A Poem in PRISM

I began this blog back in 2011 to write about the city as text and text as the city. I was noticing many examples in Vancouver of “literary buildings”—buildings that contained written text on it, such as a poem or a phrase. I was fascinated by this combination, how a city is a surface to be read, and how some architects make this literal.

I don’t talk about architecture as much on here as I used to, but cities (particularly Vancouver) still heavily inform my creative writing practice, which is focusing on poetry.

IMG_8285

I’m saying all this to lead up to an exciting announcement: this past summer, my poem “Text to Vancouver” was published in PRISM international, a quarterly literary magazine based in Vancouver.

Given the content of my poem, I was thrilled my piece found a home in this particular magazine among many writers whose work I admire.

If you’d like to read it, you can order a print copy here. To whet your appetite, I will say that I wrote this poem after reading Elizabeth Bishop’s “Letter to N.Y. ” The rhythm of her poem captured me and I wanted to write my own version to my city, but update it for the twenty-first century. Kits Pool, designated bike lanes, and glass condos are some Vancouver references I place in there (I initially wrote “thrown in” and realized how wrong that is. Nothing in poetry is ever thrown in!)

IMG_4701

Speaking of publications, you may notice that I’ve also put up a new Publications page. The writing life has plenty of discouraging moments and I feel it’s important to celebrate  what I’ve done so far, as I aim to keep pursuing this path. Hence me sharing this news with you!

Thank you for reading and encouraging me in your own ways. If you’re comfortable sharing, I’d love to hear what little or big thing you’re celebrating. We could all use more reason to!

F is for Fremlin

What’s the name again?
Fremlin, I repeat. Like gremlin, but with an F.

IMG_6428

That’s how I introduce the street I live on. People seem to understand the name better when it has a reference point.

How does one know a place? I figure you pay attention. In the five years I’ve lived in Marpole, I can’t say I know it well, but I can say with confidence that I know one section of a street well.

Fremlin doesn’t have anything noteworthy from an outsiders’ point of view. Tucked east of Oak and west of Cambie, it sits like a middle child in the centre of the neighbourhood, enjoying a different rhythm. Maybe that’s why I notice it, apart from the fact that it’s home. I’m a middle child and like attracts like. Stick with me and I’ll take you for a walk.

IMG_4661

Fremlin runs north from Southwest Marine Drive, climbing until it reaches 59th Avenue where it forms the vertical line of a T-stop. That’s where I stop too. Fremlin has a trick up its sleeve. After disappearing for a while, it reconvenes from 54th until 43rd Avenues, but I’m not familiar with this northern leg. The heart of Marpole is so far south; I measure everything starting at the Fraser River. A city is a larger version of high school and Marpole is not one of the popular kids. Some people in other parts of Vancouver don’t even know it exists. A friend visiting me from Mount Pleasant once remarked how driving to Marpole felt like going to the suburbs. I had just left real suburbia for city life and was rather offended.

IMG_6373

My favourite part of Fremlin is the beginning where all the apartment buildings are. European hornbeams flank the street, forming a magnificent, dense arch with leaves rustling in the wind, playing hide and seek with the light like a coy lover. I walk under the boughs like Anne of Green Gables passing through the White Way of Delight. Countless birds flitter through the trees. I’ve seen crows, western tanagers, robins, and chickadees. They’ve made a birdwatcher out of me.

Not a single business stands on Fremlin. The street is quiet except where it meets its rowdy cousin—70th Avenue. The intersection is marked by a pedestrian activated traffic signal, the only light along its route. Honks, curses, screech of tires, and the two-toned beep of the walk signal merge into a rush hour cacophony. The road narrows from here, causing a bottleneck when cars are parked on both sides.

IMG_7388

But this stretch wins the prize for most beautiful when March and April arrive. The canopy of cherry blossoms extends for blocks, a long procession up a petal-sprinkled sidewalk like the nave of a cathedral dressed for a wedding. It’s impossible not to be swept away. I wonder if the people in the nearby houses wake up to each year’s bloom like a child on Christmas, the surprise never getting old even though the return is expected.

