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A Letter from Vanessa Bell

Vanessa Bell is codirector of CONTOURS and director of the poetry collection at Éditions du Quartz. Her practice in the literary arts has enabled her to perform in the Americas, Europe and Scandinavia and has been supported by several artistic residencies. She is the author of the poetry collections De rivières (2019, La Peuplade) and MONUMENTS (2022, Le Noroît), as well as the cold-water swimming book Fendre les eaux (2023, De l’Homme). She is also the initiator and codirector of the anthology on women’s poetry in Quebec Anthologie de la poésie actuelle des femmes au Québec 2000 | 2020 (2021, Remue-ménage). Vanessa Bell is, under the mentorship of Nicole Brossard, the first francophone Canadian to be supported by the Writers’ Trust of Canada’s Rising Stars program (2022). Vanessa is a 2023 City of Literature Virtual Writer in Residence hosted by Writers Victoria.

In my lap sits a huge grey cushion of unrivalled softness. I hold it close to my belly, as one would a promise. That of telling you the truth, all the truth I’m capable of. I write a line, then look up at the immensity before me. I’m like that: porous. I think it’s a great asset for a poet, the way it allows for sounds, smelled, ideas and loves to merge with my body, my being. On the other side of the window, there’s the forest as far as the eye can see, or almost. As I’m writing perched high up, I can see the bare peaks as they begin their hibernation, already working for their syrup to come in spring. We’re entering a different season. You in summer, me in winter. This letter is an outstretched hand.

If I let my gaze settle long enough, I can make out the hint of freshly fallen snow already on the blue mountains. The mountains are home to the same dramas I experience, and together we write stories that often end up being poems.

I’m writing to you from a cabin in the woods. I usually write while running, singing and, above all, swimming. I write a lot in the fleuve, that French word for which there is no English equivalent. I write here the river is crossed by the heart for days on end

I’m an accident that writes to its aftermath. I write compulsively, without eating or sleeping, until I’m exhausted. I write little, but I write totally. And the rest of the year, I work to bring other people’s writing to light. Sometimes on television, often on the radio and at fairs and other literary venues. Before, all I could think about was dancing and other people’s mouths on mine. Now all I think about is being outside and literature. I guess I’m entering a new writing era.

In this time of writing, there you are, those who read me from Australia or elsewhere. There are those of you to whom I’d like to introduce the fleuve, split the ice and slide together into what it means to write northernness. But there are also those of you who would surely be colder than me, so for today – and today only – I’m closing  my eyes and taking you with me to the Camellia Sinensis Tea Room. I could have taken you to the punk record store around the corner, I could have introduced you to the extraordinary Maison de la littérature – a former temple turned library and performance hall, with the world’s finest writing nooks – I could have taken you for a walk along the Promenade des Gouverneur, with the mythical Château Frontenac as your backdrop, I could have – and would have liked – to take you along the shores of the roaring river in Wendake, where the forty-metre-deep canyon bears witness to the geological break between the Canadian Shield and the St. Lawrence Lowlands, but – eyes still closed – it’s a shorter walk from my house to the Tea Room. The Salon is the only inside place that keeps me calm. Above all, I love the obsession of the people who work there. I love passionate, knowledgeable people, brimming with knowledge they want to share. What’s more, the Salon’s windowed frontage overlooks St. Joseph street, the main street in the lower town, a great place to soak up the sun or simply let your thoughts drift as you watch people cross the city at all hours. Behind the windows, then behind the counter, in identical glittering silver pots, is an extraordinary selection of hand-harvested teas carefully chosen from the world’s most interesting cultures. I often write here. A stone’s throw from the Gabrielle-Roy library, the library of my childhood years. If I keep my eyes closed, I share with you a Chinese Wulong, Qi Lan Wuyi. This tea, grown by the talented Ms. Huang, is harvested from magnificent gardens located at a high altitude. Each infusion of roasted leaves is a story that we experience together tasting woody, fruity and floral notes. Hints of honey and nuts envelop me. Warmth spreads through my chest and it’s just tea, you and me. Unless I open my eyes. Then it’s back to the forest and that book lying next to my winter sleeping bag.

That book is Animals by musician, sound and visual artist Félicia Atkinson. I’ve adored, worshipped, recommended and cried over this book. It’s a book about which I could say many things, but about which I want to write this and this only: it’s the book to (re)learn to write, to think about time and space, to affirm literature as a plastic art. It’s a book of love and displacement. It’s a book that affirms that we can relate to spaces and concepts. 

It’s a book for the horse in us.

Like me, Félicia is a native French speaker, and like me, she thinks in English. We think: Can a lake shape a relationship? Can a train be an office? How to deal with neighbours? When to act? When to stop? Can the words mean the same thing all the time? What is duration? How to feel specificity inside a crowd?

I know, yes, that a lake can set the tone for a relationship, just as I know that the fleuve, for me and so many people in Québec, breathes life into our lives. To live in Québec City is to live with your head in the wind, your bones full of water, your body surrounded by mountains. If the city is the setting in which I meet people, exchange ideas, reflect and celebrate literature, what I like best about my city is that it’s at the heart of a vast and powerful territory, accessible in a matter of minutes. From uptown (Québec City is divided into uptown and downtown, with a small hill as its boundary), I can escape eastward to the Île d’Orléans, where I can see horses, farmers, vineyards, beaches and the fiery river, which at its very tip begins to thicken into salt water. I know the route by heart, by river or mountains, I know how to get to Baie-St-Paul, past the high peaks, where the light dances green on cold evenings. If I look west, I know the Valley, its glacial murmurs, its river, its birds, its moose and deer. I’ve never seen them, but I also know about the lynx, and I’ll keep going out into the territory telling myself stories until I’ve had the privilege of their company. And I’m not even talking about the rocks, all the rocks and boulders that surround Québec City like trolls. I love each and every one of them.

I know the territory; it is where I exist best. The city is a convenience that gives me the chance to write to you today. People who think about it say my work is ecofeminist. Perhaps that’s the only clear thing I’ll say here.

The cushion is now at my side. In a fit of excitement, I got up and finished writing this letter out loud, because I wanted to look far, as far as possible, maybe even to you. It is no longer a question of opening or closing your eyes. Now it’s a question of opening my mouth and entering into a dialogue. Over the next few days, I’ll be offering three opportunities to meet with Writers Victoria and my colleague – and wonderful artist – Annelyse Gelman. Follow the links to find out more. Now that you know I’m capable of rambling, but more importantly that I know how to write, I can’t wait to hear about your paths to writing, to you. I can’t wait to discover the structures that support your creation and the distribution of your works. 

I want to read you. I want to meet you.
I want.
Do you?


Join Vanessa and fellow City of Literature Virtual Writer in Residence Annelyse Gelman Tuesday 28 November 2023, 12pm (AEDT) for their session Let’s Talk About… Poetry and Music. Together, Vanessa and Annelyse will read excerpts from their own work and discuss the entwined art forms of poetry and music. This session is free for Writers Victoria members.

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