A Little Retreat in Myself: An Interview with Matthew Walsh

Cargo memories - Matthew Walsh

I like to be naked and comfortable with my older friend I treasure it
he likes it at the beach, and who cares if we are naked

I am just realizing this now but we are all chromosomes
at the heart of it. My summer body is my winter

fat glistening. Nothing is ever going to sink how I feel.
Behind my house was the Atlantic, my village made for export

of sawdust, trees. Big cargo boats to take pieces of my town
across the ocean. Time path and least time path.

If feels like the tail end of happy hour when memory leaves
you gauging the multi-phases of life. I remember thinking my body

is a tadpole body in Nova Scotia—itself shaped like a tadpole
body seeing the ship as a much larger frog splitting open the water

floating like it was Jesus or something much more sinister and now
I text my mother and ask in a more serious adult way about the cargo

ships and what they wanted she said what cargo ships I’m not sure
what you are talking about because there was also yachts

and I said sternly they were cargo ships and she responded ok ok
they probably wanted wood chips or pipes or they were picking up

something at the port. I have a hard time believing in art saving
the world when there are so many holes just in me alone

and there is no Earth-like planet like this Earth-like planet.
I’m guilty thinking of poetry as not being a life

preserver—sometimes it makes me feel good just for a while.
I stare at the head of my beer and think let me get to the golden stuff

and the sun touches my face like a mother with a warm washcloth.
My older friend is fine lying in the sand, has been asleep and got a scar

but is sparking with little minerals, microscopic rocks, who used to be parts
of a larger, bigger, more important life of parts.

from These are not the potatoes of my youth
(Goose Lane Editions, 2019).
Reprinted with permission.


Matthew Walsh hails from the eastern shore of Nova Scotia and has twice travelled by bus across Canada. Their poems may be found in The Malahat Review, Arc, Existere, Matrix, Carousel, and Geist. Walsh now lives in Toronto.


These are not the potatoes of my youth
Rob Taylor: Many poems in your debut poetry collection, These are not the potatoes of my youth, have a wandering, Frank O'Hara-like "I do this I do that" vibe to them, perhaps none more than "Flaneurial," which drives home the spirit of the poems right there in the title. The poems meander about, landing on surprise after eye-catching surprise. Could you speak a bit about writing in this style? Have you always done it, and if not, what lead you to it? Was O'Hara an influence?

Matthew Walsh: I haven’t actually read a lot of Frank O’Hara but every time I scream or cry in the bath tub I think about him. I have read a few of his poems and really enjoyed them. I feel like some of the poems in the collection do have this meandering quality like you said, but I kind of wanted to imitate what it was like to walk around a city, or get off the Greyhound and walk around a new place and discover things for the first time.

I got addicted to writing in that way when I was in Vancouver. It just seemed right, the right voice and form, but I haven’t always done it.

I wanted those meandering poems to have this voice which goes on and on chattering, and I wanted to include as many details as possible so it would have a collage kind of feel, like when you see graffiti all over a wall and some of the elements don’t necessarily go together, but something in some way links them together.

So I think in the back of my mind, he was an influence. I love that bath tub poem and the tone so much because it’s silly but there is some sort of emotional cord in that poem as well, but the comedy and sadness have such a nice balance.

Rob: You mention the direct influence of Vancouver in the development of your “wandering” poems ("Flaneurial,” for one, is set there). You moved from a small town in Nova Scotia to Vancouver complete your MFA at the University of British Columbia, and you note at the back of the book that it’s where "most of these poems were written." To what extent do you think these "wandering" poems were about being in Vancouver, specifically, as opposed to simply being in a place where you had fewer "roots"? (Sorry, I’ll keep the potato puns to a minimum from here on out.) Would these poems have been the same if you'd moved to a different city or town?

Matthew: I think because I had not done any sort of travelling except for bus trips, and because Vancouver was such a big move for me, and I was going to be there for at least two years, I wanted to see everything it had to offer. It was my first time spending any length of time on the West Coast.

