Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Why doesn’t Ottawa have a Poet Laureate (anymore)?

It seems to be all the rage over the past near-decade in Canada, for various geographies across the country to start up with their own Poet Laureate. Why a poet laureate? What does it all mean? Apparently England has considered it important enough that the position was created there for a national Poet Laureate in 1668; ours are much more recent. But what does it all mean? According to the website for the Toronto version, "Toronto's Poet Laureate serves as the City's literary ambassador. As an advocate for poetry, language and the arts, the Poet Laureate attends events across the city to promote and attract people to the literary world. The Poet Laureate's mandate also includes the creation of a legacy project that will be unique to the individual." According to Victoria, British Columbia, "The main goal of the Poet Laureate is to raise awareness of literary arts and the positive impact literature and poetry can have on the community. The Poet Laureate will produce three new poems each year and recite poems at seven City events annually; including the Mayor's Annual Address, the Butler Book Prize Gala and at least one City Council meeting." In Prince Edward Island, the duties are written that the "Poet Laureate shall undertake such activities to promote the objectives of the office as may be appropriate, including, but not limited to, composing poetry related to legislative or state occasions and events of significance, visiting schools, presenting or arranging poetry readings and assisting with writing workshops or other activities."

But what does it all mean? A lot more than simple cheerleader for the art, but at the same time, that seems to be exactly what it is. In the late 1990s I was on national council of the League of Canadian Poets when we decided to start bothering the federal government to start up a national poet laureate, and there was plenty of discussion on what the position entailed, and why the position was needed (and not needed); our pestering eventually became the Parliamentary Poet Laureate position, which was founded in 2002 for a posting of two years, and included Vancouver troublemaker George Bowering as its first (2002-2004), Quebecois poet Pauline Michel (2004-2006) and current Montreal poet John Steffler (2006-2008). According to the Senate of Canada Bill S-10 (passed February 8, 2001), "An Act to amend the Parliament of Canada Act (Parliamentary Poet Laureate)," the job of the Parliamentary Poet Laureate was to:
(a) write poetry, especially for use in Parliament on occasions of state;

(b) sponsor poetry readings;

(c) give advice to the Parliamentary Librarian regarding the collection of the Library and acquisitions to enrich its cultural holdings; and

(d) perform such other related duties as are requested by either Speaker or the Parliamentary Librarian.
What made George Bowering interesting as our first in the national position was the fact that he started putting poetry on the website (which doesn’t always seem to work; I hope they're archiving what he collected as editor for such), collecting weekly poems by various writers across the country (making it less about him and more about the actual writers that exist across Canada); part cheerleader, part craftsman, part media-savvy workhorse. Even during his tenure, he talked about he wasn’t terribly interested in writing poems about state visits, or if a Prime Minister or member of the Royal Family died, but instead brought poems more into public view by, among other things, writing a piece for the opening of a baseball game, and another that was turned into a music video for television.

Opening Day
for George Stanley

On opening day
you can open your stance,
you can open a book,

take a good look, yeah,
take a liking, like
to a Viking.

Take a swing at a thing
like a sinker, ahuh,
be a thinker,

think of getting down to second,
take a second.
take a look.
take a lead-off,
read a book.

Rounding third, like a bird,
read the sign
from your coach,
your approach

to the plate,
isn’t late,
isn’t great,
but okay, okay, okay,

okay, you're safe,
safe at home,

read a poem,
read this poem,

read about base,
read about ball,
read about baseball.

I mean don’t delay it.
Get down and play it. (George Bowering, Vermeer's Light)

