Hero? Romantic? As tax-accountant-by-day Brad Cran prepares for his final act as Vancouver’s poet laureate – hosting the Vancouver 125 Poetry Conference – he is thinking back on his 2½ years in the honorary position. He leaves the job as well-versed in politics as poetry, especially after his high-profile boycott of the 2010 Winter Olympics (resulting from factors that include the exclusion of female ski jumpers from competition, deep cuts to arts funding in British Columbia and VANOC’s so-called muzzle clause for Cultural Olympiad artists).
How did you come to be the city’s poet laureate?
Now you’re going to get me in trouble. I was actually living out of the city for the first time in years; we thought we’d try out the suburbs, and it wasn’t fitting with our lifestyle so much. But we found out if I was offered the position of poet laureate, we had to move back to the city of Vancouver, so we put everything we possibly could into the application. And we got to come back to our city after three months of living in the suburbs.
How did you pitch yourself?
Back in the beginning when I was sitting in the boardroom and trying to tell them what I thought I would do to raise the profile of poetry, one of the things I said was: Well, I don’t think you can really go out and just raise the profile of poetry. You have to go out and be active in the world and use poetry. It’s more of a tool.
When you decided to boycott the Vancouver Olympics, did you see that as a risky move? Was it difficult for you to do?
It made me highly uncomfortable. Out of respect for the position I thought it wasn’t really my duty to act knee-jerk on my own. So I contacted some people in the writing community and asked their opinion. And in every instance, people were encouraging me to go ahead and say something. It took me a week to write the essay announcing the boycott, and it took that long because I was constantly in contact with people asking their opinions. I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t hung out to dry; like, “Here’s the leftist poet speaking up again and they’re always raising their fists in the air.”
Are you satisfied with how the boycott played out?
Originally when that whole thing unfolded I thought if the local weekly The Georgia Straight picked it up, that’d be cool. And within 24 hours, I was doing BBC Radio. I know that doesn’t really speak to me as a writer. It just so happened there were hundreds if not thousands of international journalists in the city with nothing to write about in the lead-up to the Olympics. If I had said, “Hey I’m Brad Cran; I’m not going to the Olympics,” the media would be like, “Yeah, go stick it.” But the title allows people to write about you. It becomes a story, it becomes a thing, because they can now quote “the poet laureate.” And that time proved that the position isn’t just fluff ball. It can have some weight.
It certainly gave the position a profile.
Yes, but when I tell people I’m poet laureate now over the phone, they often think I’m [2010 Olympics]opening-ceremonies poet Shane Koyczan. The other thing that happens: If I’m on a business call, and say I’m the poet laureate, they’ll go, “Oh my God that’s so amazing.” And then right after that, they’ll say, “What’s a poet laureate?”
You participated in the Tent City Olympic protest. What was that like?
That was the strangest reading I’ve ever done in my life. There were two plainclothes police officers standing right in front of me while I was reading, and police officers on the roofs of the buildings taking pictures. And it was just the most off-putting feeling. It was really strange. I’d never experienced anything like that in my life in Canada.
How did you dream up the poetry conference that’s about to begin?
It was one of those things that seemed like a really good idea at the time. When it’s, like, two years away, I thought, “Sure, I’ll do that; sure, I’ll invite 100 poets.” And now I’m almost going to have a stroke. But I’ve always been interested in events and trying to bring the poetry community together. And I thought that something like this was really primed to happen. ‘Cause it hasn’t really happened on a large scale like this in quite some time.
People still talk about the 1963 Vancouver poetry conference that Allen Ginsberg attended. Do you think this event might be as landmark?
This has come up a couple times and I try to say I’m not the person to evaluate it; I’m the one who’s organizing it. But I think really to judge the conference, it’s going to take a decade. If some 17-year-old kid comes and all of a sudden decides to dedicate his life to this and in 10, 20 years from now actually becomes an important member of the poetry community, then that would be my test for whether it was successful.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
The Vancouver 125 Poetry Conference runs Wednesday through Saturday. Evelyn Lau takes over as Vancouver’s Poet Laureate on the conference’s final day.