There’s a delightful irony in the fact that the most memorable part of Joe Biden’s inauguration as the oldest president in US history was the reading by the youngest poet to ever appear at such a ceremony. Arguably the highlight of the event, 23-year-old Amanda Gorman’s impactful performance of her poem “The Hill We Climb” wasn’t lost on Vancouver-based poet and writing professor Billeh Nickerson (BFA ’98).
“Seeing a younger person—and a younger person of colour—talking about things that are important isn’t normally the case in these situations,” he says. “Was it the best poem ever done? Probably not. Was it super successful and inspiring? Totally! And, as a poet, I can tell you it is hard to write an occasional poem: I’ve done a bunch over the years and it’s not fun.”
Nickerson knows a thing or two about injecting fresh energy into old institutions, be it academia or poetry itself. Currently the co-chair of Kwantlen Polytechnic University’s Creative Writing department (alongside fellow UVic Writing classmate Aislinn Hunter), he’s also the former editor of PRISM International and Event, two of Canada’s most respected literary journals, and has earned a well-deserved reputation for his sexy, savvy and frequently funny poetry since the debut of his first book back in 2000.
Now, with the spring 2021 publication of his sixth book, Duct-Taped Roses (Book*hug Press), Nickerson continues his career of offering playfully evocative observations on life, work, history and queer culture. “Poetry is like fashion,” he observes. “It keeps changing and is constantly evolving, but there’s something at the heart of poetry that still exists and remains relevant. The word that keeps coming up for me is resiliency.”
Consider the new poem “Love Coward”, which reflects on the experience of having an earlier poem appear—and then be vandalized—on Vancouver’s buses and Skytrains as part of the Poetry in Transit series. (“and never for the rest of my life / will so many people read one of my poems” he writes.)
“For a lot of folks, seeing poetry in transit is the biggest and most obvious source of contemporary poetry they get,” he says. “You see people sitting there, maybe moving their lips, and realize they’re reading your poem—I’ve had that experience a couple of times now and it’s really quite lovely.”
Finding poetic inspiration
Nickerson recalls that he had no thoughts of being either a professional poet or a teacher when he left his family home in Langley BC to attend UVic’s writing program. “In retrospect, it was kind of on a whim, but I’m really happy I made that decision,” he admits. “When I found out Lorna Crozier was teaching there, that was a big sell for me.” Another early influence was Geist magazine founder Stephen Osborne. “He was one of my first teachers, and the one who really opened up the possibility of the sentence for me,” he says, noting how this led to his 20-year relationship with publishing in Geist.
Yet it wasn’t until Nickerson started appearing at local open mic nights that he began taking the idea of poetry more seriously. “I always remember Al Purdy—bless his heart—saying, ‘If you threw a rock in Victoria, you’d hit a poet’,” he chuckles. “There’s something to be said for finding comfort in numbers.”
Pre- and post-pandemic experiences
While he’s no stranger to writing about history-making events—his 2012 volume Impact explored the legacy of theTitanic—Nickerson does note that all of the work in Duct-Taped Roses was all written pre-COVID. “I do wonder what’s next. Poems written before the pandemic have become de-facto laments for our pre-pandemic experience . . . but we haven’t gotten to the post- part yet. I’m definitely curious how that will change the reader, and change the art.”
Right now, however, he’s hoping the publication of his new book will offer a sense of renewal, even if it is in the form of Zoom readings. “The terrible irony for me is that I had started a book about airports and airlines, but that stopped—obviously—because I’m not going to be hanging out in airports right now,” he sighs. “So it’s a bit of a conundrum to figure out what the next step is.”