Growing up in Abbotsford in the late ’90s and early ’00s meant existing in a world of gang activity and violence for Bradley Peters. Before he was out of his teen years, he lost four of his friends to gang activity and suicide.
Peters is the author of Sonnets from a Cell, his debut poetry collection, which looks back to understand and share his experiences.
He shared poems from that collection Nov 4 at the Fraser Valley Writers Festival at the University of the Fraser Valley, where he first studied poetry.
“The Fraser Valley wasn’t all bad,” says Peters. “I have great memories skateboarding down every street, back alley, stair set, loading dock, vaulted curb, construction site and rooftop, running away from security, shaking food from faulty vending machines. I feel like, as a young skater, I knew my city as intimately as it’s possible to know a place.”
His book is a mix of these experiences, a melting pot of good and bad and everything in between. In “Some of the Local Spots” and other poems, Peters fondly recalls his life as a skateboarder, existing in these spaces, living in them.
In recollections of his skateboarding days, the poems of Peters come with an undertone of challenges, of struggles.
“Aside from growing up amidst gang violence and the skateboard culture, my upbringing was also coloured by my family’s struggle with drug addiction and mental health issues,” says Peters. “My grandparents suffered extreme trauma as Mennonite refugees; trauma, I believe, rippled through my family. Aunts, uncles, and cousins of mine lived on the streets, and in imprisonment; suicide and overdose were prevalent. It would be foolish for me to say this did not influence me, and it certainly informs my poetry.”
Rooted in place and time, one can clearly see these influences in his writing. There are explorations in his poems that dig down to the bone of these issues, leaving the reader feeling as if they could have lived them, themselves. This is very intentional on Peters’ part.
“I wanted to put a book out in the world that I felt was accessible and that would be interesting for people who don’t usually read poetry,” says Peters. “Inmates, construction workers, skater punks. But I still wanted it to be technically and artistically ambitious, something my instructors, Rob Taylor and Sheryda Warrener, and all my fellow poetry nerds could get excited about.”
Peters honed his craft in the creative writing program at UFV, where he first met instructor Taylor, someone who inspired him to pursue the art of poetry. He completed several of his credits at UFV before transferring to UBC where he met professor Sheryda Warrener.
“It was in Rob Taylor’s class at UFV, where I was first drawn to poetry,” says Peters. “I discovered contemporary poetry through poets like Kayla Czaga and Raoul Fernandez. I became obsessed. I loved the unique voice each poet seemed to have, and how the specific things they gave attention to were valued simply because, as poets, they themselves valued them. I realized I could write, in my own voice, about my world, and the specific details I wrote about would be made valuable simply though my valuing them as well. The best, most unique and interesting thing I could be, as a poet, was myself!”
When deciding on his voice, Peters discovered the sonnet, a 14-line form using iambic pentameter. The form itself is constraining, something that Peters felt helped inspire his work.
“I discovered the sonnet, and it was the perfect form, constrained like a cell, with roots in psychological and spiritual poetry, and having rigidity, but with room to stretch creatively within the formal rules and structure,” says Peters. “It felt like the stars had aligned, and like I’d unlocked something, and I couldn’t stop writing.”
His writing journey has led to his work being recognized across the country, with publication in Geist, Grain, Subterrain, Arc, and the Malahat Review, to name a few. He has been shortlisted and runner-up for several awards, and in 2019 won the Short Grain Poetry Contest, with more accolades on the way.
Peters recently launched his poetry collection alongside many of his inspirational poets such as Kayla Czaga. He did so in the Downtown Eastside at the Massey Arts Society to a full house.
If you’d like to read Peters’ poetry collection, look for Sonnets from a Cell at your local bookstore, or online.