Nov. 19, 1998
What is your (creative)
I graduated from Concordia (then known as Sir George Williams)
University with a BA in English Literature, I self-published
my first chap-book, Love Poems, in 1974. With 20 copies
under my arm, I left Montreal for Toronto, read the poems to
six odd diners in the courtyard restaurant of Hart House, lay
low in Buffalo for a couple of weeks before I drove into New
York City. There, I began to enjoy I was living and breathing
poetry exploring the juxtaposition of the academic/traditional
to the concrete/contemporary. In New York I felt free, accepted,
encouraged. Significantly, interaction with other poets became
as important as the writing. Returning to Montreal, I met the
poet Ken Norris who shared my enthusiasm for a new poetry and
he know how to organize. My friendship with Ken was to broaden
until there were many of us, a vrai group. Around this
time I stumbled across the paintings and writings of Francis
Picabia, which introduced me to Dada and its protagonists, Tzara,
Ball, etc. When I began to juxtapose the playful, daring spontaneity
I sensed in Dada with the visions of the contemporary, I discovered
that the futuristic, avant garde style of the 20s
fit, even enhanced, my view of the present. By the time I wrote
the poems for my second book, No Parking, which was published
by Vehicule Press in 1978, I had already disowned the poet of
Love Poems. I disliked traditional poetry; with each
new poem I wanted only to confirm the validity of the contemporary
and the unique.
Kearns said, "Poetry is tricking words into saying something."
When I first heard that, I thought, thats exactly what
I am trying to do. The poems in No Parking were unexpected
they surprised me as much as anyone else.
me, one of the challenges of contemporary poetry was differentiating
poetry from prose. (At the time, it seemed to me that much of
the poetry being written was not much more than sentences from
prose chopped into lines, with or without punctuation.)
poems in No Parking were attempts to create seamless
collages of journalism and fantasy, brief streams of consciousness
and deliberate wordplay, the colloquial and the penned, the
language of rhythm and the flatness of everyday speech, the
specific and the abstract, images of the eternal and snapshots
of the fleeting present, all ultimately the application of a
Dadaist principle the union of opposites.
a few lines, I would decide that theres something else
happening, unrelated but simultaneous. The poem would
then shift focus, in content or form.
of the poems were experimental; a contemporary vision superimposed
on a traditional background, such as politics, religion, love,
relationships, poetry, myth, art. In this process, the poem
was constantly changing form to avoid classification.
effect on the audience was not meant to be satisfying.
of my favourite targets was religion. In the Bible, I found
wonderful archetypes which served as springboards for poems
and I was determined to give relevance to these stories by injecting
them with the present, injecting the present with them.
became very close with a group of poets at the Vehicule Art
Gallery we became known as The Vehicule Poets. At first,
our get-togethers were spent in talking about poetry and socializing.
We agreed on some basic principles: that poetry should reflect
the new (contemporary) in content and form; that experimentation
should be encouraged; that conservatism and traditionalism should
be dismissed and openly opposed; and that poetry should reach
its audience in a more immediate way.
watched our poems appear in public almost immediately after
we wrote them our poetry magazine was the mimeographed
Mouse Eggs. Poetry was alive, and Montreal was the right
place to be a poet. I was feeling the freedom poetry is after.
Form could never have become so attractive in isolation; I was
having serious fun! There were so many ways to express a poem
that I began running, running until I ran off the page into
visual performance, eventually video. I kept asking, what has
not been done?
group was for the opposite of isolation, therefore it was inevitable
that we would write collaborative poetry. As a matter of fact,
the first night we really came together was when we followed
a few beers with a blank sheet of paper which we passed around
for a couple of lines.
support of the group certainly facilitated my efforts in collaborative
work. The (one and only) performance of Drummer Boy Raga:
Red Light, Green Light was satisfying partly because I initiated
it, witnessed its evolution, saw it through to performance;
but sharing a collaborative spirit was such a unique feeling
that I continued working with other poets, artists, musicians
for many more years.
performance orientation culminated in working in video, creating
"videopoems", again with the support and participation
of the others. We were poets; we were friends.
influences were many: Allen Ginsburg, who I met on my trip to
New York, turned poetry around for me. I had met poets from
the west, George Bowering and Gerry Gilbert, and I was already
familiar with Michael McLure, but my soul was somewhere between
the triangle of New Yorks utter freedom, Montreals
romantic French connection, and Torontos experimental
gurus, The Four Horsemen.
