Meet KPU: Billeh Nickerson

Apart from launching his poetry collection, his next big project is practicing self-kindness and extending it to others

Billeh Nickerson is the co-chair and faculty at the Kwantlen Polytechnic University Creative Writing department. (Submitted)

Billeh Nickerson is the co-chair and faculty at the Kwantlen Polytechnic University Creative Writing department. (Submitted)

Duct-Taped Roses is Nickerson’s most recent poetry collection, and a reading of it will be taking place virtually on Sept. 21 at 4:00 pm. In his book, Nickerson explores what he likes to call the “good, the bad, the ugly, and the snuggly,” with humour, sadness, and plenty of elegies. He will also perform at the Vancouver Writers Festival in person on Thursday, Oct. 22, at 8:00 pm. 

Nickerson is an instructor and the co-chair of Kwantlen Polytechnic University’s Creative Writing department. He is the author of five books and is the former editor at both Event and PRISM international, and co-editor of Seminal: The Anthology of Canada’s Gay Male Poets.

When did you join the KPU community, and why?

I was actually a student at KPU, and I started in 1991. I’m teaching classes that I took at KPU — which just super blows my mind — back when it was Kwantlen College. But I started teaching here in 2006, so things have definitely come full circle for me. I grew up in Langley, and it’s good to come back to the valley and to teach. I love my job and love my students. 

What is your favourite story of your time at KPU?

There are so many students’ successes and people just overcoming adversity and then understanding parts of themselves, and giving themselves permission to grow and move forward. There’s so many of those.

I remember years ago, the pond that’s in the middle of the Surrey campus, how they had to shock it and it was Smurf blue, and it was the most surreal thing. And I will always remember when there was a bear on campus, and then there were all the ‘Be aware of bears’ posters everywhere. 

That just seems like a very Kwantlen kind of thing. I was scared for everybody else, but I was scared for the bear, too, because it doesn’t end well for them sometimes.

What is something you’d like to say to people new to the community?

Take advantage of this time. This is a great time to learn and challenge yourself. You’ve worked hard to get here and take this opportunity to meet new people. It’s harder during the pandemic, but take some chances. Those connections and those people you meet during your time at KPU are going to be friends for life or people that you will see in the greater communities that you’re part of. 

There are people from when I was a student at KPU who I still have interactions with, professionally or within the writing community. If you’re open, there are all these opportunities for you. 

What are you working on right now?

It’s been interesting to have a book come out during this time because, in some ways, I feel like I’m doing more reading than ever, but I missed the audience. 

So it’s great because I can be in a reading series in Hamilton or Calgary or Victoria, sometimes all on the same day, which wouldn’t have been possible beforehand. But I really miss hearing those little noises that people make at readings, and when you can tell you’re making a connection. It’s sometimes hard to make a connection with a little thumbnail.  

I kind of feel that I’ve missed out on that a bit. But it balances out because then I’ve got to reach different audiences through Zoom, and that’s been wonderful. The other thing, too, is I think we forget a lot of folks may not have the ability to get out to different events for a variety of reasons, and being able to be part of a community through something that happens online makes it easier for them to do. So it’s a bit of a balance. 

I hope moving forward, when we get through all this, that we do have a bit of both, so we do make it easier in terms of accessibility and that we can get a little bit of everything. 

My book is called Duct-Taped Roses. There is a poem in here that I started 20 years ago, which is kind of crazy, and that’s an elegy about my dad. I’m kind of known for what I call “the good, the bad, the ugly and the snuggly,” so a little bit of everything. 

There’s a lot of humour, but sadly in this book, there’s a lot of elegies. This book is about living your life with humour, and also curiosity. I think the book is about gay resiliency — resiliency in general — but there’s a lot in particular within the queer community and the gay community. 

Everyone thought like, ‘Oh, AIDS is done,’ and it’s not. For instance, suicide rates are huge amongst gay men. Almost as many gay men are dying from suicide as during the AIDS crisis. I think that sadness is there within my community, and that’s come into my poetry. 

To be quite honest, my big project and the thing I’m working on right now is to be kind to myself and be kind to others. I think that is a huge endeavour and it’s about the space that I’m in right now. Just kindness for myself and for those around me. 

What is something you would like people to know about you?

Some folks know this, but not everyone knows this. I was once a competitive junior curler. I spent many of my weekends during my high school and even a little bit after that driving around all the curling clubs in the Lower Mainland, sometimes up into the Okanagan or Vancouver. So, I’m this poet guy, but I was also an avid curler. And I was a silver medalist at the Canadian Gay Curling Championships. It just makes me giggle to be honest. Some poetry people are like, ‘Wait a minute, does he wear his black turtleneck when he’s curling?’ But yeah, that’s one of the things that people may not know about me.