THERE'S an enduring tendency among writers to dwell on negative experiences in their works and typically overlook joyous occasions like winning a Governor General's Literary Award.
Winnipeg poet Katherena Vermette -- whose book North End Love Songs won the GG for poetry Nov. 13 -- said she should break that nasty habit and pen an ode to her elation at having her verse nationally celebrated.
"I always write about sad things, I always analyze bad things in the world and let the good things fly by," the 36-year-old Métis author said from her Toronto hotel room after the Canada Council for the Arts announced the 14 winners and $450,000 in prize money. "I totally should write about this."
North End Love Songs is Vermette's first solo collection, although her work had previously appeared in several compilations. The three judges noted that, "in spare minimalist language, North End Love Songs attends to the demands of Indigenous and European poetics, braiding an elegant journey that takes us from Winnipeg's North End out into the world. We enter the undocumented lives of its citizens and celebrate them through Katherena Vermette's beautiful poems."
When she was read the jury citation for the first time over the telephone, Vermette was ecstatic at hearing her best review ever.
"Oh, I like that," she said. "I'll take it."
Vermette has been writing poetry since she was 10, long enough to know that poets can't expect much public acclaim or big paydays like the $25,000 that came along with her win.
"The nomination came as a complete surprise," says the West Broadway resident. "The win is insane. I didn't think it was in the cards. It wasn't even on the radar. I don't know what to think of it yet. I'm kind of basking in the glow. It's a good day."
The 108-page collection, published by J. Gordon Shillingford, focuses on Vermette's experiences growing up in the North End as a teen, and dealing with those memories when she moved back to the neighbourhood as a mother of two daughters. Her verse is spare and quiet, yet powerful.
"I wanted to look closer at the place and say I know it doesn't look the best on the outside but if you look closer it's really beautiful and amazingly strong," she said. "What appears to be broken is not broke at all."
The first section of poems is dominated by pieces about birds, which she linked to women she knows in the North End.
"The bird is a great image for a North End girl or indigenous women, because they appear fragile but birds are intensely strong," said Vermette, who is completing her master's degree in creative writing at the University of British Columbia. "They have wide wings and can take off at any moment.
"I'm definitely a bird, maybe a squawking chicken at times. I like to stretch my wings sometimes and fly away."
Her literary output extends beyond poetry to a just-completed children's picture-book series called The Seven Teaching Stories and a collection of short stories. Winning a prestigious award with her first book has her heartened about her writing future.
"It feels very validating," said Vermette, who will be presented with her award Nov. 28 at Rideau Hall. "It's hugely affirmative. I've been my greatest doubter."
It was also announced Wednesday that Canadian-Kiwi writer Eleanor Catton's The Lumaninaries had won the English fiction prize, while Vancouver author Sandra Djwa's Journey With No Maps: A Life of P.K. Page took home the English non-fiction GG.