Turning Left to the Ladies by Kate Braid

Available at Polar Peek Books & Treasures

Hooray, it’s July! July is, without reservation, my favourite month in Fernie. Why? The Fernie Writers’ Conference, of course. Soon our town will be swarming with writers, both aspiring and accomplished. This year’s Conference has its most impressive list of speakers yet. Even if you have no ambitions of becoming a writer yourself, you can enjoy the public festival portion of the conference and soak in the wisdom of lauded writers such as: Marina Endicott, Andreas Schroeder, Myrna Kostash, James Keelaghan, Alison Calder, Betty Jane Hegerat, Aritha Van Herk, Fred Wah, and Tom Wayman. Call me a book geek, but I get chills just imagining this group of talented Canadian writers all together here in Fernie. My very favourite thing (Canadian Literature) is about to collide full-force with my very favourite place.

As we gear up for this year’s writing and reading events, I reflect on how much these types of festivals mean to me, both as a reader and a writer. Recently, I spoke at the Words on the Water Festival in Campbell River and had the good fortune to meet Kate Braid, a poet from Vancouver. With her energetic presence and the pure music of her poetry, she had my full attention the moment she stepped on stage. As I got to know her better throughout the weekend, my admiration grew. I went home buzzing with inspiration, dying to get my pen on the paper – all because of Kate Braid and her poetry. I could throw adjectives at Kate’s work (genuine, original, important, honest, brave, risky, and beautiful are the first to pop to mind), but instead I’ll recommend that you read it.

Start with Turning Left to the Ladies – a 2009 book of poems inspired by Kate’s experiences as a construction worker and carpenter in the 1970s and 80s when such labour trades were very clearly delineated as “men’s work.” Kate Braid was the first female member of the Vancouver union local of the Carpenters and the first full-time woman teaching trades at the BC Institute of Technology. Turning Left to the Ladies chronicles these years with cutting insight, sharp humour, and an ability to transform intensely personal experiences into art. These are not raged filled poems complaining of the hostility, the sexism, and the lewd sexual innuendo in the work place. All those things are present, but the poems surprise with their humour, humanity, and compassion – for all sides. Kate Braid treats a heavy topic with a perfectly light touch.

One could say that Turning Left to the Ladies tracks the immigrant’s experience – a woman immigrant in the world of men. She is a “Spy” in a nation not her own: “I parachute into man’s country/ hoist a beer in the bar as if a native.” But no matter how deft the female carpenter becomes at imitating the ways of men, she can never assimilate entirely: “It’s only a small slip under the radar/ when I turn left to go to the Ladies.”

Don’t, though, think this world of hammers and nails and lack of male hospitability will be one without music. There is music everywhere in these poems. Braid brings us the song of construction: “Got the rhythm, kid, you got it now?/ You’ve got to love a job that’s got/ this much rhythm,/ this much swing.”

My favourite of Braid’s poems is “Cuntada” which complains that “There’s too much glory to the phallus” and instead sings a song of wonder for the female sexual organ. Kate read this poem at the closing event for Words on the Water and blamed me: “Angie says we’re going raunchy tonight, taking risks.” I’ll happily take the blame for any of these poems any time, and I look forward to the opportunity to hear Kate read (no, sing!) them again, hopefully sometime soon.

Have fun at the Fernie Writers’ Conference. I trust you’ll find someone who inspires you as much as Kate Braid inspired me.