Contemporary Verse 2: The Lina Chartrand Award was established by the three of you after her death in 1994. How did you all know her, and how did your personal and creative paths come to cross?
Liz Ukrainetz: I met Lina in 1990 at a creative writing workshop with Susan Swan. Within the workshop, we were split into smaller groups, and Lina got our smaller four to continue after the class ended. She also arranged for us to read our work in a Company of Sirens cabaret that year. She and I continued to attend workshops together, meet wonderful writers, and work on each other’s poems and novels. She allowed me to assist her in developing multi-poet performances, with music and theatrical elements. She was wonderful at bringing people together and keeping good things going, which CV2 and the Award honours and continues.
Maureen Hynes: Lina was one of many women who enrolled in Helen Humphrey’s Women Writers’ Course at George Brown College in 1991. As I think about these dates now – that was just four years before her death—I realize how short a time we had with Lina, and how quickly she made fast friends, and how huge and long-lasting her influence was on so many of us in that class. Not just in organizing the kinds of events that Liz has mentioned above, but how her unflagging persistence with her artistic work has continued to be a model and an inspiration. Many of the women from that group have stayed connected as writers, and some of us still continue to workshop our work together.
Kye Marshall: I first met Lina in 1987, in the lobby of Toronto’s O’Keefe Centre where I was performing with the National Ballet Orchestra. A mutual friend thought we would make a good match, and they were so right. We next met a few days later at a performance of her theatre company, The Working People’s Picture Show. We went for drinks afterwards, then went home together, and stayed together from that moment on. She was my lover/partner/best friend for seven years until her death in 1994.
We were fortunate to be able to collaborate artistically, as I am a cellist and composer. I composed the music for her play La P’tite Miss Easter Seals for CBC Radio, as well as the music for Curling Maman’s Hair, with Lorraine Pelletier reading Lina’s text, for the 1995 Mayworks Festival of Working People and the Arts.
In the final year of her life, she was chosen to be a resident at the Canadian Film Centre. Her last project was a short film, and again I was delighted to be able to compose and record music for her film. After her death I was commissioned by the Company of Sirens to write we make the air, music for four of her poems scored for contralto and string quartet.
I write this on April 2, the 26th anniversary of her death.
CV2: Over the years, our description of the award speaks to her many contributions as an artist and activist, but doesn’t really tell readers and writers who she was. From a more personal perspective, who was Lina Chartrand, as a person and as an artist and why was it important to acknowledge her memory with this award?
KM: It is hard to speak about Lina’s character and personality without resorting to clichés, but she was a truly amazing woman—a person of great integrity, personally and artistically. She was gentle, loving and wise. Never afraid to speak her mind. She devoted her life to creating meaningful art –theatre, plays and poetry. She was much beloved and sorely missed.
MH: One thing I admired about Lina was how she was always witty and smiling, engaged and encouraging – despite chronic pain from liver disease and post-polio syndrome (which she was also very open about). She was an extremely hard worker, so prolific in so many genres despite these physical obstacles. She took special delight in bringing poets, musicians, filmmakers and playwrights together in one venue. As Liz said above, for our neophyte writing group, she got us organizing (and rehearsing!) several events and “staged readings” at a small local theatre.
CV2: How did Lina direct her artistic passions into political and social action?
LU: When I think of Lina, I think of a vivacious integrated whole who could no more separate art from activism than separate the body from the blood. She was full of life, full of hope, as full of the need to engage with life as the need to inspire others: to act, to embrace, whether wrestling the nebulae of female experience into language; or mobilizing tenants, workers, people with disabilities, into action for justice and the love and dignity of being alive.
While much of her non-poetic work is overtly political, directly addressing social inequity, poetry more particularly addresses the intricacies of individual experience: it is an affirmation, an engagement, a shout back to Life. To say “I am” in an oppressive environment is a political act. To express, alone or together, is an expansion of Being that sends waves of hope rippling through society, making our unseen spirits tangible, touch touching touch, on and on, making the world closer to what it needs to be.
CV2: How and when did poetry become a focus for Lina?
LU: Looking over Lina’s list of accomplishments in other language media, I’m surprised, and very grateful, that poetry came too. I’m sure Lina wrote poems all her life, as writers do, but in 1991, at 43, she was looking to develop her prose for a novel, and took a Women Writers’ Workshop taught by Helen Humphreys. The rapport among these particular women, about a dozen of us, at this particular time was extraordinary. The collective insight, sensitivity, talent and ability reverberated among us, creating of poetry a landscape tangible in the intricacies of rhythms and images, sounds and meanings: it was amazing. Each of us both leader and led, audience and participant, maker and applauder.