One of these people has an apple tree in her front lawn. I stopped to admire it on a summer walk and the woman told her husband to go back up the ladder to give me a bagful. She insisted. I had never received apples from someone’s tree before and I took several pictures of their red skin and leafy stems arranged in a glass bowl on my table. Unfortunately the apples looked better than they tasted but that didn’t matter.

IMG_2356

When you reach the house with the vegetable garden in the front yard so big it could feed the community, you’re at the base of Oak Park whose eastern edge borders Fremlin.

For the longest time I didn’t know the name of this park. It was just the big park up the hill I chose to run around when I exercised. Trees line the perimeter and I still jog there even though I’ve been the target of a couple of crow dives.

IMG_6376

There’s a tree that marks the end of the street, hidden in the northeast corner of the park. I always tap it with my right hand to signal the end of my run. It’s a ritual of connecting with what’s around me. No song on an iPod tells me I’m done. It’s the touch of flesh on bark, a greeting to an old friend.

IMG_4860

When you move to a neighbourhood, you look for signs that welcome you, that say you belong. Mine were literally spelled out. First it was a building west of Oak Street named Charlene Apartments. Then it was my dad’s name carved into the sidewalk on Fremlin Street near the park. How many people are named Larry? I chuckled aloud.

IMG_8132

The route down Fremlin is especially fun on a bike. Only a few stop signs to watch out for, gravity propels you back where you started. But the journey is never the same twice. Streets are like rivers. The other day, I noticed more for sale signs cropping up on lawns and wondered which people raking leaves or stroking their cat I won’t see anymore, and which new faces I’ll encounter.

IMG_6546

When I moved to Marpole, my brother and cousin carried my 200-pound bookcase up three flights of stairs, almost putting their backs out. My brother wiped the sweat from his forehead and said, “Charlene, you’re never moving again.”

He doesn’t need to worry. I have no intention to.

 


I’m pleased to announce this piece won Vancouver Public Library‘s Marpole Writing Contest July 2018.

Charmed by Onegin

In the opening song in the musical Onegin, the actors sing, “We hope to please, we hope to charm, we hope to break you open.”

There is plenty of all three. I left the Surrey Arts Centre feeling like Onegin was everything I didn’t know I wanted in a play.

It’s Russia in the 19th century. Handsome rogue Evgeni Onegin returns to St. Petersburg to inherit an estate after the passing of his uncle and his parents. He visits his neighbours, the Larins, upon the encouragement of his friend Vladmir Lensky who is dating Olga, the younger Larin daughter. The older daughter Tatyana immediately falls for Onegin, hoping for someone to see her the way she has seen the world through the many books she reads.

Onegin2JonathanWinsby

Onegin played by Jonathan Winsby. Photo by Arts Club Theatre.

It’s not often a play comes along that feels so original. But it’s not original in content. There’s unrequited love. There’s a dual ending in death (foreshadowed in the opening number). There are missed chances and irrevocable decisions. Nothing too out of the ordinary, especially for a Russian play inspired by Pushkin’s verse novel and Tchaikovsky’s opera.

What was original is the way the story was told, written by Amiel Gladstone and Veda Hille who updated it for the 21st century. There’s a stage of characters dressed in period costumes, writing letters and riding horse and buggy, and then along comes a line in Onegin’s song “Three Horses” introducing us to his history, mystery, and apathy: “Where are my back-up singers?” who go on to croon, “He’s fuckin’ gorgeous.” Despite his good looks, wealth, and charm, you get the sense Onegin’s a lonely, unhappy man who, in his own words, “doesn’t care” and even asks the audience, “Am I someone you want to know?”

It’s that mix of traditional and contemporary that makes the play so striking. Integral to the story is the music. Three musicians are on stage the whole time (Jennifer Moersch on cello, Marguerite Witvoet on piano, and Barry Mirochnick on percussion and guitar). Songs that you hear in the first act are echoed in the second, sometimes sung by different characters, adding layers of meaning. And then multiple characters will sing pieces of former songs over each other within a new song and it’s all woven together so seamlessly, a fugue you don’t want to reach the end of. “Good Evening, Bonne Soirée” stood out as the epitome of this overlapping.

The songs fit the story so well, but they also fit our times. They are honest about love and mortality, malaise and meaning. Tatyana’s “Let Me Die” is a powerful ballad featuring an electric guitar that ends with the request, “Let me live before I die.” Onegin will sing this line later on and it is entirely transformed because of the action that’s happened in between.

