Hilary Peach

Photo by Penny White

While Hilary Peach has been active in the arts since at least the mid-eighties, her arrival at national prominence in the past decade has coincided with her move to Gabriola, one of the South Gulf Islands just off the east coast of Vancouver Island. It’s as if the otherworldly atmosphere of the islands has infused her recordings and her performances with an intense, meditative quality, redolent with the hush of the old growth forests and the brooding depths of the Salish Sea.

Peach began her studies at U.B.C., but she absorbed important elements of her poetic performance discipline from studies with Linda Putnam. Putnam is the founder and artistic director of the Evergreen Theater and School, and a student of Jerzy Grotowski, one of the key proponents of physical theatre. “My artistic practice is a multidisciplinary practice rooted in physical theatre work, and language poetry, and music,” Peach said. “So the places where I become serious are the places where those genres cross over or meet.”

Peach brings this multidisciplinary approach to bear on the art of literary performance. “I struggle to find form that will hold the content. I’m an independent artist working in a non-traditional form without an institution behind me, which is what a lot of spoken word artists are. We often end up inventing form at the same time we’re inventing content, and often the form has to be custom-made to hold the content.” The results of this approach can be heard on her two audio CDs, Poems Only Dogs Can Hear (2003) and Suitcase Local (2009). The latter is a suite of poem compositions about Peach’s experiences as a solitary foreign worker in America, employed as a welder in the construction of power plants. In her work with musicians like Scott Chernoff (Molasses) and Alex Varty, and with experimental film and video maker Shawn Chappelle (on her 2005 film ‘Pennsylvania’), Peach brings a highly collaborative artistic process to the table.

Her current recording project, Dictionary of Snakes, had its beginnings with Linda Putnam. “It started in 1992 when I was in Massachusetts visiting my teacher there. She had a book called What Snake is That, by Roger Conant, published in 1939. It’s this obscure but completely miraculous book, all about snakes of the eastern seaboard in the United States. But  the way the language is written, they’re like poems.” Recently, Peach aquired her own copy of the book, and began working with it as the basis of a new suite of poems. “When I write, I go into a closed studio and I work physically in two-to three hour blocks, in different structures that come out of Gratowski’s physical theatre traditions. So I’m using the passages in the book as a source, then dropping the source into my body and working on the source physically in the studio.”

Her next step was to bring the poems to musicians Varty and Victor Anthony. “I didn’t want to make a piece where the vocalizing artist was the center, I wanted to make a piece that was a real collaboration. The poem was the central source, and each of the musicians took that and used it as a source to create a new piece of their own. So we’ve been writing the music as we rehearse the poem.” Dictionary of Snakes debuted at the Poetry Gabriola Festival in November 2010.

Conceived and curated by Peach since 2003, the Poetry Gabriola Festival has been evolving ever since. According to Peach, “One of the key intentions was to try to provide a landing pad or a gathering place for artists who are from cross-traditional backgrounds, or in hybric practice. We’re all orphans and wanderers, we don’t generally have a lot of either structured training or meeting places, where we can all get together and have the kinds of conversations and dialogues that are particularly necessary to further the form.” The festival has moved away from multiple venues, and now houses everything that occur under one roof. “A couple of years ago we rented this one lodge called the Surf Lodge, and having it all under one roof was amazing. Suddenly there was the beginning of a sense of ownership. This year we rented a 6500 square foot, 12 bedroom hotel. We did all the catering, we did everything. There was no management there at all, it was ‘our’ space and the audience was ‘our’ guest. So when the people hit the stage there was a sense that they were putting forward their best work, because they were very comfortable in the space.”

Peach’s concern with making a creative space for artists has led to the recent groundbreaking for a unique artist’s studio on The Gabriola Commons, funded by a grant from the British Columbia Arts Council. “It’s a 28 foot diameter yurt,” explained Peach. “It’s going to be a studio space designated for the research and development of new work. The yurt will be available to the artists on the island, and we’re going to do a poetry school in the summer.”