WAR OF THE WORDS: Controversy at Edmonton Poetry Festival!
Poets, especially Canadian poets, can be a fractious lot.
There have been recent public battles between various prominent Canadian poets, mostly notably between Jan Zwicky and Michael Lista on the relevance of criticism. Heated words like “illiterate” and “incompetent” and “stupid” were deployed in a war waged on the pages of the National Post. Veteran Ontario poet Stuart Ross and Calgary surrealist poet Sheri-D. Wilson – the “Mama of Dada” – went at it over the value of spoken word, i.e. “performance poetry.” She likes it, he doesn’t. It got ugly at Edmonton’s Stroll of Poets Society around the turn of the Century when a group of spoken word poets seized control of the board, angering the traditional poets who started the event.
And now there’s controversy at the Edmonton Poetry Festival, which runs April 21-28 at venues around town.
The latest poetic brouhaha is over the selection of musician Kris Demeanor as Calgary’s inaugural Poet Laureate. He’ll be in Edmonton on Saturday, April 27 for the festival’s signature event, The Map of Canada Gala, where every single official Poet Laureate in the country will read from their works. It seemed Calgary was taking a cue from Edmonton when we named rap artist Cadence Weapon our Poet Laureate in 2009, and while some lauded Alberta’s big cities for helping bring poetry to the masses, there was some negative reaction.
“If people can’t tell the difference between a very good poet and a songwriter, they shouldn’t be making decisions on who should be a poet laureate,” complains Stuart Ross, a finalist at the 2010 Alberta Reader’s Choice Awards. “Clearly this so-called trend is an attempt to be populist, to try to popularize poetry by calling a rock star or a folksinger or a hip hop artist a poet. Well, here’s the bulletin: poetry isn’t easy. It’s not a Big Mac and it’s not a Green Day song.”
Vancouver former-Edmonton poet Catherine Owen echoes Ross’s sentiments. She has nothing against Demeanor personally, jokingly admitting that as a musician herself, she “generally prefers most musicians to many poets.” But she doesn’t like this trend of people who are known mostly as musicians being named as Poet Laureates. “Why? Because they aren’t poets, usually; they are songwriters, which is a different animal,” says the author of nine books of verse. She’s also a heavy metal singer. “And poets have few enough opportunities to take on public roles if they so choose. And it’s called a poet laureate. Not a word laureate or a ditty laureate or a verse or doggerel laureate.”
Demeanor defends himself by saying the negative reaction to his appointment could come from traditional poets seeing other, popular forms of poetry as automatically inferior. “A lot of song lyrics are weak, as is lot of ‘real poetry’ by ‘real poets’,” Demeanor says. “The debate over what is poetry is less relevant than trying to be vigilant about quality, whatever the discipline.”
So GigCity put the question – What is a Poet? – to a number of wordsmiths appearing at the Edmonton Poetry Festival. Some refused to answer because of lack of time, or maybe they didn’t think such a simple question could be answered clearly. But for those who did, their answers, while varied, are nothing if not poetic:
ALICE MAJOR (founder of the Edmonton Poetry Festival): “A poet is a maker, that’s actually the derivation of the word. Poets make things with language. We play around with the meaning and (maybe most of all) the sound of words to make interesting combinations. Apart from that, we come in all shapes, sizes, temperaments, ages, cultures and education. But whatever our aims or concerns are, we start with arranging words.”
SHAWNA LEMAY (Edmonton author of five poetry books): “A poet is about possibilities. A poet has an aptitude for venturing out into thunderstorms, waiting. A poet is someone who is open to beauty and pain and the weight of things.”
STUART ROSS (Toronto poet active since the mid-70s): “A poet is someone writing with a sense of adventure, recklessness, provocation, and without making assumptions about what your writing will be. The courage to put words on paper in spite of meaning. Rhyming doesn’t make you a poet; writing ‘from your heart’ doesn’t make you a poet; ranting didactically about social issues doesn’t make you a poet.”
KRIS DEMEANOR (Calgary’s first Poet Laureate): “Like the definition of what an artist is, the definition of what a poet is, evolves. Practicing poets would find it in their best interest to be flexible and open minded when drawing boundaries, and realize those who work in the many realms of creative language are on the same team.”