Lalo Espejo weighs in on the foreign corporate donations so beloved by the BC Liberals. It’s interesting to see our local media once again taking up the rear after The New York times rightfully made this a story. But it’s typical, just as it took the excellent work of Ian Young for the South China Morning Post to kick the ass of the local media to get seriously reporting on the real estate crisis. We actually recorded this over a week prior to the New York Times piece being published.
Next to the catastrophic, “End Times”-like scenario predicted for the closure of Point Grey Road for the purpose of encouraging cycling/boosting property values of well connected citizens/turning Fourth Avenue into a rush hour death chute, the remodeling of the Burrard Street Bridge was going to be the most anticipated act of civic vandalism to take place in 2016. Pre-construction mock-up images of the dreaded “suicide barrier” had heritage advocates up in arms because it was a) ugly and b) not likely going to be effective.
But then this happened. Basically, it’s all pretty A-OK and they’ve even upped the ante by putting in some gorgeous, period-style lighting standards. The only thing they could have done better was to revive the stairway shortcut on the south end that was sealed off sometime in the 1930s. Vancouver? Time to direct your rage in different, more useful directions!
You may have caught wind that affordable artists’ spaces in Vancouver are not just at a premium, but virtually extinct. Recent news about The Secret Lantern Society’s space being redeveloped once again casts a light on the effects of relentless pressures on urban space. You may also know of Alan Storey’s public art works. Among many installations around town, Alan is responsible for the giant pendulum in the atrium of the HSBC building downtown as well as the magnificent “Password” piece that discreetly engages attentive pedestrians along Pacific Avenue. VR did a profile of Alan a few years ago and I photographed him at his studio. Unfortunately, Alan has recently had to vacate his waterfront studio in the 300 block of Railway. It was once a fascinating area full of working artists. And while we still have the Ironworks building nearby to this stretch, it seems that photos like these may be some of the last documents of an era.
Whenever I’m downtown I like to wander past some of the older buildings that have evaded the wrecker’s ball for one reason or another. There aren’t many left. My earliest memory of an old downtown heritage building was the one at 804 Pender Street where my mother began Spectrum Players’ Lunch Hour Theatre in 1969. That spot is now a pizza outlet (Sciué) at the base of an office tower. Across the street once stood the Alhambra Theatre. But generally speaking, outside of Gastown and its periphery, nearly everything made of brick or stone has vanished or been treated to lethal doses of “façadism”.
Once the Expo lands were cleared (and a few old buildings on the periphery suffered convenient blazes), the north shore of False Creek was pretty much Berlin, 1945. Flattened. A blank slate. Now it’s a big, soulless grey slate, albeit with wonderful waterfront access and a single dominant cultural centre in the form of the excellent Roundhouse Community Centre. But our mayor at the time had no real plan and refused to consider one, preferring instead to rely on zoning practices that allowed developers to shape the area into a potential JG Ballard novella. Give it 20 years. You’ll see.
Then there’s the strip along Hastings, the 100 block. During the post-Expo 80s and into the 90s it came to host after hours clubs, micro theatre spaces and galleries. Most were shabby, makeshift affairs that at least afforded creative use while awaiting gentrification. One of those spaces, for a time, was the Or Gallery.
Further west, into the core, the post office remains (likely to serve as pediment for more condos) as does one highly conspicuous, narrow old structure at 555 Hamilton Street better known as the Del Mar Hotel. Since 2008 it’s also been home to the Or Gallery after it was forced from the 100 block of Hastings. 555 has a long gallery affiliation, as the Bau Xi began there in 1965. The CAG also did time beneath the rooms. And in the 90s, the owner resisted development pressure from BC Hydro so that the low income hotel and street front gallery space remains.
