About

When i was appointed as Edmonton’s Fourth Poet Laureate, i wanted to use my poetic gift to serve our City. I wanted the poems i created to be resonant for a broad audience, in this very complex and diverse City of ours. Of course, as a poet, i write from my own view; however, i felt it was important for that view to be informed.

Too often, people criticise poetry and poets for being self-centred, self-indulgent, and frankly narcissistic. I felt that the job of Poet Laureate is a great opportunity to serve the higher truth of poetry, that it calls us to be observant, engaged with others, courageous and clear about what we perceive, so that our work serves to show human realities. It’s what the great poets do.

I can’t claim to be One of the Greats – long way to go there – but i can and do take seriously the potential for my work to be of service in the same way the greats have been, by creating works that touch hearts and move minds. To do so, i had to know what was on people’s minds, what was in their hearts.

So, i thought it best to ask.

This site is an archive of the many answers.

INTRODUCTION

 

What is poetic about Edmonton? The Poem Catcher project was a means to gather intelligence, because I wanted to use my craft in the servvice of, perhaps, catching a glimpse of what our shared vision might be.

 

Not that I anticipated any unified vision coming to light. In a city whose roots lie in gathering from all directions, a city that prides itself on diversity, a city that of mansions and charity shelters, prisons and universities – there can be no singular vision.

 

Location, Location, Location

 

The things that we can agree to – it is Northern, and Cold – mean vastly different things, depending upon means, culture, and inclination. The 40 below of a diabetic on stumps waiting for the shelter to open is obviously not the 40 below never seen by the international executive, who can choose to migrate with the sun.

Those are dramatic extremes. And thus, there is a poetry there. But I was after the subtler stuff, all the motley in between. I wanted to be surprised, as well as affirmed in what I’ve observed in my time, over 25 years, living here.

 

So, I set up an installation in City Hall, and invited people to write down for me their answers to ‘What is poetic about Edmonton?’

 

The first thing that reveals itself to me is that there is a great mystery, right in the centre of our city, in City Hall itself. Until becoming Laureate, I never really thought about the meaning of City Hall, that it is, as Site Manager Jill Wright – to whom I owe a lifelong debt of joyful gratitude for her support of this project – puts it, “The Home of the City.”

 

What does that mean? Who comes to this House, this Hall, this Home of the City? Of course, the people who work in managing our civic affairs. Mayor Stephen Mandel was the first person to put a poem in the Poem Catcher book.  And there are several entries that show an unmistakeable insider knowledge of what’s going on in our civic life.

Who else frequents City Hall? School groups, official delegations, tourists, new immigrants for their citizenship ceremony, people waiting nervously for a court appointment across the street, the indigent, the indignant, the injured and the inspired, all of them left words and images, over a thousand pages worth of them.

From those entries, as promised, I drew inspiration and perspective in crafting the six official poems required by my position, and in every event at which I performed during my two year tenure.

Those poems form the last section of this archive. The rest is a portrait, incomplete and somewhat inchoate; but I hope that this selection of writings, sacred and profane, serious and silly, presents some sort of real, intriguing picture of who we were, just at a specific location in time and space.

 

DREAM CATCHER, POEM CATCHER

 

The Poem Catcher – a name again suggested by Jill Wright – used as its symbol a large Dream Catcher, hung in an arbour over a specially constructed table.

I chose to use the Dream Catcher because it is personally resonant to me, coming as it does from Anishnabe tradition, a strong part of my heritage. It is also recognised worldwide as a symbol indigenous to this land.

 

Weaving in the Air

Here’s a story:

In July of 1994, I went to Japan on the Japan Exchange and Teaching Programme. I spent the next year based in a regional education office north of Kyoto. My roster of work included visiting eight local junior highschools. I got the most rural schools, perhaps due to my own rural upbringing.

In a tiny school in a town called Miwa, I met a magnificent soul. Mrs. Yamamoto was a Lunch Lady, a very humble position, but in many ways the centre of the school.

Despite her utter lack of English and my appalling Japanese, we got on. The day she spied me making a dream catcher at my desk in the staffroom, she took the initiative to ask, would I teach her?

So I did, over the course of my rotation there. She explained how it resonated with her own Buddhist-tinted Shinto worldview. At least, that’s what I thought I was understanding.

