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A Poetry Place: How The Town of Cobourg Became Poetry Central

James Pickersgill (photo credit: Ted Amsden)

By James Pickersgill

When Eric Winter stepped down as Cobourg's Poet Laureate in August 2009 after 12 years of service, he was asked how he had managed to fill his post for so long. The poet replied with typical self-effacing humour and a twinkle in his eye, ?I think they forgot the town even had a Laureate and so I was able to keep going as long as I flew under the radar.? Poets and poetry lovers, however, know that Eric Winter worked tirelessly for poetry during his dozen years as Poet Laureate, and his legacy continues to this day. The town of Cobourg has become knowns as "A Poetry Place."

In 1997, Cobourg?s Town Council was preparing for a year-long Heritage Celebration to mark the 200th anniversary of the first settlements that now make up the municipality. Doug Sifton, a Councillor, suggested in a personal conversation with then-Mayor Joan Chalovich that the town should appoint a Poet Laureate for these 1998 celebrations. The Mayor readily agreed, asking, ?But who should it be?? Sifton immediately supplied a name.

At the next meeting of Council, the Heritage Cobourg Committee, a citizen-volunteer group in charge of planning the events, presented a recommendation that was formally adopted by Town Council. On July 21, 1997, Eric Winter was appointed as Cobourg's inaugural Poet Laureate. When he voluntarily stepped down in 2009, Cobourg enjoyed Jill Battson as its next Laureate. Ted Amsden is currently serving as the third person in this role.

There were poetry happenings in this small Ontario town before the date of Winter?s appointment 16 years ago. However, it is true to say that most aspects of the current lively poetry scene in Cobourg have evolved since that initial moment when he became Laureate.

Eric Winter took many initiatives in the position. One of the earliest was establishing contact with Cobourg?s schools. He was pleased about the success in the school setting. However, he observed that other students in the classroom were the only audience to enjoy the work of these young writers, and he felt that their writing merited exposure to the broader community. Thus, he initiated an annual event for the public audience called "The Young Poets," which involves short public poetry readings from 10 to 12 students from local high schools. This event continues to this day. In addition, when the curriculum calls for a poetry module each year, adult poets visit Writers? Craft classes to workshop with students. The town also has Poets In The Schools as an outreach program during National Poetry Month.

In 2000, a young woman had a conversation with the Chief Librarian in Cobourg saying, ?I just moved to town. I write song lyrics and poetry. I was wondering if there is a poets? group that meets here.? The response was, ?No, but there should be.? The librarian phoned Mr. Winter right away to suggest he start regular gatherings for local poets to share poetry. He grabbed the idea and ran with it. Thus, the Cobourg Poetry Workshop (CPW) was formed. This is a dues-paying group that currently has more than 25 poet-members.

In a manner that paralleled the progression with those students, there came a point about two years into the CPW?s life when Winter pointed out that the audience hearing the member-poets? work was only ever other group members, and their writing deserved wider exposure. A regular public event began and the CPW has run its monthly 3rd Thursday Reading Series continuously for more than a decade. The format sees three poets read each month, two CPW members and a guest poet.

This reading series has established a reputation that is very attractive to poets and to their publishers. A loyal audience developed in size and poetry knowledge to rival turn-outs in cities such as Toronto. A huge thrill for visiting writers is that those who attend are book-buyers. This has proved true even when terrible winter weather prevents all but the truly dedicated poetry fans from attending. Even on the coldest nights, readers can still expect around 20 audience members. The last time this happened, 13 copies of the guest poet?s book were sold, and more might have been purchased had he not run out.

This solid foundation resulted in a happy type of pressure. Many more poets wanted to be scheduled to perform in Cobourg than the existing series could accommodate. To allow for more representatives of the current poetry landscape in Canada, an annual weekend-long poetry festival was created in April 2009. The festival was repeated to mark National Poetry Month in 2010 and 2011. (Although this significant event was embraced by poets, publishers and the audience alike, it was not held in 2012.) For those first three years, it was known as Poetry?z Own Weekend Festival (POW) and had been planned, organized and implemented largely as a one-person project. POW quickly grew to be impossible to handle that way, and it is being revived under the name Cobourg Festival of Poetry as an official group project of the CPW for April 2013 and the years after.

