The Fabulous Vanessa Shields

A few months ago, I was lucky enough to meet “virtually” the very cool Canadian poet and blogger Vanessa Shields. No, we haven’t actually met–Windsor, Ontario, is not close by–but thanks to the magic of the Internet, she bumped into my poetry marathon this past April, and asked me to do an interview with her for her blog, and we exchanged books. Since then, Vanessa has been busy being–well, Vanessa. Mom-ing and poet-ing (and doing all manner of writing) and also launching a space for writing called Gertrude’s Writing Room.

You can read all about it at her blog, by clicking on this link. (Check out the “about” page, too!)

Ever since reading Vanessa’s books, Look at Her, and I Am That Woman, both of which are sexy as all get out–I’ve wanted to ask her some questions and do a blog post about her, so here it is. (Enjoy!)
Bethany: The journey toward getting a poetry manuscript together strikes me as being as idiosyncratic and story-worthy as the book itself. Can you share some details about how Look at Her came into being? Was that birth different from that of your earlier book of poems, I Am That Woman‘s?

Vanessa: I have to agree! I love talking about ‘making-ofs’ too! The birth of each book has been vastly different as far as time and process goes. But on the inside – meaning – in the body, the soul and the mind – I think I’m always stretching and pulling and hoping to change on one or more levels of ‘self’. It is continuously emotional, exhausting and completely exhilarating creating the poems. They come to me at all different times, in all different ways. I always have a pen and paper with me (I don’t think I’ll ever make the switch to typing myself notes on my smartphone. It feels anti-process. Though, I have sent myself emails to remember things…).

I Am That Woman happened very quickly. Within three months, I put a manuscript together, edited and revised, created the cover and planned a launch. It was fast and furious – and the poems were reflective of my struggles to find time to write as a mother of two. Lots of angst and comedy and sexy bits. It was my first published collection of poetry so of course I had delusions that it would win awards and catapult me to poetry-stardom. Ha.

Look At Her came a couple years later. This time, we (my editor/publisher and I) took our time with the writing, editing and revising process. We planned ahead, had weekly meetings and took our time with the book’s organization. I had time to see that certain sections were weaker and I was able to write new poetry to fill in the gaps. As well, this time, I not only planned a huge launch, but a small book tour. That was so much work! But I was so proud of the book, it felt necessary to share it at readings and events around Ontario. Yes, those delusions were still alive – even more so because the process of making the book took longer and so I had that whole time to build up to its ‘birth’. This collection was more mature, still had some comedy and sexy bits, but it felt much more ‘me’. The awards didn’t happen for this book either…and after the tour I was depleted and frustrated and sad. I didn’t write another poem for months.

I think one major different between these two collections was also ‘conception’ – if I may make a sex connection! I had many poems written before I Am That Woman became a possibility. I gathered poetry I’d already had and used that to start the process. With Look At Her I wrote almost all of them fresh. So, there was much more conceiving going on with Look At Her than there was for I Am That Woman. I can see/feel it when I read the books. I’m proud of both, but they are different.

Alas, I find that my instinct for themes when writing continues to fall into the following categories: motherhood, feminism, femininity, womanhood, the female body, sex, family – and comedy helps write these poems too. I use ‘funny’ to maybe quiet the pain?

I think the making-of of each book will be slightly different in terms of time and process – life will keep it that way!

But, at my heart-centre, I hope that I can always write from my truth and be motivated by love…as the root of any changes that are taking place within. 

Bethany: This is exactly what I feel when I read your poems. They come from place at your core. As I know you’re at work on a new manuscript of poems, does it differ from your previous books, overlap, or strike out into new territory?

Vanessa: I just finished writing my new poetry book last night! How cool is that? Its working title is ‘thimble’. This collection began out of spiteful necessity. Meaning, I couldn’t not write poetry anymore. Come last October, I was bursting after having not written in months. I was on the fence about submitting to the Ontario Arts Council Recommenders’ Grants because I was pissed I didn’t get one the previous year (!). Out of spite, I threw some poems together and submitted. I got three grants! The most ever for me – and it floored and humbled me. Also, gave me the confidence I needed to keep writing. My confidence shifted from a drying brook to a roaring river!

Bethany: Congratulations!

Vanessa: In terms of style, this is my most serious collection yet. I really challenged myself to move in to the dark places of my soul and mind. There is very little humour in this collection. And while some pieces are sexual in nature, they aren’t about ‘sex’ per se. I needed to inhabit the darkness this time around because some very dark things were happening in ‘real life’. I needed to understand how I was feeling and why – and when I went inside, it was dark. So yes, this is new territory for me. But also freeing. And, I hope, hope-full!

