Voices Linger On: The 1963 Vancouver Poetry Conference and the Seeds of a Canadian West Coast Counterculture
In November of 1963, Warren Tallman, American ex-patriot, University of British Columbia (UBC) professor of English, and co-founder of the UBC department of creative writing, wrote prophetically: “the poetry festival, like the song, is ended. But like the melody, the voices of the poets linger on.”[i] The Vancouver Poetry Conference in the summer of 1963, brought five American poets, Robert Creely, Denise Levertov, Allen Ginsberg, Robert Duncan, and Charles Olson, to UBC to participate in a series of readings and lectures about a new and radical open form of poetry. Some sixty UBC students and other local poets attended the conference. From these small numbers, grew the vibrant revolutionary energy of a new Canadian poetics. Small press publishers and DIY magazines rose as a voice for this new energy. TISH, a contemporary poetry newsletter founded in 1961, acted as the start point of a Vancouver poetic underground, a movement that would gain new followers with the 1963 conference. The underground grew and fractured. Inspired by United States counterculture newspapers like The Berkeley Barb, a group of poets, with the help of a few friends, founded The Georgia Straight in reaction to the apparent persecution of youth culture in Vancouver by the police and traditional media. The paper’s persecution had the opposite than intended effect; circulation soared and US radical icons like activist Jerry Rubin rallied in the paper’s defense. Through the poetic infusion of ideas during the 1963 Vancouver Poetry Conference at the University of British Columbia, the United States and its radical intellectuals jumpstarted the development of a Canadian west coast counterculture.
TISH was a contemporary poetry newsletter started by George Bowering, Frank Davey, David Dawson, Lionel Kearns, Jaime Reid, and Fred Wah, that ran for nineteen consecutive issues between September 1961 until April 1963 and then intermittently until 1968. Formed in the study halls and rental apartments of these students at the University of British Columbia, TISH (the name chosen because it was an anagram for shit) stood at the edge of the modernist poetic fringe, a movement quite separate from the prevailing climate of artistic nationalism that swept Canada as the nation approached the 100th anniversary of confederation. Poet and activist Stan Persky called it “the beginning of poetry in this particular place.”[ii] The magazine was heavily influenced by the US poets of the San Francisco Renaissance and the Black Mountain School, specifically Robert Duncan and Charles Olson, and it was after a reading by Duncan at UBC in 1961, that the students decided to start the magazine. For the poets, the connection with an American poetic idol was revolutionary. Frank Davey wrote: “within two visits the bi-monthly meetings to discuss our own work became weekly meetings of intensive study…in no time literary theories and poems began filling the air.”[iii] With its gaze firmly looking outward to an international community, TISH was critical target for many in the literary establishment who saw it as an affront to their attempts to define a Canadian literature. Governor General’s Award winning poet Irving Layton considered it “an extension of the faddish American style…which has no relevancy to our native literary traditions and sensibility.”[iv] Populist poet Al Purdy was kinder but still suggested the magazine was a dangerous clique, calling the editors “an in-group whose far-out gods are still Olson, [William Carlos] Williams, and [Robert] Creely.”[v] Like it or not, TISH and its editors tapped into a poetics of place that seemed to charge the Vancouver community with radical energy. Warren Tallman described the effect: “when the poet subjects himself to his environment in order to become the subject of his sentence, he is likely to move in contact with his and the environment’s vital energies…and phenomenal energy was the most obvious fact of TISH.”[vi]
The 1963 conference can be seen less as a single event that changed the trajectory of modernist poetry in Vancouver and more as the culmination of the first act in the construction of a community of radical activism. By the summer of 1963, TISH had almost two years publishing under its belt and many of the founding editors had just finished university. As their tenure wound down, new groups of poets took their place. Younger TISH followers, such as Daphne Marlatt, Stan Persky, Robert Hogg and Dan McLeod, earned more prominent roles in the newsletter. A new group of “Downtown” poets including bill bissett, Maxine Gadd, Roy Kiyooka, and John Newlove, were sympathetic to the TISH movement but were distrustful of their academic orientation. Organized by Warren Tallman, the conference brought poets of all kinds, from UBC, Vancouver, and all over the United States together for intensive study and discussion. The atmosphere was conducive for intellectual revolution. A new generation of Canadian writers, for a short period of time, discussed as equals with towering figures in the US literary world. But “the most remarkable thing,” as George Bowering wrote, “is that a passel of young poets should emerge as something more responsible than a blurbing of self indulgent romanticism.”[vii] The poetics of TISH were always those of place, of being acutely aware of one’s environment, and of knowing one’s responsibilities within that environment. There was a specific energy in this west coast Pacific place.
