Calgary poet Wilson explores hard theme
Open Letter collection dark and empowering
Sheri-D Wilson says she has received more than one late-night phone call about her new collection of poetry.
They generally come from distraught women who have made it deep into the Calgary poet’s new book, Open Letter: Woman Against Violence Against Women (Frontenac House Poetry, $15.95, 104 pages) and landed on what is likely the collection’s most distressing entry, Exhibit G — Hidden in Plain Sight. In between the repeated refrain, “A Rape is a Rape is a Rape,” the piece depicts disturbing scenes of violence against women.
“I certainly don’t want my book to be an assault,” said Wilson, in an interview from her home in Calgary. “I want it to be about hardness that can be turned into healing. I had a few calls actually from women who read the piece about rape. We’d talk about it and things that have happened to other women and I would say, ‘Read the healing piece at the end.’”
That would be Divining the Mind, which is the second-to-last poem in Open Letter. Wilson acknowledges the book is probably the darkest work of her career, which has spanned more than 30 years and spawned 11 collections of poetry, numerous chapbooks and the Calgary Spoken Word Festival. Divining the Mind was put there for solace, both for the reader and the author.
“The book is about deep sorrow and brokenness,” says Wilson. “I didn’t know that until I was writing it. And then (I realized) it was quite hard. I had to only do it for a certain amount of time until I had to leave it. I decided after I read it, I had to write a healing aspect.”
Before we get there, Open Letter can be a dark ride, touching on gang rapes in India, the Montreal Massacre and the forgotten victims of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside and Northern British Columbia’s Highway of Tears.
At least two of the poems deal with Wilson’s own experiences with violence. In Vancouver Violation, she writes about having a knife pulled on her. In Kick Ass Waitress, she writes about being groped by a “collegiate boy” while she worked at a deli.
In both cases, according to the poems, she responded with the fighting spirit she inherited from her grandfather. “My grandfather taught me how to fight — and my Uncle Bob,” she says. “They were Irish. I learned how to fight and I put that in early in the story of my life because I wanted to tell women, ‘Learn how to fight. Know how to protect yourself.’
“There comes a time when women have to know how to defend themselves. The book is about defending yourself and empowering yourself.”
The poems also revisit a period in Wilson’s life when she lived in Vancouver. She worked on a fishing boat and got to know women from Vancouver’s impoverished east side, some of whom became victims of serial killer Robert Pickton or went missing in Northern B.C. along Highway 16. Many were poor and addicted to drugs. Some were photographed by Lincoln Clarkes for his controversial series entitled Heroines.
“I was hitchhiking those highways and I knew the women who Lincoln was taking pictures of because I lived there,” Wilson said. “Down by the tracks there’s this cafe and you could get breakfast for $1.89 and a bottomless coffee. It was really busy on ‘Welfare Wednesdays.’”
The book may seem more straightforward in its messaging than what we’ve come to expect from Wilson, who is known as the “Mama of Dada” for her debt to the avant-garde early 20th-century art movement that favoured chaos over form. She has also earned a reputation for her improvisational and live-performance skills and as a leading proponent of spoken word.
So it’s no surprise Open Letter arose from a largely improvised performance Wilson gave in early 2013 at the Art Gallery of Calgary. She was among the performers enlisted to mark the opening of a travelling exhibit called Off the Beaten Path: Violence, Women and Art, which featured pieces from 32 international artists.
Wilson told stories that riffed on that heavy theme. A friend videotaped it. Another wrote a transcript. When Wilson read what she had performed, she decided it could be the basis for a powerful group of poems.
“I took the live performance and the stories and the arc of it and I tried to write what I consider to be serious poetry,” she said. “I think it’s the most poetic book I’ve ever written. I paid deep attention to the style in which it was written. It sounds egocentric, but I think it’s a strong poetry book. I wanted it to stand strong as a piece of poetry and not just performance.”
Calgary poet Sheri-D Wilson hopes her latest collection, Open Letter: Woman Against Violence Against Women, perhaps the darkest work of her career, to empower other women.