EVELYN LAU - A LITERARY CABARET
Saturday. June 27
Hycroft Wellness Centre
ENFANT TERRIBLE OF CANADIAN POETRY SENDS A MIXED MESSAGE
by Roxanne Davies
Although I had read about Evelyn Lau, author, poet and fiction writer, read her poetry, viewed the CBC docudrama entitled Runaway: Diary of a Street Kid, a chronicle of her life of drugs and prostitution and her development into a published writer, I had never seen her in person.
When the invitation to attend a fundraiser for one-year old Persimmons Theatre came along, I jumped at the chance. With a sense of voyeuristic anticipation, I headed over to Granville and 16th to take part in the literary evening.
What was I expecting? I wondered. I didn't count many prostitutes (former or otherwise) as my friends, although I did know of some middle class wives who may perhaps fall in that category. Sad and unfulfilled, bought and paid for.
But if I was expecting a young and wanton female with the imprints of men's hands still impressed on her still young body, what I saw was a slightly chubby, pretty 20 -something, dressed in a modest black checkered Bermuda shorts, black sweater, and sensible shoes.
Flawless skin, pouty lips, thick hair. Rather a prim and proper garb for a woman whose claim to fame (besides her often sparkling poetry/ prose and being the youngest poet to ever be nominated for the Governors General 's Award) is that she was a child prostitute.
You knew that Lau was the "Star For the Evening". While the rest of us were obliged to shed our shoes at the door to protect the polished wood floor, Lau kept her shoes firmly on her feet. Marking up a wooden floor seems to be the least of her worries. Embroiled in a nasty legal battle with her former lover, W.P. Kinsella, who took umbrage to a recent Vancouver Magazine article which she wrote, recounting in painful detail their difficult love affair (she was 24, he was 60), Lau is cautious about what she now writes and says.
In fact, during the post-reading discussion period, looking serious and preoccupied, she remarked that although she feels comfortable to write about almost everything, she finds the men in her life now saying "Don't write about this, will you?" She weaves a web she herself is trapped in as well as her subjects.
And so while I sit with the other earnest and sensitive souls congregating on a warm summer night to lick each others psychic wounds, we hear a master of the art display her formidable talents.Lau read extensively from her most recent novel, Fresh Girls. Her attention to detail about lost souls and lives in the back rooms of a massage parlor, hit one in the gut with the certainty that Lau saw the scene up close and personal. These fresh girls are anything but...
Drugged up and dependent upon a banal pimp (and his wife!), these poor girls are on the edge of society, broken by relationships, used by faceless customers who take much more than they actually pay for. While Lau was reading, the audience dared not breathe lest they break the atmosphere. Lau reads extremely well. We hear about the men who call her Baby Girl, the doctor from Medicine Hat, Alberta, the chuckling taxi drivers, the clever and funny girls who have fallen into this sad and sinister occupation.
And while she reads, I look at the night sky filtering through the lowered blinds. The purple clouds against the dark blue sky look like bruises, as if in quiet sympathy to the girls whose lives she is relating. Lau also read from old and new poems, seemingly discovering them after time has passed, surprising herself at the power. They speak of angels that fly so close to the ground it seems like they're crawling.
But Lau will not beg for either forgiveness or understanding.Writing is the way she can distance herself from her life. Writing since she was six years- old in order to keep her sanity in a family that was suffocating her, Lau made a pact with God, she tells the audience. "I bargained with God, if He made me a published author, I would never ask him for anything else. I've often regretted that," she said with a small laugh.
Her favorite author is John Stenbeck with his incredible output and observation.. She is also drawn to American middle class portrayal of marriage and relationships in decay. She also likes Alice Munroe. She has no hobbies. " I've only had one burning drive. I've never developed any other interests. Nothing would match the interest or my need to write. I don't have any hobbies. I don't knit or anything. I would welcome the opportunity to do something different, but I would have to go back to school." (It's never too late, I scream to myself. My daughter isn't that much younger than Lau, and I think of my advice to her)
The questions come from an audience clearly enamoured with Lau and I didn't have the heart to break the spell. It was a fundraiser after all. But I longed to ask her the real question that burned inside me. Do you have any regrets? The other poets taking part in the evening had their mothers there to smile proudly during their daughters' poems. Does your mom ever come out to hear you read about the massage parlour girls and their johns? Do you think that you would still be recognized as a writer if you hadn't gone through such a sad rite of passage at such an early age?
Lau remarked that when she reads people are usually quiet. "Of course, they don't laugh. I think they may be bored." She needn't worry. We are far from bored by her bleak and detailed visions, but inside we cry for the pretty young girl who loves to read about middle class marriage.
The other writers taking part in the literary evening included Persimmons Theatre's Artistic Director, Tina Overbury who read from her play. Relationship stories that ask over and over again "Who are you?" Overbury, pretty and vivacious in a slim black sheath, she writes brave poems that plomb the depths of her sensibility, and she brings them out for the world to see.
Nancy Lee, a short fiction writer read from a new poem, a lovely ode to a sand dollar. A poem about what she wants at the her funeral, made me smile., "I want a statutory holiday declared. A florist will send wedding flowers by mistake. My lovers will come with their blond wives. My coffin is knocked over and I fall out with my legs wide apart and my bra strap showing".
I too find the idea of funerals an oportunity for humour. A comic once remarked that considering how people are buried , usually in their best clothes, heaven must be like a prom. She would rather be buried in her jammies and the channel changer!
First Nations Poet Mahara Allbrett admitted that poets are nervous when they 're brought out in public. Writing is a hard and solitary activity. One person facing a blank page or blank screen. Her poems rely on symbols of nature and geography. But it was also refreshing to hear a Native voice read poems comparing lovers to horses, ordinary sex, extrordinary sex. But her poems also allude to the violence tha natives experienced from the residential school experience. A compuslive poet, whose day job is as a family therapist, Allbrett finds creative fodder in her daily life and she has written poems on the back of visa slips when the spirit moves her.
As a fundraiser it could perhaps have been a greater success, and the money Overbury made for the night may pay for a couple of ferry rides and lunches as she takes her show on the road for a Gulf Island Touring production of ONLY NINE. But the imporatnce of evenings such as this remains undiminished. In our inhumane computerized world, it's important to know that poetry still exists, for no reason whatsoever, except to mine the depths of human emotion and share our common experiences as seen through fresh and sometimes sad eyes.
Copyright 1998 Roxanne Davies