And Vancouver just feels like a very transient city, everyone moves out, comes back, moves away, so I was constantly just walking around the city itself and also nearby places. When I lived in Toronto I didn’t take advantage of seeing any neighboring cities like Detroit, New York, Chicago, so when I was closer to places like Portland, Seattle, Olympia, I took advantage of it, and I wanted to see everything and be inspired by the street art there, and see bigger things in the little things people were doing around those cities.

So yes, I think you are right. It was a place where I knew no one, had less roots, so I felt like I had so much possibility and wasn’t worried as much as I had been in the past. I was excited for the future and what I would see and what could be made into a poem.

Rob: Speaking of the future: many of your poems seem as if they could go on forever. They flow from scene to scene (or thought to thought, or image to image) so effortlessly, seemingly indifferent to the idea of reaching a conclusion. Eventually, though, they all do. How do you know when to end a poem? Is it different from poem to poem? Has it changed over the years as you've developed as a writer?

Matthew: How do I know how to end a poem? Maybe I never want them to end. Sometimes I write long poems. One method I use is to lay all the poems out on the front lawn on a full moon and scream at the stars until they tell me what to do. No—I’m kidding—I HAVE NO IDEA. Sometimes a line will just come to me and I know that’s the end line. Sometimes I start with the end line and then I figure out ways to get there, to get to the point where that one line, whatever it is, works.

Yes, it is different from poem to poem, how they will end. Sometimes I will go for a walk and I will see something and something will click in my head and I can come back and finish it. Once I saw someone combing their girlfriend’s hair on Mont Royal, overlooking Montreal and I thought what a great ending image to a poem.

Rob: A good number of the poems in These are not the potatoes of my youth are about your father, most often about the physical/emotional/philosophical gulf between the two of you. In "Garbage box with black loons" you write of your dad, "driving his red car looking at junk and making it / into something strangers would love him for." This struck me, perhaps, as your poetics as well – discovering unexpected points of connection and making something new (like wandering Mont Royal and gluing on an ending). Could you talk about how the role you think your father played - for good or for bad - in making you the poet you are today?

Matthew: My dad is such a character and a real human being, and no one is perfect. He is very funny at times, but he also has a lot of hang ups, or did, about gay people, though I think he’s probably more open to the idea now. I remember having to secretly watch The Kids in the Hall late at night, because that was just not something we were allowed to do. Everything was of course super heteronormative so I remember feeling very confused and trapped in my body.

I think he inspires me to look at the small and funny moments in life. As a kid I had a huge, very active imagination because there was so much I couldn’t do or say openly. I would imagine myself doing those things, or write about myself doing them. So I had a little retreat in myself when things got hard, I suppose, which helped with writing, because writing can be so isolating. I remember even as a kid I wrote stories in Duo-Tangs and I just wrote and wrote.

I think my dad taught me to think deeply, have deep thoughts. Most days he would sit in the window and chain smoke and drink Nescafe and stare out at the ocean, so I believe he did think a lot, and think deeply about things, but I’m not sure what those things might have been.

Rob: You mention how helpful writing was in giving you a “retreat” in yourself – what a wonderful way to phrase it! But then in "Cargo memories" you write "I'm guilty thinking of poetry as not being a life // preserver". What are your current thoughts about the role of poetry in your life/the world? Has publishing These are not the potatoes of my youth and seeing it travel out into the world affected your thinking on this?

Matthew: I think poetry can be extremely helpful to the brain and body, and I think it’s good to write things down and think things out on paper if you’re writing something personal because it can be like peeling out of an old skin and into a new one. But I don’t think it can do everything for me, personally. That’s what I was getting at in “Cargo memories.”

I think poetry—reading or writing it—can help healing or start healing. What I feel is that the real life preserver is the writing community. Those people are so good. If you’re a writer then you share this special little thing with all the other writers out there.

