful days in the early seventies, when the collective wrote and sang and danced and painted and sat on the Véhicule floor, and the world came to Ste Catherine Street. It is a book, seven living poets and the spirit that makes people grasp the means of production, still here.
Ken Norris was the last to reach the age of fifty. In his 2003 book titled Fifty, he offered this simple dedication: "for the Vehicules,/ all fifty now". Seven times fifty makes up a year of days. Let's spend it reading what we have so far.