Going for broke begins in January 1975 when I arrive in Vancouver
from London. I am 29 and Luke has just turneded 4. In this period I edit
my first film and shoot my second, work on what becomes the multimedia show
Notes in origin, endure an 8-year lesbian relationship, and at the
end get pregnant for a questionable reason. It ends in May of 1985, the
day before my second son is born.
The Dames rocket period is the most chaotic of my life by far.
I meet people who are compelling to me, and it seems that part of the way
they have come to be compelling is drugs, so after having skipped drugs
in the 60s, in the late 70s I try mushrooms, weed and acid. I don't do much
of them, but they and my women lovers take me apart. I welcome being taken
apart, have gone looking for it because I know there is something wrong
with my writing and photographs, but I lose custody of Luke as a consequence,
at terrible and ongoing cost to both of us.
The Up north time, though fraught in similar ways, is often sublime.
Because I fear I've lost my soul, by which I meant the feeling of realness
that had been a platform of security I hadn't known I had, I get a Canada
Council film production grant to make a film in my home country in northern
Alberta, to try to recover it. I live there in farmhouses among fields,
mostly alone, for parts of three years. In these years my work begins to
find its way. I photograph, film some, and in the end even grope my way
to writing I like. These years are still a source: I remember them with
The years afterward, the first half of the 80s when I am back in Vancouver
trying to understand and form what I've found, are called Edged out
because although to my sense of it I am working well, the work is failing
in local art contexts and I am being shut out of the friendships that had
been my art community. My lover and I are foundering in confusion. Experimental
film is out of fashion; I am still using welfare as an arts grant, but the
monthly rate by now is so low I am often hungry. By the end of these years
I feel I'll die if I don't somehow jump. There is a desperate, disgraceful
solution and I take it.
Throughout this period the journal usually has no dates. Where I can
guess time breaks from changes in handwriting I insert a spacer. At times
I have also had to collate from several kinds of journals and notebooks
that ran simultaneously, and where narrative is scarce I've sometimes spliced
in letters to my mother or the lover of the time.
Early volumes are written messily in ballpoint. In later volumes I switch
to pencil. After about * the original is in always in lower case. In later
sections I sometimes transcribe as written, but mostly I regularize caps
The index page for each volume has excerpts that can function as summaries
of a time. Usually these bits are chosen because they are somewhat better
written than my common run, but occasionally also because they fill out
To make it easier to pick out or ignore the ongoing current thread, I've
color-marked dreams in green and reading or study notes, including quotation,
in blue. During this period I often go through earlier journals and extract
phrases or sections; I've also wanted to distinguish these assemblies from
contemporary text, and so have marked these sections, usually a mix of quotations
and my own phrases, with dark red. I may sometimes get this latter category
wrong, not remembering which is the first appearance and which a later repetition.
Film and photos
I arrive from London with the Trapline footage uncut in my luggage.
In the first few volumes of Dames rocket I'm having to find somewhere
to edit it, and since I have used my Arts Council of Great Britain completion
grant to move I am also having to find new money for prints. I earn $1000
making a tape-slide show for a Western Women's Conference presentation to
business leaders. Students in the Vancouver Art School's film program sneak
me into their cutting room after hours and I work through the night, freezing
when I hear the security guard's footsteps. I'm cutting with rewinds and
a viewer and I cut the sound stock by frame count, with just a squawk box.
Don't have a work print, am cutting original reversal and frightened to
see how dirty it is getting. Gordon Kidd wanders by and shows me how to
clean the footage. Fills out the timing sheet for me. I write my titles
with chalk on black construction paper and shoot the head title on filmstock
I didn't know I had already exposed. I'm doing all of this fearfully and
awkwardly, have never edited a film before. It is a simple project though
done with great difficulty: 18 minutes, A roll only. When I bring my first
answer print back to the art school to look for a projector Gordon asks
Al Razutis to show it to his class. I'm seeing it finished for the first
time standing in the back of a dark room full of strangers. Al says "Well,
it's got soul."
