this interview was conducted over email from July to October 2017
Jamaal Jackson Rogers is an award winning poet, arts educator, creative entrepreneur, and performance artist. He has brought his work to audiences locally and internationally and his defining moments are when he makes intimate connections during workshops and performances. He is a father of five and resides in Ottawa, Canada, using the capital and his performance studio, The Origin Arts & Community Center as his launch pad to teach, mentor and advocate for the arts. In March 2017, Ottawa poets Jamaal Jackson Rogers and Andrée Lacelle were announced as the City of Ottawa’s first Poets Laureate since 1990, a position resurrected by VERSe Ottawa, the organization responsible for the city’s annual poetry festival, VERSeFest.
How did you first hear about Ottawa bringing back the Poet Laureate position? Did you know anything about it?
I first heard of the plan to reinstate the poet laureate position around 2014. It was during a time when I was working with a few organizations that promoted poetry. I had no idea that there existed support for the position.
During that year, a fellow poet invited me to a series of discussion meetings regarding the position, but unfortunately I was too busy to attend due to my work schedule. I always asked him to inform me of how the process was moving along; many times he told me very slowly. Eventually, I stopped receiving updates about the position and I assumed the plan phased out and no longer had interest.
By 2017, I was more or less oblivious to the fact that the city of Ottawa had agreed on terms to introduce the English and French Poet Laureate stations in the nation’s capital.
At what point were you approached to consider taking on the position, and how did they present it? What were your first thoughts?
It was March 2017 that I received an email mentioning that Verse Ottawa was successful in reinstating the position. After I responded with a congratulatory email, asking if there had been a candidate selected for the term, their reply was that the selection process had already concluded and that a jury selected me for the position.
My first thought was one of denial, I didn’t realize that Ottawa had been noticing my work so as to offer me the position. It took a reply from Verse Ottawa to reassure me that the decision was unanimous based on my contributions in the poetry community.
How was the role of poet laureate described to you, and what do you think you’ve been able to bring to it? Given you’re one of a pair of laureates, the first Ottawa has had in some three decades, a good amount of the role allows for creating the definition of “Ottawa Poet Laureate” as much as anything else. Have you any models? What do you think the role of poet laureate should even be?
In my understanding, the Poet Laureate role was described to me as a being an ambassador, innovator and curator of poetry and poetry related events in the city of Ottawa. Poet Laureates represent the poetry community within the city and beyond. I choose to use the model of “each one, teach one, reach one,” as I define the position in my two year term. The model is derived from Hiphop and its fundamental approach to preserving the culture, and, as a spoken word poet, arts educator and Hiphop enthusiast, I have found that educating and elevating the art and practice of poetry is necessary legacy work that helps keep the art form alive and accessible.
The poet laureate is an individual who not only commits themselves to the study, writing and publishing of poetry, but also one who champions art by bridging the gaps between the art form, their own literary endeavours and the artistic community around them. The Poet Laureate is someone who demonstrates leadership in highlighting the rich and important history of poetry throughout the times, while also bringing attention to the modern methods of how poetry is enjoyed and celebrated.
I know you’re only a couple of months into the role, but how have you found it so far? What have you seen as the challenges?
I have eased my way into the role in a very natural manner. I feel that because I am constantly creating poetry events and opportunities in the city of Ottawa, the position has not been a difficult one to adapt to; it suits my existing lifestyle. This coming fall, with the support of Verse Ottawa and local literary organizations, I plan to put into motion my first larger scale event as the Poet Laureate which will include Laureates from across Canada.
Have you any other specific plans for the role, whether through composing particular pieces or attempting a different kind of outreach?
I would love to be a point of contact for touring/travelling poets not only in Canada, but North America, who plan to pass through Ottawa to network or present. This would require me to be aware of all the activities, events and poetry related organizations that exist in the nation’s capital. I am already acquainted with many of them, but it seems every week there are new businesses/organizations building initiatives to welcome poetry into their programming. I am also working on building a platform where I am a resource for offering poets workshop, commission, or performance opportunities that will exercise their craft and strengthen their profile on a professional level. Poetry, though accepted as a classical literary art form by the arts community, is still considered a fringe art to the general public; many poets have a difficult time finding or creating work for themselves that is sustainable and financially viable. However, in my time previous to the poet laureate position, I have discovered ways to engage the job market in order to brand myself as a writer, educator and performer of poetry, and now understand key areas in the arts and cultural industry where poetry is in demand. I would like to be able to reach out to those, “starving artists,” and assist them by providing education and coaching on how to leverage their art as an asset and necessity in the cultural sector.
Now that you’ve had some time to look around the city, what kinds of activities are you discovering that you hadn’t previously been aware of? What do you think might still be missing?
I’ve performed in a fair amount of festivals in Ottawa, and I am becoming acquainted with a few smaller festivals that have popped up in the city in the last 5 years. I am especially interested in the growth of the Hintonburg sector, the community where my studio is located, in regards to its cultural significance in Ottawa. I have recently attended Porch fest, Hintonburg Happening, Westfest, Soul City Festival and Ravenswing Festival all within four months of each other, each offering creative events and programming that reflect the diversity and authenticity of the area. These local festivals are essential platforms for creative and social entrepreneurs to network and boost their profiles, while celebrating the dynamic demographic of residents and businesses living and working within Hintonburg and the surrounding areas.
