Wayde Compton performs his poetry at York

On Thursday, Feb. 10, York’s Canadian Writers in Person course and reading series presented poet Wayde Compton. Chris Cornish, a teaching assistant for the course, sent the following report to YFile.

There’s a race born every minute.

– from Performance Bond by Wayde Compton

“Whither Hogan’s Alley?” This is one of the questions that Wayde Compton attempted to answer the evening of Feb. 10, as he performed a reading from his poetry collection, Performance Bond. The poet, who is also a DJ, historian and teacher, came on high recommendation from another Canadian writer, Dionne Brand, who said that “Wayde Compton’s voice is politically-charged and graceful, urgent in its call to the collective.”

Left: Poet Wayde Compton photographed in Hogan’s Alley which is located in Vancouver’s East Side. Photograph by Glen Lowry

A co-founder of the Hogan’s Alley Memorial Project, Compton is interested in that lost piece of Vancouver’s black history, its “first and last black neighbourhood.” Hogan’s Alley was the unofficial name for an L-shaped corner of Strathcona in Vancouver’s East End. This area of cultural diversity was essentially wiped out in the 1970s by the Georgia Viaduct, a construction which Compton says literally disemboweled the community. There is now little that remains of that concentrated black community; most of Vancouver’s current black population is spread across the map.

Inspired by the 1994 film Hogan’s Alley (Fatona and Wyngaarden) but working with little but anecdotal evidence, Compton had to be “retro-speculative” to recreate what the community might have been like. Asking himself what he would have liked to see in such a community, he created “factitious” institutions: a mosque, a union, a newspaper, and a benevolent society. For all of them, he transformed and photographed local buildings to become a section in Performance Bond titled “Lost-Found Landmarks of Black Vancouver.”

There was a certain amount of adventure in capturing some of the images for the book. After climbing a fence to take a picture of the garage that would become the fictional False Creek Moslem Temple, the owner came out to confront Compton and his photographer. After mistaking them for a film crew, the owner had to be assured that they meant no harm in trespassing, and that what they were doing was indeed poetry.

Once he had these visual representations, Compton wrote stories for two of his landmarks. He also “re-imagined” a newspaper article from 1939 Vancouver, to create a sense of how that community may have been perceived. The pictures and stories of these institutions were so convincing that a few early reviewers of Performance Bond  were indignant that these undiscovered symbols of African heritage had been suppressed until now. Compton coyly points to the section in the book’s acknowledgments, which warns of its “factitious” elements.

As an explanation for this deceptive word, the poet told a story of P.T. Barnum, who posted a sign near each of his circus exhibits: “To the Egress.” This literary sleight-of-hand kept people moving to the exits (in anticipation of a special “Egress” exhibit) to make way for more customers. While Compton uses this as his own kind of in-joke, he is not joking when he writes of a different kind of sleight-of-hand in his poem titled “To the Egress”. Here he writes of a father musing over his mulatto daughter and their black heritage. There is a suggestion that “deskism” is responsible for the undermining of prominent black people and institutions. Despite thinking they are moving to something better, the people and their culture are moved through bureaucratic manoeuvring to the “egress”.

Students wondered if Compton found the term “mulatto” offensive. He acknowledged that this slave term, derived from “mule,” is somewhat questionable. Comparisons to an animal that is a sterile cross between a donkey and horse aren’t very flattering. However, it is a term that is easier to say than alternatives such as “biracial” and “half-African/half-Caucasian.” Furthermore, such terms tend to fractionalize one’s identity, as if cut in pieces, halves and quarters.

Compton considers the Métis lucky in this regard with a neutral name that simply means “mixed.” In some of his poems, he comes up with his own words: “Halfrican” and “Afro-saxon.” In another poem, the poet gives a moving tribute to the actor Sidney Poitier, “the original black-face-in-a-high-place,” for contributing to his interracial history: a “creation of the Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?-generation of the post-first-on-screen-interracial-kiss baby boom.”

Asked about how racism can be “unlooped” here and elsewhere, Compton used an interesting example. He said that the early architects of apartheid came to Canada to look at the Native reserves, to see how segregation was done. He also suggested that the unraveling of racism has a lot to do with changing the language of purity and binaries.

In Compton’s poetry, the students attending the Canadian Writers in Person series witnessed the poet’s fluidity and openness to change that did not lose memory of the complexities of history and ethnicity. One of his characters compares the world to holding mercury which is “slippery like that. You will never altogether have it, but there it is, in your hands, the whole world. You can try to hold it or you can wonder at its motion. I’d like to think I’ve always chosen wondering over holding.”

More about Wayde Compton

Wayde Compton is a Vancouver writer, performance artist and editor and professor at Simon Fraser University. His book of poetry 49th Parallel Psalm (Advance Editions/Arsenal Press, 1999) was nominated for the Dorothy Livesay Prize. More recently he compiled Bluesprint: Black British Columbia Literature and Orature (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2002), an anthology of Black British Columbian writing and orature featuring work from the gold rush era to today. His interest in musician Jimi Hendrix creates an entry point for Compton to explore questions of form, cultural consciousness and the question of cultural appropriation.

The Canadian Writers in Person series of public readings at York, which is free and open to the public, is also part of an introductory course on Canadian literature. On March 17, Claire Harris will read from her poetry collection She.