Wayde Compton is happy to toil in a glass box in the library where visitors can watch him write as part of his four-month tenure as the Vancouver Public Library's writer in residence.
"I really don't like writing alone, all by myself in my room. I like other people around me. But I don't want to hear them," Compton said with a laugh. "So being in the box on the fifth floor is perfect because I can see people walking past, they're all around me, but I can't hear them even if their cellphones go off."
Compton, the VPL's seventh writer in residence, kicked off his gig at the central library with a book camp earlier this month.
He and Jason de Couto, his DJ partner in the turntable-based sound poetry duo The Contact Zone Crew, recorded teens reading their own work or writing by others and then got them to mix the recordings with voice effects and hip hop beats.
Compton plans to hold a similar workshop at the library for the broader community.
"I want to get people to think about new media and new forms and experimentation with writing beyond the page, but not conventional spoken word either, but something that's playing with the sound of writing outside of just standing in front of a microphone and reading it," he said.
The residency at the central branch pays $16,000 and allows writers to spend 75 per cent of their time writing and a quarter of their time on workshops and mentoring writers individually.
Contact with writers of different generations, skill, experience and working in various genres is something Compton relished when he held a residency at Simon Fraser University in 2007.
"It's a really interesting way to take the literary temperature of the city," said the acclaimed writer, poet and historian who studied English at SFU and teaches English composition and literature at Emily Carr University of Art and Design and Coquitlam College.
Those who peer into the glass box on the fifth floor will see the East Side native working on a collection of short stories that touch on race, immigration and identity, all set in Vancouver.
The author of three books says after his last work, After Canaan: Essays on Race, Writing and Religion, he yearned to write fiction, to "make stuff up."
Compton says each of his projects emerges from the last.
His first book 49th Parallel Psalm explored sound, orality and African-derived rhythms within poetry alongside local history. Bluesprint: Black British Columbian Literature and Orature, which Compton edited, evolved from his explorations of black history in Vancouver, and his turntable work evolved from his interest in oral projects.
Compton co-founded the Hogan's Alley Memorial Project in 2002, an organization dedicated to preserving the public memory of Vancouver's original black community. He believes the project succeeded in raising awareness, but lately he's felt anxious about the dearth of documents and photographs in the public domain.
Compton plans to focus one of the three workshops he'll offer as writer in residence on the importance of history in the city.
"It's not just specific to the black community. It's a Vancouver issue," he said. "It's a city that kind of erases its track as it goes because we have such an accelerated history, really rapid, and I think preserving some of the memories is something that you have to continually remind people to do in a place like this."
Compton also wants lessons learned on how urban planning destroyed a community acknowledged today when gentrification and a lack of social and affordable housing is threatening poor residents in the Downtown Eastside. Strathcona saw a concentrated black population for decades until the late 1960s when a proposed and opposed freeway system triggered the neighbourhood's demise.
"They should have been allowed to continue on there and what that really comes down to is that people who live in a neighbourhood, whether they rent or own, should have control over what happens to their neighbourhood," Compton said. "It's easier to put plaque down acknowledging something that happened 40 years ago than it is to address that issue now."
Compton's inaugural reading is Sept. 20, 7 p.m. in the Alice MacKay room in the central library.
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