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 the second edition of Chasing The Poem, Rafael Zen interviews Kayla MacInnis for Massy Arts, investigating how poetry can help deepen one’s relationship with the land by tuning into the senses.
Kayla MacInnis / Finding harmony and reciprocity in land-based poetry
Rafael Zen – From your workshop’s introductory text, you claim that poetry can help deepen one’s relationship with the land by tuning into the senses. What does that mean for a writer? What does it mean to write land-based literature?
Kayla MacInnis – Mary Oliver once wrote, “I could not be a poet without the natural world,” and the same goes for me. When I feel lost, I look to nature. When I need inspiration, I look to nature. Indigenous teachings speak of land as the first teacher.
Think about that. The land creates and sustains our livelihoods, yet people are more disconnected than ever. Without that connection, people often lose interest in the land around them.
Land-based poets can speak for both science and soul and narrow the gap between subject and object, embedding it with new life and reminding us (and others) why our relationship with land matters.
Writing land-based poetry is unique because it encourages us to slow down and return ourselves back to ourselves. This makes me think of the poem “The First Water Is the Body” in Natalie Diaz’s poetry book Postcolonial Love Poem where she says, “Body as land. Body is land.”
Diaz goes on to talk about the linguistic similarities the word for body and land share in Mojave, and depending on the context of a conversation, “one might not know which has been injured,” which is to say “which is alive, which was dreamed, which needs care. You might not know we mean both.” When I heard that, I was in a pretty bleak place, and I kept thinking, I need to be out on the land.
Look, at its fundamental core, poetry is something we understand as a bodily experience. It is about feeling and understanding that feeling.
By learning the craft of sculpting language, poetry can help bring nature to life on the page and create these patterns that help put our emotions into words. Putting our emotions into words is a transformative experience—it evokes healing. Sharing that experience as a poem helps us connect to and understand the world around us.
As a land-based writer, you don’t just go into nature and write about it, you sit with it, and you engage in sensory activities—touch the moss, taste the ripest of salmonberries, smell the wild roses, listen to the songs of birds, look for things that you aren’t knowledgeable about and then learn about them.
This is about reciprocity. It is relationship building. It is living in harmony. When I go into nature, it is a reprieve. I think about what it means to feel embedded in place, what I mean to the land, and how I can give back—the land feeds my soul, and my writing is an offering.
RZ – Why is it important for attendees to spend time in nature prior to this workshop? What kind of effect do you expect this experience to have on these writers’ creative method? Why is it important for poets to step outside of their minds, relinquish control, and move from a place of disconnect to one of connection? In this case, what is connection?
KM – I kind of touched on these questions in my previous answer. Our hope for participants in this workshop is to create an affective experience. This is when an experience affects your body, causing an embodied sensory response.
In our daily lives, we often spend so much time disembodied. The ethos of this world is so rooted in achievement and production. We spend most of our lives in thought. Basically, we’re thinking people afraid of feeling. At least, that’s a place I spent a lot of my life.
I love what Robert Pinsky says in his book The Sounds of Poetry, “poetry is a vocal, which is to say a bodily, art. The medium of poetry is the human body.” Sure, we could have attendees come from a strictly imaginative place in our workshop but that would defeat the type of experience we hope they’ll gain from spending time in nature.
At the same time, we want them to learn how they can use nature as a form of research to add layers to their works. By choosing a plant to work with and studying the plant, they’re able to be inspired by the place they explored and the details they learn of their chosen plants.
Sometimes this can surprise you. My love for wild roses continues to grow each year because of my relationship with them. Just when I think I’ve learned all there is to learn, a friend tells me that bumblebees use a buzz pollination technique to gather pollen from them because they can’t effectively pollinate native flowers, and suddenly I find myself spending more time sitting by the wild rose bush in my backyard watching them use their buzz pollination technique to shake the pollen loose from the flower’s anthers.
It’s kind of like a circle. You want to write a poem about what you’re feeling, so you spend time out on the land to reflect on your experiences. Suddenly you are in an affective state, your curiosity begins to broaden, and you start to look closer at things.
You go home and research them because you want to understand them, but at the same time, that understanding brings in more feelings. Suddenly you’re no longer separate from the thing. You are in a relationship with it. That’s the connection we’re speaking of.
