Every family story contains at least one unforgettable character. A person who inspires those who come after with his or her strength, struggles, and legacy. For poet Vanessa Shields, it was her grandmother, her beloved Nonna Maria, whose fascinating life captivated Shields from a young age.
After her Nonna's passing, Shields immortalized Maria in her new collection, Thimbles (Palimpsest Press), a raw, frank, wise examination of a woman's life, starting when Maria worked as a seamstress in Italy and moving forward through time to her death and her impact on the family she left behind.
In Thimbles, Shields asks probing questions about grief, love, and the passage of time, and in unpacking her experience of Maria's fatal dementia, she discusses complex questions of memory, identity, and connection.
It's a brave and insightful collection and we're excited to welcome Vanessa to Open Book today in celebration of its publication. As a veteran poet, she's sharing her experiences of writing and publishing as part of our Going Pros and Cons series, which asks authors to give readers a peek behind the scenes of a literary life.
She tells us about about a vocabulary mix-up that made for an awkward reading, the bestselling author who offered her encouragement and support when she was just a teenager, and how lipstick, desserts, and coffee help create a great literary event.
My best public reading or event experience:
The Moth, a storytelling series, takes place once a month at a cool bar in downtown Detroit (Detroit, Michigan is a scoot across the border from Windsor where I live.). The first time I attended a Moth competition, I threw my name in the hat to participate. The theme was Love Hurts. My name got picked. Gah. I took the stage and proceeded to tell the story of when I was 8 months pregnant and I helped an intern doctor while he did an internal exam on me. It was his first time.
When I was on stage, under the lights, my heart thumping so hard it felt like my skin would burst, the story dancing out of me like a tarantella...I felt so alive. So on fire with passion and meant-to-be-ness...My face hurt from smiling. The applause made my ears ring for days. And...I won that night’s competition, which qualified me to participate in a Grand Slam event. (Didn’t win that one, but it was a wild experience!) I felt like I had found a place, a collective that I belonged to in a way that I’d never felt belonging before. I continued to attend Moth events, sometimes participating as a storyteller, others participating as an audience member. I started a storytelling series in Windsor that lasted close to four years. And, I’ve made lasting friendships with storytellers in Windsor and Detroit!
The experience really helped my confidence whilst on stage. It taught me to trust my instincts and speak from my heart, skills I continue to hone as I read and share stories and poetry.
My worst public reading or event experience:
There are certain poems I love to read because of their cadence and subject matter, and also for the audience response. One poem in particular, I was reading at nearly every event. The audience response was always laughter and smiling, and that made me feel good. After one reading, whilst the readers and audience members were mingling, a person came up to me with a face scrunched into annoyance. “You’re using the wrong word,” the person said. “I can’t stand it.” I was quickly confused as there was no greeting to the conversation, just a sour face and pissed off comment. “The term is air duct NOT eavestrough.” And the person stomped away. Turns out, after about a year of reading one of my favourite poems, this person had pointed out a critical mistake concerning the subject of the poem. She was, indeed, correct, and it made the whole poem NOT.MAKE.SENSE because I was using the wrong term. I was mortified. I haven’t read that poem since...and I burn with humiliation that neither me or my editor caught this important distinction each time I think about it (like, even now).
The person or writer I met who I was most excited about:
My favourite high school English teacher, Mr. Whittal, gave us an assignment to write in the style of any writer we wanted, dead or alive. He showed me some of Mitch Albom’s sports columns in the Detroit Free Press, and thought I might want to emulate Albom’s work. He was right. I was hooked. Albom had (still has, actually) a talk radio show on WJR in downtown Detroit, so I called the station and left a message with my name and number to see if he’d be interested in reading some of my work. Within a few days, he returned my call! We set up a time for me to meet him at the radio station and hand him my writing. I was only 15, so I got a ride to the station (I can’t remember who drove me?!), and I met Mitch Albom in the lobby in front of the elevators. That was over twenty-five years ago. Over the years, Mr. Albom and I have exchanged letters, had quick picture moments at his book launches here in Windsor; and when my first book was published, he called to congratulate me.
