By Fauzia Rafique
Yes, where are they/she/he?
After the three-year term ended for the first Poet Laureate of Surrey (2015-2018), we should have had our second (2018-2021), and now the third Poet Laureate (2021-2024). Some of us have been waiting since 2018 to hear the good news because the funding was approved by city council. Though late, Surrey Libraries had issued a call for submissions in May 2019, with a July 2 deadline, where interviews were to be scheduled in September.
The interviews did take place. What happened after is a mystery, and if I was a mystery writer, it would have been one hell of an interesting activity to unravel it. But what good is a mystery without a murder—and for sure, no murder took place in this scenario or in this city.
In search for answers, my first stop, of course, was the program’s host, Surrey Libraries. I was promptly passed onto the relevant person who handed me over to Surrey’s Art Services to leave a message in their contact form—with nothing to show after weeks of waiting. When front-line workers do not have answers to simple questions, it means there may be a clique at work that is pushing the agenda beneficial to a small group of privileged individuals at the expense of the benefits meant for, in this case, all the 603,970 people of this beautiful city.
The Surrey Poet Laureate program was established in 2015 to advocate for literacy and the literary arts and to help raise the status of poetry, language, and the arts in the everyday consciousness of Surrey residents.
I fully support the objectives of the Surrey Poet Laureate program, the arts nonprofit I work for supports it, my friends, peers, and colleagues in Surrey’s arts communities support it. And, we are concerned, to say the least.
Surrey’s first Poet Laureate, Renée Sarojini Saklikar, did great work that included the completion of two legacy projects. The first brought 40 teens and seniors together to share their stories and it was published as an anthology in 2016. The second was a series of chapbook writing workshops for 42 teen writers at six libraries. ‘In the position, Saklikar participated in over 40 events each year and mentored over 150 writers through consultations and workshops.
This is a fair amount of literary activity that had enlivened the city for three years, and it encouraged me to know how the Poets Laureate in other cities had been doing.
Candice James, for example, the Poet Laureate Emerita of the City of New Westminster (where this program first began in 1998), had accomplished the following in the first of her two three-year terms. She attended, organized or was featured in more than 150 literary and arts events in New Westminster and surrounding areas, mentored writers, founded and co-founded such vibrant organizations as Poetry in the Park, Poetic Justice, Slam Central and Royal City Literary Arts Society (RCLAS), and during this time, she also wrote and published five new books of poetry. From then to now, Candice has worked with Janet Kvammen and other colleagues, to change the literary landscape of New Westminster, evolving it into a go-to town for poetry and art.
As well, the current Poets Laureate of New Westminster and Vancouver, Elliot Slinn and Fiona Tinwei Lam, are both doing amazing work for their peers and communities.
What I’m trying to say is that having a Poet Laureate program is maybe the most dynamic and affordable way for a city to develop and nurture art and arts communities for the benefit of its people. Programs such as the Poet Laureate and Writer in Residence at once support the literary journey of individual poets and writers by making available both recognition and resources, and the create an ambiance to nurture fine arts in the general population. Each new poet or writer brings their own legacy project, giving focus to specific communities and artistic disciplines, assuring participation of diverse groups of people. For example, if one focused on seniors and youth, another may provide recognition to Surrey’s queer communities or women or children; disabled, deaf or hard of hearing poets; communities of colour; verse in translation, performance poetry, slam; or more support for under-privileged or financially challenged poets and writers.
If followed through on regular basis, the Poet Laureate program combined with the existing literary and arts development programs offered by the Surrey Libraries, Surrey Art Gallery, Surrey Archives, the Museum of Surrey, Surrey Arts Centre, and Arts Council of Surrey on the one hand, and various reading series and writers groups established by the communities themselves on the other—the resulting synergy may well bring skill, opportunity, joy, and creativity to a majority of Surrey residents, effectively raising the sheer quality of our lives.
This is an urgent request to Mayor Brenda Locke and all the eight councillors to unblock the Surrey Poet Laureate program or prove to us that having a Poet Laureate program may be too much art/lit for the City of Surrey with an estimated population of 603,970 in 2022. (Actually, can there be or is there “too much art/lit” in any city of any size?) A couple of people who have expressed their sense of (dark) humour at the city council by pitching the little Poet Laureate program ($10,000 per year budget) against the pervasive issues of homelessness and poverty have established one thing only—that they are neither in favor of developing arts programs nor are they interested in resolving homelessness in Surrey. Rather, their purpose seems to be to stall or eliminate the Poet Laureate program. But why? The small City of New Westminster with an estimated population of 82,939 in 2023 has flawlessly managed a Poet Laureate program since 1998, as has the City of Vancouver since 2007 for a population of 662,248 (in 2021). So, what about Surrey?
What kind of future does this city government perceive for Surrey? A future that cannot seem to “afford”, or worse still, “manage” a Poet Laureate program? A future where, according to speculation, we don’t need a Poet Laureate program because there’s going to be a writer-in-residence program—sure, we don’t need carrots because we will soon have potatoes—but what if we need and want both?
Imagine the kind of Future that may result from this Present that seems to be paying lip service to the promise of “Access to diverse, high quality learning opportunities, and vibrant arts, heritage and cultural experiences for all Surrey residents”, instead of actively facilitating arts programs such as the Poet Laureate.
Or would it be that the city’s Poet Laureate program becomes another (bad) joke on Surrey? Surrey already has plenty of bad jokes circling around it. We, the residents, don’t need another, especially not this one. To us, the real Surrey joke is the existence of a few people in key positions in the arts communities who can appropriate a publicly funded program and try to almost kill it to suit themselves.
Or is it that something tantamount to a murder is happening right now where a program that was meant to be a resource and an opportunity for all Surrey poets and residents has been incarcerated and held hostage for the past five years by a few individuals, furthering their own agendas?
Whatever the holdup, the question is what may a city government, that is committed to developing “vibrant arts”, do to redress this situation? Please, put Surrey’s Poet Laureate program back on track without further delay. It’ll generate tremendous benefits for the people of this city. And, for sure, it’ll not take even a fraction of what it took to put back the RCMP.