notes to self before departure
by Alessandra Naccarato
- Remember the first time you did this: Five years back, in thunderstruck winter, Montreal. It seemed like anything would be better than another month of unaffordable hydro, windows covered in frost, nights spent at Snack & Blues just trying to warm up. So you reached out to the prairies and the prairies said, sure, no one else wants to come perform here in minus 50. At that point, some part of you realized the fatal flaw in your plan. But you figured cold was cold and packed a bag for Winnipeg. You got bronchitis just before departure. Another woman might have taken this as a sign. Not you. You got on the train, just past midnight. All through the dark tunnel of night, watched the frost form on the window. Tried to sleep. Tried to stop coughing. By the next afternoon, things turned. In the car with a glass ceiling, a boy pulled out a banjo and you got your harmonica that you didn’t really know how to play. By nightfall there was whiskey, a poker game beside you, a circle of music. There wasn’t much more you could ask of Canada. The sky was enormous and pink. The snow dyed the same color. You were headed somewhere you’d never been before, and you’d heard even your nose hairs would freeze there.
- The truth is, you never went back to Montreal. You made it through the storm-slapped sky, the big mountains, all with a slight fever and a cough that woke others up on every train. People took you into their living rooms in every city, showed you the best breakfast joints, the loftiest churches. Something changed in your poetry, like plugging in the Christmas lights on an old bungalow. By the time you made it west, the cherry blossoms were out. The ocean was turning over itself, and you placed naked feet right in it. High above, an eagle, a raven, a crow. No one was paying for hydro in Vancouver. You sat beneath a tree in a tank top, all gooseflesh and belonging. Quit whatever jobs you had back home. Told the sublettor she could stay through June.
- You never write on the road. Stop apologizing for this. You want to come home with something to show for it. The problem is, you never come home. You come back with a different vocabulary. New language. A different idea of what a poem is for. Brazil, Guatemala, Ghana. Argentina, Italy, Hawaii. To write in the midst of these places felt kin to studying a waterfall behind a camera lens. You wanted to stand in the flowing water. You wanted to be able to remember its taste. Some writers can do both, and you envy them. Dream a future as a snowbird, writing your next book in a shack in Bali. Maybe you’ll do it some day. Or maybe you’ll just keep using this pretense to live an enormous, unsettled life. To go back to road, time and again, contract malaria, dengue fever, fall in love with a stranger, and have something to say upon return.
- Once upon a time, you were the X on the map for touring poets. You’d gather them to your city, cook them breakfast, put them on stages. Bring them to the best cafes in Montreal. All around Canada, this was happening. In every city, a house marked X. A small crew to put on the shows, and someone hosting touring poets every few weeks. We were all in love with each other: platonically, romantically, effervescently. The country became a living room. When VIA Rail went on sale, we all got on the train. Showed up at the bar, and left part of ourselves with the audience when we were done.
- The houses have changed since then, but it’s the same gift culture. National Poetry Month, and you are readying for the road. Readying for Victoria, Edmonton, Calgary, Toronto. A friend to meet you at every airport. A freshly minted CD. The expectation and unexpected. No way to plan for what will happen once you get there, in front of the humming audience and your own warm fear. How the movement will change the tone of your voice, what the road will do to the words you wrote years ago. The poems that have been tucked in your pocket, waiting for this trip.
- Your suitcase is almost packed. It’s a small apothecary: peppermint, lavender, rhodiola. Pressed flowers and herbs for the places you are headed. Salt Spring is thawing, drying out. Already people swim in the lake across from your cabin. Lay naked in the sun near the ocean. It’s a far cry from your last point of departure. This time, you are not running from cold to unfamiliar cold. You’re a cup filled to the bursting. Three years, this album has taken you. Three years of waiting to share these stories of survival. But there’s still something unknown about the road. About what’s waiting for you. In every audience, the possibility of what you can only call magic. In every city, a new breakfast place to find.
Alessandra Naccarato is a writer, performer and teacher based on Salt Spring Island, BC. Winner of the Bronwen Wallace Award for Emerging Writers, the Reader’s Choice Award for the CBC Poetry Prize, and Event Magazine’s Creative Non-Fiction Award, her writing has appeared across Canada and the United States. She has toured nationally and internationally as a spoken word artist, worked with thousands of youth across the country, and is currently completing an MFA in Creative Writing at the University of British Columbia.