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People get so uptight about bodies, says poet Billeh Nickerson

Artificial Cherry offers a naughty, playful mouthful

Poet Billeh Nickerson savoured the chance to meander and be playful again with his new book of poetry, Artificial Cherry. Credit: Gerilee McBride

The latest poetry collection from Vancouverite Billeh Nickerson is a conversation on the body, crushed hearts and Elvis Presley.

Nickerson finds the literary in everyday life, and his poems remind me of the drunken confessionals you hear between friends in the bathroom stall of a nightclub: “.  .  . And then his low hanging balls hit the toilet water.” 

The smut is tasteless, but your mouth will drop so wide you’ll enjoy a big mouthful anyway.

In “Five Things Men in Bed Have Told Me About Their Assholes,” Nickerson takes pillow talk to the next level. But really, whose asshole can’t lip-sync to Mariah Carey?

There is a bit of fixation on the anus in Artificial Cherry; “Highway Game: Anal RVs” was inspired by Nickerson’s visit to an Elvis impersonators’ festival.

“I learned about the trick of adding the word ‘anal’ to the names of RVs while I was in residence at Pierre Berton’s childhood home in Dawson City, Yukon,” he says. “It’s just so silly and absurd that I needed to bring it into a poem! All those tourists travelling along the Alaska Highway never seemed the same again.”

Both the gory and the glory of the human body get poetic treatment in Nickerson’s hands — a section of the book is devoted to the liberation of flesh in all its beauty, grotesqueness and flaws.

“Some people get so uptight and precious,” he says. “What shocks us, I would think, would be violence and rape culture and all these things, but we’re shocked of our bodies . . . Many of my poems ease some of the discomfort through the use of humour.”

The cheeky, sweet poems in Artificial Cherry see the return of Nickerson’s wicked sense of humour following his 2012 anthology, The Titanic Poems, which marked the shipwreck’s 100th anniversary with a more solemn tone.

“A lot of my work is about capturing the image or the moment that speaks to an emotion or a tragedy or joy,” he says. “This book was good for me because I got to be a little naughty again but also play around . . . I didn’t get to meander with the other books; they were very succinct. It’s going to be nice to go and do readings and make people laugh again.”

When he’s onstage, Nickerson blurs the line between poetry reading and standup comedy show; he considers Joan Rivers, Sandra Bernhard and Margaret Cho three of his greatest inspirations.

“Looking back at more formative years for me, I realized I was really influenced by many female standup comedians,” he says. “I think that my line breaks and my sense of time” is similar to how a comic tells jokes. “Giving the reader enough time to stew and be discomforted or relieved; that’s what I’m trying to achieve.”

Nickerson’s meandering makes Artificial Cherry a surprising journey down a road where every step of the way is a catchy, rhythmic and sometimes even healing story.

“I think my writing can sometimes be cathartic,” he says. “God forbid that if I die of some terminal illness I’m going to be the one telling jokes in the hospital bed right up until the end.”