For better or for verse After turbulent teen years, for singer-songwriter Scott Nolan, poetry is the path to grace
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 01/09/2022 (281 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Words mean everything to Scott Nolan. After all, they saved his life.
“I wrote a book of poetry when I tried to give up smoking,” the Winnipeg-based multi-hyphenate says.
“I told myself, ‘I am going to walk until I feel sick’ and then a poem came to me as I walked that first day. Almost every day I walked I came back with a poem.”
PGI Concert for a Cause
With Super Duty Tough Work, Sierra Noble and Scott Nolan
Park Theatre, 698 Osborne St.
Tuesday, 6:30 p.m.
Tickets $60 (with tax receipt) and $40 (no receipt) on Eventbrite.
Before he knew it Nolan had enough for a manuscript, resulting in his first book of poems, Moon Was a Feather (2019), which interspersed poems about his turbulent youth with what he describes as “snapshots of moments” captured on his long walks.
The singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and poet will read his work next week at the John Howard Society of Manitoba’s (JHSM) Concert for a Cause on Tuesday at the Park Theatre.
“I produce records for artists, I perform my own songs, I write poems… I picked a whole bunch of things that pay very little,” he says with a laugh. “I have been able to carve out a pretty decent career for myself.”
But life could have turned out very differently.
At 16, Nolan was referred by the Addictions Foundation of Manitoba (AFM) to White Spruce Youth Treatment Centre in, Yorkton, Sask., where he was treated for substance abuse, an addiction that had seen his weed-smoking and LSD-dabbling escalate to using cocaine, crack and heroin.
Then, a few years later, he was charged with robbery and assault, potentially heading to Stony Mountain to face a two- to three-year prison sentence.
Nolan’s circumstances changed when the John Howard Society, a non-profit that works with men in conflict with the law, before, during and after incarceration, intervened in his case.
“I went through one of the very first mediation programs hosted by them,” he explains.
“At 18 or 19 I was charged with robbery and assault. It sounds awful and I suppose it kind of is. Ultimately JHSM intervened. They gave me a second chance and I took it.
“It was an eye-opening moment for me, for my life.”
“At 18 or 19 I was charged with robbery and assault…. Ultimately JHSM intervened. They gave me a second chance and I took it.” – Scott Nolan
As part of a mediation-based pilot program, Nolan came face-to-face with his victim and was given the chance to make amends.
“I had a family member who got in over his head with drugs,” Nolan explains. “Bad people came after him and I tried to play the guy who saves the day and somewhere in the midst of that people got hurt.
“The judge in that case saw that we weren’t hardened criminals; he saw an opportunity for us to walk away from it. I look back now at the whole thing… if my skin has been a different colour… if I had been from a different neighbourhood…” he muses.
“That was my real first interaction of privilege and it’s hit me in a big way. It’s stayed with me all my life. It’s a strange gift; it informs everything I do.”
Since then Nolan has been paying his dues by participating in the society’s events; the latest being the Sept. 6 concert in support of the JHSM Literacy Program where, as poet laureate, he will be reading some of his poems.
“Scott has been very generous with his time,” says Sharon Perrault, JHSM executive director. “It’s special to be able to have a previous John Howard Society of Manitoba client performing at our event. I think I speak for everyone here at JHSM when I say I’m very excited to see him perform onstage.
“The literacy program is the flagship of the JHSM. This program has been around for an extensive period of time, and I believe that speaks to its importance, both inside prison walls and out in the community.”
For Nolan, literacy is the key to reducing recidivism. He says that while music was what “saved” him in his younger years, writing quickly became his biggest outlet.
He credits his correspondence with his cousin Patrick Nolan, who was serving a life sentence in Folsom State Prison in California, for the change.
“My cousin was there in 1996 when there was the largest race riot in prison history. Much of the prison was locked down for two years and it was really difficult. It was in that time in solitary confinement that he learned to read and write. He was a very bright person but with no formal education.
“I was mentored by him, and he went through a profound change. When he emerged out of that violence he began writing. The end of violence for my cousin was poetry.”
Nolan’s cousin — who died in custody in April 2000 — would “sneak books” out of the prison library and mail them to him.
“I would be reading authors like (American mythologist) Joseph Campbell. In his (Patrick’s) letters he would write to me about poetry and philosophy.
“His story is important to me,” Nolan says.
Today Nolan continues to visit prisons, telling inmates that through the arts they have a chance to start again.
“I do concerts in Folsom. I bring my guitar along when I visit prisons. In the beginning I never knew why I was going. I used to say, ‘I don’t really know what I am doing here.’ I didn’t take formal writing or music lessons. And then after a few visits I realized that I was there to share with them that this (the arts) is really an inclusive society, if you really apply to it in a genuine way.
“If you look at the infrastructure of the arts, it looks exclusive, but the truth is I am more affected by what I hear in the penitentiaries than the campuses.”
Nolan hasn’t smoked for more than eight years now, and the walking has progressed to a love of running, the only thing he says, “that seems to turn my brain off.”
It’s not a brain we want turned off; Nolan’s writing is transportive, stripped of pretense, often brief but always eloquent and honest.
His path through adversity, it seems, has led to growth and peace.
“In the right circumstances, incredible things can happen,” he says. “I stay quiet and gracious and grateful, and I wait for those moments with the windows open.”
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AV Kitching is an arts and life writer at the Free Press.