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Poet Rebecca Thomas speaks truth and teaches

Halifax's first aboriginal poet laureate has a rare opportunity to change attitudes

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Photo: Javian Trotman

It’s a cold and windy Saturday afternoon in the Grand Parade in downtown Halifax and Rebecca Thomas is on duty.

It’s the Halifax Women’s March, the day after the inauguration of U.S. President Donald Trump. About 1,000 people are here, bundled up in winter coats. Some of the women don pink “pussy” hats, toques designed specifically for this event, featuring marches around the world.

Thomas takes the stage to perform a spokenword piece.

I could inspect my body and see no flaws
Because it looked just like my mom’s and
she was my hero

As she moves from line to line, her ferocity rises.

I learned how to shave and I was told how
a woman should behave
But the hair under my arms and the letters
I collect at the end of my name
Says I’ve never been very good at playing that game

Thomas’s voice is strong and confident. The crowd erupts.

She’s HRM’s poet laureate. It’s a role she took on in 2016. Performing at events like the Women’s March is part of her job.

But she says poetry is something that’s relatively new for her. She grew up in Riverview, N.B., and in school she hated writing poetry. “It was awful,” she says. “It was the worst. I didn’t like how they taught poetry. I found they didn’t make it fun.”

She moved to Halifax when she was 18 to attend Dalhousie. Now 30, she works at NSCC as a coordinator for aboriginal student services.

She discovered poetry in her 20s after encountering the work of El Jones, HRM Poet Laureate from 2013 to 2015. Thomas had studied theatre, so she enjoyed the spoken-word performance of poetry.

“It’s melodic,” she says. “It has a cadence to it. It’s a performance piece. You can read my poetry but it definitely loses something of its luster when it’s not a performance.”

Her first performance was at The Company House. She shared a poem called “Sweet Grass in the City.” It’s about growing up in an urban environment, outside an indigenous community and finding her identity there. She’s HRM’s first aboriginal poet laureate; much of her work focuses on her native heritage.

She also remembers the nerves of that performance as she stood on the stage with her notebook in hand. “You know when you get really nervous and you lose all the moisture in your mouth?” she says. “You get that tacky sound. I remember being able to hear that noise in the mics and the speakers.”

To apply for the role as poet laureate, Thomas put together an artist resumé, a letter of intention, and a portfolio of her work. She got an email saying she was shortlisted for the job. She and three other poets had a panel interview.

Then she got a call from Jamie McLellan, HRM’s public-arts facilitator, explaining to her the next steps of her new role. Thomas was confused, but then realized she missed the official email MacLellan sent to her offering her the job.

Thomas says what she loves about the role is she will have a chance to shape it as she sees fit. “You are the ambassador of the literary community,” she says. “You kind of get to drive the position of how you see it.”

El Jones took the stage at the Women’s March that Saturday, too.

We go to work and keep the house in visitor conditions
Unlike Charlie Sheen we are actually winning
We were the anti-nuclear movement and abolition
We are the bosses called bitches for our ambition
We are plumbers, welders and electricians
We run the whole office and are called assistants

It was Jones who encouraged Thomas to apply for the position of poet laureate. She recalls that performance at The Company House. “You could immediately tell she was good,” Jones says. “She isn’t someone you pigeonhole into one thing.”

Jones says the role of poet laureate is a crucial one to the city because the person filling the role helps others share their stories, too. She remembers being invited to events where her spoken-word performances inspired others to share their stories. “It makes them feel connected,” she says. “I don’t think of these things as extras.”

As for how to use her role for positive change, Jones says Thomas is doing just fine. “She’s a very powerful poet,” Jones says. “What’s she’s doing is brilliant. My advice is to keep doing it.”

Thomas’s goal is to teach people about the role and culture of Canada’s native peoples. She says this is especially appropriate considering 2017 marks the 150th anniversary of Confederation.

“One of the things I said in my interview was this is a two-year position, but I am in the indigenous community for life,” she says. “I will use this position to talk about indigenous issues and bring those to the forefront.”

The role also gives her a chance to share her message beyond Halifax. In January, she was the keynote speaker at the Vanier College Humanities Symposium. In April, she will perform at the Edmonton Poetry Festival. She is also Halifax Slam Master and volunteers with the Halifax Youth Slam Team.

Thomas doesn’t want to be known as a poet and doesn’t want to make a career of it. She considers herself a teacher and an activist first.

“I always say I don’t want to be a poet,” she says. “I want to be a change maker. And if poetry is how I’m going to do that, then that’s what I’m going to do it.”

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