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A search for poetic justice

In this Following Up feature we talk to poet and anti-poverty activist Ed Pickersgill about his latest volume of poetry and the cold hard truth about life on the streets in Guelph

Poet and anti-poverty activist Ed Pickersgill is rarely lost for words and, according to his publisher, his output is so prolific, he pens a poem a day.

“Well, not every day but sometimes I write two or three so, it averages out,” said Pickersgill. “The two main things I do, The Bench and my own writing, they work well together.”

The Bench is a street-level, better-small-than-not-at-all social endeavour that sees food, clothing and an assortment of other essentials distributed to those in need. All via donation.

Pickersgill recently published the second volume of Splinters and Fragments, a growing anthology of poems that express his views on a variety of things and, more poignantly, reflect his view from the bottom of Wyndham Street and his daily experiences at The Bench.

“I do my day and when I get home from The Bench, I get ready for the next day and then I go upstairs, have a cup of tea then lie down and have a nap for an hour,” he said. “When I wake up, I am good for the night. So, I write.”

Pickersgill’s nightly updates, that he posts on his personal Facebook page and the group site, Guelph Community Poverty Relief, are the equivalent of a captain’s log where, among other things, he thanks the volunteers and the many individuals, businesses and organizations in the city that contribute to The Bench. 

“On a day like this, what I would say is, ‘It’s really cold out here, but it’s not as cold as the grave,” said Pickersgill. “What we do here, is we feed people and clothe people so fewer of them die. So, it’s okay that we are out here in the cold.  It’s okay that we are out here getting food to people, making it possible for Kirtida Kitchen to come and bring a whole bunch of meals for people or Loyola House Kitchen on Wednesday to bring 70 meals for people.”

Pickersgill’s daily update is often followed by a poem, and he uses both to tell the stories of the people he meets at The Bench and to draw attention to the holes and flaws in the system. In some cases, fatal flaws.

“That’s the routine so, some of the people that I deal with here in the day, they end up in the grave,” he said. “I can write from that feeling. I can write about what is missing in the community. I can write about some of the things that are in the community, which aren’t really helpful to people.”

The posts, both the prose and the poetry, often ignite fierce online debate and commentary.

“Some is straight on,” he said. “Some is straight between the eyes to the professionals and the politicians. My Facebook is read very carefully by the people that I am speaking about in some of my posts and much of my poetry.”

Pickersgill has been writing and sharing his poetry for more than 40 years, but it took some convincing to get him to publish it.

“I had to pretty much fight with Ed to get him to publish the first volume because he is not one to want to be centre of attention,” said publisher Lisa Browning of One Thousand Trees publishing in Guelph. “It is very good quality poetry. That’s why I approached him in the first place. It’s the combination of the vulnerability and the rawness and the honesty.”

Nearly 300 copies of the first volume of Splinters and Fragments have been sold with all proceeds going to support The Bench. Browning donated her time doing the editing, formatting and pre-press work for both volumes and set up a Go Fund Me account to raise money to cover the cost of printing.

“We’ve printed 250 copies of the second volume,” she said.  “What we’ve done, as a little incentive, is if people buy the second volume, they can get the first volume at half price.”

Splinters and Fragments, Volumes 1 & 2, are available through the One Thousand Trees online bookstore  

“It is also available at The Bookshelf and there are a couple of other places that are stocking it and selling it,” said Browning. “They’re not bookstores, but places like Kirtida Kitchen, for example. They’ve got it on display.”

Browning started One Thousand Trees in 2010 as an online magazine but has since expanded into print including children’s books and non-fiction book publishing.

“It is what happens when you follow your passion, and my passion is helping empower people by telling their stories and speaking their truth,” she said.  “That is why Ed’s stuff is so important to me.”  

There is a truth revealed about the human condition when you visit The Bench on any afternoon and Pickersgill’s poetry attempts to articulate that truth. Not as an observer. Not as a reporter following a lead nor as a photographer or a painter trying to capture a moment.

He makes an effort to know all the visitors to The Bench and they all know him. They recognize their experiences in his poetry. He articulates what many of them don’t have the ability or resources to say.

“This thing that we do here is very much like living art poetry,” he said. ”The two things are symbiotic. They’re interconnected in the winter on a day like this when it’s freezing cold and it is going to be wicked tonight. It is going to drop down to minus-22 in actual and it is going to feel like minus-32, tonight. So, for the people who are on the street, some of them may not make it. So, where is the poetry?”

Perhaps it is fitting to finish with an excerpt from one of Pickersgill’s poems from August, 2020:

“you may discover why it was first said

why it was repeated, how it became truth

what pain set the table, what lack of satisfaction

failure to get needs met in the addict deep world

there are always rumours so you walk your walk 

and they talk their talk while the mill grinds on”