Jacqueline Baldwin

as interviewed by Si Transken (Dec 2004)

Si: Jackie I want to thank you for letting me do this interview with you in response to ROW's call for older/ younger voices and the theme of creativity. I knew that talking to you would be a wonderful way to articulate, affirm, celebrate, and 'monumentalize' your way of engaging with creativity. During the last four years (almost to the day actually!), I've witnessed you as such a voice for social justice/ activism. You've read your work at many Women's Events and fundraisers. I'd like you to talk about your writing as your 'mode' through which you network and accomplish community? But first I'd also like to thank you for how you were a significant part of welcoming me to this community. It meant so much to me to see you reading poetry on my first day in Prince George, and I sent you an email which you had the spontaneous kindness to respond which then linked us through a conversation about you having already heard about the Battle Chants book which helped me feel inspired to begin and build a life here after being in my previous community for forty years...

Jackie: I am glad you mention the Battle Chants book as it meant an enormous amount to so many women here who saw that book right after you published it in Sudbury. One of the graduate students here brought it back from a conference she attended there; the conference for Women Building Communities sponsored by the Canadian Institute for the Advancement of Women. She brought it to a pot luck dinner we had and people kept reading poems out loud from it. It still seems to me that your sudden email from Sudbury to Prince George after your job interview here was an amazing event - a miracle - a real affirmation of the connections already made through the creativity in that very brave publication "Battle Chants" and we could hardly believe that it was really you coming to teach here - you who had written and published the poem "Unsettled and Not Settling" (page 34) to which more than twenty people had listened, spellbound by the recognition of how it described their own lives, and how you had so clearly illustrated the universality of women's true experience -- and recognizing your name instantly! I mean, how many women are called 'Si'? How many 'Si's' do you find in this life? It had to be you.

Si: That's an excellent lead in to my question. I'd like you to talk about your poetry as a 'mode' through which you initiate, network and accomplish community?

Jackie: I really believe that poetry and creativity have a life of their own, that they have an ability to transcend all kinds of boundaries that exist as barriers to other modes of communication. Sometimes it seems almost magical, the way that connections are made between a writer and the reader who suddenly finds that feelings experienced before only in her heart, have become transformed into thoughts in her mind through the poem. Thoughts she can then process, translate into her own experience and use to assess her own life, her dreams, her goals, her identity. I think this kind of recognition and understanding is a beautiful, natural part of the creative process.

My poems are usually written as narratives, probably because I come from a decidedly oral storytelling culture of Highland Scottish immigrants who settled in a remote area of New Zealand in the mid-nineteenth century. My ancestors were displaced by the infamous "Highland Clearings" that destroyed a way of life which had sustained people for many centuries. I was part of the fifth generation of New Zealand settlers still filled with ancestral memory, still longing for the ancestral stories and songs of the community life in the Highlands of Scotland.The music, creativity, dancing, and poetry they brought with them still flourishes in that part of New Zealand.

In my poem "The Pine Trees Singing" which is now published in the book A Northern Woman, I say: "I spent my early life marinated in love and stories." I grew up hearing stories all day long, every day, because that is what life used to be like. People talked. They remembered things, they told children stories handed down for generations. It wasn't called storytelling in those days, it was just talking, and the topics were important, vital even, to the speakers and to the listeners. Once I began writing poetry again, after having not written it since my high-school days, I found my own voice emerged naturally through narrative. The creative process of writing my poems and putting them out in the world through readings and publications has been a crucial part of my healing journey. I did not write simply because it was therapeutic, and I did not intend to use writing as therapy, it was an extra gift that came my way by trusting the process of writing, by honouring creativity to see where it would lead me. Seven years after my first book was published, I am very aware that the creative process has restored my own precious "agency" in the world, retrieving parts of my own identity lost in the trauma of abuse suffered during my marriage which ended more than thirty years ago. The sad thing about the subtle ways in which abuse alters women is that the losses occur the way water dripping on stone can eventually erode it. I did not know the extent of my own loss of my true identity until it was returned to me. In the collaborative book Beyond Grief, I have a poem called "The Gift" about what my marriage was like in its early happier days, and what the relationship became. In it, I say this:

"this is what it was like

I do not know the exact moment it changed
it was imperceptible

I tumbled down into an abyss with him
a millimetre at a time"

To me, this is one of the gravest dangers of violence against women, the gradual descent of one's own standards as they lower to those of the abuser. I see this in cases of bullying and harassment as well, when disrespectful behaviour becomes normal in schools and on campus. When women/girls challenge disrespect, and name it for what it is: harassment, they can be accused of being "too sensitive" or "having no sense of humour". They can also hear themselves accused of being "strident feminists" when they make complaints about harassment. These accusations, made by the powerful against the powerless, illustrate that the seeds of serious violence against women and children can lie in everyday conversation, in comments and remarks that are not respectful about the female. Heard often enough, disparaging remarks can become a litany that carves itself into a groove in your mind so that you end up ignoring how truly insolent, arrogant, and devastatingly abusive it really is. The biggest danger is that it can become iternalized into our own beliefs about ourselves.

