Home » City of Calgary Poet Laureate Interview: Wakefield Brewster
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Wakefield Brewster is the current City of Calgary Poet Laureate, a slam champion, an educator, a mentor, a massage therapist, a wellness advocate, and a renegade. As he writes on his website, “Since January 1999, Wakefield Brewster has been known as one of Canada’s most popular and prolific Performance Poets. He is a BlackMan born and raised in Toronto, by parents hailing from the island of Beautiful Barbados, and he has resided in Calgary since 2006. He has spoken across Canada, several States, and makes countless appearances on a regular basis in a variety of ways, for a myriad of reasons, throughout each and every single year.”
Uche Umezurike: Congrats, Wakefield, on your appointment as Calgary’s Poet Laureate. What do you see as your role as Poet Laureate?
Wakefield Brewster: I am very honoured by your time today, Uche, and I thank you from the most generous place of my heart. As a poet laureate, you are supposed to be present in the public. You are supposed to take that art, that craft, and put it into every circle, square, and all other shapes you can name. You’re supposed to put poetry out into the world and be an advocate of the arts in general, and for your discipline specifically. When could you teach seven courses in a high school in Edmonton, then go speak to the Faculty of Education at Carleton University in Ottawa, then go to Calgary and speak to the city for Black History Month, all in a single day? You couldn’t do that before COVID-19; that is the kind of thing I can do now and was doing throughout the lockdown. I was able to now be online, doing different things, facilitating different shows and events, and teaching from home. I am what a poet laureate should be— a poet who is present in the public.
Do you still feel angry when people ask you what poetry can do?
It used to get me angry and hot, but not so much in the literal sense. I am okay with people feeling me out and asking what is this thing that I do. For me, that is being inquisitive and curious. If people come to me in a mean fashion, scoffing, mocking what arts can do, I am not going to make poetry the only thing. Come on, the arts reflect life and arts change life, and that is what artists do. Arts respond to the very fabrics of life surrounding them and then change those very fabrics.
What has kept you going on amid the challenges of practising your art?
Uche, I am the most enthusiastic loser you will ever meet. I’m ready to lose. Are you telling me again that there is something I tried to get, so I am not good enough? What do you do? What are you supposed to do? Cry? You want someone to come rub your back and tell you that you are good enough? I don’t know how to say this in a compassionate way. I don’t sound kind. And I can’t be kind to myself. I am a poet; I’m not a preacher. I am a poet; I’m not a philosopher. I am a poet. So, what else am I going to do? I am looking for something and I’m not getting it. There’s a reason that you are not good enough? Guess what. The greatest thing about losing is that your name got known. How about the hundreds of other poets who didn’t get their names known? Even when I lost, my name got known. Every time I had to put my name in competitive stakes for achievement, my name is there. When your name is mentioned, it is already a win. I don’t win, fine. I have more years to prepare again and get better. I mean, whatever I’m trying to achieve, I depersonalize it, just make it an object of achievement. Losing is one of the best things you can get as an artist. Keep your stupid ego aside and be humble. Losing humiliates you when you need it. Losing is the great leveller. Men, I’m glad that I lost every time that I didn’t win. I won because it was ready for me, and I was ready for it. And you can’t dance before the music.
What do you hope to get out of the poet laureateship?
The answer is access. What I would like to get most out of being a poet laureate is access. Access to bring poetry into places that people don’t expect it, that people don’t even believe it belongs in. The biggest access I want is to be unfettered in every way in speaking to schools, universities, colleges, anywhere that students basically from Grade Five to university are. I want unfettered access to bring poetry to their schools because these are the young leaders. These students need an interruption in the evolution of their literacy so that they can understand that they can create beautiful, expressive pieces that connect and unite the world. My job is to help them lead with language. Students need language brought to them, so I want to bring poetry to tomorrow’s leaders.
What plans do you have for collaboration with other artists?
You have struck on an interesting thing. Poetry has been at the forefront of my life. In the last two years before my laureateship, I started connecting with poets in other provinces of Canada by chance. And the connections are starting to happen. I have an idea of what some of these collaborations might be, though I don’t want to publicize them just yet.
What do you think this moment means for Black creatives and artists?
I am now in some serious light. I’m the first Black poet laureate of Calgary, so I must have done something right in my life. When it comes to Calgary’s face of literature, I am so very happy that I poetically put some colour into its family tree. This win is not mine. I hope my achievements mean something in the eyes of these very good Calgarians and the city, which I call home. Now we have a poet laureate who doesn’t have letters after his name, who is Black. I hope, especially for my brothers and sisters (BIPOC, included), that my win is not solely for me, but that it changes the face of Canadian literature in this town called Calgary. I’m loving that I have done something for the Black community more than I ever have.
Uche Umezurike is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Calgary. An alumnus of the International Writing Program (USA), Umezurike is a co-editor of Wreaths for Wayfarers, an anthology of poems. He is the author of Wish Maker (Masobe Books, 2021) and Double Wahala, Double Trouble (Griots Lounge Publishing, 2021).