The Philosopher | Alessandra Naccarato
Alessandra Naccarato enters the stage with quiet collect. There’s mischief spilling from the curl of her lips and her pan through the crowd suggests she saw you first. When the words come, they’re low-timbered but pronounced.
You're no expert (hell, you haven't touched 'poetry' since that rather scarring roundtable seminar in third year uni), but this is good. This connects. You love this. The fingersnapping of the audience says others agree. It's a good thing you're reacting inside your head in this moment... cuz you're the social equivalent of dude at the party who wants everyone to know how awesome that song is. ("You guys, you guys– seriously. Seriously, though.") So many feelings. A whhhish; a flutter; content and flecks for later.
She runs on a confidence that comes from experience and a vulnerability that comes from wise– poems enveloping life's more intimate into worldly revelations through only the most fermented of thoughts.
Alessandra has spent the better part of a decade touring nationally and internationally as a spoken word artist and an educator of the youth. She’s been on the receiving end of some pretty important awards and acclaim– most recently as the winner of Event Magazine's Non-Fiction Prize (her story Twenty Miles Above the Limit will be featured in the upcoming issue), as well as making the shortlist for CBC Reads' Poetry Prize (her poem Coyote Medicine / Medicine Coyote is over here). Each move in her burgeoning career is a further cast of her drive to explore the world through her own mind's eye.
Alessandra took some time from her graduate studies at UBC to chat with me about work, flow, and what exactly it's like to be this girl making her way as a poet with a backpack.
You wear many hats: academia, travel, performance, teaching, and of course, writing. What's your strategy in life and creative balance?
Right now I'm working on an MFA in Creative Writing at the University of British Columbia. When school's out, I teach and travel and run amuck, but I'm lucky enough to spend the fall and winter writing full-time and workshopping in class. I just bought myself an old walnut secretary desk. I brew coffee, open up the cover and tell myself to get to work. I spend my days there. It's a gift, to have this time to focus on writing. I've fallen in love with the page in a way I never thought I would, after all the years I spent focused on performance.
Tell me about your upcoming album of poetry and music, Hunger and Lightening.
I collaborated with four incredible musicians to make it happen. I brought them the best writing I'd done in the last decade, and we hulled up in the UofT music halls, over a grand piano, for two months straight. They improvised and composed for ten pieces, and the final result was more than I could have hoped for. Cello, harmonium, guitar, piano, vocals, are all woven together with my words. I had just returned from Hawaii when the began the process, and there's something of the island's fierceness that runs through the album. From the operatic howl that begins the first track, to the odes to Frida Khalo and Georgia O'Keefe, they're really all poems for survival. Reckonings, reminders, stories of those who took what was broken and turned it into art. All my travels have delayed its release, but it's coming soon.
What social / political issues are you most passionate about and how do you weave this into your work?
It's changed over time. When I was working with youth and travelling internationally as a community worker, I wrote mostly about gender issues and women's rights. That's where I saw the most chaos, and the most pain. It's what I was living, so it's what I was writing. Then I started leaving the city, moving closer to the land, and my work changed. These days, I mostly write about our relationship to nature. Whatever genre I'm working in, that's what comes out. It happens naturally, because that's where my focus is. The same way you start writing romantic crap when you fall in love. Thankfully, my heart is consumed with something a bit more interesting right now.
Your poem, Coyote Medicine / Medicine Coyote was shortlisted for the CBC Writes poetry prize. Can you elaborate on your exploration between the tension of appropriation and reappropriation in this poem?
There are parts of our history that colonialism erased, whited-out, on purpose. A kind of dis-inheritance. The same way we've reconfigured forests into roads, hidden old waterways beneath our cities. Some part of us feels what's been lost, like a ghost limb, I think, blood memory. We want to return to it, to re-appropriate, rebuild the relationship. But I'm not sure it's possible. That's the tension. The poem starts with coyotes walking onto the tarmac at Pearson, because they know there once was a forest there. But can that memory make the forest grow? Is knowing what we've lost enough ground to rebuild on? Or is the attempt flawed from the beginning? In trying to reconnect, will we continue to take what doesn't belong to us, and call it a kind of healing act? It happens, often. And maybe it's understandable, how messy it is. We're navigating a space of silence, of unknowing. There's a cost to ignoring what's been lost, and there's a cost to facing it incorrectly. I've spent a long time in that tension, afraid to say anything. Now, I'm trying to ask questions at least.
Describe your most eccentric day.
I wake up in a tent, in a forest, on some island. Maybe it's Saltspring, and I walk through the old green forest and sip chikory tea and sing kirtan. More likely, it's the Big Island of Hawaii. It's Puna, and I'm just a few miles from the live flow of lava. There is, in all likelihood, a three hundred pound boar wadling beside my tent with a set of piglets in tow. Bright red cardinals on the branches. Jungle all around me. Neighbours, in other tents, waking up and peeing in the bush. Probably, I'l eat breakfast with the hundred and fifty people who live in the community together, then hitch hike down the road to the black sand beach that just got tumbled by a hurricane and has shape-shifted. If I'm feeling brave, I'll make it in the ocean, despite the high break and riptide and reef sharks. God willing, there will be dancing. Unabashed, sweaty dancing. I'll read somebody's tarot, chart the planets for the day, fall in love or resolve never to fall in love again, pick starfruit, sit close to the bonfire, wait until night and skinnydip in the pool, where the stars are so bright you can look up and feel like you're swimming into them. I'm not sure if that's eccentric though. You're sense of normal changes the further you move from it, and I know lots of folk who live wilder lives than this.
Have you had any life experiences that you might consider being pivotal to your path as an artist?
When I was in grade ten, wearing baggy fun fur pants and getting myself into unreasonable trouble, my teacher gave me a copy of Ginsberg's Howl. It changed everything. It's a trope to say it, but poetry saved my life, many times over. That's why I work with youth, and teach spoken word in schools. I know its potential first hand. I feel called to share the wisdom my teacher's passed on to me. It's powerful medicine, and I want it to reach as many young folk as possible.
Your poems are full of personal revelation. Have you had any of those lately?
I spent the summer at performance art festivals in Montreal, Witch Camp in fire season in Oregon, driving down the coast of California, weathering a hurricane on the Big Island, no power, water or phone service, my life in a backpack. It felt like a two-month long revelation. I'm still trying to make sense of it. What's clearest to me now, is this: life is built out of choices. There's a lot we don't get to choose, like how the systems around us function, or how well our body works, or when your car's gonna break down. But what we do with our lonliness, our empty bank account, our racist culture, the bees dying; that's up to us. We get to decide what kind of life we want to live. Don't let anyone tell you different.
What can we look forward to in the near future?
I have a lot of projects on the go. In addition to releasing my record, I plan to have a poetry manuscript finished by spring. The larger project I am working on is a memoir, though, that looks at my somewhat-hilarious journeys in intentional communities and retreat centres in Guatemala, Hawaii and Canada.
For more about Alessandra and her work, visit her website. I also recommend getting taken by her assorted spoken word vids on youtube.