RZ – In “Ecological Ways of Seeing”, you ask some questions about poetry – and I would like to ask a few back to you. First, how can we pay more attention to the physical world through poetry? And secondly, how can we imagine the perspectives of the natural world by connecting with poetic literature?
KM – I think the most important thing here is how we communicate our experiences with the world. Look at Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass. That book took seven years to become a bestseller, but now I see it quoted everywhere, and I’m grateful for that because her words emphasize how critical human participation is in caring for the land and the importance of decentering humans from the narrative.
This book is a protest; it’s a call for action; its beauty isn’t just in Kimmerer’s poetic language; it’s her relationship with the world around her—a relationship that is deeply inherent within all of us. We come from this land, and I think we’re finally starting to remember that.
In an interview in the New York Times, Kimmerer believes her book resonates so much now because “we’re looking at things we cherish falling apart when inequities and injustices are so apparent, people are looking for another way that we can be living.
We need interdependence rather than independence.” The last few years have highlighted our need for connection more than ever (both with the land and each other). Books like this are a perfect example of how one can pay more attention to the physical world through poetry. Sure, it’s an autobiography, but if you ask me, her thesis is pure poetry.
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?
KM – Consider the place you speak from and what you are contributing to the world around you. I would say these questions embody this embedded ethics of care within our community. There is so much consideration that goes into writing from an Indigenous perspective, but also in trying to annihilate state violence.
There’s this line in Billy-Ray Belcourts’ memoir A History of my Brief Body where he asks NDN youth to “speak against the coloniality of the world, against the rote of despair it causes, in an always-loudening chant. Please keep loving.”
Those words always remind me of Bell Hooks’ essay “Love as the Practice of Freedom.” In it, she says, “without love, our efforts to liberate ourselves and our world community from oppression and exploitation are doomed.”
Historically, Indigenous literature has been pretty trauma-focused. I remember coming across a Reddit thread where an Indigenous person asked for Indigenous book recommendations that were not sad, and I kept thinking how heartbreaking that was because our joy is such a beautiful thing to witness. I’m not saying that books that speak of trauma are wrong, but that perhaps, in teaching literature, we can teach that our joy is worthy of being read about too.
I suppose what I hope attendees can expect from this series of workshops is the importance of that ethics of care within Indigenous communities and to remember that each community has their own practices in approaching a subject. Indigenity is not a monolith, so it’s important you consider the practices of the people’s lands you are working on as well.
Not to throw too many external quotes at you, but I’ll end this with an excerpt from Tanya Talaga’s book All Our Relations, where she writes, “if you are conditioned not to care, you are conditioned to indifference, and there is a violence to that indifference.”
RZ – Could you share one of your poems with us? Why this one?
KM – Sure. I wrote this poem called MISÂSKWATÔMINISKÂHK, which was published in Room Magazine earlier this year. The reason I want to share this poem specifically is that I was trying something new with this piece.
I wanted to create a piece that was very simplistic in language. I’m quite a wordy person, so I wanted to challenge myself to revisit the small details within a place-based poem. I was born in Saskatoon, but I spent most of my life here in Vancouver.
Despite that, I always felt pulled to the plains. I remember when I first returned to Saskatoon after eighteen years. I stepped off that plane, and instantly, I felt connected. I was home. I do consider Vancouver home now, but in many ways, that trip was a homecoming for me.
The blood of my ancestors is in the soil, and that is something deeply inherent to my identity, but I didn’t know anything about Saskatoon. I used all the methods mentioned in the previous questions to craft this poem, and honestly, it was pretty challenging for me to embody “less is more.”
I have a tendency to want to over-explain things for fear of missing something essential. What I love the most about this poem is that it doesn’t give much away, but if you’ve been to Saskatoon, it takes you back. Many people who have read this poem have told me they felt a sensory response to the images of Saskatoon when they read it, which is so cool.
there is a place
with fields of northern wheat
& mixed-grass prairie
full of saskatoon berries
sage-smoke & yarrow
wild columbine & aster
where the trees grow crooked
by swift-flowing rivers
& grassy hills where buffalo used to jump
where grandpa & dad live
with skin like desert sunsets
& humour as dark as their morning coffee
nîkihk (my home)
where many bridges connect the land
the land of the living skies