Nova Scotia

Poets laureate use power of words to build a 'new Halifax'

Afua Cooper took over the role last week, and is the city's seventh female poet laureate, joining a group that includes Rebecca Thomas and El Jones.

El Jones and Rebecca Thomas welcome Afua Cooper to her new role as Halifax's 7th poet laureate

El Jones, Afua Cooper and Rebecca Thomas share how they're using the platform to push for social change. (Rob Short/CBC, Craig Paisley/CBC, Samantha Schwientek/CBC)

Halifax's new poet laureate says the role's mission — to be an ambassador for poetry and an advocate for literacy — is beautiful, but it's also a tall order.

Afua Cooper took over the role last week, and is the city's seventh poet laureate, joining the ranks of women that include Rebecca Thomas and El Jones.

The three women spoke with Information Morning's Portia Clark about the power of poetry as an agent for social change.

Afua Cooper

Cooper has published five books of poetry, along with the landmark history book, The Hanging of Angelique: The Untold Story of Slavery in Canada and the Burning of Old Montreal. (Craig Paisley/CBC)

Cooper, an associate professor at Dalhousie University's department of sociology and social anthropology, said her approach will be to bring in voices from Halifax's immigrant communities. 

There are people who've fled civil wars and tragedy, "people crossing the desert, having their families drowned in the Mediterranean, somehow ending up in Halifax," she said.

Their stories can be hard for some people to fathom, but that's where poetry comes in. It allows people to look at the world from a different perspective, said Cooper. 

"The world is in Halifax," she said. "I can use this opportunity of poetry to think of a new Halifax."

For Cooper, poetry isn't just about reading words on a page. 

"Poetry is movement, poetry is politics, it's everything," she said. "It fires the imagination and so that excites me because in firing the imagination then we produce a new world."

Rebecca Thomas

Halifax poet laureate Rebecca Thomas was the sixth person to assume the role. (Rebecca Thomas/Facebook)

Thomas said she had a strong role model in Jones, who held the position before her. But as the first Indigenous poet laureate for Halifax, she also knew she had a unique responsibility.

She was away from the city the first time the idea of removing the controversial Cornwallis statue was voted down by council.

"I immediately kind of felt that that was what I was going to do," she said. "I was going to try to work with the city in kind of creating a municipal form of understanding of what truth and reconciliation is, not just jumping straight to reconciliation but having to sit in that truth."

During her two-year tenure, Halifax marked the 100th anniversary of the Halifax Explosion and celebrated Canada 150. 

Thomas said she wrote a poem for Canada Day called What Good Canadians Do to hold Canadians accountable for who they believe, and say, they are.

"We're so nice and we have health care and we're diverse and look at all this accepting kindness that we have, but as an Indigenous person living in Canada, my lived experience is very different from that," she said. 

El Jones

El Jones says being Halifax's poet laureate meant bringing the power and privilege of that position to all corners of the city. (Robert Short/CBC)

Jones said being Halifax's poet laureate meant bringing the power and privilege of that position to all corners of the city. 

She remembers creating poems for kids who were in care. The poems were simple, but for most of the kids, it was the first time they'd heard their name in a poem. 

"I think that's what's really really beautiful about it, is these communities that don't necessarily feel included in these ways, through the poet laureate get to feel significant, feel recognized and feel part of the city," she said.

She said each poet creates a new way forward knowing they have the support of those who came before. That's why Jones's advice to Cooper is to inhabit the role and change it the way only she can.

"There's no right way to do this. Part of art is about expression and about telling your story," she said. 

With files from CBC's Information Morning