#HowIMadeIt 2017

Rebecca Thomas, Poet

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Rebecca Thomas Headshot

(Photograph: Hannah Jackson)

Rebecca Thomas; Halifax; @beccaleat

Let’s say we’ve just met at a cocktail party. How would you describe, in a nutshell, what you do?

I am Halifax’s current poet laureate who does not want to be a poet but rather I am someone who wants to make the world less crummy for Indigenous people and I happen to use poetry to do that. I also am a student services advisor at Nova Scotia Community College.

Where did you go to school and what did you study?

I went to Dalhousie University. I have an honours undergrad in social anthropology with a double minor in biology and theatre. I also have a master of arts in social anthropology.

What was your first paying gig out of school? (In your field, or not.)

The first time I was paid to perform poetry was at a Word Iz Bond SPEAK! series. I had performed at the open mic a few times. After one performance, the organizer and MC, El Jones, asked me in front of the crowd if I would be willing to feature at the next month’s event. The crowd applauded and I said yes.

What was your BIG break? How did you land it?

So far to date, I would say being chosen as Halifax’s poet laureate was my BIG break. The city put out their call for the position and I decided to apply. I did not think I was qualified because I had only been writing poetry for a few years. That being said, I have always been told that I should apply for things even if I don’t think I’m fully qualified as a good exercise and learning experience. The call for nominations stated that only successful candidates would be contacted by a certain date. That date had come and gone and I had yet to hear back. I figured that I hadn’t progressed and put it out of my mind. Then one day, there was an email in my inbox asking me to come for an interview because I had been short-listed. After this, I got a phone call asking to come in to chat about the interview and going forward. During the initial part of this call, I was very confused. It turns out that my congratulatory email had been sent to my work account and I was on the first day of vacation so I hadn’t read it yet. I interrupted the person on the so phone and said “So…I got it?” and he said yes and I freaked out.

Describe the moment in which you first realized, I think this is actually going to work out?

I think I started to get this long-term feeling of success when I was—and still—am being inundated with requests six months, nine months, and a year after the initial poet laureate announcement. I guess the novelty of my work hasn’t worn off.

What would you say has been your biggest failure or shortcoming, career-wise, to date? How did you bounce back?

I would say I’m a terrible self-promoter. I’m very lucky that so many fantastic organizations, people, and event planners are reaching out to me. I let myself off the hook a little bit because I also work a demanding full-time job so when I go home and ignore my inbox because I had a really hard day, I don’t feel too guilty, but still a little guilty. I bounce back by capitalizing on my good moments where I rip through all my starred emails in an afternoon or evening when I’m feeling particularly energized.

Name one piece of career advice you always give.

I always tell poets to tell their own story as clearly as they can. Connect to the human who is listening. Sometimes people pile on metaphor on metaphor and it can be hard to unpack if you’re listening to a spoken performance piece. I think metaphor is beautiful and maybe I say this because I don’t think I’m particularly good at it, but I often tell poets who ask me for advice, “Just because I don’t understand it, doesn’t make it good or deep or thoughtful. You have to have a good foundation for your house before you pick out the drapes.” See? I’m terrible with metaphors.

What’s the worst career advice you’ve ever gotten?

“Diversify your pieces, you wouldn’t want to pigeonholed as the ‘Native Poet.'”

Did you deal with barriers in your field because you are a woman? If so, what were they?

I think that being a woman in the poet laureate program wasn’t much of a barrier, nor being Indigenous. The program has had all female laureates and half of them have been women of colour. I think that is a spectacular thing. However, because I am Indigenous (Mi’kmaq First Nation), there is an expectation that I know EVERYTHING about Indigenous issues. The simple reality is I don’t. I know a fair amount but I’m often looked to as an expert, which I am far from.

Regarding my other job, I think being a plucky young woman can come with its drawbacks. I am often told that I look so young and that creates doubt when I’m trying to advise people or contribute to a direction within the organization. It makes me feel frustrated when there is this assumption that someone who looks young can’t be driven and critical. I can assure you that I am both.

Are you making a fair income for your work? Why or why not? Do you have a side hustle for extra cash? If so, what is it

I can 100 percent tell you that being poet laureate does not pay my mortgage. I have a great job helping students succeed which does pay my bills and the poetry feeds my spirit. However, I would happily sling coffees and unload trucks (both of which I have done in the past) if it meant I got to pursue my passion. I’m very fortunate that I like what I do in both the education world and the arts world. They often overlap. Sometimes my students inspire beautiful prose and other times, frustrated rhymes because of how the system fails them. Now if we could negotiate more time in a day and less burnout, we’d be onto something.

What’s the worst stereotype you’ve heard about millennials at work?

I’m an “old millennial” so this is a bit personal to me. I think the entitlement piece and the laziness label are problematic. I think millennials who put in four-plus years of university, are 50K in debt and are dealing with all the anxiety that comes along with that have a right to demand a job that pays their bills and acknowledges that mental health days are just as valid as sick days. With increasing tuition, boomers who won’t retire (thus not vacating needed jobs), increases in the cost of living, etc., it’s no wonder millennials feel like the world is against them. My husband and I are having a conversation about kids. We don’t live in a world where one income is sufficient to support a household. We might be called selfish for not having children but in the grand scheme of things, we simply can’t afford them right now.

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