The Cultural Olympiad (as far as poetry goes)

I’ve been somewhat ambivalent towards the cultural Olympiad thus far, not for any personal reasons beyond not being interested enough to follow along carefully. My wife has an iPod app that allows her to follow various events, both athletic and cultural, so perhaps I will start there.

I watched a portion of the opening ceremonies on Friday (I fell asleep, thankfully, before the Gretzky/truck debacle. I mean, really, what kind of planning was that anyway?). I stepped out of the room for a second, no doubt to feed my RSS feed addiction, when my wife called me back to the TV to watch a poem being presented as one of the events at the Olympic opening. Shane Koyczan had a great spot doing a spoken word piece about Canadian identity called “We Are More” and, I have to say, though I’m not usually into spoken word poetry, I enjoyed the performance. The poem was uncomplicated enough to grasp the ear of many viewers who might not have been receptive to poetry, but appealed enough to the patriotic side of the country to allow the event to go over well.

I am not familiar with Koyczan’s work and this was another reason I wanted to tune in and if I can find some of his other poems easily enough I may look into it. Regardless of how well-known he was before the opening night of the Olympiad, he was much more well-known shortly after:

His performance of an abridged version of his poem We Are More during the Olympic opening ceremonies has suddenly made him a star. He woke up to 600 messages in his inbox. He struck a chord with the likes of The Wall Street Journal, New York Times and Entertainment Weekly. And in the half-hour he spent with a Globe reporter, he was approached 12 times by autograph seekers and well-wishers, including children, teenagers and a police officer.

That’s not bad. It’s not every day a poet, or artist of any kind, really, gets 600 messages in the old inbox. The olympic platform, undoubtedly, has contributed to this poet’s career. Perhaps we will hear more from him in the near future.

Another poet who has received some notice from the olympic spectacle is Brad Cran, Vancouver’s Poet Laureate, who is, ironically enough, not part of the spectacle. If you follow the Olympics you may be aware that a while back, VANOC sent a directive to Vancouver Public Library staff telling them to cover the names of organisations that are not sponsoring the Olympics, to do the same with rented sound equipment, and, “If you have a speaker/guest who happens to work for Telus, ensure he/she is not wearing their Telus jacket, as Bell is the official sponsor.” This enraged a number of people in information sciences and has been discussed and debated since the memo was first sent out in January. This sort of activity does, in effect, go against the ideals that public libraries uphold, namely that no information be censored in any way and that the public has full access to information that remains untampered-with. Upon first hearing about it, I had a lengthy and frustrating discussion with my wife (a librarian) about the possibilities of censorship that such an action on VANOC’s part can produce were such attempts not kept in checked.

Brad Cran, for these and other reasons, has opted out of participating in the Olympic celebrations as Vancouver’s literary ambassador. It is refreshing to see an artist take a stand based on principle and basic human values, even when doing so involves passing up an opportunity to promote his work. I’ve been debating what effect such an action could actually have, since poets at the best of times are not front and centre in the minds of the country’s people (neither apparently are Canadian authors in general). Among the ranks of writers there is much discussion of this issue, but I’ve not heard much of it mentioned outside of this context, though I believe this is changing. I think Cran’s stand is getting the attention it has due to the fact that he is not just a Vancouver poet, but the city’s poet laureate and an official government employed artist. Some may wonder why a person employed by the city has issues with the way VANOC has been organizing the events surrounding the 2010 Olympiad. The other fact that requires consideration is that there is now a world stage for this controversy where a larger population has to come along for the ride and in doing so have been made aware of the issues. Recently a former official of the Salt Lake Winter Games has slammed current Olympic organizers for these attempts at what amounts to censorship. Cran’s choice to not take part publically may do some good in light of such concerns.

I think it’s essential that he has made a choice and acted on it and I support him in his decision. It’s easy to talk tough at these times, but few of us have the strength of character to hold true to what our reason discerns.

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