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“Often my historical discoveries were accompanied by or couched in racist contexts…Sometimes I found it tricky to balance the frustration I felt at the persistence of these ways of thinking with the elation I also felt at uncovering and confirming long-standing, historical, Black Prairie presence. In a sense, I think rendering my encounters into poetry was a way of coming to terms with these tricky emotions.” —Bertrand Bickersteth, author of The Response of Weeds
Bertrand Bickersteth is an educator, who also writes poetry and plays. His debut poetry collection, The Response of Weeds: A Misplacement of Black Poetry on the Prairies (NeWest Press 2020), was named one of CBC’s best books of poetry for 2020 and won the League of Canadian Poets’ Gerald Lampert Memorial Award for 2021. He lives in Calgary, teaches at Olds College, and writes about Black identity on the Prairies.
Uche spoke with Bickersteth about The Response of Weeds, which probes questions of identity, citizenship, memory, history, and anti-Black racism. In this intertextual, allusive, buoyant, and witty collection, Bickersteth casts his gaze back across time and space to unearth a multiplicity of lives long rendered invisible by hegemonic culture.
Congrats on recently winning the 2021 Stephan G. Stephansson Award for Poetry, Bertrand. Reading The Response of Weeds, was, for me, an eye-opening experience because mainstream media and school curricula tend to elide the history of Black settlers in Western Canada. What did you find challenging during the research/writing process?
Thank you, Uche. I appreciate the attention that The Response of Weeds has received. 2020-2021 has been a great time for acknowledging Black presence on the prairies. To some extent, your question informed the entire ethos behind this collection of poems. I studied postcolonial literature in graduate school and was immersed in the many ways that European colonization erased, subverted, or, to use your word, elided the histories of the colonized peoples. It became second nature for me to examine the lacunae that such elidings present. Although my focus was on African colonization, when I turned my eye to Canada, specifically the Prairies, it was apparent how these same processes applied here.
In fact, like you, I became keenly aware of how absent Black history was from either my education or the Canadian popular imagination. When I focused my “archeological” skills on the Black Prairies, I came up against two challenges. The first is the obvious difficulty of absented history. The challenge here is that you can’t know what is missing until you come across it. Of course, it is helpful to follow the researcher’s instinct that gold nuggets of inclusivity are almost certainly discoverable in the heart of exclusion (i.e., the absence of blackness is directly related to the ubiquity of whiteness, so focus on areas of presumed whiteness like cowboys and fur traders, etc.).
A related challenge in this case, though, is the painstaking nature of uncovering Black historical presence. Because white authorship typically ignores, dismisses, or (at best) downplays the legitimacy of Black presence, it often takes much reading to find a very brief reference. Then it takes more searching to flesh out that reference. Katherine McKittrick’s Dear Science and Other Stories provides interesting insights into the significance of academic marginalia as a site of intellectual production, which I found to be true to my experience in uncovering Black histories on the Prairies.
The second challenge is a personal one. Often my historical discoveries were accompanied by or couched in racist contexts. Even the language used was regularly offensive and occasionally traumatizing. Encountering these kinds of examples on a regular basis was at times dispiriting. This was especially the case when I would raise my head from an 18th-century account only to witness identical patterns of representation on the news or in social media today. Sometimes I found it tricky to balance the frustration I felt at the persistence of these ways of thinking with the elation I also felt at uncovering and confirming long-standing, historical, Black Prairie presence. In a sense, I think rendering my encounters into poetry was a way of coming to terms with these tricky emotions.
The Response of Weeds is an homage to iconic Black figures in Canada, re-memorializing aspects of their struggles against colonial encounters. It is also intertextual. Why did you need to make connections to historical Black literary and cultural personalities?
I wanted to make these connections as a way of reinvesting the prairies with a Black historical presence. So, it was important to me to show a continuity of Black presence over a long period, much longer than most people suspect. In this sense, it was also important to reveal that racism is neither a thing of the past nor merely a modern or American anomaly. It falls along the entire continuum.
I also wanted to show how sometimes history is literary and literature is historical. One struggle that many of us have being Black in Canada is that we are told that blackness cannot be Canadian, and Canadians cannot be Black. This leaves many of us unsettled and unmoored, but there is an element to identity that is naturally fluid and unsettled. The Black diaspora offers historical and literary engagements on exactly this level. Although Black identities exist on multiple continents and countries, speak multiple languages, express multiple cultures, we can always connect through this thing called “Black.” There is a commonality we can access. That is why most of the time I don’t really give a shit about gymnastics, but when Simone Biles does a triple whatever backflip on the beam, I’m into it!
