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People You Should Know in New West: Elliott Slinn

New West poet and musician hopes to inspire people of all ages
Elliott Slinn2
Elliott Slinn has been named the City of New Westminster's poet laureate for 2021 to 2024.

Who is he?

Elliott Slinn has been selected as the City of New Westminster’s fifth and newest poet laureate for. A poet, writer and recording artist, Slinn grew up in the city and still lives in his hometown.

What is the poet laureate anyway?

A report to council describes the poet laureate as a literary ambassador for the City of New Westminster and the community. In addition to advocating for literacy and the literary arts and helping to raise the status of poetry, language and the arts in the everyday consciousness of New Westminster residents, the poet laureate also develops meaningful engagement opportunities that enrich the lives of residents and visitors to the city.

How it happened:

Earlier this year, city council approved a call for proposals for the next poet laureate. The goal was to seek out diverse voices and perspectives, including BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, persons of colour) and equity-seeking writers and poets, as well as those working in non-traditional literary art forms.

In early June, council endorsed a recommendation from the city’s arts commission to appoint Slinn as the city’s poet laureate for 2021 to 2024. It felt he had a strong proposal that “aligned with the goals of the program and included a well-defined engagement plan that will serve to broaden awareness and diversity participation.”

Some background:

Slinn attended schools in other communities before attending New Westminster Secondary School for Grade 11 and 12, graduating from NDub in 2002. While attending Douglas College, he spent his mornings and afternoons working at the Westminster Children’s After School Society’s Klub Kelvin out-of-school program.

“When I was working at Klub Kelvin, I was also going to school. Then I got a job at Lululemon doing social media writing. I went to Lululemon, did social media writing, and then I’ve just jumped around doing writing at various companies,” he says. “I did some public relations for awhile. Now I’m working back at Douglas doing communications and writing.”

By day, Slinn writes for work; by night, he writes for himself.

“During the night I would write poetry or play shows, like music, and write songs,” he says. “It was kind of like I was doing both – professional writing at a job or a company and then pursuing my creative writing at poetry readings and live shows and whatnot.”

Why be a poet laureate?

Slinn says a friend encouraged him to apply for the poet laureate position, thinking he’d bring “new eyes” to the position. He’s thrilled to be the city’s new poet laureate.

“I’m still a little bit in shock. It hasn’t really sunk in,” he laughs. “I love New Westminster, growing up here. Feeling like it’s an honour to take something that I am so passionate about, which is poetry and music and art, and then be able to kind of represent the city in that realm.”

A passion for writing

Slinn, who has been writing since childhood, is drawn to the written word.

“I used to write in my journal; I love lyrics, I love poetry. But growing up it was never something that I thought I could do,” he says. “It was just something I enjoyed doing, but I never thought of it as something to do in life.”

That changed when he was in his early 20s, and a girlfriend took him to a poetry reading at Café Deux Soleils on Commercial Drive in Vancouver.

“I saw these four Black poets from Toronto. I was like, ‘They are kind of doing the thing that I’m doing or what I’m writing about, but they’re performing.’ I guess I saw that as an option or an avenue to pursue,” he recalls. “I went back to school, to Douglas, for writing. I just started to share my stuff more. I’ve been writing since I was a kid, but I really started to take it seriously when I was 23.”

What are his plans as poet laureate?

Slinn has a lot of ideas about initiatives he’d like to pursue as the City of New Westminster’s poet laureate. He hopes to find ways of giving youth an opportunity to share their work, to put on poetry workshops for local residents and to provide exposure to students’ and up-and-coming writers’ poetry through the city’s social media platforms. He’d also like to host events for poets and musicians – and for non-writers who want to just sit back and take it in.

Slinn plans to put his typewriter to good use by providing pop-up poetry at places in the city.

“I want to write poems for people on the spot,” he explains. “I want to show that poetry doesn’t have to be about rhyme or form or structure. I think poetry is just an expression. I think a lot of people have this idea that there is this barrier – like they have to find a word that rhymes with orange or something. For me, it’s just about the emotion. If you can put your emotion into it, I think that’s the most important thing. I just want to champion that and make it more accessible for people.”

Newly appointed as poet laureate, Slinn said he’s still in discussions with the city about what the role.

“I really want to focus on engagement and show people that it doesn’t have to just be Shakespeare,” he adds. “I believe that everybody has the potential to write poetry – they just have to be given the opportunity, or sometimes encouragement or a space, to do that. That’s what I really want to provide, and also create conversations around that. Especially now, going through this pandemic, it can be really cathartic to write. I really want to provide that and be a champion for that in New Westminster.”

The power to inspire

Slinn firmly believes poetry and music have the power to inspire people. As someone who “didn’t have the best childhood,” he personally found inspiration in music and poetry.

“I remember hearing Tracy Chapman’s Fast Car – I see songwriting and poetry as the same thing, it’s just that one has a guitar and one you read by yourself with a page – and I felt less alone,” he recalls. “That’s what I hope my writing, my personal writing, does for people that read it. I am hoping that’s what other people will feel when they write. It’s like, ‘I am not as alone as I thought I was.’ Everybody has the same emotions; we just experience them at different times. Somebody might fall in love at 15, and somebody might fall in love at 55, but it’s still love. Poetry and music and expression, it kind of transcends time.”

Diversity matters

Slinn, 37, is the youngest poet laureate appointed by the City of New Westminster. He says he has “a lot of background” as the child of a mom who is African American, Blackfoot, Cherokee and Irish and a dad who is Norwegian and English.

“I don’t really consider myself any sort of torch-bearer or anything, but I definitely think representation is important,” he tells the Record. “Usually at any shows I play, I am sometimes the only person of colour playing the type of music I am playing. I think representation is really, really important; it just shows that there is somebody else that looks like you doing the thing you want to do, and then you can imagine yourself doing it as well.”

While he’s a fan of singer-songwriters like Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan, Slinn says people often make assumptions, based on his appearance, that he’s a rapper when they find out he’s a musician. Like those Black poets from Toronto, he hopes to inspire younger people not to be pigeon-holed based on their appearance.

“I think it’s really important to show people that you can really do anything,” he says. “It doesn’t matter what you look like or where you come from, it’s about what you are passionate about and what speaks to your heart.”

Reflecting on own upbringing and his mixed ethnicity, Slinn believes people of all backgrounds need to work together to move forward and deal with the history of North America.

“It is going to take a collective effort,” he says. “I don’t ever want it to come across that I am only looking one way; I want to look all ways and bring everybody into a conversation, everybody to a table. That’s really important to me.”

Follow Theresa McManus on Twitter @TheresaMcManus