Who do you
for real change?
I got to know Vancouver poet and activist Bud Osborn in the early 2000s, after inviting him to contribute a Note on Writing for EVENT magazine, of which I was Editor at the time. I was very moved by what he wrote, which was generous, delicate and searingly honest, as always, and we ended up meeting for coffee. It turned out Bud was working on two nonfiction projects, one about his brief visit to Korea, and another about his early life. Bud was hoping to publish the latter as a memoir, and I offered to help him edit it and pitch it to publishers.
We worked on the manuscript for some months, but were unable to secure a publisher. Bud’s health was poor, and after a few rejections he chose not to pursue things further. Nevertheless, scenes from the it have always remained with me (including a harrowing account of the day his aunt killed her own mother, Bud’s paternal grandmother, and then turned the gun on herself). I’m saddened that the project never reached fruition. It seems like work that would, if anything, be more relevant now than ever. Fortunately, his poetry lives on in many forms (see links below).
Walton Homer Osborn III was born in Michigan in 1947 and spent his childhood in Toledo, Ohio. It was a difficult beginning: his father committed suicide when Bud was 3, and at 4 he watched his mother being raped. His mother went on to marry seven times. Despite the trauma that surrounded him, Bud found joy in poetry, and was a powerful runner. Afraid of his given name, the same as his father’s, he took to calling himself Bud, a name another kid once called him, an image of hopefulness, but also of unfulfilled potential.
After first moving to New York, he fled to Toronto to avoid conscription into the Vietnam War and ended up on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside in 1986. Alcohol and heroin use drove him to theft, including stealing books from UBC Bookstore. At 45 he entered detox, and emerged with a new love of the neighborhood that had become his home, choosing to move back there rather than walk away.
With community organizer, Ann Livingston, he then founded VANDU, the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users, and lobbied for harm reduction and legal supervised injection sites, a dream finally realized with the opening of Insite in 2003, after which Bud turned his attention to campaigning against the gentrification of the Downtown Eastside.
All this time he was writing, performing and eventually publishing his poems, winning the City of Vancouver Book Award for his collection, Keys to Kingdoms, in 1998. His faith in poetry as a voice for the disenfranchised, and in the power of speaking the truth as a way to change people’s minds was unwavering. In clear, stark language, his poems lay out gripping narratives of desperation and mercy, punctuated by rhythmic and sometimes syncopated line breaks, always with an eye and ear for telling detail, devastating dialogue. Events and images fill each line without the luxury of recollecting in tranquility, yet throughout, just behind the lines, there is always a watchful, listening presence capable of sardonic humor and unsentimental compassion.
Bud died of pneumonia in May, 2014. Since then, synthetic opioids such as fentanyl have increasingly contaminated the illegal drug supply, and in 2016 BC declared its opioid crisis a public health emergency. In June 2020, the number of overdose deaths in BC was the highest ever recorded for the second month in a row, and reached 728 fatalities so far this year, as opposed to the 195 related to Covid-19. I wonder what Bud would have had to say about that. NB, for folks in Vancouver, see VANDU FB page (link below) for announcement about a march of remembrance & protest happening August 15.