Another flip is when Tatyana sings Onegin’s line back to him after the tragic duel: “You don’t care, you don’t care, you don’t care, you don’t care, you don’t care.” This repetition could easily become overdone, but each “you don’t care” is delivered by Lauren Jackson with such sincerity and a slightly different register of disappointment/anger, that it actually works and feels truer to speech.

The last song between Tatyana and Onegin was perfection. The physical distance between the characters on stage paralleled the gap in their stories, how long it had been since they last saw each other and the things left unsaid. I’ve never experienced negative space on stage became so activated with meaning.

Because of all the intertwined layers, Onegin is a play you could easily see again to catch all the references made in the opening that only come to light in the second act.

Compared to the long introduction, the ending is quick, almost abrupt. But after two hours, the love story has been told and in such an unforgettable way.

Onegin is running until March 3 at Surrey Arts Centre.

 

Much Ado about Much Ado about Nothing

The Georgia Straight said, “This is Shakespeare at its sharpest and most satisfying.”

Bard on the Beach‘s 2017 production of Much Ado About Nothing is visually spectacular and very well acted. Director John Murphy adapted this 1598 Shakespearean comedy and set it in 1950s Italy where the characters are glamorous film stars wearing tailored suits with skinny neckties or lacy cocktail dresses dangling cigarettes from their lips and riding off on Vespas.

IMG_4886

Waiting for the show to begin

The costumes and setting alone make this play a delight. Daringly minimalist, it features a few director’s chairs, boom mics, movie camera, and a large pair of “Studio B” doors as the backdrop that opens and closes to reveal slices of Vancouver scenery. The first act plays out in black and white, and gradually more colour is introduced “when love enters the picture” according to Pam Johnson, the scenery designer.

As with many of Shakespeare’s comedies, the dialogue is witty and quick, but I particularly found the language harder to follow in this one than other Bard plays. Luckily the visuals largely make up for this, but I still would have liked to catch more than 50-60%!

IMG_20170715_183255552

Bard on the Beach tents in Vancouver

There are basically two strands to the plot: 1) Beatrice and Benedick, both stubbornly single and opinionated, take every opportunity to insult each other. Their friends hatch an elaborate plan to matchmake them. 2) Benedick’s friend Claudio falls in love with Beatrice’s cousin Hero and the two are set to be married.

Where’s the tension that moves the plot forward? That’s the part that confused me. It comes from the villain Dona Johnna, sister to Don Pedro, a famous film director. The synopsis in the program guide says she is a journalist and wannabe filmmaker, but that doesn’t explain why she devises her own elaborate plan to ruin Hero’s honour and break up her wedding to Claudio. I caught that she is jealous of her brother but how is interfering in Hero and Claudio’s relationship revenge for her brother’s success? Apparently my friend and I aren’t the only ones wondering about her motivation—Marsha Lederman in The Globe and Mail comments on this too. Again, is this because we couldn’t understand the Elizabethan English or because the plot is weak?

muchado_1-640x427

Members of the cast in the Bard on the Beach production of Much Ado About Nothing. Photo by David Blue.

While Much Ado About Nothing is a lot of fun, it has more of a darker side to it than I expected from a Shakespearean comedy. A fiance disgraces his lover and a father renounces his daughter. A character is believed to be dead. Another character asks someone to murder a friend.

While all turns to happiness and dancing in the end, it certainly isn’t the uproarious and easily accessible comedy that last year’s Merry Wives of Windsor was.

Much Ado About Nothing is playing at Bard on the Beach in Vancouver until September 23.

Cycling the Arbutus Greenway

I had seen others doing it and it looked like fun. So today was the day I finally hopped on the Arbutus Greenway for myself.

IMG_4853

This former railway track was recently converted into a paved pathway, connecting Marpole to Granville Island. It provides a designated north-south route for cyclists and walkers to get from one end of the City to another, something sorely lacking up until now.

IMG_4882

I loved it. It was so convenient to hop on 70th Avenue in Marpole and ride to 41st and onto Southwest Marine Drive to meet up with some friends at UBC. On my way home, I took 16th Avenue back to the Greenway so I could cover most of the path. It’s 8.5 km long—here’s a map.

