In case you weren’t aware, we’ve recently been celebrating the fact that VERSe Ottawa, the organization responsible for the organizing of Ottawa’s annual VERSeFest poetry festival, has announced that they have partnered with the City of Ottawa to re-establish a “poet laureate” program. The program will offer an honorarium of five thousand dollars per year per poet, with a fixed term of two years for concurrent English and French language laureates. As the press release writes, “the two poets will act as ambassadors of poetry here in Ottawa and anywhere they are asked to speak. At the heart of their concerns, they will keep three important facets of the poet laureate program: nation, population and art.”
At least in modern memory (I have yet to unearth any final confirmation), Ottawa had the first official Poet Laureate position in Canada, with a unilingual position established in 1982 that ran until 1990. A story tells that Ottawa poet Dr. Catherine Ahearn approached the Mayor of the then-Municipality of Ottawa-Carleton, Marion Dewar, to establish the position to “help promote the City of Ottawa as well as enrich the lives of its citizens.” Mayor Dewar not only agreed, but suggested that Ahearn should be the first. Ahearn became the first of Ottawa’s three poet laureates, each of which were set with a three-year term at a dollar a year. Laureates were expected to write six poems annually, and attend various civic and community group functions across the city.
As part of her tenure, Catherine Ahearn wrote poems that seem exactly the kind that Canada’s first Parliamentary Poet Laureate, George Bowering, deliberately avoided: penning small pieces on the Ottawa River, or on Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer, all of which were collected in her self-published Poet Laureate poems, 1982-1984 (1984). Our second laureate was poet, fiction writer and University of Ottawa professor Cyril Dabydeen, with the third and final being poet and former Anthos magazine and Anthos Books editor/publisher Patrick White. There was some consternation that White 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 had all three Ottawa Poet Laureates been English? As far as I’m aware, Ahearn was most likely the first Canadian to hold the position of Poet Laureate, and Ottawa had its own city-sponsored Poet Laureate a decade or more prior to almost anywhere in the country.
While a national version of the position was established in 2002, the American and British equivalents to the Canadian Parliamentary Poet Laureate have been in existence far longer—Canada’s first, George Bowering, was appointed in 2002, while the first American laureate, Robert Penn Warren, was appointed in 1986 (the “laureateship” actually replacing an earlier position, “Consultants in Poetry,” established in 1937 with the appointment of Joseph Auslander). The first British laureate, John Dryden, was appointed by Charles II in 1668. One might say that the map is now littered with laureates, with contemporary positions scattered across Canada, including poets currently representing Toronto, Victoria, Vancouver, Nanaimo, Calgary, Mississauga, Halifax, Saskatchewan, Moose Jaw, Nanaimo, Yukon Territory, Prince Edward Island and Sudbury (among others). An extensive listing of geographies, dates and laureates across Canada can be found at http://poets.ca/poetslaureate/.
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). The result of which, according to the Senate of Canada Bill S-10 (passed February 8, 2001), became “An Act to amend the Parliament of Canada Act (Parliamentary Poet Laureate),” a job that described the Parliamentary Poet Laureate as someone commissioned to write poetry, especially for use in Parliament on occasions of state, sponsor poetry readings, give advice to the Parliamentary Librarian regarding the collection of the Library and acquisitions to enrich its cultural holdings, and perform such other related duties as are requested by either Speaker or the Parliamentary Librarian. While various of those in the position so far (George Elliott Clarke is the seventh and current Parliamentary Poet Laureate) have had different approaches to their role, Clarke is the first to have hosted a poetry reading in the Parliament Buildings, featuring readings by Amanda Earl, Monty Reid, myself and Romanian-Canadian poet Diana Manole in April 2016 (an event I reported upon here). While he was the first Laureate to do so, Clarke also suggested that this might have been the first officially sanctioned poetry reading within the Parliament Buildings.
While this might be true, there have certainly been other poetry readings in and around the buildings, including Milton Acorn’s infamous poetry readings on Parliament Hill circa 1970, jwcurry’s reading of the entirety of bpNichol’s The Martyrology in the gazebo behind the Parliament Buildings in 2006 (an event I reported upon here), or Clarke’s own admission that he launched his Whylah Falls in one of the rooms of Parliament in 1990. One suspects there might have been prior readings, even back to the Confederation Poets, but I wouldn’t even know where to begin searching out that kind of information.
Ottawa has historically fallen prey to an odd combination of provincialism and self-consciously being the Nation’s Capital, which has often overrun considerations of the local. Consider, for example, that the Ottawa Art Gallery is smaller than the Kamploops Art Gallery, but the National Gallery is on par with the Vancouver and Winnipeg Art Galleries, as well as Montreal’s Beaux-Arts. The response to Ottawa-specific Poet Laureates will be interesting to see, and one can only hope that increased attention to the art ends up helping everyone involved. There is an enormous amount of writing activity in the city, so anything that might allow acknowledgment of that is a good thing.
The first two Ottawa laureates are scheduled to be announced as part of the seventh annual VERSeFest, held in Ottawa from March 21-26, 2017.
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Born in Ottawa, Canada’s glorious capital city, rob mclennan currently lives in Ottawa, where he is home full-time with the two wee girls he shares with Christine McNair. The author of more than thirty trade books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction, he won the John Newlove Poetry Award in 2010, the Council for the Arts in Ottawa Mid-Career Award in 2014, and was longlisted for the CBC Poetry Prize in 2012. In March, 2016, he was inducted into the VERSe Ottawa Hall of Honour. His most recent titles include The Uncertainty Principle: stories, (Chaudiere Books, 2014) and the poetry collection A perimeter (New Star Books, 2016). An editor and publisher, he runs above/ground press, Chaudiere Books (with Christine McNair), The Garneau Review (ottawater.com/garneaureview), seventeen seconds: a journal of poetry and poetics (ottawater.com/seventeenseconds), Touch the Donkey (touchthedonkey.blogspot.com) and the Ottawa poetry pdf annual ottawater (ottawater.com). In fall 2015, he was named “Interviews Editor” at Queen Mob’s Teahouse, and recently became a regular contributor to both the Drunken Boat and Ploughshares blogs. He spent the 2007-8 academic year in Edmonton as writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta, and regularly posts reviews, essays, interviews and other notices at robmclennan.blogspot.com.