UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Borderlines of poetry and art : Vancouver, American modernism, and the formation of the west coast avant-garde, 1961-69 Tomaszewska, Lara Halina


In 1967, San Francisco poet Robin Blaser titled his Vancouver-based journal The Pacific Nation because the imaginary nation that he envisaged was the "west coast." Blaser was articulating the mythic space that he and his colleagues imagined they inhabited at Simon Fraser University and the University of British Columbia: a nation without borders, without nationality, and bound by the culture of poetry. The poetic practices of the San Francisco Renaissance, including beat, projective, and Black Mountain poetics, had taken hold in Vancouver in 1961 with poet Robert Duncan's visit to the city which had catalyzed the Tish poetry movement. In 1963, Charles Olson, Allen Ginsberg, and Robert Creeley participated in the Vancouver Poetry Conference, an event that marked the seriousness and vitality of the poetic avant-garde in Vancouver. The dominant narrative of avant-garde visual art in Vancouver dates its origins to the late 1960s, with the arrival of conceptualism, especially the ideas and work of Dan Graham and Robert Smithson. By contrast, this thesis argues for an earlier formation of the avant-garde, starting with the Tish poetry movement and continuing with a series of significant local events such as the annual Festival of the Contemporary Arts (1961-71), organized by B.C. Binning and Alvin Balkind, who was the curator of the Fine Arts Gallery at the University of British Columbia. The diverse artistic and intellectual practices of Robert Duncan, John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Stan Brakhage, and Marshall McLuhan presented at the Festivals were absorbed and adapted not only by poets and writers but also by artists, including Ian Wallace, Roy Kiyooka, Ian Baxter, Gary Lee-Nova, and Michael Morris. The cross-fertilization of avant-garde poetry and art was an international phenomenon. In New York, "anti-formal" art also embraced Cage and Cunningham as aesthetic models. Its effect in Vancouver was to de-stabilize European traditions of art that had been dominant. In the 1960s, Vancouver avant-garde artists constructed the west coast as an alternative space--alternative to American militarism and anti-communism, to Euro-Canadian cultural traditions and to the artistic dominance of New York. They helped to create a vital, transnational Pacific region.

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