Billeh comes back

Poet talks about curling, fast food and picking up at readings

Billeh Nickerson found early, unconventional poetic fame through writing hockey haikus.
Billeh Nickerson found early, unconventional poetic fame through writing hockey haikus.
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There’s something to be said for coming full-circle, especially if that means a return to friends and the University where you served as writer-in-residence.

On Monday night, Billeh Nickerson—who recently moved to Toronto from British Columbia—will make his triumphant return to Queen’s with a reading at the Grad Club. Although Nickerson did several readings during his term as last year’s writer-in-residence, he said he never gets tired of it.

“Poetry readings are like a pick-up bar,” he said with a laugh. “People who come to poetry readings, they’ll get more action.”

Although Nickerson said he’d be willing to read some of his older stuff if people requested it, he said he’s planning to focus on his new work—due out in September—a book of poetry about the fast food industry.

“I think that as writers, you take inspiration from wherever you can get it from and you make shit up, you know. You’re inspired by your life, but as a poet I think we’re lucky because we can just make shit up.”

But Nickerson has more than mere imagination as a source for his new work: Seventeen years ago he worked in a McDonald’s, something he has mixed feelings about.

“I did get to a lower-level management position in a year and a half, and I have to say I’m quite proud of that,” he said with a laugh. “I still have cheeseburger nightmares.”

He said he drew on his own experiences as both a server and a customer as well as from stories he has heard in order to give a variety of perspectives on fast food.

“It’s all second-person … situating the reader behind the counter,” he said, adding that he felt fast food was important to write about because it has such a large presence in modern culture. “I wouldn’t come across anything about restaurants or fast food and I thought, ‘This is so prevalent, why isn’t anyone writing about this?’”

Known for his humour and unconventional subject matter, Nickerson said he likes using popular culture as a way to bring poetry to more people.

“There’s poetry you read on the page, and I don’t think enough people do that. Either they’re scared of it or they don’t have access to it,” he said. “But we forget that there’s poetry in rap lyrics, that it’s around us all the time.

“In some ways, if you’re a poet, you’re your family’s dirty little secret, and I don’t think it should be that way. … I just want to show people that poetry doesn’t have to be all about trees.”

Asked if he’s his family’s “dirty little secret,” Nickerson laughed.

“Not anymore, no. I’m probably dirtier and littler in other ways. Poetry-wise, I think that they’ve come around.”

But it hasn’t all been French fries and sunshine for Nickerson since he left Queen’s last spring.

“2008 was a real rollercoaster year for me,” he said. “My best friend passed away in July quite unexpectedly.”

Nickerson said the loss altered his perspective on a lot of things and, although he still enjoys humour, he said the tone in his writing will probably shift.

“I think humour always has some bittersweet mixed into it,” he said, adding that his new writing will probably have more serious undertones than most of what he’s already written.

Nickerson said some of his serious side might come out on Monday, but with a grin hovering on the edge of his voice, it’s clear the evening won’t be a downer.

“There’ll be a bit of naughtiness and a lot of fun and some maybe some more serious stuff.

“There’s drinks, it’s at a bar, even if they hate everything I’m saying and everything I’m reading, they can drink,” he said with a laugh, adding that he was pretty sure people would have a good time.

So what’s next for the intrepid poet?

“Curling’s been on TV a lot lately, so I’m hoping to dive back into that,” Nickerson said. “I was a competitive junior curler back in B.C.”

Perhaps a natural step for a man who was once a prolific writer of hockey haikus and became widely associated with Wayne Gretzky after a poem he wrote about the Great One was read on CBC radio, Nickerson is turning his attention to our second national ice sport: curling.

“Not as many people necessarily watch curling … but there’s more people curling than in any other sport in Canada really,” he said. “We may not have Curling Night in Canada, but there’s a huge participation all the way across Canada.”

Billeh Nickerson reads Monday night at The Grad Club at 8 p.m.

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