Left Coast Poetry Beat: DTES Writers' Collective

Column by Bill Arnott

Western Canada’s poetry scene teems with talent, from neophytes to award-laden laureates. Authors of every facet share spoken word, competitive slam, and rapier-sharp contemporary as writers and fans converge in person, print, online and on airwaves. This is not a list of writing/reading groups or events. It’s subjective, personal experience – people and places where poetry, prose and lyrical verse are created and performed. Here in The West the poetry presence is bedrock-solid but like the imminent big quake, my epicentre is BC’s southwest. For now.

A clink and scrape of flatware on plates. Lips smack. A bronchial cough. Huge potted fichus stoop at the ceiling, the look of good-natured green giants. I have a fifty cent cup of coffee. That’s the price of coffee at the Carnegie Centre in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside (DTES), for those of us who belong.

I belong. I have a card that proves it. But everyone from around here belongs: Vancouver’s Carnegie Centre and Library – yes, one of scores the late philanthropist Andrew Carnegie financed years ago. This inclusive centre in an urban neighbourhood that overflows with compassion, love, pride, goodwill and art. Creativity abounds – disproportionate per capita output – painters, carvers, and writers of fiction, essays and poetry.

I’ve been a participant of the DTES Writers’ Collective for some time, both as writer and facilitator. My first involvement with the group was at a DTES public reading at the Vancouver Film School Café, a quirky space of concrete stepped around pillars. You wouldn’t think it would work but it did. The people there reading, sharing, listening, warmed the grey of concrete, dissolving the stanchions. For some it was their first time reading publicly, first time on a stage. One poet bowed, the way kids do at recitals. It was the greatest thing I’d seen at a reading.

Paper and pens are provided for those who need it. It’s a safe space. Everyone has remarkable stories to share. Most are activists. Causes are endless, all invaluable. The group’s most recent publication is the poem anthology From The Heart of It All: Ten Years of Writing from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, crafted by an ebb and flow of drop-in writers. Don’t mistake drop-in for casual. It’s not. The writing’s deadly serious. Much of it exceptional. Here egos are hard to find – fresh air relative to other creative clusters. Gilles Cyrenne, figurehead and facilitator, emphasizes he’s simply a coordinator, not in charge – it’s a collective. You see it in the writers, and writing, a smorgasbord of brain capacity and articulation, sumptuous as what I saw on dinner plates during the opening score.

Writers around the table change constantly. The volume of writing does not. There are plenty of familiar faces and regulars, but the amount of capable poets coming through this space is impressive. The latest project is a collaborative chapbook for free distribution through Carnegie’s in-house press, included with a regular newsletter. Some of the writers help peers who don’t have a computer or lack tech proficiency. Collaboration is at the heart of the collective. On the third floor of Carnegie, atop stained-glass-lit circular stairs, we pass fresh blank paper around the table with a shared bag of Kraft caramels. There’s a writing prompt on a whiteboard and the acute, anticipatory energy of competent poets. I can’t wait to see what’s created.


Vancouver author, poet, songwriter Bill Arnott is the bestselling author of Dromomaniaand Gone Viking. Sales generate donations to numerous charities. His poetry, articles and reviews are published in Canada, the US, UK, Europe and Asia. Bill’s column Left Coast Poetry Beat is published by the League of Canadian Poets and the Federation of BC Writers.