After living rurally for 27 years in Canada, in a wilderness area of Northern BC, I moved to Prince George to return to school once my children were grown up. I found myself in a remarkably friendly arts community where people are extremely kind and supportive of one another, and I began writing down some of my own life experiences. I joined a wonderful group of creative writers called Writers' Bloc who met regularly at the College to encourage one another, and it was there I gained the courage to read my work out loud. The response to my work surprised me, because I did not know then just how much of real life we hide from others, and thus, from ourselves. From the support of this large group, I began to gain confidence about my work, and to accept offers to do readings at meetings, rallies, and workshops. My interest in social justice led me to do volunteer work with anti-violence and anti-poverty groups and it is through this work that I became aware of how valuable creativity can be when people are trying to heal from trauma of any kind. I already had the impulse to write, a gift for which I am deeply grateful, and I observed that people who read or heard my work often told me that it was important to them to hear what I had written. It was their response that encouraged me to keep on writing, and taught me that I could help to fight injustice by continuing to put my poems out in the world, by speaking out against violence and abuse, and by standing up for the rights of the individual.

Si: How has it shaped your writing that you are an immigrant woman, a mother, a person who raised children on her own, a woman who has spent a lot of her years engaging with/ witnessing rural poverty? How do you feel these days as you ponder the present political climate? How does all this influence your style and process of writing?

Jackie: Being a mother changed everything, for me. It is cataclysmic, although not in the disastrous sense of the word, to change from a single, professional woman, free to travel and work anywhere in the world she chooses, to a mother, responsible for three small children. It was what I wanted, I wanted to have my own family, but I had not planned on doing it as a single parent. My marriage ended when my youngest child was still a nursing baby, and the result was a very fast lesson in economics. I have experienced extreme poverty, and I am absolutely appalled by what it does to women and children. I was fortunate in that I had an education that allowed me to make a living for us when I was on my own with the children (with no outside financial support of any kind), and I chose a rural life so that we could live as organic farmers and raise our own food, so I was one of the rare, lucky ones. My education and background enabled me to remove us from poverty. I am actually horrified when I see the spiritual poverty that comes from financial hardship that exists now, thirty years later, due to our current political climate. It is as if people do not matter, poor people's children do not matter at all, and nobody cares, once they are elected into office, whether there will be education or dignity for underprivileged people. There seems to be an attitude of blame, even, blaming people for being poor, or staying poor. I could not survive with three children in the current political/financial climate unless I lived on a farm and could go fishing and raise my own food, heat with wood heat, use barter for my needs, walk everywhere to save running a car, and sew all of our own clothes. Poverty in the city seems like a very bleak prospect, and I despair of what will become of the children who are suffering under this system.

Yes, it influences my style and process of writing because it is a constant, stressful, presence that one cannot forget. It also makes me angry, which is unhealthy, to see where all the money is going instead of being used for human wellbeing. If I feel like this, I cannot imagine how terrible it must be for those enduring this new kind of "advanced" poverty which increases domestic violence, destroys self-esteem and general physical health, and feeds on itself by creating more and more financially poor people who are not able to contribute to society or their own immediate needs, let alone their futures.

Here is a new poem I wrote recently after seeing a friend I hadn't seen since he had married and become a father.

A Famous Journalist I Respect Very Much
Whom I Haven't Seen For Years

by Jacqueline Baldwin

shows me photos of his family
himself, wife, two small boys
black and white prints in a small silver frame
beside his apple computer
in the newsroom

looking closely at the children
I study their sweet faces
reproduced on a photo print
lively expressions
gleeful, mischievous smiles
healthy, happy boys
sitting close together between two parents

it's overwhelming to look at his family
his dear little sons
knowing how much he knows of the world
I am stunned, stopped in my tracks
studying the boys' faces, thinking: their
is the miracle that I see

I want to say to him:
this is incredible
I cannot believe what love can do
to think that love can create these two
exquisitely heart-breakingly gorgeous
small beings
seems suddenly beyond the realms of possibility
but I cannot say that
it's too intimate, presumptive, and besides
I might cry, acknowledging

the faces of his children
are evidence of what is truly

especially when both of us know that
just outside the window of this warm building
there is a tall skinny distressed man
going through the snow covered dumpster
looking for discarded food

Si: Could you talk about how many readings you've done since you published your first book? What kinds of funds do you think you've helped raise? What kind of an impact do you believe you've had on raising women's consciousness and raising community awareness about the issues you care about?

