Selections from a captivating new collection of Downtown Eastside verse. And where to hear them read tonight.
Anne Hopkinson tells the story of DTES children in 'V6A.'
When Anne Hopkinson was 20 years old, she took her first job as an elementary school teacher in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. She was "just fresh out of university, really enthusiastic and completely stunningly naïve," she recalls.
Of the 36 children Hopkinson had in her class, only 11 of them spoke English as their first language, and some of them were living in poverty, according to Hopkinson.
"That really stuck with me," she said. "That first year of teaching, I learned far more than I taught."
Years later, Hopkinson revisited her first teaching experience through writing poems, five of which are published in the anthology V6A: Writing from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, a collection of writings from various authors with different connections to the DTES -- the postal code for which is V6A.
V6A includes poems and short stories about homelessness, prostitution, addiction, and suicide. It also is a testament to the talent that is to be found in the DTES.
'You kind of forget'
In order to share V6A with the rest of Vancouver, editors Elee Kraljii Gardiner and John Mikhail Asfour have organized a series of readings arranged by postal code. The first reading, V6A in V6A will take place tonight, Friday, June 15, at the Carnegie Community Centre Theatre at 7 p.m. Other readings throughout the fall will be held in New Westminster, West Point Grey, Kerrisdale, and at the Firehall Branch Library on Granville Street.
Many, but not all, of the contributing authors are also regular attendees of the Thursdays Writing Collective, a group organized by Kraljii Gardiner that draws residents of the DTES and the surrounding areas together in order to cultivate their creative writing talents.
Hopkinson, who attends the Thursday sessions, wants to remind people who read her work that there is more to the DTES than "addicts in alleyways, sex trade workers on the corners," but that there are also children.
"You kind of forget about children. You kind of forget there are kids who live here, go to school here, and walk to same streets as everybody else. And they're very resilient. And that's what these poems were about," Hopkinson said.
Two of Hopkinson's poems in The Eight-year Olds are reprinted below, as are works by two other members of the Thursday Writing Collective, Robyn Livingstone, and Henry Doyle, who have contributed to V6A. After each selection we've included comments by the authors about their work, shared in interviews with The Tyee.
Evelyn wears the same pink shorts and T-shirt
to school for a week,
they are dirty, she is dirty.
Some kids hold their noses and laugh,
but she smiles and plays and tries to read,
tries to print, her small brown hands
are dirty and scraped,
her chipped pink nail polish is almost gone.
She's a Native girl from Hazelton, not a city girl.
So when drinking parties go on too loud and too long
Evelyn and her sister camp out
by the tracks in an empty fridge box.
They take food from the market, and some blankets
and pillows from home,
and a candle in a jar.
Five nights they sleep there, and come to school each day,
until they are picked up by the police
when the box catches on fire.
Evelyn screams, and her sister screams alone
in the night by the city tracks,
and she comes to school the week after,
her eyes big and brown as she chooses
art paper. "Pink, please."
Brian's mother is killed in the night.
Brian is at the door with the man comes,
for the shouting,
for the stabbing,
for the quiet.
Brian is there in the apartment through the night
with the neighbors,
with the cops,
with the ambulance men.
Are you all right? asks the neighbor.
Blood sticks, says Brian.
Okay, little fella? asks the cop.
Screams hurt, says Brian.
Are you injured, asks the man in white,
Mum says she loves me, says Brian.
No one notices when Brian leaves;
how he brushes his teeth,
and finds lunch in the fridge, all ready to go.
how he gets on his backpack and runners,
how he grabs his football,
and meets Jason in front of the building.
how they walk with Marco,
all the way to school.
Brian comes into the classroom the morning after
his mother is killed.
He is humming, rocking,
but then as the children sit in a circle
his legs shake stiff and jerky,
his hands are clenched,
and his teeth clack out 9-1-1, 9-1-1, 9-1-1
howling, peeing, and clinging to the edge of the carpet.
Hopkinson said she likes the poem about Brian because of its ability to impact people, and remind them that bad things can happen to young children.
"This really happened. His mother was murdered. And he was there when she was killed, and then nobody noticed and then he came to school the next morning, into my classroom. And then of course he fell apart," Hopkinson said.
The poem about Evelyn, according to Hopkinson, is also a true story.
"She is the one that to me was so resilient. She overcame all kinds of problems that adults don't have to tackle. And she did it just easily it seemed," she said.
Hopkinson hopes that people who live outside of the DTES, or don't know very much about it, will read V6A and hear about the area from a new perspective.
I shake off
the passerby's advice.
I'm broke and busted, outside
the elements, seen it before.
My pocket hangs inside out,
he scatters coins at me.
Thanks for nothing, wasn't begging,
was once regarded as a person,
had a mom and dad,
just like him.
I can live
without his remarks.
Here on poverty's ladder
I am looking up
from the bottom rung.
Some drink or smoke,
I cope with mild and necessary
medications. Concocted somewhere
beyond my comprehension
is my trust in people.
I'm never clean entirely,
got no house, manage hour to hour
from day to day. I carry
on without a compass. I'm gonna
connect with permanence.
Robyn Livingstone wrote his poem "Compass," featured in V6A: Writing from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside a few years ago as an account of homelessness in the DTES.
