Vanessa Shields on Poetry
National Poetry Month April 2020
Shields is the author of Look at Her (2016) and I am That Woman (2013), as well as editor of Whiskey Sour City (2013). Her poetry also appears in Because We Have All Lived Here (2017) a collection of poetry about the history of Windsor. Shields also works tirelessly to make poetry accessible to everyone through her Poetry on Demand service and Gertrude’s Writing Room, where she offers workshops, editing and other services necessary for writers. Please enjoy this exclusive interview followed by some poetic excerpts.
Poetry has played a huge role in your life, can you tell us how it has influenced you and where it has taken you?
The truth is that I found safety, solace and strength in writing poetry when I was a child, and that continues today. It was the only place I could be fully ‘me’. I started writing in a diary and that included writing poetry. Into adolescence and beyond, writing has been the creative outlet that has felt most ‘me’. It really has been a saviour-esque mode of expression for me. I didn’t read a lot of poetry as a child…but when I did it was in children’s books, and that made a lasting impact. But reading in general, certainly, played a huge role in my childhood and continues today. I think I’ve always had a strong relationship with books, with storytelling, with using words to create a safe and spiritual place for my soul. I think it takes time and practice to figure out the best creative outlet for a soul. For me, writing showed itself as that creative outlet at a very young age. Writing in a journal taught me how to have a conversation with someone – even if it was only myself! That intimacy on the pages of my journals extends into my poetry, for sure.
Poetry has taught me to tell stories by playing with language, with space on a page – to trust in the engagement that happens between writer and reader. When I write poetry as a way to get out the junk that’s inside, it acts as cleansing for my soul. Poetry helps me navigate the wildness of being human, of being alive, of being a force of love. It has taken me into dark, dark depths and it has lifted me up. It has made me laugh, cry, rage and roar! It has also taught me to listen and pay attention. For example, when I do Poetry on Demand, it is truly a lesson in magic through listening and sharing a creative experience. I think that I will forever be influenced by words – writing them, reading them, speaking them!
What have you been up to lately?
I’ve been keeping busy, that’s for sure. My new collection of poetry comes out in the Spring of 2021. It’s called ‘thimbles’ and is about my relationship with my Italian grandmother. We are in the thick of edits, but taking our time. I’m enjoying a calm editorial process, and the space to think about my launch and book tour. It’s a pleasure to have time to envision things and dream about exciting opportunities that come with a new book being published. I’m super grateful to be published! And, this collection is very different from what I’ve published in the past, so I’m both excited and anxious about how it will be received.
Otherwise, I’m loving owning a small business, gathering with writers and learning together. Gertrude’s Writing Room will be two years old in July. I’m enjoying collaborating with other writers and sharing the space for workshops, classes and one-to-one sessions. I’m also working on a feature film screenplay based on a memoir I’m adapting. I’ve written several kids’ books that are out with agents/publishers. The toughest part is being disciplined with writing for work and writing for me personally.
Your poetry covers a broad range of personal topics from sex to family life to your body. When I open one of your books I feel that I’m getting to know you as a person in the most intimate way possible. How do you decide what to write about and where to draw the line?
Thank you! That means a lot. Indeed, writing about such personal topics does motivate a drive in me that wants intimate connections with readers. It’s important to me that readers are affected in some way by what I’m sharing. I hope that my words are evocative – and that they cause some sort of response in readers. As far as deciding what to write about…well, the poems really tell me! My brain functions like an assembly line for stanzas or ideas for stories. The factory never shuts down! So, I do my best to write things down so I don’t forget them (because if I don’t – I do forget them!), and then when I make time to revisit my ideas, I can get to work in unpacking what they mean.
Poetry is an intimate experience, at least for me. I write a lot about what’s happening around me, what’s happening to me – and this often is in relation to my body, mind and spirit. I feel comfortable writing about most personal things. I’m not shy about writing about and talking about sex. I adore the female body even though I have my own struggle with my own body/confidence.
I’ve been writing poetry since childhood so it’s like a second language to me. The words come. I listen and take note. I write and share. And so the process goes.
What do you hope people take away from your poetry?
That poetry is for everyone. That poetry is for self-expression. That writing about personal things is necessary, therapeutic and exciting. I hope that people laugh. I hope that people blush. I hope that they understand what I’m communicating and that it reverberates within them on some level. Poetry is for the people. It’s a beautiful and integral part of how we share our selves. I’m so grateful to part of the creative world as a poet.
Do you want each book to stand on its own, or are you trying to create a body of work with connections between each book?
