T.S. Eliot actually called April “the cruellest month,” but he never endured winter in Vancouver. We’ve got a whole string of months that could teach the famously grim poet a thing or two about cruelty.
Eliot meant the way April flirts with the future, promising new life and new hope while staying firmly rooted in cold, darkness and death. April is a terrible tease. Such poetic thinking, embodied in such powerful words, is why the American Academy of Poets designated April as National Poetry Month.
Now, National Poetry Month has dampened downtown Vancouver. A sidewalk-art project called “It’s Raining Poetry” gets an official kickoff Friday evening during the monthly First Friday Art Walk; closing out the month will be a poetry crawl featuring live-on-the-sidewalk readings by the poets. That gets underway at 11 a.m. April 29 at Pacific Continental Bank, 101 E. Sixth St.
A handful of poets, volunteers and staffers with Vancouver’s Downtown Association grappled with a little cruelty Friday afternoon while experimenting with a stencil and water-sensitive paint on the sidewalk. It was a rare sunny day and a long-awaited opportunity to apply 24 original poems — many of them nicknamed “rainku” — to dry concrete as part of a project called “It’s Raining Poetry.”
What’s “rainku”? It’s our own rainy repurposing of haiku, that super-brief style of Japanese nature poetry. Due to the inherent limitations of sidewalk space, poets were encouraged to keep it as short as possible. Eliot’s own 433-line “The Waste Land,” a legendary masterpiece, would not have made the cut. (“Legendary” means many people have heard of the poem but few have actually read it.)
If You Go
• What: “It’s Raining Poetry,” a public art installation at 24 downtown locations.
• Poems visible: when wet.
• Map: http://vdausa.org/.
• Opening reception: 5 to 7 p.m. April 7.
• Poetry crawl, poets reading: 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. April 29.
• Where: Pacific Continental Bank, 101 E. Sixth St.
• • •
• What: Book launch for “A Chorus of One” by Herb Stokes.
• When: 6 p.m. April 22
• Where: Angst Gallery, 1015 Main St., Vancouver.
Raining on poetry
Friday’s first attempts came out a little vague and blurry. Insert your own joke about vague, blurry poetry here. Eventually, though, the crew got the hang of painting poetry on the sidewalk, and fanned out to cover downtown in verse.
Poet Morgan Hutchinson was thrilled to help apply a stencil of her own library-loving poem, “Gather. Question. Dream,” to the sidewalk in front of the Vancouver Community Library. “It’s one of my favorite places in Vancouver,” said Hutchinson. “It is such an amazing library.”
Other site-specific poems went down in front of Vancouver City Hall, Propstra Square in Esther Short Park, the Kiggins Theatre and many other businesses and sites up and down Main Street and Broadway. The works of 17 local poets are included.
Among them you’ll even find businessman and philanthropist Paul Christensen, whose poem at the corner of 11th and Broadway sings the praises of that spot’s sentinel, an enormous wooden reptile named “Phrogy.” (Christensen himself donated the big frog to Vancouver’s streetscape in 1981.)
“This is all about the downtown experience and places that are well known,” said project curator Christopher Luna, Clark County’s poet laureate. “We wanted the poets to focus on this downtown that we all share and appreciate.”
All the rainkus are there now — the water-sensitive paint is supposed to last about three months — but you may not be able to see them. Unless it’s raining, that is. If the sidewalk is wet, all is revealed. If the sidewalk is dry, the poems remain invisible. More April teasing.
And what if, after this long, wet winter, it’s cruelly dry during the Art Walk or the Rainku Crawl? No problem: volunteers with water bottles will reveal the poems — by artificially raining on them.
Ghost town no longer
For Luna, poetry proliferating all over downtown Vancouver is a dream come true. When he moved here from New York City, he said, the place was a “ghost town” for poetry. After he took a leap of faith and launched a downtown reading series, he was quite amazed at the dozens of people who started regularly turning out, he said.
That monthly series, the Ghost Town Poetry Open Mic, has been the anchor of a growing literary community in Vancouver for well over a decade now. Its regular home is the Angst Gallery, 1015 Main St. in downtown Vancouver, on the second Thursday evening of every month. That’s where poet Hutchinson, who always has been “playing with words,” she said, went from wannabe to real poet.
“My entire life changed because of the community Christopher has built,” she said. “It is a beautiful, supportive group” that helped her take her own passion for writing seriously, she said.
These days, Hutchinson is a “teaching poet” who has already visited local fourth-grade classrooms to work with student writers on ideas like rhymes and symbols. “I’m learning so much while working with them,” she said.
‘A Chorus of One’
Local poets find the growing poetry community here indispensable — because the work of poetry can be pretty solitary.
So it’s a real cause for communal celebration when one of the group releases a book. Herb Stokes’ new self-published volume is “A Chorus of One,” and it joins together a quiet, serious poetic voice with a humorous one that indulges in rhyming wordplay.
Stokes “is an essential member of the … poetry community. His sharp wit and ability to get to the heart of the matter while remaining compassionate is a marvel to behold,” Luna wrote — adding that Stokes’ work is free of the egotism and pretense “that can afflict poets like a social disease. When Herb steps to the mic, the entire room lights up, and everyone knows that they’re about to witness something special.”
Stokes will read from “A Chorus of One” during a book launch set for 6 p.m. April 22 at Angst Gallery, 1015 Main St.