Robyn Livingstone wrote his poem to speak for those in shelters, SROs, or without homes.
The poem was published once before as part of the Thursdays Writing Collective's fourth chapbook, Storybox.
Livingstone lives in the DTES, in a peaceful one-bedroom apartment.
In the past, eviction has forced him into homelessness, and he has spent some time living on the streets. He feels like he understands the situation of homeless people, and those who have to live in SROs or shelters.
"I sort of decided to speak for them. They've really suffered. I knew what they go through. I see them all the time," he said.
At one point, Livingstone said, he was sitting on a sidewalk in the DTES, and a passerby assumed that he was panhandling, and threw some coins toward him.
"They didn't want to make contact with me, like I had a virus or something," Livingstone recalled. "They take pity on me. I don't really want their pity."
That incident inspired Livingstone's favorite part of the poem, which reads:
Thanks for nothing, wasn't begging,
was once regarded as a person,
had a mom and dad,
just like him.
Livingstone said he wants people in the "upper middle class" in particular to read his poem.
"They seem the most immune. They seem the most uncaring sometimes," he said. "They're all not, but that's the impression I got."
Laundry Day with Charles Bukowski
It takes a six-pack just for him to get it together
in that dirty underground room of his
He gets that mess together in a pile
he thinks, and cracks another beer
With a pillow case and a box of soap
he heads out
with the beer-stained Bukowski book of poems
The Days Run Away Like Wild Horses
His rooming house is in the DTES
The Laundromat is around the corner
The cashier just on his left
The rat-tat-tat of a sewing machine behind the counter
Heads for the back
Chairs, tables, scattered newspapers
He stuffs his stinky rags into a washer
He stays and reads Bukowski
Puts his workman rags into the dryer
Sinks enough quarters in for an hour
and heads for that closest bar
"I'll have two of your cheapest draft"
he says to the young bartender
he puts Bukowski's book down
to get at a twenty-dollar bill
"I think Mr. Bukowski would approve"
the bartender says
"I read his shit in college. A lot of us have, dude"
He heads for that dirty-fish-bowl smoking room
Thinks, all right -- college students still read Bukowski
after the third round and another poem
"Song of my typewriter"
He heads back in sunglasses
through a gauntlet of drug addicts
curled up in dirty street blankets
Syringes scattered with garbage everywhere
Skinny hardened rat-faced drug addicts
committing suicide slowly
He stops as this twenty-year-old kid jumps in front of him
wrapped in a blanket
holding a garbage bag suitcase
Thin, tall, shaggy long blond hair, blue eyes
a sculpted bronze sunken pimpled face
Wondering if he's that fallen angel
he looks at him from head to bar dirty feet
"Do you want to buy some crack?"
"No, my life is hard enough, kid
I don't have to make it any harder, man"
Stumbles into the Laundromat
feeling like he just escaped a bunch of zombies
The place is full
with the extinct middle class
Watches them as they slowly turn into fossils
Feels more pity for them
than the ones that are outside
He opens the dryer door
"Jesus Christ, it's hot as hell"
he says out loud
Bangs his head
curses in silence
The he hears a little voice
"Mommy, there's another man arguing with God again"
He turns around, takes off his sunglasses
A little girl with sun-kissed freckles smiles
as she sits there, on the table
her mother continues folding their clothes
With a smile she says
"Let the man be, Sara"
"My laundry is really hot"
he says, in his own mad defiance
Stuffs his rags into his pillow case
Thinks only of that other warm six-pack
Says goodbye to the little girl and her mother
Apologizes to them and God
He heads back to that dirty little underground
to drink and read
Bukowski's drunken knowledge
The words that eventually became Henry Doyle's poem "Laundry Day with Charles Bukowski" were first written as an entry in his journal, simply describing his day doing his laundry. Once he started attending the Thursdays Writing Collective, he decided to turn the entry into a poem.
Henry Doyle writes to confront prejudice.
Doyle has lived in the DTES for almost 10 years and is "from Skid Row originally," he said. But it is a point of pride for him that he has always been working.
"I've always put on construction boots and got up every morning and went to work. And even down here, this poem is about me making eight bucks an hour in slave labour and what comes to about 50 bucks a day you know? No welfare, no benefits, no nothing," Doyle said. "That's how I survived."
Doyle submitted the poem to a writing contest, overworking and editing it until it was finally accepted.
Doyle said his favorite part of the poem is "the whole thing," but if he had to choose a moment it would be his apology to the mother folding her daughter's clothes.
Doyle lives in a large bachelor pad in the DTES. He thinks people have a lot of prejudices concerning the neighbourhood. He says that people will look at him like he's a drug addict, just because he lives in the DTES.
He hopes this poem will help challenge those prejudices.
"The message that's here is not everybody in the Downtown Eastside is hooked on drugs or hooked on crack or meth or whatever," said Doyle.
Doyle hopes that other writers will be able to read his poetry, and possibly give him feedback about what they thought.
"I'm still working on striving to be a writer -- a poet. Who knows if I'll get there, but I think I've gotten partway there, at least. And for other readers and writers to read my stuff would be really cool," he said.