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Poetry Month Q&A: Bren Simmers on writing from and to her neighbourhood

Bren Simmers’ second collection, Hastings-Sunrise (Nightwood Editions), is a long poem that spans a year of living in the East Vancouver residential neighbourhood, one of the city’s oldest. Though she is now based in Squamish, B.C., Simmers noted that the book came out of a long effort “to find home and a sense of belonging in a city where so many people struggle with the cost of living.”

Simmers spoke to Q&Q about the collection.

What is it like writing from and to a neighbourhood, especially one as freighted as Hastings-Sunrise? I think that we’re drawn to our neighbourhoods as extensions of ourselves. Working on this project, I’ve come to see that home is a much larger idea than just our address or personal belongings. Where we shop and eat, or even the streets we walk on and the people we walk past, tell the story of a neighbourhood. And of course, this is just one story of Hastings-Sunrise. The neighbourhood is changing so quickly, and everyone with a connection to the place could tell a different story in a different time. In the years that I lived there, gentrifying forces became accelerated to the point of the neighbourhood being rebranded as the East Village. In these poems, I wanted to both acknowledge my complicity in that process and capture a portrait of a particular time and place.

You worked with Barbara Klar on this book. You mention in acknowledgements that she encouraged you to “put yourself in these poems.” What was it like, writing about your home? Did it place any unexpected demands on you or on the poems? Barbara pushed me to go deeper in these poems, to connect my surface observations of the neighbourhood to my process of making a life there. I think this advice ultimately made Hastings-Sunrise a more meaningful book. To put myself in the poems I was forced to create a character sketch of myself that found a balance in both narrative voice and specific details. The challenge was being able to tell my own story rooted in a time and place while also leaving the reader enough room to reflect on their own experience of home. By writing about your own life, you discover you have blind spots. I am grateful to friends who read earlier versions of this manuscript and provided me feedback, pointing out gaps that were subconsciously filled in by my personal experiences.

Now that you’ve written two books, what have you learned about writing and your own process? I’ve learned that it’s hard work. And that there will be several times when I want to give up and become a plumber. My process isn’t the most straightforward. I tend to write intuitively, exploring the subject during the writing process. I usually write loosely and then whittle a poem down intermittently over time as my schedule and mental energy allows.

While writing Hastings-Sunrise, I learned a lot about narrative structure in the long poem, how to weave several narrative strands and sustain an arc throughout a book. This book is probably the closest I’ve come to working with plot, and it’s been a challenge. For the last two years, the manuscript has been 60 pieces of paper taped to my wall, a puzzle being constantly rearranged until I found a balance that felt right. It drove me nuts and I loved it.

You’re a park interpreter by day and a poet by night. Do the two jobs feed each other, especially given that your work often takes as its focus the natural world? Working in environmental education, I’m constantly learning. I love being exposed to new experiences, be it scooping eggs out of a salmon’s belly for our hatchery or spotting tail feathers in the trees during the annual eagle count. The data and details of this work definitely inform my writing, and I feel lucky to be able to live both of these passions. Though, like anyone working multiple jobs knows, this dual life can be taxing. It does force me to reserve time for writing, and it offers me a stream of ideas and images to draw from. And my boss probably appreciates having a writer around when it comes to drafting grants for new garden beds.

British Columbia has a great literary community generally, but what resources are available to you in Squamish? Vancouver has a diverse and thriving literary scene, and I feel fortunate to live only a short drive from an amazing community of artists that I spent a decade getting to know. On the other hand, Squamish is a much smaller town that’s still growing its literary community, but there are a lot of great things happening already. Quest University is hosting its first writers’ conference this summer, and the Whistler Writer’s Festival has a great lineup of authors every year. My sweetheart and I are hosting a house-concert series that features writers paired with musicians, offering a small intimate arts venue for the community. And the beloved Brackendale Art Gallery is a really important community cultural space, hosting concerts, speakers, art shows, and book launches, too.

What are you reading and writing right now? I just finished Anne Michaels’ Correspondences and am flipping my way through Poets on Teaching: A Sourcebook. To celebrate National Poetry Month, for the first time I’m undertaking the NaPoWriMo challenge. I’m writing a poem a day, each based on a different prompt. It’s an unusual process for me, and some surprising poems have come out of it as I play and experiment with language. I think it’s important for me to keep stretching and growing as a writer, to shake myself out of my usual habits in the hopes that by surprising myself, I’ll surprise the reader, too.

This interview has been edited and condensed.