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Indigenous poet speaks about craft, writing process for new poetry book

Crushed Wild Mint explores land, love and ancestral wisdom

When you read Jess Housty’s new poetry book Crushed Wild Mint, you can almost feel the damp moss squish under your boots, smell the fragrant rose in the air and feel your breath catch in your lungs as you climb Mount Merritt on Hunter Island.

Cúagilákv (Jess Housty) is a Haíɫzaqv (Heiltsuk) poet living in Bella Bella. Her new book, Crushed Wild Mint, was published by Nightwood Editions in October. It was Housty’s first book of poems, but she, like many writers, has been putting pen to paper for years.

”I’ve spent my whole life trying to find ways to tell the story of my relationship with the place that I come from, and that’s taken lots of different forms throughout my life,” she said.

Recently, that has been poetry, but Housty says that’s as much of a practical choice as an artistic one.

“I do a lot of work in a lot of different sectors and tend to be very over-committed,” she said. “I love reading novels and I have so much admiration for people who can build an entire world. I feel like writing is something that I at this point my life only have the opportunity to do and in short bursts and very opportunistically and so poetry fits right now.”

While many writers have a preferred office space in which to work, Housty said she actually prefers to get outside in the Traditional Territory to do her writing. That place-based focus is evident in the book, which includes themes of local plant medicine, history, ancestry and communing with nature.

“A lot of my first drafts happened in place,” Housty said. “Either in the wilderness or on my boat when I was transiting from one place to another. It’s very organic.

“I really admire people who have strong, clear writing habits and processes,” she said. “But for me, it felt very much about seizing moments and seizing little bits of inspiration when I had a moment. It was a bit chaotic, but it worked.”

Part of Housty’s relationship to place is her relationship to plants.

“A huge part of how I interact with the world around me and how we interact with my territories specifically through my relationship to medicinal plants that I’m a harvesting to prepare remedies for people,” she said. “That’s that’s how I see the world around me. That’s the first thing I’m looking for when I’m in a new place. It’s what makes me feel grounded and connected when I’m in different places within the territory and it really just aligned that the stories I wanted to tell and the ideas that I wanted to share came from those plant medicines.”

The Heiltsuk territory is also one with a long history. Housty explores the traditional histories in the final section of the book with two poems. In this section, she explores the relationship between the two mountains, which were connected to each other before a flood divided them onto different land masses. Housty makes the trek to the summits of each mountain every year, and followed in the tradition of other mountain poets like Gary Snyder and Han Shan in her work.

She said she wanted to retell the traditional stories in her own words because of how she’s developed her own relationship to those mountains. “I’ve had such formative experiences in those places, and they’ve really shaped my sense of self identity. It felt really important to tell their story, because it’s hard to separate from my own story.”

“Those are some of the earlier stories I could remember being told is a little kid,” she said.

Like many writers, Housty is also an avid reader. However, since she had kids she hasn’t been able to read as much as she would like.

“I do read a lot of poetry,” she said. “In particular I feel like there’s so many incredible Indigenous poets who are publishing books right now. I just finished Randy Bird’s collection All + Flesh, and it’s so gorgeous. I feel so lucky and blessed to have such an incredible community of Indigenous poets who are putting work into the world.”

Crushed Wild Mint can be found at the Nightwood Editions website and through local booksellers.

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