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Peony for your thoughts?

Food-for-art exchange aims to change how people think about food and poetry

Ariel Gordon has a proposal for you.

The Winnipeg-based poet and urban edibles aficionado is offering to write an original poem in exchange for food as part of her Poetry Barter Project, which is in its second season.

Last summer she bartered for dandelions, lilacs, rhubarb, nasturtiums, hyssop, deer sausage, grape leaves, zucchini flowers, cherries, apples, and pickerel, but has expanded to fiddleheads, spruce bud tips, nettles, burdock, caragana, chicken-of-the-wood and anything else edible that can be grown or foraged this year.

There have also been some outliers — like the painted lady butterfly caterpillars.

“I wasn’t going to eat them, I wanted to rear them,” Gordon said with a laugh. “So you know there were a few things that were offered that were sort of alternate.”

So far, the project hasn’t focused on more traditional food items, but the poet said she is open to “anything that could be food.”

“My goal is to be in a deeper relationship with people more generally, but also to talk about food,” Gordon said. “Often, say 90 per cent of the time, I would come to the person’s yard to give them the poem and pick up whatever, and they’d be like, ‘I didn’t know you could eat this, what recipe do you use?’ And this is something they’ve had on their property for however long that they’ve lived there.”

Gordon has also expanded her own cooking experiences through the barter project, adding recipes like dandelion marmalade to her repertoire.

Grape leaves Ariel Gordon traded for.
photo: Submitted/Mike Deal

“We’ve had a lot of trouble ideologically with dandelions in Winnipeg. People say, ‘oh, they are taking over and we’re not supposed to spray anymore, there’s been a commercial pesticide ban,’ but dandelions apparently are more nutritionally dense than most things we grow on purpose,” said Gordon. “We’ve got these containers, you know, this is wild and this is tame, this is a pest, this is a weed and this is something we eat, and you know, sometimes I don’t think all of those barriers are very helpful.”

How people experience food is also of great interest to the writer, who has invited some barter participants into her own kitchen to share both knowledge and recipes.

“I had a woman who was of Lebanese background and her parents… grew grapevines, but not for the grapes, for the leaves. So she went to her dad’s place, picked grape leaves, then came over and showed me her recipe for stuffed grape leaves, so that was pretty cool,” said Gordon. “So there are lots of times where I say, ‘yeah, we’re going to trade, but you’re going to show me how to do this thing if there is something you know and I don’t.’”

She said many people have edible plants in their yards, apple trees even, that they don’t consider to be food because the produce doesn’t look like what they find in the grocery store.

“So I thought, what would happen if I offer to trade poetry, which has low cultural value and essentially low economic value for urban food, which again has low economic value,” she said. “So trading something that is not worth very much for something that people also think is not worth very much.”

Julie Kentner took Gordon up on her offer, trading nasturtiums for an original poem.

“She takes her time, she carefully places each word and she is a thoughtful poet. She wants to kind of capture something about the gift that you gave her and puts a lot of effort and time into it and I think that is what makes this barter special, because you’re giving of your produce, but she is giving of her time,” said Kentner. “And I think that’s just a really creative way to get people thinking about the food we eat.”

Gordon asks all participants for five words they want included in the poem, and does extra research if necessary. In Kentner’s case that meant polling her Facebook friends about what she would save from her home in case of a fire.

“My goal with a lot of this stuff is partly educational, but it has to be art too, it has to be interesting,” Gordon said. “I think literature in many ways is our way as humans of talking about the issues of the day, our way of talking about how we behave in the world.”

Gordon’s first book of poetry, Hump, won the Lansdowne Prize for Poetry, as did her second collection, Stowaways. She says her next book could very well be a collection of barter poems, although she is also working on creative non-fiction about Winnipeg’s urban forest.

“My theory is that everybody needs a poem written for them, and normally you have to date a poet to get a poem written for you, right?” said Gordon. “This way I’m writing poems for people and they get to be a part of it.”

Anyone interested in participating in the barter project can contact Gordon at [email protected].

About the author

Reporter

Shannon VanRaes is a journalist and photojournalist at the Manitoba Co-operator. She also writes a weekly urban affairs column for Metro Winnipeg, and has previously reported for the Winnipeg Sun, Outwords Magazine and the Portage Daily Graphic.

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