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New Vernon writer astounded by strength of local writing community

Michelle Poirier Brown was shortlisted for the Federation of B.C. Writers poetry contest in 2023
Michelle Poirier Brown has been amazed by the writing community in the Okanagan since she moved to Vernon from Victoria Jan. 1, 2022. Her poem, Barefoot in the Salish Sea, was shortlisted for a 2023 Federation of BC Writers Award. (Helene Cyr Photography)

Michelle Poirier Brown has only been in Vernon for a couple years, but already the Indigenous writer is amazed by the quality of work to be found within the local writing community.

Brown arrived in Vernon Jan. 1, 2022, after living in Victoria for 35 years, and she quickly recognized the talent residing in her new home.

“I did not know when I moved here almost exactly two years ago, the strength of the Okanagan writing community,” she told The Morning Star. “There’s been a lot of joys in discovering what the local environment is like, but the strength of the writing community is one of my greatest discoveries about this great town.”

Brown showed her own strength as a writer when she was shortlisted in the Federation of B.C. Writers 2023 Literary contest in the poetry category. Though she missed out on winning the $350 prize this past December, the contest was another indication of the prowess in the local writing scene; Vernon’s Natalie Appleton was longlisted in the flash fiction category, and the Okanagan’s Kerry Gilbert was the judge in the poetry category.

Brown writes both poetry and prose, and the two forms come forth from her pen differently.

“To write poetry for me is a somatic experience,” she said. “I set up the intent to write a poem, and where I am physically matters. So I will often go to a location if I want to write (poetry). Being close to nature and beginning with detail is important … it can also begin with a very internal sense of a tuning into how do I feel.

The poem Brown was shortlisted for, Barefoot in the Salish Sea, was written during a workshop in Victoria that took place after she had moved to Vernon, meaning she headed back to the place she’d lived for decades to write it.

“It was kind of an important time for me because I had moved here and then I went back for that workshop,” she said. “The rest of the poems that I wrote at that retreat were very much grounded in the place here (in the Okanagan).”

Like any other writer, Brown draws from the well of her life for subject matter — and she’s lived an interesting one. A nêhiýaw-iskwêw woman, she grew up in the Prairies “In the Metis homeland.” She had a career as a treaty negotiator for the federal government and was on the team that negotiated the Columbia Basin Accord.

She says these days, her former career and her heritage have figured strongly in her writing, and the same goes with the discovery of her true heritage.

“When I was first negotiating for the province, I didn’t even know I was Indigenous, and an Indigenous person who was sitting beside me on a plane coming back from a negotiation session told me, ‘you do realize you’re Indigenous, right?’ And I vehemently denied it,” she said. “Then I discovered to my embarrassment that I was completely wrong, and in fact, my book, You Might Be Sorry You Read This, addresses some of that issue of not knowing who I was, and a very long path of coming to terms with where I belonged.”

You Might Be Sorry You Read This was published in the Robert Kroetsch Series from the University of Alberta in spring 2022.

Brown didn’t start publishing her writing until after she had medically retired in May 2020. She was very ill at the time, and the illness caused some cognitive impairment. Writing became a way of addressing that impairment.

“As my recovery progressed, I began to submit for publication,” she said.

Brown has at times been surprised by the warm reception to her work. Case in point, her piece titled The Amnio Journal, which chronicles the time between when she received the results of a blood test saying it was possible she was carrying a child who would have Down syndrome and when she got her amnio test results (the amniotic fluid is the fluid in the uterus that surrounds the fetus).

“That piece — and it was just a journal — it sat in a drawer for 26 years. And I pulled it out and thought, maybe this is publishable,” she said. It would end up appearing in the esteemed Malahat Review and was nominated for a national magazine award.

“I had no idea that anything I wrote would be of any interest to anyone.”

Brown says if she could give once piece of advice to young writers looking to establish themselves, it’s to sign up for workshops.

“Anything that I know about the craft of writing I learned in workshops,” she said.

Now in Vernon, Brown is revelling in being a part of the local writing scene. Last April, she took part in a poetry reading at Bean Scene alongside Okanagan writers Nancy Holmes and Sharon Thesen.

“That was just an incredible honor to be included with writers of such stature. Both of those poets are so accomplished and extensively published,” she said.

“I’m part of something that’s very special here.”

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Brendan Shykora

About the Author: Brendan Shykora

I started at the Morning Star as a carrier at the age of 8. In 2019 graduated from the Master of Journalism program at Carleton University.
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