Benjamin Hertwig is a National Magazine Award–winning writer, painter, and ceramicist, born and raised under big prairie skies and currently living on unceded Coast Salish territory, Vancouver. As a child, he liked sports publicly and books privately. Since graduating from high school, he has spent time as a soldier, a student, a bike courier, a treeplanter, an inner-city housing worker, and English instructor. His first book of poetry, Slow War, was a shortlisted finalist for the Governor General's Literary Awards, the Raymond Souster Award, and received the Stephan G. Stephansson Award. His writing has appeared with the New York Times, The Walrus, Ricepaper, and NPR, among others.
I most emphatically did not read poetry in high school. I wish that I had been interested in school at that time of my life, but I wasn't. I was very susceptible to a limiting conception of masculinity that included sports and militarism but not poetry. I now try and help my students, regardless of gender, think about the present and the future in a way that doesn't preclude new, and sometimes frightening, possibilities.
I started writing poetry after I came back from Afghanistan in 2006, though I didn't start a sustained writing practice until about 2014. Before writing Slow War I didn’t think of myself as a writer, but the affirmation I received from friends and from people who read the book helped me think of myself as one. I stumbled into writing during difficult times and was fortunate enough to know some excellent and kind people who eased me into the process and the profession gently and with a lot of graciousness. Poetry helped me to cover a lot of distance with fewer words than I could have with prose. I didn’t know how to create a larger literary structure, but poetry helped me find and follow a few bush trails of image and emotion.
I think good poetry is fundamentally moral, even as it's not didactic. It's moral in it's devotion to craft, structure, honesty, and language. A good poet expands our ability to engage with with fear, uncertainty, injustice, humor, the future, the past. A good poet helps us understand and treat our neighbours better and be more gentle with ourselves too. A good poet should be a good and generous neighbour.
Leanne Betasamosake Simpson's “i am graffiti.” It was one of the more popular choices for student recitation in the 2018 Vancouver Team Regional Competition, where I first heard it aloud, and the power and importance of the poem were seen on the faces of the various students who spoke. Simpson's words feel like the sort of lamentation that makes space for a better future.