Bill Arnott’s Beat: NPM ’22 and the Haiku Hedge

It was the cusp of NPM. Spring was in full bloom, literally. National Poetry Month coincided with Vancouver’s Cherry Blossom Festival and the city’s trees were putting on a show. Explosions of pastel pink dotted bike lanes and dusted the alleys. Park fringes were tucked into softly diluted blankets of red carpet fanfare. At least that’s how it looked to me. It was Kyoto on the opposite side of the ocean. I was huffing and puffing my way, jogging a seawall like a fairy tale wolf, pissing off pigs and sending them into the streets. Not their fault, mind you. Construction was never a porcine forte.

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After what felt like a very long while I reached the end of the road, a bubble enclosing tennis courts by a swath of amber-hued sand, where driftwood logs form a breakwater and innocent children fly kites while idiot adults kitesurf. It was here I noticed a hedge of green holly. Well, patches of holly with alder and cedar, but stressing the holly results in a much nicer meter. And tucked and pinned in the branches of greenery were dozens and dozens of poems. Haiku to be precise. And it wasn’t even yet poetry month!

An extended haiku event coincides with the blossom fest, the whole thing feeling terribly literary and wonderfully Japanese. It speaks, in a way, to the area’s Pacific Rim heritage, same as the region’s dragon boats, a blending of culture that blurs with the tides and loses itself in sea mist horizons. I chose not to break my stride, fearing I’d never get going again, so I slowed only marginally and glanced at a few, the unmistakable, abridged-looking lines in 5-7-5 on the page.

There was even a Biennale installation peeking from the lightly trimmed hedge, part of a Greater Vancouver open-air art exhibit, ongoing displays showcasing international talent, some of the best known being Yue Minjun’s A-maze-ing Laughter, what people know as The Laughing Men, and Dennis Oppenheim’s Engagement, two outsized engagement rings precariously balanced on a slope facing the union of ocean inlet with urban creek.

Poetry happenings were centring on the theme of intimacy. And I thought no better representations spoke to this concept. In the case of Minjun’s men, fourteen giants in bronze sharing a laugh, welcoming all to join in their merriment. While Oppenheim’s enormous rings, heavy with tremulous symbolism, speak not only to flaws in the industry, the institution, but to the unending optimism and promise inherent in continuous circles of metal. Not necessarily shared sincerity, but invariably intimacy.

Carrying on past the hedge of haiku I was acutely aware of the intimate nature of the place itself. Over the water, high hills in vibrant blue and green actually gleamed cuts of primary palette under sea-coloured sky. Atop the whole thing was a frosting of white, late-season snow, the outline a lumpy wedding cake, waiting to be cut and awkwardly eaten with interlocked arms. As I ran, white gulls bisected a cloudless sky while a wide-winged bald eagle drifted over the trees. To my delight, I spotted a hummingbird from a long way away. It hovered over a street, then a park, and alit in a scraggly hemlock. I wanted to laugh like the big men in copper and tin, a sensation of bliss on a nondescript morning, unseen bands of silver and gold connecting it all. All of us. In what I can only describe as intimacy.

Bill Arnott is the bestselling author of A Season on Vancouver Island, the Gone Viking travelogues, and A Perfect Day for a Walk: The History, Cultures, and Communities of Vancouver, on Foot (Arsenal Pulp Press, Fall 2024). Recipient of a Fellowship at London’s Royal Geographical Society for his expeditions, Bill’s a frequent presenter and contributor to magazines, universities, podcasts, TV and radio. When not trekking with a small pack and journal, Bill can be found on Canada’s west coast, where he lives near the sea on Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh land.