Stand in Your Light
Edmonton’s Poet Laureate Mary Pinkoski believes that “no matter what it is, your story is important—so tell it.” “Stand in your light,” she often tells the youth she mentors for YouthWrite (a writing camp for kids), and the expression corresponds to her personality as Pinkoski appears to cast her own warm light. Her bubbly persona is infectious and radiates in her speech as she almost skips across sentences, the speed of her words rising with her enthusiasm as we discuss her passion for poetry.
Her zeal for writing and sharing stories began in Grade 12 during a work experience class for which Pinkoski worked as a freelance reporter at the Sherwood Park News. “[It was] a way for me to tell the stories that are important to people,” she says, and that aspect of the job has remained a focus in her writing. She continued at the newspaper all through her undergrad at the University of Alberta, writing during the summer and doing some ad features during the winter when the paper needed extra help.
When she had first started her education at the U of A, Pinkoski majored in Physical Education but soon realized it wasn’t for her. She’d taken some Canadian Studies courses during that time, though, and chose to switch her major. “I was drawn to [the program] because of its interdisciplinary nature,” she says. “I didn’t have to focus on one thing: I was able to look at Canadian literature, Canadian history, and Canadian politics.” After her degree, Pinkoski found a job at the University of Missouri through the International Council for Canadian Studies, which sends people around the world to work in places with Canadian Studies programs. While doing research for professors and living in Missouri, Pinkoski happened upon spoken word poetry for the first time. Her appreciation for the art form was immediate: “All these people were telling their story in a way that’s accessible, and it’s like you’re sitting around a campfire listening to a story.”
“With spoken word poetry,” she continues, “I could tell all of these stories that were important to me and I could put it into a format that was accessible to people.” Pinkoski believes that spoken word poetry has a different type of power to it than page poetry because “the writer’s able to actually see those connections actualized” in the audience as she’s performing on stage. A spark had been lit in Pinkoski while she was in Missouri, and she now had this new shape to fit her stories in.
Pinkoski returned to the U of A in 2004 to earn her Education degree because she wasn’t finding many jobs related to Canadian Studies. And it was back in Edmonton where her poetry ignited as she did her first readings with the Stroll of Poets. “And then I would drive once or twice a year to Calgary because we didn’t have a slam scene in Edmonton,” she says. Soon after, she began attending the Raving Poets nights. “That community really helped me grow as a writer,” Pinkoski says, adding that Thomas Trofimuk—Glass Buffalo’s featured alumnus in the Winter 2014 issue—was one of her most encouraging mentors and facilitated many events for her to read at. Pinkoski also lists Sheri-D Wilson, a spoken word artist from Calgary, as another super supportive poet during that time: “I’m so grateful for those two who were mentors to me from an early stage.”
Edmonton’s slam scene picked up with the Breath In Poetry Collective. Pinkoski joined as a member of their slam team in 2010. And in 2011, the team won the national slam competition. “What we did was unique and something the national community hadn’t seen before. We took some risks in how we performed our poems...that was a team and a creative venture that I was really proud to be a part of.” At the competition, Pinkoski also took home the Most Valuable Poet title, which was chosen by a vote from her peers in the competition. “As a writer, I just went in to try and give my most honest poems and the poems that had value to me, and I guess that resonated with people,” she humbly admits as the reason for the win.
Pinkoski’s belief that everyone should tell their story led her to work with YouthWrite. “Ever since Gail [Sobat, its founder and coordinator] invited me to be in the program, it’s been so rewarding for me as a writer and as a teaching artist...I grow every year working with youth.” Through that program, Pinkoski organized Yours: Edmonton Youth Open Mic Series, which was run out of the Untitled Bookshop for a year. Pinskoski says she’s inspired by youth, by “their fearlessness in telling their stories and their willingness to try new things.... They’ll dive into things whether or not they know they’ll be successful at it. They’ll do it without fear; I think that’s very noble and brave.” Those are the qualities, Pinkoski says, you need to be a writer.
With all of her accolades and experience in the Edmonton poetry community, Pinkoski was chosen as the city’s Poet Laureate in July 2013. “Officially, my role is that I’m supposed to produce three official pieces per year, and that’s pretty much it and then you’re able to make of it what you want. For me, I see the Poet Laureate as someone who makes poetry more accessible to Edmontonians.” She’s made it her goal to expose citizens to poetry in places they wouldn’t expect it. To this purpose, she’s performed poetry at several different events, such as the City of Edmonton’s three-day forum on bike lanes. “I listened to the discussion at the forum and at the end of each night, I performed a poem,” Pinkoski explains. “It provided a new way to engage with the topic and a new way to understand the dialogue.”
Furthermore, Pinkoski sees the laureateship as a bridge for connecting and growing the community, and she plans to continue fulfilling this role in her final year as Poet Laureate. She believes that stories are “fundamental to our existence and more than that, more than in the telling, I believe that actively hearing other people’s stories forms us as a community and is how we grow. So when I hear your story, I grow an understanding of who you are as a person and we grow together because we’ve shared this story and connection.”
— Matthew Stepanic