If you’ve been to an arts-related event in your town you more than likely know the person I’m about to describe. They are the person at the event scurrying around with a clipboard and three pens, something under their arms. They are also the person who knows everyone in the room – possibly even you – and has been in similar positions of generosity and light-hearted chaos for the better part of ten to forty years.
In April 2023, during World Poetry Month, two Canadian poets were celebrated and honoured as quietly as possible on either side of the country in recognition of their combined sixty years plus of volunteering in their respective poetry communities. The Colleen Thibaudeau Award is given annually by the League of Canadian Poets for Outstanding Contribution to Poetry. This year’s winners were Flavia Cosma and Cornelia Hoogland.
For some, trying to understand the ins and outs of Canadian poetry can be likened to Ally Sheedy’s character in the 1985 film The Breakfast Club when she dumps the content of her large handbag onto the couch in the library for all to see. In this purging of similitude – some things – a chapstick, a plastic spoon, and three pennies get overlooked.
It wouldn’t be cruel or unusual to suggest then, that poetry month is about throwing as much poetry on the walls of the internet as quickly as possible and getting a kink in your neck from all the mandatory glancing. But think about this now: almost every single thing that happened during World Poetry Month (that relates to poetry) was put together by volunteers. A great percentage of the readings, hosting, book reviews, podcasts, giveaways, in-store events, virtual events and workshops. Volunteers ran them all.
“I grew up in a country ruined after the Second World War, and volunteering was an essential part of everyone’s life, literary or otherwise,” says Flavia Cosma. “I am always searching for ways of surpassing barriers, bringing people together and understanding, in the end, our common goals and our life’s philosophies despite our cultural differences. The author of Latin Quarter says “There is no greater satisfaction than building something that can benefit others.”
The Romanian-born Canadian poet, author and translator among many other creative titles, says that humanity has survived and thrived on this principle. “It is in our genetic code. Poetry is in my opinion the greatest gift Divinity bestowed on us,” Cosma remarks, adding that the act of serving poetry leads each poet to confront this dilemma: serving oneself or serving others?
“Thirty years of service to Canada’s poetry community educated me,” Hoogland says, suggesting that the poets who use their words to create links of empathy and understanding through their work are part of a ceaseless momentum that poetry creates. The author of Trailer Park Elegy, says that volunteering kept her hungry for the time when her own work would be heard and discussed; the excitement of having a connection to an audience of like-minded artists. Hoogland has served on national and international literary boards, and was the founder and artistic director of Poetry London now Antler Rive Poetry and, most recently, of Poetry* Hornby Island, on the BC Gulf Island she calls home. Trailer Park Elegy, published in 2017, is her third book-length poem. It tackles a broad range of subjects such as the environment, displacement and the human spirit, as well as acting as catharsis and eulogy for the poet’s own brother’s sudden death.
Sharing important emotional findings is key to any art practice. Feeling safe and trusting in a community helps connect poets together for feedback, collaboration and embracing empathy.
For Hoogland, the existence of reading series acrossCanada created a wide web of intimate and enduring literary exchange. “I’ve chosen to work with people whose common goal is poetry. Poetry is its own engine. There’s an email in today’s inbox from a young writer detailing a project she’d like to undertake; can I help, she asks. Yes I can. I’ve been saying yes for thirty years.”
When it comes to picking a favourite memory from years of community service, Cosma chooses The Biennial International Writers’ Festival in Val-David, Quebec. The festival is a multicultural, multilingual and intergenerational event that brings together renowned poets from around the world, Canada and the province of Quebec. Started in 2009, Cosma began the project of an International Festival of Writers, Poets and Artists in the heart of the Laurentides region of Quebec, namely in the small village of Val-David. “I was motivated by only two things: the need to meet and share poetic creation with other poets and artists and especially my deep belief that the metaphysical substance of poetry is beyond any language barrier, and as such will allow poets and artists to come together and understand each other’s creation, communicating in a kind of universal language.” Now in its 27th year, the poet looks back in wonder with a feeling of pride and gratitude. “I recognize in this award-winning, world renowned Festival, the undeniable power of poetry.”
So perhaps the next time you’re at a poetry reading you’ll take note of who these magic volunteers are that keep the light on, keep the audience interested and try their very best to make the most out of every poetry minute we share together.
For more information on the League of Canadian Poets, volunteering information and a whole lot of information on Canadian poetry, please visit www.poets.ca.