Poetry Express: Leslie Roach + Finish this Sentence
April 8, 2021
In her debut collection
Finish this Sentence (Mawenzi House), Montreal-born, Ottawa-based poet Leslie Roach uncovers her personal experience living with racism and its distorting effects on the Self. Through her poetry, Leslie reclaims her power: she is neither the conditioning nor the negative thoughts that racism provokes.
Read on for our Q&A with Leslie, in which she tells us how her book has served as "declaration, rebellion, empowerment," how she found liberation in speaking out against the harmful effects of racism, and the great potential of poetry to effect change. Plus, read "Before They Got Hold of You" from the collection, below.
During the month of April, you can buy any of our featured Poetry Express books for 15% off + free shipping in Canada. Just use promo code NPMexpress at checkout. Or you can find it at your
local independent bookstore.
All Lit Up: Can you tell us a bit about your collection and how it came to be?
Leslie Roach: In 2018, I realized that my writing needed to see the light of day. I became more aware of the fact that it was important for me to publish a book on what racism looks like, and the different forms it can take and its effects. Many people in our society construe racism and its different expressions as innocent. It is not. Many people don’t think before they say things, or worst, say disrespectful things on purpose. I was getting increasingly fed up by the racist things people say, especially in the workplace. I saw the damage all of this was continuing to have on my mental health. So I started to speak out about the things that don’t sit well with me. Finish this Sentence was born out of that new found liberation in speaking out against things that don’t sit well with me.
When I read Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider, what I had discovered in Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, Maya Angelou, Alice Walker and Nina Simone took a fierce turn. It really hit home when Audre Lorde said “Poetry Is Not a Luxury” and “Your Silence Will Not Protect You.” Those words were profoundly liberating and I knew what I needed to do. I knew that my writing about racism needed to be published. I knew I was not alone in experiencing these things.
I knew that exposing what racism can do to a child from a young age could tell a story that had not often been told and would refute those who claim it does not exist or is just innocent. The personal being political took on a whole new meaning. Finish this Sentence has served as a declaration, rebellion, empowerment, and a protection of Self.
Photo of Leslie Roach (Credit Kayla Straker-Trotman)
[Image Description: A photo of the author smiling into the camera while sitting on a wooden deck. Behind her is a wooden fence and a plant. She is of Bajan descent with long, dark braids, pulled into a ponytail, and brown eyes. She is wearing a sleeveless navy blue shirt and tie with light-blue stripes, and khaki pants.]
ALU: What has been your most unlikely source of writing inspiration?
LR: Spiritual teachers such as Mooji and Eckhart Tolle were unlikely sources of writing inspiration for me. I started to listen to their words in earnest in 2017. Through them, I was finally able to quiet my mind and find stillness. I was able to work through many issues. I was able to start detaching in a conscious way from any label meant to be attached to me. I became more aware of bad feelings within and could respond in an appropriate way to address them and heal.
My writing has been enhanced by seeing the trappings of the mind and calling those trappings out. I aim to write from a place of stillness and conscious awareness. Spiritual teachers have enabled me to go forward into the world more empowered, daring to respond to what is around me. I believe this is a profoundly powerful way of being and has the ability to effect change for the better in our world. I try as much as possible to be present.
ALU: Has your idea of what poetry is changed since you began writing poems?
LR: My idea of poetry has completely changed since I first began to write poetry. First, I didn’t realize that what I was writing all those years ago was actually poetry. I started journaling at about the age of 11 or 12, and that was therapy for me. It was only quite recently that I realized that those were poetic forms of expression. It was not simply journaling. The format has always been poetic.
I have always written with urgency, typically in short bursts or in streams of consciousness. It’s as if I was writing to give myself a prescription on how to move forward from the anger and depression over a situation to find a solution. I call that writing prescriptions to the soul and that is the essence of my writing.
A fundamental thing that has changed is that I now recognize that poetry has great potential to effect change. It has the great potential to change one’s mind. It did and continues to have that healing effect on me. I didn’t appreciate its full effect on me until quite recently and am so encouraged by its potential. I am excited to continue working on my next book, which will focus more directly on healing and empowerment.
ALU: What are you most in the mood to read these days? Any poets you’re especially enjoying?
LR: I am very much in the mood to read more poetry and also to escape as I read. There is so much out there that is calling to me right now. My publisher, Mawenzi House, has an incredible roster of fascinating poets that I’m just getting to know such as Gavin Barrett, Natasha Ramoutar, H. Nigel Thomas, Dannabang Kuwabong and Sheniz Janmohamed, and also recently discovered a great unpublished poet by the name of Dwight Jenkins. Poets who show up to open mike are incredibly inspiring. My new poetry friend, stephanie roberts, is an incredible poet and her words spring to life when she recites. Pierrette Requier, the former Poet Laureate of Edmonton, is inspiring me very much these days. Her poems are taking me to the Northern Alberta village where she grew up and I’m finding humour and love that I can somehow relate to those stories of family even though some might look at us and say we have little in common. We actually have a lot in common. And that is the beauty of poetry. I think it reminds us that we share a common humanity. I look forward to reading Canadian poets from all parts of this country to find those common threads that bind. I look forward to reading the work of Canada’s new Parliamentary Poet Laureate, Louise Bernard Halfe, known by the Cree name Sky Dancer.
ALU: Describe your ideal escape.
LR: My ideal escape would involve warm weather, sunshine, and the beach. Barbados, where my parents hailed from, is calling me these days. It’s a lovely country with nice people. For me, the people make a place and I have found amazing escapes because of that in Mali and Thailand as well. Getting a warm welcome anywhere, makes a place feel like home to me and anywhere that I can feel at home in that way, is a great place to be. I guess that’s why I love being at home. Home feels like the best escape.
is the only
of this misery
inflicted and you believing.
for what It is.
And return to
your natural state.
got hold of
* * *
Leslie Roach is a Montreal-born lawyer. She is currently based in Ottawa where she works for the Supreme Court of Canada. She previously lived in Italy, Mali, Tanzania, Kenya and Senegal when she worked for the United Nations. Finish this Sentence is her first book.
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