Champions! Community! And Thanks! A #yycpoet Reflection
- Posted by Terry Rock on March 2nd, 2012
I can’t stop thinking about last night’s Calgary Poet Laureate showcase. Six Calgary poets. Over 250 people in the audience (many of whom stood in a standby line to grab their seat). Six Poet Laureate Ambassadors (corporate and community financial supporters). An incredibly positive energy. Beautiful and challenging work that brought cheers, jeers and tears (see what I did there?). Smiles that would not stop.
How do we find ourselves in this enviable position, at the penultimate step on the way to Calgary’s first Poet Laureate? Two things come immediately to mind: Champions and Community.
DJ Kelly. DJ put out a challenge (Calgary should have a Poet Laureate!), proposed a way do it (it was DJ’s idea to have the Poet Laureate privately funded), and did the initial spadework to attract funders (now called Poet Laureate Ambassadors). We wouldn’t be here without DJ.
Alderman Druh Farrell. Ald. Farrell crafted the Notice of Motion to City Council to formally establish the Poet Laureate, and has been championing the concept quietly for over 5 years. Her gentle encouragement and constant enthusiasm kept the embers glowing whenever we hit bumps on the road. We wouldn’t be here without Ald. Farrell.
Alderman Brian Pincott & Mayor Nenshi. Though Calgary’s version of a Poet Laureate utilizes private funding and leverages existing staff capacity at Calgary Arts Development, there remains political sensitivity around the concept. Ald. Pincott and Mayor Nenshi were both outspoken champions of the Poet Laureate when the matter was up for consideration. Ald. Pincott subsequently joined the selection committee. We wouldn’t be here without Ald. Pincott, Mayor Nenshi and, frankly, the vast majority of City Council, who voted to create the position.
The Calgary Foundation. Once Calgary Arts Development began to work with DJ Kelly on the Poet Laureate, an early conversation with The Calgary Foundation lent immediate encouragement to our joint efforts. We have a very close working relationship with the Foundation through our collaboration on the King Edward School project. They are always ready with great advice, and with their adaptable and responsive funding, TCF was able to be the first-in funder with a 3 year commitment to cover half of the cost of the Poet Laureate’s honorarium. From there, we were able to bring on the remaining ambassadors over time. We wouldn’t be here without The Calgary Foundation.
Poet Laureate Ambassadors. Six community partners jumped on board to give Calgary a Poet Laureate. In addition to The Calgary Foundation, our ambassadors include First Calgary Financial, TransCanada, First Energy, The Calgary Chamber of Commerce, Hotel Arts and an anonymous supporter. In each case, there are individuals within the organization who found a way to support an unproven idea, and who I’m sure will be going well beyond their financial contribution to make Calgary’s first Poet Laureate a household name. They took our calls, listened, and did what they could to give life to this idea. We wouldn’t be here without our Poet Laureate Ambassadors and the people behind the scenes.
The Board of Calgary Arts Development. Agreeing to allocate staff time and bring in outside sponsors to develop this program was a new step for Calgary Arts Development. I gave regular progress updates on how we were supporting a citizen-led initiative to create a Poet Laureate. They were very encouraging and patient throughout the process. As we moved closer to the funding goal, some board members agreed to become Poet Laureate Ambassadors if required to make the program successful. We wouldn’t be here without the support of the Calgary Arts Development Board.
Last night was about community. Look at the list of champions that helped make the night possible. Every one of them did something they didn’t have to do. They just acted because they thought it would be good for Calgary. And consider this: the initiative came from the community, was funded by the community, and has the community infused throughout the selection process. In Calgary, the Poet Laureate will truly be “of the community.”
The decision to invite the community in to the process through a showcase was not one we came to lightly. Calgary Arts Development always errs on the side of open, transparent, community-engaged process when we make decisions. Whether it is the community steering group for Pecha Kucha Nights, grant allocation assessment committees, or the prioritization of multi-million dollar infrastructure investments through the Cultural Spaces Investment Process, you will find members of the community at large alongside cultural professionals, working together to make recommendations on behalf of the citizens of Calgary.
But a showcase of poets as part of the process of selecting a Poet Laureate? That may be taking our commitment to transparency too far. We didn’t want it to be a popularity contest (Poetry Idol?) or overly stressful, but on the other hand, the vision for Calgary’s Poet Laureate calls for someone who is engaged, and who will be engaged with the community as part of the role. The thought of a small group of people completing the full process in private just didn’t fit the vision. So, the shortlist was published, poets were contacted, and plans began for a showcase.
How big should the room be for a Poet Laureate selection showcase? 50? 100? We started at 100. Then moved to 200. Then 250. Then, thanks to the flexibility and generosity of Hotel Arts, we increased the number of seats even higher. (I should note here that it was Calgary Arts Development’s Emiko Muraki who was highly effective in managing this whole process). And people showed up. Lined up. Threw coats on prime seats. And, I heard, lost each other in the crowd…
The people who showed up weren’t there to see our poets do battle. They were there to support friends. To get a sneak preview of what it might be like when Calgary has a Poet Laureate. To be moved by poetry. And it wasn’t a “War of Words.” It was a celebration of our artists, of our city, and of six unique voices that form a part of a bigger, and also unique, Calgary voice. We learned that all six would do our city proud. The approaches would be different. The impact would be different. But the outcome will be a stronger community.
What an honour to be part of this process and to contribute to this amazing community! At the end of the night, I was at a complete loss for words. I just wanted to thank everyone: the artists, the selection committee, the Poet Laureate Ambassadors, the audience, DJ Kelly, the staff, board and volunteers of Calgary Arts Development, City Council, event host Russell Bowers, the media, the people who tweet using #yycpoet…
You only have a few more weeks to wait… committee deliberations begin soon, and the plan is to announce Calgary’s first Poet Laureate in March at a City Council meeting. Once we do that, I’m sure I’ll be saying thanks to a thousand people again!