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“What is a Story For?”: Michelle Porter, Journalist-Poet

in Arts & Culture/Interview/Longread by

Call her the journalist-poet.

While some might argue the two fields are distinct—one specializing in facts, the other in imagination—award-winning journalist Michelle Porter (and Aboriginal Post-doctoral Fellow at the University of Guelph) says both disciplines can be improved by borrowing and learning from the other. It’s a technique she deploys in her debut poetry collection, Inquiries.

“I find a lot of room for imaginative play with facts,” she tells the Independent. For Porter, writing poetry based on her research is all part of the same creative process. She cites the work of poet Carolyn D. Wright, who pioneered a method she refers to as ‘documentary investigative poetry.’

“I see a very strong connection between poetry and non-fiction, because in general poetry is based in fact as well,” Porter explains. “Most poets write from what they’ve observed directly, from the facts in their own lives, or in the case of documentary poetry, from their own research. And of course that’s the case for non-fiction. I love non-fiction that borrows from a poetic sensibility, and I love poetry that borrows from the discipline of non-fiction or research.

“With journalism you need to tell a whole story, and you need to string the facts together to let people know the most important facts. With poetry, I’m able to get to the essence of what it meant to me and what it might mean to other people as well. And the voice—a lot of times the voice I have used is my own, but as I’m getting deeper into this I’m learning also how to speak with other voices as well, and speak to and from other voices.”

There are several examples of this method in Inquiries. One poem—“Manolis L”—stemmed from research Porter conducted for a news feature about a notorious shipwreck leaking oil off the coast of Newfoundland.

“All this oil was leaking for decades,” she explains. “Everybody’s known about this for decades and decades and decades, but it took until last year to clean it up. I wrote a story that looked at what the situation was like for people on the island… and all that wonderful beautiful research made its way into a poem.

“As I was writing and researching the story, the idea that the response to give people and animals in our ecosystem safety is a cofferdam—which is essentially a metal hat held down by sandbags—that to me was a metaphor for our response to the global emergency, the global climate crisis that we’re facing, or any crisis that we tend to face on a larger scale. When we need political and government intervention, essentially the answer is to put a metal hat on top of it to contain it as much as you possibly can, with sandbags, and everything’s leaking and everybody knows it. We know about the dangers, we know what’s going to happen. In that journalism story that I wrote, I did approach parts of it with a poetic eye.”

Her article on the Manolis L suggests the flip-side of a poetry which stems from journalism: the idea that journalism can be poetic as well. Porter strongly agrees. She says that insofar as poetry relies on metaphor, journalism that adopts the same technique engages readers more closely and intimately than journalism that simply recounts facts. It also lingers in the reader’s memory in a way that other news doesn’t, she says.

“It allows for an imaginative engagement. It allows you to sit with it, and for it to sit in your mind a little bit more. You pull your own meanings from it.”

What she found compelling about the research she did for the Manolis L feature was the passion of the scientists with whom she spoke. How does a journalist convey passion to a reader? She recalls in particular the scientists’ love for the murre, a type of sea-bird at risk from the oil spill. Sharing their passion with readers was an important element of the story for her.

“It was this beautiful love story. If you’re just recounting facts-only journalism, you miss all of that, and you miss the passion people have for the topic that they’re talking about. You can bring so much more into that kind of a story.”

Métis, Movement, and Memory

While Inquiries covers a range of ground, one over-arching theme, Porter says, is movement and memory, rooted in the fact she moved around a lot when she was young, and didn’t get to experience a sense of permanence as a child.

“A lot of it stays with urban Métis poverty, which is where I grew up,” she tells the Independent. “My mother is Métis and… she raised five kids, a single mother, in the city, while dreaming of the bush she grew up in. What I’ve woven together are the stories in which my mother grew up, that her mother passed down to her, and the stories in which I grew up, and the stories which sustain us. So it’s doing a little bit of what really good Métis storytelling does today—it’s the past, the present, and looking toward the future.”

Porter has taken a great deal of direction and guidance from Indigenous Canadian poet and author Lee Maracle. She says Maracle reminded her it’s important for writers to ask what the story they are telling is for.

“Any story can be told in so many different ways, but you can point it in a direction. You need to point a story at a direction, at a direction in the future, where you want to go.”

For Porter, that meant focusing on the strongest memories she had of the various places she’s lived. One of the strongest memories many of us have is of places where we’ve eaten, and the collection features a sequence of sixteen poems grouped under the meta-title ‘My Mother’s Kitchen.’ These were rewarding to write, but also posed some challenges. Porter explains that although she drew from her own memory of childhood, she also felt she needed to stay respectful of some of the difficult aspects of that childhood, in particular the intergenerational trauma stemming from her family’s experience of the residential school system.

“It takes so many generations for these things to work their way through, and so while I have my stories to tell… I recall as well my responsibility to my ancestors, and to the future.”