I discovered Dada, my biggest surprise was that I hadnt
known of it earlier. It fit well with the performance art I
was witnessing at The Vehicule Art Gallery, with my cynical
and de-constructive side, with the word permutations of my studies
in Kabbala, with my love of word-play. Dada had played itself
out primarily in French; I believed there was still unexplored
territory in English.
we accepted the fact that we were an identifiable group, we
began to explore ways we could express ourselves: publishing
magazines and books, broadsides and chapbooks on a frequent
basis, collaborating/performing together, activities resulting
from our common meeting space, the gallery.
members of the gallery, we vacillated between obsessed
involvement in the gallerys affairs and utter boredom
with it. Our reading series was a common responsibility, but
the political gallery environment became equally effective in
strengthening the bond between us, the poets of Vehicule. I
cant overemphasize the significance of arriving at the
space to find a thought-provoking, if not shocking, exhibition
of young experimental artists, as well as meeting and getting
to know painters, sculptors, musicians, performance artists,
video artists, dancers from all over the world. The atmosphere
was almost always intense, electric. It was inevitable that
we would examine our own expression, poetry, in the light of
what we were seeing around us.
we became familiar with the operations of the gallery, we learned
the advantages and disadvantages of organization. We also witnessed
the use and abuse of power and politics.
university faculty lounges, libraries and bookstores, the gallery
made poetry come alive; it was more than just a venue for readings.
(Coffee houses were different, but ultimately the poets there
do not control the space. At Vehicule, we did.)
donated printing press became Vehicule Press, through which
we began to publish our books. The press, the performance/reading
space, the video recording equipment, the gallery network, the
resident and visiting artists, the communication tools (access
to telephone, mass mailings, stationary), enabled us not only
to participate in an active art scene, promote each others
work, and keep up to date on contemporary art issues, but also
to take poetry wherever we desired. We also became aware of
the power of the group allowing us to reach farther,
inside and out.
1977, poetry was still writing and reading. While some performance
artists were experimenting with poetry at alternative galleries
and performance spaces, the mainstream poetry scene was
not unexpectedly print-oriented. The Canada Council,
wielding significant power through grants to poets, defined
poetry primarily by the publication of poetry in book form
48 pages minimum.
organizing a reading series at Vehicule, I had specific tasks:
invite the poets, print posters, write press releases, set up
chairs, introduce the reader, make coffee for the intermission,
sell books, fill out forms for the poet to get paid and lock
the doors after everyone left. Sometimes we set up the video
camera and documented the reading. My interest in video began
when I realized that once framed, the poet did not move out
of the frame, and an audio recording could have served equally
medium of video was not being challenged or explored by poetry.
Poems were for the page and for the ear.
were poems for the eye experiments in concrete
poetry, conceived with the page in mind. Letters, words or phrases
were blown up, cut up, strewn across the page, upside down,
backwards, sideways, out of order, stenciled, outlined; typefaces
were mixed, picture and text were juxtaposed; finally, collages
appeared as poems. Minimalist art thus explored poetry and the
experience of a poem.
experimental artists at the time were fiercely interested in
the non-narrative, producing mostly conceptual works, culminating
in not one but two new forms performance art
video artists were creating either conceptual works (video as
fishbowl), bizarre exhibitionist fictions (performances created
uniquely for the eye of the camera), or a combination
of the two (video monitor as participant).
saw two distinct directions for poetry: towards the page and
away from the page. Choosing the latter normally meant severing
ties with the majority of poets, which ultimately meant being
marginalized or simply ignored. The fact was that the mood was
favouring the new (or so it appeared within the friendly confines
of the gallery) and the medium of video was accessible at the
gallery. I approached video with concerns about the poet as
performer as well as a trial ground for a novel treatment of
text. I immediately liked the fact that, unlike the poem on
the page, I was able to unravel the poem at my own speed. What
finally differentiated my videopoems from poetry and video art
was this ability to simultaneously present a work and also question
the role of the poet.
third book, Poetry in Performance, was a collection of
my videopoems, poetry performances and other experiments, each
work introduced with an explanation of the context in which
they were created.
moved to Vancouver in 1983. The magic of Vehicule was gone,
and I found it increasingly difficult to create new work. With
the incessant urging of Ken Norris, I assembled a book of new
poems, Ex Perimeter, which was published by Caitlin Press.
Four years later, Ken again worked with me on another book,
a book of selected poems, Sleepwalking among The Camels,
published by Montreals MusesCompany.
Vancouver, I started my own video production company, AM Productions
Inc. I managed to create three videopoems, the last two shot
on 16mm film.
What do you call yourself,
or your practice? What is it you do?
difficult to answer in the present tense. I havent been
writing much poetry since my last book was published and that
was four years ago.
I first began writing, I would have called it poetry. The next
stage was writing experimental poems. After that I began to
write and produce videopoems, which were poems meant to be experienced
as videos. I also wrote and performed poems, which I called
poetry performances. These performances were based on ideas
or concepts I identified with the performance art I was seeing
in the late 70s.
When did you realize what
it is that you're doing, ie. when did you name your practice?
wrote and produced a short video, Sympathies of War,
in 1978 using 3/4" colour video equipment and called it
a "videopoem". I wanted to show it to the director
of The San Francisco Poetry Film Workshop (he was in Montreal
supplying most of the entries to McGill Universitys Poetry
Film Festival) but he had a difficult time talking about video
as a format for poetry. He made it sound like film was the only
acceptible format for visual poetry.
Do you feel it necessary
to name your practice? ie: make divisions, make distinctions?
