JAMES MAY

Fool of the New West

Kris Demeanor’s first year as Calgary’s poet laureate

By Kris Demeanor

As cultures broad see capitals deemed
Horse snort less stable than once it seemed
Formed there is new wiggle in rooms
Scribes awl pin light through prescription doom
In blankets gold will weight there be?
To sway frayed throats of Necessity
Hooved aeration to fescue razed
Ignored voices on borrowed lands graze
Wailing, cajoling, and though vapours still
Condense to drips, repeat, pray fill

Okay, here is basically how it works. This article is a “journey” piece (the artistic adventures of Kris Demeanor / Alberta’s quest for meaning), so I mimic a few lines of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Each line serves the tonic—my role in Calgary at a time of cultural growth and national notice contributing (hopefully) to the enriched health of our collective souls and intellects, against the odds. Prairie imagery. Avoid obvious word pairings, change “poke” to “awl,” “taunting” to “prescription,” “floods” to “drips,” “unheard voices” to “ignored voices,” have fun with Late Medieval phrasing, count the syllables and speak it aloud a few times to assess flow.

I think I like it. I can’t actually tell if it’s any good. There’s care and thought in the verse, but I don’t know if it will connect with the general public or pass muster with career poets. Unstudied in poetry, I practise a diffusion-based, intuitive, self-conscious kind of improvisation. Since March 2012 I’ve felt like someone with a Grade 9 education and a penchant for insult and bar stools, proclaimed King through force of personality. Like someone who’s handy but unlicensed, and, in a boom, puts a decal on the truck reading “I Am a Legitimate Construction Company,” learning on the job while cashing in on the frenzy.

I’m a songwriter. I need an audience. So I became Calgary’s first poet laureate. If that sounds glib and falsely modest, I certainly don’t suggest the selection process was arbitrary or that my writer friends who were also considered weren’t being recognized for their gifts. It was just a “Calgary” choice, an endorsement of that over-referenced “can-do” spirit. Calgary and I, like a sitcom with a heart, were going to learn about poetry… together.

To contextualize the journey, a quick word on the “What is Poetry?” debate. It’s a non-starter. At the 2013 Edmonton Poetry Festival, where 16 poets laureate gathered, all we acknowledged was how literary genres evolve, cross over and learn from each other, and that ghettoization is not only pointless but an inaccurate reading of history. Summed up by Scottish poet laureate Liz Lochhead: “When I see poetry, I hear it, I hear it spoken and I see it performed. Is it poetry, spoken word, song, theatre—who fucking cares? Just make it good.” There.

So, great, it’s all poetry, but I already know I can energize an audience through the lyrics of my songs, my theatrical presentation of rhythmic spoken-word pieces. This is not easy to do. Connecting with people while keeping content standards high requires craft. I tap in to the psychology of the suburbs, the struggles of immigration, and woefully forgotten realities of First Nations history, illuminating something about Calgary, all to a metronomic foot stomp.

How does one fulfill the role of the good-natured jester who gives the occasional goose of scary clarity?

But back to the sitcom—while Calgarians understand music as a delivery system for creative language, when it comes to spoken poetry, reaction often ranges from indifference to aversion. I believe the jury—a six-person panel selected by Calgary Arts Development and consisting of, among others, a poet, a U of C professor, an arts writer and an arts administrator—named me the first poet laureate in hopes I would have the performance chops to help penetrate the masses’ preconceptions about poetry, and enough sophistication to hearten the intellectuals. To this end, I resolved to lean less on the guitar, focus on ink and page, plumb Calgary’s appetite for poetry and stimulate it, and honour a title that rightly acknowledges poetry as the best way of documenting a society and expressing its collective passion—with sublimity and elegance, in ways that beg patience, reflection, interpretation, imagination.

The traditional mandate of the poet laureate (England’s many centuries of laureates include Spenser, Wordsworth, Tennyson; the US has had a series of them going back to the 1930s, though they were called “Consultants in Poetry” until the 1980s) is to promote the reading and writing of poetry to the populace, and though there are usually no specific duties attached to the honour, there’s an expectation that new work will be written for important occasions (“Ode on Stephen’s New Christmas Sweater,” “Elegy for a Reclaimed Tailings Pond”). An honorarium comes with the role, which in Calgary is generously provided by private-sector endorsement of the program because there’s-no-goddamn-way-my-taxpayer-dollars-are-going-toward-something-as-wholly-unnecessary-as-poetry. Historically, payment consisted of 105 imperial gallons of sherry. I wish.

