New Brunswick

Fredericton city councillors question poet laureate's role after abortion poem read

Jenna Lyn Albert read a poem about abortion access at Monday night’s council meeting, which some councillors said was too political. 

While some councillors say poem was too political, others disagree

Some Fredericton city councillors said a poem about abortion read by poet laureate Jenna Lyn Albert was too political while others disagreed.

The role of Fredericton's poet laureate is being questioned after Jenna Lyn Albert read a poem about abortion access at Monday night's council meeting, which some councillors said was too political. 

The issue will go to the governance committee for further discussion.

"I'm terribly concerned that we are now politicizing our poems," said Coun. Dan Keenan, after Albert read the poem.  

"I completely agree with freedom of speech and the right for people to say what they want to say — but that was never the intention of this form that we developed."

The poem, Those Who Need To Hear This Won't Listen by Ottawa-based poet Conyer Clayton, depicts her experience having an abortion. Here it is in part:  

I cried.
A procedural pinch
deep in my belly.                         Little pinch now.
Nondescript ceiling.                      Big pinch now.
A nurse held my hand. 
                                                
                                                  Are you ready?
                                                  Are you sure? 

Albert said she felt there was a need to share the poem now.

"With the impending closure of Clinic 554 … I felt it was really important to share a poem about the importance of abortion access." 

Coun. Stephen Chase agreed with Keenan.

"It was never intended to be a political statement. I think Coun. Keenan's comments are absolutely right." 

Reflection of community

Keenan called for a rethink of how the poet laureate operates. But not at all councillors agreed. 

"It's a reflection of our community," said Coun. John MacDermid. 

"We've had commentary, we've had poems about Black Lives Matter and the experience of people of colour within our community, and it's not the experience that anyone around this table has," MacDermid said. "And it's important that we have those conversations. It's not political. It's a better community and it's a reflection of our community."

He added that he would not want to change the kind of conversation the poet laureate brings to council. 

Coun. Kate Rogers said it's the role of the poet laureate to provide cultural commentary.

"The arts gives an opportunity for a person to be provocative and to express ideas and perspectives … and to me, that's what we have had."

Albert said she was shocked by the response to the poem. 

"It is kind of difficult to be a woman sharing a poem about reproductive rights, which are evidently important to me and many people that have uteruses in this city and in this province and to be shut down and told it's too political, which is often the case when you're discussing issues like this — it's really difficult"

But this isn't the first time she's faced pushback on a poem that could be considered controversial. 

In June, Albert proposed the reading of a poem by local poet Thandiwe McCarthy, Enough, about police violence against Black people. Initially she was not allowed to read the poem. Mayor Mike O'Brien later said he regretted the decision, and McCarthy was invited to perform his poem at council.

About the Author

Lauren Bird is a journalist at CBC New Brunswick. You can contact her at lauren.bird@cbc.ca

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