It was a cool spring day, but a gaggle of firemen sat outside the warm cafe with their cups of coffee. Ordered beverages in hand, we headed outside to discuss Derek Beaulieu’s recent appointment to the poet laureate position of Calgary. There were birds landing on the table under the umbrella, whizzing bikes and rumbling dump trucks roared past, and people talking about their lives as we discussed his career, and poetry.
BeatRoute: You got put into the position of the poet laureate of Calgary. How does someone get into that position?
Derek Beaulieu: The process itself was: you were nominated by members of the community and then vetted; they made a short list and you were vetted by a seven-person jury; they interview each one of us; and they chose a new poet laureate, which was then announced at city hall, in council chambers. That was kind of interesting; I got to read in front of the mayor and city council. And now, having occupied the position for a scant two weeks, I’m kinda in the spot of what now? What do I do now? How can I use this position to try and create some change around the city, or how can I use this position to promote the literary scene and see what happens?
BR: Being the poet laureate, you’re the go-to guy for the city, and the business representatives. Do they come to you a lot looking for work to be done, for various organizations?
DB: The poet laureate position is defined by the city. I’m the second poet laureate; the first was Kris Demeanor, and he had the position for two years. Now it’s been passed on to me, and the whole idea of the position is three fold; it’s honorific: it recognizes the work you’ve done to date, that’s one of the ways they choose a candidate; it’s ambassadorial: so you basically promote the literary arts of Calgary to Calgary, provincially, nationally, on your travels you’re being an ambassador; and the last part is facilitator: and that is to set up opportunities for classroom visits, for readings, for Calgarians to interact with the literary arts.
Part of the job is to be open to receiving requests from community organizations, from schools, from businesses, from events, but there’s no obligation that I must take those. I think it’s important to Calgary Arts Development and this program, as well as to all of the people who were nominated, that you still have to work in a way that is aesthetically sound; you have to work in a way that is aligned with your own practice. It’s not like as if businesses [that] you don’t agree with or don’t support ask you for work; you are not at their beck and call. You still have to make sure you’re doing work that is true to form. That said, you still have to be responsive to the community as a whole and have some consideration for what’s going on in terms of the larger communities, not only the arts community, but also the general populace. How do they see writing in their city?
BR: When you’re requested to do a poem for some sort of organization, do they dictate what type of poetry or piece of work, like an epic poem, or do you do what you feel like and what you think it represents?
DB: I think that’s a very important thing to keep in mind around the position is that the nominees were vetted in a way to make sure that none of us wanted to move in a way, or be able to be dictated, to write a certain way. That there was aesthetic veto by CADA [Calgary Arts Development Authority] or by anyone who might come to us to say, “We need you to write in this way and only this way.” Everyone on the jury and everyone in CADA was aware of what my practice is like, just like they were with Kris Demeanor, and the city’s community is varied enough that nobody is expecting me to be Kris Demeanor, or vice-versa. I think that is one of the things that the larger community is aware of, that there are different aspects.
If there is a request to approach the poet laureate position asking me to do a certain type of work and I don’t do that kind of work, I have a couple of options in front of me. I can say, “Yes, that sounds like an interesting challenge, let’s what could happen;” I could say “No,” or “I don’t know about that work, but I know lots of people who do. Why don’t I set you up with somebody and play middleman or facilitator, and set you up with members of Calgary’s larger community of writers who might be able to better suite that?” As I’ve said before, the least interesting possibility for a poet laureate in this city is two years of my writing, two years of me talking to you. That actually sounds exceedingly dull. I’d rather it be two years of getting to know the large community and having opportunities to interact with not just me, but all sorts of writers in all sorts of spaces. There’s no expectation one must write in a certain way, but you still have to be aware of your audience.
BR: How do you see the next two years coming out for you?
