Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside is a neighbourhood known both for its struggles with poverty and for its rich history. Its waterfront brick architecture captivated writer Elee Kraljii Gardiner when she moved to Vancouver from Boston to be with her husband. When she was asked in 2008 to teach a writing course in the DTES, she also discovered there a vibrant creative community. The four-week workshop, taught by Elee and ElJean Dodge, was part of Vancouver’s Memory Project, organized by Geist magazine, Simon Fraser University’s Writing and Publishing program, and the Roundhouse Community Centre, to collect stories from around the city. On the last day of the course, participants asked if they would return the following week. Elee agreed, and Thursdays Writing Collective still meets at the Carnegie Centre every week.
As director of Thursdays, Elee has edited and published five chapbooks by the collective. She also co-edited with John Mikhail Asfour V6A: Writing from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2012), which was shortlisted for the 2012 City of Vancouver Book Award. Her poetry, which earned the 2011 Lina Chartrand Poetry Award, appears in North American anthologies and publications.
I met Elee at a coffee shop near Main Street in Vancouver, where she spoke enthusiastically about her many and varied collaborations. These include cross-disciplinary projects with musicians and dancers, workshops she leads on creativity and social writing, and, of course, Thursdays Writing Collective.
ROOM: How did collective and collaborative work become part of your personal journey as a writer?
EKG: For starters, I’m quite a social person, so the idea of me doing anything totally by myself is not generative or abundant for me. I always loved to write and I fell into writing through the magazine and newspaper world, and then transitioned out of that when a non-fiction project fell into my lap. Happily, at that time, I was smart enough to know that I needed some sort of a community, or some sort of sustenance, and I found the Writer’s Studio. So I worked on my project through the Writer’s Studio, and it was kind of ideal, because you could write as much as you wanted on your own, and there were people there who were sort of going through the same thing, learning, and just as excited as I was about figuring out the biology of the manuscript. That was the transition in my own writing. And then, very quickly, I went through genres. I started on non-fiction with the project. Then I wrote a first draft of a novel, which was really difficult. And then I started using line breaks in order to help keep myself on track, and people were responding to my work, saying that what I was writing was actually poetry. So I tried my hand at that. I guess that was about four years ago, and I’ve been writing only poetry ever since.
ROOM: What drew you to the writing project at Carnegie Centre?
EKG: I’ve always had an affinity for that part of town, because it’s the oldest part of the city, and I’m from Boston. The DTES is a place that architecturally looks the most like my hometown. I was interested. I’d been writing a novel by myself, at home, for a year and I’d just been booted out of this beautiful community of writers, the Writer’s Studio, and I knew I needed some connection, and so I said yes to that. We met for four weeks with a woman called ElJean Dodge who also answered the call, and she and I team-taught this mini class. It was so much fun to go into it with somebody. We had so much fun over-preparing and figuring out what we were going to do. Immediately we had a real connection with the people we were writing with, and when we finished, we sent off these submissions, and most of them were accepted and curated, and we said, “Okay, thanks, it’s been wonderful.” And they said, “Well, we’re meeting again next week, right?” They just assumed that this was a standard thing. And ElJean and I looked at each other, like: “I don’t know … do you want to? Sure!” And so the Carnegie Centre donated space to us, and we just kept renewing the room. Eventually, ElJean went on to other things, and I just kept going with what turned into Thursdays Writing Collective.
ROOM: What surprised you the most when you started writing with Thursdays Collective?
EKG: A couple of things. I thought it would be difficult to get people to share their work, coming out of a more formal, traditional structure. The system is set to be a real dualism between student and teacher. And that was something I was immediately uncomfortable with, that banker model of pedagogy where the teacher holds all the knowledge and bestows it upon the empty vessel of the student. That was not anything of interest to me. I had been in writing classes, or in other classes where it was so competitive and so judgemental that people were really stifling themselves. So I had assumed that in an area that had issues with social justice or issues with ability to access resources, that there would be some protection or reservedness. It was just the opposite. People were launching their hands into the air, saying, “I want to read! I want to share. This is what I wrote and I want you to hear it.” So that was initially a tremendous surprise to me. There was no coaxing I had to do. People said, “Hear me, I want to be heard.”
ROOM: Describe a typical meeting—how different is it from those classes that you’d take at university?
EKG: I do my writing at the same time, and I’ve got an equal stake at the table. It took me a long time to say that I “taught.” Honestly, I don’t think that I do. I think that I facilitate. But I’m learning a lot about writing, as we all are at the same time. Antonette Rea, who’s one of our contributors to V6A and has also been in some of the chapbooks, comes out of a music tradition. She’s a spoken word artist, and she has said that sitting at the table and writing is like an improv session, that we’re all riffing off each other. We’ll write something and it gets us energetically on the same page. We come in the door, there’s a writing prompt on the blackboard, and we all just start writing. And once we’ve all had a chance to write for about ten minutes, that’s when we put our pens down and look up and say, “All right, who wants to read?” And then what happens is synchronicity. One person will be writing about this, and someone will say, “I was writing about that too!” “My piece has to follow hers.” “Can I read after that guy?” And there becomes this beautiful chain, or like Antonette says, riffing off each other. I think it happens if you’re open. I think it happens if you’re noticing. And if you don’t have an agenda.
ROOM: How does the collective change the individual and, conversely, how does the individual change the collective?