I met him before he published Tuesdays With Morrie, the book that catapulted his writing into millions of hands and hearts. I recently mailed him a copy of my new book, Thimbles, with thanks for that first meeting so long ago, that taught me how to have the courage to reach out to writers for guidance and mentoring.
My favourite part of the publishing process:
All of it! Each part of the process is exciting and overwhelming, but I do especially love the editing process. Giving each line in each poem tender, loving care with not one but two hearts, and two sets of eyes, and two brains...it’s when the magic shows up and the poems turn into a cohesive story that then becomes ‘the book’. I love how changing a pronoun or moving a stanza can bring the poem to an elevated version.
Talking about poetry is one of my favourite things! So, to engage in intense, vulnerable conversations about poetry with someone who is invested and who cares as much as I do, well, it’s pretty spectacular. Also, organizing a collection of poetry is no small feat! My process is to print the poems out, spread them over a table and stand back and look. I’m a visual person, so seeing all the poems in front of me, lifting pages and moving them around is one of the final steps in the process that is most invigorating. The writer/editor relationship is integral to the success of a book, no matter the genre. There’s a trust there that is undeniable. I need my editors to help me lift up the layers of revision that I can’t see needing lifting on my own. It’s a tough but necessary part of the magic. (And, we’re not perfect as my previous story shows, but it’s still a fine relationship, that of the editor and the writer!)
What I think about writer-in-residence programs:
I dream of being a writer-in-residence, yet I’ve only applied for one program twice...and was rejected both times. And I was relieved both times! Let me explain. There are two main reasons I want to be a writer-in-residence: 1) I want to engage with students/writers because it’s my favourite thing about being a writer! 2) I want to indulge in the space – be it an office on a campus or a gorgeous house in a forest – and write in this new environment. However, it’s all about timing. My kids are still young, and so being accepted to a residency that is ‘away’ and that is weeks/months long, my heart just isn’t ready to do...yet.
I think residency programs are brilliant for all involved. It’s important for writers to travel to new places and immerse themselves in new communities. It helps our creativity and challenges our writing processes at the same time as exemplifying the importance of creative exchange in communities. There are so many unique residencies that exist; enough for a writer to have a smorgasbord of options that suit whatever her writing needs may be. Perhaps isolation with a smattering of community engagement is key. Maybe an education setting is the desire. I’m grateful that residencies exist for writers to expand their place and process. I hope to one day have the courage to apply to some dream residencies...and get accepted! And begin to live out my romantic dreams of being a writer-in-residence!
The thing(s) I need at/during/before an event or reading:
Let’s consider a pre-Covid reading for this answer! Before a reading, I need to scope the location. I need to see if it has food/drinks. I need to know where the bathroom is in relation to the stage/reading area (this for my ulcerative colitis/nerves!). Knowing the order of readers and the tech situation is always helpful. I tend to, if given the choice, go first when reading. I’m such a nervous wreck, my body and brain want to go first so I can relax and enjoy the rest of the reading when I’m done. Coffee is helpful if the reading is late! If the location has food, I always scan the desserts first, for a post-reading food-as-comfort gift. I like to make sure I have copies of my book(s), and my favourite signing pen (Lamy, yellow, with black ink), and some cute stickers/swag to give away. It is always nice when folks I know are in attendance, but that’s not always possible. I like sitting near/with the other writers. Um, lipstick. Red lipstick. I only wear it when I read. (Is that weird?!) Oh, and I always do a set list – what poems I’m going to read – and I read them out loud to practice, to make notes about pauses/performance, and to time myself. I also have some extra poems ready in case the vibe/audience calls for a change. For zoom/virtual readings, things are pretty much the same...but for the sitting next to each other…! I still get very nervous, need food for comfort, and wear red lipstick.
Vanessa Shields is the owner of Gertrude’s Writing Room—A Gathering Place for Writers. She is the author of Laughing Through A Second Pregnancy (2011), I Am That Woman (2013), and Look at Her (2016). You can find her mentoring, editing, teaching, and writing at Gertrude’s or having a dance party in her kitchen with her handsome husband, two amazing kids, and two golden retrievers. Visit her website. She resides in Windsor, Ontario.