By Gregory Betts
“Her Majesty, by and with the advice and consent of the Legislative Assembly of the Province of Ontario, enacts as follows;
1) There shall be a Poet Laureate of Ontario”
So begins the text of Bill 71, created in 2015 by Percy Hatfield (MPP- Windsor-Tecumseh), and currently being reviewed in Standing Committee as it works its way towards reality. It seems likely that the Province of Ontario will join a growing number of cities, provinces, and countries that boast state-appointed poets-in-chief. Ontario towns that already boast Laureates include Barrie, Brantford, Cobalt, Cobourg, Kingston, London, Mississauga, Oshawa, Ottawa, Owen Sound, Sudbury, Toronto, and Windsor. What is this madness spreading across the land? More to the point, should Niagara consider creating such a position?
Truth be told, there are more people collecting souvenir thimbles in the region than reading poetry, so why even consider something like this? In his introduction to the bill to create a Poet Laureate of Ontario, the Honourable Mr. Hatfield explained that, “The responsibilities of the poet laureate include promoting art and literacy, celebrating Ontario and its people, and raising the profile of Ontario poets.”
While these are noble if vague goals, it is easy to dismiss the relevancy of poetry in the digital age. At one time, poetry was the vehicle for the dissemination of the best thinking of a culture (think of the science embedded in Lucretius and Ovid) and for enshrining the noblest beliefs of a culture. People learned how to be ideal citizens from their nation’s poetry. Poetry made communities, and made people into a people. Poetry does not do these things any more. Their national role has been supplanted by Twitter feeds, hockey riots, and selfies with the Prime Minister. Then again, given all that, maybe we’re ready for a poetry revival.
The full responsibilities for these kinds of Poet Laureate positions, however, are very specific. They include promoting art and literacy in the community, visiting schools to talk about writing, arranging poetry readings and writing workshops (especially for young people and those outside the education system), and writing poetry for use in the Legislature. We are not talking about limericks for Sendzik (although do send me these if you write any). We are talking about having a designated, empowered advocate for reading and writing in our city.
For a place like Niagara with only the thinnest trace of literary activity, promoting basic literacy and creating a literary culture in the region would be the paramount tasks of our Poet Laureate. This lack is no laughing matter: 42% of Canadians do not have the minimum literacy skills to cope with everyday life and work. Meanwhile, according to Statistics Canada (before Harper gutted it), 51.9% of Niagarans lack sufficient literacy skills to fill out a driver’s license application, read a book, use a telephone directory, read safety instructions, or apply for a job. When you start to think about all the everyday things that require reading skills, you can start to understand why literacy skills are the strongest predictors of an individual’s health status.
You want to fix the economy? It starts with literacy. Fortunately, we have lots of groups already promoting such skills in the region. The Poet Laureateship would join them and help steer the entire culture of the region toward accepting, embracing, and even celebrating reading and writing. If we don’t say that it is an important thing to do, and we don’t act on that belief, then why would our children? You can image the cycles of poverty and poor health echoing into the future from that shortcoming. And this is all before the more esoteric and intangible benefits of loving books. We start to change things by making literature a normal part of daily culture. Read to your kids. Read to yourself. Write a poem.
Okay, let’s say you are convinced that it might be a good idea. How much does it cost? The Poet Laureate of Canada gets a measly $20,000 per year (Toronto gives $10,000). Meanwhile, on the opposite side of the spectrum (which goes from cheap to damn cheap), Windsor gives their poet just $2,500. Considering the advocacy and cultural work that comes out of this kind of a position, such dollar amounts can only be considered token.
There are some hurdles to making this happen. I spoke with Ashley Judd-Rifkin, Culture Coordinator for the City of St. Catharines, about the process of creating a Poet Laureateship here. She noted that there is currently nothing in the City’s art’s budget specifically designated for literature. Furthermore, it is against city rules to target funds towards specific individuals or ongoing positions. So far, literature is definitely outside of their targeted arts sectors: only three grants on record have gone to something remotely literary.
However, in the Fall of 2015, the City assembled a Cultural Funding Task Force to discuss the future of their funding plans. This task force is holding a public Town Hall on February 17 (3-5 pm at the Main Branch of the Public Library) that will be open to anybody from the general public interested in cultural policies. New policies are being fashioned by the task force, and this is their moment of public consultation.
If we are going to get a St. Catharines or Niagara Poet Laureate position, the conversation to gets things started begins on the 17th – appropriately, hopefully, taking place at the St. Catharines Public library.