These vibrant poppies and purple wildflowers near 70th were a delight to see as I started out.

IMG_4838

IMG_4843

Community gardens line the right side of the path as you’re heading north. Someone had fun with these scarecrows.

IMG_4878

I loved seeing parts of the City I hadn’t seen before. I was riding slowly up Vancouver’s spine, admiring houses that belong in a fairy tale, smiling at strangers standing in gardens with a hose in hand, and breathing in the scent of wildflowers spilling onto the pavement.

IMG_4880

It was a leisurely ride devoid of traffic and steep hills! Most of the intersections had helpful signage that indicated to cross with pedestrians at the light, like you can see these cyclists doing at Arbutus and 16th.

IMG_4849

Benches and portable toilets were available along the way. The biggest hill from this point riding south was winding through the Quilchena neighbourhood. But it provided some fabulous new lookout points, including slices of ocean.

IMG_4872

IMG_4874

Something to note is that there aren’t many trees along the trail so shade isn’t an option, which you really notice on hot days like today.

Between Nanton Road and Quilchena Park, these colourful rocks stopped me in my tracks. Their messages and the conversations they inspired were my favourite experiences along the route.

IMG_4858

Painted all colours of the rainbow, they are as diverse as the people I saw using the path: cyclists, walkers, joggers, seniors, kids, families, rollerbladers, people in wheelchairs, skateboarders, you name it.

IMG_4862

IMG_4856

“Pretty cool, eh?” An oldish man spoke to me from the walking side of the path and I said, “Totally cool.” He pointed a little further down where a plaque explained this public artwork done by York House Grade 2 students, a Vancouver Biennale project.

I told him this was my first time on the path and he said he walks parts of it almost every day. “So it’s well used?” I asked. “Oh yeah,” he replied. He said it’s packed on the weekends and he’s particularly encouraged to see a lot of seniors walking with canes on it. He said many seniors don’t feel safe navigating heavy intersections, so this designated route gets more people out enjoying nature and the city who wouldn’t otherwise. I completely get that as a cyclist who doesn’t love riding on busy streets!

IMG_4866

Near the sign, I spoke with another man who was admiring the rocks. He said this Greenway really was a case of “build it, and they will come.” Apparently it’s just a temporary path though with plans to make it into “a destination that fosters both movement and rich social interaction – inspired by nature and the stories of the places it connects” (from the City website). I kind of like it just as it is though, with the exception of adding more public art and trees.

IMG_4854

I ended up having a third conversation with someone along the Greenway when I stopped at 57th Avenue to pick up a few things from Choices Markets. One of the Rainbow Rocks said “Make community” and these friendly encounters with strangers seemed to affirm the spirit of that message already, an experience I don’t take for granted in Vancouver.

IMG_4851

Snaps of Summer

A holiday Monday with sunshine like this called me downtown to walk Stanley Park with a friend. The Rose Garden was in bloom so I snapped some pics of that as well.

IMG_4728

IMG_4729

IMG_4733

Afterwards, I explored Robson Street and enjoyed this patch of public space set up with picnic tables and an outdoor piano at the intersection of Robson and Bute. Great for people watching!

IMG_4737IMG_4738

Here’s a piece of public art at Robson and Jervis called Jasper.

IMG_4735

From the Vancouver Biennale website:

Jasper is a whimsical sculpture by Brooklyn-based artist John Clement. His trademark steel spirals with bold primary colours invite children to touch and play. The turns and loops of Jasper challenge the inherent properties of rigid tubular steel and the result is an implied movement with the sense of twisting right out of the ground.

Whenever I walk by this sculpture it reminds me of balloon animals popular at children’s birthday parties. Or my coil bike lock. No one was playing on it at the time but I like public art you’re invited to touch. If public art is meant to bring art where people are (because not everyone goes to art galleries), I appreciate works that call for different forms of engagement rather than the traditional “looking only”/observer-observed relationship. That being said, some public art provokes more thought than others and while the form is fun, I find the content strongly lacking in this piece. I think good public art brings form and content together in striking ways. What about you?

Hope everyone is enjoying the Canada Day long weekend!