My rotation took me away for several weeks. When I returned, I was devastated to learn that Mrs. Yamamoto was dead. Cancer at 50. ‘She asked,’ said the English teacher, ‘to tell you, she was sent to the ancestors carrying the dreamcatcher she made with you.’

 

The dream catcher I made for the Poem Catcher was purposely built out of found, repurposed materials, because we live in a time and place where choosing against easy throw-aways is a real challenge, a challenge that resonates on many levels.

So, I took an old hula hoop from my garage – child’s play – a ball of manila hemp from a crate of craft yarns my mother picked up at a country auction – shades of handmade days – and a pair of cheap faux suede pants, rustled up in a thrift store for the purpose, by the lovely Nancy Shulz. Nancy was then doing design work for City Hall, and she also designed me a table with legs made from salvaged books. (Most people loved them. One man wrote a page-long diatribe berating my lack of respect for writers. I did say I wanted to be surprised.)

So, I built the dreamcatcher with Nancy – her first – and we hung it up, in an arbour with a sign she also crafted. Brilliant woman, that.

 

For eighteen months, it swayed quietly in the arbour, marking a place where people were welcome to sit (in a retired councilor’s chair), and write their thoughts and feelings.

 

I am certain that had I followed the thought I’d briefly entertained – of making smaller dream catchers to send around the city to libraries and schools – the tenor of the writing would have been different.  I’d likely be blind, too, from trying to wade through it all.

 

No, the Poem Catcher belonged where it hung, in the Home of our City. Like City Hall, it was open to the public, free for all.

I hope it made people pause, consider our history and future in a different light, and to unfold some perspective for themselves, in some beautiful way.

That, as I see it, is one big use for poetry.

 

Poetry can’t fill a pothole. Can’t build an arena. Can’t make a world-class public transit system run; there are many things poetry doesn’t do. But it does speak from and for the heart and soul. However much we might – even we who practice for a living – belittle, marginalise or joke about poetry, we all do it. Bird sing. We make poems.

 

Maybe, amongst themselves, birds critique each other’s songs. Maybe, there are accomplished singers and shy, reedy, wobble-toned geeks in the crook of the branch. To our ear, bird song is one thing, it’s all song.

 

Please read this diversity of writing – however accomplished or rough – with the same heart in which you take in birdsong. It’s all a call toward the light.

 

Vanishing

One More Story before I turn you over to the words of others:

 

In April of 2013, Edmonton Poetry Festival Society, (established by our first Poet Laureate, Alice Major), hosted 13 Poets Laureate from across Canada, and the Makar of Scotland.

It was my pleasure and privilege to produce a gala evening performance, featuring works from each Laureate (plus a couple who couldn’t attend), in an event we called A Poetry Map of Canada.

My inspiration for this came from the power I was finding in the Poem Cacther; the title was inspired by a little site run out of Owen Sound, Ontario, The Poetry Map of Canada (dead link?).

(This will be where I link to the Poetry Festival site when they get it up, with the video documentary, plus the Ideas podcast we made.)

 

We also held a forum in City Hall, which was made into an episode of Ideas for CBC radio. “The Makar and the Laureate” link here.

 

The morning was just for us, the aggregation of Laureates; Alice Major, as Poetry Festival Director and a former Laureate herself, hosted a round table discussion about our various experiences and perceptions.

One of the huge perceptions, for me, was just how little the mainstream Canadian public really does know our history. Our best and brightest, most literate practitioners of poetry, demonstrated that, for the most part, they did not really apprehend one entire root – the longest root – of our identity.

 

In contrast to their shared experience of the ‘newness’ of being a poet for the public, the indigenous perspective of myself and Victoria’s Janet Marie Rogers.  With the exception of Calgary’s Kris Demeanour – maybe this is something we are more up on in the West – the idea that our position has a long, long tradition, albeit under other names, seemed a shock to our colleagues.

Thus, I got quite excited, sharing this perspective with the best and brightest of cultural workers, that they might reflect and return to their communities with different eyes, hopefully alert for the signs, faint though they may be, that in this land, for long long generations, we have entwined poetics with public life.

