Events · My Family · On Writing · Writing Life

What I Said – #CWS2016 – Panel and LCP Awards Presentation


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I wanted to post the two pieces of writing that I shared because…well, I’m proud of them, and I’m proud of myself for having the guts to participate in this way. Also, I’m grateful for the opportunity to share the stage with incredible writers and advocates for writing, and I’m grateful to be a member of such important and necessary groups – The Writers’ Union of Canada and the League of Canadian Poets.

On Friday, I was on a panel with this title: Making Our Own Solutions: The Writer As Cultural Agent. Moderated by the great and wonderful Mary W. Walters, myself, Jael Richardson and Chris Tolley spoke about “…the great flowering of new entrepreneurial business practices, and new opportunities for authors to place ourselves in the centre of cultural and social discussion..”. We each shared a different story about our abilities and experiences as ‘cultural agents’. My approach was centred around what it takes for me to get to the place of putting myself ‘out there’…and what ‘social role’ I take on when I am ‘out there’ existing as a real-life writer!

From left: Jael Richardson, Mary W. Walters, Chris Tolley and me (doesn’t it look like my boobs are resting on the table?!)

*Note – you get a sneak peek at a new poem from my forthcoming book ‘Look At her’! I started by reading this poem. I was very worried that I would cry as I read this piece. I read it over and over, out loud, to practice breathing through it before-hand…but, of course, I could not hold back a few sobs. Especially at the parts when I spoke about Jett and Miller…


A Mother Poet’s Position in Society

Not The Only Woman

I am
afraid to be the woman I am

every day I weaken
minuscule cracks in my body bag of skin widen
my son says I wear a scarf to cover my double chin

these chins
the chins of my dead grandfather
the chins of my wise aunt
the chins of my 86-year-old grandmother who knits with knotted knuckles clanking metal needles she can still thread a needle faster than I a seamstress life she holds creativity in the rolls of her finger bones & she always tells me
I’m beautiful the most beautiful

I want to believe her but the demons are strong

it takes courage to receive a compliment to spread it over my body to hold it in my skin on my chins in my cellulite between the rolls my belly makes when I sit I know I know

I can do it
I can love the body I’m in
I can treat it like the vessel it is
I can hold it like it’s not me
hold it like a blanket I’m quilting
over time & space
threading my life needle with courage

I am a woman
my body is my story
my chins are my ancestors
my wrinkles are my choices
my smile is pulled from the past

I am not the only woman who is afraid

can you hold me then?
hold me in your fear?
lather me in your light
I can see your beauty so easily like you can see mine
let’s wear each other until we’re strong enough to love our selves


At points in our lives we’re compelled to activate our creativity. Whether it’s when we’re children and we learn about imagination or when we fall in love for the first time. Maybe it’s when we experience trauma, pain, abuse or hatred for the first time. Creativity is an outlet for expression of all kinds. It’s a necessary human experience – like breathing. Life happens around us, and then, we begin to understand the ‘self’ and we begin the shift into realizing that life happens to us. And we are compelled to have opinions about it. We are compelled to write (or create any type of art) about how we feel about who we are, and what happens to us. We become engaged with our ‘worlds’ in a way that is an extension or extensions of who we are.

I started writing in a diary when I was 8 years old. I also started reading heavily at that time. I dove into writing because I needed a safe space to communicate how I was feeling when things around me got very scary. Writing and reading became my oxygen.

My name is Vanessa. I’m a mother and a poet. And I’m feeling pretty scared to be here. My hands are cold and clammy, my voice is shaking (did I make it through the poem without crying?!). And the voices in my head are in hyper-drive…so I’m going to do what I’ve done since I was a child – I’m going to write/read from my heart to express how I experience my position in society as a writer. I may get emotional because I’m very passionate about this position. About the gift that is being a writer and a parent.

This is personal. This is part of my writing process – getting personal. Because I’ve always been personal, vulnerable, honest as a writer. Because I’ve been teaching myself how to enable these parts of me since I was so young…and mostly I was scared. To just be. Safety was a big issue for me as a child. On the pages of the books I read or write, I’ve always felt the safest.

So what does it take to get ‘here’ – to this terrifying, yet necessary place? This place in society where a writer can choose to put herself ‘out there’, to have opinions and give these opinions voices on the page…and in the flesh? To engage with readers, writers – with other emotional beings – as a cultural agent?