Rob: A major theme running through These are not the potatoes of my youth is segmentation. You close "Cargo memories" with the image of "microscopic rocks, who used to be parts / of a larger, bigger, more important life of parts." In "Kiss a horse" you write "I see myself in sections in the mirror section", in "Wheelbarrow and cabbage" that you were maybe a "tomato -- half vegetable, half fruit" and in "Tool shed" that "I dreamed of being a full-out gay person." A desire for unity runs through these poems, as well as an attention to all the ways that unity is elusive, if not impossible. Would you say that you seek unity in your life/your self? If so, do you have a sense of a path to finding it, and what role might poems play in that path? (If you know the secret, we're all dying to know!)

Matthew: Wow, these questions are so kind. Yeah, I had unity on my mind a lot in several of these poems. I sometimes feel like not a full person, or half of a person, and sometimes I can get down on myself. Do I seek unity? Maybe. I know that I like looking at the week ahead and having a plan about what I want to accomplish, and I like knowing I have completed something.

Rob: A number of the poems in These are not the potatoes of my youth refer to your once considering entering the priesthood. Did you really consider it? If so, why? And do you think your interest in the priesthood shared any common sources with your interest in poetry? Is poetry its own sort of alternate priesthood?

Matthew: Oh, maybe! I mean I do worship a lot of poetry books. Ummm, when I was growing up my grandmother always hinted at me going into the priesthood and it was talked about but I never really wanted to do it, even though I was told I would have my own house and everything, and that I would get to read all the time—which is how it was pitched to me. I do love to read, and I do feel there are a lot of poetry books which have, over the years, become very sacred to me. I mean writing is pretty solitary, and from what I understand the priesthood is pretty solitary, so I can see some correlations there, yeah.

Matthew, among the vegetables
Rob: Your book’s title is not misleading: there's a lot of potato content in here! I don't want to go and ruin the book for people, but by the end of it you sort of... turn into a potato? Potatoes in the book are weighty with metaphorical significance: they see underground, they grow even after being plucked from the earth, they possess "long pale tubulars" like arms reaching out, or gathering in. When did you begin to see potatoes - which you grew up surrounded by as a child - as more than just a simple vegetable? When did you start turning into them in your poems?

Matthew: I once swam in a potato garden, and we always had bags of potatoes lying around. I remember once we found an old bag of potatoes that had tried to root in the cupboard and they looked like octopi. They are just so weird. Do you know that Marge Simpson meme, where she is just holding the potato saying “I just think they’re neat”? I just think they are very cool and weird. My grandmother always said they had eyes, and she’d cut all the eyes out before boiling them—the eyes are just like little blemishes on the skin.

I started turning out potato poems once I had the title, then I couldn’t stop growing them.

Rob: Ok, let’s close with the question everyone’s been wondering about your three major recurring motifs in the book…

Fuck, Marry, Kill: Potatoes, Tomatoes, the Moon. Go.

Matthew: I would absolutely fuck the moon, I would kill potatoes—and I would marry tomatoes but still keep my relationship with the moon super open.


Truly, These are not the potatoes of my youth will take you to the moon and back. Don't miss out! You can pick a copy up at your local bookstore, or via the Goose Lane or, I suppose, from Amazon.


The Green Waves: Poems from Roblin Lake

I'm very happy to announce that my new chapbook, The Green Waves: Poems from Roblin Lake, has just been published by London, Ontario based 845 Press!

The chapbook contains 15 poems, written before, during and after my family's stay at the Al Purdy A-frame. The poems feature my family (the boy was barely toddling at the time), the A-frame, Al and Eurithe Purdy, disgusting pancakes, bonfires (book and otherwise), carbon monoxide poisoning, black holes, drowned mice, a heron named Ike, lilacs, frozen turtles, Nick Thran, etc. Mostly they are about making space in your life for the things you love.

Here are three sample poems:

County Roads
Last Embers

For only the second time in my life (the first being "Oh Not So Great": Poems from the Depression Project), something I wrote has blurbs! I like blurbs but hate nothing more than asking someone to blurb my books, so I was overjoyed when the wonderful team at 845 Press (Aaron Schneider and Amy Mitchell) went and organized blurbs on my behalf. It even inspired me to ask a couple more people, which led to a very imbalanced poem-to-blurb ratio (15 to 4 - one blurb for every 4 poems!).

