Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

With Sook-Yin Lee on Selecting the Poets for "Where Have All the Poets Gone?"

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Image from CBC Books

It was exciting news when Sook-Yin Lee announced that she had tracked down seminal Canadian Poetry figure and recluse Phyllis Webb for her new documentary Where have all the Poets Gone? The short doc, currently streaming on CBC Books , begins with Lee discovering Webb interviewing bpNichol and bill bissett on the ‘60s CBC poetry talk show Extension. This prompts her to track Webb down and talk about why she gave up writing poetry. What follows is then Lee’s personal exploration of current poetry in Canada and features interviews with Stephen Collis, Samantha Bernstein, Ronnie Clarke, Liz Howard, Vivek Shraya, Lena Suksi, and Elana Wolff. I wanted to ask about how she selected the poets she interviewed.

James Lindsay: Where did you find the featured poets and why did you choose them?

Sook-Yin Lee: The selection of poets was guided by a mix of intuition, story arc, and structure, and poets I am inspired by. I did not set out to make a documentary about poetry in and of itself or to cover legions of small press publishers, or slam poetry scenes for instance. My aim was to uncover some of the conditions that compel people to express themselves through poetry. In a climate where it’s very difficult to make a living as a poet and you’re lucky to get a publisher, I set out to find working Canadian poets whose expression reflects their struggles and convictions. My aim was to feature a cross-section of poets, some with notoriety and acclaim from the past, current poets who are published, but also those who are emerging and completely unknown. Their personal experiences, and how well they are able to express themselves was key. Each poet brought a new idea forward in the unfolding quest. I featured those contending with challenging life situations who respond with poetry. As well, this is quite literally a no-budget D.I.Y. documentary, which limited my ability to travel outside of province, though I did manage to Skype and call two of the poets on the west coast.

For me it began with the discovery of the 1967 CBC TV poetry show featuring footage of bpNichol, bill bissett, and Phyllis Webb— I was especially curious about enigmatic host Webb. Certainly the three poets together were from a seemingly freewheeling hippie past, but as an artist and a broadcaster I could also identify with Ms. Webb. She reminded me of how much the CBC has changed since then. I often hear about the golden era of CBC. Today it’s a very different place and I wonder what these changes reveal. My search for Phyllis Webb lead me to Vancouver-based poet Stephen Collis who has a close relationship with Phyllis. I knew I had to meet with the other surviving poet from that five-decades old footage: unstoppable bill bissett.

Shad is an amazing rapper, one of my favourites, and incredibly skilled with rhymes. He offers a valuable perspective in terms of poetic presence in current mainstream pop-culture that is a parallel to of the cultural phenomenon of poetry back in the 60s and 70s. I had come across incredible footage of CanLit poet “prophet” Irving Layton. Samantha Bernstein, his estranged daughter, is a bold and brilliant counterpoint to him, connecting the past to the present while clearly conveying the stark difference between her and her father. Sam brought the documentary from a place in the past to today.

I discovered Ronnie Clarke when I saw her perform at an art space in Toronto last year. She blew me away. Ronnie is a supremely gifted and articulate 20-year-old. She is part of the next wave of creators who I’m so excited to see develop.

Reflecting on what Phyllis shared with me—that back in the day the poetry scene had too many men, not enough women—it also struck me as being overwhelmingly white, which is different from today. It was important to me reflect our current culture with diverse voices: a range of ages and origins, a strong female and queer presence. Anishinaabe First Nations poet Liz Howard’s understanding of neuroscience and assimilation informs her poetry, while activist-writer Vivek Shraya notes an absence of “brown people” in cultural institutions that are precariously out of touch with the times. Lena Suksi is a poet whose physicality and transience are a big part of her poetry. I originally stumbled upon her tender-tough reflections in my Facebook feed. The late Malca Litovitz is an enormous presence and inspiration personally, and her renga-writing collaboration with Elana Wolff at the end of her life is deeply compelling in that it captures recurring themes and connections that came up with my encounters with all of the poets: abandonment, family, severance, death, and survival.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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James Lindsay

James Lindsay has been a bookseller for more than a decade. He is also co-owner of Pleasence Records in Toronto, a record label specializing in post-punk, odd-pop and avant-garde sound pieces.He is the author of the poetry collection Our Inland Sea (Wolsak & Wynn).

You can write to James throughout April at writer@openbooktoronto.com

Go to James Lindsay’s Author Page