In 2013, the Cherie Smith JCC Jewish Book Festival in partnership with the Isaac Waldman Jewish Public Library announced a new initiative: the Jewish literary laureate project.
“It is a vision of Yosef Wosk,” said book festival director Nicole Nozick in an interview with the Independent. “He came to me at the end of last year, and we talked about it. The City of Vancouver has its poet laureate, Evelyn Lau. It’s a similar concept, only belonging to our Jewish community. The post is a two-year position, selected by our laureate committee, to be a literary ambassador to the community, spread love of the written word, raise the profile of Jewish writers, encourage reading and writing and promote multicultural exchange.”
Wosk described how he came up with the idea. “I remember hearing about England’s poet laureate when I was in high school. I was intrigued by the idea of poetry playing such an important role in society. A few years ago, I was privileged to be able to endow the position of poet laureate for the City of Vancouver. This helped to champion the place of poetry in our midst. Poetry presents us with a surprising rhythm that moves and inspires us in many ways. Poetry also has the power to condense a great deal of information and emotion into a few well-chosen and often surprising words.
“Once we witnessed the success of the Vancouver poet laureate initiative, I thought it was a natural extension to also stimulate poetry in more particular communities, such as the Greek, Chinese, Jewish, Italian, Korean and so on. Although poetry was my initial inspiration for this program, we concluded this was an opportunity to extend the program to include all forms of literature, such as non-fiction and fiction prose, plays, theatre, etc. Working with the Isaac Waldman Jewish Public Library and the Jewish Book Festival, we have taken the first step towards modeling a literary laureate program for one particular community. If this is successful, it can be replicated in other communities.”
Wosk discussed this project in relation to the current state of the publishing industry.
“Poetry partakes of the eternal,” he said. “In some ways, poetry is an antidote to a plethora of electronic media. Whether reading in the privacy of your home, in a café or in a gathering of poets, we are transported to surprising realms of mind and matter, emotion and spirit. Other forms of literature, like a family of diverse relatives, compliment poetry…. Today, more is being published than ever before. It doesn’t matter whether text is handwritten, printed or electronically mediated: they are all related forms of communication. It still serves the same purpose of transmitting information in one of several forms.”
The benefits of this program are manifold. “Certainly the laureates themselves will benefit by being able to share their creativity with the community,” said Wosk. “They will also receive an honorarium in recognition of their work and appreciation for their time. The community, from school students to other published poets, will be stimulated by the encounter with the literary laureate, who … we hope might act as a catalyst for writing in the community.”
Nozick emphasized that, despite the growth of digital media, people are still reading. “We want our laureate program to take reading to the next level, inspire more participation,” she said. “The particular activities are up to the laureate himself. Each laureate will bring his or her own unique strength and interests to the project. He will have a permanent office at the Waldman Library and work in collaboration with the library and the Jewish Book Festival. Our inaugural laureate is Mark Leiren-Young.”
The committee came together last year and brainstormed who would be the best writer for the position, she explained. “We selected Mark because he is a gifted, award-winning writer. He has experience writing across different genres, including playwriting, memoirs, documentaries, humor, and he is also good with people, able to connect with different generations.”
Leiren-Young commented on how important the position of laureate is to him. “For someone who grew up in Vancouver – and the JCC – it’s a completely unexpected and very cool honor. Yosef Wosk has launched several amazing programs, and I hope I can do justice to his vision for this one. The timing was amazing too. My latest book, Free Magic Secrets Revealed, actually starts at the Jewish Community Centre, and many of the key scenes take place in the JCC.”
Leiren-Young’s pilot laureate initiative is the Multi-Generational Media Lab Storytelling Project. It pairs King David High School students with seniors to share and hone their storytelling in a digital format.
“I recently served as the writer-in-residence for Vancouver Community College,” said Leiren-Young. “While I was there, I spent a bit of time with the oldest student on campus. I think he was in his mid-seventies. From the moment I met him – my first week at VCC – I kept asking if he had any stories he wanted to share. He kept telling me he didn’t have anything.
“Naturally, in my last week, he finally handed me a story about growing up in a small town. He had all these rich, detailed memories about his childhood, so after my residency was over, I contacted the community archive for the town Trail, B.C., so they could have access to and share his stories. But I kept thinking that if I’d known he was willing to tell his stories, I could have set him up with a student who could have interviewed him.”
The multi-media project is in the planning stage now. “Over the summer, we’ll be recruiting seniors, and I’ll work with them to focus on specific stories they want to share,” said Leiren-Young. “In September, when the school year begins, the high school students will be introduced to the project and will prepare their interview questions. The final presentation will take place during the Jewish Book Festival week in November.”
Olga Livshin is a Vancouver freelance writer. She can be reached at [email protected].