Since those original arguments during League of Canadian Poets AGMs, there seem to have a whole slew of Poet Laureates across the country, both city and provincial. In Toronto, Dennis Lee was the first to hold the three year position (2001-2004), and its current held by Pier Giorgio Di Cicco (2004-2007). In Halifax, first city Poet Laureate was Sue MacLeod (2001-2005), who even edited an anthology as a legacy project, To Find Us: Words and Images of Halifax (2005), including work by more than fifty Halifax-area writers and photographers; the second poet to hold the post is Lorri Neilson Glenn (2005-2009). In June 2005, Alice Major was named Edmonton's first Poet Laureate. Victoria, BC announced poet Carla Funk as their first city Poet Laureate for a two and a half year term starting June 30, 2006. In 2007, Agnes Walsh became the first Poet Laureate for St. John's, Newfoundland, which holds a four year position and pays $5,000 a year. More recently, Vancouver announced poet and Professor Emeritus of UBC's Creative Writing Program George McWhirter as their inaugural Poet Laureate in March 2007, with an annual stipend of $5,000. Saskatoon poet and publisher Glen Sorestad (2000-2004) was the first provincial Poet Laureate when Saskatchewan named him in 2000, with subsequent Laureates Louise B. Halfe (2005-2006) and Robert Currie (2007-2008). Frank Ledwell became the first for Prince Edward Island in 2004 (2004-2007). Where is all this money for poetry coming from? St John's, Edmonton and Vancouver (for example) each pay their Poet Laureates $5,000 a year, with the national getting $12,000 (as well as office space and a secretary, of all things). In Sackville, New Brunswick, poet Douglas Lochhead takes his position as an honorary one, without stipend. It's an impressive list of not only writers getting attention by elected officials, the media and perspective readers (and getting some money, which this art almost never sees), but poetry and literary works as a whole getting acknowledgment in various corners of the country; to help one, therefore, helps many.

for Bill & Mim Maust

In this world the swans exist
on one axis; no need for y
for those who only feed and float
and send up dreams to the watchers

in air. All the time you were
gone they remained: invisible,
hypothetical, and I thought: They
are creatures of bread and water,

the things we believe in, sight
unseen. So I sat, silently each
morning as the geese dropped down
like questions from the y-axis world.

I always imagined the place with
the answers would be complicated,
impenetrable. But the swans dip in
and out of the one line that exists,

like a river, undulating, ancient,
the straight road bending itself into
a perfect world. Can you feel the
earth, on its axis, stop for a moment

and then everything, including us,
cease hurtling? So briefly space extends
between eternal cedars and the swans
and we are written on the waters

before why, and how, and where,
and who, in the one place we all will
remember, in our numbered perils,
as pure and clear. And the swans?

Black or white, they float in their
quiet mathematics, still points
in the Irvine or imaginary stream:
slow, steady arrows of creation. (Diana Brebner, The Ishtar Gate)

What not everyone knows is that the City of Ottawa (then, the Regional Municipality of Ottawa-Carleton) actually had three city poet laureates in the 1980s. Conceived by Ottawa poet, Dr. Catherine Ahearn in 1981 to "help promote the City of Ottawa as well as enrich the lives of its citizens," she promoted the idea to then-Ottawa Mayor Marion Dewar, who made the position official in 1982, and named Ahearn herself the first Ottawa poet laureate, who, for her three year, dollar a year position, was to write six poems a year, and attend various civic and community group functions across the city. Through this, she wrote poems that seem exactly the kind Bowering was wise enough to steer clear of, penning small pieces on the Ottawa River, or on Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer in her self-published Poet Laureate poems, 1982-1984 (1984). The position was later held by poet, fiction writer and University of Ottawa professor Cyril Dabydeen (1984-1987), and poet and former Anthos magazine and Anthos Books editor/publisher Patrick White (1987-1990), who moved out to Perth, Ontario in February, 1988, not five months after Mayor Jim Durrell had named him Laureate. Around the same time, some of the French-speaking poets in town were wondering why all three Ottawa Poet Laureates had been English? If you can imagine it, Ottawa with its own city-sponsored Poet Laureate a decade or more earlier than most cities across Canada that currently have the position. Why did they stop the program? Apparently the position was more honorary than anything else, and paid a stipend of but $1 a year. Apparently, after White's tenure as Laureate was finished, the position was quietly eliminated. As Dabydeen wrote in a piece in The Ottawa Citizen on November 15, 1986:
While no one has expected me to pen verses in the manner of a D.C. Scott or an Archibald Lampman (the two best poets who ever lived here), I've been tempted to justify the honour of being Ottawa's poet laureate by churning out heroic couplets on some epochal or historical event. Why not, for instance, trace the history of Ottawa as a burgeoning small lumber town, ringing with the cries of the Glengarry men on the Ottawa River on its way to becoming a bureaucracy-crazed nation's capital?
What is it this city has against the arts? It seems to be forgotten that (whatever else you thought about the writing) Ottawa and Fredericton were the seats of poetry in Canada in the late 1800s and early 1900s, before being replaced a few decades later by Toronto and Montreal. It seems to be forgotten simply how much writing exists and has existed in this city over the past one hundred and fifty years [see also: my "living the arts in ottawa: an open letter" entry]. As editor John Bell wrote of Confederation poet Archibald Lampman as introduction to his book, Ottawa, A Literary Portrait (Halifax NS: Pottersfield Press, 1992), "Writing in the February 4, 1893 installment of the Toronto Globe column 'At the Mermaid Inn,' Lampman argued that while Ottawa could not be expected to ever surpass Toronto or Montreal as a commercial centre, the capital would eventually overtake its rivals in the cultural sphere, becoming 'in the course of the ages the Florence of Canada, if not of America, and the plain of the Ottawa its Val d’Arno.'" We might not have become what Lampman might have hoped, but still have a history that somehow the official line doesn’t seem to be terribly interested in, even as acknowledging its own history.


