An Interview with Alessandra Naccarato

Alessandra Naccarato is a writer and spoken word artist living on the traditional territory of the Saanich, Cowichan, and Chemainus First Nations (Salt Spring Island, BC). Her poetry has received numerous national awards, including the Bronwen Wallace Award from the Writer’s Trust of Canada, and the CBC Poetry Prize. She has toured nationally and internationally as a spoken word poet, worked with thousands of youth across the country, and released her first full-length album in 2016. She launched her newest chapbook Highly Sensitive Femme (Frog Hollow Press) at Verses Festival in April 2018.

Estlin McPhee: You write very publicly about being a witch, about magic. Was there ever a question for you about putting that out into the world?


I don’t know if it was a conscious decision—but I write a lot about myself. My writing has always been entrenched in what I’m experiencing in my life. I want to locate myself in my own journey and practices first. Magic has helped me make sense of the world, make sense of myself. It’s how I’m seeing the world around me and so the only way I really know how to write. There were times that I tried to conform my work to other expectations, and it felt awful and it didn’t read very well. The deeper I’ve gone into writing itself as a magical practice, the more my work is reflecting that. And the more it reaches other people.


Q: How does the act of writing fit into your magical practice?


From the time I was really young, my first acts of alchemy and spellwork were all poems. I was a young person obsessed with witches and the witch hunts, which showed up in my teenage angst poetry. When I started doing spoken word at a young age, I started experiencing what it was for a word to go from within you out into the world and have power. That, I’m learning again and again, is such a part of witchcraft. Sometimes a poem just arrives and announces itself on the page and will resist any editing. It has just moved through you. I understand those moments as pretty direct translation of something from outside through me onto the page. That’s the first magic I’ve ever known. And the strongest magic I think I ever will know, because it’s my magic.


Q: In your new chapbook, “Highly Sensitive Femme,” one of the things I love is the way you invoke mythic figures like Persephone, Baba Yaga, and Ishtar alongside these very contemporary moments—beer cans, concrete, a karaoke bar.  What new elements do you think these characters have brought into your life as a result of spending time with them for these poems? Do they feel like living spirits for you?


I started writing about these figures before I had a magical relationship with them, and that really built that magical relationship. The long poem about Persephone I began in my first year of committing to following the sabbats, the wheel of the year. At each sabbat, I wrote one piece of the poem. That was before I had a coven, before I had a community of witches. It was in a basement apartment in Toronto. I didn’t know much about the story of Persephone at the time. I was just learning about this idea of her descent, her being underground through that winter and then emerging.


I was also in an abusive relationship and leaving it throughout that period of time in which I wrote about that winter spent underground and then the return. Recently I’ve gone back to those poems and written them as a story in which Persephone chooses the underground in a way that is more evocative of the work I’m doing now in my magical life, around building a relationship with the underworld and with shadow. But same as my magical practice began with writing and then moved me into other magical technologies, it was really that these figures came to me first through writing and then I found myself in relationship with them.


Q: This chapbook is, at its heart, this fierce and beautiful knife in the conversation about gendered violence and sexual violence. I love the way the figure and force of the highly sensitive femme swirls through it. And I think it’s a term you’ve been having a lot of fun with too—it’s powerful and it’s really fun. Where did the idea of the highly sensitive femme originate, and how did it attach itself to these particular poems?  


I think it was in the ‘90s that highly sensitive people became a thing—there were all these books written about the highly sensitive person. They included survey questions to see if you were a highly sensitive person, which were quite hilarious and, of course, all true for me. These books were mostly written by men, and I guess I was thinking about that. And about the ways in which sensitivity and emotionality is gendered, feminized, and looked down upon. When I was at the Banff Centre, I combined my femme identity with being highly sensitive and really claimed that, and it just felt like me. I was working with Ocean Vuong there; we were chatting and I called myself a highly sensitive femme. His response was, “Can I use that?” So that’s a highlight. Of my life. That Ocean Vuong thought it was great and also maybe feels like a highly sensitive femme.


As I was deep in the process of writing a poem for each card in the major arcana of the Tarot, I found myself writing a survey for characteristics of the highly sensitive femme. I found it very amusing! And also a reflection that sensitivity itself is a magical attribute. Becoming highly attuned to sound and noise and scent can also be part of becoming highly attuned to spirits, to reality that is unseen. I wanted to honour and celebrate that as part of my identity and many people’s identities, where chronic illness and neurodiversity meets magical proclivity.


