Katherena Vermette on why quiet stories speak the loudest
For an understated kind of person, Katherena Vermette knows how to make a splash. Her debut poetry collection, North End Love Songs, won the 2013 Governor General's Literary Award for its understated yet visceral observations of life in Winnipeg's North End. Her debut novel, The Break, was a finalist for Canada Reads, where it was championed by Candy Palmater before being eliminated on Day One of the debates.
Below, Katherena Vermette answers eight questions submitted by eight of her fellow writers in the CBC Books Magic 8 Q&A.
1. Rachel Cusk asks, "Have you ever tried to express yourself in another art form?"
On cold winter nights, I like to crochet like on old lady. When the mood strikes, I make dream catchers, soap, paintings, collages — I am not very good at any of these things but I enjoy them immensely. I am slowing learning hand drum songs, and on rare occasions, I have been known to make a meal that involves more than putting a frozen pizza in the oven. All of these things are art to me. They seem to have the same desire and passion. I try to be as art-full as possible — when the mood strikes, that is.
2. Ian Brown asks, "How much of what you write as a writer is compulsion, and how much is choice?"
A chosen compulsion? A compulsive choice? I can't decide.
First, I write for me, and this is very compulsive. It's my way of understanding and interpreting the world. I think poetry is always like this. It's all heart. Fiction is a more from the head. Both start from some magic place, some idea that just comes, and I have to write it out compulsively, but then I have to plot and plan to make it all work. Maybe the need to write the inspiration is compulsion, and everything after that is choice.
3. Karen Solie asks, "At what stage of composition do you show someone a work in progress?"
When I started writing, I was uber-precious about everything and kept it close for a long, long time. This was beaten out of me by my many great and much appreciated writing teachers. Different writing has different timelines. When I am working with editors, or on projects with lots of people, I have to move fast and don't have time to be precious. It takes a while to get used to, but it's really freeing actually. But when I have the choice, when I am playing and carving something that doesn't have a nasty deadline, I like to keep it close for a while, and let it gestate just so. That way it stays only mine.
4. Zsuzsi Gartner asks, "Why do you write what you write and the way you write it?"
I write from what inspires me, people and things out in the world or other writing that I hear and read. When I start something, I write from passion and inspiration. I have ideas and see what they want to be. Some things are so clearly poems. They beat like songs and have an undeniable rhythm. In them, I hear storytellers I have heard and drum beats that I know. Other things are stories, or characters who scream loud and want to be heard. And some things are in between or neither. I like to listen to what something wants to be first. The writer Richard Van Camp calls these "gifts" and they are. We are blessed to be able to receive them.
5. Emily St. John Mandel asks, "Do you write full time, or do you also do other work? And if you write full time now, what other jobs have you had in the past?"
I like being busy and always have more than a few things going on. For years, I was a single mother with two young girls, went to school part time, and worked full time. Then I went to school full time and worked part time. I was always trying to write in between. Now, I still work a day job and write and do all these writer things, but still most days feel like a holiday by comparison.
As for work, like most writers, I have done many things. My favourite job was teaching a kindergarten/nursery class, and I did that for quite a few years. When I returned to school, I started taking small contracts — led writing workshops, facilitated early literacy training and did other art-based coordination-type things. Currently, I run Indigenous artist training/employment programs. It might be my second favourite job of all time. Though I do still miss hanging out with five-year-olds all day.
6. Lorna Crozier asks, "A question I've never been asked, and fear being asked: What makes you dare to be a writer, to think you have something to say to me?"
The quick answer is I am a storyteller and this is my job. Simple as that. Saying that is actually kind of amazing for me because for years this wasn't always easy for me to accept. I was a quiet child with no self esteem and I thought no one would ever be interested in what I have to say ever. What helped me was my family, knowing I could share the stories of so many people who never got a chance to share their stories. What helped me was my community, learning that everyone gets a job and a way to serve their people. Making things up in my head is my job. I can only speak for myself but this is how I understand it: Indigenous artists are as connected to our communities and nations as we are to our individual art and practice. We are also representatives of our nations and have a responsibility to our people. Everybody interprets this connection and responsibility differently. For me, as an artist, I am free to write about whatever I want, yes, but as a community member, I have to somehow honour my family and my people in everything I do.
7. JJ Lee asks, "If you had to write a country song right now, what would the chorus be?"
I would probably just do a cover of "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" because I am sitting in a hotel room, looking out to beautiful Quebec/Wendake, and have a bad case of the gotta-dos. I love everything I get to do in my professional life, feel truly blessed every day, but I am missing friends right now and need a good bottle of wine and laughter soon! Personally, I feel like I am constantly adjusting to make room for what I am forgetting. Feeling balanced feels like a never-ending cycle sometimes.
8. Vincent Lam asks, "For you — what does the 'Ultimate Literary Event' look like?"
When I laugh or cry, or conversely, when I make someone laugh or cry.
I am drawn to stories that seem quiet, and characters that seem calm. I like to be surprised. I like to relate to people I didn't think I could relate to, or see their layers unfold/unravel to reveal something new. And a little drama doesn't hurt. A good talking-to, bitch slap or cry is never a bad thing really. I want to feel something. I think this is how literature works best. It digs deeper.