Weaving mythology with a deep reverence for the natural world, it was a poem called Manatee, written by gay poet Rob Friday, that recently won the prestigious John Newlove Award.
The piece was selected by judge George Bowering, Canada’s first poet laureate. He described Manatee as “witty and thoughtful, mysterious and competent.”
The poem describes the experience of a beach-side resident who discovers a letter in a bottle, supposedly written by a mermaid. Shortly after he wakes to find an intriguing act of vandalism on his front door — the crude painting of a mermaid.
Friday chooses simple, unencumbered language — a lyrical directness familiar to fans of Bowering’s work.
“It does not sacrifice prosody and notation to affect. It shows confidence and practised skill on the part of its author.”
The Newlove Award is presented in memory of Ottawa’s John Newlove, who died in 2003 and is awarded by the Bywords Quarterly Journal.
Friday says Manatee is a poem that combines several elements from his childhood.
“I always loved the sea and later, in high school, I really enjoyed English mythology. What I play with it in this poem, is with the belief that what people once believed were mermaids, were actually manatees.”
Friday finds that a common thread round through his poetry: an appreciation for the natural world. He references earlier poems, Chameleon and Insects, and points out their relation to his upbringing.
“I am aboriginal — Ojibwa, from Temagami First Nation. I grew up surrounded by women, in a very matriarchal environment. It was a gentle upbringing. I didn’t feel the need to conform. I felt this deep connection with nature and my family. Even now, I’m very much a city boy, but I have a deep appreciation for nature and the life around me.”
Friday has a long history of writing but very little exposure to sharing, performing and publishing his poetry.
“I started writing in my twenties. My first serious poem was Chameleon. That was the first time I wrote something that I read and thought, “Wow, I wrote that!’ I realized you don’t just have to write about relationships and break-ups. It became my way to make a statement about aspects of society, like the social hierarchy of a restaurant, when I was working as a bus-boy.”
But it was Friday’s partner of fourteen years who recently convinced him to share his poetry — and perhaps think about publishing.
Friday is now putting together a chapbook and he’s also working on artwork, something that he feels balances out his poetry.
“One is an extension of the other. Sometimes I write a lot. Other times I don’t write a lot, but I paint furiously. I go back and forth between the two. I certainly love them both.”
In his paintings, Friday finds he a way to express his ideas about gender in a way that words cannot always fulfill.
“I like bucking the system. That is at the heart of it. I like to have my work transcend the gender roles and fixtures.”
Friday identifies as two-spirited, and he has explored this through his paintings.
“I have a painting called Two Spirits: The Hunter and The Gatherer. To be two-spirited is to embody both the male and female characters co-existing.”
For Friday, the balance of his painting and poetry provides an outlet for the interior and exterior geography — the bold splashes of colour are statements on his sexuality and the carefully chosen words, statements about society as a whole.
Through his upcoming chapbook, Friday intends to nurture what he calls his “humanitarian side.” It’s likely that the collection — with recurring themes of connections to the natural world and urban life and hierarchies — will touch on subtle social commentary.
“The politics that appears in my poetry is much more generalised socially,” he says. “I’m always rooting for the underdog.”