There is also very, very new territory for me in terms of form. I’ve included sketches that I’ve created with pen. I am not a visual artist at all! But, this calling to add a visual element to some of the poetry was so strong I couldn’t deny it. I’m not sure how publishers will feel about this…or some of the other challenges to form that I’m playing with…I hope they like it!

This collection feels very different from the others but it is still about motherhood, women, feminism, and family. It seems to me that these themes are unavoidable in my poetry. I’m good with it. It’s my truth.

Bethany:  What about your other new project, the birth of Gertrude’s Writing Room? What do you especially want readers to know about it?

Vanessa: Gertrude’s Writing Room is my office and shared teaching space with a big table and a cool garage door that we can open to let the cool breeze in! The idea for GWR was born close to ten years ago, but really has been alive in some form or other in my heart since I was a child, when I was in Paris writing in the cafes that Hemingway and Fitzgerald wrote…and walking the streets of Montmartre….feeling the life still very much thriving in the history of the cobble stones and buildings…I think if I could choose a time to return to earth, I’d choose the 1920s in Paris! (The film Midnight in Paris is pretty much ‘me’ in a nutshell. Except, I’m a woman!) I was actually 8 months pregnant when I was in Paris! So, there was a literal birthing very close to happening too! I had the incredible chance to read out front of Shakespeare and Company Bookstore in Paris. It changed me. And my daughter, who I was pregnant with at the time, always says: I want to go back to Paris! I totally believe that she felt its power through my belly! In any case, I knew that I wanted to create something in Windsor that felt like Paris…that was like the home of Gertrude Stein – a gathering place for creative people to do their art, to write, to eat, to play and more! That is essence of Gertrude’s Writing Room. Now, I’d always envisioned a storefront with a cafe as part of it, but that’s a really giant responsibility! And what do I know about running a cafe? Nothin’! So, I ‘revised’ my dream to start smaller with an office and a classroom. I’ll build quietly and patiently through the writing…and perhaps one day, I’ll be able to afford and feel confident enough to open Gertrude’s Literary Cafe. For now, I’m completely thrilled about Gertrude’s Writing Room!

The thing I want people to know about it is that everyone is welcome because everyone has a story to tell. Everyone has stories to tell. Writing is an incredible tool to use to self-express these stories. Gertrude’s Writing Room is a special space created for people to write these stories – in different forms (poetry, short stories, screenwriting, novels, etc.) that are being taught/led by different experts (writers from near and far will lead workshops. I will lead the classes. For now!).

At its essence, Gertrude’s Writing Room a dream space created out
of the love of writing and gathering. 

Also, I really, really hope that it becomes the place that every writer that comes to Windsor visits – either to read in, to write in or to lead a workshop in. Or all three! I want it be known Canada-wide as a ‘must-stop-here’ literary gem. That’s a big part of the dream for Gertrude’s Writing Room – a gathering place from writers!

It’s always being updated, and will very soon show the classes and workshops/events for the Fall/Winter. Currently, I do not teach on-line courses. But perhaps in the future this will change!

Bethany: One of your questions in my interview that got a surprising amount of buzz was “What’s your morning routine?” So, when do you do your best writing, and what’s your routine for sinking into / rising into your writing routine?

Vanessa: I’m fascinated by artists’ ability to discipline themselves in order to create their craft(s). This is why I always ask writers this question! I’m hoping to glean some new ideas for my own discipline and writing processes! Plus, I think it shows that we all are working – even if the ‘how’ and ‘where’ and ‘when’ are different. Writers need to read and write. It’s important that people know that – because the first question we always get asked is: what have you published? Sometimes it feels like if we are constantly getting published then we aren’t ‘real writers’. That’s not the case at all! We need time to re-energize and re-birth!

My morning routine these days is very inconsistent. It’s summer for my kids (age 10 and 12) and I’m home with them all but one day of the week (I work one day a week at my ‘day’ job as a producer at a film/television production company). We love to sleep in, yo. I don’t get up and right. I don’t get up and exercise. I let my body tell me when to get up! Then I face the day! I have Gertrude’s now though, so many days, me and the kids will head to my office and I’ll work there. Sometimes I’m writing while others I’m answering emails and working on social media. It’s very, very varied! Last week and into this weekend, for example, I promised that I’d finish my poetry manuscript so I announced it to my family, and changed my schedule so that I made time to write A LOT. I got up early to write. I wrote in the afternoon. I wrote after dinner. It was sporadic but efficient. I find I am able to put my head down and really give it! Deadlines are great motivations for me. Also, I have some extraordinary writer friends (soul sisters!) who are very great at coaching me to keep writing and stay disciplined. One of my dear friends challenged me to finish my poetry manuscript by August 3rd. It’s the 7th and I made it!

