Cool… so, what do you do?

This site is an archive, celebrating the poetic voice of Edmonton, as shared to me through the Poem Catcher installation, which spent 18 months in City Hall, a place where people came from around the world and wrote down their answers to the question: ‘What’s poetic about Edmonton?’

I did it because i was Poet Laureate. “Poet Laureate? Cool … so, what do you do?”

As Edmonton’s 4th Poet Laureate, i got asked that a lot. People were interested, curious, and uninformed.

I hope i’ve answered that question in a good way:

– in my  many appearances and performances;

– the book Writing the City: Poets Laureate of Edmonton 2005 – 13 (published by Edmonton Arts Council, edited by Dr. Doug Barbour, featuring poems from all 4 Laureates to date, plus 16 Edmonton writers of our selection);

– in A Poetry Map of Canada – see video here – for which i curated, arranged and directed, for three voices with live soundscape, the works of 15 Canadian Poets Laureate, in a gala performance that also featured 13 Canadian Laureates plus the Makar of Scotland, Liz Lochhead, and readings from three local schoolkids. The Gala was a fundraiser for Edmonton Poetry Festival Society’s Poetry in Schools programs;

– and in this site, where i hope you get a sense of the voice of our city, as it sang through the people who visited the Poem Catcher over 18 months at City Hall, and who gave me some 1000 pages of writing, of drawings, of musings in reply to my question: “What’s Poetic About Edmonton?”

Please enjoy these pages, and the portrait they present, of our city at a particular moment in our history.

Please also enjoy my official poems, below. A couple of them appear in Writing the City, most do not, as they weren’t yet written when the book was commissioned – i was just setting out on my two year journey as Laureate.

Way Stations

This is the first poem i wrote for my tenure. Actually, i wrote it for the interview, when i was just a shortlisted nominee. I’d read that the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, at their June 2011 meeting, had discussed Sister City relationships. I looked up our Sister Cities, and chose among them.

Verse one, in French and English, is for Gatineau (Hull), Quebec, our first Sister City. I have to thank Ms. Dana Hartnell for highschool French classes, and all the friends who’ve made it fun to keep at least a bumbling acquaintance with la belle langue.

Verse two, in Japanese and English, is for me. The year i spent working in Japan (1994-95) was unforgettable. I am so pleased that Alberta has a Sister relationship with Hokkaido, thanks to which many municipalities in both lands are sisters. And thanks to Yukari Meldrum for reading over my very unfluent Japanese translation.

Verse three is different. The performance version uses Korean, because i have a very slight ability to pronounce it, thanks to the Edmonton Arts Council sending me on a delegation to Wonju city in 2003, in pursuit of connections to lead to a sister relationship. The version in Writing the City is in Chinese, so that i could showcase, just a little, the writing of George Shiu Ming Ng. Mr. Ng and his family have been family to me since childhood. I owe them a debt of love and gratitude that i will happily carry the rest of my life. And i love what i understand of George’s interpretation of the verse, rendered in accordance with the strictures of LuShi form.

I was delighted to discover that we have a sister relationship with Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Region, Russia. In part, because i’d never heard of it, and found it fascinatingly like us. Mostly, though, it gave me license to have Winter, the fourth verse, in Russian and English. I thank my humble friend, Tracey Brailovsky, for the translation, as i do not speak Russian. I do feel it though, perhaps through my own Slavic roots, perhaps because of my late great friend, Jim Rigby. Many years ago in Mexico, Jim introduced me to the poetry of his friend, Yevgeny Yevtushenko. I never forgot Zima Junction. As i will never forget the eerie voice of Viktor Tsoy, whose songs Tracey brought to me. It is his, the final image of the verse, that of being called by a star to one’s road.

Wicihitowin

This poem was presented in April of 2012, as Edmonton’s response to the Mayor of Regina’s challenge to Canadian City Councils to celebrate World Poetry Day and National Poetry Month.

It was great to have Mayor Mandel’s poem and participation as a starting point; i wrote responsorial verses, and a chorus for the Council, and we performed a duet.

One of the most beautiful moments, for me, came just ahead of the performance. I was briefing (and i mean briefly) the Councillors on what they’d gotten into, agreeing to do a chorus. I chanted the chorus to them, to mark the rhythm. No less than 4 of them wrinkled their brows in concern, and nodded along as one spokesperson (was it Don Iveson? or Amerjeet Sohi?) politely informed me that i was mispronouncing ‘Wicihitowin.’

I grew up in a time and place where being openly Aboriginal, as my family were (and also shocking in the day, a mixed-race marriage), was not viewed as a good thing. My parents worked hard to change that. And through the work of my father, Stan Sewell Sr, i came to recognise just how many people were working hard to change that. For all those people, i wanted to stand up and cheer when the councillors wanted to correct me. As it was, i almost burst out crying for the beauty of the change, almost got lost in wondering about all the years of struggle, all the good people who didn’t live to see the day City councilors here would, as a matter of pride, know how to pronounce Cree. Fleetwood Mac saved me; i explained i was invoking the Stevie Nicks pronunciation clause – if she could sing ‘when the rain wa-Shes you clean,’ i could certainly vouch for ‘wici-Hi-towin,’ to make the scan i wanted.

