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Massy Interviews / Michelle Poirier Brown

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

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To celebrate this event, Rafael Zen interviews Michelle Poirier Brown for Massy Arts, investigating poetry that “beads with blood”, and how poets can break habits in the way they situate themselves in relation to their poetic work.

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Michelle Poirier Brown / Writing is inherently a relationship

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Rafael Zen – One of your workshop’s goals is to keep writing closer to the bone, revealing a literature that is evocative, personal, and moving. Why do you think writing about someone’s closer experiences makes better poetry? What is a poem’s potency when writers allow themselves to dig deeply into their own realm?

Michelle Poirier Brown – Writing is inherently a relationship. If I compare poetry to a friendship, I can think of friends whose company tires me and friends with whom I feel I can relax and refresh. The ones that leave me worn out are the more superficial ones.

I might think that “getting together for tea” is going to be a pleasant way to spend an afternoon, but if I find myself holding up artifice the entire time, an afternoon of chitchat can really wear me out.

Poetry built on artifice is similarly tiring to read.

For a poem to carry potency, the reader needs to feel that something is at stake. The poet, too, needs to feel something is at stake in the writing.

Sometimes that potency is present in the initial urge to write, but can get lost. The poet doesn’t know where to take the poem, and it wanders off on its own. Or the wandering is at the outset. Some poetry teachers call this “scaffolding”—a structure around a poem that later gets pulled away.

Ellen Bass, for example, says she write pages of draft when starting a new poem. But then she comes back to it, honing and tightening, stripping out everything unnecessary.

Editing is key to bringing things back to the bone. But in this workshop, I’m looking at how to get close at the outset, how to look into the body for the vein of gold. And then stay there.

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RZ – “Keeping It Close to the Bone” claims that there is a way into poetry that “beads with blood”. What do you mean by that – and what is this kind of literature attendees will be invited to investigate and vociferate? Do you think you have written pages that bead with blood in your last poetry book? If so, in what way?

MPB – A poem is a scratch you inflict on yourself to relieve pain. The words are a glistening hint of that deep, thumping presence that holds all things and bears what the world brings us. Even to answer this question requires me to sit close to myself, wait, feel the pulse that makes thought possible.

Poetry does not begin in words. It begins with a still tongue and a strong will to do what is necessary to hear what the heart has to say.

In an article for Poetry magazine on poetry of witness, Carolyn Forché writes:

In the poetry of witness, the poem makes present to us the experience of the other, the poem is the experience, rather than a symbolic representation. When we read the poem as witness, we are marked by it and become ourselves witnesses to what it has made present before us. Language incises the page, wounding it with testimonial presence, and the reader is marked by encounter with that presence.

This workshop if for poets who are willing to bear witness to the truth of their own lives. Even if what they are writing about is bus change. Betsy Warland teaches us we have a responsibility to the narrative we have been given. My feeling is that to tell the truth of your life is a political act.

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RZ – How do you think this workshop can help poets break habits in the way they situate themselves in relation to their work? What does the situation of a writer mean in this context? By inviting writers to dig deeply and to know themselves further, what would further be? Do you think poetry can be this space to reflect and reclaim someone’s self?

MPB – I’m not assuming writers will need to break any habits. I think some writers are already working this way and will enjoy the encouragement and validation. I think some will go, “I knew that. I didn’t know I knew that, but I knew that.”

For others, they may find the conversation interesting, but not central to how they work, which is equally valid. Not unlike my doing a haiku workshop. I have been changed by a haiku workshop, but I am not a haiku writer.

As for poetry being a place to reflect and reclaim one’s self—exactly. Writing is, without question, a vehicle of self-sovereignty.

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RZ – For this workshop, writers will be asked to bring pictures. What do you think they reveal within this exercise? What will words investigate upon visuality?

MPB – It is important that these pictures not be “portraits.” It is important that they include the writer, but in a snapshot sense, not a portrait sense. The photos will not so much be investigated as used as a feint, a move that gets one’s thinking pulled off the expected focus. Once they’ve done their job, they will be put aside. Or not. Depends on the poet.

The photos also offer a new way into a poem, kind of a cross between a prompt and a headnote.

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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?

MPB – One of the things I’m hoping is that young and emerging Indigenous poets will be among the students as well as the teaching cohort. In my years of going to workshops, I have only once been to one where there was another Indigenous writer among the students—and that was because I pushed to get the organizers to create a space specifically for another writer.

I’ve also only ever been to one workshop led by an Indigenous writer (and, again, I was the only Indigenous student). So I’m hoping Indigenous writers will show up — because I’m lonely. I’m lonely and I know from experience how unsafe an all-settler learning community can be.

An all-Indigenous teaching cohort helps up the likelihood that I’ll be meeting other Indigenous writers. I know I’ll be putting the word out to Indigenous poets I am mentoring, and I think they will feel more comfortable signing on for one or more of the workshops because they are ALL being offered by Indigenous teachers.

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

MPB – I’d like to share “Praise,” a poem published in The Greensboro Review (University of North Carolina), reprinted in Poetry Daily (a poetry anthology published in partnership with George Mason University), and included in The Length of A Day, a suite of art songs composed by Jeffrey Ryan for a Pacific Opera Victoria commission.

I include it here because it is a poem that had it’s start in the body-centred approach we will look at in the workshop. It is a poem of heartbreak in search of comfort, a determination to take heart not from hope in the future, but from what is at hand.

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It is not yet time for singing.
Although I could allow this lake stroking the shore as song.

I feel a tenderness towards the small stones under my feet.
That’s a good sign.

And gratitude for the sun warming my neck.

I am learning the names of birds.
At the pond last week,
a soft-colored green bird with a white stripe down its head.
A widgeon.

And just now, a small shore bird, black with hints of red at the back of its neck,
hops across the wave foam, pert and legged like a gymnast.
It has a name.

For praise, one needs vocabulary,
to know the difference between a call and a song,
and that birds that sing are among the passerines.

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