Peerings & Hearings
Occasional Musings on Arts in the City of Glass
To continue my musings on community, how and by whom it’s built, this post features an interview with Rachel Rose, Vancouver Poet Laureate l(2014–2017). According to the City website, “The Poet Laureate is an honorary position,” with a flexible term of two to three years, established by Vancouver City Council in December 2006 “to honour and celebrate the contribution of literature and poetry to life in Vancouver.” The position is funded by a generous endowment established by philanthropist, professor, businessman, and philosopher, Dr. Yosef Wosk, OBC. The Poet Laureate Program is a partnership of the City of Vancouver, Vancouver Public Library, and The Vancouver Writers Fest.
Rachel Rose has tough acts to follow. Each of the previous poets laureate created a poetic legacy project. George McWhirter (2009–2011) edited the anthology Verse Map of Vancouver (Anvil Press, 2009), which included ~100 poets who spatialized Vancouver’s verse geography. Brad Cran (2009–2011) organized the V125 poetry conference (October 2011), a gathering of 100 poets who published their first book after 1990. Evelyn Lau (2011–2014) met with aspiring poets in the community through a series of poet-in-residence consultations, bringing poetry into public spaces and discourse.
Rachel Rose is the fourth Poet Laureate of Vancouver. She is the author of the chapbook, Thirteen Ways of Looking at CanLit, (BookThug, 2015) and four collections of poetry: Giving My Body to Science (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1999), Notes on Arrival and Departure (McClelland & Stewart, 2005), Song and Spectacle (Harbour Publishing, 2012), and Marry & Burn (Harbour Publishing, 2015). Her non-fiction book, Gone to the Dogs: Riding Shotgun with K9 Cops, is forthcoming from St. Martin’s Press/Thomas Dunne Books.
Rachel Rose and I met virtually to talk about her Poet Laureateship, its influences, inspiration, and challenges.
Jami Macarty: Hi Rachel. Thanks very much for being here. Let’s dive into our conversation about Vancouver’s Poet Laureate. From the website for the Poet Laureate of the City of Vancouver: “The importance of literature and literacy in Vancouver’s cultural landscape was highlighted when City Council established the Poet Laureate Program in December 2006.” Which aspects of literacy and literature and their intersections most draw your attention?
Rachel Rose: Literature and poetry invite us to use our imaginations to develop empathy, to understand and care about lives that are different from our own. Literature offers the potential for political, emotional, cultural, and spiritual engagement. For me personally, being a reader allows me access to the inner lives and outer circumstances of other people that I’d never be able to access in any other way. It is one of the best parts of being human.
“I wanted a project that would promote connection and the possibility of sustenance in our divided city. Simply, I needed a project that would nourish me and would offer nourishment.”
JM: Can you describe the selection process for Poet Laureate (PL)? What did you have to do to be considered? What criteria did you fulfill?
RR: First, I am grateful to Yosef Wosk for his leadership and vision, in this and in so many other realms — as a writer, scholar, and founder of Simon Fraser University’s Philosophers’ Café, among other leadership roles.
Any established poet with deep roots in this city can apply; individuals can be nominated by others as well. There will be a public call for the fifth Poet Laureate of Vancouver in late 2016. The selection is made by a committee of staff from the City, the Vancouver Public Library, and The Vancouver Writers Fest.
JM: What does it mean to you to be Vancouver’s fourth Poet Laureate?
RR: It was a surprise in some ways to be selected. I hesitated to apply, actually, because I feared it would mean the end of the solitude I find so necessary for my work, and because I thought others were more qualified for the position. But when I did put forth my application, I resolved that I would only propose a project that, if successful, would be a departure from anything I had done before and would allow me to immerse myself in new communities. I wanted a project that would promote connection and the possibility of sustenance in our divided city. Simply, I needed a project that would nourish me and would offer nourishment.
Some time before I submitted my application, I read some polls by Vancouver Foundation that showed the people of Vancouver believe alienation and disconnection are our most pressing social issues — not housing, not economics — but fractured communities, a sense of not belonging. That stayed with me.
We are a city of diverse cultures, belief systems, and economic backgrounds. There are many subjects and causes worthy of the attention of a Poet Laureate, though few that I could imagine would engage us all, poet or not. Food seemed like the right choice on so many levels. All of us break bread, or cook beans, or fry noodles. All of us carry memories of those foods that taste like home, whether it is the activist challenging the cruelties of conventional farming, the exile remembering the waft of spices on lost streets, or the child writing about the sockeye salmon she buys at Granville Island. Poetry inspired by food invites poets to write provocative work about the environment, class, immigration, and occupation, but it also allows us to celebrate our city’s strengths in a way that brings us together. To sit down and eat together, to write about food memories, about feast days, and to share them in public, is an act of engagement. And food, as the most basic of necessities, is essential for our survival. It contains myriad possibilities in terms of engagement. As Mvskoke poet Joy Harjo writes in her poem Perhaps the World Ends Here, “The world begins at a kitchen table. No matter what, we must eat to live.”
