Placemaking in Katherine Vermette's 'North End Love Songs'

Placemaking in Katherena Vermette’s North End Love Songs:
[A Post from the Editor]


Katherena Vermette is a Métis writer born in Winnipeg. Her poetry collection, North End Love Songs won the Governor General’s Award for English-language poetry in 2013. Her work largely deals with indigenous Canadian populations and their complicated connection to a land that is still haunted by its colonial past. For this reason, her poetry offers interesting insights on how land and space are not merely physical entities, but are laden with history, memory, and cultural meaning. In this special post from the Editor, The [204] Design Collective would like to explore how different art forms, in this case poetry, can offer unique yet vital perspectives on urbanism, architecture, and design.

Vermette will be a guest speaker at a reading and signing event featuring Rachel Zolf, with guests Roewan Crowe, and Trish Salah at McNally Robinson on November 18th. She will also be launching her new book The Seven Teachings Stories Series on December 7th at McNally Robinson.

Placemaking in Katherena Vermette’s North End Love Songs
[A Post from the Editor]

“Place is humanized space” (Yi-Fu Tuan 1977)

In an interview with the Canadian magazine, The Walrus, Katherena Vermette discusses the positive reception and popularity of her poetry collection, North End Love Songs. She states,

This collection is an intensely personal story, but it is also nothing new. It’s about a young girl or woman struggling with identity and place. That pretty much describes the whole ‘Canadian experience’ right there. More than that, it is a deeply indigenous story, and I think Canada is hungry for stories from and about its first people (2013)

In Vermette’s poetry, Winnipeg’s North End neighbourhood is not only mapped out and framed as a backdrop, but this urban/suburban landscape clearly figures as a primary subject in her poetry. As an exploration of “identity and place”, Vermette animates the trees, streets, bridges, and houses within the neighbourhood through her personal memories, affective connections, and overall relatedness to these specific geographic spaces. As such, Vermette’s North End Love Songs can be read as an exercise in “placemaking”. Used primarily in human geography and urban planning circles, when taken as a discursive strategy of identity formation and resistance, as Vermette does in her poetry, placemaking may introduce different ways of addressing themes of repatriation (pertaining to connections with the physical land) and reconciliation (pertaining to connections with each other as Canadians).

While “land” is a physical space that can be measured, mapped, and policed under the dictates of national and colonial powers, “scapes” are projections of subjective human consciousness (Raffan 17). It is precisely these divisions that human geographers Edward Relph and Gillian Rose address in their definitions of “place”. Combining concepts of time, space, and nature, place differentiates itself from “space” and “location”, which are merely defined by a set of coordinates, borders, and boundaries. In his essay, “Modernity and The Reclamation of Place”, Relph states that place consists of “those fragments of human environments where meanings, activities and a specific landscape are all implicated and enfolded by each other.” (37) Similarly, Gillian Rose observes, “places are infused with meaning and feeling.” (Rose 88) As these definitions suggest, ‘place’ includes a mix of memory, sensual experience, interpretation, and stories. It is these subjective acts of interpretation and narrative formation in placemaking that produce identity and “it is identity that transforms space into place” (Hague 5), therefore reclaiming and transforming the politicized demarcation and control of land by nationalist and colonial powers.  In this way, Vermette transforms the “land” of the North End – the physical space that can mapped, measured, co-opted, and contested, into the “nortend” (Vermette 39) – a borderless, relational, and experiential ‘land-scape’ that houses her personal memories, sentiments, and identity.

As a method of identity formation, repatriation, and reconciliation, Vermette demonstrates this discursive placemaking throughout her poetic collection. In “blue jay” and “lost”, Vermette conflates physical bodies with the spaces they occupy with lines such as “with such rough skin/ the colour of concrete” (26) and “her brother is now/ a picture/ stuck to a tree/ a light post/ on tv once” (74). In “parkgrrl” (31), “window” (45), and “nortendluvsong” (59) she complicates previously defined spaces by reimagining (45) and repurposing them. Turning caterpillars into worms, teeter-totters into dinner tables (31), roof tops into balconies (59).

Although Vermette states that this expression of placemaking is a “Canadian Experience” in her aforementioned interview, it is in no way a concept that is nationally defined or conceived. Rather, what she may be alluding to in the interview and in her poetry is the formation of community and connection through the collective transformation of nationally defined spaces through the imposition of subjective experiences, memories, and narratives. Her opening poem, “selkirk avenue” consists of a series of vignettes involving three “girls” interacting with and experiencing the physical space of Selkirk Avenue (“walks”, “stands”, “drives”), transforming it into a shared place, connected to each of their personal narratives. Similarly, lines such as “her fingers trace/ the rough/ lines other have carved/ into the wood” from “pritchard park” (16), and “the walls with/ names/ dates/ hearts/ swears burned/ into the wood… who made them/if they too sat here/ passing around/ a single/ cigarette” from “peanut park” (54), all demonstrate the potential of placemaking to develop communal experiences and engage with ideas of reconciliation in the connections that it forms through the action of re-inscribing and re-creating these spaces.

[1] Hague, Cliff, and Paul Jenkins. Place Identity, Participation and Planning. London: Routledge, 2005. Print.
[2] "Katherena Vermette." Interview by Natalie Z. Walschots. The Walrus Blog. The Walrus Foundation, 22 Nov. 2013. Web. 20 Mar. 2014. < vermette/>.
[3] Massey, Doreen, and P. M. Jess. "Place and Identity: A Sense of Place." A Place in The World?: Places, Cultures and Globalization. Oxford: Oxford UP in Association with the Open University, 1995. 88-132. Print.
[4] Raffan, James. "Frontier, Homeland and Sacred Space : A Collaborative Investigation into Cros-Cultural Perceptions of Place in the Thelon Game Sanctuary, Northwest Territories." EDRS (1992): 1-38. ERIC. Web. 20 Mar. 2014. <>.
[5] Relph, Edward. "Modernity and the Reclamation of Place." Dwelling, Seeing and Designing: Towards a Phenological Ecology. Ed. David Seamon. New York: State University of New York, 1992. 25-41. Print.
[6] Vermette, Katherena. North End Love Songs. Winnipeg: Muses', 2012. Print.