Bertrand Bickersteth says he hopes his poetry can help Albertans recognize the personal experiences Black people have growing up in this province.
The Response of Weeds, written by Bickersteth, who has been a communications instructor at Olds College since 2013, was one of six works named to the Alberta Reads book club poetry shortlist this past Friday.
In Bickersteth’s poetry collection, which was published April 2020, he explores what it means to be Black and Albertan.
“Poetry is a really good way to display or express those feelings in a way that people can understand,” he said.
Born in Sierra Leone, in West Africa, Bickersteth moved to Alberta with his family as an infant – he lived in Edmonton, Calgary and Olds during his youth. After earning an English degree at the University of British Columbia, he continued his studies in the United Kingdom. Bickersteth later taught in the United States before returning to Alberta. He now lives in Calgary while teaching in Olds.
Bickersteth said he also wanted his work to show people there’s Black history in Alberta.
“I never knew that when I was growing up here. We were never taught that and nobody shared it with me. As I got older, I discovered that not only is there Black history in Alberta, but there’s a very rich history that goes back to the 19th Century. In fact, it goes back even further if you include the fur traders,” he said.
“When I came back (to Alberta) in 2009, I started to feel a new relationship with this place. I think in part it’s because I had grown up and I learned about things like Black history and that racism is real in Canada, even though people downplayed it when I was growing up.
“I felt that I now had a new way of relating to this province that I didn’t have before. With that new sensibility came a new desire to express myself.”
Bickersteth said some of his earliest memories of writing poetry were in junior high school.
“When you’re a teenager you just need to get those feelings out that you may not fully understand and the language of poetry is both economic and … empathetic. You can connect with people saying very little,” he said.
“I wrote poetry when I was young, but none of it was good. Ever since then, I’ve always written. I’ve written in all genres. I was even pleasantly surprised to hear from my mom that she couldn’t remember a time when I wasn’t writing. She said I was a writer even at my youngest, which I don’t remember.”
The Book Publishers Association of Alberta announced the shortlisted titles, all of which are non-fiction. The winning title will be revealed this upcoming Friday.
The other Alberta-published works of poetry on the shortlist are: From Turtle Island to Gaza by David Groulx, Chasia’s Enchantment: Meditations, Poems, Inspirations by Hilda Chasia Smith, Plausible Wrong Answers by Tyler B. Perry, Ghosts Still Linger by Kat Cameron and Exhibit by Paul Zits.
Over the course of March and April, the Alberta Reads book club will focus on one of the shortlisted titles. Readers can participate in the online club over Facebook, Twitter or through the Alberta Reads website.
For more information, visit bookpublishers.ab.ca/alberta-reads-provincial-book-club.