Mer, Ella and I left Seattle Thursday morning for Vancouver for the premiere screening of a documentary on the 1963 Vancouver Poetry Conference, The Line Has Shattered. It was being screened at SFU’s downtown campus and I had been invited by SFU Special Collections Librarian Tony Power. I had heard much about the conference and it has gained a sort of mythic status in some poetry circles. Had I been curating such events in that year, based on what my poetics are now, I could not have done much better with their lineup: Charles Olson, Robert Duncan, Denise Levertov, Robert Creeley and Allen Ginsberg, among the “faculty” members. That this conference happened shortly after the release of the legendary anthology The New American Poetry, gave all involved a feeling as if a movement was happening and they were not only taking part, but given an opportunity to shape it. In a sense, it was the first coming out party for the New American Poetry and it is telling that it happened in Vancouver, BC, which says a lot about the culture of the town.
And a testament to the influence of the conference was not just its faculty, but students, many of whom were in the room Thursday night, including Fred Wah (who gave a few opening remarks), Daphne Marlatt, George Bowering, Jamie Reid, Judith Copithorne, Pauline Butling and perhaps others. Wah and Bowering, are respectively, the current and first Parliamentary Poets Laureate of Canada, Reid a co-editor of the TISH magazine which gave the early 60s innovative Vancouver poetry movement its name (& has a fine book about Pres, Lester Young), Copethorne has some remarkable concrete poetry and Marlatt and Butling are also accomplished poets. As Bowering says during the film, the books and careers of the students since 1963 gives you a sense of the proof that this conference had lasting influence. Poets Marie Annharte and Lissa Wolsak were also in attendance in the very full house. Wah talked about the the general theme of the conference, which was a sense of the “open” as all of the faculty for this course (English 410) were invested in Open Form. But also the notion of “permission.” Wah mentioned the Olson line which was to be echoed in the film: “The poetics of such a situation are yet to be found out.”
Stephen Collis was the emcee, gave thanks to those whose ancestral land we were occupying, and introduced the Producer Robert McTavish of Non-Inferno Media. After a few brief remarks, the show began and I realized I should be taking notes. Ah, where is that pen that has a light which I got for Christmas and put in a drawer somewhere? So here are some random (as usual) thoughts (with sidebars and other tangents) about this brilliant film which does do justice to the mythic nature of this remarkable occasion.
Phyllis Webb was the film’s narrator. She had recorded an hour-long interview with the featured poets for the CBC, but which never aired (vetoed by a CBC executive with a dismissive remark) and it was actually lost inside the CBC archives, unlabeled and under a pile in a drawer. The recovery of this reel-to-reel tape provided some wonderful audio for the film. Of course Fred Wah’s recordings of the proceedings are legendary and are archived online by the Slought Foundation. Also, the 8mm “home movie” film taken by the then Bobbie Creeley (now Bobbie Louise Hawkins) was another incredible find by McTavish, as that added color to the period with shots of the faculty and that Vancouver of 50 years ago, as one attendee put it “without all the condos.”
Clark Coolidge and Michael Palmer were USAmerican students and I think it was Coolidge who said that the proceedings had a “hot house atmosphere.” Palmer added that The New American Poetry was a response to the New Critics and that it represented a “profound split in the culture.” A split which still exists. I think it is safe to say that the New Critics are representative of the colonialist/settler/dominator impulse whereas the New American Poetry was more conscious of the environment, of cultural diversity and social justice. With Duncan and Ginsberg, two openly Gay poets on the faculty, you can see how this group was a little “left of center” so to speak. That said, those in attendance remarked that the event was quite male in nature. (There was little ethnic diversity, with the exception of Chinese-Canadian Wah, as was the case in the New American Poetry anthology.) Levertov was only there for a week of the three week conference, as was the only other woman faculty member, Margaret Avison. Marlatt says that Levertov “held her own” with the boys. (When I told him that, Levertov’s friend Sam Hamill remarked: “she did that for over 20 years.”) Levertov’s poem Hypocrite Women was excerpted in the film and paired with audio from her 1963 reading: