We sat down for a quick, lively Skype session with Bertrand Bickersteth, poet, author, and educator extraordinaire.
Bertrand’s debut poetry collection The Response of Weeds: The Misplacement of Black Poetry on the Prairies draws on the historical, biographical, and geographical alike to explore what it means to be Black and Albertan. You can find his poetry in The Great Black North and The Black Prairie Archives. In 2018, he was longlisted for the CBC Poetry Prize.
How did you get into poetry?
My mom told me she doesn’t remember a time when I wasn’t writing. She said, “you were always writing.” For me, writing is a compulsion. I have to write.
I was a junior high school poet and wanted, like all teens, to get my feelings out. I was deep into that phase where I thought no one understood me. Teens gravitate to poetry, I think, because it’s quick and tied to emotions.
What inspired you to write The Response of Weeds?
I grew up in Alberta, but lived in many places. I moved to British Columbia, the UK, and finally the US. As I moved around, I thought about what it meant to be Albertan or Canadian. What is it that makes me this person? One day, I returned to Alberta for a visit. Although cliché, I was struck by the province’s open skies, fields of wheat, and long horizon.
I decided to sit down and write a landscape of words. I wrote a poem that was images of Alberta: wheat, prairies, and grain elevators. It was just a long expanse of writing.
I moved to Michigan and wanted to continue writing landscape poems, but all my poems were about water. At first, I was confused. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that undercurrents of the prairies were running through these water poems. Images of Albertan rivers came to mind, and I incorporated this into The Response of Weeds. I juxtaposed images of rivers with feelings and language. The book became a complex layering of identity: geography, Albertan, Black in lines of poetry.
Who did you write for?
I wrote for two audiences. My first audience, I want to show them that what is absent is present. In The Response of Weeds, I bring in historical characters from the Black diaspora and layer that into Albertan geography. I want this audience to see that Blackness has a presence in Alberta.
My second audience is for people like me. I want them to feel like they belong, and to see the possibilities for putting their writing out there. There is a place for their writing.
In your TEDx, The Weight of Words, you say, “for us North Americans who are not North American, it is easier for us to describe what we are not than it is to describe what we are. It is easier to reject, than it is to recognize intersections.” Did this idea inform your approach to The Response of Weeds?
Not consciously. However, I think I address the same idea. We need to move past the way we are conditioned to think in North America.
For example, if you grow up Black in this part of the world, you are not allowed to be from here. Strangers like to ask, “where are you really from?” They keep pushing if you don’t give them the right answer. During an experience like this, you become defined as a Not. As an absence. It’s also like being a tied knot that nobody can make sense of. But the (k)nots of our nation, of our province, is more accurately definitive of who we are.
Similarly, this is also how Canada defines itself. We like to say we aren’t racist, which isn’t true. But that’s a Not that describes who we really are.
Who are your literary influences?
Langston Hughes strongly influenced this book. Hughes was born in Missouri and lived in Kansas. He was a prairie boy, but he went to New York to start the Harlem Renaissance which was an urban literary movement.
I also love Gwendolyn Brooks. She was born in Kansas, so another prairie girl. I love Annie Allen.
Of course I must mention Dionne Brand, the saint of Canadian poetry.
What’s next for you?
Right now, I am working on three essays that came to me from the Black Lives Matter movement. I am also working on a play that has two characters: a traditional Black man and a nice white woman. Her name is Karen. However, she is not a typical “Karen.” You’ll see.
I also have another collection of poems that I hope to publish.
Langston Hughes (American, central figure of Harlem Renaissance)
Gwendolyn Brooks (American, 20th-century Chicago poet)
Dionne Brand (Toronto writer, possibly Canada’s highest regarded poet)
George Elliott Clarke (Africadian, that’s his term; he is one of the central figures of African Canadian literature)
Kaie Kellough (based in Montreal, but originally from Calgary; just won the Griffin prize)
Nasra Adem (from Edmonton, founder of Black Arts Matter festival)
Wakefield Brewster (spoken word artist from Toronto, based in Calgary)
Cheryl Foggo (strictly speaking, she’s not a poet, but she is the central figure of Black Albertan literature, so I couldn’t give you a list without her name on it!)