A conversation about riots, writing, voting, and other things with the poet Robert Payne
Robert Payne is a homeless man who comes into the sandwich shop downtown where I work. He’s kind of a regular here, because he works outside the stripclub right next door- selling chapbooks of his poetry to make his living. A week or so ago, I sat down to have a chat with him about poetry, voting, the G20, and other things.
R: I’m at the riot with only a pen and paper, trying to record my impressions of what was going on. Meanwhile you’re still trying to avoid all the (laughs) And at one point I think to myself, wait a minute here! Survival’s more important than this. That was the riot at Queen’s Park in 2001. Literally a riot. It started at Allen Gardens and went to Queen’s Park. All along College, the side streets between there and the Park. It was sort of like G20, but more so.
T: Well, you’re calling it a riot- not even a protest. The G20 wasn’t supposed to be a riot, it was supposed to be a protest.
R: I was actually at Bathurst and Queen. Our drop-in was actually open that day as sort of a place to get away from it all. And I remember it started pouring rain. It was about 6 o’clock and a couple of people managed to get out of the courtyard, and what they were doing was they were coming in from 4 angles. They were boxing people in, right? And I know several people who were out there. One old lady, she was out walking her dog and she was trying to get back into her apartment on Queen St. She got arrested. Another guy, he lives just near the Rivoli. He got arrested.
T: You know, when all that was going on I was literally and Dundas and Spadina waiting for a streetcar with a friend. We were watching all the cop cars rush down the street and it was just one, after another, after another, after another for about 15 minutes. It was kind of horrifying because we had no idea what was going on. It was on that Sunday, and I worked Saturday so I didn’t go protest. A friend went because he’s a anti-prohibition activist. There was a big legalization rally downtown, and they were downtown handing out flyers and smoking joints- and he told me that it was fine and completely safe. But my mom called and told me not to go out protesting, because she was at home watching the news. And I told her, all right because I had been following the story in the news and information was starting to pour in about the arrests- and to me it just wasn’t worth it. We had one of our friends go out and then we just didn’t hear from him. He didn’t come back. But being just up the street from that and then going home and hearing what happened was just really scary.
R: Yeah, and if you were actually watching it from your window you realized that what you were actually seeing was not what they were showing on the tv.
We get interrupted here for a moment while a co-worker comes to say hi to Rob and I.
T: Do you want to start by introducing some of your backstory?
T: How long have you been homeless?
R: I’ve been homeless, this time for almost 4 years.
T: This time? There were other times in the past too?
R: Oh yeah. The first time I was homeless I was 16 and that was only for a couple of months. There are all sorts of levels of being homeless. When I was hitch-hiking around Europe I was homeless, but for some reason when people are hitch-hiking they don’t consider themselves homeless. Then there’s couchsurfing, I’ve done that. But when you’re doing those things you’re still inside. To be actually outside, that’s only happened to me 3 times in my life. The first time was only for a few months. The second time was for almost a year. And this time has been coming up on 4 years.
T: How did you get out of it the last time?
R: Well see the last time that’s when I was pretty involved doing volunteer work at the Meeting Place. I was involved with a magazine called the Street Post. I was the editor and one of the main writers. The Street Post was a magazine devoted to giving voices to the homeless in an artistic way and we were getting government funding to do that. We were getting quite a bit of notice from various places in Canada. In fact, I got to go to the Office Festival in Montreal 2 years running. The second year, about 2 months before I went to Montreal, I lost my house. That was basically because the landlord sold the house. It was just bad timing, I didn’t really arrange for another place to stay by the time it came time to move out. I just figured, okay, I’m going to go tough it outside for a few months. In the meantime I was traveling back and forth to Montreal and doing a bit of traveling here and there, so I didn’t really notice it. But when I came back I ended up staying outside for about 6 months in the summer time and I didn’t really mind it. And then I got a place to live. That rooming house I was at for 2 years, and that didn’t work out.
T: You make a living in a really interesting way- by selling the zines. When did you start doing the zine project?
R: Like I said, I was doing The Street Post.
T: Does that paper still exist?
R: It doesn’t. We were getting so popular that the people at the Meeting Place didn’t know what to do. They thought they were going to be getting a little newletter, but myself and the other editor without sounding too egotistical were giving them something very fine. We had various festivals and communities giving us funding, and we were becoming quite popular. Still, they were telling us what they wanted us to put in there. Telling us “you can’t put this stuff in here without passing it through us.” The struggle continued, and they stopped applying for funding and the magazine went tits up. That’s one of the problem with these social places is that they’re not very sociable. They’re just basically there to perpetuate their own myths.
