In the immediate aftermath of last year’s tragedy in Portapique, Nova Scotia, Sheree Fitch penned a verse that captured the heartache so many were feeling. Originally broadcast in a national vigil to honour victims of the tragedy, Sheree’s poem Because We Love, We Cry was recently released in book format by Nimbus Publishing.
Sheree Fitch’s first two books, Toes in My Nose (1987) and Sleeping Dragons All Around (1989), launched her career as a poet, rhymster, and a “kind of Canadian female Dr. Seuss.” Fitch has won almost every major award for Canadian children’s literature since then, including the 2000 Vicky Metcalf Award for a Body of Work Inspirational to Canadian Children. She has over twenty-five books to her credit, including her bestselling and critically praised adult novel, Kiss the Joy As It Flies (2008).
Trevor Corkum: Because We Love, We Cry was written as a response to the tragedy in Portapique and surrounding areas last year. How did the poem come to life for you?
Sheree Fitch: That Sunday, as things unfolded, we were frantic, trying to contact friends in the community of Portapique. I went to sleep praying, dreading the next day knowing the victim toll was going to rise and that we would be getting names. I woke up and immediately heard, on the CBC, the name of Lisa McCully, a grade two teacher and mother of two children. How will we ever make sense of this? What will we tell her children? I meant her students as well as her own children. How will we grieve together with Covid? I didn’t get out of bed, I reached for my pen and words flowed. A very simple verse. Just came through me, not from me. That happens sometimes, but rarely. I posted on Facebook and it was shared widely.
TC: The poem became an important part of a nationally broadcast vigil for the victims. How did it feel to know the work reached the lives of so many around the country?
SF: I felt honoured to be asked and that was because of Jonathan Torrens, who organized the vigil. Such an amazing job in such a short time.
In a way, I have had experience. I wrote a poem for Peter Gzowski at his memorial celebration which was also nationally broadcast—and that was live, so taping and sending this was much easier in a way. I got the crying over the first few takes and was finally able to get though the words. I also wrote and broadcast a poem live, the day after Westray mine disaster. That was excruciating. I guess what I am saying is words are all I can offer and sometimes they are joyful and sometimes, at times like this, a response to tragedy or loss.
But there never was a time like this. The horror is still unfathomable to me. Yes, afterwards, the response to all of what happened was overwhelming. It felt like Nova Scotia was being hugged. And many wanted the words of the verse and so I just freely shared. Simple, true words from a broken open heart that knows much of sorrow, resonate. And I think, also, this came from my grandmother’s heart.
The reach of a poem or book is something we can never measure. Writers offer, seeking to connect with an OTHER, so knowing a poem reaches others, and touches them or articulates a universal feeling of course, means the work is doing what is meant to do—somehow answering or at least addressing for this moment in time what it means to be human.
TC: In times of crisis, poetry often touches us in direct and visceral ways. What does poetry offer during moments of deep darkness?
SF: Hope. Clarity. Beauty. Truth. A sense of shared humanity. Look what a wise young gifted poet Amanda Gorman just offered the world at Biden’s inauguration. Poetry can shine light, is an elevation, in the sense of a lifting up, and this is a way out of the pit of darker experience and tragedy to that sense of higher innocence William Blake envisioned. In the oral tradition, as we listen and the teller tells, I think there is creation of a safe and sacred space. Also, Love. The ARTS do this.
TC: Can you speak a little more about some of the responses to the poem that have especially moved you?
SF: They are such personal stories; I feel like I do not have permission to share them publicly. I will share that woman from Quebec is creating something special with the words in the poem that she would like to be presented, at some point, to the school where Lisa taught. A true labour of love and an immediate, generous, heart stirring response.
TC: The book comes out in the midst of a global pandemic, where so many folks are grieving the loss of loved ones. What has it been like to launch and promote the work during this time?
SF: I did not want a launch and did not promote the book other than a few posts on social media. I had one public conversation really, after it came out as a book, just last week. That was a Facebook live event on Nova Scotia Remembers page. I’m (mostly) off most social media but I had a conversation about loss and grief and trauma with Jenny Kierstead, Lisa’s sister.
The book came from such a tragedy, the verse feels more like a prayer and really, I think speaks for itself. The book will find its way to readers. The reason the verse became available as a keepsake book is due to the thoughtfulness of Nimbus Publishers. Whitney Moran, my editor, knew it had to beautiful and found the cover image. I am grateful to publishers Terri Lee Bulger and Heather Bryan, who also designed, and did line drawing which thread together so beautifully. They are co-creators with me. My full advance was donated and $1000—or half of the royalties, whichever is more—will be donated each year to an educational fund for victims’ families.