Jackie: I have performed about two hundred and eighty readings, but not all of them since publishing the first book. I began doing the readings about three years before being published, while attending anti-war rallies, anti-violence marches, and women's social justice meetings. I have no idea about the amount of the funds raised, but I hope it's a lot. One of my favourite fund raisers is the card project done for Northern Women's Wellness because the funds raised from the sale of this poem, combined with Lynda Anderson's beautiful art work go directly to women in need of small amounts for a baby sitter so they can get to a class, or a taxi to a medical appointment, small mercies that can make an enormous difference in a life. I think working with the community organizations with all those dedicated men and women who care about social justice has actually raised my own consciousness about the sources and causes of violence against women and children. I know that my poetry has made a difference to many because of the individual responses I receive from readers, but doing the readings with the support of the community is where it really makes a difference because it has the effect of working collectively, thus increasing the value of what everyone contributes. These social workers, nurses, advocates, counselors, all the people who work to improve social conditions and help people who are suffering, for whatever reason, are my heroes. They are doing what I think of as the 'real work of the world.'

The politicians and their masters, the powerful CEOs of large corporations seem to be the Neroes, fiddling away while destroying the earth for financial gain.

Si: We've become connected now through our writing in Beyond Grief; through your contributions to the upcoming Making Noise about our In/Visible Dis/Abilities book; through mention of you by writers in This Ain't Your Patriarchs' Poetry Book; through the papers which are about to be published in the Bridget Moran Conference Papers Collection. How have those experiences had meaning to you in terms of feeling that you belong to particular or larger 'community' or even a different kind of 'nation'?

Jackie: Yes, exactly. I hadn't thought of that before: "a different kind of 'nation'!" I found very deep meaning from doing the actual writing, but all of the experiences you mention are those that continue to grow a new understanding of how important it is to keep on speaking out on issues that one feels passionate about. My courage to put what I want to write onto paper has increased after writing the work for Beyond Grief, and that helped me to speak out about my own experience with the long poem: "Rural Medicine" for the Making Noise book. That poem was incredibly difficult to put out into the world because of the pain it caused me to view my loyal but naive "wifely" behaviour thirty years later as a complete waste of time, a result of the socialization of women and my adherence to what I had then seen as "duty". It also caused me to experience deep sorrow for the person I used to be, giving up her own well-being to care for someone who was abusive. I believe this revelation that came from writing the poem is an example of the healing power of creativity. After one has written such a poem, and put it out for all to see, the pain diminishes and then disappears. Creativity is a remarkable healer.

I felt very honoured to be mentioned by writers in the book This Ain't Your Patriarchs' Poetry Book. It is a privilege to be in the company of these writers, and yes, it is as if it's a different kind of nation. A caring, deeply committed nation of ethical, visionary people, working hard to educate others and to make changes to heal the ills of the world.

Baldwin Books

Si: You've talked to me in the past about how many of your 'teachers' have been other students from UNBC. Could you tell me more about what you meant by that? Where do you get your inspiration for the writing that you do?

Jackie: I did readings last month at the University of Northern British Columbia and in a Grade 12 Writing class at Prince George Secondary School and learned an enormous amount from the enthusiasm of the students. Being a guest in a class of students is inspiring. The questions and discussion that weave in and out of the reading create an opportunity for me to see their worlds, their ideas, in ways I could not possibly know unless I listened to them. It is impossible for me to learn what they know unless they tell me, so I pay very close attention to what they say. I am an elder, I do not inhabit the world they experience daily, so students become my teachers. They often teach me things about my own poems that I had not seen even though I wrote them. The poem in A Northern Woman, called "The Pine Trees Singing" is one that many people have written to me about. It interests me very much that people like it so well: It was a Grade 7 student called Ryan at the Montessori School whose response to, and understanding of that poem made me see it in its true light. It wasn't published when I read it at his school years ago, but his reaction inspired me to include it with the Northern Woman manuscript. He allowed me to see my writing through his eyes when he took the time to discuss his feelings about it with me, displaying a wonderful openness, certainty, and his own passion for creativity.

I really love the way students feel entitled to express opinions, because in my generation all those years ago in school, it was more of a culture of "control" - we were not encouraged to express ourselves, and I believe it was harmful to our progress in school and to our growing sense of identity. After my children were grown and I returned to attending classes after an absence of thirty years, I was astonished at the level of comfort that exists now for students, compared to the days of my long ago youth.The confidence the students have to express themselves adds a marvellous vitality to the classroom learning experience. I learned from my classmates, most of whom were the age of my own children, how to express my ideas in class without hesitancy or fear. Their influence on me has widened my horizons. Attending classes at the College and University brought me into contact with teachers who changed my writing life completely. It is my professors and teachers who taught me how to pay attention to, and to honour my own gift for creative writing. One of the lingering effects of being in any abusive situation is the self-doubt that comes to roost in a woman's mind, making it difficult to see one's own potential. It can make women afraid to do or say anything that might make them "stand out" in public. My experience at the University of Northern British Columbia completely dispelled all of the doubts I had about my own right to think of myself as a writer. I have benefited enormously from knowing these wise, enlightened professors who have supported and encouraged my work, and opened my mind to new ways of thinking.