EKG: Writing in a collective, in a social collective, the way that we do every Thursday, is interesting. One of the guys, Colin Beiers, said that every time that he sits down to write with us, he’s totally alarmed that he’s going to be the only one who thinks a certain thing, or conversely that he’s going to write the same thing that everybody else does. And what delights him is that there is such individualism, but there’s also a common thread. So I think that writing in a collective simultaneously affirms your belonging, but it allows you to be wholly yourself. You have to be free enough that you have time to write. I mean, when it comes down to it, it’s you and the pen. It’s not you and the pen and everybody you’ve ever met. You have to listen to that impulse inside yourself, and it has to be quiet for you to do that. But I love the exchange of energy when I’m talking over ideas. Some of the writers at Thursdays try something that I’ve never even considered and then I’ll try it myself: funny ways of doing list poems, or using a metaphor that I’ve never heard before, or even tackling topics that I’d be too chicken to try. And they push me, too. When there are twenty of you at a table, and you’re all writing using the same twist of words, the same phrase, and everyone comes out with something completely different, it’s so much fun. You want to keep going, you egg each other on.
ROOM: I wanted to ask you about the project at the University of British Columbia. In November and December, Thursdays conducted its workshopsthere. How did that come about?
EKG: At the Liu Institute for Global Issues, all these amazing, empowered, intellectual women—they happen to be women, the ones that I’ve worked with—curate, on a volunteer basis, the Lobby Gallery they have in the building. They put out a call for any artist that has something socially engaged that they’d like to do. So I thought, Let’s try this. That’s the thing with Thursdays Writing Collective—we’re constantly doing things we’ve never done before, kind of inventing the wheel and all trying it. Why not? We’ve been writing in the past year on space—on architectural and poetic space, and the intersection of those two ideas, and we’re calling this the Stanza Project, because “stanza” means room in Italian, as well as being a section of poetry. Housing and space is just really contentious in the Downtown Eastside. Anybody who is living at or below or near the poverty line knows what a struggle it is to get safe and adequate housing in this city. So I thought, okay, let’s exhibit not only our writing, but let’s have some of the photos of our collective up, and let’s exhibit our prompts and show people what some of the concerns are. There’s a really powerful divide in this city between the Downtown Eastside and the Endowment Lands at UBC. You go out to UBC for a specific reason—it’s not on the way to another part of town. This sets up a really interesting paradigm. So anytime that we can break through that, and have a flow of exchange, it’s really powerful. Our social writing events, like the one we did at the Lobby Gallery opening, look like what we do every Thursday, but we have all these people from UBC, and what happens is that the Thursdays writers are so expert at this, they completely open the vibe and allow everyone to feel comfortable doing what could be considered to be really risky.
ROOM: You say on your website that Thursdays Writing Collective stands at the intersection of creativity and public policy. Is a collective more likely than an individual to take on engaged, political writing?
EKG: I don’t know. I wonder. It would be foolish to suggest that everyone in Thursdays Writing Collective has a similar point of view. There are people who complain about people living outdoors. There are others who are homeless, others who rent or own, and many who rail against developers. There are people from varied racialized and genderized identities, and we encompass a great span of age groups from varied cultural backgrounds and political beliefs. We don’t have a statement. The only agenda we have is to write and to publish our work.
ROOM: You’ve collaborated with some musicians who put one of your poems to music, so that’s an interdisciplinary collaboration.
EKG: Yeah, I love that. I’ve done that a couple of times. It’s fascinating to see what somebody makes of your work, and then to watch them change and transform it. It’s a real gift when someone reads your work that closely and really spends their time on it. I’ve had one poem set to a song. It’s for a soprano and piano. I’ve had another piece that was set by eleven composers. I’ve collaborated with my sister, who’s a figure skater. She is choreographing my poetry manuscript. [Collaboration] is a springboard. Right now I’m working on another poem that’s going to be set to music by Chris Gainey, and he and I have a meeting of the minds, so we’re actually working on a bluegrass opera together. He’s on banjo, and I’m writing a suite of poems. We have a few other projects that we’re working on together as well. He set one of my poems, and it was performed by a mezzo-soprano and a pianist in June as part of the Art Song Lab. And that piece, he’s extending it into a song cycle, and we’re going to collaborate with a dancer and have her choreograph and dance to this song cycle.
ROOM: What do you learn about your work when it’s set to music and dance? Does it add unexpected dimensions?
EKG: First of all, it’s great to have distance. When it looks a little different to you, because of time or because of somebody else’s handling, it extracts your essence from the piece and allows you to appreciate it on its own terms, or on the new terms that have been set for it. And I really do believe that once something has been set, it’s no longer my own poem, it’s a new piece entirely.
ROOM: Are you able to let go?
EKG: Oh, totally. That’s one of the things I like about collaborations: to give it over to the expert and to let them play and do whatever they want. I don’t know how much control I ultimately have anyway. I did a reading last night, so I could control how I read my own work, but I can’t control how it’s received. No matter what my own intentions for my poetry, or Thursdays Writing Collective, that’s all ego; that’s all some false notion of control.
I really believe in that notion that Borges has that every reader becomes a writer every time they read a text, and how there’s no way to re-read the same text twice. You’re a different person, there are different cultural signifiers, your attention is different, everything is different, and you create a new text each time you return to it.
ROOM: Do you have any final words on how collectives and the individuals that make them up affect each other?
EKG: Well, I know they’re idiosyncratic. I don’t think you can go out with a checklist looking for a collaborator who’s going to do this, this, and this. Each project and each person you work with, there’s a certain amount of fairy dust, and it either works or it doesn’t. And I don’t think there’s any problem when it doesn’t work. I have a good friend who’s a musician in Boston, and I sent her a couple of poems, and we realised that our work doesn’t work well together, even though we love each other’s work. So it doesn’t really have to do with being best friends, or about a poem you’ve admired forever. There’s something else at play, and I think it’s about … I don’t know what it’s about. If I knew what it’s about, I wouldn’t be interested in it, probably.
Interview from 36.2: Collective and Collaborative