I was also sitting with these poems about these different mythical figures, and trying to understand what made them new and different and what they meant to me. I was trying to understand how much I was writing about violence and what that even meant, whether it was gratuitous or whether it was true—of course it was both true and gratuitous, reflecting my experience. But once I started thinking of these figures as femmes, and understanding their role of archetype as a way of honouring the generations and generations and centuries of these archetypal experiences of violence, the idea of the highly sensitive femme became a way to honour that—the trauma and resilience and fierceness. Maybe we’ve had coded language for this for so long, ways of teaching each other that were hidden in these stories. Reclaiming and retelling them—making them real—gives us that space to see ourselves not in isolation in our trauma but as a part of a larger story.


Q: You brought up the magic of illness and neurodiversity—all these different ways of being. Something I’ve been thinking about and that people talk about in terms of illness is the idea of initiation. I’m curious if you have experienced illness as initiation—not just in your life, but in your creative work.


Yes. I’ve definitely experienced illness as initiation, in two distinct phases—one ten years ago when I went through a really specific initiation, and one for the past two years of experiencing some really intense chronic illness. It’s been one of the most spiritually activating experiences of my life. But also I’ve learned that writing takes a huge amount of energy, and it’s not like it takes less energy than going to the gym or working in an office. It really requires all of you. I think initiation—my illness—has deepened what I write about, my ability to be sensitive in the world, and sharpened the edge of what I want to say. It’s focused me in on what is most important for me to write about and how I want to be as a writer in the world, and it’s simultaneously changed the ways I can create and share my work. So that’s a constant negotiation. My friend Chandra Melting Tallow was the first one to say to me, “You know, illness requires that we let go of the idea that our worth is based on production.” As an artist, I find that really hard because my identity is so tied up in my creative process.


I think back to a conversation I had with my friend, who’s the daughter of M. NourbeSe Philip. I was maybe thirteen and I was really determined to be a poet. My friend told me she was writing—but only in her mind. I remember being like, “Well, that’s not really writing.” And she was like, “Why not?” That has stayed with me for so long, because of course it’s writing. Of course it’s as worthy. Of course it’s as interesting. Separating production from creation, and our self-worth from what we can create and put out into the world, is really difficult. But it also can be a deepening of our relationship to the work and why we’re doing it, even when it involves a lot of grief as well. And sometimes disappointment—that I’m not working faster or that I’m not taking all my professional opportunities. Hashtag crip time. Hashtag hag life!


Q: One of the ways in which I’m privileged to know you is in ritual, creating collective magic—those moments when something intangible shivers through the crowd. For me, poetry on stage needs to have that silvery edge as well because it needs to do something, you know? When you perform, your poetry is ritual; it does a lot of things. I’m curious how you move into and prepare for that space. Does it feel similar to stepping into ritual?


I am a highly sensitive, anxious femme. So I have really slowed down the amount of performing that I do and shifted where I choose to perform. But the times I’m able to arrive at a performance the same way I would arrive at a ritual feel very different than performing in spaces where there’s booze, or where there’s a lot of energy moving and leaving. There’s no hard and fast rule about how it feels, but there are times I know that I am fully present. I can feel energy moving through me and I can feel how I’m shifting and working with the energy in the room. And that is a really powerful experience.


There are also times in which I can feel my distance and separation from others in the room, in which I’m present in my observation of myself and triggered by it—and still pushing through. When it’s incredibly difficult to continue to stand up there and be really vulnerable. The way I feel sharing my work depends on the container that I’m in, whether it’s magical or non-magical. Spaces like Verses Festival or like REVERB, where the container’s strong in intention of why we’re gathering—that kind of sharing can feel really wonderful. Going into bars, going into environments where, say, I know the organizers have made questionable decisions around who they’re putting on their stages—that experience is really different. I used to push myself to still do those shows for career reasons and now I don’t. I’m not interested in doing that anymore.


Q: Is there anything else you want to share about yourself?

My cat is named Ursula, after Ursula Le Guin. And I’m a triple Taurus, Aquarius Rising.