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Massy Interviews / Michelle Poirier Brown

On Thursday, June 2 at 6pm, join Massy ArtsMassy Books, and Cree Métis poet Michelle Poirier Brown for a reading of her debut book of poems: You Might Be Sorry You Read This (University of Alberta Press, Robert Kroetsch Series, 2022).

Hosted by Susan Alexander, the event will present poetry readings and literary discussions by Poirier Brown, joined by co-readers Betsy Warland and Molly Cross-Blanchard for a night of conversation around poetry, women’s experience, and resilience.

Click here to register for the event

Click here to purchase You Might Be Sorry You Read This

This interview 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.

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To celebrate the event, Rafael Zen interviews Brown for Massy Arts, discussing beauty as a form of wealth, and how poetry can be used to address silences, identities, and anger. Affirming that literature can have a vivid effect on the reader, the author gave an intimate and deeply confessional interview that readers will not be sorry they have read.

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Michelle Poirier Brown / To be a woman on this planet is to be living a raw experience

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Rafael Zen – Why “You Might Be Sorry You Read This” as the title of your debut poetry book? Do you feel that your poems may cause strangeness, discomfort, regret? Or even – why would a reader be sorry about reading your poems? Guide us through your thought process when choosing this evocative title, please.

Michelle Poirier Brown – The title was originally one of those toss-off remarks to my editor during a work session when we were grouping the poems by theme to see if that might result in a manuscript that hung together. All the poems about growing up traumatized were in one pile that I said perhaps should come with the warning “you might be sorry you read this.” We had a little laugh but my editor also said, “hang onto that. You might want to come back to it.”

After putting the manuscript through intensive editing at the Sage Hill Manuscript program, Betsy Warland suggested I reorganize it based on chronology. In the process, I took out about a third of the poems, leaving in only those that followed the arc of a memoir.

All of the trauma poems stayed in, as did the Indigenous identity poems. The book addresses coming to terms with those two main themes, but then also represents enough of the rest of my story to leave me feeling whole.

When it came time to give the finalized collection a title, I came back to You Might Be Sorry You Read This. I could think of several reasons a reader might be sorry. Members of my family who pressured me to be silent about what I lived through might be sorry to see the secrets in print. People who have survived traumas, either physical or psychological, might find the revelations triggering. Or too much information. Some people might find the political poems aggravating. Too angry.

I wanted to be upfront about all of that. And I think I wanted to address all the folks who along the way have wanted me to put down my pen, who derided my work as “purple prose,” “confessional,” “bound to fail” and a “waste of time.” It flips the bird.

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RZ – Your book’s synopsis claims that your poems reveal how breaking silences and reconciling identity can refine anger into something both useful and beautiful. What is the use of poetry? When you write, do you always try to find beauty that breaks silence?

MPB – Beauty does work in the world. It is of effect. Beauty can make an otherwise impossible thing possible. Beauty comes with its own lubricant.

I am always in search of beauty. Beauty was the form of wealth I could afford.

What use is a poem? When I cannot speak for tears, when I cannot be heard for rage, a poem speaks for me. It can have an accuracy that delights me. And in its making, it brings me joy. That seems pretty useful.

Poetry is also efficient. What is unsaid in a poem can often be the loudest thing heard. This is an important quality if one is writing about the experience of living with trauma.

A poet works with space on the page the way a playwright works with moments of silence. The form creates possibilities that prose cannot.

Poetry can have a vivid effect on the reader with only a few lines. That’s either a tool, or a weapon.

Both rage and the permanent effects of trauma are somatic realities. Many of my poems begin with a tuning in to what is vivid in my body at the time of writing, and poetry allows me to express what I am experiencing. The writing of poetry has a “right now” quality to it, even if what I am writing about is in the past. And that’s what trauma and rage are like. Right now.

Do I try to find beauty that breaks silence? No, breaking silence came first. I decided I would write. Then it took me a long time to find my way to the beautiful. It took study. It took craft. I recently heard a poet say in an interview that poets write what they are living. I live the life available to me on the other side of the silence.

But to write about it took a long time. I was in my early 30s when I first broke the silence.

I turned 65 only weeks before You Might Be Sorry You Read This was published.

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RZ – You wrote a book based on poetic memoirs. How are you feeling about publishing them? What kind of pact do you think you are establishing with your audience by allowing readers to dig deep into your memory and history? Were you concern about an audience when writing these poems? If not, who were you writing them to?

