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Derek Beaulieu: Milestones as Calgary's Poet Laureate

Poet and UCalgary alumnus Derek Beaulieu galvanized Calgary's art community during his tenure as Poet Laureate by championing a series of community outreach initiatives. Photo by Riley Brandt

By Serita Rana
May 10, 2016

In 2014, Derek Beaulieu, BA'96, MA'04, BEd'08, was appointed as Calgary’s poet laureate for a two-year term. Now that his tenure as the city’s premier bard has officially wrapped-up, he reflects on the highlights and achievements of his tenure and discusses the role artists should play in the wider community.

What exactly does a poet laureate do? Look at the history behind the august title and you will find scant in the way of a job description. Traditionally the role is honorary, cementing the title holder’s literary chops in the annals of history. Over the centuries the situation has not changed much. For Calgary’s outgoing poet laureate Derek Beaulieu, his only official obligation was one reading each year to mark national poetry month. The endless possibilities behind defining what the city’s poet could be was one of the main motivations for accepting the role. “What you do with the role beyond that one reading is where all of the fun starts. I wanted to use this position as a lever for cultural change” says Beaulieu.

For the last two years Beaulieu has worked at a dizzying rate. “I’ve done a public event every ten days, I’ve done a media interview, whether it be radio, television or print, every two weeks and have had a meeting with either a community group, business organization or an arts organization every week.” These interactions with various stakeholders have proved vital in getting Beaulieu’s initiatives off the ground.

Amongst these programs, one of the most notable is Artists in the Workplace. “I worked with Calgary Chamber and Calgary Arts Development to develop a new arts funding model. It looks at the issue of the fact that our real estate is really expensive, and that artists of all sorts, whether it be visual artists or dancers, can’t afford studio space. So what I proposed was that we ask businesses in the city who have spaces that they’re not using whether that be office space, a warehouse or a bay in their automotive spot, to make that space available for free or at exceedingly reduced rents to artists on a short or long-term basis.” Whilst over a dozen business owners came forward to offer free spaces to artists, for Beaulieu the true value of Artists in the Workplace is not in the dollars saved, but connecting artists to broader community. “We tried to create a space where artists are embedded within businesses across the city, to try to change the profile of the arts and increase the dialogue between arts and business.”

Widening access to arts for fresh audiences was a common thread in Beaulieu’s tenure as poet laureate. In addition to visiting classrooms and community organizations, he took on Artist in Residence roles at Arts Commons and Lougheed House.  “I’ve always seen writing as part of community development. I think that part of the role of the poet is to develop the conversation around literature.  So, if you’re just sitting in your garret and writing your own work and not talking to other people, I don’t know if you’re a poet. You have to develop a readership and a community because the arts thrive on conversation.”

In addition to outreach initiatives and facilitating discussions on the arts, Beaulieu’s own literary output has augmented Calgary’s art scene with a substantive amount of global attention. Christian Bök, Associate Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Calgary, provides some context on Beaulieu’s standing in the literary world world: “Derek is probably best known for being a visual poet, enjoying tremendous international prestige in that area of poetry. Visual poetry is a kind of poetry not intended to be read but intended to be looked at in the way that you might look at a work of art. He’s also one of the most important members of a coterie of writers called the Conceptualists, the first avant-garde poetry movement of the twenty first century.” Beaulieu has made significant contributions to these literary movements during his tenure, having published two books: Kern, a collection of visual poems and a book of essays entitled The Unbearable Contact with Poets. He also successfully defended his PhD at Roehampton University in London, England.

Whilst his chapter as poet laureate officially concluded on April 27, Beaulieu exhibits few signs of easing his fervent pace. There is a visual novel in the works: a redacted version of of Andy Warhol's a: A Novel with only traffic noise and punctuation marks remaining. Beaulieu also continues his teaching practice at ACAD where he inspires and mentor's Calgary's latest generation of artists. He is clearly excited about what the future holds for the city's arts scene and will doubtless play a central role in ensuring that the arts continue to flourish: “In many ways it feels like I’m just getting going.”