Sunday, July 10, 2011

Some notes on Sachiko Murakami's Project Rebuild

What is a poem but a rental unit of language?
Recently, Vancouver ex-pat Sachiko Murakami (currently living in Toronto) launched Project Rebuild, an ongoing collaborative writing project open to anyone willing to participate in renovating any of the existing poems on the site, each one tracing back to the original poem, her own “Vancouver Special.”

Not failed attempts at beauty or stating.
Unique answers to specific questions.
How may I fit my family into the equation?
How will we make the mortgage?
How much land will be allotted,
and to whom? What can't I afford?
How may we state the look
of elsewhere? How can I make myself less
abstracted? In the house but not of it.
Grace of a front lawn, stucco sophisticate.
All that glitters stuck in the surface.
Sheet shocks sense into reflection.
Wood sliced into beam better becomes
the forest. Can't see the trees for the city.
Could you move to the east? A little further?
As she writes to introduce the site:
The Vancouver Special is a house particular to Vancouver, and particularly vexing to its residents. Its style is represented in nearly every neighbourhood in Vancouver. Built mostly throughout the 1970s, and designed to maximize usable lot space and to provide a legal and livable ground-floor secondary suite suitable for extended families or mortgage-helping tenants, the Specials are large, plain, and commonly considered ugly in comparison to their mock Tudor, Craftsman, and West Coast Modern neighbours.

By the 1980s, homeowners became so alarmed at the creeping advancement of the Specials into their neighbourhoods that bylaws were enacted to preserve the “authentic” character of neighbourhoods - notably in Shaughnessy, an affluent westside neighbourhood analogous to Toronto’s Forest Hill or Montreal’s Westmount. Design guidelines were drafted at City Hall under pressure from property owners to designate that new houses should “be relatively in proportion to its neighbour, be enriched with interesting detail, texture and colour, and be partially screed from the street in a manner that is characteristic of the area. The massing of the principal building should not overwhelm the site.”
According to Wikipedia: “Vancouver Special is a term used to refer to houses built in a particular architectural style in the period from roughly 1965 to 1985 in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada and its suburbs. They are characterised by their "box-like" structure, low-pitched roofs, balconies across the front of the house, and brick or stone finishes on the ground-floor level of the facade with stucco elsewhere. Vancouver Specials have similar floor plans with the main living quarters on the upper floor and secondary bedrooms on the bottom, making them ideal for secondary suites. These homes were favoured by new Canadians, often from Hong Kong, for their spaciousness and "tacky" design which have proven to appeal to many Chinese and were often a first house purchase.” Certainly, Vancouver isn't the only city that seems insistent on overwriting its own history and neighbourhoods; Toronto's waterfront comes to mind, written of in Michael Redhill's novel, Consolation (2006), or even Ottawa's enormously frustrating Lebreton Flats project of the 1950s. Vancouver, much like Montreal, also shares a history of the Olympics spreading out over neighbourhoods, “improving” by replacing not only buildings, but in many instances, the people themselves as well. There are other histories too, of total erasure, such as Africville, and similar Black histories erased in Southwestern Ontario, as well as Vancouver's own Hogan's Alley. Without community, without history, sites lose their meaning, and Murakami has invited anyone to come into her project to rebuild, revamp and renovate. In an interview I conducted with her, “Invisible Participants” (posted February 8, 2009 at Agora), she ends with:
Is it surprising that poets feel friction in their environment? I'm not sure that writing preoccupied with place is unique to Vancouver. But it is a compelling environment, at least to me. Maybe it's because Vancouverites in general feel that friction too -- being Canadian without Winter, being in a city dwarfed by Nature... And maybe it's because Vancouver is still quite new, and the building of the city -- and the idea of the city, what Vancouver means -- is still happening all around us. Maybe it's that newness and the feeling that we are all participating in that project, that what Vancouver means/looks like/is isn't yet set in stone (or stucco, or glass, or cedar) is what compells us to write about it. I suppose that's what I'm writing about... that project, that negotiation. Maybe it's less emotional because the subject is a building rather than a person, but I've yet to see a building that wasn't meant for a person to inhabit it. I guess it's still a similar strategy I'm using, though. It started with the question: What can a person's reaction to a Vancouver Special (and Vancouverites have very strong reactions to Vancouver Specials) suggest about the person, and that process of city-building?
What kind of legacy does such a ubiquitous design leave, and how does it impact Vancouver's complicated relationship with home ownership? It's complicated even further, given the incredible costs associated with home and/or condo ownership, and the ongoing legacies of Japanese internment camps and aboriginal land claims. It's one thing for Murakami's poems to respond to such, but what does her invitation bring? Further on the Project Rebuild site, she describes the particulars of her collaborative project:
Project Rebuild began with a single poem about the Vancouver Special. That poem was renovated through mechanical means; I ran the poem through Google Translate and back again through four languages of people I have known who have lived in Vancouver Specials – Cantonese, Italian, Portuguese and Serbian – and back to English again. The result of these flash inhabitations was a sameness with subtle differences. These four poems appear in Rebuild, my upcoming book, which as a whole considers the possibilities for renovation in poetry, and the tendency of Vancouver, Rebuild’s site of inquiry, to tear down and rebuild itself every few decades.