R: It all started basically from anger at these people who were not really giving a voice to the voiceless. I got mad enough that I decided I would just keep going anyways. I started doing my own magazine St. Elsewise, and I still put that out maybe 2 or 3 times a year. In the past 2 years I’ve been really focusing on just trying to get my own work out there. At some point you got to take care of yourself.
T: How many contributors are there for St. Elsewise?
R: Anywhere fro 8-20 an issue.
T: So you did get a lot of people to actually contribute?
R: Yeah. People know me out and about. In every neighbourhood you know everybody that’s around. It’s not easy to get people to take time out of their daily survival. It would be a lot easier if I could pay them.
T: It’s funny that you have that struggle because that’s something that I deal with everyday, and most people who are artists deal with everyday. You have these really interesting projects and you really want to see them through but a lot of the time you’re just not able to pay people and that’s just the way the art world is.
R: And when there is money to go around, a lot of the times they just can’t find the interest. It’s funny how that one works.
T: What are some of the things that you write about?
R: Whatever comes to mind.
T: Part of the project is not just making the art to support yourself, but also to have an interaction with people, right?
R: That’s at least 50% of it. Instead of trying to get my work out to publishers and into book stores, all I’ve been doing is printing 10-20 copies of my book a day and going out and meeting everyone face to face. Which means I spend a lot of time walking around in the rain, snow, cold and hot- whatever it is- walking up to people and asking, hey can I sell you some art. And it’s getting better. Now only 80% of people are being nasty to me.
T: As opposed to what?
R: 95%. Things are getting better. It’s actually gotten to the point where I walk up to people and the tell me, “Oh, I’ve heard of you”. That happens a couple times a week, and it’s weird. Or sometimes they tell me, “I’ve already got your book” and I can’t remember because I meet a couple hundred people a day. That’s how many it takes to sell 20 books.
R: The main project was giving a face to the homeless, so I’ve been willing to put up with the abuse and the nastiness. But I’ve also been amazed at the good moments. Quite often the ones that do end up talking to me go, “wow, you’re not the kind of person I thought you were”. Everyone’s a human being you know, no matter what their financial circumstances are. You can be a CEO and be the biggest prick or the nicest guy in the world. Same goes for being at the bottom of it all. Money has nothing to do with it.
R: Some people are calling me Canada’s best-selling homeless poet. Whatever that means, I don’t know. But I am doing it one by one. It’s getting up on 7 billion people in the world and it’s getting hard to meet them all, but I’ve gotten a few thousand of my books out there. That’s good for Canada.
T: Do you know of anyone else out there that’s homeless, and maybe trying to write and put material out there on a regular basis.
R: Not like me, no. I do know a couple of people out there doing sidewalk art though, and a few buskers. I’m the only one doing zines, and Broken Pencil has reviewed me a few times, but at the end of the day so what? I still go back to my little hovel at the end of the day, and I could’ve been at a banquet beforehand- and there I am, shivering away.
T: Is there any hope of getting out of that situation anytime soon?
R: If there wasn’t hope I would’ve given up.
T: Is our current government doing anything to make that better?
R: Provincially in ’94 Harris slashed welfare rates from $620 to $520. It’s been 17 years and the rate is still $520. This is one of the reasons I’m still homeless. I have no interest in getting into another one of those rooming house deals. It doesn’t seem to matter which political party it is. Federally, it doesn’t really impact welfare. Let’s just say we are at the bottom of their priority list.
T: One of the things that really irks me is that I don’t mind paying welfare for regular citizens, but all the corporate welfare that they give out just kills me because it’s multiple times what an average person would receive. It’s billions of dollars.
R: And it’s all coming out in the wash now, all these things about the G20 and the mismanagement of funds. Millions and millions of dollars were spent on things like plaques and the poor person is just struggling along.
T: There’s a lot of things these people could’ve done. They could’ve video-conferenced it, or paid for it out of pocket because a lot of these people are independently wealthy.
R: Actually, I’ve met quite a few politicians one-on-one and it doesn’t really matter what political perspective they are- for the most part they just laugh at me. I could mention some of the famous names. On the other side of the coin I’ve met a couple of governor generals and they were very nice. They’ve both gotten my book and they’ve come up to me. When you live in the big city, you never know who you’re going to meet. Adrienne Clarkson I’ve actually met a few times, and she’s bought my books. And her husband I run into all the time.
T: Are you able to vote?
R: Yeah, you can vote when you’re homeless.
T: Are you going to vote?
R: I vote in every election.
T: What party’s looking good?
R: I won’t tell you that, but I’ll tell you who I’m not voting for. It’s the current government.
A scene, a scene
A scene as seen from one side of a café’s winter-frosted window
This slushy shuffling of the city’s really homeless
Justice is hard to find
It just is the way it is