I certainly don’t consciously write each book thinking about how it will connect to another, however, I know that I do have a distinct writing ‘voice’ that does reach into every poem I write. There are also themes that find their way into every collection…at least thus far! I think I will always write about love, bodies, family, spirituality, sex…for some reason, I always have things to write about on these topics! But, if someone asked me to write a collection about crayons or rocks…I could do that too! Really, it’s so critical to me that when people read my work they feel engaged and included and part of what I’m sharing. I’m trying to create a body of work that is relevant to me, that I hope is relevant to readers, and that can make a positive impact on the writing landscape.
Who are your favourite poets and how they have impacted your writing?
I find I always reach into the world of kid’s poetry/kid’s books when asked this question. Dr. Suess, Shel Sliverstien, Roald Dahl – these masters of wild, wacky yet poignant poetry have always been inspirational to me. They remind me to be playful, to trust my creative intuition, to break the rules, and to believe in my own ‘voice’ as a writer. They are so incredibly themselves, aren’t they?! Their voices are so powerful and distinct. It’s refreshing. And a constant reminder that keeping a childlike wonder at the heart of my work is important. Even if it doesn’t seem that way because of some of the topics I choose to write about, that foundation is there.
I read a lot of poetry. Canadian poets are incredible. I read a lot of Canadian poetry because of the juries and communities of writers I’m a part of. I’m constantly blown away by the calibre, the storytelling, the intimacy, the bravery – all the things we love about poetry, Canadian poets are leading the way in writing. I also love Rattle – a lit mag out of California. It’s my favourite! It welcomes poets from around the world and is a showcase of the best of the best.
Then there are the poets who come to Gertrude’s – the first time erotic poets, the shy, giggly poets who write for the joy and frustration of it, the long-time poets who write for publication and pride…the community of poets in Windsor/Essex is truly extraordinary. And with such stellar publishers in this region – Black Moss Press, Palimpsest, Biblioasis, Zed Press, Urban Farmhouse, Cranberry Tree Press (am I forgetting one?!), we are truly blessed to have such a strong poetry landscape that continues to publish poets for us to discover and love. Our Poets Laureate are incredible, and will continue to be, I’m sure. But we do live in the poetry here in Windsor!
The simple answer though is that every poem I read impacts me on some level. It just does – because that’s what poetry is for!
Thank you for this opportunity to write about poetry! Happy National Poetry Month!
Poems by Vanessa Shields
The Ruby Between My Thighs
I want to tell you I’m a mother
And you not look at me like a child
With dirty innocence on my skin stretch-marked bleeding
The love of this planet spinning on the tip of my tired nipple
You suck too hard too often too much
I need to replenish
I need to sleep
To wash you off my lips
Scrub your seed from cheek
Laugh in your ear and scratch your back your DNA is Under my nails
I want to tell you I’m a mother
And you bow down
Grow your beard and fill your wine jugs pour and caress
My weary feet with your hairy chin
Cook me a meal that makes you a slave then clean it all up
Then make me a coffee
I want to tell you I’m a mother
And you get up on a chair and clap slap your palms raw
Over and over and over
Never stop screaming my praise yell till your vocal chords tear and
Your tongue turns purple push out a baby with the sheer
Will of your being
I want to tell you I’m a mother
And you respect me for being the whore
Who keeps humanity glimmering dripping from
The ruby between my thighs
From Look at Her (2016)
I Want to Know What Love is
Lanspeary Park Ice Rink circa 1985, Ottawa Street and Langlois
On the Lanspeary park ice
Foreigner blared from watchful speakers
Serenading my impure thoughts for
The teenage ref skating with such gorgeous precision
I wanted to know what love is
Love icy unsmooth
Slippery when wet
Scratched and bladed
My wobbly knees knocking on his country’s frozen land
My tender ankles shaking in desperation
I would show him what love is
Off I whooshed to catch the white snow of his sideways stop
Pushing and gliding my mission with 7-year-old faith
I stunted a fall to get his attention
Arms and legs splayed spinning on my stomach
Bumped dirty wood boards with a thud to match the beat
Of 80s love-song unbridled begging
My plan would impress even the zamboni driver
Blue-knitted mitten to my chin to hold fake pain
Michelle my friend yelled speed-skated to me
Crashed into the boards sliding down
My plan-breaking parallel and out kicked her leg and
Into my lower lip her toe pick pierced
I wanna feel what love is
Hot deep-red bloody sopping my mitten
Burrowing into blade art
Until I saw his skates
Torn and filthy punching toward me
Only when he genuflected his
Denim knee a mountain to my blood river
Only then did I cry
From Because We Have All Lived Here (2017)