The text intervention work “Unlimited Growth Increases the Divide” by Kathryn Walter greets all who enter on the slate above the entrance. And the alley to the north has served me well whenever I’ve had need of a sheltered space to do a portrait or two. I recall shooting George Vergette for the Straight there. In any event, I recently noticed a new text piece on the wall high up on the side of the building. It was difficult to find an angle to view or photograph so I cast down to see this image. I was immediately struck by its resemblance to a whale (I’ve done a series of “Abject Orcas”, photos of awful, painted or sculptural renderings of “the killer whale” in public spaces). It also looked like a painting by Robert Linsley. I’ve no idea whether this is an intentional work. Perhaps it’s simply how a series of graffiti tags were covered over. Or not.
112 West Hastings. Photo by Ian Lindsay, Vancouver Sun. 1994.
This is an 8mm home movie shot on the set of Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller by Wes Taylor and Wayne Robson (both RIP) in the fall of 1970. Wes was my stepfather and I visited the set as a boy. It was a magical place to explore as you can imagine! That it turned out to be a classic “anti-western” was icing on the cake!
In the footage you’ll see Rene Auborjonois, Wayne Grace, Wes Taylor, Wayne Robson, Jack Riley, Jackie Crossland, Jace Van Der Veen, Manfred Shulz and others from the cast. The snowball fight is a fun touch given that the weather played havoc with the shooting schedule! And Criterion has finally released a superb Blu-ray version of the film that I’d advise fans to check out.
The B&W photo at the end is of a cast party held in the basement of someone’s home in West Van. My mum, Jane Shaddy, is top right, looking at the camera. The photo was taken by Glenn Baglo in the fall of 1970 for the Vancouver Sun. I had the pleasure of meeting Glenn while shooting a documentary on Vancouver in the ’70s for Telus. Kate Bird, retired PacPress photo librarian who’s just released the book Vancouver in the Seventies, was instrumental in sourcing a good copy of the image. If you have any additional info or stories, please get in touch!
Monument Builders is something new from Vancouver’s premiere purveyor of monochromatic electronica, loscil (aka Scott Morgan). While an alternate title might be More Songs about Buildings and Mood, Monument Builders touches down firmly in the mid 1970s with its architectural references, sonic clues and in the titling of tracks. I’ve been a loscil fan for many years and listened as the recordings have become comfortably reliable. Here, though, we have a meaningful shift that takes us backwards and forwards simultaneously. And it’s a welcome change, fitting with, it seems, the swirl of world events.
Built forms have always been a reference point for Scott. Think of the diagram of the Lions Gate Bridge that is the cover image of his superb 2004 CD First Narrows…or the steam tower on the cover of 2006’s Plume that carries echoes of the Factory Records logo (1970s) and Pink Floyd’s Battersea Power Station-shot cover for 1977’s Animals.
When Scott approached me this summer to do some new portraits we talked of two buildings that served as visual signposts: Arthur Erickson’s 1968 MacMillan Bloedel (MacBlo) building on Georgia Street and Vladimir Plasvic’s 1974 Medical/Dental building (better known as the Frank Stanzl building) on Broadway. They are Vancouver’s two most conspicuous examples of the concrete brutalist style of architecture, a style often derided by the public and not always judiciously employed where public spaces are concerned.
Erickson’s SFU campus has served as a film location for dystopian sci-fi features (1972’s Groundstar Conspiracy) and the MacBlo building (or The Waffle it was often called by locals) was used as the villainous banker’s lair in a Muppet Christmas Movie (2002) and the Canadian Secret Service’s headquarters in the excellent CBC series Intelligence (2007).
By contrast, Vladimir Plasvic’s Medical/Dental building on Broadway (which appears on the cover) still stands clearly apart along the south False Creek skyline. It’s still graceful and, by all accounts, a pleasure to work within. Even the ‘70s font at the entrance of its underground garage retains its charm. It represents the upside of the movement, and it’s tough to imagine a dystopian nightmare unfolding within its walls. An appreciative essay by Lindsay Brown can be found here: http://ounodesign.com/2012/05/27/1970s-brutalist-building-vancouver-vladimir-plavsic/
Both of these buildings were distinctive and provocative structures for their day and in retrospect it’s easy for some to project a society’s ideals or failures on them. There have been many more concerning urban architectural developments since then but of these two, which would sci-fi author JG Ballard choose to set a novel in? What would the soundtrack be like?
