Articles & Reviews

Another Group of Seven: The Vehicule Poets

By Carolyn Marie Souaid

Saturday, April 3, 2004
Special to The Gazette

Still 'making poetry new'

In the good old days, it was always a Chinese meal that got the poetic juices flowing. Then the proverbial flash of insight, the pitch that it was high time to 'do something.' The 'something' being a 'happening', some collective project usually a tad over-the-top.

Thus it began—again—last spring. Former Vehicule Poet Tom Konyves lobbying for yet another event, this one commemorative. His impulse setting the stage for Thursday night's Cabaret Vehicule, a theatrical extravaganza of spoken word pieces created in the 70s and 80s by a group of energetic bards fiercely committed to 'making poetry new.'

Flash back to Literary Montreal circa 1972, an electricity in the air, a desire to challenge convention and find alternative ways to frame human experience: We'd been to the moon and back. We'd protested Vietnam. Artists across the board were turning on to hip American poetry and experimental art movements from Europe. The times, it seemed, were a changin'.

So it was for the Vehicule Poets, a diverse bunch of writers who bonded together long enough to form one of the most cohesive poetry movements in Canada since Vancouver's early 60s. Montreal's own 'Group of Seven,' they were Endre Farkas, Artie Gold, Tom Konyves, Claudia Lapp, John McAuley, Stephen Morrissey, and Ken Norris, all dedicated, in their own way, to pushing the boundaries of their craft. All more intent on celebrating life than forming a 'school.'

From 1972 until it officially disbanded in 1982, the group was a beehive of activity, collaborating to produce some of Montreal's most original multimedia performances, collage texts, videopoems, literary magazines, and books. Not only did they write poems, they read, sang, danced, chanted, and sculpted them. They put them on city buses. They founded a press—Véhicule Press—operating today under the ownership of Simon Dardick. (Choosing to emphasize that they were English poets writing in Montreal, they later abandoned the accent on the 'e' of their name.)

You might say they ran the liveliest poetry scene in town—at least in English Montreal— congregating, at first, at an alternative art gallery where they launched their inimitable Sunday afternoon 'happenings'. Beginning as a locals-only reading, the series gradually mutated into one that featured poets Al Purdy, Michael Ondaatje, George Bowering and Anne Waldman. Familiar faces in the crowd included CanLit icons Louis Dudek, Frank Scott, and occasionally, Leonard Cohen.

Fast-forward to spring 2003. Endre Farkas, 56, is conspiring with Konyves over chow mein. The two are egging each other on about a reunion, a retrospective of the past but also a glimpse into the present. They are itching to mark the 25th anniversary of the publication of The Vehicule Poets, a 1979 anthology of the group's eclectic output.

Suddenly, on his days off, Farkas finds himself at the computer, adapting some of the oldies-but-goodies for the stage, including Morrissey's 'Regard as Sacred,' Gold's 'I want to make the space around the poem real,,,' and Lapp's 'Dakini: The Cosmic Hooker.' Before he knows it, he's enticed the Musée d'art contemporain de Montréal to sponsor the event, and lined up the Step Dans Fuego Theatre Collective directed by Liz Valdez to begin rehearsals.

Accustomed to working with actors and dancers, Farkas has always argued against art as mere artifact: "A poem is an organic living thing that can grow in different directions." According to him, Valdez's added creative input—taking his update from the page to the stage — is in perfect keeping with the Vehicule Poets' collaborative philosophy.

While the second half of the program features the launch of an anthology, Vehicule Poets_Now, and an unrehearsed reading of new work by the Vehicule Poets themselves, the first half is strictly a showcase of those exuberant times.

That times have changed—again— Farkas acknowledges. He's kept tabs on the latest developments in poetry and on the sudden proliferation of spoken word, particularly among the younger generation of writers. But he is unconvinced that their output is anything new: "We (the Vehicule Poets) were Spoken Word long before Spoken Word came into vogue."

In his introduction to the anthology, Canadian Poet Laureate George Bowering calls the Vehicule Poets a "very welcome radical chapter" in the history of recent English-language poetry in Montreal. Farkas, however, is a little more pointed: "I'd say we wanted to fill the void left in the literary scene after the Layton-Cohen peak, and rescue it from the Cohen clones. ...We wanted to dispel the myth of the sullen, solitary poet. Although we were—and still are— serious about our work, we didn't take ourselves too seriously."

Cabaret Vehicule: The Theatre of Poetry
Thursday, April 8 at 8 PM
Cinquième Salle (Place des Arts)
185 Ste. Catherine St. W.
Information: 514-847-6226
Free admission; general seating

Carolyn Marie Souaid, a Montreal poet, is co-producer of "Poésie en Mouvement" to be launched April 22 outside Paragraphe Bookstore.

Copyright © 2007 The author