I try to avoid ageism in any of its forms. I like having people of all ages in my life, babies to great grandparents. One of the reasons I moved to Northern British Columbia concerns ageism. I did not like what I saw in urban society in Vancouver where children were excluded from events in which their parents participated. I wanted my children to experience community life with all ages and varieties of people. I found it quite lovely to be in a community where I could take my children with me anywhere I went. It provided them with opportunities to meet a wide variety of people and to experience the world more fully.

When I was young, I often heard adults make blanket statements such as: seventeen year olds couldn't possibly know anything about life or love for example, because of their age. I knew those people were wrong. It seems to me seventeen can be a time of huge passions in life. I believe any age can be anything the individual wishes to make it. Ageism in either direction, against young people or elders, is just another form of discrimination that stereotypes people and limits their opportunity to be themselves and reach their full potential at any age.

Now as an elder, I am seeking a way back to my own self, my own spirit, my own internal language, my own values. A call back into what really matters to me, what I truly love, and value and respect. I believe creativity is deeply involved in this calling back to the spirit, that it is necessary because it paves the way back when society and other ills separate us from our/selves. I have been seeking this for quite a while now.

My poem "Philosophy and Longing, II," from my first book Threatbare Like Lace describes some of my feelings about this, and about possibilities for a peaceful, healthy life on this earth.

Philosophy and Longing II

by Jacqueline Baldwin

a geographer told me recently that a butterfly
in Beijing
lazily moving just one wing and thus creating a
movement of air
can bring forces into play that could alter
weather patterns across the planet

hurricanes in Jamaica, cyclones in Canada, storms in Sweden
floods, death, destruction, land erosion
animals, fish, trees

I long for the opposite
for the breeze that grows from the movement of the wing
to start a chain reaction of gentleness
awareness of our vital connections to other species
our dependence on them

a knowledge of life's sweetness
of wild raspberry-mountain sunshine
pouring down on blue, yellow, purple flowers
green leaves
children's laughter
clear flowing water
and sacred stones

and our spirits, dancing
dancing barefoot
on the butterfly dreamwind

Si: If you were going to give advice to young women today who are struggling to find their own voice in this world - women who are afraid to be their full vibrant selves - what would you say?

Jackie: If I were to give advice to young women, which is unlikely seeing I regard so many of them as my teachers, but if I were to, I think perhaps I might just say that of all the things that have given me joy, feeling free to be my own "full vibrant self" (to use your term) would turn out to be the piéce de resistance of it all.

It is vital that women retrieve ownership of their own individual lives, their own "agency" because the world is suffering greatly, dying even, without women's full participation in our patriarchally constructed societies. I once read that there is a phrase somewhere in the Koran that means this:

"if you have something precious, build a fence around it, because the world will try to take it away from you"

I learned the hard way, by losing myself, to regard identity as my most precious possession, and that in order to remain in tune with oneself, a fence must be built around one's personal boundary lines. To me this relates to the lovely Maori word 'taonga', which means treasure, tangible and intangible.

In our materialist world the real treasures of life are ignored. Family, community, joy, laughter, loyalty, peace, creative work, satisfying relationships are all put aside while individuals and governments build their policies on money. My idea of taonga begins with fresh air, clean water, land on which to grow food, a climate of dignity and respect, and most of all, the freedom to make the best of the gift of life and to be your own true self. If women were able to become their own "full vibrant selves", their immense contributions properly valued, their life-bearing presence in the world valued for what it is, it is possible that this horrific mad dash to destruction of the world and her people could be averted.

Creativity is the world's greatest healing force. I learned this when I was an organic farmer for twenty seven years. Farming is actually a life of total creativity, even though it is extremely hard work, the creative rewards are constant and endless. Just about everything a farmer does is creative, especially farming organically using the ancient, natural ways. It was very satisfying and fulfilling for me to build a life where we worked as a family to grow all of the food for our own needs as well as for the market. Working to constantly improve the soil by paying attention to soil chemistry, structure, and humus content made me very happy, and our subsistence practices taught my children resilience, respect for nature, and resourcefulness. As a family, our most precious achievement was that when we left the farm, we left the land in better condition than we found it because of our organic practices, and we had not poisoned the land with chemical fertilizers, pesticides, or herbicides. We gave the land back ten times more than we took from it, and the land sustained us while we did this.

Perhaps the answer to your question lies in creativity itself. Creativity brings us closer to who we really are, creativity transports us to a different realm, closer to our human potential. With creativity as an ally, women can re-unite with their own individual identity, and become the person they were sent here to be.