I hear the Vancouver Cinemateque is buying experimental work so I take
my movie to an appointment with Kirk Tougas and Tony Reif. They buy a print
and suggest I send it to the Pacific Northwest Film Festival. I don't do
it, but I understand that it means they like it. I also owe a copy to the
Arts Council of Great Britain, and the first time I'm back in London I show
it to David Curtis. William Raban programs it for Perspectives on British
avant-garde film at the Hayward Gallery in1978 and Felix Thompson writes
about it in Screen in 1979. It's included in the Paris Biennale in
When the Canada Council gives me a film production grant in 1978 to make
a film in Alberta I buy a Beaulieu, a heavy wooden cine tripod, a Uher,
a parabolic mic, a case of 400 ASA Ektachrome reversal stock and a 1964
Studebaker Lark. I'm equipped, but I'm still afraid of the camera. What
I'm more comfortable with is my Nikon ftn, that I've had since Kingston.
I like the color in high speed Ektachrome slide film and I love the depth-of-field
preview button on the camera. There are a lot of slides posted all the way
through Dames rocket.
When I come back to Vancouver from Alberta, I have slides I like, some
taped sound, some writing, and a small collection of 100' rolls of film.
Through the early 80s I gradually assemble Notes in origin, a 2-hour
multimedia show with slides, audiotape, taped writing, 16mm film and a live
reading at the end. Its first version is shown at Roy Kiyooka's studio space
on Powell St in 1980, and its second at Women in Film in 1984. It eventually
shows at Canada House in London, Pleasure Dome in Toronto, the Experimenta
1990 Festival in Melbourne, the San Francisco Cinemateque, and Cinema Libre
in Montreal, but those are in the Aphrodite's garden section of Work
and days. Film footage from Alberta is released as the film Notes
in origin in 1986.
As writing, the journal in this ten year stretch is pretty much a write-off.
At the beginning it is jejune, trying to be poetic. Then after I crack I
don't have connected thoughts. Narrative almost stops and it becomes a mess
of anxious bits, tedious to transcribe and painful to read. In this period
I do begin to work from the journal though, to study it. It becomes a workbook
and that use brings the small breakthroughs that later give me most of what's
collected as in english. When connected journal writing eventually
comes back (in the later Aphrodite's garden period) it's less false
and less silly.
I am new in town so there's a lot of mention of landmarks in Dames
rocket. The freighters in English Bay after a snowfall, the roar of
a crowd in the Colosseum, baseball in Connaucht Park, Wreck Beach on an
afternoon in late May. I eat at the Vancouver Vocational Institute's cooking
school dining room, the Princess Cafe on Hastings, the Blue Eagle, the White
Lunch, the Ovaltine. I love skid row's vestiges of the old lumber town:
the Powell Rooms, the Avalon Rooms on Pender, the Cambie Rooms. My lovers
all seem to live in Kitsilano: 5th and Vine, 3rd and Yew, 7th near MacDonald.
820A East Pender
Luke and I first live in an old house on the East Vancouver heights near
the PNE, where we overlook a working waterfront and Second Narrows Bridge.
We lose that house to redevelopment after a year. Our second house is in
residential Chinatown, a 100-year-old house at the back of a lot on East
Pender across from the Ukrainian Community Center, that I later discover
had been an anarchist collective in the 1920s.
We have the top floor of this house, with windows in all four directions
and a small upstairs porch. From the north windows we can see the Lions
and from kitchen and bathroom windows facing south, MacLean Park and Koo's
Automotive across the alley. When we move into this house our neighbours
are almost all Cantonese. My landlord is Peter Choy, who runs the Ho Inn
Restaurant and whose old uncle I can see smoking alone in his flat in the
little apartment building at the front of the lot.
Lots in this neighbourhood are narrow. Directly below the west window
at the top of the stairs is an immaculately kept Chinese vegetable garden
where I see a grey-haired widow digging trenches for her peas and burying
in them the shrimp heads she brings home from her fish plant job. The east
window in Luke's room looks across a strip of ground the width of a parking
space to a steeply sloped shingled roof.
