Last Monday, December 14th, I attended a virtual protest on Zoom to speak out against the recommendation of the Community Services Committee in Fredericton to removed pre-meeting poetry readings by Poet Laureate Jenna Lyn Albert at Fredericton City Council. This movement was proposed with very little warning and without informing Albert of the change to her position at all. This protest ran from 5:30 pm-7:00 pm and was recorded and sent along to the city council members, as the motion was to be voted on that night at the council meeting at 7:30 pm. The protest was organized by Albert alongside poets Emma Rhodes and Spencer Folkins, who both hold BA's from St. Thomas University, and have poetry published in several literary magazines across Atlantic Canada. Rhodes and Folkins were both in my Poetry workshop course at St. Thomas last year. Their works are brilliant, and they are both very passionate about their craft, so their support of this protest was no surprise to me.
Rhodes and Folkins opened the meeting by explaining why we were gathered; to fight against the silencing of Albert’s readings before City Council. The Poet Laureate represents the people in our city. The reason that the change to her position was supposed to be because the pay for the Poet Laureate position was not sufficient to cover these readings before the City Council, and that other poets capable of holding the Poet Laureate position may not wish to read in front of City Council. I feel that there are easy solutions to these supposed problems. Either pay Albert more or make these readings optional. There is no need to cut them altogether. But all of us gathered understood the true reason behind these excuses. Albert has faced controversy this year with the poems she has selected to read before the council. One poem, “Those Who Need to Hear This Won’t Listen” by Conyer Clayton, an Ontario poet, was about the experience of having an abortion.
This poem was read by Albert in wake of Clinic 554 in Fredericton facing closure due to pressure from the Provincial government. The Higgs administration refuses to fund privatized abortion access, and so the Clinic’s medical providers paid for abortions out of pocket. While this is honourable, it doesn’t make for good revenue, and the clinic was forced to close this past fall. Clinic 554 was the only clinic in the province with private abortion access that also provided routine health care to LGBTQ+ individuals and many others. Albert reading this poem to the council spoke to the issues that so many Frederictonians and New Brunswickers were facing at the time and are still dealing with the consequences of now. However, councilor Dan Keenan claimed, “I’m terribly concerned that we are now politicizing our poems.” Myself and many of us gathered to protest this motion found this claim to be laughable. This was especially demonstrated when former Poet Laureate of Halifax, El Jones read a poem she wrote for this protest which poked fun at this claim, as she pointed out the long political history of art and poetry being written and read for Monarchs of the past. Sara Nason, another St. Thomas University graduate, read their poem “An Apolitical Poem for City Council’s Delicacies”, and Rhodes read her poem “John Locke in Practice”, speaking to the mismatch between what we learn in University, and being unable to apply it in real life and practice due to the silencing from our local government.
Several community poets, such as Rhodes, Jennifer Houle, Jean-Phillips Raiche, and Thandiwe McCarthy read pieces speaking to the matter at hand. As well, several Poet Laureates such as tIan LeTourneau; the inaugural Poet Laureate of Fredericton, Shoshanna Wingate, Poet Laureate of Sackville, NB; Kayla Geitzler, Moncton’s inaugural Anglophone poet Laureate; El Jones, former Poet Laureate of Halifax, and Nisha Patel, Poet Laureate of Edmonton, Alberta, all read poems speaking to the matter. Jamie Kitts, former Managing Editor of the ACPA, and Rebecca Salazar, Fredericton poet, both spoke to the matter in different forms. Salazar read a Twitter thread she wrote about the topic, and Kitts among many of the poets in attendance read their letter to the City Council, and also shared their personal feelings on the matter, which was incredibly powerful. Especially important was Conyer Clayton’s attendance, as she read the poem that stirred up this controversy in the first place. Albert offered her closing remarks and thanks for those in attendance, and Folkins encouraged everyone to go watch the city council meeting live stream at 7:30 pm to see how it all unfolded.
I think that this protest, alongside all of us sending letters and emails to city councilors was able to accomplish something at least, as I received an email the next morning informing me that the motion had been tabled until the new year. Although they neither apologized nor ruled to allow Albert to continue this part of her position, we achieved a small victory. We have to remember that art is and has always been political. Art makes a statement, and art is a way of expressing the ways that we are personally impacted by the decisions of those in power, such as Conyer’s poem. I wish to thank Albert, Rhodes, and Folkins for organizing this protest, and all those who spoke or just attended for their role in continuing to fight for the freedom of artistic expression here in Fredericton.
As the ACPA Editors, we wish to keep you up to date with new entries and exciting poetry news.