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Why is Vancouver So Poetry Shy?

Diary of a random acts of poetry perpetrator.

Fiona Tinwei Lam 4 Nov

Fiona Tinwei Lam teaches creative writing at SFU Continuing Studies. Her poetry videos have been screened at festivals locally and internationally. Her third collection of poems, Odes & Laments was launched this past fall.

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“Hi, I’m reading poems to people in public places as part of Random Acts of Poetry week, an event to promote literacy. Would you like to hear a poem?”  I handed over a bookmark with details of the event, listing the 27 poets from Victoria to St. John’s who were involved in last week’s five day event sponsored by and the Victoria Read Society.

“Not really.”

That was a common response I received in while approaching people in a Vancouver gym, the City Square shopping mall, and the Horseshoe Bay ferry terminal, and on the bus and SkyTrain.  Most people were on their guard, sizing me up, concerned about requests for donations or a sales pitch.  Perhaps they were even worried that I was a religious wingnut or merely insane.  Some were just too busy to listen. One woman working out in a gym seemed horrified.  A few others simply scampered away.  When I did receive a wary “yes”, I sometimes felt I was just being tolerated, not truly listened to. 

Of course, there was also the last person I approached, a man who gave me the old head to toe look and started propositioning me almost before I’d finished reading my poem!

Meanwhile, in Moosejaw

In stark contrast, in other parts of the country, poets were received with open arms—literally!  Wendy Morton, a Victoria poet who was the originator and coordinator of the event received hugs from strangers after reading to them, as did other poets across the country.  Gary Hyland in Moosejaw and Regina had people running up to him requesting and even demanding he read them poetry.  Sheila Stewart and Andrea Thomspon in Toronto read poems to truckers over the CB radio and met truckers at truck stops to their delight.  Stewart also read poems to a receptive and relaxed yoga class.  Elizabeth Zetlin in Owen Sound had a 94-year-old woman caress her cheek, hold her hand and bless her at a local nursing home full of seniors dressed for Halloween.

I had been anxious and somewhat reluctant at first when I was invited to participate in the event.  Since I was a child, I have avoided approaching strangers, even for help.  The aims of the Random Acts of Poetry event, to promote local poets and poetry as well as small publishers were highly laudable, however.  Too many people overlook or dismiss poetry as irrelevant to their lives, possibly due to being forced to analyze poems to death that had little significance to them in high school English classes. There is so much meaningful, delightful, accessible poetry written by contemporary poets that people know nothing about.  This event could make a difference, make a tiny inroad into what has often felt like insurmountable indifference.

But it seemed like everyone else everywhere else was succeeding in stimulating enthusiasm for poetry, while I wasn’t having any impact at all.  Did the offer to read someone a poem constitute a kind of intrusion of privacy, was it too intimate, too bizarre for Vancouverites?

The right poem

Some Vancouverites did respond warmly.  As Marilyn Gear Pilling, a participating poet in Hamilton, said about her experience doing random acts of poetry, this was “not only a public relations activity, but an opportunity for two souls to touch….If the poem is ‘right’ for that person, and if both people are graced with openness at that particular moment, then something profoundly meaningful can occur between two strangers.”

At the beginning of the week, I had tried to approach people on a long winding bus ride to Horseshoe Bay. I had figured out that those who had books or newspapers in their hands were the best bets after having no luck with a few others.  The last person I approached there, a man in his sixties in a brown hat who looked like a retired teacher kept turning in his seat to nod at me seriously after reading poems from the book I’d given him.  As he left the bus, he turned to nod at me again. There was a silent but real acknowledgement there that nourished me through rejections.

Another time, a grandmother on the Sky Train exclaimed in delight, “Oh, I can just see it” while I read a poem to her about being a child with her head out the window of a car on the highway: “heads out the window,/freedom rushing at our faces,/flags to the world.”   She was still marvelling about the experience to her husband and grandchildren as she disembarked and walked through the station.

‘Made my day’

One day, the owner of a Granville Island flower shop and his investment dealer customer both looked at me warily when I approached them, and reluctantly agreed to hear a poem.  As I looked up periodically while reading a wry poem about the end of a relationship, I could see their suspicion melt, and a gradual opening and warmth take its place . 

“You’ve made my day,” said the investment broker as the florist completed the bouquet of roses for the broker’s girlfriend.

During my last day of reading, I approached a woman sitting at a coffee shop in Library Square mall looking over a collection of classical CDs.  She had tensed up and pursed her lips tightly when I first approached her, but had agreed tersely to hear a poem.   As soon as I said the title, “Vista Cruiser!”, she laughed in recognition.  “We had one of those!”  She smiled and nodded throughout the reading of the poem.  It was one of the last books I had to give away.

As I stood back with fellow poet, Billeh Nickerson after we’d finished, we could see people flipping through the books, reading poems.  We’d done what we’d set out to do.

Fiona Tinwei Lam is a Scottish-born, Vancouver-based, widely published poet. Her debut book of poetry, Intimate Distances (Nightwood Editions, Harbour Publishing, 2002), was a finalist for the Vancouver City Book Prize, and is in its second printing.

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