An Interview with Duncan Mercredi
CV2 Magazine editor Clarise Foster sat down with Winnipeg's Poet Laureate, Duncan Mercredi in February 2020 and asked him about his work, his city, and his thoughts on being named Winnipeg’s Poet Laureate. What follows is a condensed version of their conversation, to be published later this year in CV2.
Photo by KC Adams
Clarise Foster: Congratulations on becoming Winnipeg’s second Poet Laureate. How does it feel to be our city’s newest literary ambassador? Can you talk about your role and your plans for it?
Duncan Mercredi: I really don’t know what my role will be yet but I’ve got some ideas already. I want to involve the Indigenous Writers Collective, and I want to include some of the younger writers from Red Rising Magazine. They’ve got some really good writers there. And then there is this group that came for the sessions when I was at the Writer-In-Residence at the Centre for Creative Writing and Oral Culture at the University of Manitoba. They are, how would you call it, from “the other side.” White seems to be a bit of no go and using Caucasian now is weird.
CF: Where I grew up in the South Pacific, there was never a question about what I was—I was either white or a haole. That is what the local people called us and what most of the white people living in the area called ourselves.
DM: Yes, to go back to the language, moniyâw, means white and is more Ojibwe than Cree. In Grand Rapids we said mistigosiwaki. Anyway, there are some very good writers in this group and I would love to include them too, and create a good mix of writers for the project.
I am not completely clear what we are going to do but I already have an idea what the theme will be. I would like to call it “resistant poems” or something similar. That’s why I want to include the young writers. They are more in tune to that. I think some of us “elderly” writers are a little more set in our ways. That we watch from afar—we’ve gone through this already. What’s going to happen in the future isn’t going to affect me as much as it is going to affect young people and their children.
CF: What are some of your official responsibilities?
DM: Yes, apparently, I am supposed to make a speech to the city council, which should be interesting. I think having to address the council will be interesting—but I don’t want to feel constrained. I want to speak about the truth of the city.
CF: When did you first come to Winnipeg?
DM: I was twelve years old when I first came to Winnipeg and when I saw it, it was the biggest city I had ever seen in my life. The men used to talk about their trips to Winnipeg when they used to come to visit my dad and my kookum. I would listen to them tell stories about it, how they would drive into the city and they would see this light. My imagination went nuts. I realized that I wanted to be there, I wanted to see this place.
My dad only drove into the city in the nighttime, he didn’t like to drive in during the day, it was too busy. We left Grand Rapids around four in the afternoon and got to Winnipeg by midnight. There were six kids in the car plus my cousin and they were all sleeping but I wanted to stay awake. I wanted to see that first entrance into the city, I wanted to see that light—that globe. They used to say it was like a globe because of the lights. And I could see that, I could see it for miles before we got there. Once we drove into the city, and we went to the hotel, I was up bright and early to go walking around downtown to see what it was like—that’s when I said, “Okay, I’m home.” I was twelve years old—I didn’t get back to stay until I was twenty-one years old but I knew then that I was home. I knew that Winnipeg was going to be my home.
CF: When did poetry come along?
DM: Poetry was always there. A lot of the stuff I wrote for [my wife] Freida was poetry, not love poems by the way, just stock poetry. She didn’t like the love poems anyway. So, poetry was always tied in. I think it was because of the stories I would hear as a boy, a lot of the stories were almost poetic. The stories of the storytellers who came in from outside the community, were poetic in the way they did them. How they would tell their stories—the highs and lows, the way the stories flowed, it was almost like listening to poetry. I think that impacted how I wrote. So, poetry was always there.
I also found that I didn’t like writing long pieces when I was trying to tell something, so poetry became the direction I took. I thought a poem made more of an impact than a short story. I didn’t want people to have to go all the way through a short story to find out, “Ah that’s what this is all about.” I wanted it right there.
After my first book, Spirit of the Wolf: Raise Your Voice came out in 1990, the second one, Dreams of the Wolf in the City: poems, followed shortly after that and the third one, Wolf and Shadows: poems after that, it all came very fast. But I think it was after the second book came out, when I began to feel something was missing. I enjoyed doing the poetry, but there seemed to be something missing, but I wasn’t really sure what it was. Then when the third book came out, I was happy with it but not crazy about it. And the fourth book, The Duke of Windsor: Wolf sings the blues, I wrote because I wanted to write a little bit more about the city because it was more impactful at the time.
