A Poet Laureate for Calgary

By DJ Kelly June 21, 2010

If you read my blog often you know two things about me 1) I believe we need more openness and transparency in government, 2) I’m a big fan of the transformative power of the arts.

Today I want to announce a project that I’m working on that draws on both of these.

Last year I had the good fortune of pitching the idea of Open Data to a couple aldermen who liked idea so much they presented it as a notice of motion, which eventually passed Council and will be piloted this summer and fall. (If you’re interested, details are here.) Much of the feedback I received about this project from aldermen revolved around the fact they didn’t remember the last time an idea from a regular citizen came forward like this and they wished it would happen more often. Buoyed by that successful experience I decided I would try to get one more notice of motion passed before council breaks for the summer.

I want Calgary to have a Poet Laureate.

The City of Calgary Poet Laureate would be an artist officially appointed by City Council, for a two-year term, to compose and present poems for official City of Calgary events, to help raise awareness of local issues, and to raise awareness of the local arts community to citizens and the City of Calgary.

Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal all have a Poet Laureate. But this isn’t just about wanting what bigger cities have. Edmonton, Victoria, Halifax and St. John’s have one too. Heck, so does Sackville, NB, Brantford, ON, Owen Sound, ON, Sudbury, ON, Cobourg, ON, and even Cobalt, ON (which I’ve never even heard of before). The provinces of Saskatchewan and Prince Edward Island have an official Poet Laureate; so too does the Yukon Territory, as well as the federal Parliament. (Click here to see who the current poets are.)

Responsibilities for the Poet Laureate within these cities include being an advocate, champion or ambassador for poetry and the literary arts in the community, with the intent of the position being to raise the profile/status/public awareness of poetry, writers and literary arts. They are asked to produce new works that reflect the life of the city, either per year or per term, and are invited to attend a variety of civic functions, both informal and formal.

What does this have to do with openness and transparency in government however you may ask? As we well know, the biggest key to unlocking the door of institutional secrecy – whether intended or not – is to have someone who isn’t afraid to speak up looking around. Officially endorsed Poets Laureate have trained eyes to unveil what is hidden often from plain sight. And they can tell you more about the place you live in than you ever thought possible.

Case in point, the very first moment Canadians commonly shared together at the recent Winter Olympics was courtesy of a poet. The beat poetry of Shane Koyczan’s “We Are More” at the opening ceremony was a communal moment when all Canadians reflected together on what it means to be a citizen of this great country. It primed the nationalist pump – so to speak – leading to an even greater sense of pride when Alexandre Bilodeau and Jon Montgomery won their gold medals. “We Are More” became the underpinning theme to all effort from Canadians at the Olympics. Whether they be the athletes trying to show we can win gold on our own soil for the first time, or the volunteers proudly showing off their city and country in a manner all Canadians would be honoured by.

(Heck even our greatest beer commercial of all time is nothing more than a passionate delivery of a poem telling us what the writer – and Molson – think it means to be “Canadian”.)

As much as I might wish that open data was the beginning and end point for a truly open government it is not and cannot be. I know there is a role to be played by artists and that is why I work in the arts. They can do things no data set will ever be able to do.

And I think the time is now.

The City has tried to get a Poet Laureate before but they haven’t been able to get it done because of one major stumbling block: money and administration. I decided – in true citizenry-style and spurred by seeing it is possible for one person to make a difference – I would try to solve both of those problems and propose to them a Poet Laureate program that wouldn’t cost them, or taxpayers, anything.

Below is the proposal I put together. So far The Calgary Foundation are on board for $15,000 from the Small Grant program. Calgary Arts Development has also committed approximately $15,000 of in kind support to administer and promote the program. Both groups have committed to three years of support. (Click here to read a PDF letter of support from TCF and here for one from CADA.)

What I am looking to do now is to get five corporate donors to agree to donate $1,000 per year for 3 years. I feel strongly it should be five partners and not just one, to show the strong commitment of Calgary’s business community to the arts in Calgary. There are already a couple potential groups who have said yes, but the details are being finalized so I can’t tell you anything about them yet. 😉 However there is still plenty of room to get involved!

Of course individual donors are welcome too! If you’d like to donate to the program just drop me an email at

I believe it is time we stop waiting for our elected officials to do everything for us, so I’m happy to go out and organize everything for them to rubber stamp. I’ve mentioned this project to a few different people and received nothing but positive reactions. Even the Canadian Taxpayers’ Federation has offered their support and I think that is absolutely amazing. (Click here to read CTF’s PDF letter of support.)

I think this is a simple and very affordable way to place the arts on the agenda of the City in a BIG way and to open the City of Calgary up a little bit more. But I need your help to make it a reality.

Click here to read the proposal. And please let me know if you’re able to help.

And if you don’t believe in the potential of a Poet Laureate, I invite you to scroll back up and watch Shane Koyczan’s “We Are More”. That is what a Poet Laureate could do for us.

PS – I won’t be sitting on the selection committee, so I thought I could share with you an example of who I think would make a great Poet Laureate for Calgary. Most might suggest Sherri-D Wilson, who would be great for sure, but I’m more partial to Dragon Fli Empire, who was first introduced to me by Sarah Blue. Rap battle with Edmoton’s Poet Laureate Roland Pemberton (aka Cadence Weapon) anyone? Here is DFE’s ode to our hometown “CGY”.