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Poetry as History

Maxine Gadd's 'Backup to Babylon' remembers B.C.'s bygone radicalism.

By Grant Shilling 15 Nov 2006 |

Grant Shilling is the author of The Cedar Surf: An Informal History of Surfing in British Columbia. He is also a community health worker for the Vancouver Island Health Authority.

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Maxine Gadd, way back when. Photo Elaine Briere.

The Province and the Sun do not publish poetry. Poetry rarely makes the news and it kills newspaper layout (just ask any editor). When's the last time you read some poetry? If events of the world become overwhelming and daily life is enough, thank you, poetry is a good thing to turn to. In the work of Maxine Gadd, the quotidian aspects of daily life marry the freedom of poetic space.

Backup to Babylon collects three shorter earlier works by Gadd, a writer who has based her life and her writing in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside for more than two decades and who has not appeared in print (other than private chapbooks) since 1982's Lost Language (Coach House Press).

In many ways, Backup to Babylon acts as an alternative historical document describing the Vancouver of the 1980s, a time of the Francis Street Squat, the Squamish Five, a thriving local punk rock scene with the Downtown Eastside's Smilin' Buddha as its epicentre, of Solidarity, when workers' rights and revolution seemed very possible.

Babylon also marks a time when Gadd was leaving a sojourn on Galiano Island of five years (one she remembers as idyllic, despite or perhaps because of the absence of running water and electricity) and moving back to the Big Smoke.

In her acknowledgements to Backup to Babylon, Gadd describes the work in the book as "ancient history, ravings, folly and struggle. The person I have turned into is not the woman in 1984, pictured by Elaine Briere."

That's a statement The Tyee asked her to elaborate on.

Portrait of a woman by the sea:

"A photo is the beginning of many things but obviously an end. In the photo taken by Elaine Briere at the door of the cabin on the seashore, on my own, far from phones and addresses, I was almost 44. Now I am almost 66 and get aches and pains faster. I knew when that picture was being taken that my home for many years was about to become real estate, its 99-year-old landlord, who lived amid this strange forest of ex-hippies and grand old trees, having died.

"Walking out with my packsack for food and supplies, finding fuel for my wood stove, fishing in the little dory and writing poems and letters had been a healthy lifestyle for me. I now knew I had to re-enter the maw of office buildings and factories. I wanted to not be."

I reside in the Downtown Eastside:

"I don't consider the Downtown Eastside (which used to have many of the oldest buildings in Vancouver) a bad place to live. It's close to the Kootenay School of Writing, public libraries, department stores, and beaches and parks and great old haunted streets and cheap pubs teeming with old-timers.

"I live presently at the Four Sisters Co-op, which opened in 1986; I moved into it in 1987. If I lose this place, I am homeless. Rents all over the country have become prohibitive for those of us dependent on lay-paying jobs and/or social services if we want to live in the downtown. I like downtown Vancouver. Good old international capitalism knows great real estate and there is nothing to stop it from committing holocausts. Movies and computer games and literature and military training prepare people for the necessary horror. State capitalism, mistakenly called communism or socialism or Nazism, requires a frame of mind not always easily achieved by energetic young people called to change the world. The person at the helm is crazy or criminally misinformed. People pass the joint and prepare to trust the ride."

I remember me well at the Dunsmuir Hotel:

"My first home in Canada in 1947 was the Dunsmuir Hotel on Dunsmuir and Richards streets. Whole families of English war brides with their husbands and children lived there temporarily in single rooms, looking after their families as they looked for jobs and housing. We were very poor, but it was better than England where as a toddler I saw my mother faint in the street from hunger and the stress of nightly air raids.

"When we first moved to the hotel, my mother used to make my little brother, who was five, and me, six, walk down to the beach at English Bay, rain or shine, and often she made us walk back up the hill. Sometimes we took the bus. Then she made us take swimming lessons outside at Lumberman's Arch in Stanley Park one cold, rainy summer. I still like swimming at English Bay, but only on the warmest days of my choosing.

"We would drop into the old Carnegie Library at Hastings and Main after shopping for food. At that time it housed the Vancouver Museum, and I can still see the ancient crystal skull gleaming in its glass in the amber sunlight from a dusty window. We moved a lot in those years, and landed several times into government housing.

"My mother used to joke they'd torn down all my schoolhouses after I left. One of them was on Burrard Street, where the Wall Tower is today. Dawson School, Aberdeen, Central School, they're all gone. And so is the government housing.