CF: One of your more recent poems, “This City is Red,” speaks directly about the complex and difficult history Winnipeg was built on and that history’s contemporary contradictions for Indigenous peoples. How does the city continue to shape your writing?
DM: I think it’s the contrast. It is the contrast—the beauty of the Forks—the quietness. Other people actually get along—they actually talk to each other—and yet once they get back to their neighbourhoods it is completely different. You are seen as a stranger when you go through some neighbourhood—but when you are in the Forks it is different. You are just part of that group.
When I talk about the city’s journey—I think I am talking more about people’s attitudes. The person, compared to what the streets are like. But again, for me, it is about what Grand Rapids was before and then after Hydro happened—how peaceful it was before Hydro and how it changed around in just a couple of years. How it became dirty, because of the violence that ensued. Coming into Winnipeg you see that violence too but it exists in pockets here and there as opposed to Grand Rapids which was completely consumed with it—there is no beautiful place in Grand Rapids. But in this city, you can find places where there is violence and grittiness—but you can also find a place like the Forks or Assiniboine Park, and places in neighbourhoods where you feel comfortable. I feel comfortable in the neighbourhood I live in. I can go to St. James, and feel uncomfortable—or Tuxedo where you feel you are an outsider and yet it is part of the city.
When I started writing “This City is Red,” I think I was trying to show people, this is what the city is. You can’t change it, you can’t change people’s minds. Once you set your mind, this is who you are, that is the way you are always going to be viewed as. I want people to know that I can see that. You can’t hide that. And yet, I am more connected to this city now, than I ever was with my own community. Even as a boy. I always felt there was something more. For me, I found it in this city. I have visited Toronto, I have been to Ottawa, and I have been to Vancouver and I don’t feel that same sense as I do here. I guess to me its home. It is a little bit of Grand Rapids when I was a boy. I can go to the Forks and talk to the old people. Because there is so much history in that area. That’s where the gathering place used to be at one time. And the voices are still there. And I am not a big believer in things like that. I am not spiritual man. I don’t follow the spiritual way. I don’t follow region or Christianity in any fashion what so ever. And yet I feel something there. I guess what I am trying to say is that there is a life force there. Not just there but in this city itself. And I guess because of all the people that are here, and we are not so big that we can actually separate each other.
CF: I am curious because for the past several years you’ve had this note in your bio that says you have been working on a project for ten years, not done yet.
DM: Well, that’s what I am working on now. It is a project that is probably going to be comprised of a lot of stuff I have written over the years, and didn’t fit in anywhere else. I call the one I am working on now, “My life based on a true story” People ask me, what do you mean “based on a true story”, and I tell them some of it is true, but some of it you are going to have to decide whether if it is true or not.
CF: You are known for how well you work with other writers, and we talked about what you might do as Poet Laureate, there are many levels to being visible and how that encourages people as well.
DM: I have always enjoyed working with young people, they have a fresh look on life that I have forgotten. I’ve always enjoyed helping them put things down on paper. I have always enjoyed listening to them. And I have always enjoyed reading their work. Trying to get them to read is impossible sometimes. But I always tell them you are good looking young people; you should be proud to be standing up there reading your work. You should be proud of what you are working on. I enjoy that, because I want to hear their voices, what life means to them, their stories. I want to know the city means to them.
And with other writers, the older ones, it is just that I enjoy listening to stories, their stories. I am not just a storyteller; I like listening to stories too. And if they hit me particularly hard, I enjoy that, I will go back and think about them. Once I enter a room to do a workshop, we are all one colour. The stories are different, but we are all writers, or want to be writers. We want our stories to be told. I am there to listen, to help them. To help them get started. It gets lonesome in that little room when you are just writing by yourself.
This City (excerpt)
I have lived here longer than where I was born
I walk along its concrete trails
Paths have led me through back alley dreams
Still my visions take me back
That place where the river blessed me
I could dive down deep within that clear cold water
Stretch my arms out to touch bottom
But I never could and over time
That clear cold water became cloudy
No longer clear
No longer life giving
No longer blessed
Now I haunt the urban landscape
Searching for another song
One I heard as a child
Has faded by city sounds and sirens in the night
Reaching the place where the city ends
All I see is an unending horizon
I always turn back
Face east, west , south but never north
I have left that place
I have placed my tobacco on these sidewalks
To claim this city as my home
Created for The Drift video series by Ice River Films
(c) 2018 Duncan Mercredi