It’s been a long road toward embracing the fullness of our history, Edmonton, but that star hangs calling, right there overhead.

Hunting Season

This one’s for the Winter, too, and for Pamela Anthony, who nominated me in the first place for Laureate. Ms. Pamela also, for three years of elegance and warmth, ran Winter Light, celebrating our most famous season with some really sweet community events. So much beauty, gone like a snowflake… anyhow, i’m just sure Pamela would agree with me, Old Man Winter is not some frail elder, not around these parts. He’s that silver fox brute that rips the heart right out of you, unless you dare meet him head-on. 

Knit

This commission brought me into contact with the remarkable Betty Loree, not just a lady, a force of nature. My daddy told me, in the Ojibway (Anishnabe) tradition, whatever you do comes back to you three times over. That’s not the same as blaming the victim. It’s a tool for considering many choices we have in life. Among the most important, what we model as appropriate relationship between generations.

Sandstone

I write for performance. Often, i write in performance. Such was the case with a commission in the fall of 2012, for Alberta Arts Days. I was asked to present a City poem as part of programming on Centennial Plaza. It was me and the Latino dance bands. And it was a blast. And i free-styled a poem for the occasion. If you were there, you’ll remember. If not, i offer you this, the central image in the piece: that culture here in Edmonton looks a lot like sandstone, it’s a thing laid down in layers, might not look like much from certain angles, but carries a weight of journeys, an aggregation of stories, that is irresistibly intricate.

Leitmotif

It was a rare privilege to be asked to write a poem for John Mahon, on the occasion of his departure from the helm of the Edmonton Arts Council. Like so many Edmontonians, i owe John a lot of thanks, for all his work in the service of arts and culture here. I am so lucky to have been working here during his era. Serving on the EAC board was an education and an adventure. When i became Poet Laureate, i had the opportunity to sit with John regularly, and again, i learned so much from him.

I also wrote poems for:

The Mayor’s Celebration of the Arts in 2013 – again, a rare privilege, to have the chance to publicly honour Mayor Stephen Mandel with a poem, in thanks for his vision and support for the Poet Laureate position.

Winter Cities Forums 2011/12 – when else was i going to get the chance to combine reportage of proceedings with the pure fromage of freestyling poetry?

Canadian Capital Cities Organisation – when the CCCO called me to their 2012 conference, i got that chance again. We all have our things that we call fun; for me, there is a particular pleasure in the challenge of attending meetings, and distilling the vibe, the content, the ephemerals and the factuals into something relatively poetic.

Winterlight evening in Giovanni Caboto Park – with bonfires, fire dancers, teepees, lanterns, good food, warm people, why not?

And then there were all the events for which i trotted out fresh versions of warhorses in my poetry stable, and just plain played.

I played with a houseband of excellent musicians – Andrew Glover, Thom Golub, Sandro Dominelli – at Leonard Cohen Night, singing one of my favourites of the Master’s repertoire, If It be Your Will; and later, joined Crystal Plamondon and Souljah Fyah’s Janaya Ellis in the Hallelujah chorus.

I played with the marvellous Paul Morgan Donald at Marty Chan’s farewell party at EPL.

I played at Youthwrite, where Jeff Page held the page so i could read upside down.

I played at Mile Zero, powered by Lucas Coffey and Music as a Weapon.

They were also the power supply for two years of Bikeology, the little festival that could, celebrating bike culture in our City; it is my weird delight to be their Bike-nik Poet.

I was carried onstage in a fake canoe at a conference. I got to direct fine young actors in Braidings, a spoken word concerto i arranged using works from 6 Aboriginal poets. I hosted the Arc of Indigenous Literature for TAPWE! conference; i went to Banff, to Ottawa, to Yellowknife, to the Farmers’ Market to celebrate groundhogs.

I played and played and played, in events large and small, in settings formal and funky. I had to turn down some gigs, and simply let some slide, because this is billed as a part-time position with a modest stipend, and i had other professional and family responsibilities, too.

I did my best to demonstrate that Poetry is a living art, and that Poetry is an art of engagement. I played the Empress Alehouse, cheering the dauntless Thea Bowering as she and her pals wrestled the soundboard into life. It was one of those nights a poet loves, when, in addition to all the folks who came out to hear me, there were those who came up from the back of the room and told me i’d hooked them, drawn them in, they’d felt compelled to come join us, and glad that they had.

For me, real poetry is playing as hard as you can, in pursuit of those moments of sublime connection that remain tantalisingly beyond words – but not beyond our experience. To use words and voice in the service of connecting us to the feelings that live under words, that’s what i do. When it works, it’s the only game in town for me.

All My Relations,

AMS