At the gathering of poets laureate in Edmonton, the limits of official duty were discussed: Are there things we do refuse or should refuse to write about? Should we be subversive? If so, how do we challenge the status quo while celebrating and honouring our communities? How does one fulfill the role not only of conduit between the general public and the literary arts but of “official poet” to a city, the good-natured jester who gives the occasional goose of scary clarity? These questions aren’t theoretical—they’re tested. Both our parliamentary and Scottish laureates were asked to, in their official roles, create and deliver poems marking the Queen’s Diamond jubilee. Each had issues with monarchy. They did their jobs with reluctance. The laureate of Victoria was asked to do a poem for city council for Canada Day, and celebrated Dominion by reminding city council about whose traditional land they were on and how long it had actually been inhabited before they came along. A couple of the small-town Ontario laureates are careful not to rattle the sensibilities of their local councils and citizens, and thus they avoid controversial topics to ensure they don’t screw things up for other artists who require grants in a conservative community.

I had a lot of practice finding the palatability/revolutionary balance growing up. My art-teacher dad wouldn’t let my sister or me give people store-bought cards; they had to be handmade. I became adept at chronicling landmark family occasions through verse and song and putting them in the cards, based on fragments of personal memory, historical fact and input from relatives. It became the thing I did. It was always of utmost importance to get laughs, which I did through the technique of the soft roast, detailing events in the person’s life that are embarrassing but never outright humiliating. I take the same approach writing poems for Calgary. One of the first things I was told by the City’s poet-laureate liaison was—and this was truly appreciated—“We’re expecting you to speak your mind and stir things up once in a while.” Alas, I regret not causing more trouble than I have to this point. I’ve witnessed that, even among the artistically conservative, or those who may be unconvinced the city needs a poet laureate at all, there is an acceptance, even an expectation, of boldness of opinion bordering on outright provocation from our artists. Perhaps this shouldn’t be surprising—essentially what holds me back from turning my observations into rants is that, as far as fostering thought and discussion, the time-release capsule is more effective than the hammer. Allegory and metaphor are still the legs of critique, and South Park-esque satire can allow great latitude for commentary while keeping the crowd laughing; but highlighting bald reality in exposing a truth is often the greatest way to reach an audience. People want to say “That’s me!” or “Thank god that’s not me!”

Most criticism of me in the past year has been general and third-hand, from writers indignant that I am poet laureate at all (songwriters aren’t poets, and cannot claim to be both), but occasionally a concerned citizen takes umbrage at a specific poem. A friend saved me the clipping from the Calgary Herald (friends tend to enjoy making sure I see all the dirt) in which someone complained about the waste of taxpayer dollars on “unnecessary” programs, saying at least Calgary’s laureate is privately financed, but citing offence at the subject matter of a poem I did for the Stampede’s 100th anniversary called “The Roughneck and the Whore,” about a one-night midway romance between an oil sands worker and an escort. What the complainant fails to mention is that I presented the piece at an event organized by the Stampede and WordFest, the point of which was to tell unique, untold stories about the greatest outdoor show on Earth—the kind often glossed over by usual marketing traditions. Plus, I did it in a very relatable, traditional cowboy-poetry style. The children seemed to like it.

Even with years of practice, the nature of commissioned work is odd. I was all gung-ho during the interview junket last year and told everyone I was going to say “yes” to every request I could field in the first year. The fact is, when you have a commission, you are writing on a topic you very likely would not be naturally inspired to explore in depth. You are presenting to people for whom this is an important subject, so you have a duty to research the topic and present a piece that speaks meaningfully to the participants of the forum/symposium/launch/vigil/pub crawl. My big stress is finding the angle, the “in.” I pace around my front yard for a week looking for it, the perspective that will make the piece, well, poetic.

