Amber O’Reilly is a French-Canadian multilingual poet, spoken word artist, playwright and screenwriter from Yellowknife and based in Winnipeg since 2013. Her first French-language poetry collection Boussole franche is published with Les Éditions du Blé and won the 2021 Prix littéraire Rue-Deschambault and was a finalist for the 2022 Prix Champlain. Her poetry and critical writing have appeared in several literary magazines, in French and in English. She has performed at literary events across Canada.
O'Reilly's poetry looks at the self, relationships between human beings, the natural world, language, and place. Some of her favourite poets include Mario Benedetti, Pablo Neruda, Mary Oliver, and Jennifer Still.
I began reading poetry around eighth grade at École Allain St-Cyr in Yellowknife, NT. We had anthologies of contemporary Canadian poetry in the classroom that allowed me to discover the poetry of Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Robert Service, and many more. I remember my English teacher assigning the exercise of describing a colour through the five senses. I later wrote a poem about my love for dark chocolate.
Within Robert Service’s work, I particularly remember The Cremation of Sam McGee, because it depicted the North in such a mystical and wild manner. As we recited the poem and went beyond the corny ballad it can appear to be at first glance, we learnt that poems are also vehicles for story, they are time capsules that capture people, places, and circumstances, preserving them in a droplet of eternity. Reading about Sam McGee inspired me to enter Above & Beyond’s Robert Service poetry contest as a high school student, and I wrote a poem titled The Ghosts of Giant Mine, a testimony about the three hundred thousand tons of arsenic stored underground at the former site of Yellowknife’s most infamous gold mine, and the impact of this legacy on the community.
I would scribble heartbreak poems into school notebooks in high school. I had kept diaries since about age 10, and so it was natural for me to pour out my thoughts as words. Poetry helped me to express myself with creative intent. It guided me towards growth and personal development.
In 2012, I was a student at Lester B. Pearson United World College of the Pacific, with other youth from across the world. I joined a slam team with four other students and we registered for Victoria, BC’s local high school slam tournament, Victorious Voices. It was a rewarding challenge to write group pieces in addition to our individual poems, and to perform them very shortly afterward for an audience that did not know us. To our great surprise, we won the tournament, and I fell in love with spoken word. It became the door through which I entered the world of poetry, stepping into my life as a poet.
Poets are messengers, whistleblowers, detectives, snipers and philosophers. We interpret the phenomenon of life and extract all of its colours, pour better or for worse. We speak up about issues and causes and our poems are battle cries. What I’m saying is that it’s difficult to remain relevant as a poet in today’s world without engaging in the world around us. We cannot practice this craft alone in ivory towers.
In our communities, poets can work with school groups or groups, marginalized or underserved adults, and equip folks with tools for creative expression, encouraging them to value their voices. We can support politicians and businesses by sharing our world visions and strategies for creative problem-solving and sustainable economic development. Poets are both artists and citizens, and we are essential to the workings of our societies.
When I Become You by Teva Harrison, because it gives me strength and reminds me that we are so privileged to give and receive love in this life.