[Series] Review by the Thursdays Writing Collective: 2016 Vancouver Book Award finalist: “The Revolving City: 51 Poems and the Stories Behind Them” edited by Wayde Compton and Renee Sarojini Saklikar

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“The Revolving City: 51 Poems and the Stories Behind Them”  edited by Wayde Compton and Renee Sarojini Saklikar

As an inveterate name-dropper and member of Thursdays Writing Collective in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, I was thrilled to browse the writers list for The Revolving City: 51 Poems and the Stories Behind Them. Many of the luminaries listed have encountered our collective in one way or another, as guest writing instructors, creative correspondents, and even as co-readers at our literary events.

As the book’s co-editor Wade Compton notes “the Lunch Poems series intended to offer a mid-day and mid-week meditation on poetry in the heart of downtown.” The series gathered the poets who are in the anthology. Poets who co-editor Reneé Sarojini Saklikar notes are “wayfinder[s] into the city and outside its boundaries, pockets filled with words, or empty …” Saklikar opens her introduction with the words “dichotomy: east/west, alone together.”  This also describes a dichotomy in and among poets: the need to be alone to write, contrasted with the fruitfulness and insight that comes from writing together.

This book has adopted a unique format: each poem is followed by a short prose piece offered to give greater insight into the piece. In her note for “Solitary” Evelyn Lau, who has made her presence known all over the places I call home (the Carnegie Centre at Main and Hastings, the Downtown East Side, and the City of Vancouver) proposes a question for someone in their thirties: “get married and lead a more secure, conventional life, or turn into the Cat Lady.”  But here is more dichotomy: Joanne Arnott, George Bowering, Evelyn Lau, Daphne Marlett, Meredith Quartermain, Rachel Rose, Fred Wah, Rita Wong, Mariner Janes and others have managed to secure themselves by teaching, editing or managing a needle exchange. Yet does having a steady source of income make the poets any less solitary and weird?

It is true that the 51 pieces in The Revolving City situate themselves in a place that makes them less ephemeral and strange.  In some ways the anthology is like the collective (the Lunch Poems) that preceded it – a way for fine minds to mingle and interact before spinning off into orbits of their own.

The commentaries are funny (like Lau’s) and also touching, like Rahat Kurd’s: “I had failed at everything,” and they accomplish at least two things. They offer the casual reader a way into the work and the offer an alternative prose counterpoint to the poetry. As Gary Geddes (quoting Plato) notes in his blurb on the back jacket, listening to artists talk about their art is often one of the least productive activities for an audience. Here we encounter an exception. The prose counterpoints are short, witty and poignant, as well as confessional and even journalistic.

George Bowering who you might expect would be most able to justify his work confesses: “I simply can’t tell you anything about what is or was ‘behind the poem.’” How refreshing! Poetry is organic, ephemeral and strange, like a charmed quark, which is after all named for poetry. Even after Rachel Rose’s important, violent, feminist rant on date rape, the author concludes as follows: “Irony is often my preference as a way of telling the truth, but telling it slant (to paraphrase Dickinson)”

So if these writers – skilled and accomplished as they are – must struggle to explain their work, even tangentially, how encouraging for the rest of us, who are still working on the first half of the paradigm. The Revolving City: 51 Poems and the Stories Behind Them is an important record, a snapshot in time which will accomplish what collectives and writing groups strive for: that is, to encourage and enlighten other writers while adding to body of work and insights we share.

The Revolving City Reviewed by James Witwicki (pictured below)

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Thursdays Writing Collective

Thursdays Writing Collective runs free, drop-in creative writing classes at Carnegie Community Centre for members of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, an area challenged by poverty-related issues and beloved by residents for its optimism, activism and creativity.

Since the Collective’s inception in 2008, more than 150 writers ranging in age from 18-86 years old have participated in writing sessions, events and festivals including the Heart of the City, Spirit Rising, Candahar Art Bar at the Cultural Olympiad, Word on the Street, V125 Poetry Conference, the Memory Festival and numerous artistic collaborations with diverse literary communities, including UBC Law, Music and Performance students.

The Collective has published seven chapbook anthologies with the support of Canada Council, City of Vancouver, SFU and Carnegie Community Centre. 

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