It takes bravery. Being brave extends into my ability to write, engage and act as agent for my self – to connect my words to my ‘me’.

A large part of my position in society as a mother and a poet takes place in front of a live audience – be that audience my children or a classroom of other people’s children or on a panel like this one today. There are so many proverbial (and real!) stages that I’m on to promote my passion for creative writing and storytelling that I had to figure out a way to not freak out and lose myself in the process of participating in society as a writer. I don’t want to list everything I do – the point, I believe, is to express that all the ‘other’ stuff I do takes up more time that I give to actual writing. The work/business of being a writer who wants to engage in and with her community, for me, outweighs the act of writing.

As writers and artists, especially ‘now’, the ‘self’ as cultural agent (person who wants her work read!) has developed into extensions of our being (including the parts – emotional/physical/psychological) that we struggle with) that permeate social media and community (big and small), and as such, even in the isolation of, say, recording a video of ourselves reciting a poem and posting it to Youtube, or tweeting – the ‘self’ – plays a major role in existing with intention in today’s literary landscape (and society). Our physical being and how we present it has become a part of the machinery of being ‘known’, of having a ‘voice’ – visual and auditory – that lives beyond the words on our pages. Of course, it always has, but now there are so many more ways to put one’s self out there. There is so much more measurable pressure to ‘succeed’, and to do it quickly. To get ‘like’s and followers and comments, and hopefully, eventually book sales. It’s a lot!

That’s a lot of voices. That’s a lot of books. That’s a lot of competition. So how do I ‘brave’ these kinds of statistics and get myself to sit down and write? How do I know what to write about and how to promote it? How do I stay motivated and focused, and continue to choose to be a writer and storyteller knowing what’s already out there?

I have to be brave.

The negative voices in my head, lead by the loudest female voice I call The Demon Woman, are constant. And they’ve been alive and well in my thoughts for as long as I can remember. Getting in front of a crowd of peers, cause the voices in my head get mean and nasty – at me. This, in turn, makes me doubt myself – makes me unsure and unstable about everything from what to wear to what to say to what to post – and then I just get scared that I’m going to fail.

But, the funny thing is, I know in my heart, I am not afraid to fail. I think that since I was a kid, facing things that scared me, that I knew in my soul were wrong and shouldn’t be happening to me, my family, my friends – taught me to learn from them. To be a part of the group that changes them.

I choose, as part of my process, as part of my intention as a creative person, to go straight to my fears and write about them…maybe I should say, write with them. I do this with a goal of facing the fear, if only for the duration of the creation of the poem or the collection of poems, or the blog or the panel presentation!

Because I write about what I know, and so much of my experience in this life boggles, blows or beautifies my mind, I find that facing fears – delving into the things that scare me for whatever reasons – is a really powerful place to write in. Writing becomes a purging, often therapeutic experience. I find that while it unleashes some darkness, it also welcomes comedy and gentle realizations about who I am.

My place in society as a writer starts here (touch chest/heart chakra).

I can’t not write and engage in literary things. I’m one of those writers who feels out of whack when I don’t write. I get grumpy and lost. I get more and more scared. I get more and more insecure.

My truth is that my position in society as a writer is the same as my position in society as a human being. I want to fit in, I want to be loved, I want to give love. I want to be a positive, empowered, confident human being. But it’s hard to do that when I google fellow writers, when I watch or read the news, when I look at my children sleeping and I know in my heart and soul that I won’t be able to always protect them. Shit gets real over and over and over again for me – and the only way I know how to survive it – is to write it out.

The only way I know how to create a change with these fears is to write them out of me. I believe that as creative people, causing change through facing fears is at the heart of much of our work.

I don’t have tough skin. I have practiced skin. I have years of being completely bonkers scared of doing something – and doing it precisely to face the fear – that even though in the moments of facing these fears I’m pretty damn scared – I’ve done it enough that it’s ‘expert’.

I’m starting to write about my childhood, and starting to take a braver stance politically. All the work that goes into what I write, whether it gets published or not, is truly where the magic happens. It’s where the humanity is. It’s where the growth is. It’s where my ‘position’ in society is cultivated.