I don't leave this house until 2002, though I sublet it between 1978
and 1981 when I go to stay in northern Alberta, and in1983-84 when I live
in a cabin on Saturna Island. At some point the post office renames its
address 824 E Pender.
The 70s in Vancouver are a relatively generous time for artists. Welfare
rates are liveable and many people I know are on Local Initiatives Program
grants. In the 80s these sources shut down. I have a Canada Council film
production grant in 1978 and a project costs grant in 1982, and for the
rest of the time patch together a living from welfare and odd jobs. I paint
a big house in Kitsilano, roof an auto shop, work in the Hastings Steam
Bath for minimum wage, plant trees and cook for Brinkman Reforestation,
am relief camp attendant on oilrigs in Alberta and BC and work construction
through one winter. When I am desperate Don MacLeod at MacLeod's Books kindly
buys volumes I've learned not to mark up so they will be saleable if the
Lovers and friends
It's awkward to summarize these relations, that had so much urgency in
their time, in several lines each, but at the same time the journal as written
gives little background and not much story, so some kind of summary should
I meet Paul Kinsella almost immediately when I arrive in Vancouver. We're
happy talkers and well-intended lovers, but I am coming from Roy's drunken
brutality and lying, and am still angry at men and afraid of them. I am
also half unconsciously calculating that since I am thirty I will soon be
unattractive to men. Beyond calculation I am desperate for a quality of
attention women give and men don't, so when I put my hand on Maggie Shore's
breast in the fall of 1975 I am willing to make the leap. It is an unstable
choice, but Paul is the last man I sleep with for nearly 10 years.
After Maggie I drop into the lesbian community and there find a feast
of sex with Nellie van Leeuwan, a hockey-playing, womanizing woman-about-town.
And then, almost as soon as I find that feast I give it up again, in favor
of art and misery and mind-blown intimacy. I'm on Kits Beach one day while
Nellie has taken Luke to a soccer game, and I see two women who look alike,
dark and intense, concentrated essences and obviously a pair. Another day
I'm at the Customcolor lab on Robson checking slides at the light table
next to the window when I see the two of them passing and one of them sees
me back. I assemble a list of women filmmakers when I am organizing a screening,
and the first person I call is Cheryl D. She doesn't want to show her films
but she comes to a screening. It's her - it's one of the dark women I saw
through the Customcolor window.
There are more meetings. Cheryl comes as part of a set and that's the
only way I can know her. Trudy R, Rhoda Rosenfeld, Don Druick, Sandy Rodin,
Renee Rodin, Renee's kids, Cheryl's daughter Zoe. Trudy is Cheryl's lover,
Rhoda is Trudy's ex-lover, Don is Cheryl's ex-husband. They know each other
from years back at university in Montreal. I'm very outnumbered and I can't
be anything but an outsider in this crowd, which is so very Jewish and so
scarily and aggressively social, but I'm in deep love with Cheryl and then
with Trudy too. For a while they are in love back. We do what we can and
we all get blasted to bits.
My first meeting with Jamila Ismail is at a Thanksgiving dinner with
these people, where she tells the table that quarks are named up,
down, strange and charm. The second is when she wanders
into a Sunday afternoon salon late and lets her wooly standard poodle interrupt
my show. Afterward she looks dazed and talks about light metaphysics. She's
part of the artist circle in Kits but she's not one of the girls and she's
not a poor artist; she's coming from Hong Kong money and drives an MG the
color of her dog. She's odd. I like that about her, and so do many others,
she knows how to get away with it. She's remarkably smart, she's an Ezra
Pound scholar - a professor at SFU - but she gives off a charming haplessness
that excuses her from ordinary social being. We get together in the summer
of 1977 and we don't finally leave each other, though there are a lot of
separations, until the summer of 1985 just after the beginning of the Aphrodite's
garden section of the journal.
