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Salt Spring writer wins CBC Poetry Prize

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Salt Spring writers continue to pull in some of the nation’s most important literary prizes, with Alessandra Naccarato awarded the 2017 CBC Poetry Prize last Wednesday.

Naccarato will receive $6,000 from the Canada Council for the Arts and her work Postcards for my Sister will be published in Air Canada’s enRoute magazine and on the CBC Books website as part of the prize.

“I’m really honoured to be able to share this story on this platform, particularly because it honours women’s reproductive rights, and the many decisions people make around motherhood and family that are so often in service of community and others,” Naccarato told the Driftwood, adding her poetry isn’t what most people might expect when pulling out their copy of enRoute.

The CBC award is but the latest in a string of honours for the 33-year-old writer, who is accomplished both in spoken word performance and poetry that is meant for the page. She is a three-time national slam poetry finalist, was shortlisted for the CBC Poetry Prize in 2014, and has received the Bronwen Wallace Award for emerging writers and Event Magazine’s Creative Non Fiction Prize.

Postcards for my Sister was inspired by the life of Naccarato’s paternal grandmother, who found the courage to leave her second arranged marriage while in her 70s, having left her village in Italy for a new life in Canada as a young woman.

“I have been walking with my grandmother’s story for many years. I was really dedicated to creating a relationship with her after her passing through creative work,” Naccarato said.

Interestingly, the last time she reached the CBC shortlist was for a poem called Coyote Medicine / Medicine Coyote, which was based on her maternal grandfather’s life.

“I hope my work inspires and encourages others to turn to the elders in their family and hear their stories and carry their stories forward,” she said.

Teaching and sharing poetry with youth is another important aspect of Naccarato’s work, as well as a source of inspiration. She created a mentorship program while completing her MFA at the University of British Columbia’s creative writing program and holds annual artist-in-residence placements in the Toronto District School Board, among other youth-centred projects.

Her residencies in particular have helped produce a deep understanding of her own need of expression. As she’s discovered: “The story and the message are at the heart of why I write and what I write — which is for the most part about our relationship to the environment and our relationship to our elders.”

Research that went into Postcards for my Sister took Naccarato to the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 in Halifax, where she listened to recorded oral histories of immigrants and searched out family records. She also visited the small Italian village where her grandmother was born — the first family member to have returned since she left.

She wrote much of the resulting poetry at the Banff Centre’s writing studio, working under the mentorship of Karen Solie and Ocean Vuong. Ken Babstock and Sheri-D Wilson are some of the other influential teachers she’s sought out in the past.

“I’ve been really lucky to work with poets whose work and minds and pedagogy are quite out of the box, who are quite willing to take creative risks and innovations, and who don’t expect me to write poetry like someone else’s poetry,” she said.

Naccarato first started visiting Salt Spring in 2010 to spend time at the Salt Spring Centre of Yoga, and with that experience decided to take her MFA at UBC. She moved to the island in June 2015 while writing her master’s thesis, in which she explored a turn from spoken word to poetry composed for the page. She also publishes personal essays and explained that for her, the stories she tells are different depending on which form she uses.

Poetry that wants to be told through the body and voice, and requires an immediate connection with an audience, fits the spoken word platform, she’s found. On the other hand, work on the page can be more contemplative and complex. This has suited Naccarato’s explorations of hybridity between the natural world and the human body.

“Working on the page has allowed me to really explore that — a world where natural law works differently — and take new risks,” she said.

As someone who grew up in metropolitan Toronto, Naccarato’s relationship to the environment was restricted for most of her life. She recalls the small ravine near her house being her sanctuary, and the family’s annual week of camping her only time for connecting with the beauty in nature. Coming to Salt Spring therefore amounted to a huge shift.

“I think the time I’ve spent here has profoundly changed my writing, because it’s profoundly changed my life,” she said.

While Naccarato has experienced the full challenges of the island’s rental crisis during her two years on Salt Spring — and is even now looking for a new place to live — it feels enough like home that she is hoping to make it work for the long haul. Meeting people who are engaged with spirituality, alternative living and the question of how to exist with nature in a time of environmental crisis has made a strong impact.

“As a writer, it’s really inspiring to live in a community that’s actively exploring and seeking a solution to those questions,” Naccarato said.

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