The first issue of The Georgia Straight was published on May 5, 1967, and did not go unnoticed. Less than a week later, editor Dan McLeod was arrested by Vancouver police for “investigation of vagrancy” and the paper suddenly could no longer find a shop to print the next issue.[viii] McLeod, the former editor of TISH, was a young Vancouver poet and UBC Math student who dropped out of school as the counterculture wave began to swell, his decision to quit coming from a desire to oppose the establishment. “Is that what it’s all about,” he asked in an interview with the Langara Journalism Review, “working for IBM to design missile systems? Or even if I’d just retired in the ivory tower and taught people math, they would be designing the missile systems. I just didn’t want to participate in that; I wanted to oppose it in some way.”[ix] The Georgia Straight was founded by the Vancouver Free Press collective in direct response to a perceived “campaign against youth culture”[x] by Vancouver Mayor Tom “Terrific” Campbell and large daily newspaper The Vancouver Sun. Inspired by counterculture press from the United States such as The Berkeley Barb (Berkeley), Guerilla (Detroit), and The Village Voice (New York), from the very beginning, the poets played an active role. Pierre Coupey, a poet and painter from Montreal, wrote the Free Press manifesto and, with the help of bill bissett and the Gestetner mimeograph machine of blewointmentpress (sic), published the screed on telephone poles up and down 4th Avenue. Milton Acorn, the people’s poet of Canada and radical socialist, donated an entire month of his military pension to the startup capital. It makes sense that The Georgia Straight evolved out of a collaborative community of both “Downtown” poets, as well as those, such as Dan McLeod and Stan Persky, who were closely aligned TISH. The poetics of place in the Vancouver environment energized the poets as well as the community and it seemed natural for like-minded individuals to band together. Furthemore, following the departure of the original editors TISH in 1963, “bill bissett stepped in with blewointmentpress and…became the new center for the energy that TISH had generated.”[xi] The paper was a vocal critic of local and provincial governments and became a constant target of police harassment. Their offices were routinely raided and in 1968, the city tried to revoke the paper’s business license before a legal challenge had it reinstated. When McLeod and writer Bob Cummings, who would go on to become one of the founders of Greenpeace, were arrested and charged with criminal libel for comparing a British Columbia court judge to Pontius Pilate, poet Allen Ginsberg and activist Jerry Rubin, both monuments of the US counterculture, rallied in defense of The Georgia Straight. The little “hippie rag” from Vancouver had important friends.
In 1969, as the United States planned to test a nuclear bomb off the coast of Alaska, the foundational elements of Greenpeace began to coalesce in Vancouver from a motley group of pacifists, draft dodgers, US ex-patriots, and homegrown Canadian radicals. This was the logical evolution of the energy created by TISH, fueled by the 1963 Vancouver Poetry Conference and enacted by The Georgia Straight. Incorporating the teachings of US poet-academics into a Canadian poetics of place, TISH radically challenged the establishment of Canadian poetry. Using a model of subversive media inspired by the US counterculture, The Georgia Straight actively sought to give a voice to persecuted youth. The poets were there. Vancouver in the 1960s was a perfect storm of influence and action where a healthy injection of poetic ideas met a wide range of men and women willing to act towards the creation of a community that ran counter to the one they found themselves a part of.
[i] Warren Tallman, “Poets in Vancouver.” Simon Fraser University Special Collections, MSC 26 Box 13, 1963, accessed May 10, 2014, http://vidaver.wordpress.com/2009/08/ 10/warren-tallman-vancouver-1963/
[ii] Brad Robinson, “Stan Persky’s Section from Oral History of Vancouver.” The Writing Life: historical and critical views of the Tish movement, ed. CH Gervais. (Coatsworth: Black Moss Press, 1976), 116.
[iii] Frank Davey, “Anything but Reluctant.” Ibid., 137.
[iv] Irving Layton, Quoted in Frank Davey, “Introduction.” Ibid., 15.
[v] Al Purdy, Ibid., 16.
[vi] Warren Tallman, “Wonder Merchants: Modernist Poetry in Vancouver During the 1960’s.” Ibid., 53.
[vii] George Bowering, “The Most Remarkable Thing About Tish.” Ibid., 134.
[viii] Naomi Pauls and Charles Campbell, ed., What The Hell Happened?: the best of The Georgia Straight. (Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 1997), 67.
[ix] Derek Bedry, “Let’s get it Straight.” Langara Journalism Review. June 2012, accessed June 3, 2014, http://www.ljr.ca/2012/06/01/lets-get-it-straight/
[x] Pierre Coupey, “Plains and Straits: On the Founding of The Georgia Straight.” The Capilano Review 3.13. (North Vancouver: Capilano University, 2011), 37.
[xi] Warren Tallman, “Wonder Merchants: Modernist Poetry in Vancouver During the 1960’s.” The Writing Life: historical and critical views of the Tish movement, ed. CH Gervais. (Coatsworth: Black Moss Press, 1976), 55.