We continued the workshop well past the class, launched a few performances, made joint and separate chapbooks, and were delighted that each of us published in respected journals. It took more than a few of us into our real lives, but Lina had already been in her real life for a long time. She could only grow more strongly herself.
Language was already Lina’s métier, but she was as smitten as the rest of us. She left me breathless, again and again, with her willingness to speak, to expose, to plunder, to rise (oh to rise – she knew how!) And even more so, her ingrained generosity: her willingness to learn and do in true Commie Feminist spirit – to strengthen the group, as she strengthened herself on her journey of discovery. She would say “Don’t you just want to stay home and write poems?” The momentum in the group was irresistible – we were unpacking our selves as we unpacked what language could do. A chorus of women echoing back from the essence that poetry can be. Dizzying. Delicious. Vital. Lina.
CV2: Can you speak a bit about the decision to entrust CV2 with administering this award, which includes a $500 cash prize, paid re-publication, and a copy of we make the air: The collected poetry of Lina Chartrand?
MH: After Lina died, a very large number of friends, mostly but not only women, across the political, feminist, artistic, theatre and literary communities in Toronto were anxious to figure out some ways to memorialize Lina and her work. Some of us close to her remembered Lina’s special delight at having her early poems accepted by CV2 (and this was true for several of us as well), so those acceptances figured strongly in our choice.
We also recognized the journal’s feminist priorities, so we approached the editors at that time to suggest an annual award in Lina’s name for an “emerging woman poet whose work shows some treatment of feminist, activist or political content.” We thought CV2 would be a perfect fit, as the work published in the journal represents readers and writers across Canada. Over the years, we’ve seen how CV2 has broadened its mandate and, in particular, is highlighting more and more the work of women with disabilities, and Indigenous women.
Many of the people who donated to the initial fund for CV2’s “Lina Chartrand Poetry Award” donated again in 1998 to support the publication of a bilingual chapbook collection of Lina’s poetry, we make the air.
CV2: Over the twenty-five years that CV2 has administered the award, many things have changed for women, and for the LGBTQ+ community — and unfortunately many things have not. Over those years, CV2 has been honoured to support new writing by woman-identifying poets published in CV2. How does this award continue to advocate for change?
MH: We think there can never be enough support and recognition for the creative work of marginalized people, and especially those at the beginning of their literary careers. Most writers are dogged by doubt and uncertainty, especially as they set out, and we are delighted to give writers at this stage a small leap of excitement, a healthy nod of encouragement.
We’re very indebted to CV2, and especially to Clarise’s editorial insight, for choosing over the years so many women writers who’ve gone on to gain more and more recognition, or more prestigious awards.
CV2: Today, with the COVID-19 pandemic, the world is facing an unprecedented threat to our health, livelihoods, and our environment. What does the legacy of Lina Chartrand give us to move forward in these difficult times — what consolation, strength, hope — does poetry offer us collectively to deal with such a challenging time in our lives?
MH: Lina was the essence of collectivity and openness. Collectivity feels elusive, actually almost impossible, in these pandemic days, and yet it is still happening, and in new ways. We all have the need to be seen and heard, and poetry and other art forms are crucial ways of being ourselves, making ourselves visible, in the world. And of course, of seeing and hearing each other’s truth. It’s commonplace to say that art heals us, and brings us together, and emboldens us to action, but it is ultimately so true.
LU: More than any other language media, poetry strengthens the collective by speaking to the intimate self, a paradox of sorts. It is in fear and helplessness that we begin searching for blame outside ourselves, often for circumstances where there is no blame to be found. Within poetry, we begin to understand that there is no Other: we are the same. In our unfathomable complexity, struggling with troubles and catastrophe, and questions of sorrow and injury, we are the same.
During mass crises, and especially in a pandemic, it is the individual willingness to care that will protect us most. It is individual awareness that creates a collective gathered to contribute ingenuity, strategies and compassion toward the common good. Poetry speaks to the spark in us, to overcome the fears of existence, and to comfort human failure.
The winner of the 2019 Lina Chartrand Award is Francine Cunningham. You can find Francine’s winning poem, “Blood Quantum” (as well as the painting she made in conjunction with it), here.