The Next Chapter

Bertrand Bickersteth's The Response of Weeds poetically explores the Black Canadian experience in full bloom

The Calgary poet, playwright and educator spoke with Shelagh Rogers about writing a poetry collection about the legacy of Black history in Canada.
Bertrand Bickersteth is a Sierra Leone-born, Alberta-based writer. (NeWest Press)

Bertrand Bickersteth is a poet, author and educator who was born in Sierra Leone, raised in Alberta, and has lived in the U.K. and the U.S. 

Bickersteth was on the 2018 CBC Poetry Prize longlist for the poem Wakanda, Oklahoma​.

"Storied soil" is the phrase Bickersteth uses to describe his home province of Alberta in his debut poetry collection The Response of Weeds. The collection brings to life the experience of early Black settlers in Western Canada.

The Response of Weeds tells of stories rooted in the prairie landscape, including his own experience growing up as a Black Albertan. He spoke with Shelagh Rogers about writing the book.

Being Black in Alberta

"I am Black and I grew up in Alberta. What you discover if you are a person of colour, is that the education that you get about your place — in the country and the history of the nation — omits you. I didn't know that there was such a thing as a Black history in Alberta for most of my life. It wasn't until in my 20s in which I heard about the emigration of African Americans from the southern United States into Alberta as Black pioneers, et cetera. That started me to look into that history in much more detail. 

But what it turned out to be was a way of trying to place myself within this nation, within the national narrative, as well as Western Canadian narrative as well.

"I don't think that I knew what I was doing initially. I encountered this memoir Pourin' Down Rain by Black Canadian author and filmmaker Cheryl Foggo, who is a descendant of the Black pioneers in the province. My mom passed the book on to me and it describes this history of these Black pioneers, homesteading in Alberta and Saskatchewan. My emotional response was, 'Wait a minute, there's a whole world out there that they never told me about.' 

"My initial emotional response was irritation and anger, actually. But what it turned out to be was a way of trying to place myself within this nation, within the national narrative, as well as Western Canadian narrative as well."

John Ware was an African-Canadian cowboy who was influential in the early years of the burgeoning ranching industry in Southern Alberta. (Glenbow Archives)
 

Why we are 'weeds'

"The book title is The Response of WeedsI happen to work at an agricultural college. I teach writing and presentations, that sort of thing. But my colleagues teach horticulture, about plants and things like that. It became apparent to me, after a few conversations with them, that the only reason why we call weeds 'weeds' is that they are simply the plants we are not happy with. 

I like that idea of someone coming from somewhere else and thriving with what they are given.

"They're not doing anything different than other plants. In fact, they tend to do things better because they come from somewhere else and they figure things out in this 'native' area and they thrive. 

"I really, really liked that metaphor. I like that idea of someone coming from somewhere else and thriving with what they are given. 

"The other part of that title — the response — I wanted to evoke the notion of call and response that is so central to a lot of Black diaspora and artistic expressions. And so for me, my poems are the response of weeds." 

Bertrand Bickersteth's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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