Flipping the script

Winnipeg’s new poet laureate tells his story

Writers have a talent for tapping into imagination, and despite their chosen genre, skillfully put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) to create an immersive reading experience. Though their talents are displayed on each page, their background and journey into the literary world are often reserved for memoirs.

However, Winnipeg Arts Council’s new poet laureate, Cree-Métis storyteller and poet Duncan Mercredi gives a glimpse into his life through his work. In this interview, he sheds light on how he became a writer and how he captivates the next generation.

Born in Misipawistik, Man. (Grand Rapids), Mercredi learned the art of storytelling from his grandmother. However, it would take a few years for the writer to enter the literary field. Initially working on highway constructions in Grand Rapids and Thompson, Mercredi returned to Winnipeg to look for work when his second daughter was about to be born, which is when he rediscovered his passion for writing.

“During this time, I was writing, but mostly just for myself and my family,” he says.

“But there was a call out from one of the local publishers here in Winnipeg for Indigenous writers to come together to form a mentorship program. Jordan Wheeler and Maria Campbell were among them, and this is when I started writing again.”

Mercredi wrote four collections of poetry, including Dreams of the Wolf in the City, but felt there was something missing during this time. His writing was incomplete, but a visit to a local school illuminated the missing piece.

“While I was joined with two other readers, I watched the kids, and I realized that they were not listening, and they were bored,” he says.

“When I got up to read, the kids were just wandering around the library, and they were not listening, and I was losing these kids. So, I put the book down, and I told them a story without reading, and they all sat down, and they listened. When I finished, they all said, ‘Tell us another one.’

“And that is when I realized what I was missing was the actual storytelling part as opposed to the writing.”

Years later, after releasing several books and participating in numerous workshops and collectives, he became the 2019 writer-in-residence at the University of Manitoba’s Centre for Creative Writing and Oral Culture.

In this mentoring role, Mercredi had an interesting approach to guiding future writers.

When reviewing the students’ work, Mercredi says, “I would make suggestions on their writing, but I am not much of a critique person.

“I always tell writers ‘write what you know,’ which has always been the mantra I have been given. I would tell them that I will make suggestions, but I am not going to change it. This is your story, not mine. It is not my job to tell you how to write.
I will help you, but I will not tell you how to write.”

In his two-year term as poet laureate, Mercredi will create work that is centred on Winnipeg, exploring social, cultural and economic themes that affect the city, as well as leading several literary programs and events.

“I enjoy poetry, because you can see so much in so little,” Mercredi says.

Published in Volume 74, Number 24 of The Uniter (April 2, 2020)

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