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The Downtown Eastside? ‘There’s a Heartbeat Down Here’

The neighbourhood inspires poet Henry Doyle, whose lyrical work has just won a literary prize.

Christopher Cheung 11 Sep

Christopher Cheung writes about the sociology of the city for The Tyee. Follow him on Twitter at @bychrischeung or email him.

You won’t catch Henry Doyle without his notebook. Living and working in the Downtown Eastside, there’s a lot to write about. Doyle is a part-time janitor, and he’s up early to survey the scenes on Hastings Street at dawn with a Tim’s in hand. When he catches a glimpse of action or a quote worth remembering, he’ll whip out his pen and paper to jot it down.

It might be the cops telling a young man on a roof not to jump. The crows and drug dealers bidding him good morning at 5:30 a.m. The bartender telling him “Hell is closed” after the night’s last beer.

Whether he has a good or bad day, Doyle likes putting it all down into words to blow off steam.

He’s always enjoyed writing. In Ontario, he started a prison newspaper where he served time as a minor. He only wrote about sports, but some inmates smashed his typewriter because having a writer around made them nervous. Instead, Doyle carried on with journaling, and he was released with two big boxes of journals.

“Writing is my pressure valve,” Doyle tells me on a hot September afternoon, sipping a Budweiser on Main Street as he shows me his scrawls from the week. One image he’s collected: a passerby cradling a garbage bag like it’s full of gold.

Doyle has just published a chapbook of poems called Killing Me the Rest of the Way, with one of his works winning this year’s Muriel’s Journey Poetry Prize for the Downtown Eastside category.

The perspective he offers is not the bird’s-eye view of a TV crew swooping in to capture the lives of poor folks from afar, but one of a local who walks the sidewalks, chats up neighbours and drinks at bars.

The observations are sad, but human. People wait for assistance cheques like “chickens on hot plates.” He walks past people making homes, “cardboard beds in cardboard tents.”

In one poem titled “Welfare Wednesdays Kill More People than Bombs,” Doyle recreates a young man’s personal battle with the opioid crisis against the Greek chorus of the neighbourhood:

Hastings is closed off from Main Street
all the way down to Pigeon Park.
Cops, fire trucks, floodlights
making night into day.
The crowds grow, hoping
for a show. People set up
lawn chairs in the middle
of Hastings like they’re at a drive-in.
Skateboarders fly down the emptiness
like dragonflies skimming a pond,
zigzagging around everything.
It's like a street party
or the gathering for a town hanging.

A twenty-year-old jumper in debt to his dealer
has climbed over the railing
on the roof across the street.
I sit at my window
drinking a beer, thinking
about wild horses running in the rain.

One of the judges who awarded Doyle the prize is writer and editor Elee Kraljii Gardiner.

“He delivers an aspect of life many people aren’t able to articulate or close enough to experience,” she said.

Gardiner has been a longtime supporter of writers in the Downtown Eastside. She founded and facilitated for almost a decade the Thursdays Writing Collective, which met in the Carnegie Community Centre. (The group is now called the Downtown Eastside Writing Collective.)

Because much of the housing in the neighbourhood are single-room occupancies — units with shared washrooms in old hotels, often noisy — it’s hard for writers who live in them to write. Public spaces where one can spend time free of charge are rare. Quiet spots where one won’t be interrupted are even rarer.

“Many of us who write don’t have to fight for that place or time where we can sit down and indulge in non-survival creative thinking,” said Gardiner. “For many [in the collective], it’s literally their only time of quiet. Finding a quiet place or an empty table to sit at where you’re not going to be harassed is very hard. Especially with COVID as we’re seeing shrinkage of public spaces that don’t require payment.”

While it might be hard to find a place to write, Gardiner noticed participants had no trouble doing the actual writing.

“I’ve been around a lot of academic and semi-academic writing programs and there’s a lot of anxiety about finding one’s voice,” she said. “This was not the circumstance. People absolutely had something to say. There was a thrill and a delight to be connecting the pen to the page.”

Doyle, who was a part of the program, wrote one of his poems about his arrival to the city:

I’m 44 with my latest unemployment cheque
and nothing to lose
I buy a one-way plane ticket from Toronto to Vancouver.
I arrive, then take a bus to the train station
with an old suitcase full of socks, underwear, a pair of work jeans,
Bukowski’s poetry and a manual typewriter.
…Crossing Terminal and Main,
I notice a familiar sight —
A crowd of men in steel-toed boots
smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee.

Doyle has called the neighbourhood home since his move in 2004. He currently lives in an apartment on Hastings, but spent three years in shelters. His poem of the experience:

A cop van pulls up
and starts handing out
new sleeping bags
like we are refugees
from nowhere

We’re given a mat on the gym’s floor
a pillow and a grey blanket.
…we all look like plane crash victims
in zipper bags.

With the pandemic, many of the problems faced by low-income people in and around the city’s downtown have been exacerbated, such as homelessness and drug overdoses. A number of Vancouverites have shared dehumanizing comments about them on social media, with the spokesperson for a group called Safer Vancouver recently suggesting that drug users be shipped up the Fraser River to “do whatever they want and use their drugs and yell and scream and fight.”

Doyle hopes that sharing his kind of documentary poetry is one way that Vancouverites might feel more empathy for the street population they share their city with.

“People way out there in their houses or condos might not venture down here, but there’s beauty down here, there’s a heartbeat down here.”

Henry Doyle’s poetry chapbook 'Killing Me the Rest of the Way' was published with the support of the Downtown Eastside Small Grants Program. It can be found at independent Vancouver bookstores such as Massey Books and The Paper Hound.

Doyle and other poets will be reading their work at the award ceremony for the 2020 Muriel’s Journey Poetry Prize as part of the Word Vancouver festival on Sept. 15. More info here.  [Tyee]

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