"My mother got temporary jobs at ladies retail clothing stores downtown next to now-demolished Woodward's and later got government office jobs, which were jungles made of deafening electrically driven metal torture devices called comptometers."

Cooking meth, smoking communists:

"My father was learning to be a wooden-boat builder. Aluminum boats came in later and the stress from that, the threat of losing his job as well as naturally smoking tobacco (which all adults I knew did) may well have caused his early death. He was a member of the boilermakers union. Not so long ago, the building on Pender Street that had housed his union and held left-wing events, children's choirs and even, once, The Grateful Dead, was burned to the ground by someone cooking meth.

"As natural as smoking tobacco was being a communist, which was illegal. They didn't have rap or punk, but they did great demos and had lots of out-of-door parties and the talk was a lot more interesting. So I actually came to be a Red Diaper Baby at the rather old age of seven."

Michael Turner on Maxine Gadd:

"Maxine is one of our city's greats. Reading her earliest works, to the newer ones, is a record of the city only rivalled by Gerry Gilbert, our other great civic poet. But Maxine's work is often more challenging than Gerry's. Indeed, it is the challenging poems that, in my opinion, are among her most sustaining. 'Marijuana Music' is a more 'accessible' series, and great take on the 1960s, the move from urban to rural, and the many contradictions that paralleled a time when peace was love, and love was all around.

"Reading Maxine makes me wish people picked up poets like they pick up the city's papers. Her activism, her work in and around the Downtown Eastside, is a portal to an area few of us understand. Part of that understanding is not merely looking and judging, but contemplating, rereading, staying with it -- which is what the better poets set us up for."

New Star Books publisher Rolf Maurer on Maxine:

"Backup to Babylon came about because, over the years of encountering Maxine at a remarkably wide range of readings (that is, the readers were all over the map), during which time I saw, and occasionally heard, some of her work, I realized that (a) I liked her stuff, and (b) I thought she was quite a bit better than many of the poets whose work was being published, and whose readings we were both attending. So, starting a few years ago now (three? four? five?), when I ran into Max I would nudge her about a manuscript. Did she have one, etc. That, eventually, led to me being presented with a big folder of stuff that, I realized when I immersed myself in it, represented a well thought out and shapely oeuvre.

"I found it interesting that Max chose to live in the Downtown Eastside, did not seem to regard it as a temporary, lousy neighbourhood that she would try to leave behind, and in many ways dedicated herself to making her neighbourhood a community anybody could feel safe and at home in."

Rolf on labelling Gadd's poetry:

I like her humour, and the fact that her poetic experiments, the arrangement of text on the page, her made-up words and her play with sounds (of words) were all related to something beyond just poetics: they were related to her desire to document, describe, write about her world in a way that might be recognizable by others.

"Maxine's work represents a poetic tradition that tends to be (subtly) disparaged, both by the more conservative lyric poets who until quite recently dominated the writing about Canadian poetry as well as the prize lists (and juries), but also by the more theoretically inclined, Euro-American-influenced poets that include the motorcycle gang also known as the Kootenay School of Writing, which is where my own tastes were forged.

"'Hippie poet.' 'Street/urban poet.' She's actually a damned good poet, whose 'hippie,' 'gritty urban' poems have actually been influenced by a very broad range of writers. Maxine, I discovered not just from her writing but her attendance at many readings over the years and her genuine interest in all kinds of other writers, including many not very much like her at all, allowed a lot of influences in. Her style is unmistakably her own, but her wide reading has given her the licence, or courage or madness or whatever, to push what she's doing, so that her work tends to stretch whatever category she's working in."

Maxine on why New Star really publishes poetry:

"Rolf tells me that publishing is not for encouraging writing but to stop it. I am caught up now in finishing and producing all my old work. Everyone wants stories from the past. I would rather return to rambling, but that's no occupation for an old lady.

"What led me to write poetry? People's voices, poets' voices, old-time voices, cosmos voices, all squeezed into the seashell of a brain."

An attempt to kill layout -- 'suburb' a Maxine Gadd poem from Backup to Babylon:

Are all leaving me in a mass and a rush from the bus.
What a relief
After I made myself responsible for all those eyes
                                                       All those I's.

In the centre
of the great
of the freeway winding round
all those dreams
                                                             all those dreams.
knitting every thought
into a garment
to shield her against
the future wind
                             flash of agony
                             flash of joy
                             shopping lists
                             shovelfuls of clay
                             every nail
                             with the accumulated
                             of billions
                             of builders.
the trees
as radium.  [Tyee]