She struggled with which direction to point these stories in, and sought guidance from another Indigenous mentor, Maria Campbell.

“I connected with Maria Campbell over this issue, asking: I want to tell these stories, but I’m not sure if it’s the stories that my mother wants to tell. And she told me a story about what she did, and how and when she consulted people that appeared in her different writing. That particular story she told me stayed in my mind and led me to share the manuscript with my mother. And it was a really beautiful moment, because my mother came back with: ‘Michelle, this is just the way it was, this is beautiful, I wouldn’t change a word.’ And we’ve been working now together on a new project where I’m actually telling the stories of my older brother. So that feeling of responsibility has led to me actually connecting in a different way with my mother’s stories, and her storytelling, like a bit of personal reconciliation between my mother and I, in terms of being able to carry these stories that are sometimes very very hard. It was beautiful and unexpected.”

Poetry Inspired by Drug Violence

Another sequence of poems in the collection is the ‘Tessier Street’ poems, inspired by her experiences living on that street in downtown St. John’s. For many city residents, the area has become synonymous with drugs and violence. The poems, Porter says, engage with what it’s like when drug dealers move into your neighbourhood. She says it’s an experience many Newfoundlanders have had in recent years. At the time, she and her husband were fans of the television show The Wire, but when drug dealers began operating on their street they had to stop watching because the experience—and their sense of being unsafe in their own home—was too much like the show.

Things got worse, and eventually a man was attacked and murdered in a house across the street from where they lived.

“One of the things [I did in the poems] was look at what I was doing at the moment this man was murdered. Because that actually shook me up. I think everybody in that neighbourhood, after that murder we came together a little bit more as a neighbourhood, and we started talking about how difficult it had been for us in that neighbourhood, and how we’d all been trying to cope. Sometimes you try to cope by not talking about it, not facing it, not watching The Wire. I realized how deeply everybody really felt about what was going on.

“My daughter was taking violin lessons at the time, and I had a young woman coming to the house, who would go to houses to teach. She was this beautiful young woman who would come to the door, and I’d let her in. But one point I was expecting her to come, and there was a knock on the door and I came and there was another young woman. She had meant to go to the drug house. And it was just this counterpoint between this young woman who was going to school, studying education, and teaching violin, and then this young woman who was going down a very different path. You could see the addiction on her. That was something I also learned to see in different ways—you could see the desperation. There was a certain quality to it. It just struck me, the difference between these two women who were going down very different paths.

“You would see in the neighbourhood the drug dealers, people dropping off the drug supplies—part of the reason it was so noisy at the time, the police told us afterwards, is because today in order to prevent big charges they try to keep just a little bit of drugs on site at a time. That means there has to be people driving every hour or so to drop off new supplies. So one of the most distracting things was at night, every minute and a half car doors slamming, people out in the street and whatnot. It was very loud. There were heart-breaking things—people would come in their big SUV vehicles with a child in the back. And there were times when the person would go in to get their drugs, and the child would be running around the neighbourhood in the middle of the night. The neighbours across the street [saw] that. And there was increasing violence against women… you felt powerless. You felt helpless. The whole neighbourhood felt this way.

“We were watching all these things happen, things we hadn’t seen in that neighbourhood before—it had always been a very beautiful little neighbourhood, and people were always very friendly. Across the street there was an older couple who always watched out for our girls when they were outside, and then up the road there was a couple that we were friends with as well. So in the aftermath of the murder we came together and started talking about it. The thing that everybody wanted to talk about was those little moments when they were doing something that should have been normal, but either a bit of violence came in, or they were trying to decide—should they sleep? Should they call the police? Did they want to? What do they want to do in response to this? It became an alternate reality, an alternate world type of scenario, that made those type of moments sort of hyperreal for us all, I think.”

Accountable Poetry

Both the Tessier Street poems as well as the Mama’s Kitchen poems illustrate different dimensions of a common challenge for contemporary poets: how to write personal observations and reactions to events that also belong to other people. An example of this conundrum is the controversy which erupted last year around Shannon Webb-Campbell’s book of poetry Who Took My Sister? which engaged with the murder of Inuk university student Loretta Saunders, and was pulled from publication after the family objected to it. Porter acknowledges that it’s a complex issue, without any one universal solution. To whom should the producers of creative works rooted in fact feel responsible? Should they feel responsible, or ought they to simply follow the creative urge wherever it leads?

“Of course, some writers just say you don’t have any responsibility to anybody in what you write, just to yourself,” reflects Porter. “But increasingly, particularly if you’re writing in or about Indigenous communities or relationships, you do need to take extra steps because it’s recognizing the responsibility we all carry with what we’ve been given, respecting the intergenerational nature of stories. So you need to connect with the people that you’re writing about—if it’s not about you directly—that’s a general first step.”

