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Powerful readings at Megaphone's "Voices From the Street" launch

James Witicki photo courtesy of Matthew Zylstra Sawatzky.

Audiences packed into the basement of Vancouver's iconic Waldorf Hotel Tuesday to listen to an evening of readings unlike any other.

That's because the readers at the event were people who have battled homelessness, sex work, drugs, abuse and mental-health issues while living in the Downtown Eastside, and turned their experiences into stunning poems, essays and short fiction in Megaphone, a magazine supporting homeless people.

Like the DTES neighbourhood itself, the writers were multi-faceted and impossible to pigeonhole. 

Take Antonette Rea -- a blonde with green-inked arms, whose stylish clothes and easy onstage presence made her look more like a bohemian writer or playwright from Commercial Drive than a resident of Canada's poorest postal code. With a rich, velvety voice, she began to recite: 

"Oh, the sex is free, it's my charming personality and company that's expensive,"

To pay the overhead, rent, make-up and outfits, 

Then there's the cost of drugs, 

To self medicate and escape the torment, 

And the many Demons rattling around inside this Tranny's head.

Antonette Rae photo courtesy of Matthew Zylstra Sawatzky.

Rae is a former sex worker whose literary talent has landed her in the pages of the prestigeous Geist literary magazine and the quarterly Sad Mag

Her poem "Laid to Rest" is one of the many beautiful pieces that make up "Voices of the Street," a 68-page special literary issue of Megaphone magazine. Filled with poems and photographs from people in the Downtown Eastside, the literary issue paints a vivid picture of life in the neighbourhood. 

Sometimes sad, other times funny and witty, the literary issue is a monumental book containing writings giving voices to those who are seldom heard by the general public.

The first reader, James Witicki -- who has a university degree and a history of working construction jobs -- shared sparse, elegant poems that exuded empathy for vulnerable living beings.

Another speaker, Melita Carlson, is a nervous-looking, beautiful young woman who was one of the first DTES writers to have creative writing featured in Megaphone. In a steady tone, she spoke of "extremely thin and worn out women" selling their bodies on the street, "hoping to make enough money to give to ungrateful pimps". In her deeply personal second poem, she spoke of sitting alone and bruised on the bathroom floor, contemplating an abusive relationship. 

Henry Doyle, a dapper DTES resident sporting a blazer and leather boots, channeled Charles Bukowski as he talked about his work in "slave labour pools" and cheap hotels. In his iconic poem, "The Downtown Eastside Alarm Clock",  Doyle described the "cop cars hungry wolves" and "small evil packs of drug dealers" near his home on Main and Hastings. 

Sean Condon photo courtesy of Matthew Zylstra Sawatzky.

Sean Condon, the executive director of Megaphone magazine, thanked everyone for coming out to the reading. An editor of the publication since its days as a sparse black-and-white paper known as Street Corner, Condon has been the driving force behind the magazine who helped grow it from a marginal publication to the well-recognized beacon of the DTES. 

He talked about how the workshop allowed people going through treatment at Onsite to use writing as a "tool for recovery." Today, the writing workshop that began two years ago at a detox centre has now grown to eight such programs all over the Downtown Eastside and downtown Vancouver.  

Kevin Hollett photo courtesy of Matthew Zylstra Sawatzky.

Megaphone editor Kevin Hollett spoke about how he had read through "hundreds" of entries to put into the literary issue. With writing program coordinator Daniel Zomparelli (editor/founder of Poetry is Dead magazine), Hollett picked the haikus and short stories in the magazine's first literary issue.

As a participant/facilitator of a Megaphone writing workshop at Onsite, I have often been awed the poems and stories that are scribbled on notebooks in class. Some of the writers have English as a second or third language, a few are industrious writers with binders filled with daily musings, while others are blind or missing fingers and require assistance to put their words on paper. Their writing varies from humorous musings on the DTES to solemn religious poems invoking God and angels.

Their writing ability varies, but all have valuable stories and perceptions to share with the rest of the world. The magazine and the literary reading not only bring recognition and legitimacy to their work, but also help audiences from across the city discover authentic voices from the street.

Sometimes tragic, other times endearingly funny and thoughtful, the poems reflected the immense courage and quiet dignity of Vancouver's most disenfranchised members of society.   

Jim Ryder photo courtesy of Matthew Zylstra Sawatzky.

Megaphone's literary issue is sold for $5 by homeless vendors in various locations across Vancouver. $3 of sales go to vendors to support their livelihood. 

For more information about the issue, visit the Megaphone website.

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