Let’s talk about this idea of community.
As artists, it is something we often seek out: to find like-minded people to share in our passions, to have not just a poetry show to attend but also a place to enjoy milkshakes together afterwards.
Community is about inclusiveness, but also exclusiveness. We say we want everyone to feel safe and welcome in our community, but in order to do so, we must restrict certain freedoms and the participation of certain people. We also have to make choices about whom to include in our community when there is a conflict between two or more people: we have to consider who benefits our community more greatly, who has earned the right to an unquestioned place in our community.
I remember you. You designed the CD cover for one of the poetry collective’s first albums. You were sweet, short, blond-haired. You volunteered at the first national poetry festival and welcomed me to the events. Then you got pregnant, and your poet boyfriend left you, and we never again saw you at those events.
I remember you. You organized showcases and women’s events. You brought passion to your work. You married a young, fiery poet for love in a ceremony that I’m sad to say I missed. You also got pregnant, your marriage fell apart, and you no longer felt welcome at those events. I’m sorry.
I remember you. You moved here from Nova Scotia, for love of another poet, and shared your sensual work onstage, and I was glad when we eventually became friends. You said you only felt welcomed by association with him, and when he left you, carelessly, you were suddenly a stranger in a place you hoped to make your home. I hope your memories are better now.
I remember myself, also. I was 19 (in 2005) when I started attending poetry events regularly. I was invited to run my own side project. I was encouraged to start performing. I was made to feel special. I was desperately in need of community, and I felt flattered when a certain poet began to take an interest in me. Even then, I recognized that he was not a good person. I had heard things, but I chose to ignore them, thinking – as long as he is good to me, that is what counts. But he wasn’t good to me. He treated me badly, both in a personal and professional capacity. He raised a hand to me once, but I stepped back in time, so I suppose I can’t officially complain about that.
My experience with him was not a positive one, and yet I do not consider myself a victim, as it was my choice to get involved with him, and I take full responsibility for that. But I am disappointed by how other people responded to what happened to me: at the time, I did report his behaviour to other people in the community, and the response was often – he just needs more love, more understanding, so we can’t give up on him… and think of how much he gives back to the community.
By the end of that very difficult year, I considered ceasing my involvement, until the final meeting when he announced that he was revoking his role as director and would no longer be attending the events. He recognized that people were not attending the events because of him and that there was tension due to his presence. I was relieved and grateful. But only for a short time, as a few months later, he was back again, welcomed back heartily, and no one seemed to remember any past wrongs. People can be so forgiving when it’s convenient to them.
In 2010, the poetry collective held a meeting to determine whether the current director would remain in his post, or if another member would assume his responsibilities. At this point, the poet in question decided to apply for the directorship. And you would not believe the turnout for that meeting: perhaps the most well-attended in collective history. Twenty-or-so poets showed up simply to vote against him. Only three people – still taken in by his goofy charm, and seeming professionalism – voted for him, insisting they could handle him despite his reputation.
I understand why people made excuses for him, and continue to do so even now when he is accused of sexual harassment and taking advantage of minors. He was, after all, one of the people responsible for starting the poetry collective in Ottawa, for hosting a multitude of community events, for tackling issues of mental health in his poetry, for being a mentor to young poets, particularly in launching a youth poetry slam. (On a side note, who in their right mind allowed this person to receive funding for a YOUTH poetry slam?) And just last year, he was included in a ‘hall of fame’ for his contributions to the poetry community. How can you fault someone who seems to do so much good for the community to which they belong?
The question we need to ask, perhaps, is what these people gain from being in a leadership role. In this case, this particular poet gained for himself immunity from taking responsibility for his actions. His seemingly small faults could be excused because of the persona he chose to project within his community: one of social awareness, human compassion, and encouraging the youth of today. Artists and leaders who preach these things can be some of the best people around, or they can be some of the worst. It can be difficult for us to wrap our heads around this hypocrisy, to recognize that people who purport such ideals – “especially people who care about strangers, who care about evil and social injustice” – can be so carelessly wretched to those who love them, look up to them, and work alongside them.
This poet is now being banned from poetry events across the country; his features are being canceled; he is being reported to the school board; his name is being held up as an ‘example’. An example of what? Of someone who got away with this type of bad behaviour for ten whole years, possibly more? If I were a young predator – since now it seems fashionable to use this word – I would consider this a success story: indeed, I could get away with the exact same behaviour for over a decade, especially if I’m a little more careful (I can learn from his mistakes!) about not getting caught.
Let me be clear: I am beyond grateful to the people who are now speaking out and making an effort to make amends. I think they are doing absolutely the right thing, and I applaud them. But I think we also need to consider how this might have been prevented, or dealt with earlier. And how we can better handle the next generation of so-called predators, disguised as mentors, colleagues, and friends.
All those poets who attended the poetry collective meeting simply to vote against him, you must have done so for a reason. But did you ever speak out against him, or did let your anonymous vote speak for you?
I spoke out at one time, but I should have spoken louder and more frequently. I gave up and I quieted down because, frankly, I wanted my community. I still do. I didn’t want to be yet another young woman pushed out of the community because I couldn’t stand to be in the same room as a man who treated me badly and treated others worse.
Especially in the arts, there is this liberal-minded attitude that artists can get away with all types of bad behaviour because they are artists. As though carelessness and fiery moods and sexual aggressiveness are all part of the artistic temperament, inherently. I assure you, they are not.
There are many other people like him out there. Poets in Vancouver created a blog about it a few years back, sharing their experiences of being harassed, assaulted, and misused, then ignored or shamed by their community when they tried to say something about it. Of course, the names of the abusers were never included because that would constitute ‘defamation of character’ – at least until the culprit is publicly deemed dangerous by an organization (rather than a number of individuals), and then we can say their name all we want.
Funny how, technically and legally, I could have used ‘his’ name throughout this article, and yet my gut instinct told me not to. Perhaps because, really, this isn’t about him. This is about a community that supports and excuses and sometimes even defends people like him. To be clear, I don’t like the guy, and I’m certainly not sorry to see him being held accountable in this way – but I also don’t want to see him reduced to a scapegoat for a community whose problems are far bigger than one bad egg.
As cynical as it may sound, perhaps the first step toward positive change is recognizing that ‘community’ is not always what it may seem. We may feel the temptation to involve ourselves wholeheartedly, embracing the warm feelings associated with having a group to which we belong, and, in doing so, fail to step outside the inner circle to acknowledge the problems inherent therein. At least, that has, I think, been my predominant weakness in my ongoing search for community. Perhaps it is a little foolish, but ‘community’ is still something I idealize and strive for in all aspects of my life, so I do understand where that feeling comes from, and why it is so important.
And let’s also remember and acknowledge those people who once belonged to our community and who, for whatever reason, were made to feel excluded or felt obligated to leave: I’m sorry for what happened; I’m sorry we didn’t do more to help; and I hope you found joy in community elsewhere.
We’ll do better next time.