When looking back on the year that has passed, it’s often difficult to find your favourite story. I did not have that struggle this year. While there have been numerous strong and even a few exceptional articles in 2018, none stand as tall in my memory as the story of John La Greca: Canada’s Charles Bukowski. It’s a look into a side of Vernon that is often ignored and marginalized. And, what La Greca has to say can be shocking. In fact, it should be shocking.
It may not be the Vernon that’s plastered on travel brochures and it may not be everyone’s reality, but it’s a true, neglected and at times ignored, Vernon.
That’s John La Greca’s Vernon. That’s the Vernon in which a surveyed 153 homeless people live, day in, day out.
Dubbed the Charles Bukowski of Vernon by his editor, mentor and CBC Poetry Prize shortlist author Harold Rhenisch, La Greca’s musings of the city he calls home hit the public eye as his collection of poetry entitled Homeless Memorial took the front-and-centre stage at Gallery Vertigo in July 2018.
“You would think that all of Vernon would be mine because I was born here, but I’m getting to the point where I’ve got a small, little, converted hotel room and that’s where I’m supposed to stay because people with big honking pickup trucks and fashions coming out their (butts) cannot accept that a person like me exists in Vernon. I have a right to be here as much as they do,” the 64-year-old poet said.
“There is this vicious, self-perpetuating circle. The more questions you ask, the more you are referred to the same people that cannot help you. Nobody is putting any real effort into solving problems for ordinary people who cannot fit into the middle-class ideal of what Vernon should be.”
La Greca, who has been in and out of the welfare system since he was 17-years-old, casts a light through his words on the side of Vernon many would rather ignore. La Greca’s words, Rhenisch said, have changed his outlook on the city he, too, calls home.
“For nearly half a century he has observed Vernon closely, from the streets that most of us only pass through quickly on our way to a much gentler Okanagan. John walks through the streets day and night, watching and recording all he sees,” Rhenisch said. “It’s not always pretty, but to John, it’s a place of love.
“The poor, homeless, drug dealers and prostitutes of Vernon, the workers in soup kitchens and in social agencies are not strangers to John. They are his community. John has kind of stepped up a few levels and said, ‘If we were to have a Vernon that spoke of itself, this would be one of its voices at a high and sophisticated level of people speaking for themselves,’ which makes it very beautiful.”
Unfortunately, La Greca and his close friend Yvan Quirion said they belong to a community often misunderstood, marginalized and cast aside.
For Brigitte Red of Gallery Vertigo, having that opportunity to begin the conversation was a driving force for inviting La Greca to share his work through the book launch.
“They don’t look at the person and see that there is actually a person there with intelligence, with articulation, who is able to, in spite the many obstacles placed in their way, produce something that lets Vernonites know, ‘This is what I see.’
“‘This is where I think we can create solutions, and you’ve given me a voice,’” said Red. “What you see visually is not necessarily what’s really there. The person you see out there is a person with a mind, a person with a voice. They just need an opportunity to do so.”
La Greca has honed that voice through several different mentors within the writing community, including his longtime mentor Sveva Caetani.
“I write because I want to remain articulate. I want to show that cultural marginalization cannot kill the essence of me and turn me towards mindless terrorism. I had a friend who once said, ‘write to show history that you were a smart man,’” La Greca said. “I’m not forgiven for the bad in my life. I am not praised for the good that is within me. A book of poetry and an urn of ashes will be what’s consumed by the sun. And the gods will laugh.”
La Greca took up the craft at eight years old but only began taking it seriously when he was 17. Now, the Okanagan College, University of Guelph, University of British Columbia and McGill University educated poet crafts his work in longhand on any and all scrap pieces of paper he can find.
While La Greca said the cohesive element that binds his work together is a feeling of anger, frustration and disconnectedness with society, Rhenisch said the poems in Homeless Memorial, some of which date back to 1977, are positive at their core.
“Every poem has got anger, but the anger always leads towards a positive look of laughter or things like that. It’s a wonderful book. This is not your bottom level poetry. It’s a book with many, many layers. It’s very sophisticated. It’s very smart,” Rhenisch said.
“Yes, the frustrations are here and yes there are moments of anger, but there are 120 pages of sharp observation of a side of Vernon that is publicly not expressed. John lives in that Vernon, and he observes it precisely. He observes it with acceptance and warmth rather than dismissal. Even though the anger is there, it always leads to inclusion. The poems are a way out. The vision of these poems, which is to look clearly at what is really here and to look at the people living on the streets and what might be called street life or people with mental illness, looking at all these people and all the various ways they’re living and treating them as they are, which is real, genuine people dealing with genuine problems in a full-human way rather than putting them in a box.”
During his Asian studies in university, La Greca said he felt a connection to those who live without many of the luxuries of the first world.
“Here again I found there were people who were from the third-world who really did have an understanding of the world how it is, and they couldn’t believe the way the average Canadian was. I started to get the idea that neither can I. I found professors who espoused noble ideas and went around oppressing other individuals,” La Greca said.
“Ordinary people have to put up with a lot of frustration to gain the basic necessities of life like medical care, apartments. I mean just the fact that I’ve had an application with BC Housing Registry since 2010 in order to get into subsidized housing is a testament to how ineffective, underfunded the system is. You just have to walk around and have a look to see what really is important to the people who run this city. They are not interested in looking after the needs of the people at the bottom. There are people in this community who don’t want people who have drug problems, alcohol problems, any kind of social problem, any need to be re-educated so they can participate in society, they don’t want them here. They want them to go God knows where. A lot of the people on the streets right now, they’re from a lot of other places where they’re getting kicked out because people want their town to be a destination tourist trap.”
Those frustrations surrounding what La Greca said is the primary issue in Vernon combined with his view of the city he calls home helped to formulate the collection of work published by Ekstasis Editions in Victoria.
La Greca met his now-friend and mentor while Rhenisch was the writer in residence at the Vernon Library. Now, Rhenisch also acts as the hoarding ground for La Greca’s work with two boxes full of the poet’s handwritten musings.
“He wrote a sharp political poem about Vernon politics and the Homeless Memorial in Polson Park. I needed to help him shorten his book manuscript, and suggested it could go. ‘No one outside of Vernon will know these references,’ I said. John was insistent, though. There was something he wanted to say about homelessness and the life on the streets that are his home, so I suggested he add a couple lines to give the poem context. Two days later, he came back with an entire notebook full of lines in his flowing, musical handwriting. As usual, the lines had come out perfectly on the first pass: something most poets only achieve a few times in their lives,” Rhenisch said.
“I think his brain is really, really clear and notices things. This is Vernon. If you look at the public images of Vernon it’s pretty polished and middle class, and nice, safe and beautiful. This is a beautiful Vernon, just not necessarily safe and it’s not middle class and it’s not polished, but come on, it’s here — we all know that.”