Bill Arnott’s Beat: Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside Writers’ Collective

A clink and scrape of flatware on plates. Lips smack. A bronchial cough. Huge potted fichus stoop at the ceiling, the look of good-natured green giants. I have a fifty-cent cup of coffee, which is not a Curtis Jackson reference. That’s the price of coffee at the Carnegie Centre in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside (DTES), for those of us who belong.

Carnegie Community Centre and Library, Vancouver.

I belong. I have a card that proves it. But everyone from around here belongs. Vancouver’s Carnegie Centre and Library – yes, one of the scores the late philanthropist financed years ago – Andrew, that is, not Dale. When I was little I confused philanthropy with philandering and wondered why people thought so highly of the Dunfermline billionaire. Now I understand. This inclusive urban centre is a cornucopia, the neighbourhood overflowing with compassion, love, pride, drugs, goodwill and art. Creativity abounds – disproportionate per capita output – painters, carvers, and writers of fiction, essays and poetry.

I’ve been a participant of the DTES Writers’ Collective for some time, both as a writer and facilitator. Paper and pens are provided for those who need it. It’s a safe space.

I’ve been a participant of the DTES Writers’ Collective for some time, both as a writer and facilitator. Paper and pens are provided for those who need it. It’s a safe space. Everyone has remarkable stories to share. Most are activists. Causes are endless, all invaluable. The group’s most recent publication is the poetry anthology “From The Heart of It All: Ten Years of Writing from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside,” crafted by an ebb and flow of drop-in writers. Don’t mistake drop-in for casual. It’s not. The writing’s deadly serious. Much of it exceptional. Here I find egos hard to find, fresh-air relative to other creative clusters.

Gilles Cyrenne, figurehead and facilitator, emphasizes he’s simply a coordinator, not in charge – it’s a collective. You see it in the writers, and writing, a smorgasbord of brain capacity and articulation, sumptuous as what I saw on dinner plates during the opening score.

Writers around the table change constantly. The volume of writing does not. There are plenty of familiar faces and regulars, but the number of capable wordsmiths coming through this space is impressive. The latest project is a collaborative chapbook for free distribution through Carnegie’s in-house press, included with a regular newsletter. Some of the writers help peers who don’t have a computer or lack tech proficiency. Collaboration illustrates the heart of the collective.

My first involvement with the group was at a DTES public reading at the Vancouver Film School Café, a quirky space of concrete stepped around pillars. You wouldn’t think it would work but it did. The people there reading, sharing, being read to, warmed the grey of concrete, dissolving the stanchions. For some, it was their first reading publicly, first time on a stage. One poet bowed, the way kids do at recitals. It was the greatest thing I’d seen at a reading.

On the third floor of Carnegie, atop stained-glass-lit circular stairs, we pass fresh blank paper around the table with a shared bag of Kraft caramels. There’s a writing prompt on a whiteboard and the acute, anticipatory energy of competent poets. I can’t wait to see what’s created.

(First published by The League of Canadian Poets, 2019)

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