Phone Me: Blackout Poetry

PhoneMe is a project implemented by Digital Literacy Centre at UBC Learning Exchange in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside (DTES). Our team is working with the poets living in the DTES to confront the negative stereotypes about this neighbourhood as a place of despair. As they walk the streets of the DTES, project participants record poems by dialing a PhoneMe Project phone number. Back at Digital Literacy Centre we upload these poems (audio and written text) onto an interactive map of the DTES and tag the location where the poem was created or a place what the poem is about. Through sharing their poems with PhoneMe project DTES residents paint a picture of their community on their own terms and using their own words. Our project is now in week eight.

The theme of week eight was blackout poetry. Blackout poets use already existing text and remove words from the page to create a new text – their poem. Blackout poetry is a captivating exercise, you really don’t know where it will take you and what poems you will have as a result. Blackout poetry uses any text available to the poet. It is a creative exercise that also leaves strikingly beautiful pages behind. See here for useful tips on how to create blackout poetry.

There were five of us in the workshop this week and we were all given the same text, a spam email selling prescription drugs.2017-02-13-15-32-39

This email, however, had one peculiarity. In order to pass spam filters, it included gibberish text, compiled from several websites. At first sight, the text made sense, but as we read closer it became clear that the text is complete nonsense. This made working with the text challenging but liberating at the same time.

There were five of us and everyone was given the same text, yet we all created completely different poems. Some of the words repeated, but the way we combined them was our unique creative process. Our project leader Kedrick James says that in the years he’s been using the text he has never seen two identical poems created.

This is my poem created in the workshop. I wasn’t expecting it to be, but it turned out quite political and surprisingly rhymed. 2017-02-13-16-32-11

Madonna down

Accession, power, influence

the limit of a nation.

A government exalting obedience

habitual objection.

Free institutions of equality

an unripe bitter sea.

For power, laws and businesses

convince the world to be.

PhoneMe: creating poems together

Today is week seven of the PhoneMe project, that Digital Literacy Centre is developing together with the UBC Learning Exchange. The project brought together a wonderfully talented group of people who meet every Friday at 1.30pm and write, read and celebrate the beauty of the spoken word and the power it has to transform the lives in the community.

Today in our workshop we gave ourselves freedom to create new words. The exercise is simple. First, you make four lists of words: nouns, adjectives,  verbs, and affixes. Here are my lists:

  1. Nouns: book, snow, bus
  2. Adjectives: heavy, packed, blinding
  3. Verbs: to read, to fall, to run
  4. Affixes: un-, -en,-ful

Next, you are asked to create new words by combining the words from your lists. Here are some of my words:

  1. heavybooked
  2. snowfallen
  3. runful, busful
  4. runpack
  5. unread
  6. heavyful

Next, you are asked to create a poem using these new words.

Wishful thinking



I’m heavybooked

making my way

through a snowfallen day.

Oh! To unread all those emails,

to unpack all those bags, totes, and backpacks

and to make a bussful run in the opposite direction!

Cherry Tree Stag


I am travelling with mom to Smolensk, an old medieval town south of Moscow, where she grew up.  As a child I used to spend every summer there visiting my grandparents. The last time I was in Smolensk was in mid 90s.

As we were walking about the town, I noticed a familiar statue, The Stag.  I remember it being enormous and magical. When I was little, my dad would lift me up to let me sit on this statue. I would sit and imagine it being a cherry tree stag from ‘The Surprising Adventures of Baron Munchausen’.

What a lovely reminder of an 18th century collection of short stories , which I used to read all the time as a child. Here is an excerpt about the cherry tree stag from the book available online:

You have heard, I dare say, of the hunter and sportsman’s saint and protector, St. Hubert, and of the noble stag, which appeared to him in the forest, with the holy cross between his antlers. I have paid my homage to that saint every year in good fellowship, and seen this stag a thousand times, either painted in churches, or embroidered in the stars of his knights; so that, upon the honour and conscience of a good sportsman, I hardly know whether there may not have been formerly, or whether there are not such crossed stags even at this present day. But let me rather tell what I have seen myself. Having one day spent all my shot, I found myself unexpectedly in presence of a stately stag, looking at me as unconcernedly as if he had known of my empty pouches. I charged immediately with powder, and upon it a good handful of cherry-stones, for I had sucked the fruit as far as the hurry would permit. Thus I let fly at him, and hit him just on the middle of the forehead, between his antlers; it stunned him–he staggered–yet he made off. A year or two after, being with a party in the same forest, I beheld a noble stag with a fine full grown cherry- tree above ten feet high between his antlers. I immediately recollected my former adventure, looked upon him as my property, and brought him to the ground by one shot, which at once gave me the haunch and cherry-sauce; for the tree was covered with the richest fruit, the like I had never tasted before. Who knows but some passionate holy sportsman, or sporting abbot or bishop, may have shot, planted, and fixed the cross between the antlers of St. Hubert’s stag, in a manner similar to this? They always have been, and still are, famous for plantations of crosses and antlers; and in a case of distress or dilemma, which too often happens to keen sportsmen, one is apt to grasp at anything for safety, and to try any expedient rather than miss the favourable opportunity. I have many times found myself in that trying situation.


