As Kingston celebrates the new year, the City and its residents are also celebrating a new Poet Laureate, whose first public event coincided with the Mayor’s New Year’s Levee.
On Friday, Nov. 30, 2018, the City of Kingston announced the appointment of local author and poet, Jason Heroux, as the city’s third Poet Laureate. The role of Poet Laureate is an honourary position that “celebrates the contribution of poetry and literary arts to life in Kingston,” according to the City. The position is intended to be the spokesperson for literary arts, as well as increasing awareness of Kingston’s writing community and fostering creative writing throughout the Kingston area.
Heroux has made Kingston his home since 1990, when he moved to the city to attend Queen’s University. An accomplished poet and author, Heroux has published four books of poetry: Memoirs of an Alias (2004); Emergency Hallelujah (2008); Natural Capital (2012), and Hard Work Cheering Up Sad Machines (2016). Heroux has also written three novels: Good Evening, Central Laundromat (2010); We Wish You a Happy Killday (2014) and Amusement Park of Constant Sorrow (2018). His work has been featured in several anthologies, magazines, and journals, both domestically and internationally, as well as having been translated into multiple languages, demonstrating the breadth and reach of his work on a global scale.
His first public event as Poet Laureate took place on Tuesday, Jan. 1, 2019 at the Mayor’s Levee, at which Heroux read a newly written poem created specifically for the event, entitled I Woke Up in My City. The poem has been provided by the City of Kingston for this article. This event marks the beginning of Heroux’s four-year term.
To discuss his new role, as well as his priorities for the coming years, Heroux was gracious to participate in a one-on-one interview.
Q: What does this honour mean to you as a professional writer, and on a personal level?
A: On a professional level, it’s such an honour to be recognized like this by my peers and the community, and it’s a real opportunity to have a chance to engage with so many different partners like the City, and Arts Councils, the community, the library, schools, even local businesses, trying to find a way that we can all work together to promote poetry in Kingston.
On a personal level, it really means a lot. I came to Kingston in 1990, I spent day after day scribbling in notebooks trying to become a writer, so it’s just a wonderful feeling to be a Poet Laureate in the same city where I came to life as a writer.
Q: What is your mandate for your 4-year term?
A: At this point, I’m really just focused on the first year, and depending on what happens in that first year will determine what happens next. I’m treating it the same way as writing a poem: you kind of start off, you see what inspires you, and that’s going to determine how it ends. We don’t have it all mapped out yet, we’re going to learn as we grow.
Some of the things for the first year will be a lot of the basic stuff: the one-on-one mentorship meetings with the local writers, workshops, readings. We’re trying to do poetry in storefront windows, trying to bring poetry to places that people don’t normally recognize it.
One of the plans for achieving our goals is to try to assemble a community-based volunteer group, almost like a poetry task force, to help get insight and help consult with the community.
We’re building on a lot of stuff that has already existed. [Outgoing Poet Laureate] Helen Humphreys had this great digital poetry blackboard on the library’s website. We’re going to maintain that and kind of make the focus a lot more about Kingston, in terms of Kingston writers, poems about Kingston. And those are the poems we’re going to branch forward and position them in storefronts downtown.
People who love poetry, they know how to find it, they know how to get it. We’re trying to reach the people that haven’t been exposed properly to poetry. They heard it in high school, it just wasn’t taught to them the right way, so they just disregarded it. Show them what poetry can do to them, change their viewpoint, and help benefit their lives.
Q: You are an accomplished writer in other mediums, how does your focus and preparation differ between writing poetry versus writing a novel?
A: Generally, for a poem, it begins with some kind of inner vacancy or clearing. And that clearing can be created by anything: it could be something I saw or read. With fiction, it’s almost the exact opposite: there’s a sense of overflow, like a spill of narrative that wants to be contained. The novel becomes the container for that overflow; the poem becomes more of an opening for something to enter in, the clearing part of it.
Q: You came to Kingston in 1990. How has Kingston influenced your work? Do any of your works have elements that would be recognizable as Kingston?
A: Kingston has influenced my work immensely. I came to life as a writer here, so on some level almost all of the details, all the clouds and trees and stones that are in my poems are clouds and trees and stones you can find in Kingston. They are really based on what I’ve experienced here.
My first novel was titled Good Evening, Central Laundromat, which was an actual laundromat on Division Street. Another example is a poem entitled Hotel Dieu Hospital Café. There really is no end to Kingston’s influence on me. I do like to look for things that are the non-traditional landmarks for Kingston. It’s what inspires me and where my attention is drawn.
Q: Kingston has a large student population, some of whom may be pursuing a career as a writer. Do you have any words of wisdom to support their journey?
A: I would tell them that the journey is long, full of ups and downs. And we learn from both the highs and the lows. It’s not a race, there’s no real finish line. And you’re not alone: find a mentor, be a mentor. We’re all here to help each other go as far as we can.
When you’re starting out, you look for these big projects, and maybe that gets you motivated and inspired. But to keep writing, to make it a lifelong practice, it just becomes a daily activity. Find a way of balancing it into your everyday life.
Heroux continues to focus on the work of arts promotion. Most recently, Heroux has been involved in a documentary about the Kingston poetry scene, entited Who is Bruce Kauffman? The film, billed as “an anthology film celebrating the vibrant poetry scene in Kingston, Ontario…” is slated to hold its world premiere as part of the Kingston Canadian Film Festival on Friday, Mar. 1 at the Isabel Bader Centre for the Performing Arts.
I Woke Up In My City
I woke up in my city and heard a winter sparrow singing
in a tree’s courtroom like a passionate lawyer proclaiming
today’s innocence, today’s alibi. We live, your Honour,
in forgetful times. The old horrors continue to horrify.
Our usual injuries will injure us again, the pin repeats
itself to a popped balloon, the ashes cherish their fire.
Yet evidence suggests a bouquet of flowers can’t tell
if the occasion is for sorrow or congratulations,
and the world’s hidden radiance slips though us
like a hand searching for its sleeve. Happiness,
can you account for your whereabouts?
Joy, explain the event in your own words.
The morning light is sworn in as a witness.
The sparrow sings on and on without end.
The defense never rests.
Jason Heroux, Poet Laureate, City of Kingston
Tuesday, Jan. 1, 2019
Don Ames is business professional living in Kingston. Follow him at @donaldames to discuss arts, culture, and craft beer.