Calgary's new poet laureate says 'writing can be a way to find a deep sense of belonging'

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Calgary’s new poet laureate says they have spent decades using poetry to work through major life events, including grief and loss, and to process the world around them.

Shone Thistle, who describes themself as a one-time “awkward, queer, latchkey kid,” was appointed Calgary poet laureate in council chambers on April 30. They will hold the position for two years and is the seventh writer to hold the post since the program began in 2012.

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“I think as queer people, we don’t always see ourselves as fitting in with the world around us,” says Thistle, in an interview with Postmedia. “Writing can be a way to find a deep sense of belonging within ourselves.”

As poet laureate, Thistle will act as an arts ambassador for the city. They delivered a poem to city council on April 30. They will be sharing both poetry and visual art on May 26 at the Bow Building for Pride In Business’s Pride and Art event. They will be sharing their work at the upcoming Calgary Arts Development Report to Community on June 29 and at Canada Day celebrations. They also hope to work with queer youth in the city “so that they have the opportunity to dive into their feelings and their world using words and poetry.”

In early June, they will be combining civic politics and poetry directly and working with city councillors and city staff from across the country at the Federation of Canadian Municipalities annual conference, which will be held from June 6 to 9 in Calgary this year.

It will be a “story-catching” exercise, where Thistle will ask subjects questions such as “What prompted you to get involved in community leadership” and “What legacy do you want to leave when you move on from this role?” or “What inspires you when times are hard?” They will take the responses and form a new poem, which will be presented on June 9.

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“When you are tapping into why people do what they do and the difference they are making in their work, it’s very easy to find inspiration and to find common themes and a narrative that you can share back with them,” Thistle says. “It can often be quite moving, because I don’t think we often think about our ‘why?’ ”

Born in Victoria, Thistle moved to Calgary in the late 1990s. They concentrated on visual arts in high school but have been writing since they were six or seven years old.

Their work can be found in anthologies such as Mic Check: An Anthology of Canadian Spoken Word Poetry, and YYC POP: Poetic Portraits of the People and they have produced work for radio, jazz ensembles, cabarets, galleries and conference keynotes. They recently wrote, produced and collaborated on Nipiy I’aoue Water We, a sound art installation and cabaret performance for Arts Commons. Thistle is used to performing poetry.

When they were in their 20s and 30s, they were immersed in the world of slam poetry, a lively and competitive performance where poets compete with each other at events.

“It’s three minutes: you get up, you share some poetry, you hopefully move some people and you get judged on that. You develop a bit of a thick skin and you get a sense of the joy of sharing words to capture a feeling.”

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Thistle is currently executive director of Calgary Queer Arts Society and has also served as board president of Calgary Pride. In 2019, Thistle wrote to city council on behalf of Calgary Pride to ask that the practice of conversion therapy be banned in the city. The “therapy” is a widely discredited practice that attempts to use psychological or spiritual intervention to change a person’s sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression. It has been described by critics as a form of torture. City council voted to approve a bylaw that banned the practice in May 2020.

Thistle follows former laureates Kris Demeanor, derek beaulieu, Micheline Maylor, Sheri-D Wilson, Natalie Meisner and Wakefield Brewster, who served from 2022 to 2024.

Thistle says all have been inspirations.

“Watching Kris Demeanor step into the role and to lean so personally into truth and reconciliation and bringing people to a space of shared cultural storytelling, I think was really beautiful,” Thistle says. “When I think of derek beaulieu’s work, I tap into my brain in a different way when I experience his work. It’s really thought-provoking. Sheri-D Wilson has been a huge influence in my life. I came upon her as a young poet and she really gave me the opportunity to workshop my poetry, share my poetry and just be authentic to myself in her presence, which always felt like a sense of coming home.”

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