Of course, I’d love for all of you to have ‘heard’ of me, for all of you to have read at least one of my poems and loved it deeply. Yes, I’ll take a Griffin. A GG. I’ll also take an Oscar for best original screenplay in the romantic comedy that brings Tom Cruise back into our hearts.

Books sales are incredible when they happen. But so is coming home to my kids and them hugging me and smothering me in kisses. Right now, getting paid in kisses is perfectly wonderful (except when it’s not and I cry because I got another rejection – got two last week).

In my position, for now, I remain your humble mother-poet, un-award winningest, funny gal who writes about love and sex and chocolate (sure, all three together). Thanks for listening. I look forward to our conversation.



And this is what I read prior to the Pat Lowther Memorial Award being announced at the League of Canadian Poets awards luncheon. Being a member of this jury made an incredible impact on my life as a poet and as a supporter of poetry. I was on the jury with Jude Neale and Joan Shillington – two amazing women who have become beautiful friends!

Congratulations to all the poets who submitted! And to the winner – Lorna Crozier, for her delightful and riveting collection ‘The Wrong Cat’.

It’s A Problem!

I’d like to thank Lesley Fletcher and the League of Canadian Poets for giving me the opportunity to speak. My name is Vanessa Shields and I’m a poet. I was one of the three-member jury for this year’s Pat Lowther Memorial Award.

I contacted the league as soon as myself, Judith Neale (who was a finalist for the Pat Lowther in 2015) and Joan Shillington, had to submitted our shortlist for the award. I was the chair so I sent the email – with my hands shaking, my heart thumping, my armpits sweating, my eyes leaking with tears – it was one of the most difficult emails I’ve had to send in my writing life.

Though my heart was indeed thumping, it was also breaking too. You see, it’s a problem. The amount of incredible, honest, raw, impeccable, extraordinary poetry that we read – each poem we read became a part of us. Each book we read, we read with open hearts, open minds and open wounds.

It was a life-changing experience reading over 80 books of poetry written by women who are absolutely changing the way we think, the way we feel, the way we communicate, the way we tell stories, the way we witness, the way we define who we are, and how we express ourselves through poetry.

You know, being on a jury is a massive undertaking. It takes so much time, space, energy, and family and friend support (and by that I mean, these folks need to be patient when you tell them for the thousandth time – no i can’t do that, i’m reading poetry!). As cliche as it sounds, life as you know it simply must shift when you’re reading. What you cannot prepare for, however, is how connected to the work you become. In your mind, you know it, you can tell yourself, this is gonna be magical, reading all this poetry, but then the words get under your skin and into your blood…and it changes the way you think and breathe. So many books, I held to my chest and embraced. So many books I underlined stanzas, and nodded my head in agreement with or shook my fist at the sky in solidarity at the witnessing I was reading.

It was a problem. How do you choose from 85 lovers…?

I asked to be able to share these words with you today because I believe it is necessary to all of us as writers, readers and lovers of the written word to know that what we’re doing – matters, and that what we’re doing affects us on a soul and cellular level. All the poets whose work was submitted must know that each word was read and loved. Each word was cherished and held to heart.

The reason I volunteered to be on this jury, and others, is because I believe in us. I believe in writers. I believe in the system of celebrating among peers. I believe that we believe in each other – and the way we show this faith is by supporting each other by trusting our guts, our knowledge, our jury peers, and, most importantly, the poetry that lives, breathes and becomes part of whoever it is that reads it. We trust in each other’s ability to write outstanding poetry. For ourselves, maybe at first, but in the end, for each other.

Judith Neale sent me this:

“I read so many books by women writers who understood the complexities, sorrows and beauty of life. They were able to synthesize these vast fields into articulate and inspirational poems that touched and transformed me.We have a huge bedrock of female talent that serves to inspire and lead. I am glad to have taken part in this competition with two other fine judges who also realized the importance of excellence.”

It is a wonderful problem to face – falling in mad love with so much amazing poetry. It is a wonderful problem to hold each writer in our souls and celebrate the fact that we are the poets who are continuing the legacies of those poets who came before us, whose names mark these awards.

Congratulations to all the writers. Congratulations to all the winners. Thank you for writing. Please don’t ever stop. Cheers!


Thank you for reading! It was a wonderful and intense summit…more on that in another post!

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