Rebecca Thomas on what it takes to be Halifax's poet laureate
The Mi'kmaq woman finishes her two-year term as poet laureate in March, and nominations are open now to pick her successor.
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A poet laureate should have thick skin and a soft heart.
And they shouldn’t be afraid to keep Halifax regional council in line.
“Or at least perhaps remind them that there are people who are noticing what they’re doing,” outgoing poet laureate Rebecca Thomas said in an interview.
“And I say that obviously with love and respect, but also with a little bit of a scathing cynicism.”
Thomas, the municipality’s sixth poet laureate, will finish her two-year term at the end of March. The deadline for nominations is Feb. 23, and then Thomas will help pick her successor.
“I think it’s really important to understand as poet laureate, you’re not doing it for yourself, you’re not doing for the accolades, you’re not doing it for the title, that as poet laureate, you’re doing it for the community,” she said.
She’d like to see “somebody who’s community-rooted, somebody who is passionate about what they do,” somebody with an “understanding of different perspectives,” and somebody who wants to make change.
“Based on what El (Jones) had done, and then what I’ve done, I really hope this position continues to be an activist position,” Thomas said.
“I hope it continues to be held by people who feel things greatly and express things deeply.”
She also notes that Halifax has “a really good history of having female poet laureates and half of them being women of colour.”
As she prepares to “to bow out gracefully,” Thomas, a Mi’kmaq woman, has shown the true power of the position.
It was her poem, Not Perfect, that brought the debate over the statue of Edward Cornwallis back to council chambers.
“I think that if you’re able to present an argument in many different ways, to grow and broaden perspectives, then you’re going to be able to reach people who otherwise wouldn’t be willing to see your point,” Thomas said.
“To have somebody concede, and to say, ‘You know what, I was wrong and I have a different perspective,’ to see that kind of shift, it’s really unbelievable,” Thomas said. “It’s overwhelming.”
It was especially unbelievable amid a debate where Thomas was inundated with anonymous tweets and e-mails from people with “their heels so dug in that they’re not willing to see another perspective.”
And that’s unfortunately part of the gig too. Thomas said she had a lot of people over the last two years write “awful things” about her and Indigenous people in general. It reminds her of a poem she wrote recently.
“I have a line that says, ‘Where our skin got thick and our hearts grew soft,’ and I think that’s part of the poet laureate position. You have to have thick skin, but you can’t let that make its way to your heart,” she said.
“You still have to be soft, you still have to be affected, otherwise you’re shutting yourself off to a whole section of humanity.”
To nominate someone for poet laureate, email email@example.com by Friday, Feb. 23 at 4 p.m. with the subject line: 2018‐2020 HRM Poet Laureate.