In the current issue of Poetry Is Dead we asked participants and attendees of the Vancouver 125 Poetry Conference to discuss their experiences. We continue to receive responses that we will post on Poetry Is Dead: Online. If you have experiences you would like to share, please email to pitch your review of the event.


by Anne Hopkinson

Sources on Parliament Hill say the government will not condone panelling – a form of poetic torture recently documented at the Vancouver 125 Poetry Conference. Furthermore, they will not knowingly transfer poets to conference forces if they suspect panelling will occur.

The Geneva Convention section on Panelling clearly spells out the rights of poets to be free of ”public insults and curiosity.” Yet conclusive evidence shows that poets have suffered the abuse of panelling. They have been forced to sit on hard plastic chairs, forced to talk under the glare of hot lights, exposing their naked intelligence to interrogators. (Studies show that panelling repeated three times in twenty-four hours is most damaging.) An audience adds pressure to the questioning, as they scribble notes and text unknown agents. Panelling is a public event, often recorded and archived, and spread worldwide on YouTube.

Poets rounded up for the conference were panelled in small groups, the interrogators seeking to reveal conflict or perceived slights among them. Poets with a history of published works were panelled in alternating groups to check the constancy of their replies. For four days a barrage of convoluted questions designed to impress and confuse were launched at them. Repeated questions on these topics led poets to the breaking point:

- the lyric I

- theory mongering

- the Canadian imagination

A salient feature of panelling is that the moderators (pressed by Organizers to lead the sessions) are poets themselves. Have they turned on their own kind for reasons of self-preservation? Some fuss about procedure, some leap at the chance to moderate rather than be impanelled.

Survivor poets claim to be unable to write freely after panelling, and show persistent symptoms of procrastination and RDC (rapid-delete condition). Moderators, too, show physical evidence of the feedback effect: loss of hearing, verbal convulsions, and symptoms of ISS (involuntary interruption syndrome). A successful moderator will be asked to chair another panel, an unsuccessful one will join the poets. This is a great incentive to question aggressively.

An important element is the proximity of freedom: the faint hope of escape. Doors are left unlocked, people come and go politely with muffins and coffee, and huge floor-to-ceiling windows look out on a sunlit city harbour. Many a poet gazes at the tempting scene, picks an image, and clings to it in his darkest moments. The fantasy of writing a new poem, of writing at all, of merely having the mental space to begin writing paralyses the brain and can cause prolonged periods of silence. Also, they do not have access to toilets. Footage from a concealed iPhone camera reveals squirming and grimaces resulting from their distress.

Who will break first? Who will gush out a spate of words, the release of over-filtered thoughts, their command of language obviously weakened by relentless panelling? Poets look to each other thinking, “You take this one, I took the last one and it hurt. Your turn to risk banality.”

They reach for cautious phrases, reticent until the others nod or add words of support. Who might lose it and give a simple answer? Who might blurt out a bias hidden by years of poetically correct responses? “Don’t be stupid. Of course we grapple with representation and subjectivity!” “Could I talk a bit about polyvocality and the cultural conditions of multiplicity and conflict? Sure, I could, but I’d rather not.” They reach for water but there’s never enough.           

As they slump and mumble, trying not to look at the clock, it’s the final torment – open mike questions from the audience. How long, they moan, how long?

This culminating part of the session is particularly nerve-wracking. The audience have their own agendas, their long-winded personal anecdotes and serpentine questions all to be endured: a question from a nearly finished doctoral thesis? A question loaded with racist overtones? Or the merely ingenuous, “Where do you get ideas for your poems?” “Why don’t you ever rhyme anything?” “How much money do you make being a poet?” Poets grasp at visions of rescue. Will Angelina Jolie swoop in and adopt a flailing poet right before their eyes? When does Mia Farrow get back from Africa?

The absurdity of torture by panelling can surface as laughter, short-lived and misleading humour often misunderstood by the audience. Poets vie for literary survival as the crowd gathers bon mots. Poets attempt to defend themselves with references and quotes, with esoteric language, a code of communication with possible covert contacts in the crowd. Maybe the tech man is a mole working for the Writers Union of Canada. Maybe he is relaying details of this cross-examination to headquarters and is calling for intervention as they speak.

Sources in the government of Canada say they will not compensate victims of post-panelling distress syndrome as poets should have known better, as they should have expected to be grilled on meaning and form and constructionism, and experimental poetry and crossing interdisciplinary boundaries. These same sources, (redacted, redacted, and redacted) say they will not fund further poetry conferences until claims of panelling can be thoroughly investigated by special committee and by public inquiry.

It appears that panelling is widespread, particularly in North America and Europe, and is now being sanctioned by cultures around the world. On the website and blog for PEPE (Poets Exposing Panelling Everywhere) the evidence continues to build, as international poets reveal and share their personal stories. Apparently every country wants its poets to spill their poetic guts.

Iranian Prime Minister Ahmadinejad said in a three and a half hour speech, “Iran has a glorious history of poetry, but it is just for domestic consumption.”

Stephen Harper assures Canadians they are safe from extreme panelling, “We don’t do panelling in Canada, and the oil sands are not as bad as you think.”