Calgary·Opinion

The men and women who wrote our city

'The citizens of Calgary tend to be unaware of our rich literary past - of the writers who have walked our pathways and lived in our neighbourhoods.' On the day he hands over the baton as Calgary's poet laureate, Derek Beaulieu writes of our city's literary landscape.

'Our writers have crafted our imaginations'

Derek Beaulieu, Calgary's former poet laureate, says the city's writers have crafted our imaginations. (Derek Beaulieu)

This article was originally posted on April 25, 2016.

As Calgary's poet laureate, I tried to serve as an artistic ambassador for the city — presenting at events and producing literary work that reflects our city and its citizens both locally and internationally.

In my position, I had one task in mind: to honour and recognize the city's rich literary history: our journalists, our novelists, our poets and playwrights.

The role of the poet laureate is to be reflective of, and responsive to, community. To dialogue, teach, learn and listen — to provoke, initiate, inspire ... and to remember.

Our writers

Calgary is a city populated with award-winning novelists and poets with international reputations — writing from Calgary has changed the face of Canadian literature.

Calgary is — or has been — home to such literary luminaries as Richard Harrison, Christian Bök, Jordan Scott, Natalie Simpson, Angie Abdou, Aritha van Herk, Dave Duncan and Claire Harris.

The citizens of Calgary tend to be unaware of our rich literary past — of the writers who have walked our pathways and lived in our neighbourhoods. With their passing, they fall out of our collective imaginations and back on to our shelves. Their books become silent footnotes to the communities that they helped build, reflect, document and enrich.

A city's literature makes tangible our citizens' thoughts and concerns, our triumphs and our shame, our small personal reflections and our larger civic discourses. I learn of Calgary and its growth though its literature, though its authors and poets.

Nelli McClung's Beltline

Nellie McClung helped women win the right to vote in Alberta. She also produced nine volumes of fiction and eight volumes of non-fiction. (National Archives of Canada/C.Jessop)

From 1923 to the mid-1930s, Nellie McClung lived in Calgary's Beltline.

McClung is renowned for being a member of the CBC's first Board of Governors, a delegate to the League of Nations, a renowned public lecturer, women's rights advocate and a member of the "Famous Five" as advocate for women's suffrage in the 1928–29 "Persons Case."

She is also the little-remembered author of nine best-selling volumes of fiction and eight volumes of non-fiction that reflected life in Canada's prairies and the small communities from which so many of our citizens were raised.

McClung's legacy is not without controversy, however, as she was also a supported for Eugenics and forced sterilization. McClung's legacy is a complicated one, just as any city's history is fraught with tragedy.

As McClung once said, "Why are pencils equipped with erasers if not to correct mistakes?"

Roy Kiyooka's Victoria Park

After the bombing of Pearl Harbour, Canada enacted the shameful policy of uprooting and displacing Canadians of Japanese descent. Roy Kiyooka and his family were among those made unwelcome on Calgary's streets.

Moving from Calgary to Opal, Roy Kiyooka was forced to discontinue his education and leave his family's clapboard house in Victoria Park.

As Kiyooka would later write, in his Governor-General's Award nominated Pear Tree Pomes: "i loved the whole smell of the morning world from the back / porch of 1008 third street east when I was a foothills' child / i thought, thinking of all the spells i had before i could spell."

Kiyooka returned to Calgary from 1946–49 as a student at what is now the Alberta College of Art + Design. He would later be named to the Order of Canada for his artistic practice and for a lifetime of teaching.

McClung and Kiyooka are only two examples of generations of authors who have helped shape Calgary into a city of writers and readers.

Bowering & Wah, Watson & Kroetsch

George Bowering is a former Canadian Parliamentary Poet Laureate who taught at the U of C. (CBC)

Canadian Parliamentary Poets Laureate George Bowering and Fred Wah both taught at the University of Calgary and inspired dozens of published writers to explore how poetry helps us articulate community and place.

Sheila Watson wrote what is widely considered the first post-modern novel in Canadian history, the breathtaking The Double Hook, while living in Crescent Heights. 

Robert Kroetsch lived in Calgary for only a few years, but as the author of 9 novels, 13 collections of poetry and 17 other collections, his writing represented the myths and stories of Albertan culture that continue to enthuse.

Among his many titles, Kroetsch's influential book of poetry Seed Catalogue (1977) was inspired by his finding an old seed catalogue at the Glenbow Museum.

It is all too easy to forget our authors and how they have articulated our past.

Our imagination

The city of Calgary has not celebrated our artistic history on our streets — unlike many other cities we do not have monuments, plaques, street-signs, parks or public spaces named after our authors — but they are there.

Our writers have crafted our imaginations, they have testified to the importance of community and the vitality of the arts.

They have written our city.


Calgary at a Crossroads is CBC Calgary's special focus on life in our city during the downturn. A look at Calgary's culture, identity and what it means to be Calgarian. Read more stories from the series at Calgary at a Crossroads.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Derek Beaulieu is the author or editor of 16 books, the most recent of which is 'The Unbearable Contact with Poets.' He was Calgary's 2014-2016 Poet Laureate.

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