It's a complicated connection. There's cultural misunderstanding. She
has a rich person's impatience and guilt about my poverty and a city person's
contempt of my rural simplicity. Her eyes seem cold to me. When I meet her
I'm wide open and trying to remain so, and she's attracted to that but suspicious
of it, hard with it. She doesn't understand that it's principled. She's
misogynistic; she postures and bluffs like a man and it turns out that she
believes she is a man, and wants me to believe so too. I don't, because
what I see in front of me is not really a man. Maybe a woman wanting to
be a man. I have been with men and I believe what I see. She hates that.
It's a tension that never resolves, an undercurrent of hatred that defeats
me in the end. At the same time the connection gives me what I wanted from
it, something intellectual. I learn focus from Jam. I see with her. Even
in our most excruciated last months we can walk in evening light together
and be dissolved. I come out of our years wrecked and able to write.
Somewhere in the middle of our time, when I am cooking at a tree planting
camp, a sweaty dirty breathstoppingly beautiful man walks into the cookshack
without a shirt on, and I fall into frightened embarrassed conflicted enthralling
lust. I intend to be faithful to Jam, and am, but I want Robert MacLean
through the rest of Dames rocket. He is a poet; he has a St Andrews
PhD in The four zoas; he is sunburned and wild haired and wears a
yellow Alaskan baseball cap with the seven stars of the Dipper on it; he
plays Gluck's Dance of the blessed spirits on the flute; he is the
best tree planter and driven in everything he does; he walks like a god
in his caulk boots; he is elusive; and he is starved, like me. I gape at
him. He is Siubhne homeless in a tree. He is Orpheus and I am holding my
breath in the dark waiting for him to come and get me, which he never does.
I give up my muses. Because they are angry and envious and won't see
me, because I am alone and starving, because no one will read it, I give
up on the beautiful writing. - And now am I going to have it back?
They were neglectful and malicious, but I was alone and starving for
reasons other than their neglect. It was a misunderstanding. I had to back-track
In these years there are a lot of reading notes of a lot of different
kinds. I am doing what I can now see was foundational though obscure, finding
my own intuition by recognizing shreds of it in other people. Because I
am trying to be a poet I am always looking for material with emotional power.
My literary heros at the beginning of this time are those heroic exaggerators,
Isak Dinesen and Annie Dillard. Later I discover science fiction - The
dispossessed , The female man, Dune, From the legend of Biel.
In anything I read I'm looking for clues about how to become realer and
more gifted, so there are always psychological notes: Idries Shah's The
Sufis, Jane Roberts' Seth books, a lot of Jung. Notes in the early volumes
are surprisingly more religious than I am now. More undiscriminating and
When I was at Queen's I liked Hegel, whose Phenomenology of spirit
is a sort of novel about the historical development of self-consciousness.
I loved the notion of consciousness. Thinking of whatever I was experiencing
as consciousness turned it into a movie, something I could watch, and that
felt sophisticated. I was also taken by the existentialists' notion of good
faith. Both of these aspects of philosophical training go on having a lot
to do with how I live in the Dames rocket period: very reflexively.
Drugs are artistically interesting. For instance if I have smoked a joint
with my spooky artist friends and then take the bus home, I will notice
things like rotating perspective in the lit second-floor windows of buildings
on Hastings. And they are philosophically interesting too. When I take acid
I notice that the distance to the other side of the kitchen has changed,
that the experience of space itself has changed. In my brief drug period
this mutability of conscious states impresses me so strongly that I take
to living deliberately as an idealist. (There was a lot of this in 1975/6.)
I walk around feeling I am in a dream. I interpret everything that happens.
At the peak of this idealist phase I am so inward that when I speak people
keep saying, What? They can't hear me.
I go tree planting and find self-consciousness unworkable on the slopes.
And when my motor seizes, driving one day up north, I say, no, life isn't
a dream, I wouldn't be dreaming this. I stop using drugs.
The philosophic work in this era doesn't look like philosophy. The essay-poem
what will we know is break-through epistemology.
In it I figure out something I had been dimly intuiting in philosophers
for years. field and field, which also looks like a series
of poems, documents finding this insight in dreams, bits of reading, little
events with friends.