Now, I could veer off here and start discussing the Nisgaa land settlement and the significance of the Dalgamuth decision in opening up Canadian understanding of orality, poetry and law. But I won’t. I just want you to know, I was pretty fired up by lunch time, and delighted by the conversations over lunch, about law, about culture, about truth and reconciliation. It’s invigorating to partake in the thoughts of trained and incisive wordslingers.

 

After lunch, we were to hold court back at City Hall, in the public part of this symposium, where our community were invited to ask us about our lives, roles and perspectives.

In the five minutes of set-up time, I grabbed Janet and Kris and brought them to see the Poem Catcher up close. I’d given everyone some Poem Catcher stationery in the morning, with an invitation to write for the book. After our spirited talk, I wanted to show them the beauty up close.

And it was gone.

To my utter astonishment, when we got to the table, I looked up into the arbour, and the dream catcher was gone. Stolen. City Hall staff spent the afternoon investigating, while we held our forum. I could not forebear pointing out, quite vocally, the irony that, on the very day when I was most proud to be able to show to our distinguished guests that our city welcomed an indigenous cultural symbol in its very heart, it was found to be stolen.

 

Two things I want to share about that:

One, while I was astonished, I wasn’t entirely surprised. I grew up in quite a redneck setting, at a time when my parents’ decision to openly identify our true heritage was unusual – many of my contemporaries came from families who tried to ‘pass’ as Europeans, most commonly claiming to be French, perhaps Italian, because it seemed too hard to be indigenous.

Taking it on the chin as a kid was, I’ll admit, not the easiest. However, I feel proud and blessed that, thanks to my parents’ courage, I never had to go through the shame and humiliation of hiding in plain sight, then having to unlearn the amnesia.

As I see it, Canada is, as a whole, in the midst of coming out of the Amnesiac Generations; this vague fear of the other, this defensiveness about our “lack of history,” this need to point the finger righteously at sinners abroad, that too is the legacy of colonialism and the Residential Schools.

This, I see, is one place where poetry can serve. If we do our best to tell the truth, and tell it clean, sharp, clear, with good hearts, maybe we can become, all of us, more beautifully at home in this beautiful land.

But I seem to digress.

What I need you to know is, like many indigenous Canadians, I walk around with one ear up all the time, alert to the possibility that I will, out of the blue – as so many times when I was a kid – be suddenly discovered to be an “Indian,” and rejected. This is not a pitiful state, really, don’t worry. I’ve lived enough to see that I’m actually pretty normal; we all have reasons for our ears to be up. I feel lucky that I know why mine are.

So, my public artwork had been vandalised, just when its presence would be most celebratory on a national (even international) scale.  Grist for the mill.

 

But remember, I did want to be surprised. And I was.

Not that it was stolen, but by this: I swear to you, as I walked across the Hall, I could see the dream catcher in the arbour. I did not see, until we were actually standing at the table, that it was physically gone.

Now, I am open to the mystical in life. So, I asked others. Everyone I asked said the same thing – they thought it was there. Video surveillance tapes revealed, in fact, it had been stolen nearly a week prior to that day.

Yet, everyone saw it there, same as always.  Why? How? What does that mean?

I submit that I do not know, but suspect, the truth is both simple and deep. We see what we expect to see. We see what we are used to seeing.

Even when physical reality changes, the idea of the thing, the shape of the thing, remains with us.

To put it mystically, that symbolic hoop and web had been hanging there, collecting our collective feelings, for so long that we created an energy form strong enough to be visible. We knew it was there, so there it was.

 

Somewhere, somebody knows what has become of an old hula hoop, some hempen twine, and strips of faux suede. Somebody apparently rode off with it, on their bike. Good balance, there, at least in a physical sense.

What has become of the invitation to answer the question, “What’s Poetic about Edmonton?” – that is a subtler matter.

These pages can reveal some of the truth. Most of it will remain as evanescent and intangible as a dreamcatcher turned to smoke, or translated otherwise into its spiritual aspect.

 

I hope you enjoy the songs gathered in these pages. I hope everyone who came to that book, whatever they wrote or didn’t write, came away blessed.

I know that I have been truly, generously blessed by this time when I got to receive word from our community, and from many passing through, about how their world was, in that moment of time and space.

 

Chi Megwetch.

My great thanks. It is a great mystery, isn’t it?

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