DB: It’s going to be quite a journey for sure; I am hoping to stretch the borders of how we understand poetry traditionally. I would like to work with some local publishers and some more underground. One of the things I would like to do is a one- or two-day seminar discussion or workshop around independent comic book publishers in the city. I’d like to talk to writers about doing book readings – I mean read the entirety of your book in one go – or marathon readings, or celebrations of Calgary’s literary past, all sorts of events that get beyond the literary salon thing, like the wine and cheese, and while still being aware and engaged with more unusual, experimental, risk taking kind of bent, which is how I approach poetry. I don’t know what’s going to happen in the next two years; I have some plans, now we’re going have to see if the city is on board with them as well. Ideally the poet laureate position can be seen as something that facilitates but also leaves a legacy that the city can build upon. I’m being a little cagey about those options right now because I’m still chatting with CADA and chatting with the city, but I think they have the potential to be really great for the city.
BR: What got you into poetry?
DB: I’ve been writing in Calgary for about 17, 18 years now. I’ve been involved with the local art scene in various ways as an organizer, as a teacher and professor, but also as an editor, writer and publisher. I did a lot of writing and reading as a rather geeky kid. I think that a lot of writers believe that they write in a bubble, that it’s not a social thing. In the mid to late 1990s, I started to get introduced to other writers in the city who were involved with Filling Station magazine, which is a local literary magazine that has been published now since 1994. I got involved with them and started being introduced to the readings that were going on [in Calgary] and people who were my age, maybe a little older, who were also writing and sharing their work. I moved from being in the audience to getting involved and helping out, to eventually editing Filling Station. That led to being introduced to people’s work all over the place and starting up a small press of my own, and having increased confidence in my own work. Since ’96 or ‘97, I’ve now written 16 books. My 16th book comes out this fall – it’s being published in Los Angeles by a press called Le Feig – and it’s called Kern. Kerning is the adjusting of the space between letters. I’ve found that over the entire time, the community in Calgary, through reading series or through bookstores like Pages, or Shelf-Life, or Wordfest, or the flywheel reading series, or the magazines that go on around have all been extremely fruitful and dedicated to helping emerging writers. If there’s kids that that say, “Yea, I kinda write and I just don’t know anyone else who does this,” they start realizing that people are all over the place are feeling the same thing and it’s a social activity. Poets are no longer working in their garrett quietly working alone in sadness; it’s now something more integrated into day-to-day. I think poetry is most exciting when it starts looking at how we write; what would poetry for Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram actually look like? That’s where things start getting exciting, is that it can be responsive to how we live as opposed to this private thing that we do that we’re ashamed of, and I think poetry only benefits being socially engaged.
BR: You talked about confidence and being a young writer, and lacking of said confidence. I’m sure many people share that same experience; do you have any personal stories that you could throw out there for us to give us hope?
DB: Poetry is a really weird form. It’s burgeoning, it continues to be a form that welcomes risk, but there is very little audience. If you are approaching this to be famous, or approaching this to be rich, you know, “I’m going to sell books and be J.K. Rowling,” that ain’t going to happen. What I tell my students and my colleagues is there’s that dictum that you should dance as if nobody’s watching; it allows you this freedom to move however you want and just liberate yourself on the dance floor. I think we should write as if nobody is reading you because effectively nobody is reading you. Once you actually embrace the fact that nobody’s reading you, you can do anything you want: you don’t have to worry about sales; you don’t have to worry about audience; you don’t have to worry about readership; that’s all no longer an issue. Allowing yourself that absolute freedom, I can write as if nobody’s reading me, now what can I do? It means that once you take away the fear of having to appeal to anybody, you are absolutely free to do anything you want, and once you have that freedom why write like everyone else writes? You can do anything you want with this; writing becomes a playground as opposed to an obligation… Here we are in the 21st century, why write like everyone else? If you have an opportunity to write a poem, why would you want to write one that looks like all the others you’ve encountered? Clearly nobody is interested in those so why do it more? Why not do it the way you actually want to, that you wish this art could be like? That’s the great opportunity that lays in the fact that the cultural baggage that poetry once had is no longer there anymore, you only read it if you have to. Poetry is only something forced on high-school students and written in Hallmark cards. Once you have decided that is no longer on your radar anymore, so then what is? It’s a bit of a scolding, bit of a realizing that by choosing to be a poet you’re choosing to be abject and poor and unread and underappreciated, so embrace all of that. Now you can do anything you want, what could you do next? That’s my pep talk. It doesn’t sound like a pep talk, but it’s actually a pep talk.
Also see our chat with past poet laureate Kris Demeanor here.
By Kraig Brachman