Visions of accountability, healing through poetry

Editor offers “shelter of a book” for those struggling with sexual assault trauma

In March 2016, Jian Ghomeshi was acquitted of choking and sexual assault charges. Throughout the trial, Halifax-based poet Sue Goyette had been posting on Facebook, expressing her outrage, trying to support her friends.

And then suddenly there was a way to work with the pain and anger that so many people were feeling.

“I was approached by a publisher who had liked what I had been posting on Facebook about the Ghomeshi fallout, how re-traumatizing it was and how painful that lack of accountability continues to be,” Goyette says.

“He asked if I’d be interested in editing an anthology of work by people who felt ready to express their experiences, and we both agreed that the collection could help continue the conversation while alleviating the pain/silence for people who were ready for words.”

The resulting book, entitled Resistance, features over 80 poets, including Joan Crate, Katherine Lawrence, and Beth Goobie.

Goyette has written six award-winning books of poetry and a novel, and has edited two anthologies. But this project felt different, right from the beginning.

“Working on this project gave me the opportunity to create a space for work that thematically deals with pain and the vulnerability engaging with personal pain entails,” Goyette says. “In that spirit, I didn’t edit so much as curate the collection, create and hold the space for work that engages and reclaims its proper place in this conversation we’re all having.”

While Goyette believes that the justice system re-traumatizes victims of sexual assault, she thinks literature can provide healing.

“It seems now we need to figure out what accountable and reparative action looks like.”

“The hardest thing about personal pain is the feeling of isolation, which sustains the shame that begets silence and so on,” Goyette says. “I think literature, and the shelter of a book, provides company and a space to encounter ourselves by the way we respond to it.

“Reading this kind of book affords contemplation, reflection, and, hopefully, an exportation of the shame and pain that has been inarticulate, inconsolable for some readers, to a more participatory understanding that relieves the aloneness while honouring the singularity of our experiences. In other words, books can provide a space to reckon and reconcile, and a place to begin to heal for the company they give and for the welcome.”

Since the Ghomeshi trial, a number of Canadian creative writing programs and cultural institutions have come under fire for the misconduct of their stars. The #MeToo movement began and, in the US, there was the downfall of Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey. But has anything really changed?

Goyette thinks so.

“We are talking out loud now and connecting on social media, publicly, about the top-heavy power imbalance the patriarchal and gendered rape culture we are inherently part of that keeps reenacting inappropriate behaviour and beliefs,” Goyette says. “And that talk and those connections are not stopping. So yes, change is afoot.

“It seems now we need to figure out what accountable and reparative action looks like. We need to acknowledge the complex trauma some of us live with and the vulnerability and/or anger that it takes to acknowledge that pain. This is just the beginning, I think.”