The first time poet and publisher Bren Simmers visited Prince Edward Island, she was on a cross-country road trip, “in a van that broke down in all the provinces!” she laughs. “I wrote to all my friends: I’m moving here.” It took about fifteen years to make good on her epistolary promise, but she recalls clearly from that first visit, “I felt a kinship.”
Bren and her partner Adam, a musician, lived many places in the last several years. After they uprooted their lives in Squamish, BC, for an artist residency in Harrison Hot Springs, they moved around the continent, living in “artist residencies, some short-term rentals, and our van” before deciding to settle. Whether rooted or travelling, they are a duo who ask themselves, “How can we put creativity at the centre of our life?” says Bren. The answer kept pointing them east.
After a time in Sackville, New Brunswick, Bren says, “We were living in the van, touring the Maritimes—in May. There were no campgrounds open, and it was cold.” The Maritimes must not have felt welcoming, until a phone call let her know her first non-fiction manuscript, Pivot Point, was accepted by Nova Scotia’s Gaspereau Press. “A week later, Adam was offered a job,” she recalls.
When Adam got a job with Holland College School of Performing Arts, Bren recalls, “I was in BC, driving all of Adam’s instruments across the country,” when she saw an ad looking for a publisher for Island Studies Press at UPEI. “I had an interview at my parents’ house at 6:00 in the morning…” and soon she, too, had creative work, with a learning curve, in Charlottetown.*
“I like life living leap to leap,” Bren says. Going from residency to residency was a challenge for what Bren calls her “learning brain.” “It’s fun to do something you don’t know how to do,” she says. “Your critical mind doesn’t know how to critique you—so your inner mind, your playful mind can take over.”
Since settling in Charlottetown, after another cross-country road-trip with a U-Haul of worldly possessions, Bren’s learning brain is “learning the creative community here.”
The writing life “needs space, nurturing, tending, and food,” she says. “For me, it means, I prioritize, I block off time for it – often on weekends, going outside, walking in the woods.” However, “Knowing being here is long-term, so I have to be flexible and focus on building community, moving in to a new place where a lot of creativity is going on.”
New places mean building new trust, Bren says. “Being present matters, showing up to the reading or the concert or the launch. Here, you are not an anonymous part of a crowd… It is important to be out and to be an active part of the culture.”
“I haven’t focused a lot on getting known as a writer here yet,” Bren says. “I’ve been focused on landing.” But she is amazed at the audience for poetry here, “the people who support people in your community doing this obscure thing.” The arts, she notices, are “local here, but also regional, in the Maritimes and Atlantic Canada. It’s a really strong cultural region.”
Bren’s book with Gaspereau, Pivot Point, comes out this fall, and is non-fiction. “For a long time, I thought it was a long poem, because I often write long poems,” she says. “I did a little dance at my desk when it finally said, ‘I’m not a long poem. I’m non-fiction!’… It was such a relief to write non-fiction,” she admits. “I could say things I couldn’t say in poetry.”
The illustrated book, punctuated with poems, recounts the nine days of a wilderness canoe trip with friends, their partners, and one of the couples’ three-year-old child. “It was the longest extended trip I had taken… It shaped me for the travels and experiences that came later, and changed my perspective.”
Staying put and showing up for arts events during a PEI summer is a new challenge. “Summer is exhausting. You can’t fit it all in,” Bren says. A true Islander now, she admits, confidentially, “I’m secretly looking forward to November.”
* Note: Bren edited and published both Jane Ledwell’s recent book, Return of the Wild Goose, and Buzz writer JoDee Samuelson’s Cove Journal this year.