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Bren Simmers

Woman with curly, shoulder length hair wearing a red scarf and red jacket, standing outside.
  • Category: Presidents' Alumni Award
  • UVic degree: Bachelor of Arts in Women's Studies, 2000
  • Current hometown: Charlottetown, Epekwitk/PEI
  • Birthplace: Vancouver, BC

About Bren

An award-winning writer whose work is rooted in a sense of place, Bren Simmers is the author of four books of poetry: The Work (forthcoming in spring 2024), If, When, Hastings-Sunrise and Night Gears. Her first book of non-fiction, Pivot Point, is a lyrical account of a nine-day wilderness canoe journey and a frank reflection of the roles friendship, mindfulness and creativity play in the evolution of our lives. Her work has won the CBC Poetry Prize and the Malahat Review Long Poem Prize among others. Previously a lifelong west coaster, Bren now lives on Epekwitk (Prince Edward Island).

How did your experiences at UVic shape who you are?

I spent 10 years at UVic. I took six years to do my degree and then worked at the McPherson Library with a handful of other poets. I started out in theatre, then took courses in geography, environmental studies and film. I did all the writing courses I could without getting a writing degree. Then I completed my coursework in women's studies. That breadth of knowledge, and being able to follow my curiosity, really gave me a lot of tools as a writer—to know that I can delve into an area and learn about it on my own and bring that back into what I'm doing.

What skills or traits are needed to be good at what you do?

Curiosity is one. Observation. The ability to reflect on lived experiences. A love of language and books, because if you don't like spending hours alone in your room Tetris-ing words and moving them around, then this career is not for you. The discipline to work through draft after draft after draft, and to work through all that rejection. You need to believe in yourself, so when you get that rejection, you need to think, “OK, I'm going to try again.”

What motivates you?

In terms of writing, I have to write. If I don't, I don't feel like myself. I just feel off. It's a self-care mechanism for me in a lot of ways. But when I'm doing things that I don't like to do, like copy editing (I work in publishing as a part-time day job), I motivate myself sometimes with M&Ms.

What’s a valuable piece of advice someone has given you?

[Poet] Fred Wah said something along these lines to me, probably 20 years ago now, “You know these poems are good, but they're workshop good. If you want to be writing in this style, you have to work really hard and get your poems up to this level. Conversely, you could be weird, and you could be different, and you'll stand out that way.”

I took that to heart, because instead of trying to emulate these people who I respected, I tried to write the best poems and the best non-fiction that I could write and to allow that weirdness in. So whenever I’m like, “Can I get away with this?”, normally it means I'm on to something... embracing that weird individual self.

Do you have a mantra?

When I leave the house in the morning, I tell myself, “You are a champion, you can do this.” It helps me remember that I have done hard things before and that it is worth working hard towards the things I believe in.

Who plays you in the movie of your life?

Frances McDormand, the Laurel Canyon era! I also like her in the Three Billboards era, too. She’s got grit, and she's fierce, funny and smart.

What are you grateful for?

My teachers at UVic, particularly Annalee Lepp, Debby Yaffe, Christine St. Peter, Lorna Crozier, Lynne Van Luven and Patricia Young, because they all encouraged, pushed and believed in me. Great teachers make a big difference, and the fact that I still think about them 23 years later tells you something.

About the Distinguished Alumni Awards

Nominations for the 2024 awards are now closed. Nominations for the 2025 Distinguished Alumni Awards are open through Oct. 18, 2024.