The blurbs:

"Luminosity, the ability to make mundane objects glow while holding onto their “thing-ness,” is a difficult poetic skill to master. Rob Taylor has managed to do just that in The Green Waves – and with Al Purdy relentlessly peering over his shoulder, no less."

—Michael Mirolla, publisher at Guernica Editions and author of The Facility

"I love how these poems tackle the subjects of grief, joy and family in a subtle, sweet-bitter landscape. The collection is an immensely powerful and inventive way to tell a story everyone can relate to."

—Bola Opaleke, author of Skeleton of a Ruined Song

"Throw another log on the woodstove; spring has “hitched back to Toronto.” Driving the country roads of memory and legacy, Taylor address his young son sleeping in his car seat, his father’s ashes, his wife whose arm rests “on the lip of fat above my hip,” and even Purdy himself, thanking him “For ferrying nothing, not one blooming word, with you across its black eye.” Tender and human, these poems allow us to see
the unseen dust that settles on everything."

—Bren Simmers, author of Narratives of the Lost

"“I doubt you’d have liked me. I don’t drink. / I make nice. I stunt my opinions.” Without romanticizing or acquiescing, Rob Taylor’s collection pays tribute to larger-than-life Canadian poetry icon Al Purdy, and the A-Frame Al and Eurithe built on Roblin Lake. By turns moving and quietly humorous, these poems inhabit the A-Frame with a new dailiness of parenting, mice, loss, and attention to place—adding to the legacy of one of the most storied dwellings in Canadian literature."

—Anna Swanson, author of The Nights Also

Much thanks to my blurbers, 845 Press, cover artist Kailee Wakeman, and the Al Purdy A-frame for helping make this chapbook happen.

Copies are $10 and can be purchased here. (Or $4 for a digital download, here).


A Very Real and Open Window: An Interview with Emily Davidson

Nobody Does This On Purpose - Emily Davidson

I have been keeping my virginity
like the special occasion dishes

the company tablecloth

a pair of women’s gloves
that button at the wrist.

It is important at this stage in the game
to forget the subtle tarnish of the early twenties
and go mouldering on, fortitudinously.

I do this on purpose.
Nobody does this on purpose.

There are polar bears swept away
on ice floes, disembarking
in downtown St. John’s

to wander past the jellybean houses
and bellow confusion at the locals.

I think the bears are urban myth
but it is something to be endangered

it is something to be
bright white and monstrous.

from Lift
(Thistledown Press, 2019).
Reprinted with permission.


Emily Davidson is a writer from Saint John, New Brunswick. Her poetry has appeared in publications including Arc, CV2, Descant, The Fiddlehead, Room, subTerrain, and The Best Canadian Poetry 2015. Her fiction has appeared in Grain and Maisonneuve and was short-listed for The Malahat Review’s 2013 Far Horizons Award for Short Fiction. She writes literary reviews for Arc and Poetry is Dead. Emily resides in Vancouver, British Columbia, on the unceded territories of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh Nations. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia.


Rob Taylor: Many of the poems in your debut collection, Lift, revolve around disappointments, be it with the city ("If she likes you, even a little, / Vancouver isn't telling"), the wider culture ("Consumption is not a decision / but we practise, just in case") or personal relationships ("I am single always, you never"). Through it all you seem determined to stay hopeful and optimistic. In "On Saturday," for instance, you’re stuck at a party where people brag about investing "in real estate / before the bubble" and then it "begins to rain / the way fire spits." Nonetheless, the poem closes with the line "I am not unhappy"–and the truth is I almost believe it!

It's as though the book is channeling the "This is Fine" meme. There's something very Vancouver, very late-capitalism, very early-to-mid-30s about "This is Fine" energy. Do you see it as present in the book, or am I just projecting (mid-30s Vancouverite that I am)? If it's there, to what extent do you think this stance is simply your nature, as opposed to a product of the city and time you live in?