This schedule will change come September when the kids go back to school. I’m looking forward to it! I hope to get to Gertrude’s at least three days a week for full-days of work, and then come October, teaching in the evenings too. I’m totally chained to the school year!

I think I do my best writing when I’ve given myself the space and time to think about it…and then tell my ‘support system’ (aka: family/friends) that I need to sit down and do the writing/ editing/
revising. Communication is key to getting writing done and projects finished. Whether you’re writing a novel or poem – if you need the time and space to do it, let your support system know.

Bethany: Finally, as a mom of three (now mostly grown up) daughters, I’d love to know how being a mom has impacted your writing–AND  vice versa.

Vanessa: Everything I write is connected to being a mother. My first book, Laughing Through A Second Pregnancy, is a memoir about being pregnant for the second time. I was having a totally different experience and when I went to find a book to read to help me feel less scared, I couldn’t find one. I started writing humorous, comparative essays about the differences between my first and second pregnancies. The words flowed out of me! Luckily, I was able to get these essays published in a book, but if I wasn’t pregnant again, there’s a big possibility I wouldn’t have written that collection. I’ve been blogging about being a parent for over 10 years. There’s just so much to say about parenting and how it changes everything. I usually follow my instinct to write about this experience…

The way/how I write is also connected because typically ‘family’ comes first in terms of my choices for time fillage! (New word alert!) As my kids get older and we all feel more comfortable doing our ‘own’ thing, time opens up like a blooming flower for each of us to do the things we love. The kids were pumped about me opening Gertrude’s. They were involved in looking for a place, in moving in, in doing the wallpaper! They love coming to the space and hanging out, and they even tell me they want to work there. It’s such a wild ride!

I think the hardest part of being a creative person is navigating between the love of your ‘work’ and the love of your self/family (and this includes what ‘family’ means to you – just because you haven’t any children doesn’t mean you don’t have a family!). When I’m not writing, I’m grumpy and not ‘me’. When I’m not with my family, I’m grumpy and not ‘me’. Some days I feel as though there are two people inside – two souls, two hearts, two brains….and neglecting either one affects my day-to-day. I can explain this to my kids now. And they definitely recognize that I change in mood/energy when I’m not reading or writing. We’re all in this together, and as we all age and change and support each other’s dreams, it affects what I’m writing.

My son asked me last night if there were poems about him in my new manuscript, and if I always write ‘happy’ poems about him and his sister. This shows me that he’s paying attention to my work, that he cares about it. I write about my kids in different ways. I don’t want to embarrass them! And some of the pieces, they can’t read yet! But, I think what matters most is that they see me doing my craft, working hard, pushing myself creatively, suffering and being sad, and then picking myself up, and now, with Gertrude’s Writing Room, living my dreams. Even the big ones. Even when they take years to come true.

I want my kids to learn what my work ethic is, how working hard makes the soul and body feel good, how doing what you love matters even when rejection and little income is part of it. This is all part of ‘writing’. My ‘process’ is so wrapped up in mothering that it is always impacted – and vice versa! One doesn’t exist without the other. It’s a co-exist kinda thing. And, boy am I bursting with love when I see my kids reading and writing or being creative – on their own! They inspire me. I think I inspire them! (Ah shoot, I’m getting teary!) I want to be my best as mother and as writer for them.

As I also follow Vanessa on Instagram, and have seen the pix of her kids at the beach (plus a pic of her notebook at the beach), I’ve no doubts.

Order Vanessa’s books at your independent bookstore, or Amazon.

4 replies
  1. M.E. Cooper
    M.E. Cooper says:

    Okay, now I have to plan a trip to Windsor to check out Gertrude’s Writing Room. It sounds like a wonderful place to spend a day or more, writing and sharing with other creatives as well. Plus, one of the most inspirational women in my early childhood was my elementary school principal. She was the first black woman to lead an integrated school and she taught us the value of hard work, community, and respect.

    Great interview Bethany. Thanks for sharing this with us.

    Reply
    • Bethany
      Bethany says:

      A trip to Windsor sounds pretty great right now. Love the reference to your elementary school principal. Strong women rock. Bethany

      Reply

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] Vanessa [Shields]: I just finished writing my new poetry book last night! How cool is that? Its working title is ‘thimble’. This collection began out of spiteful necessity. Meaning, I couldn’t not write poetry anymore. Come last October, I was bursting after having not written in months. I was on the fence about submitting to the Ontario Arts Council Recommenders’ Grants because I was pissed I didn’t get one the previous year (!). Out of spite, I threw some poems together and submitted. I got three grants! The most ever for me – and it floored and humbled me. Also, gave me the confidence I needed to keep writing. My confidence shifted from a drying brook to a roaring river! Bethany Reid, The Fabulous Vanessa Shields […]

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