There’s been a recent feature film adaptation of High Rise, a 1975 Ballard novel about a dystopian future where social breakdown occurs within a self-contained high-rise development. The set designer fully embraced the concrete brutalist aesthetic. Further connecting us here is the use of Tangerine Dream’s music on the soundtrack with a piece heavily indebted to another great minimalist, Steve Reich, whose masterstroke, 1978’s Music for 18 Musicians is a foregrounded influence.
Which leads us to the music on Monument Builders. Another cited influence is Koyaanisqatsi, the Godfrey Reggio film from 1982 (but shot mostly in the 70s) which brought the movie music of Philip Glass (whose signature style was developed in the 70s) to a wide public. Scott recently saw it again on an old VHS tape and was reminded of its impact but experienced it anew with a level of visual/aural distortion caused by its condition of being an aging artifact requiring a fading technology to reanimate it. It has a marked influence on this new recording. On Red Tide fragments of Glass make a brief appearance in the wake of a sequenced pulse reminiscent of Sorcerer-era Tangerine Dream, the synth-driven technocrats of the so-called Krautrock era in 1970s Germany. It’s the first time I’ve detected any noteworthy influence of other artists coming to the surface in Scott’s music but it’s purposeful and welcome.
Straw Dogs (another title from the 70s, this time of a very dark film directed by Sam Pekinpah) feels very much like an electronic brass lament or calling which gradually builds into a kind of martial crescendo leading us to a cliff edge. I’ve never seen the film but that description fairly traces the narrative arc of the story line. Deceiver is more straightforwardly mournful and more familiar in terms of the lugubrious sound palette long term fans will recognize.
The title Anthropocene stems from the recent and widely accepted view that we now inhabit an age where the human species exerts a (largely negative) dominant force upon the earth, its biodiversity and sustaining systems. It is another pulsing Glass/Tangerine Dream-like piece that immediately puts one at the centre of a shiny, damaged future/present world where rather than being repulsed by decay we might be dazzled by its remaining shards and colourful, toxic abstractions.
Monument Builders is no pulsing, slightly scuffed and bucolic Autobahn for Vancouver as I once described First Narrows (over a decade ago!). Nor is it the blissful, billowing aural float session of Plume. Even the more recent and much cooler Sea Island offered few hints at the queasy undercurrent to come on Monument Builders. Overall, there is a more anxious tone, a persistent foreboding, a palpable anticipation of force majeure.
And there have been some unexpected life events informing the work. In addition to ruminating on mortality generally and reflecting on the ambivalent beauty of photographer Edward Burtynsky’s depictions of humanity’s relentless scarring of the earth, the illness of a friend’s young daughter came as a special shock. Scott rose to the occasion the best way he knew how: to create. Thus For Greta, a digital EP was released on-line in aid of the family. And that, ultimately, is the point. We create to endure and hope our creations endure.
Monument Builders is both a dark turn and an act of survival, an act of creation to spite fear. It is music of our time … or rather all time because we are forever tired, beaten, fearful, energetic and joyful.
A veritable institution in this city, Veda Hille has been involved in so many music, theatre and multi-media projects in the past two decades it’s hard to know where to start a conversation. I first came to know her as a singer songwriter in the ’90s and frequently did portraits of her. We always had fun and spent some real time on the process, improvising where necessary. And it’s been great to watch her grow. Veda has proven to be an uncommon talent, determined to speak of person, place and passions in a clear, unsentimental yet often deeply touching way. And somehow she seems to be unique to Vancouver, almost an unofficial city songstress with a keen sense of history and taste for singing beautiful ironies.
As the noughties pressed on, so too did Veda’s career, and in all directions. She began working with NeWorld Theatre, CBC Orchestra, Theatre Replacement, the PuSH Festival and many more. And nearly a decade ago, in the fall of 2007, Melanie Scott did a profile on Veda for Vancouver Review just as her album This Riot Life came out. My accompanying photograph was nominated for both a Western and a National Magazine Award for Best Portrait in 2008. It’s still a favourite of mine and I remember the day fondly. The fun part of that was that my choice from the session did not directly show her face and was shot during a brief break in shooting while we waited for some smoke from a barbecue to clear. But that’s how we rolled. Accept the gift of circumstance! We seemed to have a good thing going when we worked together! But then we lost touch over the last five years or so due to well, life.
