Reflections of Victoria

By Leslie Campbell, January 2012

Good medicine from local poets and artists.

If there’s a theme to this edition (indeed of Focus in general), one that provides a good direction for the New Year, it is to “go local”—to contemplate and celebrate the bounty we have in our environs, to nurture its health, to protect it fiercely.

Briony Penn’s piece, aptly entitled “Re-enchanting ourselves with the local,” argues that this localizing project is the “the most powerful antidote to globalization, inequity, corporatization, degradation, poverty and despair.” She is speaking about it largely in relation to the natural world, but it applies  to virtually every aspect of out lives, from art through business, food and travel. Rob Wipond’s contribution in this edition also turns our attention to the power of local in its discussion about re-directing some of the dollars that go into RRSPs into local ventures through “community investment funds.”

I was thinking about such matters just before Christmas when I attended the launch of Framing the Garden, a new book edited by Focus regular and just-retired Victoria Poet Laureate Linda Rogers. The 35 poems in the book, all by local writers, are awash with images and reflections about this place. Indeed the subtitle of the book is “Reflections of Victoria.” We hear of Garry oak meadows, gulls, rocks, barnacles and kelp—and of Government Street, Mile Zero, a carver on a sidewalk, and a blue bridge. And of the human spirit, grief, and cherishing “Planet Earth” (thanks to P.K. Page). The poets each chose a visual artwork that inspires or otherwise reflects their words. These too are by local artists and evoke our experience here, both urban and wild, personal and political. 

Here’s an excerpt from writer Robert Hilles’s poem “Distorted Facts”:

 

I’m reminded of Victoria

Where in winter, walls of wet rock

Are broken only by a few stubborn red sedums

Bunched with cladonia lichen.

Fifteen foot rhododendrons

Crowd the sides of buildings

And persist in their green despite inches of snow.

 

Framing the Garden is a gift to the city and its citizens. Says Linda, “The purpose of the book was to celebrate a city of artists, whether they be poets, painters, dancers, musicians or gardeners.” Originally conceived as a protocol gift for the City, a “legacy project” of her term as Poet Laureate for the City of Victoria, it was scuttled by the powers-that-be. “I may have failed bureaucracy,” admits Linda. 

But Linda being Linda carried through. She had, after all, already rounded up the contributors and set her sights on raising funds for Slangspruit, South Africa school children through book sales. She just needed a bit of help from her friends, which included publisher Ekstasis Editions, Island Blue Print, and launch hosts Martin Batchelor Gallery and Victoria Gin.

It was exciting and inspiring to see the scores of artists and literati who showed up at the launch, a veritable who’s who of the arts scene. Missing in action, though, were representatives from the City of Victoria, unless you count Janet Marie Rogers, one of the book’s contributors and the new Poet Laureate. (But that hadn’t been officially announced at that point.)

Linda, who fittingly just won the Broadside Prize (visual artist Eric Fischl chose her poem “The Grasshoppers’ Silence” to incorporate into a work of art), part of the Montreal International Poetry Prize, is thrilled at Janet’s appointment as Poet Laureate. Interviewed about her most recent book, Unearthed, in Focus’ November edition, Janet Rogers, like her predecessor, is an empowered, righteous woman who insists on authenticity, and is willing and able to make things happen.

Have no fear: Our tax dollars will get excellent value in this appointment, as they did with Linda’s. The bargain-basement $2500-per-annum, three-year appointment requires acting as a sort of ambassador for the arts, building community through poetry at events, fundraisers, council meetings, etc.

It would be nice to think that in 2012, Linda and Janet and the many other local artists and arts organizations who contribute so much to local culture and economy would be more supported. But too often they are the first things to be cut, as if art was an unnecessary, expensive frill.

In reality, supporting local arts is one sure way to build the local economy without breaking the bank. “BC government’s own data…clearly demonstrates that for every dollar invested in arts in BC, at least $6 is returned to BC government coffers within one year.” (www.stopbcartscuts.ca)

A study by Dr Brock Smith of the Peter B. Gustavson School of Business at the University of Victoria has conservatively pegged the local economic activity generated by the Greater Victoria arts and culture sector in 2010 at $127 million in net income (GDP) activity, “supporting the equivalent of more than 4600 person years of employment, and almost $18 million in property tax revenue.” (See www.crd.bc.ca/arts for the report done by the CRD, Victoria Foundation and other organizations.) 

Other studies show the benefits of the arts towards creating a healthier population (thereby saving health dollars). And it’s worth noting that the arts sector is one of the greenest industries around.

But despite the empirical evidence of benefits, local arts groups are struggling, largely due to funding cuts. BC has by far the lowest arts funding per capita in the country. 

Wanna be a great city—or province or nation? Build a healthy local arts community.

Leslie Campbell didn’t mean to spend the day before Focus’ press deadline reading poetry, but it sure felt good. As Janet Rogers says: “The essence of poetry is medicine—good things for the spirit and the mind.” Wishing all Focus readers and advertisers more poetry in 2012.