Northern poetry steps beyond Robert Service

Gamblers once whooped it up in the Malamute saloon. And there were cremations on the marge of Lake Laberge. But all that’s in the past.

Gamblers once whooped it up in the Malamute saloon. And there were cremations on the marge of Lake Laberge.

But all that’s in the past.

Today, Robert Service’s legacy is being updated by a new generation of poets who have been redefining wilderness, nature and what it means to live in the North.

And a bunch of them are massing in Whitehorse next week.

The Whitehorse Poetry Collective is hosting the first of what it hopes will be biannual poetry festivals.

From June 22 to 24, poets from across the North and the West will lurk in the corners of Whitehorse coffee houses and bookstores — and possibly bars — when not out seeking their muse in the scenery and the people of this town.

Not the most popular of art forms, spoken word and written poetry has its disciples. And now they are trying to drum up converts from among people who might have abandoned the art years ago in favour of Ken Follett, Vanity Fare and the Farmer’s Almanac.

 “I think some people might have had early experiences with poetry where they had to memorize it, or where they weren’t reading poetry that they felt they could relate to,” says Yukon poet and festival co-organizer Clea Roberts.

By focusing on the North, northern wilderness and northern isolation Roberts and the Whitehorse Poetry Collective have tapped themes that will also appeal to non-poets.

“It’s something that a lot of people can relate to because we all have thoughts and feelings about the landscape and wildlife and what it’s like to live in a northern town,” she says.

As for the ideas about the territory’s isolation (both real and self-inflicted), well, that’s something to which the house- and desk-bound writer can attest.

And then there’s the deeper isolation that comes from actually being “a poet,” something prize-winning Canadian poet Sharon Thesen faces each time she is asked, “What do you do?”

“I change the subject,” says Thesen.

“It’s a difficult thing to say you are, because people don’t know how to respond to it,” she adds.

Thesen, who has been nominated for the Governer General’s award for poetry several times, is featured in the festival.

She will hold a workshop on what it means to write “nature” poetry.

“Does nature poetry have to be about what we call ‘nature,’ and what is it that we call nature?” she asks. “Is it the natural world outside of us, or our response to it too?”

But, before she could delve into the wild philosophical jungle of it all, the writer was forced to cut the conversation short.

She had to attend to her own response to nature — a nagging cold and flooding in the kitchen.

That’s real life, and that’s poetry.

“I think poetry that I enjoy the most sings a song about the tales of everyday life but relates it to universal experiences,” Roberts says.

Published in several Canadian literary journals, Roberts is an admitted fan of Thesen, and is keen for the Kelowna-based writer to make the trip north of 60.

“She writes so eloquently and her language is so crisp, intimate and uncluttered,” says Roberts.

Roberts recruited some of the most interesting writers mostly from the realm of contemporary Canadian poetry.

The lone American is 83-year-old John Haines of Fairbanks.

Haines began writing poetry while homesteading in Alaska for 25 years, beginning shortly after the Second World War.

He is a recipient of a lifetime achievement award from the American Library of Congress.

The Canadians featured on the list are Barry McKinnon of Prince George, Jan Zwicky of Victoria, Gillian Wigmore also from Prince George, Donna Kane of Dawson Creek, and Whitehorse’s own Erling Friis-Baastad.

Hal Wake, the 17-year veteran of the Vancouver International Writer’s Festival, is also making the trip to moderate two themed panel discussions, one called Changing Concepts of the North and the other called Voices In The Wilderness: The Nature Poet Today.

“I think both those topics are very apropos. With our environmental concerns alone, the whole idea of the North, I think, is changed somewhat and what a poet who writes about natures sets out to do is affected,” Wake said.

In addition to hosting the panels, Wake will deliver a trade talk on how up-and-comers can increase their chances of getting on the shortlist for other writers’ festivals — ones where publishers typically wield a heavy hand by promoting mostly authors with new-to-market works.

Though Wake has included some poets in his programming, the artistic director hasn’t focused too much on poetry overall in his festivals.

But he’d like that to change, especially as poetry is beginning to gain a wider appeal.

“Poetry is one of the undervalued literary forms,” he says.

“I think there should be an all-poets, all-poetry TV channel, 24 hours a day, so that people can connect with the kind of sanity the poets bring us: the deep insight into the world as it is and the world as it should be.”

While the networks sort that one out, Yukoners who can make the jaunt to the festival centre at Yukon College are heartily urged to do so.

The curious-but-reticent are invited especially to hear each of the stars in turn perform short readings at the opening night “poetry bash” at the Westmark downtown.

A Yukon Poetry Night takes place Sunday at 8 p.m. at the MacBride Museum.

Those who equate Yukon poetry only with Robert Service may be surprised by the new directions being taken in the art.

Those suffering from a form logophobia (a fear of words) induced by their Grade 9 poetry-enforcer, may too find a new appreciation for word craft.

It’s possible. Stranger things have been done, here under the midnight sun.

The Whitehorse Poetry Festival takes place from June 22-4. Pre-sales for $15 day and $25 weekend passes end June 18th. Admission at the door is $5 per event thereafter. For information on all the activities, venues and performers go to:

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