Recently, we got back in touch just as she was preparing her new release Love Waves and, in an odd twist of fate, she found herself pairing up with one of my favourite composers of all time, Harold Budd. Harold was in town in February to work with a local publisher, Heavenly Monkey, on the Aurora Teardrops project, a collection of his poems. He was also tapped to perform as part of the PuSh festival and, as it happened, Jane Maru, who was supposed to read Harold’s poems, was unable to make it from California. So Veda was approached to step in. Beforehand, Harold gave a talk at the Burrard Arts Foundation’s space on Broadway where he reminded people that, basically, he’d rather not perform. He’d rather be part of the audience. I had no idea what to expect but whatever it was, I was in for the ride.
I was not expecting much from the performance and felt The Fox Cabaret was absolutely the wrong venue. Nonetheless, despite being at the back of the room, my view blocked by the standing room-only crowd, it was clear something special was happening. I don’t know how many people came due to the sudden buzz, because Pitchfork told them Harold Budd was cool, or because they were long time fans but I did come away wanting to hear it again. And that, as it turns out, may be a thing.
I’ve been familiar with Harold’s (non) poetry for decades. He doesn’t necessarily feel comfortable with the term “poetry” to describe his writing. Veda had hardly heard his music. And yet here she was in 2016 reciting so many of his elliptical, fragmentary, evocative pieces that have fed and been nourished by his music over decades. Images of the desert. Coyotes. Lost souls. Real people. All now in an intimately familiar voice. Disconcerting yet completely fitting.
I’d love to wax enthusiastic about Veda’s new album Love Waves because I think it’s perfect. But thankfully, Veda is getting her due in the press these days and my task seems to be to try and offer something less likely to be explored in interviews with her; something hinged on my longtime interest in Harold Budd’s music and poetry and Veda’s fresh discovery of it. We recently spoke of the new alignment with the world of Harold Budd.
Veda: I’d certainly heard of Harold before and I knew of his stature in the world but I’d never listened to much of his music. I’m not much of a minimalist at heart. I think I’ve been actively battling my maximalist tendencies and ended up being a medium…alist! I’m always excited to try playing with someone new and people rarely ask me to be a player on their projects but I love not being in charge. It’s rare for me! It happened that they needed someone to step in when Jane Maru was unable to make the gig. I had about a day’s notice that I was going to be reading 59 poems! I read them over to myself a few times but I only had the material for 24 hours!
Mark: How did you manage?
Veda: I asked how he pronounced “coyote” (kye-otee or kye-oat) and I asked what a “Billy Al” was (painter and long time pal of Harold’s Billy Al Bengston) because I initially read it as Billy A-1! I checked to see whether he wanted titles read and that was about it. But for our first soundcheck I was quite nervous, not knowing exactly what was wanted of me. Getting the sound up and running took an hour before we tried out anything of substance. Then we were ready to give it a shot so Harold and Brad played the keys and I started reading immediately. Harold stopped us cold and said to me “Just wait a few minutes before you start”. So I did, and I relaxed a bit, and took my volume/intensity down. I listened to them for a bit. Then I think I read three lines, really feeling it, and he stopped us cold again. “That’s perfect, that’s enough!” he said. He was clearly pleased, and I understood completely what he wanted from that five minute rehearsal. It felt great. I felt at ease with him right away. He clearly knows when something is right and when not to mess with it … which must be a super crucial part of being Harold Budd.
Mark: Hearing you read the poem that referenced Ruben Garcia was very odd.
Veda: Who is Ruben Garcia?
