Fredericton summer theatre salutes two notable female poets

·3 min read
The Calithumpians theatre troupe are bringing to life the stories of two poets, Jane Elizabeth Roberts MacDonald, and Elizabeth (Betty) Brewster. (Jan Lakes/CBC - image credit)
The Calithumpians theatre troupe are bringing to life the stories of two poets, Jane Elizabeth Roberts MacDonald, and Elizabeth (Betty) Brewster. (Jan Lakes/CBC - image credit)

A Fredericton theatre troupe is shining a spotlight on two esteemed Fredericton poets from the past, in the absence of a formal tribute to their accomplishments.

Jane Elizabeth Roberts MacDonald grew up in a literary family in the mid-1800s and went on to publish her works in different anthology collections, magazines and her own books of poetry.

Later in her life, she worked for women's suffrage in British Columbia and wrote essays on feminism before her death in 1922.

Her brother, Sir Charles G.D. Roberts, and cousin Bliss Carman have their names etched on a plaque at Poets Corner in Fredericton, a monument at the University of New Brunswick campus that honours three Canadian poets.

But her name isn't there.

Jan Lakes/CBC
Jan Lakes/CBC

That's something members of the Calithumpian outdoor drama troupe would like changed.

"Jane had family members who are very, really recognized in Fredericton," said Karlie Curtis, an actor who researched her life. "They're famous poets. But she made a name of herself."

"She has her own poetry, and is a very successful poet on her own, and I think it's important for them to realize she is successful and deserves recognition just as much as her cousin and her brother."

The Calithumpians framed two summer plays around Roberts MacDonald, and another New Brunswick poet, Elizabeth (Betty) Brewster, a founding member of the seminal Fiddlehead group.

2 writers share centennial

The tandem shows feature the two New Brunswick women writers, who share a centennial. Roberts MacDonald died the same year Brewster was born.

One play is called Jane's Dream Verses. The other is Betty's Bright Light.

Roberts MacDonald's retelling uses a narrator to move through her life. Brewster's play weaves in the metaphor of a candle to highlight her humble beginnings in Chipman, her love of reading and writing, and her eventual literary acclaim.

UNB Libraries
UNB Libraries

"The thing most people seem to remark about her poetry is the level of honesty there," said Madeline Savoie, another Calithumpian member.

"There are very emotional and very candid poems, and it's certainly one of the things I admire most about them.

"While the language is beautiful and poetic, it feels like a candid photograph."

Bliss Carman connection

During the 1940s, Brewster attended the University of New Brunswick, where she became part of the Bliss Carman Society.

The group of professors and students would come together and share poetry with one another in an attempt to move poetry in a more modernist direction, said Savoie.

"This talent of hers, this sort of flame that she nurtured, and was nurtured by so many other people around her, that helped her become the poet she is in all her various writings over the latter half of the 20th century," she said.

It was during this time with the Bliss Carman Society that she was part of the founding of the Fiddlehead magazine. Its first edition in February, 1945, included three of her poems.

The Fiddlehead went on to become the longest-running literary journal in Canada.

Update Poets Corner

Since diving into their lives, Curtis said she envisions a more permanent stage for these formidable poets. She said one platform could be a more inclusive Poets Corner that recognizes the talents of a wider group of writers.

"Education is so key in raising awareness," said Curtis.

"Really making an effort to ensure there are demographics other than white men who are represented, and including female poets, including poets of colour as well, is absolutely essential to ensure as the years go on, we have greater depth and more diverse awareness of the poetry."

University of New Brunswick president and vice-chancellor Paul Mazerolle said he agrees that the two renowned poets warrant further recognition.

"Throughout their time at our institution, they added greatly to the richness of our community," he said in a statement.

"Both women have made important contributions to their fields and deserve further recognition in our province."

Mazerolle's statement did not mention any planned changes to Poets Corner.

The Calithumpians' daily summer festival is now underway in Fredericton on the lawn outside Christ Church Cathedral on 150 Church St.

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