Growing up as a black female in a predominantly white town in Ontario, Ann-Bernice Thomas has gone through a lot of experiences she describes as weird.
One time in Grade 10, her teacher was talking about a disease that was found in Africa, then pointed at Thomas as if she should know the answer. Another peer once told her she wasn’t black because she wasn’t in a ghetto.
“I thought that was very interesting for him to tell me that and how racist that was. It happened in Grade 10 and I’m still like wow,” she said. “You almost become a spokesperson for the entire race…It makes me feel like my entire identity and who I am as a middle-class black woman doesn’t really exist.”
Thomas eventually turned to poetry, giving her a forum to express herself and hear her own voice.
Now a spoken word artist and screenplay writer in her second year at the University of Victoria, the ??-year-old writes about race and cultures, family, and mental health issues — among many other topics she says are important to the world.
She’s also performed at the Ferguson Rally in 2014, the Scotiabank Aids Walk for Life in 2015 and stage-managed and performed in the applied theatre show, Waste Management in 2015, which toured different high schools discussing dumpster diving, capitalism and the world of waste we have created for ourselves.
But now Thomas has a different platform to share her poetry for the next 12 months as Victoria’s new youth poet laureate.
Serving as a champion for youth and the literary arts, Victoria’s youth poet laureate is meant to inspire and engage local youth to share their stories through both the written and spoken word.
According to the city’s arts and culture coordinator Nichola Reddington, in 2012 Victoria became the first city in Canada to have a youth poet laureate, who will be mentored by Victoria’s adult poet laureate, Yvonne Blomer.
As a youth poet laureate, Thomas will create and present new works to city council and youth council, conduct poetry readings at city and library events, along with organizing a community youth poetry gathering.
Reddington claims having poetry readings before a council meeting is a good start to an evening often filled with serious discussions.
“It’s an opportunity to sort of showcase our poetry and our youth poetry and the work they do,” said Reddington. “Their poems can also touch upon things that are happening in the community so it’s another platform for our poets to have a voice in that sort of setting with council and the public there to listen.”
Last fall, the city posted called for nominations for poets between the ages of 14 and 24. Applicants were required to have an established body of work (written or spoken word) and recognized for notable contributions in their career.
The submissions were then evaluated by a committee of representatives from the literacy and poetry community. This year, officials received more than 10 applications — the majority from people already enrolled in university.
In the past, Reddington said there have been people as young as 15 apply for the position, but the majority are often between 18 to 23. It was Thomas’ strength as a performance poet, doing well in competitions in Ontario and B.C., that scored highly during the adjudication process.
But this isn’t the first time Thomas took a shot at the youth poet laureate title. During her first attempt last year, Thomas found she didn’t have as much time as she would have liked to put into the application. The second attempt would be different, but Thomas was still surprised to hear she had been chosen.
Thomas was officially introduced as Victoria’s youth poet laureate during a council meeting last week. She admits speaking in front of a large audience is a little intimidating at first, but it pushes her to do the best work possible.
“I enjoy telling stories that matter,” she said. “I enjoy the theatrical and the lyricalness to the poems and how people can be moved to someone speaking alone. You don’t need pictures, you can just draw someone in and engage with a crowd. I think that’s really cool.”
The youth poet laureate is an honorary one-term position from Jan. 1 to Dec. 16. In addition to the year-long mentorship, the position receives a $1,750 honorarium and $1,000 of project funding from the city and Greater Victoria Public Library.