MPB – Over the past couple of years, address as an aspect of poetics came up in some of the workshops I was taking and I felt kind of stupid that I didn’t know whom I was addressing when I wrote.

I listen to a lot of poetry podcasts, and I recently heard two poets discuss the question of address. One of the poets said, “Well, often, of course, the poet is addressing the self.” And there it was. I talk to myself.

To whom do I write? To people I’m not allowed to fall in love with. To people I’m frustrated with, who I feel are not listening. To people who have been racist to my face. But “God Was a Baby?” ”Walk on the Left Hand Side?” “Short Change?” That’s me talking to myself.

For me, the pact with the reader is very separate consideration. On my side of the deal, I agree to be honest. On your side, you agree to the liberties of effect over fact.

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RZ – You have discovered a hidden Indigenous heritage at age 38. How was this experience? Alongside a new identity, what else did you discover about being Métis?

MPB – One doesn’t acquire an identity overnight. A moral injury that deep takes a long time to process. In my case, my relationship to Indigeneity is complex. Members of my Métis family went to great lengths to pass as settlers. My grandmother embraced Hitler. Her sister taught in a residential school. I lived in fear of being seen as Indigenous without even knowing what it was I was afraid of. I thought the disadvantage I was trying to overcome was that I was ugly.

So one doesn’t really “discover” an identity the way one finds a rock in the garden. One confronts an identity. One Integrates an identity.

As a former federal treaty negotiator, I think I gravitated most readily to the Métis teachings on governance. The Métis sense of nationhood dates back to the late 1700s, with a national anthem and flag by 1817.

The Métis government that negotiated Manitoba’s entry into the Canadian federation was based on principles that still guide Métis self-determination today, expressed in Michif as, for example, ka tipaymishooyahk (we who own ourselves) and aen ichi mamoonakatwayhtamaahk (how we think together).

Using what I learned as a federal treaty negotiator, I was able to connect the concept of Indigenous self-determination under the burden of the Canadian constitution to my understanding of my place in Métis society and my responsibilities as a Métis citizen. And yes, you can find poems in the book that speak to this.

Learning the teachings carried in the practice of beading, story-telling, and speaking Indigenous language are more difficult, as they must be learned experientially and in the presence of elders.

I have more access to these teachings now, post-pandemic, through online connections, but I suspect it will be a long time before I feel sufficiently grounded in these sacred teachings that they will surface in my art. If ever. These are not things to dabble in.

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RZ – The synopsis also affirms that you write about the raw experiences of womanhood, and queer selfhood. It kept me wondering: as a writer, what are these raw experiences that drove you to create poems about them? Do you think there are recurring images, symbols or words that may connect the poems from You Might Be Sorry You Read This?

MPB – Hmmm. Recurring images, symbols or words. The honest answer to that would be: I don’t know. I find it very hard to think about my work at that level. Unless I’m performing, it’s hard for me to read it. I rely heavily on editors, even to put together a set list for a reading.

There are just times when my life experience so fills me up, it spills into words. I’m not really thinking about the experience while I’m having it, I’m just writing down what I hear in response to my body sensations.

The other day, I was talking about this question with my daughter. Well, talking about my answer to this question. I had just done a reading on Gabriola Island and the audience there had laughed several times in the reading.

I was thrilled. I said, “They get it. It’s a funny book. It might be about trauma, but it’s a funny book.” And then I said, “I wonder if people will hear the rage.”

To be a woman on this planet is to be living a raw experience. Bloodied. Uncooked.

I don’t know if the meat image is in the book. But the sentiment is there.

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RZ – Can you choose one single poem to share with our readers – one that encapsulates this book’s core style or message? Why this one?

MPB – That would be tough. The poems are carried by a distinct voice, but there is no one style. The poems range from genre-blending flights of words to a formal villanelle. But I do feel “The Thing About Snow” is the core poem.

If someone was going to read only one poem, it isn’t the poem I’d suggest. I’d probably suggest “Wake.” But “Snow” is the core poem. “The Thing About Snow” is the umbilical cord that ties me to the book. It is the poem for anyone who wants to know me, not my work.

If you want to be my friend, it is the only poem you need to read.

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Click here to purchase You Might Be Sorry You Read This