We open the real posts today with a guest piece, more an Op-Ed, really, from poet and professor Adam Sol on a controversy around Toronto’s Poet Laureate. Last month, a ludicrous column came and went, like the steaming pile of shite it was, through the colon of the National Post’s print edition. In it, frothing staff writer Marni Soupcoff flails about, attacking both the position of Poet Laureate and the fantastic choice of world-class poet Dionne Brand to fill the post. I don’t remember seeing the article, in part because, as Sol notes below, no one really reads the Post anymore (I do, however, read their online coverage at The Afterword and The Ampersand, both of which are surprisingly good, especially when compared to the rest of the sinking paper), but what a nutbar. Read the entire piece for yourself here. Sol is obviously incensed, but responds below in a much more elegant way than I would.* It was originally sent to the Post as a response letter, but was rejected because “The public zeitgeist has moved on” (a week later). Hm.
Recently, the National Post printed an opinion piece by staff writer Marni Soupcoff on the subject of the new Toronto Poet Laureate, Dionne Brand. Entitled “A Job No Outspoken Poet Would Want,” the article essentially claims that the $10,000/year that the city will spend on the Laureate position would be better used elsewhere, that having a poet Laureate is gratuitous, and that Brand herself is a poor choice for the position, because of her “Marxist feminism,” which Soupcoff suggests will lead her to the type of unfortunate public comments that were made by Amiri Baraka during his tenure as the New Jersey Poet Laureate, when he suggested that the attacks on September 11, 2001 were part of a Jewish conspiracy.
There are so many things wrong with Soupcoff’s article that it’s difficult to know where to start, but to me it’s just as disturbing that there wasn’t a major uproar at her silliness. Perhaps it’s because no one reads the National Post any more. But I wonder if it’s also a symptom of a malaise in the artistic community that opinions like Soupcoff’s are not worth challenging, that the public mood is so opposed to serious art forms like poetry that we should just keep our heads down and hope it all goes away.
But normalizing opinions like these will only serve to legitimize them, especially in a forum that claims – successfully or not – to represent a critical high ground in public debate.
So first, on the post of poet laureate. Soupcoff makes the absurd suggestion that granting a whopping $10,000 per year is the equivalent to “a guy with a mountain of credit card debt […] splurg[ing] on a collectors edition of World of Warcraft.” She even laughably suggests that this princely sum be converted “into a tiny credit on the next property tax bills”.
Let’s be clear. The Post has reported the operating budget of the city to be approximately $8.7 billion. $10,000 makes up approximately .000115% of it. To suggest that this cost is a wasteful piece of fat in the city’s budget is more akin to suggesting that an elephant needs to trim an eyelash. (How much did we spend on worthy arts projects like the renovation of the AGO, the ROM, and the Royal Conservatory…?)
But even for such a minute amount of cash, it’s reasonable to evaluate the relative worth of this eyelash.
This city has had two Poets Laureate since 2001, when the post was inaugurated. The first, Dennis Lee, was instrumental in the formation of the Cultural Legacy Program to name major landmarks in the city after famous artists: if you are proud of the fact that Toronto has finally given a public space to honour Oscar Peterson, you can thank Dennis Lee. He spearheaded the complex political, financial, and municipal negotiations behind this important civic moment. Granted, naming a public space after a great artist doesn’t create many new jobs, or save anyone on taxes, or pay off a city’s financial deficit. But it is the type of gesture that every city needs in order to assert its pride and to remind itself that not all of the things that make a city great can be quantified in a budget line.
The second Poet Laureate, Pier Giorgio Di Cicco, has attempted to take an artistic sensibility to the city’s work. With dozens of speaking engagements across the province, he has attempted to include aesthetic concerns into the larger issues facing Toronto. He has had a tangible impact on the way city planners engage in debate, and has been a tremendous ambassador for the city and its arts community. I myself have met a city worker who was gape-mouthedly inspired by a speech Di Cicco gave on the subject of civic engagement, and who is approaching his work with a different sense of ambition and responsibility because of Di Cicco’s words. Again, it’s hard to quantify how many tax dollars an “engaged civic aesthetic” is worth, but I imagine there have been scads of high-priced consultants who are still on the city payroll trying to accomplish much less.
