Edmonton poet laureate wants to make local art more accessible

When Ahmed “Knowmadic” Ali arrived in Canada at the age of eight, he could speak two languages — but neither of them were English.

One year into his term, Ahmed 'Knowmadic' Ali working to connect city's art communities

Ahmed 'Knowmadic' Ali has been Edmonton's poet laureate for just over a year. (Provided)

When Ahmed "Knowmadic" Ali arrived in Canada at the age of eight, he could speak two languages — but not English.

The City of Edmonton's poet laureate was born in Somalia and moved to Italy when he was four before coming to Canada. He kept speaking Somali at home, dropped Italian and began to learn English.

"Learning English was challenging," Ali told CBC's Radio Active. "I got made fun of a lot — FOB, fresh-off-the-boat stuff." 

Edmonton's seventh poet laureate Ahmed 'Knowmadic' Ali talks about his determination to make art more accessible for communities. 8:41

"Whenever somebody made fun of me, I went further to excel. Success is the best form of revenge."

Ali's English teacher introduced him to prominent poets of the past century, including Tupac Shakur, Maya Angelou and Langston Hughes. It was there he found his love of poetry and the English language.

"Shout out to Maya Angelou and Tupac who died that made my flow smooth, because it no longer matters that I used to be verbally constipated. These days I have regular vowel movements and I effortlessly pass class," Ali said.

Chosen as Edmonton's seventh poet laureate last June, Ali has focused on making art more accessible for the communities he grew up in and around.

"I'm trying to bring shows that are high-calibre but at the same time affordable for people in my communities," he said.

But he's also hoping to make art created in certain communities more accessible to other communities. There is some impressive work in tight-knit groups, he said, and he wants to provide an avenue for those people to show off their work to the greater Edmonton community.

Purposeful interactions

His work as poet laureate has given him opportunities elsewhere. He performed a poem in front of 300 people in New York City on Langston Hughes

Ali said he hasn't changed the type of work he's been doing all these years, but the title of poet laureate helped him reach new heights.

"It really excelled and propelled my image of professionalism and it's given me avenues that I would not have had access to before," he said.

But with those avenues comes increased responsibility, and Ali knows that. With a year left in his term as poet laureate, he's careful with his words while targeting structures he wants to improve.

His desire to make art more accessible overlaps with his aim to support members of diverse communities to make a living off their art. Ali said that extends to the professional world, where climbing the corporate ladder can be similar to climbing a mountain.

"The higher up you go, the whiter and lonelier it gets," he said. "It's not that the people are racist, but systems sometimes are not welcoming."

Ali's focus for his last year will be to try to make that climb a little less lonely.

"My main responsibility is to make sure every time I perform or I interact with the community that my intention is purposeful," he said. "I just hope more people feel that the arts should be more accessible."

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