With wins from the RBC Bronwen Wallace Award for Emerging Writers and CBC Poetry Prize under her belt, Alessandra Naccarato's first full-length collection comes with high expectations. Re-Origin of Species more than meet them, with lyric, personal, profound poems that bring together the political and the intimate in an exploration of illness both physical and ecological. Examining disability, climate change, and the way connections between both people and planet inform our experiences, Naccarato's poems are wise and clear-eyed.
We're excited to welcome her to Open Book today as part of our Poets in Profile series, where she tells us about a forbidden room that first introduced her to the magic of poetry, how bees became an unexpected source of poetic inspiration, and what her revision process has in common with Marie Kondo's methods.
Can you describe an experience that you believe contributed to your becoming a poet?
My closest friend’s mother was a writer and poet, growing up. There was one room in their house that was off limits – her mother’s writing room, and this room took on a mythic quality. I listened to her mother’s stories, wide-eyed; I once caught sight of the writer’s desk behind the secret door. The work seemed like a magic act, and it drew me in.
I decided to be a writer at a very young age, and no one told me "no". In our community, art was a vocation, and it was my family’s trade: each of us chose a discipline (theatre, dance, visual art – in my case, poetry) and built our lives around it, difficult as that was. It was powerful to grow up seeing art and writing as part of community, and this greatly influences the content of my writing, and the workshops I facilitate with youth across the country.
What is the first poem you remember being affected by?
I was enthralled by William Blake, as a kid. I found a book of his drawings, and heard he had visions of angels and saints, and couldn’t look away. At seven years old, I kept asking how "eternity" could exist in a "sunflower". No one had a clear answer for me. I repeated those lines constantly, into the puzzled faces of adult.
What has been your most unlikely source of inspiration?
The bees. In 2014, I worked on an essay with members of Hives for Humanity, who tend hives in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver. Many of the beekeepers are residents there, and the first hive Elizabeth was placed in the small garden beside Insite. The hive was thriving, producing more honey than hives on pristine farmland, and I kept hearing the same thing: our relationship with the bees is reciprocal, the health of the bees is a barometer for the health of all species. I dove deep into this teaching, and lived this teaching, as I struggled with chronic illness. I studied with beekeepers, with teachers of bee lore and mythology, and everywhere I turned, the bees wanted to make themselves known in this book.
What do you do with a poem that just isn't working?
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My rewriting process is something akin to Marie Kondo method for your house. Material waiting to be recycled, sorted and folded into place. Often, poems that weren’t working, or unfinished pieces, become something entirely new. One line might seed a different poem, or become a fragment in a long poem. I don’t often give up on a poem completely, but I will let them rest for long periods of time. It can go overboard, much like the Marie Kondo method, where on a bad day you donate every dress you own to the thrift store, thinking nothing here brings me joy. But I save copies, return to the work, see how the vision have shifted; and make sure I leave some of my dresses in the closet for summer.
What was the last book of poetry you read that really knocked your socks off?
Jericho Brown, The Tradition (Copper Canyon Press).
What is the best thing about being a poet... and what is the worst?
To me, the best part of this work is being drawn deeper into relationship – with people, with ideas, and with the environment. There are infinite ways we can see and speak the world around us. I see contemplation, vision, and communication as crucial forms of labour; work artists do for society that is often overlooked. Much like emotional labour, a lot of this work is invisible, and I would say, vital. Vital to the strength of our communities, and the paths we are choosing forward. I want to recognize the artists and organizers that do this constantly, at times with little or no recognition. It is deeply rewarding to dedicate myself to poetry, and it can also feel like a heavy weight to carry, that requires difficult sacrifices and choices. I am not always sure how to honour the traditions I come from, or the complex ecological crises that we face. But when I think of how many generations it took for me to write a single line of a poem; how many choices, ocean-crossings and languages were required for me to be able to write these words, I am very grateful.
Alessandra Naccarato is the recipient of the 2015 RBC Bronwen Wallace Award for Emerging Writers and the winner of the 2017 CBC Poetry Prize. A two-time finalist for Arc Magazine’s Poem of Year and the Edna Steabler Personal Essay Prize, she holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia, and has toured nationally and internationally as a spoken word artist. She is based between Toronto, Ontario and Salt Spring Island, British Columbia. Re-Origin of Species is her debut poetry collection.
Author photo credit: Jacklyn Atlas