Author Tags: Literary Landmarks, Poetry
LITERARY LOCATION: Vancouver Transit Centre, 9149 Hudson Street, Vancouver [main parking lot for city buses]
In 1995, community activist and poet Sandy Shreve put together a proposal for a new Poetry in Transit program in Vancouver. Her project has since been replicated in major cities across Canada. Poetry in Transit now displays B.C. poetry in SkyTrain cars and buses around the province. Opened in 2007, the Vancouver Transit Centre is the major hub for more than 400 buses, many of them carrying poetry.
Sandy Shreve coordinated the project for its first three years before handing over administration to the Association of Book Publishers of B.C. A transit survey found that 85% of riders had a positive response to the project. Its popularity, according to Shreve, speaks to the essence of what George Sand meant when she said that "anyone who draws noble delights from sentiments of poetry is a true poet, though he has never written a line in all his life.”
Sandy Shreve's initiative to have poetry on public transit in Vancouver was approved after the CEO of BC Transit had seen the New York Poetry in Motion project while he was visiting the Big Apple. That New York program had commenced in 1992 after London's Poems on the Underground program had been started in 1986, sparking similar poetry-in-transit programs for Paris and Dublin. That's how Vancouver became the first Canadian city to have an ongoing poetry program on public transit in 1996.
Sandy Shreve's other 'day' jobs over the years have included communications manager, student advisor/conference organizer, secretary, library assistant, and reporter. She has won the Earle Birney Prize for Poetry and been shortlisted for the Milton Acorn People’s Poetry Award and the National Magazine Awards.
Sandy Shreve and Kate Braid co-edited In Fine Form: The Canadian Book of Form Poetry, a ground-breaking collection of distinct poetic forms (Polestar, 2005; 2nd edition: Caitlin, 2016). In the 1980s Shreve edited Working for A Living, a collection of writing by women about their work. She was a founding member of an informal women's collective, SDM [Sex, Death & Madness].
Having been given her father’s 1936 diary from his days as an overseas deckhand on a Canadian Steamships freighter at age 21, Sandy Shreve spun the ‘found words’ into Waiting for the Albatross (Oolichan 2015). “Although I’ve fiddled and tinkered with Dad’s diary,” she says, “the poems I’ve written remain true to the experiences he described and retain his voice.” The diary contains a wealth of sea-going jargon and imagery, historical references, and the thoughts of a young man making his way in the world. Leaving from Halifax, Jack Shreve spent five months sailing from Halifax, down the Atlantic, through the Panama Canal, and across the wide Pacific to New Zealand and Australia before returning home.
"Poetry fascinates me," says Shreve. "The math of it - that meticulous balancing of ideas, through image, metaphor and other devices; and the music of it - meticulous, again, that selection of words and their order until they sing.
"It's the kind of fascination that makes it not just possible, but essential and delightful (even when agonising) to spend hours, days, weeks and more honing a poem until it's as close to right as I can get it.
"Then, after all the scribbling and tossing away and starting all over again; after all the tinkering and tweaking - the relief (if I'm lucky) of still being moved by the finished work.
"As Horace said, 'If you want to move me to tears, you must first feel grief yourself.'"
Born in Quebec and raised in Sackville, New Brunswick, Sandy Shreve has moved from Vancouver to North Pender Island. She has also resided in Fredericton, NB; Halifax, NS; North Rustico, PEI; and Bardou, France.
EDUCATION: BA (Canadian History) University of New Brunswick, 1973.
AWARDS: 2001 Earle Birney Prize for Poetry; 2000 National Magazine Awards, Honourable Mention (Poetry); 1980 Alberta Poetry Competition (1st prize, humour); 1998 Milton Acorn People's Poetry Award, Finalist
Waiting for the Albatross (Oolichan: 2015) $19.95 978-0889823044
Level Crossing (chapbook, Alfred Gustav Press: 2012)
Cedar Cottage Suite (chapbook, Leaf Press: 2010)
Suddenly, So Much (poetry, Exile Editions, 2005)
Belonging (poetry; Sono Nis Press: 1997)
Bewildered Rituals (poetry; Polestar Book Publishers: 1992)
The Speed of the Wheel Is Up to the Potter (poetry; Quarry Press: 1990)
In Fine Form: A Contemporary Look at Canadian Form Poetry, 2nd edition(Caitlin, 2016). Co-editor Kate Braid. $29.95 978-1-987915020
In Fine Form: The Canadian Book of Form Poetry (formerly Polestar, 2005 and Tightrope Books; now Caitlin 2013). Co-editor Kate Braid.
