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Greetings from Your New Poet Laureate

Even during COVID, Vancouver is brimming with poetry if you know where to look.

Fiona Tinwei Lam 13 Jan

Fiona Tinwei Lam is Vancouver’s sixth poet laureate.

When I started preparing for my role as Vancouver’s sixth poet laureate late last year, it became apparent that not everyone is familiar with what a poet laureate is.

So on classroom visits, I’ve told the story of Daphne, a Naiad nymph, and Apollo, the Greek god of the sun, archery, music, poetry and more. Daphne, who had taken a vow of chastity, was desperate to flee the ongoing, persistent pursuit of the infatuated Apollo. When she begged for assistance from her father, the river god Peneus, he transformed her into a laurel tree just as Apollo was about to seize her. From then on, Apollo held the tree in reverence. During early Greek and Roman times, a crown of its leaves would be bestowed upon athletes, military heroes, musicians and poets to honour their achievements.

Since then, poets laureate have been appointed by governments and official institutions around the world. In England, the royal office of Poet Laureate was established in 1668 with the appointment of John Dryden. In Canada, the position was established in 2002 through the Library of Parliament. Vancouverite George Bowering was Canada’s inaugural poet laureate in 2002.

Louise Bernice Halfe–Sky Dancer was appointed Canada’s ninth national poet laureate in 2021 and will be highlighting poems by Aboriginal/First Nations, Métis and Inuit poets every month.

The City of Vancouver’s poet laureate position was established in 2006 in partnership with the Vancouver Public Library and the Vancouver Writers Festival and is funded by an endowment by philanthropist Dr. Yosef Wosk.

As poet laureate, I want to help illuminate and develop citizens’ relationships with where they live through verse.

While putting together my application, I thought about how all the walking, cycling and exploring I’d done during COVID with my family had further deepened my relationship with, and curiosity about, Vancouver — a city I’ve lived in for over 50 years.

I thought about the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh villages that existed here prior to Confederation, the anti-Asian riots of 1907, the 1914 Komagata Maru incident, the 1918 Vancouver General Strike, the evictions of communities of Portuguese, Indigenous and Hawaiian residents in what is now Stanley Park, the internment of Japanese Canadians at Hastings Park, the 1958 collapse of the Second Narrows bridge, the many old streams hidden underground, and so much more.

I want to hear from Vancouverites — students, emerging poets, established poets, stream keepers, naturalists and enthusiasts of local history — about how they are engaging and re-engaging with our city’s histories.

My first official step as poet laureate will be to kickstart 2022 with a poetry contest. Commencing Jan. 16, participants can submit unpublished, original poems related to our city’s origins and multifaceted history to the Poet Laureate’s City Poems Contest. The contest judges are Vancouver poets David Ly, Dr. Bonnie Nish and former poet laureate Rachel Rose.

Perhaps there’s a story you want to tell about a particular place of historical, cultural or ecological significance in Vancouver — or, like me, something that has been stirred up for you as you have reflected on life in Vancouver while exploring it more deeply over the past 22 months.

Plus, there’s a wealth of resources about Vancouver history available online through the Museum of Vancouver and Vancouver Heritage Foundation, as well as stacks of great books with maps, stories and photographs at the Vancouver Public Library, which also has several copies of the wonderful anthology, A Verse Map of Vancouver, edited by Vancouver’s first poet laureate, George McWhirter, which contains poems set in various Vancouver locales written by over 100 poets, accompanied by photographs by Derek von Essen.

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The contest will launch with an online event through the Vancouver Public Library on Jan. 16 at 2 p.m. A panel of established and emerging poets including Joanne Arnott, former poet laureate Evelyn Lau, Junie Désil, Alex Leslie and Kevin Spenst will each read and discuss some of their site-based poems.

In June, we’ll announce the award-winning poems and open a second stage of the contest, which will encourage student filmmakers, videographers and animators to get involved in verse by creating works based on the poems.

Another important part of my role as poet laureate is to support and participate in Vancouver’s rich cultural life.

In the face of the uncertainties and challenges of the pandemic, our determined, hardworking local arts organizations have navigated restrictions, cancellations and digital platforms with finesse and grace over the past two years in order to ensure our spirits are sustained and our minds stimulated by a flow of film, theatre, music, dance and literature.

The Vancouver Writers Fest featured top-notch writers from across the country and around the world with an online festival in 2020 and a hybrid format this past fall. Word Vancouver, which focuses on B.C. authors, blossomed from being a September weekend festival into a series of free online panels and readings occurring over the span of a couple of weeks.

Poetry lovers can also avail themselves of a number of local poetry reading series, including In/Verse, Poet’s Corner, Real Vancouver Writers' Series, SFU Lunch Poems and Surrey Muse. Most of these series are currently running online, and a few have open mics.

For fans of spoken word, Canada’s largest alternative literary festival, Verses Festival of Words, runs from April 22 to 30 this year. This festival always has a wide range of performances and workshops, and hosts the Canadian Individual Poetry Slam.

If you’re a transit rider like me, you can be on the lookout for Poetry in Transit — snippets of verse posted on local buses. The Association of Book Publishers of BC is celebrating 25 years of the popular program by publishing an anthology that’s available in a free digital edition and includes 40 poems on the themes of work and art, place and transportation, and family and relationships, selected by former Vancouver poet laureate Evelyn Lau. There are poems by Kate Braid, Gary Geddes, Patrick Lane, Susan Musgrave, Tom Wayman and more.

There’s also the weekly Vancouver Co-op Radio show, Wax Poetic, where hosts RC Weslowski, Lucia Misch, Kevin Spenst, Zofia Rose, Johnny D Trinh and Altogether Lisa visit with poets, poetry slammers and spoken word artists.

Finally, verse enthusiasts can dial up the free public poetry hotline, an initiative of the Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association and former Surrey Poet Laureate, Renée Sarojini Saklikar, at 1-833-POEMS-4-U, to access recorded readings of entertaining poems by 10 local poets. Listen to comedian Charlie Demers’ poem “Best friend, worst thing you can say” about the challenges of dog ownership, or Dina Del Bucchia’s poem about the famous otters from the Vancouver Aquarium, or a few food-themed odes by me.

This city is brimming with poetry if you know where to look — and I’m here to help both poetry lovers and poetry writers find the signposts. There are nascent poems hoping to be born around every corner, as well as plenty of good ones already written, just waiting to be found.  [Tyee]

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