I envision collaborative acts of poetry and feasting taking part throughout the city, as poets go forth to celebrate in verse what chefs celebrate in food. I envision new poems and essays being written in homage to those who feed and sustain us.
JM: Can you say more about why you were surprised to be selected?
RR: I am a bit of an outsider in the poetry scene, both through temperament and necessity — having three kids and not being able to hang out at the cool literary events when I’m still getting up at six the next morning, or when I need to be at home cleaning out lunch kits and helping with homework.
Also, there are other poets who have given deeply to the community for far longer than I have, who seemed natural choices. But here I am!
JM: How’s it going as you juggle the PL post’s demands, along side those of your art-making and family life? Can you talk about particular challenges of the PL post?
RR: It’s been a gift and a challenge, honestly. I’m inspired because I get to meet artists in other disciplines that I wouldn’t have met. I get to read with them at City Hall, and hear them perform. That’s wonderful. But I have to say no to some invitations when I would much prefer to say yes. I come up against my own limitations more than I would like.
This came up when choosing Poetry Ambassadors. There are of course the many fine and talented and generous poets I did not invite — or some I did who were too busy to take it on. There is always the anxiety of invitation, of making something collective, of choosing at all to engage, and then hoping others rise to the invitation. I made my decisions based on three factors: a dedication to poetry, a perceptible kindness, and a willingness to connect with others. And I suppose another factor was inviting those whose poetry communities, while having some overlap with my own, were not my own — I want our reach to be broad, and our areas of expertise to be myriad.
You ask about balancing the demands of poetry and writing and the Laureateship. I don’t think of balance so much as triage. I do what most demands my attention at the moment, what cannot wait. What event is coming up, what deadline looms? I have three kids in three different public schools, and each school has scheduled their meet-the-teacher night for the same night, a night I’ll be away for a writing project. The impossibility of it all is often overwhelming — even the small things, like attending a launch. I either hire a babysitter and pay $40 to get out the door, or my wife does it after a long day at work, or I don’t go, and wonder how to convey my support and create community even though I am absent when I long to be present. We still get school notices delivered the day before requesting home-baked cakes for cake-walks as school fundraisers — and what does that presume about women and work? And how is it that dozens and dozens of cakes appear on those tables (none of which are baked by me)?
“I aim for the good enough community. I think the idea of community is fraught for many of us, just like the notion of family can be. And the literary community can be especially challenging, in part because writers bind their identities to their writing, and then must compete against each other for scarce resources.”
JM: Can you trace the genesis of the idea to use poetry and food to “promote connection in our divided city”?
RR: Many factors influenced the birth of this preoccupation with food and sustenance. My mother was a doctor in rural areas in Canada and the U.S., and I accompanied her as she attended to patients from the time I was a baby. She treated a number of people in the U.S. who could not pay for medical care. I remember patients in the country giving her a bucket of honey or a young calf (which I fed, watered, and later ate) to pay for the medical care they’d received.
My stepfather was Executive Director of an organization in Washington State called Skagitonians to Preserve Farmland. This organization works with small farmers to ensure that they are able to preserve their way of life, to protect wildlife habitat, and to work with other farm to table organizations such as the Seattle Culinary Academy (at Seattle Central College) to connect urban chefs with the farmers who grow their food.
These were formative experiences about the value of food and community. More recently were my years working with refugee families from Burma through Immigrant Service Society of BC. My kids and I volunteered to help families arriving from refugee camps in Thailand adjust to a new life in B.C. We spent a lot of time in Surrey, where a number of families were resettled in a specific housing project. It was an experience that taught me a great deal about resilience and community. Every time we went, whether we were able to do something practical like drive people to the hospital, or help with employment paperwork, or even if we were just hanging out and visiting, we were fed. As soon as we walked in the door, someone started cooking for us — nearly every time, garlic and ginger fried in oil were sizzling in a pan within minutes of our arrival. There were so many differences in language and understanding, and certainly there were frustrations, but every time we made that long drive to Surrey we were welcomed to the table. I had stumbled upon an opportunity for all of us to be nourished by our connection.
So these are some of the seeds of activism around food and community that perhaps germinated only when I applied for this position.