Working For a Living (special double-issue of Room of One's Own: 1988)
[BCBW 2015] "Poetry"
Sex, Death & Madness
from Sandy Shreve
In December 1992, Michelle Benjamin of Polestar Press had a Christmas party. Kate Braid and I were among the many there, and it’s at that party I first met Jane Hamilton. I got into a conversation with Jane about writer’s block, and her concern that there was nowhere a writer could go to get help with it. No groups, no counsellors – no one seemed to understand the writer’s specific problems, so there was no service out there to help us over the hurdles. At some point during the evening Kate joined this conversation and…
as it happened, right around that time Kate had been talking about co-counselling with Claire Kujundzic. Co-counselling, to make it all too brief, is about people helping each other, in large part by giving them room to speak – no interruptions, no jumping in with similar stories (even to make the person talking feel less alone); just intense listening. The theory being, again to over-simplify, that in our world, instead of listening to one another, we buzz about raising our voices above the din in a futile attempt to be heard.
Anyway. It turned out Claire knew a woman who was starting up a co-counselling group for… writers! Kate, Jane and I decided to give it a try. Name and address in hand, one night around February or March 1993, we showed up at a stranger’s door to try this out with several men and women we’d never met before. It was… interesting. Let’s just say we got through the evening, each taking our turn at listening, each at speaking. Afterward, we decided we needed tea.
We went to a nearby restaurant, and over a cuppa discovered the experience we’d just gone through was, in one way or another, awkward or uncomfortable or unrewarding for each of us. But we still wanted a support group where we could deal with problems specific to the creative arts. There seemed to be only one solution – set up our own. We agreed that night to see if Claire would join us – she knew a lot about co-counselling, and we hoped to apply some of what that was all about to our meetings. Plus, she was a visual artist. We were excited about the prospect of bringing that perspective to the various issues we might discuss – how, for example, did writer’s block manifest itself for a painter? At that point we also invited Christine Hayvice, who, with Kate and me, had been a member of the Vancouver Industrial Writers’ Union (by then, defunct). Once we’d met a few times and felt good about what we were up to, we decided we needed a few more members. Over the next year or two, writers Cynthia Flood and Joy Kogawa, and visual artist Sheila Norgate joined the group.
One night, someone observed that our discussion had covered quite a range – sex, death and madness all in one evening; someone else suggested the phrase had a kind of ring to it. Without actually voting on it, one at a time, we began referring to ourselves as SDM – at last, we were a group with a name. As we told friends and acquaintances about what we were doing, other women became intrigued with the concept. We weren’t sure we wanted to expand at that point, so in November 1995 we held a meeting for everyone who’d expressed an interest in joining us so they could find out more about each other, as well as about SDM, and decide if they’d like to set up their own group. Out of that came Literary Roadkill, which met for several years.
From the outset we took it for granted we wanted a women-only group. But we never actually discussed membership ‘requirements’ until around 1996, when Claire began to plan a permanent move to Wells. By then, Joy was spending more and more time in Toronto; and for various reasons our meetings often were down to only three or four of us. We decided it was time to add to our numbers – but on what basis were we to invite people? For that matter, on what basis had we invited each other? In the end we spelled out some fundamentals – we were a feminist group, we wanted a diverse membership (e.g., a range of artistic interest, cultural and racial background, sexual preference, age, etc.), and we wanted members who were deeply committed to their art.
Next to join SDM, in late 1996 or early 1997, were Margaret Hollingsworth and Bonnie Klein, followed in fall 1998 by Thuong Vuong Riddick, Carmen Rodriguez, and Tana Runyan. Jane left the group in 1998 and Kath Curran was with us from December 1999 to February 2002. By then, Claire was in Wells, Joy mainly in Toronto, and Sheila had moved to Gabriola Island.
