It’s More Than Fame, It’s Community Pride: Poet Laureates

By Black Moss Press interns Jaclyn Wood, Rebecca Taylor, and Kristina Storey

The City of Windsor is currently looking for their first Poet Laureate. The Ancient Greeks would pay tribute to their most notable poets by giving them this title; the Poet Laureate would be responsible for writing odes, which would celebrate royal events, such as weddings, birthdays and funerals. In Canada, the role of the Poet Laureate is to promote the importance of literary arts culture within Canadian society. The city’s Poet Laureate will be responsible for representing Windsor from an artistic and cultural perspective. The elected poet will hold the position for a two year term.

Black Moss Press has had the honour of publishing many of Canada’s Poet Laureates throughout the years. We chatted with Elizabeth Zetlin, a former Poet Laureate of Owen Sound; Hugh MacDonald, the current Poet Laureate of Prince Edward Island; Bruce Meyer, the current Poet Laureate of Barrie; and John B. Lee, the current Poet Laureate of Brantford and Norfolk County. We asked them what it is exactly that the future Poet Laureate of Windsor has to look forward to.

Elizabeth Zetlin

I’d say being Poet Laureate has definitely affected me. I paid closer attention to the life of a city and how poetry was perceived. By writing about Owen Sound, I had a whole new landscape, historical and contemporary, political and private, to contemplate. I wrote poems that I probably never would have written otherwise, about the mayor, the history of the city and its poets, the killing of white swans in Harrison Park, the hosts of poetry parties, and my addictions, not just to red wine and dark chocolate, but to the desire for artists to be respected in their communities and to the joy that sharing and nurturing poetry can bring. I was surprised that I felt somehow freer, that I had been given a license to be not just an ambassador for poetry, but to be a more public poet. What I later realized is that you don’t need the title of Poet Laureate to do this. Anyone can.

Each community is special. Citizens gain support from the creative processes of the poet laureate. It is a chance for the community to find and have confidence in their own voice, and gain a sense of pride. Establishing a Poet Laureate position is one way for a city to demonstrate that culture is important, and thus, attract professionals as well as retirees, retain existing residents, and entice former ones to return.

I think people are hungry for poetry but they just don’t know how to go about it. Maybe the last time somebody read to them, they were sitting on their dad’s knee or something. I just think in our culture it’s so easy to turn on TV or hook up our iPod and listen to somebody else be creative. We’ve lost that. We don’t sit around and sing or read to each other. People love to be read to. I believe that poetry (standing in for all the arts) is the shortest distance between two hearts.

Hugh MacDonald

A Poet Laureate acts as an acknowledgement of those who appoint us because they value what we do. It shows awareness on the part of authorities of our cultural values as a community. It says to the world that this is a community of culture, a sophisticated place that has deep cultural roots.

The Poet Laureate represents the cultural soul of the community at certain public events and perhaps writes about it in the process. Each community sets its own guidelines. It is a fine tradition that always seems to reflect well on the values of the community involved.

Citizens gain a sense of community pride from having a poet laureate. They also gain awareness of not only poetry and writing, but also of the opportunities to focus on the artistic heritage and history of the surrounding area.

Bruce Meyer

I have discovered that the office carries with it a profound sense of responsibility. The Laureate cannot merely write. He or she must write to move, to inspire, to voice, to inform, and to remind everyone of what they already know in a way that makes the citizens see their city in a better way. It is an office that one must take seriously, because what a poet in that situation is doing, is plumbing the depths of his own relationship with his city and the passion he has for living there, and sharing that with his fellow citizens in such a way that the public audiences recognize that they too are equitable parties and partners in that energy. In other words, the Poet Laureate’s poetry, at a certain point, cannot merely be about himself. It has to be about his people. If the Laureate doesn’t bring his love to the page, the poem will not speak to the people.

My job as a Poet Laureate is not only to see what has to be done, but to understand how we react to what is being done.

The Laureate is not just celebrating his community. His job is to see his community in the context of the communities that make up this country. I think we all need to envision what power the written word has in serving not only our own jurisdictions but also the larger picture of the nation. The written word has to live and thrive in a community or the cultural scene will go stagnant, economic growth won’t be creative, and the various arts will break down into small camps that share only a mutual suspicion of each other. My job is not merely to write poems, but to be a cultural activist, to bring people together through the power of the written word, and to be a secular evangelist for written and spoken culture. After all, words are something we all use. Literature is something we carry with us, the most democratic of the arts, and ultimately the least expensive of the arts to participate in.

In the primary sense, the Poet Laureate celebrates his community. But in the larger sense he has to give that community an honourable, articulate, and inspired voice. Cities need to speak. They need to announce to the broader context that they are where they are today for a reason. I think the Poet Laureate is the one person in the community who can say, “Hey everyone, we have a future.” He is not bound by budgets, politics, or even managerial details such as were to put a new road or whether it is time to rebuild the physical infrastructure; and given that freedom and that latitude, the laureate is the one who can look to the future and perhaps chart some sort of direction – even if it is just the secular spiritual direction – to where we can take our community.

John B. Lee

Being a Poet Laureate is more about your community and how they appreciate the arts, than about the poet. Being a Poet Laureate provides me with the opportunity to give back to my community. It is also to remind the young people about the importance of poetry and internal arts. They often forget about the arts because they are so pre-occupied with fame, fortune, and the media.

The next generation is important. Poetry can serve as a lifeline to some of these kids. The only thing that is focussed on in schools is sports. Especially in Windsor, where everyone focuses on the Spitfires. Poetry can give students who do not feel like they belong to that category a way to feel included and provide them with a sense of belonging. Poetry had that effect on me in high school. I wasn’t involved in sports and that was when I discovered poetry and Canadian poets. I started writing poetry, I didn’t care if there was an audience to read my work or not. In that regard I was very similar to Emily Dickinson who wrote to expand her mind, not to be acknowledged by society. Poet Laureates serve as a way to remind young people that even though they may not be an athlete, there is still a way for them to be recognized. The main point is that what you are doing matters, even if you are only writing to a small group.

Poetry is timeless, and in the future, people will look back and see that we value art enough to create the poet laureate position. It is just as America is not just about American Idol and Paris Hilton; a country has something much more to offer than just television shows and celebrities. People in the future will know the names of poet laureates because our communities honour us with the title.

A Poet Laureate is something much more than just a cultural advisor. Poet Laureates show the citizens how great their community really is, which we tend to forget sometimes. They teach us how to use those positive qualities to create a voice for ourselves. They not only educate us, they also help the next generation. By having a Poet Laureate in the City of Windsor, we are showing not only ourselves, but the nation, world, and future generations that we value art culture.

Black Moss Press has published the work of even more current and former Canadian Poet Laureates! Inaugural Poet Laureate of London, Ontario, Penn Kemp, Parliamentary Poet Laureate (2002-2004) George Bowering, and Poet Laureate of Ottawa (1984-1987) Cyril Dabydeen have all released books with Black Moss. Will the first Poet of Laureate of Windsor be a Black Moss author too?

For more information on Poet Laureates, check out the Poet Laureate Map of Canada. The call for nominations for the first Poet Laureate of Windsor ended on October 7th of this year. BMP will be ready to update you on the results of the search as soon as they are announced. Stay tuned!


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