'Active solidarity with directly impacted communities'

A conversation with Cecily Nicholson

Cecily Nicholson reads at the Rhizome Café in Vancouver
Cecily Nicholson reads at the Rhizome Café in Vancouver

Jules Boykoff

Recently I had the good fortune of conversing with the amazing Cecily Nicholson about her poetry and activism.

Her first poetry book, Triage, was published by Talonbooks in April 2011. Triage is a thick, engaging, formally innovative book that does a whole lot at once: it slides between worlds, engages in critique, challenges the self-appointed arbiter role of the mass media, celebrates solidarity. All the while it thrums with the political, exploding the all-too-common dichotomy of activism and aesthetics.

Cecily has worked with women of the downtown eastside community of Vancouver, Canada since 2000 and is currently a coordinator of the Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre. She participates in the VIVO Media Arts Centre as an organizer with their Safe Assembly project, 2010 and the Imminent Future series, 2011. As a writer and poet Cecily works in collaboration with the Press Release Poetry Collective, formed in anticipation of the Vancouver 2010 Olympics.  This summer she is teaching at the Purple Thistle community centre’s Summer Institute and collaborating on the upcoming AK Press publication: A Radical Handbook for Youth.

JB: As I read Triage, I kept forging mental connections between the lines on the page and your work as an organizer (e.g. the poem “SERVICE”). Can you talk about how Triage moves between aesthetic and activist spaces? How does your work at the Downtown Eastside Women's Centre enter the text?

CN: Aesthetic and activist spaces are separated in real and imagined ways that produce in me a kind of anxiety regarding contradictions I experience personally and the broader limitations reproduced through this separation. Triage was an opportunity for me to develop some cohesion (hopefully) through differentiated spaces. Some of the poetry I worked out publically in exceptional spaces like Rhizome Café in Vancouver where we’ve held many warm gatherings of activist/poet/artists. 

I realize that the book has become a tangible point of entry for me to level critique, roundly, that includes myself.  I think that my experiences and mobility are pretty limited. For the text to be grounded it necessarily contains my everyday life, including paid work and organizing.  I prefer poetry that documents, witnesses, reveals structure, talks back and raises questions in ways that are not closed or irrelevant to my friends, family, allies. I’ve learned to reference cultural production with a specific interest in its process and public, and not simply the object/outcome. I relate best to work being produced under hard conditions and in active solidarity with directly impacted communities. If my poetry is relevant to the work of organizing then that’s a fortunate convergence.

Poetry is necessary work for me – I don’t wish for it to be easily absorbed. The use of the cultural front in furthering causes of capital, colonialism and ultimately violence and poverty is difficult to get out from under. This was evident in the olympic moment.  The poetry collective I work with are all organizers in different areas. We formed in anticipation of the olympics and choose to publish work that was anonymous and felt free to be moderately (and justly) seditious.  In support of various actions we performed individually and collectively.  At that time the deliberate influx of capital into arts production was glossing civic and national identity – this happening prior to a period of wider retrenchment of arts funding – the backdrop being long decades of dismantling and disregarding social supports.  These issues are at play in the processes of gentrification that continue to be resisted in the downtown eastside of Vancouver and elsewhere.

Relative to the downtown eastside I have a lot of privilege, most significantly as a paid worker, over the years.  Now the area is being dominantly constructed as an arts district, so the problematic of cultural capital and producing work from this location is even more fraught.  Acknowledging this, Triage is my best attempt so far to speak alongside a community of women in struggle – who are politically astute, resilient organizers and active cultural producers in ways that refuse to be co-opted. My work at DEWC enters into Triage as a jumbled series of narratives and samplings. I wrestle with the language of bureaucracy.  In “SERVICE” I consider migration into the core and the daily grind of the service industry in a place that also cares for movements and uprising.