That is why Black people in the United States cheered for the Jamaican bobsleigh team (way back) in the 1980s. That is why Jadon Sancho, a Black British soccer player who plays on a German soccer team, revealed an undershirt with the words “Justice for George Floyd” the week of George Floyd’s murder. In fact, white people do this kind of thing all the time without blinking: people who have nothing to do with Greece will claim a natural affinity for democracy due to their perceived inheritance of civilization; they will invoke “Western” values as commonly held even as they assert plurality as one of those values; for crying out loud, both Brits and Americans claim T.S. Eliot as their own literary disruptor. I make no apologies for bringing Louis Armstrong or Hattie McDaniel, or Langston Hughes, to my Canadian prairies. They were already here.
In “The Wrongness of a Word”, the speaker struggles with naming or rather discourses about place and beauty. Likewise, in “The magpie’s place”, the speaker talks about “the victim of singular syllables.” How much of your struggle as a creative writer has shaped your poetry?
In short, virtually all of it. Although I have been writing from an early age, I never entertained the idea that I could be a writer. So much of my Canadian upbringing forced roles on me that did not include intellection, literature, or the arts. To be fair, my immigrant parents did not offer writing as a career choice either; however, I want to be clear, they did not dissuade me from writing or suggest that these areas of life are not viable for a Black person. Our household was quite intellectual, full of books and energetic dinner-table conversations. I am named after the philosopher/mathematician Bertrand Russell. Educators and orators abound in my family. There was a healthy collection of African literature on our bookshelves. But for my family, writers are essentially academics, and so it was only rational to them to encourage me in my education, regardless of what path I ultimately took.
Unfortunately, this left me as I was growing up with no recognition of writing as an actual vocation. What’s more, society emphatically told me that I could be an athlete or a (supporting) comedian or a criminal. None of my teachers encouraged me in writing and, outside of my home space, I saw no evidence of Black people being recognized for their intellectual abilities. It was the opposite: we are seen as essentially physical and, by default, “unintellectual.”
For me, writing poetry is a direct response to this persistent understanding of blackness. The irony is that it is such a facile conclusion to draw, that blackness equals unbridled physicality and therefore equals an incapacity for intellect. In a sense, it is the simplest thing in the world to counter this superficial logic by simply producing poetry. On the other hand, the logic is pernicious partly because of its persistence (which is to say, because of the extent to which it is readily accepted), and so, actually, it’s not enough for me to write. The violence that text can perpetrate is not a new idea, especially in the context of colonization. I initially encountered this idea as a student through the African thinker, V.Y. Mudimbe, and have been alert ever since to how North America is as much a territory of colonial contestation as Africa. Textual violence occurs here too.
To write a place for my blackness in this prairie space, I have to force my way in and, yes, violence is represented because sometimes it requires violence to assert one’s presence in the aftermath of the violence that first removed it.
Finally, how have you managed to remain creative during this pandemic and have you been able to do any significant writing?
Unfortunately, writing has been a huge struggle for me during this period. I teach Communications at a local college, and when the pandemic struck, my workload tripled. This has continued almost up to this day. Not only do I lack time to write, but I struggle to get into the frame of mind to be productive. Everything I do is sandwiched between some other things so that my mind is flashing from thing to thing and never settle into one area of focus. I partially blame this on the last two decades of the internet, which has undoubtedly affected my ability to concentrate, particularly in the last three or four years or so. But I also blame it on the social upheavals of the summer of 2020.
One of my writer friends told me that when George Floyd was murdered, they were jolted out of their writer’s block and felt compelled to produce poetry. For me, it was the opposite. For the first time in my life, nothing seemed worth writing about after George Floyd. In fact, I had been writing a series of poems on my own police encounters throughout my life before the George Floyd tragedy. Then, when it happened, I just couldn’t write poetry anymore. I just couldn’t. While I was blocked in that regard, I did instinctively shift to essay writing. I think my poetry has always been my way of thinking through social problems but dressed up in figurative language. I lost the desire to dress anything up, and so I started writing my thoughts. This turned into five long-form essays, a few of which have been or will be published this year. While I am ultimately satisfied with some of those essays, I feel very unsettled that I cannot produce poetry. Very recently, my work obligations have lightened, and so I have started forcing myself to write some poetry, any poetry, every day. It’s all still horrible, but I hope that the more I use that muscle, the more I will return to my usual self. It remains a struggle, and because this is not something that I have struggled with (in this particular way) ever in my life, I feel sad that I am not myself.
Uche Peter Umezurike holds a PhD from the English and Film Studies department of the University of Alberta, Canada, where he is an Assistant Lecturer. An alumnus of the International Writing Program (USA), he is a co-editor of Wreaths for a Wayfarer, an anthology of poems. His children’s book Wish Maker and collection of short stories Double Wahala Double Trouble are forthcoming from Masobe Books, Nigeria and Griots Lounge Publishing, Canada, in fall 2021.