Katherena Vermette has been a part of Winnipeg's writing and publishing community for a long time. She's an active member of Aboriginal Writers Collective of Manitoba and has worked for both Thin Air, Winnipeg International Writers Festival AND the Writers' Collective of Manitoba.
But Kate was always a writer-who-organized. And so her North End Love Songs was more than another line on her CV: it was the reason she did everything else. (Even though the everything-else probably kept her from writing more often than not...)
Long-awaited first books forever!
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As a writer (i.e. someone whose artistic practice is predicated on time spent alone) how do you approach performance? What do you get out of it?
I was a very, very reluctant performer. I always knew I wanted to be a writer, but tried my best to do that without actually reading my stuff in public (hint: this is impossible). I actually quit my grade 11 Creative Writing class because there was an in-class performance (thinking on it, I’ve quit several classes that had a public speaking component. Bad, shy me!) I didn’t read my stuff until I was 26 and newly minted into the Aboriginal Writers Collective, and even then it was only cause they made me.
It’s still not my favourite thing to do, but it does get easier. It’s integral not only to promote your work, but also to polish your work. When you perform, you hear things in your work that you can’t catch when you’re alone. Even when you read aloud alone, it’s so different when you see people’s reactions, and when you interact with active listeners. It makes your work better. Also, you can’t do this job in a vacuum. You need to go outside and talk to people, you have to hear other work and let others hear yours. It makes everyone’s stuff better.
What do you want people to know about North End Love Songs?
Gah! I just hope they like the book. Really. It was a hard book to write. I have been playing with some of these poems for years. Others were brand new, born out of the intense project of trying to make a whole, real live book. It was such a weird process. I went deeper than I ever intended to go.
I want people to see some sort of truth in it too. I hope readers can relate to it, and get something out of it. I wanted to show a different perspective of inner city life, and create a space for empathy and understanding. Lofty goals, I know. Failing that, I just hope people like the poems.
What would you tell a stranger about Winnipeg?
It’s a great place for a walk in any season. It’s an easy place to find a nice cluster of trees. Every neighbourhood I know has a green space. I love that. And if you view it from above, it looks like a gigantic green park!
I also wish many Winnipeggers knew Winnipeg. As an extended group, we’ve managed to siege ourselves in different, sprawling neighbourhoods. We really have a beautiful core area with amazing houses and streets and people. I wish Winnipeg would invest in that rather than new subdivisions.
What are you reading right now? What are you writing right now?
Oh I love this question! Happy day. I am taking a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing, so my world is reading and writing (when it’s not working and parenting anyway). One of my classes this year is Writing for Children, so I’m reading a lot of storybooks and teen fantasy novels, and loving it.
That and Jian Ghomeshi’s 1982 (I heart him a little bit more with every page).
Writing: I am writing a creative thesis in short story. The stories are also based in the North End/inner city Winnipeg. It’s sort of like a fictional companion to North End Love Songs, but the characters are bossing me around quite a bit, so I am not sure where this will end up.
I am also writing a lot of YA stuff for that class. That’s a lot more fun and balances out my serious, unwieldy north end stories.
And poetry, I am never very far away from poetry.
The elm canopy figures significantly in your book. What would the North End look like without its trees?
I would hate to see the North End without the elms. I picture it looking cold somehow. Bare and vulnerable like a shaved head. There are some streets in central Winnipeg that don’t have trees, like parts of Garfield Avenue in the West End, or, I think it’s Aubrey Street, in Wolseley. They are still gorgeous streets but look weird to me. It’s like they are naked.
The elms are a complex symbol. Most of them were planted around the turn of the 20th century. The urban planners wanted Winnipeg to look like a big city, like New York whose Central Park is full of planted American Elms. But like many things in Winnipeg, what was at first a symbol of colonialism and European settlement has now taken on a different meaning. For me, the elms have morphed and changed into something new, something reclaimed. They are a source of pride that is protected and cherished as precious nature in an otherwise concrete world.
Katherena Vermette’s first full length poetry collection, North End Love Songs (Muses’ Company) was released in September 2012. Her fiction and poetry has appeared in several literary magazines and compilations, including, Manitowapow: Aboriginal Writings from the Land of Water (Highwater 2012). She currently splits her time (and psyche) between working on her Master of Fine Arts degree, herding the cats of the Aboriginal Writers Collective of Manitoba, facilitating early literacy programs, and being an overbearing mother to two tweener girls.
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This is the first installment of a new interview series I'm calling Unicity, which, according to Wikipedia, was a term used to refer to Winnipeg around 1972.
That was when the rural municipalities of Charleswood, Fort Garry, North Kildonan, and Old Kildonan, the Town of Tuxedo, the cities of East Kildonan, West Kildonan, St. Vital, Transcona, St. Boniface, and St. James-Assiniboia were amalgamated into what we now know as Winnipeg.
The Chicago of the North. One Great City. Murder Capital of Canada. Winnerpeg.
The series runs parallel to my previous interview series, Out of Town Authors, but takes as its subjects local authors instead of visiting ones.
(In case you were wondering, Out of Town Authors was a victim of the recent cuts at the Winnipeg Free Press.)
My thanks to Kate for agreeing to the interview. She represents the North End beautifully.