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Online petition to reinstate Surrey’s Poet Laureate program gathers momentum

Poet Laureate
Surrey's Poet Laureate program has a catchy image but there's no human being doing this work.

Writer Fauzia Rafique isn’t the only Surrey resident expressing concerns about the deferral of a literary initiative in her city. After Pancouver published her commentary decrying the disappearance of Surrey’s Poet Laureate program, she posted on online petition on change.org.

Her petition has attracted 217 signatures, including 53 over the past week. It requests that “Mayor Brenda Locke and the City of Surrey revive Surrey’s Poet Laureate program without further delay.”

The first Poet Laureate in Surrey, Renée Sarojini Saklikar, served in this role from 2015 to 2018.

“In the position, Saklikar participated in over 40 events each year and mentored over 150 writers through consultations and workshops,” Rafique wrote.

In addition, Saklikar completed two legacy projects. City council never named a successor.

Nevertheless in 2019, Surrey municipal politicians approved $10,000 to fund the Poet Laureate program. According to the Surrey Now-Leader, council “then directed staff to put the remaining two years into the city’s grants budget for the next cycle”.

Rafique’s petition offers gratitude to the city for setting aside money for the program.

Notably, the City of Surrey’s population surpassed 600,000 last year. The nearby City of New Westminster—with a population of 82,939 in 2023—has operated a Poet Laureate program since 1998.

The online petition points out that Surrey’s program “was established in 2015 to advocate for literacy and literary arts”. Moreover, the city aimed “to help raise the status of poetry, language, and the arts in the everyday consciousness of Surrey residents”.

City of Surrey photo
Poetry Rock was unveiled in Bear Creek Garden in 2009. It includes Surrey resident Dr. Rev. Byung Sub Van’s verses in English and Korean. Photo by City of Surrey.

No Laureate but city inscribes poems on boulders

On May 3, 2019, Surrey Libraries listed the program’s supporters. They included three community organizations—Surrey Muse, the Surrey International Writers’ Conference, and Semiahmoo Arts. Other backers included the City of Surrey, Surrey Libraries, Kwantlen Polytechnic University, Arts & Heritage in Surrey, Simon Fraser University, and the Arts Council of Surrey.

“The interviews were held to select our second Poet Laureate in 2019 but no one was appointed,” the online petition states.

Meanwhile, in 2021, the City of Surrey launched a Public Art Poetry Project. It embeds local writers’ poems into city parks, engineering works, and civic facilities.

“Methods of incorporating text into structures can include but are not limited to: being etched onto stone boulders, stamped into concrete walls or pavement, applied to glass with vinyl, or attached to structures using laser cut metal,” the city website states.

Under this program, the city has engraved 13 short poems by nine writers, including “Alone” by Rafique.

An earlier poem inscribed in a boulder was unveiled in Bear Creek Garden in 2009. It showcases Surrey resident Dr. Rev. Byung Sub Van’s “Mere Water Am I” in English and Korean.

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We would like to acknowledge that we are gathered on the traditional and unceded territories of the Coast Salish peoples of the xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), and Səl̓ílwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations. With this acknowledgement, we thank the Indigenous peoples who still live on and care for this land.