We met regularly – about every three weeks (less in summer, when it was hard to get everyone together) at one of our homes. Meetings consisted of discussion, rounds and ‘business’. We remained a writers & artists’ support group. While we weren’t a work-shopping group, we did make space for people to bring work to a meeting if they wanted. For many years, the only time this was the sole focus of attention was at our ‘annual general meeting’ when we all brought new work to read or show one another, so we could keep in touch with what everyone was doing artistically. In the last few years, however, we began looking for ways to incorporate our creative work into regular meetings. One of our more successful efforts at this was when we discussed how writers interpret, and incorporate, readers’ comments on our work. To facilitate the discussion, several of us brought poems, described criticisms we’d received about the work, and talked about how these had (or hadn’t) influenced revisions.
Something we were very clear about from the beginning was that what we said in meetings was confidential. It was important that we all felt able to speak freely and openly so we could fully and honestly explore issues that mattered to us, often quite scary ones – competition, self-doubt, money & class in the arts, rejection of our work, envy, ageing, awards & prizes and so on. We discussed to explore and understand, not to convince one another of any particular point of view.
Sometimes the subject under discussion turned out to be of interest to only some of us – spirituality was one of those. After one meeting where we talked about what the concept meant to each of us, some members raised the concern that we were veering too far from our common interest, which was to focus on topics directly related to our art. We found we needed to remind ourselves of that periodically.
Other times, the subject unexpectedly turned out to be a key concern for everyone. A sense of place, of belonging or estrangement or both, and its influence on our writing or painting turned out to be one of those. In hindsight, that shouldn’t have been a surprise, given all but three of us came to BC from elsewhere: in Canada, our origins ranged from the Maritimes, the Prairies, Quebec and Toronto; internationally, from the US, Vietnam, Chile, England and New Zealand.
Topics for discussion were sometimes chosen ahead of time, sometimes on the spot. In theory, the person whose home we met in would set the agenda but as often as not it didn’t work out that way. Someone might arrive at a meeting burning to talk about a particular issue; or the host might not come up with a topic. We had a little book where we wrote down discussion suggestions so we could refer back to that if no one had anything pressing to talk about.
Although we never identified emotional support as a priority, we provided it frequently, as over the years many of us went through what Cynthia Flood aptly describes as “Big Life Events” including divorce, serious illness, and family related sorrows. Often these issues came up during rounds, the time we set aside for each member to talk about what had been happening since we last met, be it to do with her art or her ‘day job’, home life, etc. Occasionally the rest of us would get carried away and leap in with questions, advice or supportive commentary, but overall we tried to ‘behave’ ourselves and just listen attentively. Of course, sometimes active feedback was wanted, in which case the woman whose round it was just said so and everyone was always happy to oblige! Rounds remained pretty much the same throughout our history. The only change we made was to move them from the beginning to the end of our meetings to avoid running out of time for discussion.
Business was usually about scheduling future meetings. Sometimes, though, we’d have an event to organise. Over the years we held a few autumn by-invitation-only parties at someone’s home, to celebrate group members’ new books and artwork completed in the previous year. And in April 2001 we hosted a very successful benefit to raise funds for fellow-writer Betsy Warland, who was working to heal from cancer.
People often asked what this group meant to us. Each of our answers varied in the details, but all had a common thread – SDM was our lifeline. It remained so for more than a decade, but by 2004, various members’ circumstances had changed and several of us were unable to make most meetings. As our numbers dwindled once again, we decided, reluctantly, to disband. We stay in touch by email, though, and see one another whenever we can. But most of all, we are still – and always – there for one another.
Members through the years
Jane Eaton Hamilton
Thuong Vuong Riddick
-- May 2008
Ooligan Press of Portland invited Sandy Shreve, as a poet included in its Alive at the Center anthology of poetry from Pacific Northwest writers, to provide this guest blog about her poetry contribution "Crows.". It is reprinted here by permission of the author.
Where Poems Begin
“Crows” began with a chance encounter on my way home from work one overcast February afternoon in 1998. An older man walking ahead of me slowed to a saunter as I approached, as if waiting for me to catch up to him. When I did, he peered at me from under his nondescript cap (beige, like his baggy trousers and jacket) and pointed to a couple of vacant lots beside us, asking if I’d noticed there were more crows around than usual. “Not really,” I confessed, looking at what seemed a rather normal number pecking at the ground. Then he told me how hundreds upon hundreds had arrived earlier that day, covering the field, the trees, the street—and then took off, darkening the sky. “I think they came for my neighbour,” he said, nodding at an old house across the way. “She died last night.”
