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Massy Interviews / Vanessa Prescott

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 the second edition of Chasing The Poem, Rafael Zen interviews Vanessa Prescott for Massy Arts, addressing how emerging writers can pay more attention to the physical world through their poetry.

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Vanessa Prescott / Deepening our relationship with ourselves through interoceptive awareness

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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?

Vanessa Prescott – “Claim” is an interesting word for me because it is often attached to skepticism. I don’t think I like the word claim; it’s an assertive word without evidence or proof. It’s probably the Métis in me, thinking about land claims and the Métis Scrip System our ancestors went through.

I hear the word claim and think about a system that was designed in an attempt to extinguish Métis rights to the land. It’s nearly funny to hear us speak about deepening one’s relationship with the land because as Métis people, land permeates our entire way of life and existence.

When we say deepen, it’s more about remembering the depth that is inherently there and has been there all along. When we slow down and tune into our senses we are deepening our relationship with ourselves via interoceptive awareness.

Interoceptive awareness is the awareness of stimuli arising in the body, awareness of one’s feelings. It is crucial for emotional regulation and deepens one’s relationship to the self. Culturally, we look at self as an extension of the land. We often say, “We belong to the land, not the other way around.”

When we find words to describe our sensory perceptions in relation to the land, we allow the land to speak through us. The relationship between self and land is as deep and ancient as it gets – there is no “between” as human and nature are not separate.

For a writer, this means writing from a more embodied place as land-based literature has the artistic merit of something that is both timeless and lasting.

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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?

VP – It is important for everyone to spend time in nature – to hear the birds, breathe in air directly from the lungs of trees, see textures on the surface of rushing water. Attendees who spend time in nature prior to this workshop will have the clarity of recent memory recall which is more vivid and accurate.

Since memories and perception are not static, they are altered by different variables at the time of recall, including mood and physical state. If attendees haven’t spent time in nature recently, the way their memory recalls their perception of being in nature last will be perceived differently than how they may perceive nature now.

We want each writers’ creative method to be based in now-ness as much as possible. When we step outside of our minds and relinquish control, we allow true art to course through us, creating something natural and uncontrived.

In this case, connection is the absence of anything that may be lacking; connection as wholeness.

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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?

VP – I have always valued the written word for its ability to convey sentiment and meaning. My father is the first generation in our Indigenous bloodline with the ability to read and write. Sometimes we forget how powerful the ability to express one’s thoughts, feelings, and perceptions through writing can be. When we pay attention to details in the physical world, we activate the limbic system, fostering presence by connecting mind to body.

Poetry asks us to be descriptive and tune into our five basic senses. If someone were to ask us, “Were you paying attention?” We might respond by reciting what they said. Writing poetry about the physical world is no different – we provide something tangible that expresses the unique way in which each of us pays attention and listens to the land.

Poetry is special because each of us can experience the same stimuli through different lenses and communicate our perception using words.

We can rearrange and swap out different words until there is a sense of attunement. Attunement has the ability to shift internal states. A photograph is a way of stilling and holding onto a moment in time; poetry can do this too, subjectively preserving sentiments as they were felt by the writer. Poets often have a way of romanticizing moments and memories.

Sometimes we forget that not everyone sees or experiences things the way we do which can be both achingly unmutual and gratitude-inducing for those who are able to view life through the more favourable rosey lense.

When we connect with poetic literature there is a resonance that can open up new neural pathways in the brain; the natural world holds many invitations to create new well-worn paths.

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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?

VP – I think it’s important to gather Indigenous poets to teach literature because there is incredible strength amongst people who have traditionally lived off of the land, survived the displacement of colonialism, and continue to thrive and share our gifts despite cultural genocide.

Consider the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement (IRSSA), the Sixties Scoop, The forced sterilization of Indigenous women in so-called Canada, federally operated Indian Hospitals, etc. Our relations have endured all of this and are some of the funniest, toughest, deepest, strongest and most admirable people I know.

Art, music, providing for one another off of the land, and storytelling are some of our greatest strengths. Of course it’s important that we gather and teach! Our workshop is about simply writing from the heart which in and of itself is an act of decolonization.

“I always see Indigenous people laughing” someone once said to me, and humor is definitely one way in which we cope, one medicine that always has to be in the basket. As Indigenous poets we are born with the value of reciprocity at our core.

We take care – of one another and the land. We know that those who give the most, often have the deepest well to give from, and when we create or teach literature we are giving from a place of utmost depth.

Our ancestors are always with us; they resound when we gather to remind people that they are not alone, that the land is here covered in muskeg to soak up our pain, covered in wildflowers to echo our joy.

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

VP – Yeah, for sure. This is an old poem that was published in “Salt Water Love, contemporary Indigenous writing from the heart.” I chose to leave it untitled and published it anonymously. It is a poem about letting go, unreciprocated love, and how good it can feel to move forward towards what is really meant for you.

It’s a poem I now read with humility bordering on happy humiliation, but it’s good and human to feel those things. I think that the themes in this poem are relatable and though my writing style has progressed, the words spoken from the heart still resonate with me today. I will touch on these after.

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What hurts the most
is the careless way
in which he let me down
with any less care
than one ought to let down a baby animal.

My heart is a forest
of Pacific Wild Bleeding Heart.

My father said to me,
“I had an opal ring,
and I couldn’t get over this girl.
My buddy said,
‘You have to get rid of that ring, man.’
I did, and the next day I met your mom.”

I’ve kept a gold locket ring from my high school love for over a decade. “True love lasts forever,” I thought,
And this is true
where the love is true.

A true love would let you down with love and care,
Realizing how precious
the land in your heart is
How precious to have occupied such space.
Instead, it’s easy for him to displace you.

Being displaced
is not new for our people.
When I love, I love deep.
“My love for you’s not going anywhere,” He said to me. And I believed those words.

My love is not for displacing.
If my love is not for you,
hold it gently in your palms
Feel the soft warm heartbeat
of a white-breasted cottontail
and lower that baby rabbit to the ground
So she can run free to the forest of Bleeding Hearts.

I plan to toss that gold locket ring to the ocean. I bought myself the most stunning vintage heart-shaped gold locket ring from the Pawn Shop. I had my eye on it fall, winter and spring – it will move with me into summer.
“You deserve real gold anyway.”
The salt water will erode
the nothing-lasts-forever-ness
of that locket. Saltwater love.

My new locket will remind me
that the true love story was always
my ability to love.

True love lasts forever
for it is passed
from my ancestors to me
from me to any life
that is touched in my own lifetime
from my saltwater tears
to the saltwater tear-bath of the ocean.”

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To reflect, I still believe in “Let Me Down Easy” just like the 1965 R&B/soul song by Bettye Lavette. I still think of the inner child in all of us, like a tender baby animal. My heart is still a forest, though less one of Pacific Wild Bleeding Heart. It is moss-filled and green, crawling with Wild Strawberry vines, Honeysuckles, and Nootka Rose, with ample tough and tender thorns.

My dad was right about the ring – “Papa knows best.” The old locket is rusting somewhere on the ocean floor of the inner harbour of the island where I was born.

I still love deep – but in a new direction. My ability to love with mountain-like courage is still my greatest strength. I’m still writing about the displacement of our people, still comfortingly reassured by the way my ancestors’ love wraps around me like a button blanket. I still dedicate my days to touching lives through health and wellness.

To the souls who I’ve worked with as of late,

“Your strength is my strength. It will help me on this journey of lives touching other lives.

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