Mark: The most direct connection people might know is the recording Three Pianos with Harold, Ruben and Daniel Lentz. He also played on Nighthawks with Harold and John Foxx in 2002. I knew of him through my association with Barry Craig in LA (aka A. Produce). There were a lot of personal problems from what I understand. But he recorded some gorgeous piano and synth music over the years that will likely never get much exposure. Barry sent me a two CD-R set he released of Ruben’s music called Maybe Forgotten Forever which is a very Budd-like title. There was certainly kinship there and there are some real beauties on the recording. Then Barry died. Unbelievably sad all around.
Here’s a quote from Harold about Ruben: “Something wonderful and magical happens when Ruben meets a piano. It happens to me sometimes; it happens to Ruben all the time.” – Harold Budd, 1999
Veda: I didn’t know who he was until just this second! In the poem, Ruben calls him and is in trouble of some kind and Harold takes the call. It’s very succinct, about someone who is lost. I really recognized that feeling of having a friend going astray and all you can do is try to remain in touch. I’m sure we’ve all had it happen.
Mark: To hear it your voice it reminds of his attitude of doing what you can in a given situation, but very much knowing when to put things down, when nothing more can or should be done.
Veda: I love trying to embody him. I was just in L.A. where we did the show again. I went down five days early because there was talk of maybe doing some recording and maybe some co-writing. I had the time so I went. Harold took me for lunch on the first day and I said: “So you want to do some rehearsing or go mess around with some words?” and he’s like “No!” … so we went to some art galleries instead. He took me out for a meal or two every day and we went to more galleries … and then we did the show. But we talked and talked and talked and I felt that getting to know him better made my connection to the poems much deeper. Understanding who he is really helps so I could secretly call it “rehearsal” for my personal, Germanic list-checking needs!
Mark: What’s he taking from you in all this?
Veda: I don’t think I would dare to say. He seems happily astounded whenever I look over at him and im saying things and I’m able to make him laugh in the show even, so there’s obviously something I’m doing. I’m being a good mirror of some kind, an interesting mirror. So he’s seeing the work afresh when I’m give it back to him.
Mark: So a break from your own song writing after putting out what I think is a perfect album and my favourite of your fully solo works. Is there something in this process with Harold that you see having an impact on your own song writing?
Veda: It’s always great to bow to someone else as a maker and to just try to deliver things. I learned a lot when I did the Buffy St. Marie set with the orchestra about that very thing, about not needing to be personally attached to things in order to have them be powerful. So I always look forward to that. I feel that during the last 10 years of my career I’ve become more and more known as a writer and I’m missing being a performer so it’s nice to be a pure performer. And because we’ve been doing shows in the states and because people love Harold there, my name means nothing … which is fine. I have my name mean enough in the places where it means things. And there’s also the thrill of surprising people because they have no idea who I am or what I can do. It also feels like I’m doing nothing so that’s nice too. The only challenge is remaining present and not trying to be too fancy.
It’s also just great to hang out with someone who’s 80! I’ve been going back through his work and we listened to The Pearl (with Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois) the other night and Justin pointed out that Harold was 48 when he made it which is the age I am now. You get a little glimpse of what time is like. It’s so hard to understand.
Mark: I was 16 and doing homework to Ambient 2: Plateaux of Mirror while also finding time for the Subhumans and all the European post-punk of the day. It stood out as a kind of clearing and another way of listening to music for me at the time. I return to it all the time and would love it to be the last thing I ever hear. What about sonically? What’s may have been exchanged?
Veda: Its interesting because Love Waves is a really synthy record and there are a few moments of acoustic piano but otherwise its all midi and synth and keyboards so to suddenly jump in to working with Harold because the stuff he and Brad Ellis are doing is all synthesized it all feels very timely for me to hear that. We’ve only done it three times and he won’t rehearse so my only experience of it is on stage three times now. But I feel like I’m starting to get a deeper and deeper sense of how it works. When we did it at the Fox I didn’t even know when Harold or Brad was playing, I was just doing it. So who knows? Maybe that’ll be the best time I ever do it. We’ll see. I’ve started to play with singing a little bit between the poems and introducing a little bit of repetition. In LA I was definitely adding a lot more of myself and I wondered if it was too much.
