Friday, June 09, 2006

League Day One

Day one of the League of Canadian Poets AGM (and 40th anniversary celebration) was meet 'n greet -- lots of people I haven't seen since my first League AGM in 1993, and some I have met along the way. We had an open mic (asking for trouble, I read the Rhonda Poem, but it didn't - as I feared - initiate a rash of "d" word mishaps) which rattled along despite the looong list of participants. It was a great way to introduce ourselves to our fellow bards. After lunch there were a couple of afternoon workshops.

I went to the poet laureate panel, which featured Pauline Michel (Poet Laureate of Canada), Louise Halfe/Sky Dancer (PL of Saskatchewan), Lorri Neilsen Glenn (PL of Halifax) and Alice Major (PL of Edmonton) plus Cyril Dabydeen who had been the second (and second last) PL of Ottawa. They spoke about their various duties and the many surprises that awaited them when they took up their laureates.

Michel spoke at length, in beautifully written English, and occasionally burst into song, about what and why she does what she does. For her the job of the poet ("we are all poet laureates") is to promote writing as a means of artistic expression: "what is not expressed either implodes or explodes" she said; "but where do the arts firt into a culture where a good living is more imnportant than a good life?" She had managed to get funding for an assistant to schedule her events, a role that was fulfilled during the term of the first PL - George Bowering - by his wife; the requests come thick and fast and Michel said she thought three years should be the minimum length of the term to allow enough time to see through her various projects and duties.

Louise Halfe spoke first in Cree, and sang in her language as well. She assumed the Saskatchewan mantle from the province's first PL, Glen Sorestad, and has relished her ability to reach audiences and communities that she is uniquely able to connect with. A former social worker and addictions counsellor, she says she no longer practices but has incorporated her work into her art. She remarked that once again she was the "lone Indian in the room" and that she is expected to represent all the Indians of Canada, regardless of the fact there are many nations.

Lorri Neilsen Glenn, the second PL in Hlaifax, is a year into her four year term. She has a Cree grandmother and Quebecois grandfather and has lived in Halifax for 22 years, "which of course makes me a newcomer" she said. Her appointment coincided with a cut to the municipal arts board, which was shortly followed by the resignation of the cultural officer, so she has struggled without a helping hand to coordinate her duties and help her obtain funding for events. Like the others on the panel she observed the role could easily be full time if she allowed it - though the $1200 stipend would make that tricky. She hopes to help prove that "there is more to Nova Scotia than lobster traps and people who say 'buddy' and 'arse'."

Alice Major, the first PL in Edmonton, spoke about the politics of her role. She said on her first (of potentially three) command commissions she was asked to write something for a gathering which included the premier. "What," she asked, "can one say to Ralph Klein?" But because she was there by invitation by the supportive city council who had worked so hard to create the role she was occupying, she put her politics in her pocket and wrote something suitable to the occasion. "Nice," said Ralph as she walked back to her seat. Her second commission she titled "The hockey poem I thought I'd never write" - a work dressed to impress her audience, it was printed in the Edmonton Journal the following day and then hit the national papers the day after. "All these volumes of verse I have written, which no more than 500 people will ever see" she mused, "and the poem that makes the national papers is the hockey poem."

The second and last workshop I went to was about poetry in health and mental health institutions. Shirley Serviss kicked things off by describing her work at the University of Alberta Hospital in Edmonton. Working 15 hours a week at this, she is part of a group of professional artists - poets, visual artists and musicians - who are based there, together with volunteers (including poet Ted Blodgett who comes by to play the lute for patients). She described some of her efforts which take the form of anything from transcribing poems to the white boards that seemingly cover every wall, to dispensing poems to doctors, nurses and patients, to bedside work encouraging patients to talk about their lives so she can write them poems, or helping them to shape the words themselves. When she undertook an MA in Theological Studies she had thought she wanted to do a hospital chaplaincy but she prefers this work, which she has had incredibly positive feedback on from family and patients alike. She thinks it fills a gap in patient care as well. "They can turn chaplains or counsellors away," she said, "but we disarm them: all I'm doing, after all, is giving them a thought for the day."

Ronna Bloom is a psychotherapist who has given many workshops to health practitioners. She described one of her popular ones on overcoming personal blocks, which works well on people even if they are not writers. She is careful to explain to participants that the exercise will not solve anything, but it might give them extra information about what is blocking them in their lives or work. She pointed out that blocks are there for a reason, and it's important to remember we might love the places we're stuck, so her workshops are not about simply kicking them away. She says she knows the things that won't work, and these include guilt, denial, willpower, or moving house or countries. Her workshop aims to help participants get a good clear look at their block by making it larger. She alluded to a principle of martial arts which suggests that you cannot overcome an opponent by fighting them; but if you join the opponent, you can use that energy to defeat them. And so her workshop starts by allowing participants to describe what they love and hate about the block. They write about what they really want. Ronna then reads them a poem of hers which is a blessing, and asked to write one that blesses some aspect of themselves.

Ron Charach is a psychiatrist who also writes poetry. His poetry column in the Medical Post elicited enough poetry to engender an anthology by Canadian medical practitioners, and he's had poems in such oblique markets as The Lancet. He discussed research that had been done into connections between poets and mental illness, and ended by giving us a handy prescription to assure mental soundness to allow us to carry on writing.
  • Get enough sleep and natural light;
  • avoid substance/alcohol abuse;
  • keep some structure in your life;
  • pace those overwhelming projects;
  • maintain your relationships;
  • take all threats of suicide seriously;
  • don't hesitate to get professional help.



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