The question of inhabiting a poem persisted.

I then sent the poems to poets in Vancouver, and invited them to move in as tenants of the poems, to paint the walls, change the faucets, knock down whatever walls didn’t fit their visions. These poems became the first houses in Project Rebuild’s neighbourhood.

The idea of extending the community persisted.
As Murakami writes, the site began with a single poem, taken from the manuscript of her second poetry collection, due this fall, a collection originally titled Vancouver/Special, but appearing as the renamed REBUILD (Talonbooks, 2011), a collection she discusses in a recent interview with Jeff Latosik, “Make It New: An Interview with Sachiko Murakami,” posted at Open Book Toronto, where she discusses her complicated relationship with Vancouver housing:
If I could afford to own a condo in Vancouver, I'm not sure I would say no to one. I actually was trying to buy one at one point, but with the (what I thought was) substantial money I had for a down payment (after the death of my grandfather) and a relatively okay-paying job, I could afford about 400 square feet - if I spent nearly all my income on a mortgage. I don't really have any idea how people manage to own property in Vancouver. I know there are ways to do it, involving flipping properties, and making grown-up money, and renting out basement suites, but if I had to do that it would likely take up most of my psychic energy.

Real estate takes us enough of my psychic energy in Vancouver as a renter - you talk to anyone, really, any demographic, and eventually real estate comes up in the conversation in one form or another. It's an easy topic for Vancouverites - after the rain, real estate. It's a bit of an obsession, really. That's what interested me in writing about it.

Then there's my own family's relationship to real estate and homeowning. My father was born in 1944 in an internment camp for Japanese-Canadians in New Denver, BC - far from Salt Spring Island, the largest of the Gulf Islands between the mainland and Vancouver Island, where his family's farm had long been sold off by the government to pay for their internment. His family would eventually work their way back to the west coast and re-establish themselves as a prominent family on Salt Spring.
That treatment had a huge impact on my family, and one of the outcomes was a real drive to buy land on the island. (As an aside, my uncle and aunt just opened the first non-profit housing project on the island.) Yet my father did not own the home we grew up in. So I come to real estate with a bit of baggage, you see. And I like to work with my baggage as fruitfully as I can.
The resulting reconstructions, the resulting community of responses, has been impressive, with rewritten and reimagined works by poets from Vancouver and beyond, including Meredith Quartermain, Larissa Lai, David McGimpsey, Jacqueline Turner, Angela Hibbs, Pearl Pirie, Christine McNair, Justin Million, a. rawlings, Jake Mooney, Gary Barwin, Rita Wong, Fred Wah, ryan fitzpatrick, Roger Farr, Soma Feldmar, Nikki Reimer, Jennica Harper, Jason Christie and Ray Hsu, as well as a growing number of others, all bringing in their own renovations. At least one author claims, in her subsequent bio, to not even have (yet) set foot in Vancouver. What does this mean for renovation, for Vancouver as a space? Is Murakami actually creating an abstract Vancouver, one that can be renovated, added to, rebuilt, by anyone, anywhere?
I Enjoy a Few Things About This Neighborhood

But, every time I go there,
Relic steals my log.
Every time I go there,
Relic steals my log.

Every time I go there,
Relic steals my log.
Every time I go there,
Relic steals my log.

Every time I go there,
Relic steals my log.
Every time I go there,
Relic steals my log.

Sha la la-la-la.
Sha la la-la-la. (David McGimpsey)

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