The streets are full of overweight corporals,
of sad grey computer captains, the impedimentia
of a capital city, struggling through the snow.

There is a cold gel on my belly, an instrument
is stroking it incisively, the machine
in the half-lit room is scribbling my future.

It is not illegal to be unhappy.
A shadowy technician says alternately,
Breathe, and, You may stop now.
It is not illegal to be unhappy. (John Newlove, Groundswell: best of above/ground press 1993-2003)

Much of the question, I would think, has to do with much of Ottawa's official self-dismissal; there was even a recent piece in The Ottawa Citizen by Andrew Cohen, complaining that Ottawa isn’t a world class city. At least it's refreshing to see the amount of angry letters that poured in, to contradict his dismissal and insults against the City of Ottawa, but how are we continually stuck in the same story? I have to say I was even disturbed to watch then-Mayor Bob Chiarelli pretty much ignore the 150th anniversary of the City of Ottawa in 2005, and now have our current Mayor seemingly ignoring this year's 150th anniversary as the seat of Parliament. Even Canada Post knows well enough that this is an event, and the National Capital Commission is (as they should very well be) in on it. Why do the Mayors keep ignoring this?

There have already been poems written on the city for decades; the work of the poet laureate has been already happening by various individuals in the city for years, with poems on the city over the past thirty years by poets such as David O'Meara, Colin Morton, John Newlove [see my note on his "Ottawa poems" here], Amanda Earl, Michelle Desbarats [see my note on her here], Seymour Mayne, Stephen Brockwell [see my note on him here], Michael Dennis, Dennis Tourbin, William Hawkins [see my interview with him here] and George Elliott Clarke (see his recent book Black for some magnificent Ottawa poems; some of them were previously published in ottawater…), just to name a few. Or what of the poems written by residents, past and present, during their tenure here, such as Matthew Holmes [see my review of his book here], Shane Rhodes [see my review of his third book here], K.I. Press, Christian Bök, Nadine McInnis, John Barton, Stephanie Bolster, Monty Reid, Louis Cabri, jwcurry, Max Middle [see my note on him here], Anita Lahey, Nicholas Lea, Laura Farina [see my review of her book here], Rob Manery or Robert Hogg? Perhaps the 1980s were too early, too soon for what has become a national idea; is it time to reopen the debates of our own Ottawa laureate, during our second anniversary year over the past few? Why do city heads and officials keep passing us over for what is it we have done, are doing, have already started? What else do we need to do?

1 comment:

Hugh Chatfield said...

Hey Rob - for some reason I kept missing your blog entry on all previous searches... but today you show up.

I am the guy who did the Patrick White page that you point to from your blog. Patrick and I were introduced in a restaurant in Perth.

Today, I find my self enrolled in Algonquin College's first post graduate course in Documentary Production. I hope to do a 2 minute profile of Patrick as a project for the course- and may develop a more extensive profile if circumstances permit. I did find your blog on the subject quite useful for my project.

My base question is "of what value is a poet to today's Canada?"