Books·How I Wrote It

Chantal Gibson on decolonizing minds through poetry

The poet discusses how she wrote debut poetry collection How She Read.
Based in Vancouver, Chantal Gibson is an artist, educator and poet. (Caitlin Press, Chantal Gibson)

Artist, poet and educator Chantal Gibson's How She Read is a collection of genre-blurring poems about the representation of black women in Canada.

Named by CBC Books as a black Canadian writer to watch in 2019, the Vancouver-based Gibson has East Coast roots and brings a holistic, decolonized approach to challenging imperialist ideas by way of a close look at Canadian literature, history, art, media and pop culture.

Gibson spoke with CBC Books about how she wrote How She Read.

Germinating ideas

"I've had the idea for How She Read for a really long time. I was an English major and I've taught writing and the English language for 20 years. I wanted to do something about the representation of black women in Canadian art, history, literature and popular culture.

"Two summers ago I was asked to create a piece for a show called Here We Are Here: Black Canadian Contemporary Art, which was an exhibit at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. It was the first show of black Canadian contemporary art of its kind. I worked on an installation called Souvenirs, a multimedia installation comprised of 2,000 blackened souvenir spoons. But I was also getting ideas for the book.

"That's how it started: I was going to build this art piece and write this book at the same time. I would have mornings where I would be working on the art piece — and I would be writing poems in the afternoon. If the poems came first, then I would write poems in the morning and I would work on the art piece later. I was lucky because I was on study leave from teaching at SFU. It was a blessing. I had time to write and create."

Questioning assumptions

"I wanted to explore the kinds of books that my mom, who grew up in 1950s Halifax, might have read as a young black girl going to school. I started looking at old Canadian spellers and that exercise afforded me a new way of coming at the poems. I gave myself this exercise of looking at the assumptions that are embedded in the language I speak and write every day. It was also triggered by the fact that I've had years of teaching writing and the rules of writing — the comma splices, the run-ons and the dangling modifiers. I started to think about the things that I take for granted as being right, but also the things I pass on to students in the margins of their pages. 

"I started using writing errors as the constraints for poems. The first section of my book is called the grammar of loss. While the subject matter is about black womanhood, sisterhood, daughterhood, loss and belonging, each of the poems uses a particular kind of grammar error constraint. Rather than trying to write correctly, it's about challenging how I write — how can I find new ways of understanding material by not following the rules, but also by not following the rules as a form of backtalk. It became a way for me to create voices for the women in the book."

More than words can say

"There are some things that we cannot express in words. In the English language, there are not enough modifiers or adjectives to be able to truly express fundamental ideas. Also, for black women, it's not always safe to express certain kinds of ideas.

"In writing a book that was talking back to power and challenging hegemony, I realized there were some things that I was not going to be able to say. Creating my whole form of shorthand was a deconstruction of my handwriting to its basic fundamental right. And so you will see poems in the book that are graphic poems — they're not meant to be read in the way that we read the Romanized alphabet. They are meant to be felt and experienced."

Chantal Gibson's comments have been edited for length and clarity. 

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