Bilingual signs in the Hermitage: Politeness for all?

2016-12-14-16-51-31I am back in Saint Petersburg, visiting my parents for the holidays. Among the many things we have planned to do during my stay was an obligatory visit to the State Hermitage Museum. This museum is truly a jewel in the tourist crown of the city, one of the oldest and most renowned art collections in the world.

Naturally, it is visited by thousands upon thousands of tourists from all over the world.

Naturally, there are a lot of signs in the (perceived) global lingua franca that is English. <– there will be another post on the increased number of commercial signage in Mandarin in the centre of the city.

In any case.

Here we have a sign in the ladies’ washroom. It is written in two languages, Russian and English. The message is pretty straightforward: the plumbing system old and overflowing, no paper should be thrown into the toilet. Ok.

However, a bilingual reader will notice (and someone actually did, hence the question marks in white) that the way the message is delivered is very different in the two languages. The English version reads as a more polite request, adorned with please and thank you. The visitors to the museum are addressed as dear guests. In Russian the visitors are just visitors (посетители). There is not a single please or thank you used, so – while the sign  still reads as a request (not demand) – it is significantly less polite.

There are many studies on linguistic landscape that examine the conflicting role of various languages used in public signage (one of my favourites is Language Conflict in Post-Soviet Linguistic Landscapes by Aneta Pavlenko). So I am pretty sure that colleagues who work on this topic have already written extensively on how different phrasing in different languages constructs the readers and the context of communication. So no deep analysis from me. All I wanted to say is that as a bilingual reader, a native Russian speaker, and a sociologist  I found this sign irritating, confusing but also entertaining enough to snap a photo and share with my friends.

Also, it’s a shame that one of the largest museums in the world can’t figure out how to (or doesn’t bother to) make their bathroom signs consistent.




Eagle by Rick. An inspiration from DUDES Club



Eagle (by Rick)

A lot of people don’t notice how even in a rundown neighborhood,

you can still find beauty

I took this photo at the UBC Learning Exchange earlier this year. It is one of the many photo artifacts from the DUDES Club  exhibition  “Indigenous Men’s Narratives: Reclaiming Our Lives”.  This photo struck me to the core. The words captured my own thoughts on what makes the Downtown Eastside so special.

I later met Rick in May at a community-university conference New Perspectives on Learning in the Downtown Eastside. I told him how much this photo means to me and he told me that maybe it is not an eagle but a seagull in the photo, but that it wasn’t a big deal.

After the conference I went online to learn more about the project that this photo was a product of. I was amazed. Started in 2010 the DUDES Club is a great example of meaningful collaboration, community-led research and activism. Learning about this project gave me confidence to continue shifting the focus of my research from my research interests to what matters to the people I work with. From the website “The DUDES Club provides events and activities that focus on the spiritual, physical, mental, emotional, and social aspects of wellness in men residing on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. It focuses on connecting men with health care professionals and other support services, as well as instilling a sense of solidarity and empowerment within the community.” 

I highly encourage everyone to check out their amazing website here  and read The Globe and Mail  feature on the DUDES Club.

Seniors’ Storytelling Class


                                                                                           All great literature is one of two stories;                                                                     a man goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town.
― Leo Tolstoy

Two weeks ago Learning Exchange’s Seniors Thrive initiative added one more project to the portfolio. It’s called Seniors’ Storytelling Class and its goal is to supplement regular conversation program with speaking and writing activities that scaffold storytelling for seniors who are learning English as an additional language. I am leading the project together with my university buddy Zhaoying, who is a master’s student at our faculty.

We meet once a week for 75 minutes during which we read stories and articles about the value of storytelling, share our life stories, favourite fables and fairy tales from all over the world. After each session participants get a prompt to take home and are asked to write a story based on the prompt. Some stories are five sentences long and some are five pages long! As the project progresses we plan to add multimodal storytelling – pictures and photos to supplement the texts that participants are sharing.

When I was conceiving this project, I found these two resources: a step-by-step guide for teaching storytelling  from Storytelling Arts of Indiana and a curriculum on learning about race and racism through storytelling and the arts from Barnard College. Both resources have served as a great inspiration and encouragement that storytelling is a powerful tool to address complex issues. They show that by recognizing the power of a story and valuing the stories that learners choose to share, educators can not only advance their own understanding of the lived experiences of the learners, but also empower the learners to challenge status quo and create a better future for their communities.

Storytelling is one of the oldest forms of creating knowledge and one of the most accessible vehicles to spread this knowledge around. When working with immigrants, especially senior immigrants who harbour myriads of experiences, memories, and testimonies, storytelling becomes a way to value the wisdom that these learners bring to the class. Thus, the learners are recognized as knowers and producers of new knowledge. They shape the progression of the class by sharing their stories and building upon each others’ narratives. Thus, learners take charge  and grow as agents of their own learning.

Our project is in its early stages and we have a long way to go. In the end, we will publish a chap book of our stories and present it along with the photo story of our storytelling journey!