THE POWER OF WORDS
Calgary’s new poet laureate aims to offer hope in challenging times
When Natalie Meisner was giving birth to her son nine years ago, she kept a notebook by her side to jot down her thoughts.
This is not to say that Calgary’s newest poet laureate simply had it beside her in the hours and days before she gave birth. No, she literally made notes while she was in labour.
“I was writing a poem while giving birth,” says Meisner with a laugh, in an interview with Postmedia from her Calgary home. “I know this sounds like a story, but it’s not. I can’t read a lot of it and it kind of descends into painful scrawls. But I kept that beside me and I thought ‘If I can just keep writing about this, I can get through it.’ They talk about giving birth being like crossing the bridge. You’re not sure if you and the baby are going to come out on the other side. I had the words with me. Where some people would have maybe a blanket or whatever, I was like ‘I’ve got my notebook, it’s going to be OK.’ ”
Clearly, Meisner appreciates the power of words. In fact, she says she has long had a deep respect for what “both the spoken word and written word can do.” Poetry, or “the right words in the right order,” can literally change someone’s life and “reorder the universe.”
Earlier this week, Meisner was named Calgary’s fifth poet laureate, taking over from Sheri-d Wilson who held the role from 2018 to 2020. The announcement was made at a council meeting Monday morning and included Meisner giving a virtual reading of a poem she calls First Nurse, which could certainly be seen as a tribute to the front line health-care workers risking their safety in Calgary and everywhere else to guide us through the COVID -19 pandemic.
This powerful mix of words and community is something Meisner has been giving a great deal of thought to as of late, not only because of her new role but because she is taking it on in such a perilous time for the city and the world.
A native of Lockeport, N.S., who teaches creative writing and literature at Mount Royal University, Meisner is a versatile writer. Her most recent book of poetry from Frontenac Press, Baddie One Shoe, is a collection of performance poems that pays tribute to various rebellious women. But she has also made a mark as a playwright whose work has been produced across the country. Boom Baby, which is about the lives of expat Maritimers working in the oilpatch, won the Alberta Playwriting Award. Speed Dating for Sperm Donors was a hit back in 2015 when it was performed at Calgary’s Lunchbox Theatre and Halifax’s Neptune Theatre. Her non-fiction memoir, Double Pregnant: Two Lesbians Make a Family, was a finalist in the Atlantic Book Awards. She also recently wrote her first book for children, My Mommy, My Mama, My Brother & Me.
But poetry has always been the foundation of her work.
“It was the very first place that I went to because I grew up in a really small village in Nova Scotia,” she says. “There was no theatre, there was no art. The very first things I ever wrote were poems. We had a brilliant English teacher who would tell us to write things based on a Shakespeare sonnet and off we’d go.”
From poetry, Meisner entered the spoken-word scene in Halifax. That led to her getting some acting gigs in local theatre, which led to playwriting.
“It went from there,” she says. “But poetry is where I go to first for the emotion. When I feel to write something, I write a poem. And sometimes that poem is the heart of a kid’s book, as it was (for My Mommy, My Mama, My Brother & Me.) It was a rhyme, this cadence of a poem and something I would sing to myself when I had my boys out for a walk. Sometimes I’ll get a poem and it will put the thematics of a play together for me, as it did for Boom Baby. The birth of that was a poem about the Athabasca River and how it is the heart of the province. I have this poem that was bringing that together and I’d go back to it over and over. I haven’t published that poem yet, but it gave me a play. So I guess that’s the wellspring.”
The role of the Calgary poet laureate is to be an “artistic ambassador for the citizens of Calgary,” which includes composing and presenting poetry for City of Calgary events.
But given the harrowing times Calgary and the world are living through, Meisner sees the role as having an added responsibility.
“No one pretends that poetry takes the place of a vaccine,” she says. “No one pretends that it takes the place of a loaf of bread. But it gives you that little second of pause to keep your hope alive until you get what you need.”
Incoming Calgary poet laureate Natalie Meisner has been writing since she was a child, and believes “the right words in the right order” can help change lives.