Cal­gary poet Wil­son ex­plores hard theme

Open Let­ter collection dark and em­pow­er­ing

Calgary Herald - Calgary Herald New Condos - - Books - ERIC VOLMERS

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.”

Sheri-D Wil­son

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.

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