I still feel that Ottawa needs to consolidate its approach in providing long-term arts based programming for children, youth, adults and seniors who live in low income communities. For many of the organizations that I partner with, their services and success are mainly based on funding received from city grants, leaving residents in high priority areas with limited or infrequent access to high quality arts programs. I personally know a roster of Ottawa based artists ready and willing to provide services to low income communities, but they lack the residual funding to make it feasible.
You mention wanting to assist writers financially, which I think is both admirable and absolutely essential. How do you see this being accomplished?
I think local writing contests or community fundraisers are a great way to support writers financially. There are already a few models that exist for writers to benefit from, such as the CBC literary contests, and the Soup Ottawa fundraiser initiative. These existing programs are what I hope to base my future endeavors in supporting writers, but I also believe that I could support writers financially in ways other than monetary payout. By offering my venue space at exceptionally low cost, I support writers and their book launches, tours, workshops and public events they organize. The money saved from booking an expensive venue frees up their budget and makes the process of promoting their work less financially stifling. As the owner of Make Spoken Word Go Viral, a social media based organization that focuses on promoting Canadian spoken word content, I have plans to launch an annual bursary and cinepoem video contest to support spoken word performers and writers across Canada.
Can you talk more about your venue space and the Make Spoken Word Go Viral organization? How long have these been in existence? How do they add to your goals as a writer and community builder?
The Origin Arts & Community Centre is a creative studio that focuses on providing artists in the city an accessible venue to create, network, retreat and build within the arts. Myself and two other Ottawa creatives and entrepreneurs (Jacqui Du Toit and Ali Misana) are the owners/operators of The Origin and have offered it as a performance venue, workshop facility, rehearsal space lounge and community centre to locals as well as national and international touring artists for the past two years. Our mandate is to provide an affordable and accessible creative space to people from all walks and backgrounds of life. Since we opened in 2015, The Origin has become like a “second home” to many emerging artists in the city and we plan to continue to evolving our vision by creating a performance arts school for children in lower income communities. We are currently in our second phase of renovations and aim to officially launch our studio in early 2018!
Make Spoken Word Go Viral is an online based organization that I began in 2011; the year I competed in my first national spoken word festival. At that festival, I was amazed by the wide talent of Canadian performance poets and decided to create a platform for poets to network and build their profiles by sharing their events, achievements and poetry productions. The organization currently is centered around social media engagement, and promotes poets to share their work on the social platform in order to create viral based engagements for their shares.
It is also the organization that I represent when I produce spoken word events or arts education workshops/exchanges. By teaching and sharing spoken word in venues across Ottawa, Canada and internationally, I am bridging the gap between contemporary poetry and classical poetry, and through these experiences I am encouraging my audience to explore the art of spoken word.
My latest initiative with Make Spoken Word Go Viral includes archiving footage for the national spoken word festivals across Canada and promoting the videos on a website and youtube page, increasing opportunities for spoken word poets to enhance their online presence.
Finally, what effect has the position had on your own writing, or your sense of yourself as a working artist?
The position has had a profound effect on my honesty and raw delivery as a writer. I have found that the elements that make my most thought-provoking pieces of late come from an authentic place of introspection. I believe that this transformation has to do with the understanding that the role of the poet laureate is to be a public advocate for poetic expression. Given that my life is extremely busy, my writing needs to reflect the chaos, not only serenity.
I have accepted that I live my life in constant poetic flow, (one of the exclusive tools poets use to represent the art form is poetry in motion), however, there were times when I felt like my writing took a backseat to community building. But through witnessing the response to my community engagement in the last 5 years, I consciously decided to let go of the doubt associated with whether my poetry is subtle enough, visceral enough, or worthy of the title of this new position. My acceptance of my hectic schedule and circumstances have allowed me to be honest, present and raw. This is the most natural method for me to transcribe my thoughts into verse, and it has not only helped me in becoming a more consistent and confident writer,, but has evolved my understanding of all that it entails when one is a laureate of the arts.
Born in Ottawa, Canada’s glorious capital city, rob mclennan currently lives in Ottawa, where he is home full-time with the two wee girls he shares with Christine McNair. The author of more than thirty trade books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction, he won the John Newlove Poetry Award in 2010, the Council for the Arts in Ottawa Mid-Career Award in 2014, and was longlisted for the CBC Poetry Prize in 2012. In March, 2016, he was inducted into the VERSe Ottawa Hall of Honour. His most recent titles include The Uncertainty Principle: stories, (Chaudiere Books, 2014) and the poetry collection A perimeter (New Star Books, 2016). An editor and publisher, he runs above/ground press, Chaudiere Books (with Christine McNair), The Garneau Review (ottawater.com/garneaureview), seventeen seconds: a journal of poetry and poetics (ottawater.com/seventeenseconds), Touch the Donkey (touchthedonkey.blogspot.com) and the Ottawa poetry pdf annual ottawater (ottawater.com). He is “Interviews Editor” at Queen Mob’s Teahouse, a regular contributor to Open Book and both the Drunken Boat and Ploughshares blogs, and an editor/managing editor of many gendered mothers. He spent the 2007-8 academic year in Edmonton as writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta, and regularly posts reviews, essays, interviews and other notices at robmclennan.blogspot.com