Mark: I was physically uncomfortable at the Fox. It was packed. Lots of people were standing around talking. It’s still a bar in many ways and that was essentially a concert designed for a relaxed, comfortable, receptive state. I got a good impression but that it needed performing in a more appropriate venue. I’d love to have the option of listening to a recording.
Veda: My idea for the record – if we ever get to make it – is to get him and Brad Ellis up here and book Mushroom/Afterlife for two nights and do a live performance for a very small audience. So we’d have a couple of shots at it and everyone can actually be lying down if they want. I feel like we need to have people to deliver it to in order to stay focused and I think that would be a real nice way for an audience to experience that piece. We’re also hoping to tour but it’s all a little vague in the Budd Camp.
It’s so expensive making records now and you can’t be sure your going to sell them even if you’re Harold Budd. I like paying people and I like taking time to mix. I guess it wouldn’t have to be mixed too hard but it would be nice if we went in and mixed it properly, which would take about 6 days. So it’s a minimum of ten grand to make a record and if you want to do vinyl you can add another five grand to that. I’d like to forget vinyl but people like it so much and these days it doesn’t feel like an album comes out properly unless it’s on vinyl. I haven’t put Love Waves out on vinyl in part because it’s 60 minutes long so it would be a double vinyl release and I’d have to generate another side! But we listen to a lot of vinyl at our house and it’s really nice.
Mark: Do you have any special takeaway memories of your time at “Camp Budd”?
Veda: It’s so nice hanging out with someone who says “coolness”. It’s like he’s got all this great hangover language from the ’50s. I know he’s conscious of using it but it’s still very charming. After all, he was there. He was playing bebop in the ’50s! He was telling me about his time in the army and the band he played in with Albert Ayler and stuff like that. And we had some great times looking at art which I felt I hadn’t done for awhile. I hadn’t really gone to galleries with someone in a long time.
Mark Mushet for Vancouver Review Media
Love Waves can be ordered through http://vedahille.com/ And while you’re at it, poke around the site and explore!
SPANKwest Systems has teamed up with Bickie Array (Personal Real Estate Corporation) to offer you this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to OWN in the last affordable nook in the up and coming Serenity Slopes neighbourhood (formerly known as Edgemont Village… and probably something else before that in some language with a bunch of weird characters in it) in North Vancouver.
Freshly updated to offer all mod cons, this 1950s-era paper shack retains hertitage charm galore. Who needs newspapers anymore? No one. But that’s not to say you can’t bask in the glory days of newsprint in this 102 sq. ft. dream condo! Featuring a 4 sq. ft. galley- style kitchen with 1 sq ft. of marble countertop, this gem also comes with ink-stained canvas sack-lined walls that just ooze memories of sweaty teenagers and abusive shack bosses. A steal at just a shade under 1 million!
Let’s face it. Vancouver is over in terms of affordability…and so is North Van (and pretty much everywhere else) until the wheels finally come off this careening, psychotic greed wagon. So get in now, on the ground floor. It’s your last chance. And at the very least, you can Instagram the daylights out of it and show your friends how cool it is to be part of the “Tiny Homes” movement! It’s not easy being green!
Halifax-based poet Zach Wells first graced the pages of Vancouver Review with his send-up of Shane Koyczan’s widely loved Olympic poem “We Are More”. This was perfectly in keeping with the VR’s contrarian tilt but earned us some predictable “tut-tuts” from many genteel cultural quarters—folks who felt it was such a great leap forward to have a spoken word poet deliver a heartfelt and upbeat vision of the nation on a world stage that any “criticism” was the moral equivalent of kicking a puppy.
He was recently in Vancouver where we caught up with him in the midst of a vacation from his “other career” with Via Rail. We met on Granville Island for a quick chat and portrait session.
VRM: Your piece for the VR in response to Shane Koyczan’s Olympic poem “We Are More” was perfectly timed to make it look like you had kicked a puppy. His popularity has since skyrocketed. And there’s no denying he’s infectious in performance. I think your response still holds up. How do you feel about it all now?
