• The Response Of Weeds

The Response Of Weeds


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978-1-988732-79-4 | 2020 April | 88 Pages


Bertrand Bickersteth’s debut poetry collection explores what it means to be black and Albertan through a variety of prisms: historical, biographical, and essentially, geographical. The Response of Weeds offers a much-needed window on often overlooked contributions to the province’s character and provides personal perspectives on the question of black identity on the prairies. Through these rousing and evocative poems, Bickersteth uses language to call up the contours of the land itself, land that is at once mesmerizing as it is dismissively effacing. Such is black identity here on this paradoxical land, too.

  • CBC Radio Interview on Black History Month Literature
  • Interview with Gloria Macarenko for CBC Listen On The Coast
  • 40 Books by Black Canadian authors to read - CBC Books
  • "Woody Strode, Black Cowboy" poem at The Walrus
  • Winner of the 2021 Gerald Lampert Memorial Award from the League of Canadian Poets
  • Winner of the Stephan G. Stephansson Award for Poetry at the 2021 Alberta Literary Awards
  • Winner of a 2021 High Plains Book Award for First Book
  • Winner of the 8th Annual Fred Cogswell Award For Excellence in Poetry
  • Finalist for the City of Calgary W.O. Mitchell Book Prize
  • Finalist for a High Plains Book Award for Poetry
  • Finalist for the Robert Kroetsch Award for Poetry, Regional Book of the Year, and Book Design at the 2021 Alberta Book Publishing Awards
  • A 2020 CBC Poetry Book of the Year
  • Interview with NeWest Press Audio

The Response of Weeds draws us into a confluence of geography, music, and identity, in which the voices of 20th Century Black artists fluidly merge with the prairies. In Bickersteth’s interpretation we hear a blue modality and we feel Alberta sung as a point of arrival and departure, a junction in the diaspora. This collection questions place and belonging as it amplifies the Black prairie.”
— Kaie Kellough, author of Magnetic Equator

“In these poems, Bickersteth invites the reader to revisit the prairies as landscape, but also as part of Black history, geography, and psychic and poetic space. Readers lucky enough to travel with him through these lands will discover new meanings and agricultures (in every sense of the word), as well as uncomfortable and exquisite truths as Bickersteth retells the prairies and makes them new again. This is an essential book by an enormously talented writer.”
— Suzette Mayr, author of Dr. Edith Vane and the Hares of Crawley Hall

“A man can’t step in the Athabasca River twice, because when he steps back in, it’s a different river, and he’s a different man. How much more transformation, then, when the river is the entire Atlantic Ocean and the land-length of North America? As a word-rider originally from Sierra Leone, poet Bertrand Bickersteth knows about wandering emotional and geographical distance, and is perhaps better suited than most to consider reality from multiple historical angles, since Sierra Leone is a nation of people who triumphed above of Western genocide on their own West African soil, and others who returned in the 19th Century from the Americas transformed and traumatized.

In The Response of Weeds, Bertrand Bickersteth is our wayfarer, drawing us—and the West Africans called 'Americans' he’s tracking—across once-innocent prairies and lethal frozen landscapes in an exploration of our colonial, colonized Canadian history, and of ourselves. To whatever degree he’s drawing upon his Sierra Leonean transatlantic perspective, he imparts a vision that is microscopic, telescopic, and kaleidoscopic, bearing witness to the pain and the beauty from the uncomfortably near and the philosophically far, and letting it all reflect back upon itself, and us. His verse, finely hewn, glitters with light that both dazzles and burns. He’s the CanLit I never got to experience in all my time in school and university. If the CanLit gatekeepers will finally accept that literature doesn’t need gated communities, Bertrand Bickersteth should be welcomed at every door.”
— Minister Faust, Kindred Award-winning author of Shrinking the Heroes

“In its form and content, The Response of Weeds represents a vigorous and erudite excavation of history and a carefully constructed reclamation of place, both geographically located and culturally significant.” 
— Steven W. Beattie, Quill & Quire (full review)

“[an] innovative and ambitious first collection”
— Christine Wiesenthal, Alberta Views

“Bickersteth’s vision powerfully highlights the erasure of Black communities in the Prairies and claims those histories and presences in the movements of land. The Response of Weeds is a work of research of a stunning range, occupying a powerful space in Canadian poetry. It reveals through its polyvocality and song-like lyricism the stories that no one else can tell but that generously involve and include the reader. Bickersteth’s work re-inserts the presence of Black subjectivity into 'an easing confluence/ that confuses complaint in this country' that makes us realize what we lose by not attending to these dramatis personae of invisible men and women, made visible by his vivid figuration.”
— Jurors for the 2021 Gerald Lampert Memorial Award

The Response of Weeds calls and responds to the power of the word. This exceptional collection probes place, race, and history through the manipulation of language. These formidable poems, each expressed in a powerful voice, use jazz and biography to destabilize the presumed history of a Western province through its geographical features and flora.” 
— Stephan G. Stephansson Award for Poetry Jury

“With dazzling artistry, Bickersteth blends music, history, landscape, and human struggle into a remarkable collection that explores the often-hidden experiences of black people on the northern prairie. This book challenges us to think about how our stories define our places and ourselves, and to see how those left out become invisible within our larger narratives of regional, national, and global identity.” 
— Danell Jones, Billings Gazette (full review)

"Bickersteth’s book chronicles a long and nuanced story of displacement and belonging, of finding a way to enter into relationship with the land, even as that same relationship and sense of agency are denied."
— Jenna Butler, Read Alberta (full review)

Grown in Alberta

In Michigan
they will point to a spot
on the palm of their right

when you ask
where are you from?

For Michiganders
the hand is the simulacrum
for substitute belonging.

First came the hand
then the map
then the hand again

The map’s handsome substitute.

But first-first came the cold
and then the mitten:
the map’s handsome substitute.

On the Canadian prairies
the cold is your constant contender
the cold is always first-first.

Once I dreamed of an empty grain elevator
sheathed in brittle ice.
I wanted to get inside

but each time I chipped
at its door, I felt an enervating
pang in the hollow of my abdomen.

I wanted to get outside
but each time I chipped at its door, I saw a glinting
mirrored surface magnifying my actions.

Everything went cold
my breath
undusted diamonds suspended before me.

A landscape was hinted in its spaces.

I would have placed my hand up against it,
the curl of my fingers
settling along the foothills,

but at times like these you can’t help thinking about
those prototype fools in stories
baring the substitute cold to their tongues,

the very wording of my verisimilitude belonging.

And, Canada, you would not believe
how often a Michigander
never asked me

where are you from?