You are currently viewing Massy Interviews / Jenn Ashton

Massy Interviews / Jenn Ashton

From June 28 to July 5, Massy Arts and Massy Books host a virtual poetry workshop marathon for emerging writers, in three courses created by published Indigenous poets to demystify poetry writing, to present useful writing prompts, to incite imagination, and to address political and linguistic points of view through poetic literature.

The classes – conducted by Michelle Poirier Brown, Jenn Ashton, Kayla MacInnis, and Vanessa Prescott – will be held through Zoom in an exclusively online method, with 2-hours long experimental courses that will mix literary theory + artistic expression.

By the end of this writing marathon, students will have received feedback about their writing by authors in production, aware of the market’s demands – but also aware of poetry’s potential.

This event is part of Massy Voices, an ever-evolving collection of book launches, exclusive interviews, and artist talks that celebrate community voices and the stories they carry. Click here to know more.

Tickets are limited, and registration is mandatory.

Click here to know more about Chasing The Poem’s workshops

Click here to register for Chasing The Poem

: :

To celebrate this event, Rafael Zen interviews Jenn Ashton for Massy Arts, asking if everyone can be a poet – and discussing how the choice of words can help authors to write more powerful poems.

: :

Jenn Ashton / To overcome the fear of sharing and raising our voices

: :

Rafael Zen – From your workshop’s introductory text – why do you think everyone can be a poet? Do you think people usually think poetry is more difficult or inaccessible than it actually is? In that sense – what is poetry?

Jenn Ashton – I feel that because formal poetry has some hard and fast rules attached, it can seem inaccessible at first glance, but I genuinely believe that anybody can write a poem. As a means of self-expression, a poem can be anything the writer wants it to be and can be used as a creative voice privately, to help identify and organize thoughts, or in a public way to share a message or a feeling.

Sometimes this can happen once a writer understands a genre and can then work inside or outside its boundaries.

For me then, ‘poetry’ is another one of our creative voices that can be used as a form of discovery and expression, helping us identify our thoughts and feelings about anything, and giving voice to what we find.

Further, once we overcome some of the fear we have around sharing and raising our voices, decoding the mystery of the genre and find inspiration in other Indigenous works, I feel we can open the door to the freedom of exploration and expression in this genre.

: :

RZ – One of the goals of your workshop “The Power of Words” is to address some of the most common barriers to creativity and to guide attendees on how to remove them. What do you think are these most common barriers?

JA – To me, a common barrier to creativity, any creativity, is usually a form of fear. As individuals, we’re afraid to be judged. And because our creativity comes from deep within us, and can often times come from a painful place, it can be disabling when others judge our work.

So, it can be especially fearful going outside our comfort zone to show somebody our work, and sending it out to strangers for evaluation, feedback, or inclusion. Having said that, I think we can be our worst critics as well.

We compare ourselves and our work against other people and their work, not fully comprehending that we’re all different and there is a place for everybody’s experience and voice in the world. I always aim to help people remove their barriers, because it can be freeing when you realize that in the end, you are expressing your creativity for nobody but yourself.

If it makes you happy, that’s all that matters. Indigenous populations have the additional barrier of the constructs of colonization, so it’s important to peel away as much of that as possible and see it for what it is.

Once writers can recognize their barriers, it’s easier to work towards removing them.

: :

RZ – You say that this workshop intends to address how to make the words we write more powerful. What would a powerful poem be? And on the workshop’s title – what is the power of words?

JA – In my opinion, the more we can distill our words and sharpen their meaning and intent, the better a poem or any piece of writing can be. That’s not to say that all poetry must be stark, because people’s voices, languages and word choices are different.

Still, anything we can do to focus on the words, producing a clarity or simplicity that can help the reader access the writer’s feeling or intent, will help any piece of writing become a more powerful piece of writing.

For example, this is one of my favourite poems by William Carlos Williams. Although it has no strong or vital message to share, it’s powerful in its simplicity, because it delivers you into his moment:


This is Just to Say
I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

: :

RZ – Why did you choose to read from Lee Maracle and Joshua Whitehead? What is it in these poet’s work that inspires you? Would you say they write powerful poems?

JA – Lee Maracle’s work for Indigenous literature cannot be overstated, and we must continue to share her voice wherever and whenever we can. She was a personal role model for me; having a similar background, grade 8 education, travelling and ending up at Simon Fraser University, I walked in her footsteps without knowing it.

Lee’s autobiography Bobbi Lee: Indian Rebel, was one of the “first Indigenous works published in Canada” and helped break through an invisible barrier. Although her book Hope Matters is her 3rd poetry book, I feel it’s an excellent example of what poetry can look like, in that it’s a collaboration with her two daughters, so this book is also an idea.

Everything Lee wrote was powerful in its intent to break through stereotypes, patriarchy, the effects of colonization and her words gave and continue to give legitimacy to our ways of being in the world.

Joshua Whitehead’s first book ‘full-metal indigiqueer’ is also an important work because it helps to solidify two-spirit indigenous work in our often blind and unforgiving world. Influenced by many other Indigenous writers, Joshua’s work speaks to me on so many levels because of its bravery, intent, and originality, especially as an illustration of how to use words and marks on the page.

I’m using this work as excellent example of the freedom of the poetry form and the importance of the genre as a vehicle of exploration and delivery.

: :

RZ – Why do you think it is important to gather Indigenous poets to teach literature? What do you think attendees can expect from this series of workshops?

JA – Indigenous representation is required on as many platforms as possible to share culture and difference as it builds and promotes understanding and empathy, helping to breakdown stereotypes and racism.

In gathering together Indigenous poets to teach, we are also validating ourselves and our place within this genre. Poetry as a genre is another form of storytelling, an essential cultural component of Indigenous ways of being and sharing and exploring this voice can help us all weave together some common ground.

I hope these workshops encourage attendees to get curious about their creative voices and the potential they hold therein. At the very least, I think attendees will be exposed to several Indigenous poets and ways to use and experience poetry as a creative voice.

And at the most, they may come away with new role models, a respect for Indigenous poets, the work we do, and a passion for reading or writing poetry.

: :

RZ – Could you share one of your poems with us? Why this one?

JA – This is a poem I wrote when my neighbours cut down a crazy amount of trees one Saturday morning. It hit me then, that there is no stopping this sort of collateral damage in municipal growth plans and that we have so much work to do to help people understand the need for a balance in living with nature.

This stand of cedars was part of a bear trail along side our house, which provided a safe passage for our local bears to access different parts of Lynn Canyon.

Here I used my voice with intent, to spread a message. But it also helped me clarify my feelings and allowed me to get creative using my words, to paint a picture of how I was feeling as the trees were falling around me.

This poem won a first prize, in the Muriel’s Journey Poetry contest in 2020, and was recently published in the Anthology: Worth More Standing, by Caitlin Press 2022.


today i ate chainsaws
gritty grinding sounds
teeth rattlingmyeyes
cracking branches
trunks thumping
quiet moans
and sad sighs
wind made wild
when big branches fell through it
why do they do it

dead wood thumps
onto hard
wood now
not tree
just memory

spot inside
of me where
the tree use to

: :