Michel Pleau, Canada’s Parliamentary Poet Laureate

Photo: Photo courtesy of Michel Pleau

Quebec's Michel Pleau was recently named as Canada's Parliamentary Poet Laureate.

For Michel Pleau, it all began with the whisper of the wind in the trees. The Quebec City poet says a childhood trip to a cabin in the Laurentians with his family awakened his eight-year-old self to the wonders of nature.

"I was a little guy from Basse-Ville; I played in a cement courtyard and saw the sky in squares," recalls the good-humoured writer. "Suddenly, that summer and the next one, I discovered the river and the wind in the trees. I remember clearly getting out of the car and hearing that sound of the wind in the trees. My great pleasure in life was hiding in the woods, turning over the stones and watching the insects. That was the beginning."

Pleau's father died when he was 12. "I started writing him notes after his death. It was my way to talk to him. My writing is still addressed to an absent person, although readers don't see that I'm writing for him. I want to tell him about my life, even though I don't believe he's actually out there."

Pleau's ritual of writing blossomed into a career; he became a published poet and a creative writing teacher who now gives poetry workshops in schools. His collection La Lenteur du monde (Eternity Taking its Time) won the Governor General's Award for French-language poetry in 2008. On January 7, 2014, he was appointed Canada's Parliamentary Poet Laureate. For the next two years, Pleau will travel the country giving readings, poetry workshops and talks, and receive a small stipend.

Pleau is a believer in the arts. "I'm grateful for the existence of the program. There should be a Parliamentary Musician and a Parliamentary Painter. The public and the winners would be richer for it."

Poetry stereotypes don't stick to Michel Pleau. He has nothing of the ivory-tower intellectual or the brooding, tortured lyricist. Witty, engaging, relaxed, he is clearly comfortable in his own skin. He has said he wants to "change the image" of poetry.

"Poetry should be part of normal human life; we need to stop seeing it as this elitist thing," says Pleau. "Our earliest ancestors dancing around a fire and speaking to the gods were already poets. The written word is what sets us apart from other animals. Poetry is a way of setting free the written word."

"What I most enjoy is giving poetry workshops to children," he says. "Kids' language is the closest to poetry, their language is the language of images, and the emotional aspect of childhood is not lost yet. My ambition is to be a bit like the teacher in the movie Dead Poets Society, and get kids to love poetry and beauty. Poets see things with the eyes of children."

Pleau is hoping to take his message all across Canada. "Canada is a huge country and very few people have really seen it. I want to see it, to see the landscapes and the people and meet other poets. I've been to New Brunswick and Ontario so far, and that's it. I want to meet people in Francophone communities outside Quebec, and I'd like to go to literary festivals in English Canada."

The position of Parliamentary Poet Laureate alternates between an English-language and a French-language poet, and holders of the position don't have to be bilingual. Although some of Pleau's work has been made available in English, he doesn't consider himself bilingual. Yet.
"I wasn't expecting people in English Canada to take an interest in my work," he says with a bemused smile. "Maybe I'll take an intensive English class."

Despite Pleau's plans to travel, his roots are firmly planted in Basse-Ville, in his lifelong neighbourhood of Saint-Sauveur. "I'm not going into some kind of forced exile in Ottawa!" he says. "I was born and raised in Saint-Sauveur. It's my past and my present combined." In his upcoming collection, Le ciel de la Basse-Ville, he introduces readers to the names and faces of the neighbourhood he calls home.

He hopes his writing speaks to readers wherever they are. "I'm a sensitive person, and I write about things we've all seen but may have forgotten ... I want readers to feel I'm speaking to them, about them. I want readers to see themselves where I see myself."

"Poetry is much bigger than poets. When the poet stays in the background, the poetry has more room to grow," he says.

"Human beings can use words, and we need to take advantage of it," he says. "Deciding to be a poet is deciding to stop saying inane things and making small talk all your life. As human beings, we're all destined for greater things than that."