Trillium Book Award Author Readings June 16

Poets in Profile, with Vanessa Shields

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Windsor-based poet Vanessa Shields' first book of poetry, I Am That Woman, was recently published by Black Moss Press. The collection looks at what it's like to be a woman in the 21st century and "dares to challenge the modern story of a wife, a mother, a lover and a friend." In today's Poets in Profile interview, Vanessa talks to Open Book about menial tasks and creativity, the last book of poems that knocked her socks off and the best thing about being a poet.

Open Book:

Can you describe an experience that you believe contributed to your becoming a poet?

Vanessa Shields:

I spent a lot of time reading when I was a child. In fact, some of my earliest memories include me standing on my Nonna?s picnic table whilst singing songs from Annie, playing store and school with my sister, and reading. I did all three with gusto! Because I had a very early love of books — and words — I believe this prompted me to start writing in a journal. Out of this form of ?free-writing? came poetry. It was a natural progression for me in terms of how I expressed myself. Singing, playing make-believe, entrenching myself in stories... and then writing about it all, really, kept me sane and in check with my ?self.? Poetry was the next natural progression for me.


What is the first poem you remember being affected by?


I?ll be honest, I never grew up reading poetry — except Dr. Suess, who, in my opinion, is a master. But I never read Keats or Whitman or Byron or these masters... not until I was much older. When I was in high school, I was gifted Kahlil Gibran?s The Prophet. This book of poetry changed my life. I felt like he was writing to me. I loved his messages, his style and the honesty and spirituality that oozed in each piece. This book became my (ten) commandments, if you will! In my university career, I was gifted Rainer Maria Rilke?s Letters to a Young Poet, and this book also changed my life. While it?s not poetry outright because it?s a collection of letters, it is written in a poetic voice and style. Rilke captured and communicated what it means to live and breathe as an artist — and it allowed me to assert my own artistic essence and commit to a writing life for the sake of writing — like breathing to be alive, I must write to be alive. Sounds intense — and it was! Still is.... Music lyrics, to me, are poetry as well. Many lyrics have affected, inspired and motivated my writing life. I also love Shel Silverstein?s The Giving Tree and The Missing Piece, which to me, is pure poetry. I also love Pablo Neruda?s love poems. His poetry is sooo romantic and pure.


What one poem — from any time period — do you wish you had been the one to write?


Excellent question, but you know what? I can?t really think of one! I can think of novels I wish I?d written, but not poetry. I get so affected — moved, inspired, emotionally charged — when I read that I think the opposite happens to me. Instead of thinking, ?Wow, I wish I wrote that!,? I often think, ?Expletive, why do I even write at all when there?s this that already exists!? I think this reaction speaks to my inner demons and self-confidence and how powerful yet fragile they are. I get grateful when I read something I love too. But I rarely wish I?d written it.


What has been your most unlikely source of inspiration?


Cleaning. Engaging in mundane, repetitive tasks. I find that when my hands are washing dishes, folding clothes, holding the steering wheel, something happens to my brain that unleashes all kinds of new ideas. It?s probably that my brain is able to unwind a bit when I?m doing these tasks, that ideas are able to sneak out with more ease and I get sudden urges to write them down. It?s like a delayed to reaction to people or experiences or food or music or films that have inspired me at a different time than in that moment — when I?m doing menial tasks, the response to previously felt inspiration comes out. The challenge is to stop myself from doing the menial task and write down the ideas. It?s my biggest challenge I?d have to say.


What do you do with a poem that just isn't working?


Leave it alone. Put it on a (massive) pile on my desk with other half-written or almost finished poetry/ideas/stories and go back to it when I have time or when more ideas/thoughts amble back to it. I eventually finish all the poems I write. Even the really bad ones. Yes, I write a lot of bad poetry. It?s natural and important, and it?s practice. I try not to judge the bad ones, but let them come out. Sometimes there?s a line or a title that I?ll eventually end up using somewhere else.


What was the last book of poetry you read that really knocked your socks off?


Phil Hall?s Killdeer. It won the Governor General?s Award, the Trillium award and was short-listed for the Griffin Poetry Prize. I heard Phil read/speak on two occasions and was pleasantly surprised at both — by him. By his words and his presentation. When I settled into Killdeer I had his voice and body in my mind and it made me love the poetry even more. From ?A Thin Plea?... Confidence lands its flocks upon me & I feel — inside the poem — unafraid.... WOW! I can relate. And I am grateful he?s written these words. Like this. In this order. In this line. In this poem. And that?s how easy it can be to love poetry. One word or line at a time.


What is the best thing about being a poet?and what is the worst?


The best thing about being a poet is that I know I?m a part of keeping poetry alive. That I?m a part of keeping this integral part of the arts, and essentially, this needed part of being human alive. Somewhere along the lines of history, poetry got a bad wrap... or a scary wrap or basically ?wrapped? in this ?I don?t get it? cellophane that keeps people away from it. I like that I can tear off this wrapping and uncover poetry that is accessible, relatable, funny and honest. It shouldn?t be painful or difficult to read — at least not all the time. I?m not saying that poetry, or any art for that matter, shouldn?t challenge a reader to think. Indeed, I?m saying it should! But I am very conscious and aware of how I think people will react to and/or respond to my poetry even as I?m writing it. I want them to understand it, and have an emotional response to it — even if the response is that they don?t agree or don?t like it.

There really isn?t a ?worst? part of being a poet. I just think, again, that because of people?s preconceived notions about what poetry is — they discount it too quickly sometimes, and discount themselves as being able to enjoy it. That?s a challenge. Breaking through to a person enough to get them to actually read one of my poems so they can see that it?s not something to fear, but rather something to enjoy, is the challenge. And it?s a challenge I?m willing to face because it?s worth it when people do read and they laugh or cry or tell me ?that?s exactly how I feel!?

Visit Vanessa on Twitter at @AuthorVanessa and on Facebook where she's busy campaigning to get on Q with Jian Ghomeshi.

Vanessa Shields has made her home, her family and her work life flourish in Windsor, ON. Her passion for writing was discovered at a very young age through the vein of writing in a journal. Her first book, Laughing Through A Second Pregnancy ? A Memoir, was published by Black Moss Press in 2011 to rave reviews. I Am That Woman, her first book of poetry, was published in November 2013. Her poetry, short stories and photography has been published is various literary magazines. She is currently working on three Young Adult novels. She mentors, guest speaks and teaches creative writing. She also created Poetry On Demand, on-the-spot poetry that helps make poetry fun and accessible for all. Visit Vanessa's website,

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore, online from the publisher or at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

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