Poet laureate Kris Demeanor reflects on lessons learned

With only a couple of months to go in his two-year tenure as Calgary’s first poet laureate singer-songwriter Kris Demeanor has had ample opportunity to witness Calgary’s arts scene up close and personal and build upon the observations he has made over his life-time of immersion in the arts.

“I have seen an undeniable positive shift an awareness an engagement I didn’t see before” he says noting the “strength” of local theatre companies the visual arts scene and the “originality” with which artists approach their work. “Within the Canadian arts community Calgary is a place where artists now think to work. That would have been a crazy notion 15 years ago.”

While Demeanor says this shift in perception comes in part from support at a governmental and corporate level he gives most of the credit to the artists who “stuck it out” in Calgary to lay the foundation for the scene we have here today. He points to his own busy schedule as poet laureate as evidence of the level of civic engagement with the arts that exists locally.

“This town really makes their jester dance” says Demeanor adding that all he has had time to do since his appointment in May 2012 is “field requests” from the community.

Not that he’s complaining — far from it as these requests gave him a chance to put “poetry into the public sphere” which is one of his chief goals. “We’re getting better at penetrating the population as a whole” says Demeanor who has presented poetry at events as diverse as a downtown planning commission meeting to a meeting about teen suicide prevention and another about water conservation. “People have come up to me after a presentation and said ‘I didn’t like poetry before but that was really good.’”

Demeanor has even been involved with a First Calgary Financial poetry contest for which the company’s employees wrote haikus about the meaning of money. He judged more than 50 submissions an experience that he says highlighted how society is “full of people who are often hungry to express themselves in creative ways.”

But the artistic battle hasn’t been won yet. Demeanor says the struggle to get an audience willing to engage in local content remains as does the one for artists to make decent livings. “A lot still needs to be done in public discourse to recognize that the population can’t just casually keep expecting great events to be happening day in and day out in their city unless they actively support it” he says.

Demeanor would also like to see more arts events in Calgary’s vast suburbia. “The arts-and-culture scene is inner-city centric…. The efforts to connect people with the LRT are all noble but it’ll probably be 50 years before we see a smooth transition into that kind of culture where someone will go home to the suburbs and find it an inviting notion to go back downtown to see a show in the evening.”

Alongside all the positive change Demeanor has also witnessed a troubling trend. “Everywhere I’ve gone with the Calgary Arts Development Authority (CADA) or the city or the media when the arts are brought up the question people keep asking is ‘Does art matter?’ The more I’ve had time to think on it the more absurd that question seems” he says. “There’s never been a time in human history that art hasn’t mattered. The fact it’s even a question now suggests there’s been a strange cultural reversal over the past 50 years…. We’re almost in a strange state of cultural infancy in some ways.

“I feel we’re still kind of uncomfortable in our own skin” Demeanor adds referencing the history and treatment of the First Nations in the province as one example of a stone he believes many Calgarians prefer left unturned.

Turning over that stone and exploring its underside — “that’s why art matters” he says.

Demeanor’s tenure as Calgary’s poet laureate wraps up in March at which point he plans to release a compilation of the approximately 50 poems he has written as a result of his position.