JM: What are the motivating factors/ what thinking or ideas are behind your decision to have Poetry Ambassadors? How did you select the ambassadors?
RR: The decision to have the position be a collective one felt right to me. I really wanted to reach beyond the usual poetry circles, and I knew I couldn’t do it alone. Even more than that, I wanted to reach beyond my own circle, and I also couldn’t do that alone.
As far as I know, I am the only Poet Laureate to create positions for Poetry Ambassadors. We are a loose collective of a dozen people, each doing what they feel called to do as schedules and interests permit. In any case, I wanted to share the spotlight for two reasons. The first is, I am not quite comfortable in the spotlight, and prefer to be a bit more in shadow — but I am lucky enough to know poets who thrive on stage. The second is to share the wealth. I knew that there would be many opportunities and possibilities that would come with this position, and I thought how lovely it would be to invite others to enjoy those opportunities to teach and give readings.
Did I say two reasons? Let me add a third: I wanted to create at least some of the kind of community for which I hungered in the very act of being Vancouver’s Poet Laureate.
There are so many people who have really put poetry and community at the center of their lives, who are doing interesting work politically, who are innovators and skilled connectors. I chose people who weren’t necessarily the biggest or best-known poets (though several have major profiles) but who were people I had seen in action in the community, whom I believed would do the good, hard work of outreach.
JM: What’s your definition of community? What attributes does a healthy, “good” community have? What are the links between poetry/writing and community?
RR: I aim for the good enough community. I think the idea of community is fraught for many of us, just like the notion of family can be. And the literary community can be especially challenging, in part because writers bind their identities to their writing, and then must compete against each other for scarce resources.
I am not sure there is a writing community, really. We are a fractured, fractious bunch of talented people in overlapping communities that sometimes manage to support each other in tremendously important ways and other times are indifferent or worse.
The good enough literary community recognizes that people have various schools and aesthetic preferences, but others who don’t share those preferences also have much to contribute. A good enough community finds strength in diversity. It is porous enough that outsiders and newcomers can easily find their way in, but solid enough that there is a real sense of camaraderie and support. Generosity and kindness make all the difference. There are many talented writers out there, but talent doesn’t bind people together.
JM: Describe your PL post and its responsibilities — those named and those you assume. What’s your vision?
My assumed responsibilities are many, but really I suppose can be distilled to one — to connect with as many people as I can over my term, people for whom poetry has little or no daily importance or function, and to open this door, to issue an invitation to engage with poetry through the theme of food.
“Writing, too, is often isolating, invisible, not particularly valued (especially writing poetry). I wanted, simply, to praise those who nourish, to see it as political and valuable, as an act of creating ties, an act of love.”
JM: Can you offer some examples of connections made and/or projects underway?
Ngwatilo Mawiyoo and I gave our first outdoor workshop on how to teach poetry to student teachers at the University of British Columbia (UBC), under the guidance of UBC professor Hartley Banack, who also taught us how to teach outside.
Elee Kraljii Gardiner, Renee Sarojini Saklikar, bee scientist Mark Winston, Thursdays Writing Collective and Hives for Humanity offered an informative reading event around poetry and food, which included honey tastings.
Elee Kraljii Gardiner worked with Thursdays Writing Collective, doing a full year on sustenance and nourishment, including readings and communal dinners.
There’s the Fresh Local Poetry project that you, Jami, and Kevin Spenst collaboratively presented with Vancouver Park Board to offer free-ranging poetry to people visiting the summer Farmer’s Markets. Plus, you lead Odes to Food, a community workshop, bringing together several organizations (Room Magazine, Pandora’s Collective, and the International Centre of Arts and Technology) and 20 writers from across the city to write with food as the prompt.
As well, I was delighted that the League of Canadian Poets made my Poet Laureate project the National Poetry Project for Canada for 2015. It was amazing to have that kind of sustained interest in poetry writing about food.
JM: What I appreciate about the projects mentioned above is their example of community — each is a site of new partnerships and collaborations forming with common intentions to educate, to inspire, to celebrate poetry and food. That’s nourishing!
What’s your notion of “nourish/ing”? What’s your thinking behind that notion? Can you say more about why and it what ways is it important to you?
RR: Nourishing is often an invisible act, a (usually) female act of caregiving. I have fed my family of five countless meals over the years. These meals are bought, prepared, consumed, and then disappear. To provide good nourishment requires resources, whether we speak of a family or a community; it is honourable but sometimes fraught work.
