A Cree legend tells of the Great Chief placing materials remaining after building mountains on the smooth prairies and scooping a handful of earth from beside it to create Last Mountain Lake. Scientists say the lake formed some 11,000 years ago when glacial meltwaters flowed south into the Qu'Appelle spillway.
The Last Mountain Lake Cultural Centre (LMLCC), at the south end of the lake, is a hub of cultural activity serving communities at the southern end of the lake. It houses the Regina Beach Public Library, two galleries, several studio spaces, including a large pottery studio, a drawing studio, and private artist spaces and hosts artists-in-residence.
In 2013-2014 Bernadette Wagner served as the inaugural literary artist-in-residence at LMLCC. She worked with local residents to support their writing and invited writers with a connection to the communities it serves to contribute to this collection of poetry, fiction, and literary non-fiction.
A Gift of the Prairie combines all of the best things a poetry anthology can be: it’s short, focused, and includes a variety of work and writers.
The anthology was the brain child of Bernadette Wagner, who served as the literary artist-in-residence at the Last Mountain Lake Cultural Centre in Regina Beach, Saskatchewan. Wagner worked quite closely with the community and wanted to showcase their work, so she sent out a call for writing about the Last Mountain Lake area. According to her foreword, she wasn’t sure at first that there would be enough of a response from local writers to create the anthology. However, as she states, the community came together and soon offered up their memories and writings about the area.
A Gift of the Prairie is a short and satisfying read at a slim 71 pages. It starts off strong, with four beautifully minimalist poems from Jillian Bell and ends on an equally strong note with poetry from Paul Wilson, whose most recent book of poetry, Invisible Library, won three Saskatchewan Book Awards last year. The anthology also includes a short story from romance author, Annette Bower, an amusing excerpt from Robert A. Smith on swimming cramps, and a few disarmingly funny poems from local elementary school classes. The funniest poem, titled “Unicorn God/dess of Awesome” displays their keen understanding of popular culture, including references to Skittles commercials and a recent earworm called, “What Does the Fox Say?”. It’s encouraging to know that these young students had an opportunity to write poetry and contribute to this anthology about community.
The poem from which the title is derived encapsulates the spirit of the anthology. June Mitchell’s “Prairie Song” reminds the reader that the gift of the prairie includes “curses, and prayers, and hope that rises with the melting of the snow.” The paradox of the prairie lies in its alternately fertile and frozen landscape. However, it is community that keeps its’ people going with “lunches in the field, and counters lined with cakes and pies.”
A Gift of the Prairie is an enjoyable read that conveys the best ideals of the prairies: personal warmth and community.