Nov. 19, 1998

What is your (creative) background?

After 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.

Lionel Kearns said, "Poetry is tricking words into saying something." When I first heard that, I thought, that’s exactly what I am trying to do. The poems in No Parking were unexpected— they surprised me as much as anyone else.

For 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.)

The 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.

After a few lines, I would decide that there’s something else happening, unrelated but simultaneous. The poem would then shift focus, in content or form.

Many 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.

The effect on the audience was not meant to be satisfying.

One 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.



I 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.

We 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?

The 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.

The 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.

My performance orientation culminated in working in video, creating "videopoems", again with the support and participation of the others. We were poets; we were friends.

My 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 York’s utter freedom, Montreal’s romantic French connection, and Toronto’s experimental gurus, The Four Horsemen.

When I discovered Dada, my biggest surprise was that I hadn’t 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.

Once 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.

As members of the gallery,  we vacillated between obsessed involvement in the gallery’s 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 can’t 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.

As 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.

Unlike 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.)

A 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 other’s 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.

In 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.

While 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 well.

The medium of video was not being challenged or explored by poetry. Poems were for the page and for the ear.

There 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.

The 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 and installations.

The 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).

I 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.

My 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.

I 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 Montreal’s Muses’Company.

In 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?

It’s difficult to answer in the present tense. I haven’t been writing much poetry since my last book was published and that was four years ago.

When 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?

I 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 University’s 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?

Sometimes. For example, I personally didn’t 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 can’t 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).

I 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 mainstream poets.

The 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.

When I did my poetry performances, I didn’t 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 didn’t sit well with me, way too elitist, like film-poet didn’t sound right, either.

Many 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?

In 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.

Art in public places was also becoming popular; I performed Ezra Pound’s poem, In A Station of the Metro, in the Berri Metro station.

Very, 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.

Of 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 voices.

In 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 your texts?

In 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 didn’t look like I was reading. I also used voice-overs, or superimposed text on the screen.

In 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.

My 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 literature?

I don’t 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, I’d like to think that the relationship is one of evolution or modernization of literature: it’s 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?

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.

To determine whether a poetry performance or a videopoem works or not, it’s 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?"

The 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 artist’s awareness of the simultaneity of events in our lives.

Who are your creative influences? (artists, writers, musicians, etc.)

Blake, 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.)

Symbolism, ‘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?

I 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?

Other than poetry-slams, I have little knowledge of the current scene.




Poetry Index