Writing, too, is often isolating, invisible, not particularly valued (especially writing poetry). I wanted, simply, to praise those who nourish, to see it as political and valuable, as an act of creating ties, an act of love. Those who do the feeding, the caregiving, the domestic labour, are the backbone of the economy in important ways. When, in 1975, 90% of women in Iceland went on strike from their domestic duties, the country ground to a complete halt. That has never happened here. I wish it would.
“I am pleased to say that Anvil Press has just committed to publishing my legacy project poetry anthology, Sustenance … We will invite those public collaborations between poets and chefs, urban farmers, food bank workers, dumpling makers, beekeepers, and other locals engaged in nourishing our citizens.”
JM: Let’s turn our attention to a different notion of nourishing — your legacy project. Your PL message promises: “a book profiling the best of these collaborations.” How will these collaborations be represented or “culminate” in a book? What can you say about the book project, the publisher, the vision?
RR: I am pleased to say that Anvil Press has just committed to publishing my legacy project poetry anthology, Sustenance. This anthology will be comprised of selections chosen by me and each of the Poetry Ambassadors. We will invite those public collaborations between poets and chefs, urban farmers, food bank workers, dumpling makers, beekeepers, and other locals engaged in nourishing our citizens.
The anthology will be deeply influenced by the aesthetics of each of the Poetry Ambassadors, as well as myself. Sustenance brings to the table some of Canada’s best contemporary writers on the topic of food. Sustenance will be a literary anthology of the highest calibre, written by 150 of the finest poets and writers from Vancouver, B.C. and beyond (Canada, North America, and International) to commemorate Canada’s 150th anniversary. Sustenance will celebrate all that is unique about Vancouver’s literary and culinary scene. Each of these short pieces will shock, comfort, challenge, and illuminate our city’s living history, seen through the lens of food — whether it is exile, hunger, food scarcity, bulimia, urban beekeeping, community gardening, foraging, feeding a baby, or the personal story of a celebrity chef.
Sustenance is also an urgent community response to the needs of individuals in our city. Profits from this book will provide both a symbolic and practical welcome to the refugees who will be arriving in B.C. over the coming months, and to low-income families in our astronomically expensive city. Writers will be donating their honoraria to the Farmers Market Nutrition Coupon Program.
Every $15.00 in sales profit — that is, every book sold — will provide a low-income or refugee family with fresh, locally grown produce for a week through these vouchers, and at the same time will support B.C. farmers, fishers, beekeepers, and gardeners. This gesture will be an offering to those who need support, and will also be a gesture of support to those farmers whose life work is to nourish us.
JM: Wow! This project elates my community-advocate’s heart. I’m honored to be a part of a project of such substance. All the people involved — you, me, and the other writers/contributors, the refugee/low-income families, the farmers, etc. — at all levels will be nourished by the project. That’s the truest expression of community. We’ve talked about how through the PL post you’ve served others. What about you? What have you learned so far/ how has your thinking been influenced as a result of your time as PL? How has the PL post influenced your writing?
RR: I chose food as my PL focus in part because I wanted something that could be joyful, that could be centred around eating together. As I learn more from activists and experts about food sustainability, I see that our very human, primary need for sustenance has been profoundly damaged by corporate greed — our oceans are overfished, and there is very little global stewardship of the oceans. On land, our farms are run like factories, with animal products and by-products, with peaches soaked in pesticides to the point where children are not supposed to eat more than one a day. It hurts.
Because of the work I am doing as Poet Laureate, I got my first backyard beehive. The first year, a global virus killed off all the bees. It is very different to read about bees being threatened and to see a dead and empty hive that recently had throbbed with sweet life.
The hive is back, and this year has been such a strong year that I even got to see a swarm of bees in the backyard cherry trees. All this has lead to poems about bees, about the work of the hive. Everything is connected. Without this work, I wouldn’t have the sting — or the honey.
JM: Thank you for being here in this conversation with me, Rachel.
RR: Thank you, Jami, for inviting me to converse, and for your ongoing and thoughtful work to create a stronger literary community in Vancouver.
TO: Vancouver Park Board for once again showing us how to build community. This time, it’s their creative inquiry Words for Birds, bringing together language arts with the natural sciences as they search for an official City Bird with the help of its people.
TO: Word Vancouver for so generously bringing us — the City’s writers and readers and listeners — together at the end of September (21–28) for a celebration of literacy — accessible and free to all.
The Festival’s a wonderful example of community.
That’s all for now, dear readers. Look for the next P & H blog in two months.
In the meantime, write to me, leave a comment. Tell me what you want more of and less of in this blog — and in your community — and what’s just right. It’s always good to know what’s just right.
Be Nice. Make Art. Foster Community.