How P.E.I poet Bren Simmers wrote about her mother's Alzheimer's — and won the CBC Poetry Prize
The Charlottetown poet won $6,000, a writing residency and publication on CBC Books
The 2023 CBC Poetry Prize is now open to Canadian poets! You could win $6,000 from the Canada Council for the Arts, have the opportunity to attend a two-week writing residency at Artscape Gibraltar Point, a cultural hub on Toronto Island, and have your work published on CBC Books.
The prize is open until May 31, 2023! Submit now for a chance to win!
To inspire you, check out the story behind last year's winning poetry collection, Spell World Backwards by Bren Simmers, below.
Charlottetown poet Bren Simmers has won the 2022 CBC Poetry Prize for her poetry collection Spell World Backwards. She is the first ever CBC Literary Prize grand prize winner from Prince Edward Island.
LISTEN: Bren Simmers' interview on On The Coast with Gloria Macarenko
The poems in Spell World Backwards were inspired by Simmers' mother's experience with Alzheimer's.
She spoke to CBC Books about how she wrote her winning entry.
Writing as a form of relief
"I didn't even necessarily want to write some of the poems in the collection. Because they were hard. But I felt like I had to write them.
"My mom was diagnosed in 2018. I probably started writing about it sometime in 2019. It started as me getting off the phone with her and being upset. We had a lot of difficult conversations. My mom is in B.C., and I'm in P.E.I.
"I'd be upset and I'd be emotional and I wasn't sure what to do with it. I'd open my computer, or I'd open a journal and I would just dump it in there. It was a way to get some relief, to let some of that emotion go.
I'd open my computer, or I'd open a journal and I would just dump it in there. It was a way to get some relief, to let some of that emotion go.
"Then I went back, maybe a couple of years ago, and read through some of those journal entries. I realized that there was something there, that they would speak to people outside of myself and who are experiencing a similar kind of loss.
"That's when I started revising them and think, 'Okay this could be a poem.'"
Bringing the reader in
"Because the material is so close and so emotional, I couldn't work on it for very long. I would revise it and then I'd have to put it down.
"Sometimes it was weeks, sometimes it was months. I worked on it in stages. I'd work on it to a place where I felt like these prose poems are working. But then I thought, 'I want to complicate this. I want to make this more difficult. I want the reader to struggle the way that I struggle when I talk to my mom on the phone or when I talk to her in person.'
I want the reader to struggle the way that I struggle when I talk to my mom on the phone or when I talk to her in person.
"That's when I started thinking about how I could replicate the change in language that I noticed in her — the repetition, the looping, the stuttering, the word replacements. How do I put some of that in the poem and make it harder for the reader?
"Not to the point where they can't understand it, but so it's present in a way that it is present in conversations with my mom. It took me a while to intellectually 'get' from getting the emotional tone right, to then taking a step back as an editor and thinking about adding that other layer to it."
LISTEN | Bren Simmers on Spell World Backwards:
Putting it all together
"When I first wrote this, I had to write it in the third person. I had to say 'she.' It was only a year ago that I put it into second person, addressing my mom directly.
"It was too painful to do that when I was first writing it. That was a big turning point.
Moving around some of those details, some of those markers of the stages of Alzheimer's, trying to keep chronological sense, but also trying to make the poem make sense.
"It's figuring out what makes sense for the reader. You have to make those poems make sense together. So I put a few details into the poems that were from a different time.
"Moving around some of those details, some of those markers of the stages of Alzheimer's, trying to keep chronological sense, but also trying to make the poem make sense. Sometimes those two things were at odds with each other. Ultimately, the poem wins. The poem needs to make sense."
Winning means confidence and connection
"I never expected this would happen! It's been quite a gift and a real boon at a time in my life when things have been difficult for a few years. The timing could not have been better to lift me up and say, 'This hard work that you've been doing, this work of crying and writing and eating chocolate alone in your little room, is actually important.'
The timing could not have been better to lift me up and say, 'This hard work that you've been doing, this work of crying and writing and eating chocolate alone in your little room, is actually important.'
"I have friends right now who have parents with Alzheimer's. Talking about it helps. Even just being able to talk about things and laugh about things and exchange funny things that our parents have said, it makes it easier because you're sharing that journey with someone else."
"[My mother] has been proud of my work my whole life. I've written about her before and she showed her friends. So I think, if she understood, she would be very proud."
Bren Simmers' comments have been edited for length and clarity.
LISTEN | Bren Simmers' interview on As It Happens: