Billeh Nickerson cornered his classmates in the high school cafeteria everyday after lunch to read them his poems.
“After people eat, they don’t move as fast,” says Dawson’s current Berton House writer-in-residence.
“Even if the poems aren’t great, they’re still digesting.”
His inspiration was a managerial job at “a certain fast-food chain” that eventually led to the humourous collection McPoems. The author’s photo for this book was taken when he was Employee of the Month and still had hair.
No Pickle is in this collection:
“A grown-man cries in front of you after the cooks in the back put a pickle on his burger for the third time this week. Sure, he said ‘No pickle,’ but you can’t help thinking even if you hated pickle and asked for something without it you’d get pissed off but you wouldn’t cry – not because of a pickle. That guy’s not crying because of his burger, it’s something else, something you hope isn’t contagious as you walk past the counter, put your arm around him, offer to refill his coke.”
Poetry is often associated with the dead white men we’re forced to study in school, says Nickerson.
“And people forget just how much poetry is in their life, whether it’s in the advertising or the songs they hear on the radio, or some of the thoughts and wordplay they do naturally.
“Sometimes you find poems on the backs of shampoo bottles.”
Nickerson’s most recent muses are three graveyards in his hometown of Halifax, Nova Scotia.
He was eight, when his grandmother told him there were victims from the Titanic buried there.
He never forgot it.
“I always had this connection,” he says.
So, he started writing a series of Titanic poems.
Then the movie came out and ruined everything.
“I was so mad,” says Nickerson.
Now, when he mentions he’s working on poems about the Titanic, people say, “Oh, like Celine Dion?”
They forget about the 1,500 people dying, he says. “It was about dreams, technology and decadence.”
The victims ended up in Halifax graveyards because the shipping company that owned the Titanic, White Star Line, was too cheap to send the bodies back to Europe, he says.
It hired some Nova Scotia boats to go retrieve the bodies, and only first class passengers could afford to bring home their loved ones’ remains.
Nickerson has humour in these poems too, but like all his work, “it’s bittersweet,” he says.
“And these ones might be a bit more bitter than sweet.”
Working through the Yukon summer in Dawson City, Nickerson didn’t write quite as many poems as he’d hoped.
“I write at night,” he said.
And when it’s not dark until around 3 a.m., that gets tricky.
“For those first few months, I wasn’t going to bed until five in the morning,” he says.
Dawson also has more distractions than expected.
“I don’t want to sound all Shirley MacLaine,” he says with a laugh. “But I imagined slowing down, decompressing”- that’s when the poems come out -“when the mind shuts down a little bit.”
In Dawson though, there were lots of “extra curricular activities.”
Now, as the dark settles back in, he’s finding more night to write.
One of Nickerson’s last publications was Seminal: The Anthology of Canada’s Gay Male Poets with John Barton (Arsenal Pulp, 2007).
It’s the first of its kind in Canada.
Talking to Americans, they think we’re a more relaxed society, he says. But when Nickerson did a search for gay male poets in Canada, during his university years, nothing popped up.
However, there are lots of them out there.
Nickerson even found a couple writers from the 1800s to include in the book, which features more than 50 gay Canadian poets, including Nickerson.
“I’ve written on so many different topics,” he says, citing pop culture, fast food, sexuality, the Titanic – even hockey haiku.
Nickerson’s Haiku Night in Canada include treasures like:
“The morning after
Canada’s Olympic gold
puke on the sidewalks”
“What if a player
Licked the ice by accident
And got his tongue stuck?”
He also writes prose. But once a poet, always a poet.
“I call it the Anne Murray Syndrome,” he says.
“When she started out, she played a little country. Now she’s not country at all, but she’s still called country.”
This fall, Nickerson’s returning to Kwantlen Polytechnic University outside Vancouver, where he has tenure, to teach the craft to aspiring students.
“It’s inspiring because we’re talking about the possibility of poems,” he says.
“And I’m not working at a fast food restaurant.”
Nickerson isn’t in it for the fame. As a poet, “that’s laughable.”
He’s in it because he doesn’t have a choice.
“You do it because you love it, and because you need to do it,” he says.
Nickerson’s giving a reading at Whitehorse Public Library on Thursday night, starting at 7:30 p.m.
He promises he won’t be wearing a black turtleneck and isn’t “stuck up.”
Poetry should be approachable, he says.
“If people look at my work and don’t understand it, I’ve failed.
“I just wish people would give it a little bit of a chance.”
Contact Genesee Keevil at firstname.lastname@example.org