Early Literary Readings
The recordings here document the history of literary programming at the Western Front, which began shortly after the founding of the Front, in 1974, as the Monday Night Reading series, a weekly reading program organized by Vancouver writers and artists, including Gerry Gilbert, Charles Watts, Mary Beth Knechtel, and Vincent Trasov. The Monday Night Reading series attracted local and visiting poets and writers operating within the flourishing avant-garde movement on the West Coast in the 1970s, part of a strong counter-culture scene in the city and supported by anarchist, socialist, feminist, queer and counter-culture publishers, including TISH, blewointment press, Makara magazine, New Star, Talon, Press Gang, Pulp Press and others.
Many of these Monday Night Readings were documented using the Western Front’s 1970s portapak 1/2-inch open reel video recording technology, and later, U-Matic tapes. Documentation of events was part of the Western Front’s media-based activity from the beginning, in part fulfilling their mandate to provide space and equipment for artists to determine a cultural ecology.
The camera observing these readings intimately records the speakers’ performative expressions, considers a poet’s skirt and boots, or pans the faces or heads of those sitting in the audience. This collection is a significant representation of seventies writing and live performance on the West Coast. Writers such as Daphne Marlatt, Robin Blaser, bill bissett, Maria (Gladys) Hindmarch, Ed Dorn, Robert Fones, Anne Waldman, Robert Creeley, Sherril Jaffe, the Four Horsemen, and Fred Wah held readings in the Luxe Theatre. The moments captured on tape include Jamie Reid proclaiming his rejection of poetry in favour of Maoist politics, Warren Tallman quipping on the origins and lineage of TISH and Susan Musgrave relaying an error in judgement when she impersonated a First Nations poet. There’s a lot of smoking, and occasionally a resident cat will jump up onto a podium. Later videos record larger group events for Tsunami Editions, Amnesty International, or the benefit for MacLeod’s Books that took place after a fire bomb threatened to destroy their business. It is difficult to name a BC poet working in the 70s and 80s who did not participate in at least one of the literary events held at the Western Front.
Many of these video tapes haven’t been viewed since the time of their recording. The Western Front Media Archive has begun to preserve this important collection through our in-house digitization station, in tandem with a long-term digital preservation system for finished digital files. By using and maintaining original equipment, we are moving to stabilize these materials, staving off the loss inherent with fragile magnetic media. We are committed to bringing these moments from our shared cultural history to light, and preserving them securely for future generations of writers, researchers, artists and performers.
The literary archive contains over fifty tapes. Browse the full collection of video recordings here.
The Literary Archive digitization project was a pilot project made possible through the support of the Irving K Barber Learning Centre through the BC History Digitization Program. Future digitization work can be supported by a donation to our minute-by-minute campaign.