We walked along for awhile as he talked about his neighbour, how he’d known her for decades, that she’d been a kind and generous woman. How she’d been ill for some time, which perhaps explained the overgrown garden, the collapsing fence. Then he told me that when we die, crows come to escort our souls to heaven; how he hoped, when the time came, they’d show him the way, too. A few paces later, he turned off the path and I continued on my way. But the man and his words stayed with me.
That night, I sat down to write. Eventually I came up with what I felt was a perfectly good anecdotal poem that conveyed the tender care the man had expressed for his neighbour, the comfort he’d found in the crows’ visitation. The images, the details, the story all seemed to work—and yet, I was deeply disappointed. Something was missing—but what?
My third book, Belonging, had been published the previous year and I was still finding my way into new work. Belonging was family-centred; the poems were mostly in the narrative and anecdotal veins and had been well-received. I’d been aware for some time, though, that much as I was perfectly happy with the whole collection, my favorite poems were the ones that suggested rather than elaborated a particular event or story; the ones that relied more on metaphor than description. As I thought about this, it clicked. The poem I wanted to write was to be found, not in that afternoon’s encounter per se, but in whatever it seemed to represent for me. The poem I wanted to write had to begin at the end of the anecdote I held in my hand.
I’ve long been fond of crows. Growing up in New Brunswick, I’d often wake to their boisterous heckling across the Tantramar Marsh. Others were annoyed by the “noise” but I heard the possibilities for a new day in those voices. Yet I’d never written about them; at most, crows made a passing appearance in a few of my poems. While I knew about and admired their intelligence, I’d never read up on what they might stand for in world cultures or religions. Given what the man I’d met earlier in the day had said, I realized I needed to look into this, so I turned to one of my favourite reference books—Barbara G. Walker’s The Woman’s Dictionary of Symbols and Sacred Objects (Harper and Rowe, 1988)—and read every crow entry. From Walker I learned, among other things, that to the Roman ear the crow’s call sounded like their word for tomorrow—and so, to them, this bird was “a symbol of the future.”
With Walker’s information, my own enchantment with crows, their generally bad reputation (as messy, as loud, as bullies and thieves), and one man’s comment about crows and our souls all at the back of my mind, I picked up my pen and began again…
How Poetry In Transit Got Moving
How Poetry in Transit Got Moving
by Sandy Shreve (2007)
In 1995, I put together a proposal for a Poetry in Transit program in Vancouver. For years, I and many others wondered why we couldn’t have poems in the buses all the time, the way they do, for instance, in London (Poems on the Underground) and New York (Poetry in Motion). At a certain point, I realised we needed two things: a plan – it had to be inexpensive and easy to administer – and sponsors. So, I brainstormed ideas with numerous friends, came up with an approach I thought might work and then pitched it to BC Transit and the Association of Book Publishers of BC, asking if they would sponsor the project if I committed to administering it. Both agreed right away – and that was that. (Later, TransLink also became a sponsor, and after the first three years the association generously took over the administration.) In September 1996, the first poems appeared on Vancouver buses. They were an instant success – so much so, that within a few months the project expanded to Victoria, and in the second year, spread to another 28 BC communities.
BC’s was the first ongoing program of its kind in Canada – followed soon after by one in Toronto, and then more popped up all across the country. By 2002, with the start of a project in Montreal, the Canada Council for the Arts (which helps fund BC’s as well as other similar projects) announced that more than five million Canadians could now enjoy poems on their daily commutes. By then, for example, we had Poetry in Motion in Calgary, Take the Poetry Route in Edmonton, Poetry in Motion in Winnipeg, Metroverse in St. John’s, Poetry on the Way in Toronto, Transpoetry in Ottawa, Moving Write Along in Regina and Moving Words in Whitehorse.
Several years ago, 85% of riders in a transit survey gave positive feedback about the project. This came as no surprise, as year after year, people take the time to say how much the poems mean to them. One of my favourite stories is about how passengers on one bus burst into applause when a proud mother announced: “that’s my daughter’s poem.” And a favourite comment comes from a woman who said she knows a poem she saw on the bus by heart because she “wrote it down and memorized every word of it.” These, I think, speak to the essence of what George Sand meant when she said that anyone “who draws noble delights from sentiments of poetry is a true poet, though he has never written a line in all his life.”