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Thoughts On An Unenviable Position

On February 7, George Elliott Clarke will be at Henry of Pelham for their “What’s the Big Idea” salon series *This event was cancelled*. He’ll be discussing Locating Home, which is an anthology of early African-Canadian writing. Last time Clarke was in town was for a reading at the Niagara Artists Centre in November of 2016 in the middle of his tenure as Parliamentary Poet Laureate (it was a good reading, though my memory of the evening is a bit tainted by the ending of the American election and by learning — right before Clarke went on stage — that Leonard Cohen had died). On the way out, Clarke gave me his card with his official email address in case I thought of something for him to write about. I never did email him, mainly because I hate it when people ask me to write them poems and I wasn’t about to do that to someone else. Especially the Laureate

Clarke’s return visit to Niagara got me thinking about the Poet Laureate position, which is relatively new in Canada. The first poet to hold the post was George Bowering in 2002. Clarke was the 7th Poet Laureate, holding the post from 2016 through 2017 (during which he wrote the poems “At the Canadian Sesquicentennial” and “The Ballad of the Lac-Mégantic Disaster”). Currently, the post is held by Georgette LeBlanc (some of her poems have included pieces on the Closing of the Centre Block of Parliament and the anniversary of Gord Downie’s death). The post is held for about two or three years, which is more in line with how it works in America than the UK; Canada has had eight Poets Laureate in the past 17 years, whereas Tennyson was Poet Laureate of the UK from 1850 until his death in 1892 (the current Poet Laureate of the UK — Carol Ann Duffy — has a fixed term of 10 years, which seems a lot more sensible but is still pretty long).

Agreeing to the position can be a bit dicey. Writing is generally something best done while no one is watching, and being Poet Laureate means basically the exact opposite of that given you need to write about major events, deaths, and anniversaries in a way that speaks to the country in general while also making the poems at least half-way good (which is not easy if you’ve been tasked with writing about a new vessel being launched, or — if you’re the UK Poet Laureate — a royal’s birthday). What makes the position worth the trouble, though, is the chance to take a step back and reflect on moments of true importance. When Lac-Mégantic happened we were shown the images on the news and given the statistics of the damaged and dead, but soon it was replaced by some other catastrophe. Clarke used his position for lament and anger, such as in the lines “Seemingly at rest, parked until sunrise, / With steel-drum seas of black crude oil— / A feasible firestorm—left without eyes / To watch air-brakes. But catches fail….” This is something that can’t be accomplished within a 24 hour news cycle. As well, each month the poet will select a work by another writer to share with the country, which given Clarke’s recent anthology work was probably one of the more interesting parts of the job

St. Catharines and Niagara does not have an official Poet Laureate (this is not me angling for the job, by the way; I have enough issues with deadlines as is). With the challenges the region is facing at the moment, it may well be worth having someone tasked with casting an eye on the struggles and successes, and being given more time to express them than what we are usually given in a news crawl or social media feed.

Written by James Milhaven

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