Nanaimo welcomes new Poet Laureates

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By News Editor Aislinn Cottell

The three-year term of Naomi Beth Wakan, Nanaimo’s first ever Inaugural Poet Laureate, has come to an end. Instated in 2013, in her time as Laureate, Wakan was a prolific writer, and established several successful creative projects in the city, including starting a high-school poetry competition, and establishing Nanaimo’s Poetry Map and Poetry in Transit programs. Her absence will be missed, however, two new faces have arrived to carry on her efforts—Kailey DeFehr (filler of the brand-new position of Inaugural Youth Poet Laureate), and Tina Biello, to be Wakan’s direct successor.

Kailey DeFehr is 22, a Nanaimoite born and raised. In her early teens, DeFehr dabbled in song writing before turning to poetry, a switch she attributes to the inconvenient effects of puberty.

“I had been a good singer, and then my voice kind of dropped, so my songs became more like poems,” DeFehr said.

She wrote throughout high school, mainly in free verse, exploring emotional topics such as heartbreak, anxiety, and depression, and eventually started a blog to showcase her work. Receiving a positive response, DeFehr decided to take some writing classes at VIU, where she ended up meeting Wakan, who further mentored her exploration into Nanaimo’s writing scene. With Wakan’s support, DeFehr has done several readings at local events, including the recent writer’s festival, and the launch of the 2016 Nanaimo Poet’s Anthology. Wakan was also the one who nominated DeFehr to be Youth Poet Laureate.

DeFehr says she was flattered by the nomination, and is excited to explore the possibilities of the position. While there have been no project confirmations yet, she does have some ideas regarding making more poetry spaces for youth in the community.

“When I was writing poetry in high school, I felt like kind of an oddball—everyone was talking about joining a band, or joining sports, and I was like ‘I’m over here in the corner writing poetry’—so it would have been nice to have a role model in the community, and a setting where other youth were doing that too.”

She believes that the position of poet laureate is important, especially in respect to bridging the gap between artists, and building connections.

“It brings poets together, and writers together. I think that sometimes people who are into art forms like that—it can get kind of isolating. You’re spending a lot of time in your head. So it’s really good to have a community that is supportive, so it doesn’t go on the back burner.”

DeFehr is also very aware of being the first youth poet laureate, and determined to lay a strong foundation for future nominees.

“I think it’s really important that whatever the project is, that it’s something the next Youth Poet Laureate can carry on with. So it’s finding the balance between something really cool and something not too elaborate.”

Tina Biello, the new Inaugural Poet Laureate, also grew up ion the Island, although she moved away after high school to study Theatre at UBC. She returned in the late ‘90s to live on Gabriola and care for her mother, and this move is what ended up bringing her into the world of poetry. Here, on a whim, Biello also took her first poetry class at VIU.

“I needed to find work when I moved back to the Island, because, obviously, I wasn’t going to find work as an actor, so I went back to VIU to take a program working with kids with special needs,” said Biello. “I was always writing, but I had never taken a formal poetry class. And I loved it.”

“I think that poetry is the one genre that goes to the heart quickly. Because of the form, you’re putting a lot in the short amount of space, and it has to grab a reader, it has to touch the heart. For me, it’s really that poetry goes to the heart of the matter.”

Biello published her first poems in the chapbook “Momenti” in 2011, and later went on to write two full volumes, “In the Bone Cracks of the Walls” (2014) and “A Housecoat Remains” (2015). Since 2008, Biello has attended yearly retreats in Honeymoon Bay with acclaimed Canadian poet Patrick Lane, husband of the equally renowned poet Lorna Crozier. Biello herself also hosts writer’s retreats in Nanoose, where she lives, bringing artists from Vancouver and elsewhere to experience the inspirational wealth of the Island.

Like DeFehr, Biello also writes free verse poetry. To date, her topics have been largely self-exploratory, but she says she is looking forward to writing about others’ stories for a change.

“I’m excited about this poet laureate position because it’s writing about the city, and getting to know Nanaimo at a civic level. I’m fascinated by writing other people’s stories now,” said Biello. “I think my theatre background really helps me there.”

Biello hopes to continue Wakan’s projects, and will also be networking with the city, DeFehr, and other artistic leaders on the Island develop new poetic initiatives for Nanaimo.

“We are really starting to grow culturally and artistically, and there’s so much going on now that wasn’t here in the late ‘90s. It’s a great time for me to be coming into this role, and to be connected to the arts community. There’s a lot of great artists, a lot of great people—there’s a great dance company in town, a great music scene, theatre.”

“[Poetry] is always important, but at times like this it really is heightened, people are on the edge of their seat, and it’s up to the artists to reflect back and be there, be leaders,” said Biello. “That’s why the arts are so important, all of it: theatre, writing, music—we’re the ones who hold up the mirrors.”

Lake Cowichan

Tina Biello, Nanaimo’s next Inaugural Poet Laureate. 📷Chris Hanson Donaldson
Tina Biello, Nanaimo’s next Inaugural Poet Laureate. 📷Chris Hanson Donaldson

A girl should not climb the apple tree.

This is a job for boys.

The tree frog should not be displaced.

The apples should.

Her feet should smell of baby powder

and roses.

And not have any dirt under the toenails.

She should wear a dress on Sundays,

say ten Hail Mary’s before dinner

and never fight with her brother.

(This I was taught in the village of Lake Cowichan).

Where the rain shouldn’t stop

and the trees won’t weep

for the feet of the men who fell them

don’t speak the language. They should.

They speak in sun and olive oil and farms.

But those villages are gone now,

the men are too.

Coming Home 

Kailey DeFehr, Nanaimo’s first Inaugural Youth Poet Laureate. 📷  Kailey DeFehr
Kailey DeFehr, Nanaimo’s first Inaugural Youth Poet Laureate. 📷 Kailey DeFehr

I kissed him first

in the full moonlight

under a canopy of evergreens,

dusted with stars and crystalized

raindrops. He was leaning against

the mud-splattered tire of his

faded red quad in dirty work boots,

ankles crossed, his friend’s

amber truck lights casting long

shadows of our bodies

out toward the still water’s edge

of Barsby Lake.

He tasted of Lucky and cherry

Blackstones, his rough, tan hands

coming to rest on my too-wide hips,

pulling himself into the warmth beneath

his own green and black plaid jacket,

draped like a blanket over my

now unwinding shoulders.

We were practically kids,

new-found freedom hanging over

our heads like a ball of yarn for a kitten;

not a clue what to do with a happy ending

if we ever did manage to snag one.

And yet I knew even then

what coming home was supposed

to feel like. And he was all wind chimes

on the front porch, steak, potatoes,

and a pair of old, paint-splattered,

faded blue jeans.


Aislinn is a third year Bachelor of Arts and Science student majoring in creative writing and minoring in chemistry. New to The Nav team this year, she’s enjoying finding out about all the interesting things happening on campus. Her hobbies include reading, drawing, Netflix, and the copious consumption of coffee.