ZW: Well, he gets up on his pulpit and he does his thing and people really respond in a way that I find mystifying because the writing itself is so cliché-ridden. And the performances I find over the top, almost hammy.
VRM: One argument goes that slam (or “performance poetry” as it was once called) is bringing people to poetry.
ZW: Well he’s bringing people to his brand of poetry, for sure. But I don’t think it’s a gateway drug to Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Frost! I’d be amazed if people were going from that to really serious, excellent poetry.
VRM: There’s a much thornier discussion to be had about what constitutes “serious, excellent poetry” but I’m a photographer so let’s steer clear of that for now! What I do know is that I was introduced to performance poetry in the ’80s and really enjoyed it because it seemed to entail real risk. The work was memorized and it bordered on a kind of guerrilla theatre in all manner of spaces. It seemed borderless. But I never saw much of it unless I was directly connected to the poets, some of whom I had on my radio show at UBC at the time. Now there are slam poetry nights everywhere!
ZW: The problem with a lot of the current more generic spoken word stuff is that there’s no real sense of risk. It follows the same kind of speech patterns, the same kind of syncopations, the same stances and preoccupations. It’s really genre work. But there are a lot of interesting people doing it, like Catherine Kidd in Montreal. She does really neat stuff and it doesn’t in any way resemble the genre conventions of the slam poem. She’s done one-woman shows driven by her own writing which are truly excellent.
In a low-key kind of way, I fall in between the spoken word ethos and the typical anti-social poet thing; I trust the words to stand for themselves, but without droning on too much in the dreaded “poet voice”. I try to deliver the work in an expressive and interpretive manner rather than striving for some kind of phony neutrality. I often end up memorizing my work because I do rehearse a lot, so it’s more accidental than intentional. A product of rehearsing is memorization, especially if the work is moderately memorable!
As far as the publications go, I write individual poems and assemble them sometime after. Typically, these days, my collections span ten to twelve years and there’s no intentional construction to the book as a whole until I sit down after the fact to assemble it.
VRM: You work for Via Rail. I can’t think of a more “Canadian” job right now.
ZW: I work in on board services and I’ve been working for them for twelve years. I started as a senior service attendant which is kind of a joke because there’s no such thing as a junior service attendant. So you get a promotion as soon as you’re hired. I just recently became qualified as a service manager, the person who’s responsible for the whole train after the baggage car.
VRM: You recently expressed an interest in becoming an engineer.
ZW: I applied for training, but it’s a selective program and they were looking more for people from Montreal and Toronto. No one in my region got chosen so I wasn’t too disappointed.
VRM: Is there an intersection between your daily work and your poetry or writing?
ZW: I worked for an airline loading planes in the Arctic off and on for seven years. Many poems came specifically out of that work. I haven’t written a lot about working on the train but I’ve been working in the transportation sector since I was nineteen and I think there’s a shared restlessness that isn’t always explicit between my interests in work and my interests in writing. The railroad work hasn’t appeared in the writing that much but once I retire from the railroad, there’s gonna be book of anecdotes, probably not in the form of poetry, because its a very story-rich environment. But a lot of those stories I’m not at liberty to tell right now!
VRM: It might seem a romantic notion on the surface: riding the rails with a poet!
ZW: (laughs) But an awful lot of it boils down to bodily fluids! Long distance transportation with people of various ages and ailments. So what you encounter is often the opposite of romantic.
VRM: Plus the fact that train travel has become a real luxury thing.
ZW: Yeah. With Rocky Mountaineer et al. who really cater to upmarket tourists. And Via has introduced its Prestige Class, with really high-end rooms. People I know who sell tickets tell of people booking $12,000 round trips without batting an eye. Via also has an onboard entertainment program. It’s mostly musicians, but they’ve done a couple of special poetry trains as well. It wasn’t their idea. Some poets came to Via in the off-season so there weren’t too many people to alienate with poetry!
VRM: Who would you most like to offend?
