HRM's new poet laureate, El Jones, wants to inspire young poets and engage people to speak for themselves. by Michael Lake
"We don't live in a culture right now that values poetry," says El Jones. "But poetry has changed."
A press conference at City Hall on June 27 announced Jones as HRM's new poet laureate. She is the fifth in a line of some of Halifax's most beloved female writers to be appointed to the position.
In 2009, HRM changed the position's requirements to include spoken word artists; rather than just a history of print publications, poets with a background in performance were also able to apply. "Edmonton got Cadence Weapon"–as its poet laureate– "and then they made the change here too. I think it's also been shaped by everyone who has been in the position," says Jones. "And I think social justice is more important than it has been in previous years."
Since her move to Halifax in 2002, Jones has been active in the spoken word community, performing on award-winning slam teams and working as artistic director for the Word Iz Bond spoken word artist collective, which hosts a poetry slam at The Company House on the third Thursday of each month. Jones has also worked with Centre Line Studio for youth in Uniacke Square and has toured the province with George Elliott Clarke, performing poetry in schools, community centres and libraries.
In addition to her work in the community, Jones teaches Women's Studies at Acadia and is an instructor in the African Canadian Transition Program at Nova Scotia Community College, which is "the only black-focused adult learning program in Canada," she says. "If you're over 19 and have been out of school for at least a year, you can come and get your diploma. The staff is all black and there are all black teachers and black focus in the materials." The program also has no tuition costs.
As a newly-minted laureate, Jones has a lot of plans, most of which centre on the goal of opening doors for others. At June's City Hall event, she invited a group of young artists from Centre Line Studio to share the stage with her.
"They were rapping in City Hall. I'm not sure how often that happens," says Jones. "Particularly for artists of colour where we don't have the same access, we have to make access for each other. We are always seen as marginal and the art we make is less likely to be seen. When you reach a certain point, I think you're doing a disservice if you're not dragging somebody along with you. You want to build those relationships."
Jones plans to keep working on projects that engage the HRM's marginalized communities.
"There are so many people unemployed or living without homes, so let's hear from them. And people in prison are some of the last letter-writers on the planet. There are so many conditions that we have put prisoners under and people don't really have an idea of what gets people incarcerated," she says. "Writing and poetry is a way that people can speak for themselves and I'd love for more people to have access to that writing and to understand what's going on and why we keep putting more and more people behind bars."
As somebody who already does a lot of grassroots work, Jones says her new title will require her to focus on the more public aspects of the role. "I keep thinking in terms of who I can invite with me to do something," she says. "If you can help people, bring them along, especially young poets, that is what's important to me."
El Jones hosts By the Roadside
Thursday, July 11, 8pm
The Company House, 2202 Gottingen Street
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