Michelle Poirier Brown's You Might Be Sorry You Read This is an unflinching account of the writer's life
The Cree Métis writer spoke to Shelagh Rogers about writing her debut poetry collection
Michelle Poirier Brown is "trusting the voice in [her] pocket" — the meditative and unflinching voice she found through poetry. Her debut poetry collection is a moving portrait of the Cree Métis writer's determination to understand her identity, speak out about painful childhood traumas and explore her family history.
You Might Be Sorry You Read This meditates on different moments throughout Poirer Brown's life, including beloved memories of her late father, the realization of her Métis heritage at age 38 and breaking her silence about the sexual violence she survived as a child.
Poirer Brown spoke to The Next Chapter's Shelagh Rogers about writing You Might Be Sorry You Read This.
The title is eye and mind-catching. How did it come to be?
I had a box full of poems, and I didn't know I had a book. I was working with my beloved editor, Chelsea, and we were organizing the poems into groups: "these are about sex, these are about this, these are about that." I had all the trauma poems in one section, and I said, "Well, I think we should call this section, 'You might be sorry you read this.'"
Do you feel poetry has saved you?
I once wrote a poem with the line, "telling the truth can save your life." I think that's what poetry is. So often, it is a way for us to tell the truth to ourselves, to be able to confront what's inside us. What we can feel is living in our bones, and we're not exactly sure what it is. So we come to the page to explore that somatic experience and are quite often surprised.
In fact, that's what Ellen Bass says about writing poetry. You describe and describe and describe until something surprises you.
[Poetry] is a way for us to tell the truth to ourselves, to be able to confront what's inside us.-
Early in the book, you have a poem called The Father I Had, which is memories of birthdays and church and your father's voice singing hymns in church, dad jokes and so on. Every detail tells a story. How did you choose those particular details to write?
I have to begin in stillness and a tuning into the body and then those were the images that floated to the surface. I lost my dad when I was only 29 years old. I feel his absence so keenly, so I think I was just rolling through favourite memories I had.
The book deals with uncomfortable subjects. If we talked about some of what's in the book, you'd have to preface this broadcast with a trigger warning and probably put a phone number at the end for people to call. A lot of the time, people assume that the problematic situation had to do with my father and it absolutely didn't. That's why it was important to me to begin with poems where he figures prominently. The one thing I know of my life is that my father loved me deeply.
As you mentioned, you write about childhood trauma. How do you approach this territory in poetry, which is so deeply personal for you?
I have quite regularly been encouraged to write a memoir. The fact is that what's happened to me in my life, as is true for us all, lives in us. It lives in our bodies.
When I get to the bottom and put the last mark on the paper or hit the period key on the computer for the last time, I'm often surprised at what the poem is about.-
So, for me, poetry can sometimes start with a sound — sometimes it'll be like a buzz — and then the buzz will acquire rhythm to it. When it gets to that rhythm, I know I'm close to the first line and I just have to be still and wait for that line to make itself evident. Then, we're off.
When I get to the bottom and put the last mark on the paper or hit the period key on the computer for the last time, I'm often surprised at what the poem is about.
In some poems, you're coming to terms with family history, identity and how you appear to others. Could you talk about your poem, Duck Ugly?
Figuring out my face has been a really central challenge in my life. Before I knew I had Indigenous heritage, the rest of the world knew but I didn't know.
The day I found out, my sister told me about our great-grandmother, and I went to my husband I said to him, "I discovered something surprising." He looked at me like I was bonkers. I found out that everyone in my life understood me to be Indigenous and that the only person I was passing with as white was me — except I wasn't passing as white.
There were times when I was so careful about my facial expression and there were times when I would look in the mirror and I would say, "Oh, you're having an ugly day," because that's what I thought the problem was.
I thought I was ugly. The reaction I would sometimes get when I walked into a room, that kind of aversion that you can feel from people, I didn't know it was racism. I thought it was because I was ugly.
LISTEN | Jessica Johns's on her novel Bad Cree:
Now that you know it's racism, what does it take to walk into a room?
It takes knowing who I am and knowing it deeply; knowing where I am.
There's a line in the poem, Sometimes you learn things quite late in the game, which goes: "you trust the voice in your pocket." How are you feeling about the voice in your pocket?
That poem is based on the Russian fairy story, Vasilisa the Beautiful.
That is what poetry is like. Magic happens. Something else lifts up inside of you and goes on to the page and there lies your comfort.-
The mother gives the girl a little doll for her to keep in her pocket and when Vasilisa is confronted with the extraordinary task that the fearsome Baba Yaga has assigned her — that she is to separate out the poppy seeds from fly poop — the voice in her pocket that [represents] trust and connection is what sees her through. That's what makes magic possible and the magical hands appear and do the task for her.
That is what poetry is like. Magic happens. Something else lifts up inside of you and goes on to the page and there lies your comfort.
Poirer Brown's comments have been edited for length and clarity.
Interview produced by Lisa Mathews, Shelagh Rogers and Jacqueline Kirke.