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UNB Poetry Weekend Celebrates 14th Anniversary

Last weekend, over 100 people—many of them poets, all of them fans of the art—gathered in UNB’s Memorial Hall to celebrate the 14th annual Poetry Weekend.

According to Ross Leckie, University of New Brunswick professor and festival organizer, the first Poetry Weekend was a complete accident; fourteen years ago, Leckie invited touring poet Barry Dempster to travel to the Maritimes.

Dempster would only be able to read on a Saturday and Leckie thought to himself, “We can get an audience for poetry on a Saturday, we’ll take him that day.”

Four local poets quickly threw in their names to read that night. Soon after, emails from poets and enthusiasts around the country began to pour in.

“Poetry is the most intense form of language…it infects people emotionally in ways that other writing doesn’t quite do,” Leckie said.

The following year, as the date approached, people began asking if there was going to be a second Poetry Weekend. “I said ‘no, I don’t know how to do it, [last year’s] happened by accident…I can’t see it happening,’” Leckie said.

But later, he changed his mind. He began responding, “if you can find your way [to the Maritimes], I’ll put you on the list.”

Twelve years have gone by and each year he is astonished by the large number of people willing to come from across Canada, paying their own way, to “read two poems and otherwise just be willing to listen,” he said.  

Poet Elena Johnson traveled eight hours from Vancouver to be present at the event. She read from her poetry collection, Field Notes for the Alpine Tundra, which was written at a remote ecology research station in Yukon.

Johnson became interested in poetry as a child and began to take it more seriously in her twenties. “I can’t really say what sparked it, but I’ve always enjoyed reading and writing poetry and a certain point in life I decided to [dedicate more time to it].”

“This festival is wonderful…I feel there is a very supportive literary community here,” she said.

This is her first time participating in the Poetry Weekend; Johnson took advantage of the trip to also present at The Word Feast, Fredericton’s Literary Festival and at a poetry event in Alma, New Brunswick.

For Benjamin Dugdale, this was his second time participating in the event since graduating from UNB with Honours in English and Creative Writing—and is his sixth Poetry Weekend altogether.

“[Poetry Weekend] has been pretty consistently good since I started coming. The first year I came, I had no idea what was going on; I wasn’t even an English student properly,” Dugdale said.

But then he enrolled in a creative writing class where he was asked to come to the entirety of the event.

“It wiped me out for like a week because it’s pretty intense. Since then, I’ve been picky and gone to a couple readings to manage my energies—but I can’t miss it, I don’t know what I would do. It’s like a treat to come here every year in October,” he said.

Rebecca Salazar, UNB English and Creative Writing PhD student, first became involved with poetry by writing fiction when she was younger. When she realized she had no attention span to keep a plot going, she began to play with language and verses. She thinks poetry came as a byproduct from not being able to speak English when she started school. Spanish is her first language and both her parents immigrated to Canada from Colombia.

“[It went from] being told I spoke English weirdly [to] eventually realizing it was a thing I could just play around and have fun with. Then I just became fascinated with words and what you can do with them; poetry has a lot of room for that,” she said.

When Salazar stepped up to the podium to read two of her poems on Saturday, she admitted having some complicated feelings about being at the Poetry Weekend. She had recently spent a few weeks in a writing residency in Banff, which was the first writing or education environment where she was not the only—or one of the only—people of color in the room.

“I’m not great in math at the moment, but this room is about 96 per cent white, I think,” she said from the podium. “So that’s something to think about. Not in terms of feeling guilty [about] being here, but think of who is not here and [about finding] ways to bring them in—to invite people.”

Salazar is in the process of unlearning how natural it feels to have stories that don’t portray people like her, “indigenous, black or from [an immigrant] background,” as the universal norm.

She is working to claim space in places like the Poetry Weekend “where there is a bunch of fantastic readers but there are none that I share any cultural background with. It can be lonely or isolating, but it can also involve a lot of situations where you get fetishized or tokenized; it’s something I’m trying to work against.”

She said acknowledging and realizing there is so much that you’re missing out on is the first step. For her, speaking up about this is a way to make people want to bring those stories in, prevent culturally different stories and experiences from being overwritten, and going out to actually make sure these people feel invited and able to participate.

The event will return for its fifteenth installment next October.

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