Porter says Indigenous writers like Lee Maracle—who reached out to Webb-Campbell in the wake of the controversy—have worked to sort through these questions. There’s no one size fits all solution, Porter admits, and the writer must navigate each situation based on its particulars.

“So in writing about Tessier Place, there is the issue that a man was murdered, and his family was devastated about that. On the other hand what was happening in that neighbourhood, and that murder, impacted in ripples a much wider array of people than the family that he is related to. So I approached that in writing about my experience, and the neighbourhood’s experience, of having this issue, without necessarily trying to represent his point of view, of either drug dealers or the man there.”

Writing about her own childhood and family was more challenging, she observes, because as much as her memories are her own, they are also interwoven with events directly related to her family members.

“In the end you need to ask that question: what is this story for? If you’re writing out of anger or bitterness, that’s not the story you want to tell into your future. If you’re writing out of a need for healing, or if you’re writing out of the idea that other people need to hear stories like this—for me it’s been [important] reading other Métis writers and other Indigenous writers who have written about families, and stories of the families and stories in which I’ve recognized my mothers and my aunts and my brothers and sisters.

“When I first read Katherena Vermette’s book The Break, I cried. I would stop every once in a while, because in the network of women she was writing about I recognized—for the first time in literature—my family. And Dawn Dumont’s book Nobody Cries at Bingo is this beautifully funny book about her family—she grew up on a reserve, but the mother she described with such love and humour, was in so many ways so much like my mother, who would just get up one day and decide we were moving on. We were going to the next place. I’ve never read that type of a life in a non-Indigenous story, I will say that.

“As I’ve gone deeper and deeper into the beautiful growth and surge of Indigenous and Métis writing, I have begun to recognize myself. And in a beautiful way that makes me laugh and feel good about it. So [the important question to ask is] what are you doing with that story, and why are you doing it? I think that for every writer it is a different decision. If you’re writing directly from your own experience, how much do you consult with your own family members? Some people have family members they could never consult with, because there’s been either a disruption or a break in the relationship. For other people, like for me, it has been used as a bit of a bridge. I’m thinking of mother-daughter writers [whose] mothers probably write their stuff as much as they write their own, and they need to follow much more of a stronger family protocol. Or if you’re telling traditional stories as well, you would be looking to consult much more with elders to provide a bit of guidance or insight into the traditional stories that you’re telling. So there’s all those layers. And for each particular story that you’re telling, it’s a different decision that you make. But in general, if you’re writing a story that has nothing to do with you or your family, that’s when you really put the brakes on and say: Okay, how do I make sure that the people I’m writing about are okay?”

Writing for Reconciliation

In the wake of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the publication of its Calls to Action, there has been a growing focus in many areas of Canadian society on the need to be attentive to the imperatives of reconciliation between Indigenous and settler-colonial society. The TRC specifically mentions some of these obligations in the context of the media and entertainment industries; in journalism; in policing and the justice system. Are the creative arts—and poetry in particular—also responsibility to enact these Calls to Action and engage with reconciliation?

“Definitely,” responds Porter. “Creative arts are a way to see into the minds and experiences and cultures that are different from yours. I think that the more non-Indigenous people and Indigenous people read the writing of Indigenous people, the better they will understand the world that Indigenous people have come from and through. And this understanding is the very first thing that needs to happen to make change. This idea that there are these people out there who have a whole different way of approaching the world and there needs to be room for it.”

Porter draws a distinction between personal reconciliation, which involves grappling with intergenerational trauma and how the stories of one’s family have affected you, and the broader Canadian cultural reconciliation.

“[For Canada] I think the hardest part is going to be to make space. But that also means that non-Indigenous people need to open up that space. And one of the ways is reading Indigenous poetry, novels, non-fiction, all of that. That is a start—making space in their mind and in their heart for this other way of approaching what is real in our world, how we experience the world that we’re in, and how we point our stories into the future.

“I think that right now that’s probably where some conflict is, in that Indigenous people want to point the stories of Canada, such as it is, in one direction, based on a whole set of values that we have carried forever. And non-Indigenous people want to take all stories—and I’m actually embracing here Indigenous, immigrant, all these cultural stories—and point them in the direction that they want, which of course includes capitalism, patriarchy, all those things as well. They’re pointing it in that direction. So it gets back to that whole question of ‘Where are we pointing our stories?’”

Porter cites Maracle’s latest book of poetry, co-written with her two daughters, titled Hope Matters, as well as Tenille Campbell’s #indianlovepoems on the importance of love. Those two themes—hope and love—were integral to her own creative thinking.

“I think before we can get to hope and love, we need to start with this understanding, this sense of self, and understanding who we are, and seeing ourselves plainly. It’s only after that, after you’ve looked into yourself to see what you are, that you can then move toward hope, and point that toward hope and love. I think that’s the beginning of that personal reconciliation—looking at yourself and finding acceptance of it.”

Photo by Hans Rollmann.

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