Cal­gary’s new poet lau­re­ate aims to of­fer hope in chal­leng­ing times

Calgary Herald - - YOU - ERIC VOLMERS

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.

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