After so many years, I am pretty worn and re/traumatized by some of this work. Poetry is (“not a luxury”) in part a stabilizer – how to process brutality, brash capital injections,  perpetual loss and confusion.  I’ve been an organizer in varying degrees back to my youth. I started attending formal arts spaces and galleries about three-four years ago with a mind to understand how this work is organized.  Some of the poetry in Triage draws from my notes including workshops, events, gatherings as well as protest. It also engages street art – non professional, public practices from visual art to music to poetry.  I am aggravated by the general disjuncture of formal art and the literary from organizing, and from my everyday.  My optimism as poetry is in motley otherness, in struggle – marching, writing or whatever it is we’re doing locally, implicated in broad networks and multiple fronts. Women of the downtown eastside are central to my understanding of other possible worlds.  When I look to the hard working people around me I am ever driven to invoke a stronger potentiality than the conditions dictate.  

JB: In the lead-up to the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, you collaborated with the Press Release Poetry Collective and formed the Safe Assembly Project at the VIVO Media Arts Centre. Moving out of the Olympic moment, do you see poetry-activist momentum? If so, where? How did the Olympic moment alter the terrain where aesthetic and activist spaces come together? On the poetry-activism front, what’s going on in Vancouver right now that you find compelling?

CN: As much as I’d like to, I haven’t seen a significant poetry-activist momentum coming out of the olympic moment (though I am immediately wary of the construct!). I do observe more intent within organizing around social justice issues, opening to a current awareness of poetry, its worth in struggles with language and the meaning it can bring our understandings of community.  Many of us are less concerned about positioning our activist selves as poets (poet selves as activists…) – more concerned about deepening our capacity to communicate and share information outside of traditional forms: the communiqué, press release, panel, lecture etc. and to let loose a creativity that actively works against proscribed folds and conditions of language and discursive regimes. Relations have formed and strengthened through poetry. These are integral to us as struggling individuals concerned with strengthening social structure. Poets in Vancouver, the lower mainland and more widely – here – participate in ways that facilitate another voice for protest; we are present at celebrations and in memoriam in our communities; we work with youth; stand outside of detention centres and court-houses and enter boardrooms – we share our poetry with each other as a point of love, contact, support and affinity. 

There are reasonable critiques regarding the armchair poet imagining its activism, romanticizing and co-opting, taking up bodies as objects of study – too easy a tendency we’re familiar with this in arts and academia.  What matters more is relations, interrogating one’s privileges, listening, grounded support, material and social accessibility and being present. So, what poetry-activist momentum I do observe involves a strengthening of relations.  Openness to poetry as an aspect of the political terrain, recognizing an aged legacy of such poetry work – including resistance to English as the language of exchange – has softened skepticism of organizers (poets, artists or not) toward the relevance of this work.

I also mill about the periphery of elite and individual-focused production in closed community, the funded aspects certainly dominated by academia and academic discourse, which means inaccessibility to whole groups of people – these are contained spaces regularly suspect about political contention and unresponsive to denouncements of hierarchy (in my experience).  Critiques around power and spatial segregation – here – are marginalized and often ignored – from the category of retrograde poetry makers, my people, typically. I am frustrated by the veneration of the (upwardly mobile?) working class, situated as I am in relation to communities focused on survival or precariously without citizenship. And I refuse the erasure of experiences of racism, sexism, ablism etc etc, and anti-colonial grounding that a dogmatic adherence to class politics often bypasses.  Nonetheless, more dominant spaces of literary arts romantically informed by these notions are certainly relevant to forward struggles –and locally are in general: mobile, influential and often well-intentioned and very kind.  I wish there was more synthesis.

Fortunately, good work that I find compelling is all over the place. Regardless of individual positions, these for me are grounded in real events: folks writing and reading to welcome Tamil refugees incarcerated upon arrival on Vancouver’s shores last summer (many are still detained, all 492 still in limbo) – tune in to Stark Raven's Podcast Prison Justice Day special, August, co-op 102.7 (archives at prinsonjustice.ca) – I loved the solid performances around Mining Justice week in Vancouver this May and would point specifically to the ongoing enpipeline project as exemplary. There are amazing individuals taking time and work in collective and collaborative modes engaged and aware, standing up and backing the voices of directly impacted communities on issues of extraction, water, food security, violence, poverty…  Compelling to everyone who imagines themselves progressive I hope – as this decent work builds connections, relations and strength with people, fists raised.

Nicholson on the front lines at a G8-G20 protest in Toronto

Photo: Cecily Nicholson on the front lineswith fist raised at a G8-G20 protest in Toronto