- by Richard-Yves Sitoski

First, a snapshot of my community, because Owen Sound is a complicated place that not too many know about. It is a small city of just over 20,000 inhabitants, situated on southwestern Georgian Bay, in an area heavily reliant on tourism that some consider more a stop along the way to tourist areas than a destination in its own right. We’re about three hours north of any major metropolitan areas, but not on any major routes. We’re feeling the results of globalism and of processes that started generations ago: we’re a former marine and rail transport hub aware that everything is moving at the speed of Peterbilts on the 401, and a factory town rendered redundant by offshore manufacturing. With the COVID-era housing bubble provoked by an influx of new money coming in from the city, housing has become thoroughly unaffordable for increasing numbers of residents. As in many rural places, opiate use is high and fentanyl deaths are on the rise. And inevitably, as is the pattern in small brownfield cities, in our efforts at reinvention, we’re kind of making it up as we go along. On the other hand, we’re plucky, with a strong sense of identity and a lot of local pride in our thriving arts community. We have more topnotch musicians in this town than in any city twice its size, we are a haven for visual artists who are inspired by the breathtaking scenery, and we are gradually beginning to attract filmmakers and digital media artists. Finally, and most pertinent to me, we are the home of a dynamic independent press, The Ginger Press, that has served as the nexus of publishing and literary activity for both Grey and Bruce counties for over 30 years.

So, far from a list of complaints, this is a list of challenges, and thus what I consider to be my raw materials as poet laureate. I don’t just have an obligation to a constituency, I have an obligation to my art, and to fulfill both requires that I be aware of my surroundings and be prepared to present an unvarnished portrait of what I see. It is an unofficial mandate that I take just as seriously than my official one, which is to focus on environmental issues. I have that liberty because as perhaps the only privately-slash-community funded laureate in Canada (to my knowledge), I am not employed by council as a civic booster. (To be clear, I’m not the [Insert Corporate Name Here ®] Poet Laureate; my position is funded by local arts patrons, and as such is as community-driven as any publicly supported program. In addition, before I am accountable to my sponsors, I am accountable to our Poet Laureate Advisory Committee and to the Owen Sound and North Grey Union Public Library, which oversees the laureate program.)

For a variety of reasons, my tenure has included very few of the customary occasional pieces laureates are expected to deliver. Rather, I’ve had to use my own initiative to seek out topics and opportunities to present poetry. These reasons start with the old chestnut, that many residents have never even heard of a poet laureate; include the pandemic, which has put the kybosh on most public appearances; and end with the fact that poetry is a tough sell in an area that’s predominantly red meat and blue politics.

I’ve been most successful in compensating for the effects of the pandemic. The onset of COVID-19, of course, sent us all scurrying to our computers. As an artist whose obligation is to make poetry visible, this made me wonder how I could leverage the opportunities presented by digital media. And so I started an online open mic series that has been well received not only locally but internationally. When it was clear that we were beginning to get Zoomed-out, I added A-list headline performers and changed the name to the Oh!Sound Reading Series and Open Mic. I have held online poetry workshops, and became associated with Sheatre as creative mentor in their Sparkin’ Art youth digital studio. I began to publish my poems in online journals. I held a virtual launch of my legacy project collection of poems. I have been participating as an open mic’er and feature performer in as many online venues as possible. I have been making use of social media, employing the Owen Sound Poet Laureate Facebook page, for example, to present Black poets every day during Black History Month, or to post a Poem of the Week. I created a series of 12 introduction to poetry videos for the library YouTube channel. And so on.

But as for the problems of defining the role of the laureate and establishing its relevance, things were difficult here long before the pandemic. I try to hit open mics regularly and am amazed at the differences in the reception I get. In wealthier neighbouring towns with higher concentrations of recently moved city dwellers, my spoken word goes down like gangbusters. But in Owen Sound, with its shaky economy and singer-songwriter performance scene, the best way to get anyone to pay attention is to recite poems on top of conventional rock music, and only one local poet has managed to make a decent go of this. I attribute a lot of what success I enjoy to my origins in the songwriting community and at coffeehouses in which music predominated. I built up a crossover audience early on that: unfortunately I have barely been able to increase despite shifting to print poetry. It also doesn’t help that most events, from Remembrance Day ceremonies to civic commemorations and inaugurations by way of major public holidays and climate change rallies, are organized by people who have never heard of a poet laureate and don’t realize that it is customary for one to be present with a poem.

So what is a poet to do? This poet, at least, took matters into his own hands. I didn’t let COVID-19 sidetrack my primary mandate of exploring environmental issues: my legacy project, No Sleep ‘til Eden, is of a book of augmented reality poems on the environment (while not the first book of AR poetry in this country, I do believe it to be the first trade book of AR poetry in Canada). I also contributed poems to Fridays for Future, created Snowetry (an activist poetic landscape intervention in response to when a vibrant piece of urban parkland was sought by a developer for a subdivision), and wrote WormWords (an art piece on the theme of vermicomposting, in which shredded poems were used as bedding for red wigglers, making them co-authors as they ingested, digested, and excreted my words to turn something important to the human spirit—poetry—into something vital for our planet—compost). I also had the chance to write a further book of poetry, which is making the rounds of publishers, and two chapbooks, one of which will be published by Bywords as part of the prize for winning the 2021 John Newlove Award.

I have been fortunate, blessed even. My efforts have been appreciated by my sponsors and the overseeing bodies to the extent that my term has been lengthened by a third year, in order that as (if?) society begins to re-open, I might make up for the prior lack of public visibility. Recently I have begun to perform again, mostly at private functions. I have made connections in the poetry community throughout the province and beyond. I am working with Ontario’s Poet Laureate Randell Adjei and have developed a creative partnership with Penn Kemp. I have succeeded in raising the profile of the laureateship, though I would like to get our print broadsheet daily to take as much of an interest in the position as our digital community paper does. I’ve been so busy, in fact, that when it’s over next fall I’ll probably settle into a Now what? funk for a few weeks as I plot my next move. I am also very much looking forward to seeing my successor in action as they confront Owen Sound’s unique issues and work to weave poetry into the community’s cultural fabric.  ’s a tall order, but the job wouldn’t be rewarding if it were easy.

. . .

This was first published in periodicities and is re-published here with the kind permission of the author,  Richard-Yves Sitoski (he/him) , a songwriter, performance poet, and the 2019-2022 Poet Laureate of Owen Sound, Ontario, on the territory of the Saugeen Ojibway Nation. He is also the Interim Artistic Director of the Words Aloud festival. With croc E. moses he is part of the spoken word duo O P E N Sound. He has released a spoken word CD, Word Salad, and three books of verse with the Ginger Press: brownfields, Downmarket Oldies FM Station Blues, and No Sleep 'til Eden, an augmented reality multimedia collection of poems on the environment. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in many journals, including The Fiddlehead, The Maynard, Prairie Fire,, in the League of Canadian Poets' Poetry Pause, and as part of Brick Books' Brickyard spoken word video series. In 2018 he was a finalist in the International Songwriting Competition, and he is a 2021 Best of the Net nominee and 2021 John Newlove Award winner. FB: OSPoetLaureate2019to2022 Twitter: @r_sitoski




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