For example, I personally didnt care about the distinction
between film and video other than being surprised at what I
thought was his display of a rude class distinction poets
who work with film as opposed to poets who cant afford
to when I was really, genuinely interested in the content
of the visual poem, not the type of recording device used in
the process. But I also called my videos "videopoems"
and myself a "videopoet" (I had not heard these terms
at the time).
guess naming ourselves was a means of defining the new work
we were doing (we thought we were pioneers of poetry) but also
the means whereby we succeeded in distancing ourselves from
only poet at the time who had also made videos was Steve McCaffery
and I sent him a copy after seeing one of his videos.
I did my poetry performances, I didnt bother to call myself
a performance poet. If anything, I would have called it performance
art-poetry and myself a performance artist-poet, but these terms
really didnt sit well with me, way too elitist, like film-poet
didnt sound right, either.
years later, when I first arrived in Vancouver, I went to an
event advertised as a poetry performance. The poets recited
poems without reading them from a book, and a band was used
to back up the poet. There was no performance art in these performances.
It made me realize how obsessed some of us were about our terminology,
specifically our predecessors.
When did you start performing
your written work? What was the (social, artistic) context?
the late seventies, as a poet at the artist-run Vehicule Art
Gallery, I had the opportunity to see the work of many performance
artists. My first videopoem, Sympathies of War, was a
performance recorded on video. I added a scrolling text, but
the performance was unedited. Performance artists were mostly
visual artists, not poets.
in public places was also becoming popular; I performed Ezra
Pounds poem, In A Station of the Metro, in the
Berri Metro station.
very few poets were interested in exploring performances of
poetry. The exceptions included The Four Horsemen, from Toronto,
Gerry Gilbert and bill bissett, from Vancouver.
the Vehicule Poets, Endre Farkas performed a number of hs poems,
collaborating with his wife-to-be, the dancer Carol Harwood.
He also helped me in my first videopoems. Stephen Morrissey
dabbled, but did not pursue performance beyond one or two experiments.
Claudia Lapp chanted many of her poems. Ken Norris collaborated
with me on a couple of performances, including a poem for two
retrospect, it would have been more difficult had I not been
surrounded by enthusiastic, encouraging poets. Our access to
the gallery space for our performances also made a difference.
Did you consider memorizing
a Station of the Metro was very short, so that was not a
problem. In the videopoems, I managed to have the text visible
to me off-screen, so I didnt look like I was reading.
I also used voice-overs, or superimposed text on the screen.
Marie The Poem, I used black electrical tape and cut
strips to form letters on the wall, while a cassette played
a recording I had made earlier that day of the local radio programs,
changing stations to "edit" the soundtrack.
performances never included a lot of live reading; like performance
art, I was more interested in action, the poem unfolding through
action, not simply reciting.
What (in your opinion)
is the relationship of spoken word, or performance poetry to
dont consider a memorized recital of a poem a poetry performance;
there should be a visual context. (If the poet recited the poem
with his/her back to the audience, then I guess that would qualify.)
That said, Id like to think that the relationship is one
of evolution or modernization of literature: its a new
way of experiencing the poem. The visual context of the poem
will colour the poem, rendering it ironic, comic or tragic;
it will add a layer to the poem without which it would be incomplete.
Do you have a philosophy
about the kind of creative work / artistic practice that you
are engaged in?
my videopoems, I try to create a work that is more than the
illustration of the poem; as in a poetry performance, the videopoem
presents a poem in a visual context. At its completion, the
effect on the audience should be the same aesthetic experience
as looking at a painting or sculpture, listening to a piece
of music or watching a play.
determine whether a poetry performance or a videopoem works
or not, its useful to ask "does the visual context
add to the experience of the poem" or "does the visual
context add to the realization of a poetic experience?"
object is to create a work which uses poetry in a new medium
to create a new kind of poetic experience, one which reflects
the artists awareness of the simultaneity of events in
Who are your creative
influences? (artists, writers, musicians, etc.)
Rimbaud, Jarry, Eliot, Picabia, Tzara, Duchamp, Schwitters,
Dali, Kafka, Cocteau, Pinter, Warhol, Ginsburg, Ferlinghetti,
Cohen, McCaffery, bissett, Saramago.
What are your creative
influences? (artistic movements, eras, styles, etc. such as
surrealist, dadaist, rock 'n roll, dub, etc.)
Pataphysics, Futurism, Dada, Surrealism, Pop Art, Collage,
Experimental Theatre, Minimalism, Performance Art, Video Art.
What is your creative
process, your method of working? for example: do you say your
pieces aloud when you write? perform your pieces as you write?
simply write it down.
Do you use any sort of
physical or psychological
Do you write alone?
Do you read your pieces
to anyone while you work on them?
Do you get nervous before
you perform (at a reading)?
What are your pre-performance
rituals (if any)?
What do you think is the
relationship between the performance poetry scene of the '70s-'80s
and the current spoken word scene?
than poetry-slams, I have little knowledge of the current scene.