July 5, 2018

10 days, 30,000 pancake breakfasts and 1,100 horses

Aritha van Herk explores history, culture and hidden details of Stampede through prose poetry
Aritha van Herk shares passion for Calgary's history through Stampede and the Westness of West, a work of prose poetry.

Aritha van Herk shares passion for Calgary's history through Stampede and the Westness of West.

Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

“Sore feet and yearning,” Aritha van Herk says with a laugh as she places her pink cowboy hat on her desk. Reminiscing about uncomfortable boots and a longing for adventure, the University of Calgary professor in the Department of English believes these four words sum up Calgary’s annual Stampede celebration.

Dressed head-to-toe in cowboy attire, van Herk’s passion for all things Western is unmistakable, a sentiment closely reflected in her career accomplishments and recent Order of Canada appointment. As a cross-genre author with countless books, chapters and articles under her belt, van Herk weaves history into her stories to explore the intersections of place, time and meaning.

Her latest book of prose poetry, Stampede and the Westness of Westis no exception“It’s a manifestation of the many years I have watched the way the West articulates itself as a place and how Stampede has inserted itself in this discourse,” van Herk says.

“This work explores the history, the hidden details and the myriad eccentricities of Stampede while asking serious questions, like how the idea of carnival works and how it relates to our general history.”

Although it was published in 2016, van Herk attributes her time as Stampede artist-in-residence in 2012 as the main inspiration for this book. “I had an all-access pass and spent 10 days snooping into everything. I had gone to Stampede in the past, but this was a different experience and a beautiful education. Every hay bale has to be sterilized before it can be used, did you know that?” she asks.

Despite the many intriguing oddities of Stampede, van Herk cites the diversity and sense of community as her favourite part. “What I loved best was the multicultural aspect,” she says. “Here are all of these people from different cultural settings, but in the end, we’re all Calgarians and all feel part of it.”

What is the Westness of West?

From the Western world to Western Canada or even the Wild West, van Herk points out that there are many different conceptions of what the West is. Instead of tackling the abundance of generalizations, van Herk’s book aims to capture the essence, or as she says, the Westness, of this particular place.

“Stampede is about much more than just the carnival,” she says, “it’s about the ineffable spirit of what we do. Every place and every event is more complicated than we think and we have an obligation to try to understand its complexity — that’s what this book is about.”

With entries dedicated to the history of pancakes, the founder of Stampede, Treaty 7, women competing in disguise, and everything in between, van Herk’s book captures the hidden details that bring Stampede to life while shining a critical lens on controversy from past and present, all in less than 100 pages.

Saddled with Stampede, for better or worse

According to van Herk, whether you count down the days to Stampede with excitement or dread, “We’re saddled with it, so we better just ride that horse.” While her book acknowledges the faults of Stampede, at the end of the day, she characterizes it as a celebration of our past and a much-needed opportunity to cut loose.

“Wherever you go in the world, there’s an occasion where people let their hair down, behave badly and then enter a period of cleansing and redemption,” she explains. “We’re a passionately hard-working city and that week is one where people can really take a break.

“Stampede is steeped in tradition, culture and history — elements that are reflected in Stampede and the Westness of West. Our carnival doesn’t turn its back on our past, but embraces it and that’s so important.”