For the Stop Poverty Coalition, I detailed the etymological evolution of the phrase “pick yourself up by your bootstraps,” from an absurd, impossible task to a symbol of individual fortitude, to computer “bootstrapping,” using a small amount of code to help load more complex code. For a suicide-prevention symposium I imagined a video game of surmountable challenges that mimic those in a dark and confused teen mind. For the 100th anniversary of the Calgary Public Library System I fantasized the opening day of the Memorial branch in 1913 through the eyes of an imagined family and a host of strange characters including Walter the Curmudgeon, Lilian the Prophesier and Albert the Man Who Missed the Gravy Train. Speaking before pollster and CBC commentator Alan Gregg, who was delivering an address called “Erosion of Trust,” I posited that a modern Prometheus ought to give us a new dose of knowledge and blind hope to encourage us to venture further out of our caves. For the City Centre Downtown Planning Commission, speaking in a conference room full of developers, I had to get cheeky (it was 9:00 a.m.; they were developers), and start the piece “Build it… and they will… still not come… unless…” An early piece for ATP’s season launch was a giddy act of sacrilege, creating a mashup of Shelley’s “Love’s Philosophy” with my own rebuttal woven through. For effect, I wrote it by a brook, in a Moleskine, while drinking wine from a coffee mug.

Sometimes my vantage point as invited artist sees local history in the making and points to the starkness of our city’s contradictions. At the debate “Calgary’s Cowboy Past—Living Legacy or Just History?” for The Walrus magazine, I presented a piece that invoked Gene Autry’s Cowboy Code in order to demonstrate that the true and noble tenets of cowboy culture are actually getting steamrolled by money culture and obscured by our tepid illusions of Western pride. I got to see then-future Calgary Centre MP candidate Chris Turner cream fellow candidate (and eventual victor) Joan Crockatt, the latter inaccurately invoking the just-recited Cowboy Code as an example of our “entrepreneurial spirit,” a phrase patly repeated dozens of times out of confused desperation. No wonder she never showed up for election debates.

The poet laureate role has immersed me deep in a city of infuriating possibility. But in many ways, I float. I hover. I don’t belong firmly in any one literary or artistic world, and maybe that makes me a universal hack—or uniquely equipped to enjoy, appreciate and champion each realm equally. Maybe it allows me to approach my own work in all these genres with a certain creative fearlessness. I do know that this observer/participant status, coupled with the privilege of the poet laureate position, has opened for me a window into the worlds of business, politics and social services, and made it clear that our society still doesn’t have a clue about what writers and artists do or what they’re worth. The conception that they operate in a different realm, a fantasy of heady creation and narcissism outside of “real work” is fallacy. They are on the inside, writing with our children in schools, our parents at the residence, at your bank job, asking you to participate in a haiku contest, hoping you’ll want to. Concerned taxpayers need to know that return on investment is tangible. I have met young people on many occasions this year who have told me that writing, slam poetry, song, art—having a creative venue of expression—has saved their lives. Nobody says that about Fruit Ninja or Angry Birds. And I get this one a lot: “I never liked poetry before, but…” Something’s twigging.

Is the poet laureate position one symbol of a changing Calgary—a new West of Nenshi, food trucks, bike lanes and Car2Go, of wanting something more out of our communities, another layer? Is it necessary? I suppose anything outside eating, sleeping and shitting is beyond necessity, a judgment, a decision. We enrich our lives with stimuli, salve them with distraction, sport, and yes, with poetry. We don’t always understand poetry, but we want to. It’s non-obvious, difficult. It parrots our confusion but, like a vaccine, can liberate us.

The most asked question in the past year—“So, how’s the poet thing going?” And the second most asked—“So, what do you do, anyway?” Handcuffed by the broadness of the queries, I usually mumble, “Uh… it’s been an adventure,” and, “Uh, well, lots of stuff,” and then perfunctorily list off half a dozen of the events I’ve written pieces for, mixed with strange public appearances that have required no effort beyond choosing between the crab puff and the bacon-wrapped scallop.

But I have to stop being such a smartass. I still have four months left to make an impression. Calgary and I are taking a master class at the University of Greater Expectations. (Cue sitcom theme music—freeze frame of Kris and a bunch of word-hungry Calgarians with notepads in front of the Peace Bridge.) #
Kris Demeanor is Calgary’s first poet laureate. He is also a prolific songwriter and performer.

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