The POW Festival took its name from another project that was initiated earlier in 2009. The weekly publication p o e t r y?z o w n was created "to circulate some poems in a way that will honour poetry and respect poets.? It has been lovingly described as "a mini micro-publishing effort." Each of the 185 issues of this humble periodical have been printed on both sides of a single sheet of paper and folded in the middle to make four pages of poetry, ?just poetry. Then we sell it for 25 cents a copy; up to 100 copies of each issue are sold. As many as seven or eight poems can appear in an issue, but sometimes a whole issue has been turned over to one long poem.?

And there's more. Again marking National Poetry Month, in 2011 we launched The Doug Stewart Reading Series. This is a second monthly poetry event by the CPW with the same three-writer format. Doug Stewart died in August 2012. He was a poet, a farmer, an environmentist, a librarian and an active participant in Canada?s poetry community since the 1960s. He was also one of the original founders of the Cobourg Poetry Workshop.

Since Eric Winter took his post as Poet Laureate so many years ago, Cobourg's poetry culture has grown to be a point of pride for its residents and poetry enthusiasts. On February 4, 2013, the inaugural Poet Laurate celebrated his 90th birthday. Largely thanks to him, poetry flowers in the Town of Cobourg as more than just a blip on the radar. This partial roll-call of the gifted poets who have graced Cobourg-area events since Eric Winter initiated these threads of activity is a testament to his incredible contribution to the town.

Lorna Crozier, Karen Houle, Ian Burgham, Kate Marshall-Flaherty, Edward Carson, Donna Langevin, Paul Vermeersch, Robyn Sarah, Barry Dempster, Susan Helwig, David Clink, Linda Besner, Stuart Ross, Robin Richardson, Gary Barwin, Susan McMaster, Carmine Starnino, Steve McOrmond, Leigh Kotsilidis, David Hickey, Kathryn Mockler, Jeff Latosik, Karen Shenfeld, JonArno Lawson, Catherine Graham, John Steffler, Pier Giorgio Di Cicco, Ronna Bloom, Phil Hall, Heather Cadsby, Eric Folsom, Elizabeth Zetlin, rob mclennan, Mary Ann Mulhern, Rocco de Giacomo, Karen Solie, Marcus McCann, Sue MacLeod, Amanda Jernigan, Joshua Trotter, Clara Blackwood, Daniel Tysdal, Sandra Ridley, Chris Pannell, Dani Couture, Chris Banks, Carolyn Smart, Gabe Foreman, Molly Peacock, David Day, Catherine Owen, Souvankham Thammavongsa, Joe Denham, Camille Martin, Carleton Wilson, Cornelia Hoogland, David Groulx, Jacob McArthur Mooney, Johanna Skibsrud, Zach Wells, Victoria Stanton, Mike Barnes, Bren Simmers, Allan Briesmaster, Ken Sherman, Oana Avasilichioaei, Richard Greene and Paul Durcan.

James Pickersgill is a poet who lives in Cobourg, the scenic Ontario town that some label ?a poetry place.? Beginning at the end of 2007, he acted as the individual Convenor for the Cobourg Poetry Workshop over a period of four-and-a-half years, scheduling poets for the CPW?s ten-year-old 3rd Thursday Reading Series, and for its newer Doug Stewart Reading Series. These tasks are now handled by a CPW Committee. The POW! Festival, the town?s annual poetry weekend, was created by James and organized by him for its first three years; now it, too, is planned and organized by a CPW Committee. He is a member of both committees. James is the editor of the four-page weekly publication p o e t r y?z o w n. Expanding his impressario footprint, James also ran the p o e t r y?z o w n live in the Port Hope reading series and instituted the p o e t r y c o r n e r in The Human Bean, a coffee house in Cobourg.


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