ZW: There aren’t too many left in the writing world whom I haven’t offended, sometimes even accidentally! There’s a perception out there that it’s my game plan, but more and more I’m withdrawing from the trivial political world of writing and publishing. I’ve got my job, I’ve got union work—I’m shop steward in my union local—and I’ve got a family. A lot of people in this business are nuts and it’s super easy to offend those people and they’ll form klatches to come after you! But I’ve never depended on it for my livelihood, so I’ve never had much of a stake in being a professional writer. I’ve made a joke out of my “Career Limiting Moves”. It’s been the title of my blog since I started it, but some people don’t realize that it’s a joke. I always get a laugh when I “overhear” someone on the internet earnestly blathering about it as if I was in earnest. It’s like throwing chunk of red meat into the water and seeing who comes for a meal.
VRM: What kind of conversations do you least like to overhear?
ZW: I used to live in Vancouver and I remember taking a flight either to or from; I was in either the Ottawa or Montreal airport and overheard people taking about how Vancouver really is a “world class city”, conversations that are a mixture of insecurity and braggadocio. So anything that smacks of boastful pride in personal accomplishments or neurotic nationalism.
VRM: I also find that the current obsession with “Foodie culture” replaces the possible café conversations about real culture and real ideas.
ZW: I think that’s true. Personally, I eat to live.
VRM: What do you think of when you hear the words “Think Tank”?
ZW: It makes me thing of the Fraser Institute.
VRM: …and “Thought Leaders”?
ZW: I like that spoof of the TED Talks that was recently done by This is That on CBC. An easy target maybe, but the “thought leader” phenomena is pretty annoying.
VRM: Which begs the question: Most egregious abuse of the English language?
ZW: Did you say that intentionally? You also said “which begs the question” earlier when we were talking. That’s one! It’s an incorrect usage. “Begging the question” is a rhetorical trope, when you pose something as a question when the answer is already presupposed. When people say “which begs the question” what they mean is that the question is begging to be asked. But I’ve given up on it because the other usage has become so common it’s virtually an accepted usage now. But this is the history of language. Errors get codified as acceptable. And the “fewer” vs. “less” thing really bothers me. But I try to suppress these reactions because I’ve come to realize just how badly it can derail an otherwise potentially productive conversation. My mom is a grammar maven and she sometimes just ends conversations by pointing out the errors people are making. Rarely do those errors hamper comprehension about what’s being said. But, when I’m editing, I show zero tolerance!
VRM: Most despised buzzwords/phrases?
ZW: Easy. “Going forward” and “reaching out”. Can we just stop?
VRM: Do you like any current Canadian music?
ZW: Oh, yes! Mathias Kom’s Burning Hell, an itinerant band most recently based in Newfoundland, but Mathias and his partner/bandmate Ariel Sharratt live on PEI now. He writes circles around most poets in the country, with varying degrees of whimsy and irony. They’ve got a cult following and they’re big in Europe! They set a record for the most gigs in different countries in a single day. It’s unofficial because there weren’t enough attendees at each of the shows to qualify. You had to have 500 people at a show or something like that for it to count.
VRM: Why shouldn’t we all just move to Halifax?
ZW: Well, the real estate is a lot cheaper there but there aren’t that many good jobs, so be cautious about moving there without a plan. It’s been good to me and practical. I get to work in ten minutes and then I work for three or four days. I’m a country boy originally. It’s good. It’s not great. It’s not “AWESOME!”
But for working as a writer it’s beneficial to be in a smaller centre because when the funding institutions are spreading the wealth around, smaller centres can get a good share because I think there’s a desire to make the process a little more “pan-Canadian” than it truly is. The writing world isn’t pan-Canadian. It’s mostly a big city kind of business. I’ve done well by the Canada Council but I don’t know whether it’s by virtue of being good at grant writing or if there’s somebody there saying “Hey! This guy’s in Nova Scotia! Let’s fund him!”
And with that, Zach and I moved around the tourist-packed alleys of the much-admired Federal Project that is Granville Island to do some portraits. The occasional onlooker wondered if I was photographing somebody famous. Well…sure.