The idea for a writing project by members of Vancouver’s poorest neighbourhood was, oddly, borne many miles away at a conference a few years ago in Prague.
Elee Kraljii Gardiner had been invited to the first global conference by Inter-Disciplinary.net titled “Writing: Paradigms, Power, Poetics, Praxes” to talk about her involvement with Thursdays Writing Collective here in Vancouver.
Gardiner founded and continues to run Thursdays Writing Collective, which provides free, drop-in, creative writing classes for members of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.
One of the other panel members at the conference in Prague was Mark Proosten, a young architect from the Netherlands who was presenting on the relationship between literary words and architectural design. Gardiner and Proosten got talking about the ideas of space and home and decided to collaborate on an exploration of space called The Stanza Project.
The project began by spending one year writing about notions of shelter, accessibility, housing, home, indoor / outdoor, and public / private. They wanted to consider both architectural and literary space and how these ideas could be expressed.
On the project website, Gardiner explains that a major concern of the Downtown Eastside is housing, including pressure from developers, affordable housing, and Vancouver’s location on unceded Coast Salish territory.
The group meets on Thursday afternoons at Carnegie Community Centre where they write collectively, starting with a different prompt each time. “There is no wrong way to write,” says Gardiner, and everyone is welcome to share their responses with the group.
Prompts included quotes from philosophical ideas, bathroom graffiti Gardiner found, street names, real estate blurbs, quotes from texts by John Asfour, or being given spaces of paper only two inches wide to challenge existing notions held by the writers.
One technique they have begun to use often is “wordsquatting,” introduced to them by local writer Michael Turner. They take existing texts or documents and move in and ‘renovate’ the existing piece to accommodate them.
“We write our way into spaces that are inhospitable or not welcoming.” This can include erasure poetry (erasing words from existing work to create a new work), pulling words out, or just writing on top of visual images, such as blueprints that Proosten sent from the Netherlands.
Gardiner believes wordsquatting can be a very powerful tool for marginalized voices.
Mohamed Helaly has been drastically affected by his involvement with Thursdays Writing Collective. He was born in Egypt and studied business management in London, England before moving to Vancouver three years ago. Helaly found out about Thursdays Collective during The Word On The Street, a local book and magazine fair, but mistook it as a writing class not a club.
“I didn’t know that I could write,” says Helaly, pleasantly surprised by the support and encouragement he found among the other writers. He began writing creative prose which other members called “philosophical.” It was this encouragement that prompted him to quit his job and return to school full-time at Langara College to pursue philosophy.
After a year ruminating on the topic, Thursdays Writing Collective has published its sixth book, entitled The Stanza Project. Gardiner calls it their “grandest” book yet, not a chapbook like many of their other publications. It is 108 pages, perfect-bound, with layout by local graphic designer Doris Chung. It includes visual art as well as text, containing both images and words as the creative responses varied.
Gardiner says the responses were exceptional. “There are so many different representations and understandings of space,” she says, including social justice, personal, political, community, nature, territory, and more. Helaly felt the ideas and prompts Gardiner and Proosten created were very interesting. He said that writing collectively “[gives] you space to find different angles and everyone had different responses.”
Helaly has two pieces published in the book, one of which was translated into Arabic and appears side-by-side with the English original. Many of the other 25 contributors also played with form and language, including other translations, visual art, and even a blues song.