Chantal Gibson: Channeling the past through poetry

Photo by Marianne Meadahl |

While public events in Vancouver may be delayed, we can still enjoy the 22nd National Poetry Month from our own homes in April.

Chantal Gibson is one local poet and artist whose work offers perspective and cultural education during these strange and uncertain times. Originally from Mackenzie, BC, Gibson began writing poetry while attending Langara College in the mid-90s and receiving encouragement from her professors. During this time, she began to write about people of colour and their representation in the past as well as the present.

Embodying historical voices

How She Read is Chantal Gibson’s latest book. | Photo courtesy of Chantal Gibson

Gibson’s newest work, How She Read, is currently shortlisted for the 2020 Griffin Poetry Prize, the world’s largest prize for a first edition single collection of poetry written in English. How She Read is a poetry collection that focuses on the experiences of Black women in Canada. It is a meditation on motherhood, loss, and recovery for women who were previously voiceless. The cover even features a photo of Gibson’s own mother in the first grade.

The book is a unique collection where Gibson takes on the voice of famous Black women and gives them the platform that was denied to them in life.

“The voices of the historical characters came to me after years of academic research,” she says. “I was haunted by their voices for years. My book of poetry became a space for them to take center stage: Harriet Tubman (conductor of the Underground Railroad), Delia (an African-born American slave), and Marie-Therese (a Haitian-born slave in Montreal). They have names. Their eyes confront the colonial gaze. Their voices talk back and discuss with authority how they have been misrepresented in art and history.”

Life influencing art

Gibson lives in the world of poetry as well as in art and sculpture. The inspiration for her written word art stems from the same place as her mixed media creations.

“Writing is visual, text is visual. My artwork emerges from the places that literary art and visual art overlap,” she explains. “I create physically altered books, mixed media sculptures that use old history texts, black thread, black paint and black rubber. I also create poems –black text, white background — textual sculptures that have form and structure. The inspiration for both is the same. I am interested in the voices that have been left out of Canadian historical narratives, voices that have been erased or silenced.”

Filling the gap

Gibson wishes she had more access to books about strong women of colour when she was a child. She believes that access to art of all cultures and ethnicities makes kids feel that anything is possible, as it is difficult to feel inspired growing up seeing very little representation from anyone who looks like you.

“I don’t remember seeing one Black face in my school books, not in primary or secondary school, unless I count reading Othello or Huckleberry Finn,” says Gibson. “I did not see anyone who looked like me. We did not discuss Black or Indigenous people in critical or creative ways. We just weren’t there.”

Gibson hopes that young girls of colour can look to How She Read and experience what she wished she had as a kid: the feeling of being seen.

“Now, I hope that Black girls and Black women and Women of Colour see and celebrate themselves in all the other months besides Black History Month in February,” says Gibson. “Together with my publisher Vici Johnson at Caitlin Press, we hope all readers, teachers, students, and poetry enthusiasts of different social, cultural and ethnic backgrounds can use the book to learn about experiences different than their own, and to question the textbooks, the lessons and the institutions that educate our citizens.”

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