It’s worth mentioning that, notwithstanding the outstanding achievements of Di Cicco and Lee, both poets are – it must be admitted – white men of a certain age. It’s right that the next Laureate come from an under-represented constituency, not just for the sake of political correctness, but in order to accurately represent the diverse artistic and cultural makeup of our city.
But is Dionne Brand the right sort of poet to do this? It’s a worthwhile question, but Soupcoff’s ignorant analysis of Brand herself crosses the line from pedestrian blundering to outright wrong-headed insult.
Soupcoff suggests that Toronto take a lesson from New Jersey, which was justifiably embarrassed when firebrand poet Amiri Baraka made some misguided and inflammatory remarks regarding the attacks on September 11, 2001, while he was serving as Poet Laureate there.
It’s clear that Soupcoff has read very little of Dionne Brand’s work, because while Brand may consider herself a Marxist feminist, and her book-length novel-in-poetry thirsty does circle around the shooting of a black immigrant father by Toronto police, comparing her artistic temperament to Amiri Baraka’s is like equating John Manley to Rush Limbaugh because they’re both conservative.
Brand’s work is circumspect, subtle, lyrical, politically engaged and engaging, and ultimately about the desire to find a linguistic, cultural and psychological home in a place that often denies some of its members the right to do so.
I do not know what Dionne Brand hopes to accomplish as Poet Laureate of our city, nor can I anticipate whether she will be successful in these endeavours. But I know her to be an outstanding poet with a profound political engagement who deserves to be heard in our public sphere. Her willingness to accept the post, when most poets would rather run for the hills, is indicative of her willingness to take on risks for the sake of improving our public dialogue. It’s not the $10,000 per year, I can assure you of that.
Why, I wonder, would Soupcoff single out the Baraka episode to compare to Brand’s potential as a Laureate, rather than the years of honorable (if often symbolic) achievements of other Poets Laureate in the United States, United Kingdom and Canada?
Soupcoff caps off her tirade by suggesting that “people don’t look to government for clues about what entertainment to consume” and that “the only people who will pay attention to a poet laureate will be the already-engaged arts establishment types”. The philistine attitude that sees poetry as just another form of “entertainment” that the public “consumes” is just the kind of mountain of ignorance that Brand will be asked to confront with her massive $10,000/year paycheck.
At its best, poetry can change the way we understand our world, our culture, and our language. New York sees itself as a place open to “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free” because of poetry. It’s because of poetry that the poppy is recognized across this nation as an expression of our respect for the sacrifices of soldiers. We turn to poetry to give language to our deepest human confusion and yearning. We don’t read newspaper articles at funerals, at weddings, or major public ceremonies – we read poetry.
The role of the Poet Laureate – in any city, province or country – is a symbolic one, and the salaries are correspondingly symbolic. But cities, nations, and peoples are built on symbols. And it speaks to the best cultural ambitions of this city that it would commit the whopping sum of $10,000 per year to an individual whose job it is to spur us to think about our language in a challenging, artful, and public way. Whatever Dionne Brand achieves during her tenure, I am certain it will be well worth the money our city spends. I wish her good luck, because if Marni Soupcoff is any indicator of the obstacles standing in her way, she’s going to need it.
Adam Sol is a professor of English at Laurentian University’s partnership program at Georgian College. His most recent book, Jeremiah, Ohio, was shortlisted for the Trillium Award for Poetry.
*For the record, my response would be to speak the only language retarded chimps like this understand and fling her feces right back at her and then pound my chest, rip down a few saplings, and shriek for a bit.