Windsor’s new poet laureate and inaugural indigenous and multicultural community storytellers have been named.
The city on Monday announced Vanessa Shields would take over from outgoing poet laureate Mary Ann Mulhern, who has held the position since 2019. Shields, who owns and operates Windsor’s first and only creative writing space, will serve as poet laureate until 2026.
Theresa Sims, a traditional Indigenous elder and knowledge keeper, will be Windsor’s first indigenous storyteller, and Teejai Travis will be the first multicultural community storyteller. They and Sheilds will join Windsor’s current youth poet laureate, Alexei Ungurenasu, in the city’s Poet Laureate and Storytellers Program.
“I’m honored to continue this beautiful legacy,” Shields said during Monday’s city council meeting. “It’s a dream come true to become a poet laureate.”
Born and raised in Windsor, Shields has published six books of poetry and has 40 individual poems published in various anthologies. She has served as editor for 25 publications and taught more than 150 poetry and writing workshops and classes, including many at Gertrude’s Writing Room, her gathering place for writers in the Stable Yard at Willistead Park.
Sims, who is from the upper Mohawk, Turtle Clan of the Six Nations Reserve, has lived in Windsor since 1998. For more than two decades, she has provided opening welcome, stories, song, and dance for children with the local public and Catholic school boards, as well as opening for conferences and presenting at the University of Windsor and City of Windsor.
“My role is to teach using my gifts, of oral history, songs, and dances,” Sims said. “The Three Fires Confederacy of the Odawa, Potawatomi, and the Anishnaabe people have a rich and abundant collection of stories of the elements, land, water, and the animals to teach the Seven Grandfather Teachings of courage, love, truth, wisdom, respect , honesty, and humility, and to entertain and educate along the way.”
Travis said he comes from and was raised “within a tradition of storytelling” and carries a “responsibility and passion for collecting, inspiring, and encouraging the community to identify and celebrate their unique stories.”
The city in January announced it was expanding its poet laureate program to include more storytellers and put out a call for nominations and applications.
“Time and again, we see how this program is a vehicle to increased inclusivity, and a greater understanding and appreciation for our diverse, multicultural community,” said Windsor Mayor Drew Dilkens. “Particularly now, as we emerge from beneath pandemic restrictions and impacts, I am pleased to welcome these new artists into the fold.”
During outgoing poet laureate Mulhern’s three-year term, she shared over 120 original poems, published work in three collections, launched an initiative to bring poetry to seniors’ homes, and more to unite people with words.
With her term now ending, Mulhern said she’s been “proud to be a poet of the pandemic.”
“Alongside my colleagues in the Poet Laureate Program, I have made an effort to bring hope. I think it worked,” Mulhern said in a written statement. “The poet laureate is an ambassador for the City of Windsor, and its poets and literary artists. I’ve loved being Windsor’s poet laureate, and working with this team. What a team! What a time!”
Mulhern was appointed to the role in April 2019 following a seven-year term by Marty Gervais, the city’s first poet laureate. Selection committee members at the time said they appreciated her poetic voice, respectable publication history, positive reputation, and ability to tell Windsor’s story.
Throughout her term, Mulhern worked closely with Gervais and various youth poets laureate while continuing to write and public her own work to commemorate events and celebrations in the city. She also helped to facilitate the Windsor’s Resilient Voices initiative to place inspirational poems on buses, in mass vaccination clinics, and in hospitals to spread hope during the pandemic.
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In addition, she participated in several virtual and video poetry readings, and wrote poems in support of the mega-hospital project.
Gervais said Mulhern’s term “has been about connections made when we need them most.
“We have been lucky to have her as a guide over these last few years,” he said. “She leaves a legacy of poetry that connects us strongly to the people and places around us.”
Since 2011, the poet laureate title has been given to an established local adult poet who can serve as ambassador for Windsor arts, culture, heritage and literature.