Emily Davidson: The funny thing about this is that I actually was happy! “On Saturday” describes one of my favourite days in Vancouver; it was also, coincidentally, the day a good friend told me about their pending divorce. How can such a painful thing and such a sweet, perfect day coexist? Are things genuinely crap, or are they delightful?

The first thing my mother said after she received her copy of Lift was, “I read your book! It made me sad.” Which was puzzling to me, because that wasn’t my intention: I was just paying attention and writing things down. The negatives fail to tip the scales for me, generally. I guess that makes me an optimist?

I could see how the situations, the concerns, the challenges of these poems might channel “This is Fine” energy, might trend towards ennui or despondency if you followed them far enough. The early-to-mid-30s seem to me so far to be a weird blend of small wins and major indignities. That’s real—and that’s not even mentioning Vancouver or late-capitalism (or climate crisis or politics). But I’d be sorry if the book conveyed an overall tone of resignation. I’m not terribly interested in ignoring the things that aren’t fine, there is simply something in my internal wiring that renders me determined to hold onto the funny. The good. The noteworthy. I think art, by its very nature, resists “This is Fine.” (Thank you for coming to my TED Talk.)

I find I have to hold both things at once—I’m here, I’m alive, things are beautiful; I’m here, I hurt, things are falling apart. All of that is always true.

Rob: Yes, you’re right. The “This is Fine” meme is a very different thing from the artist’s perspective than from the dog’s. The dog’s stance–its resignation–is horrific, but we laugh/cringe because we recognize it, and know that sometimes embracing it is our best option. It’s only from outside of that room looking in, as artist or reader, that we can both laugh at, and wrestle with, our behaviour. (You’re the artist drawing the dog, not the dog itself, is what I’m saying!)

So I see “This is Fine” energy less as resignation than awareness and honesty, as you say. And also a call to action: these things happen; this is how we deal with them; could we/should we deal with them differently? Your book asks these big questions of us over and over again in a very compelling way.

Speaking of big questions, in "We Are Dancing to ABBA" you write (of Anglicans, having come from an Evangelical background): "They let me sit very still and unprodded / while I adjusted all my structures." So many of the poems in Lift grapple with life's great "restructurings," whether they relate to religion, relationships, physical relocation, aging, the prospect of parenthood, etc. etc.

I'm curious to what extent the making of this book mirrored what those ABBA-loving Anglicans provided you. Did writing the poems create a still space in which to "adjust your structures"? And if so, what's it like to see it out in the world now, helping other people consider their own adjustments (past or yet to come)?

Emily: Yes, I think so. Not much about life makes sense to me—does it to you?—and so poetry was a good place to do the work of being uncomfortable. A whole book of tiny doubt cathedrals. (Okay, I maybe see my mom’s point now.) And a good place to uncover the beginnings of what might be built afterwards.

The idea that someone might be able to better consider their own restructurings after having read Lift—that’s the most encouraging thought. The making of the book was one of concentric circles of vulnerability for me: I started with subjects I was content to share, and then I ran out of safe things to talk about and had to wade into the next layer of exposure, and so on. Lift feels like a very real and open window to some of the parts of myself I’m still learning to like, but if someone were to climb through to their own discoveries—then the discomfort would be worth it.

Emily Davidson
Rob: Yes, exactly! We reveal and discover so that others can reveal and discover so that we can reveal and discover so that… Lift is certainly doing its part in that regard.

Speaking of (doubt) cathedrals, you and I are the children of Christian ministers. Another minister's child/poet, Renée Saklikar, taught me the term "PK" - "preacher's kid" - and it turns out there's any number of us out there in the poetry world. How do you think being a PK, and being raised in a church, shaped your interest in the reading and writing of poetry? Did it have an effect on themes you tackle in your poems?

Emily: One of the real benefits of a religious upbringing is that your conversations and studies are centred around a text. And what a text for poetry! There’s repetition, archaic language, weird turns of phrase, astonishing contradictions, vibrant imagery—poetic elements I talk about now when I teach or engage with other people’s writing. Language was the way in at church—and so it’s remained for me in my writing practice. I love me a good psalm.

Being raised in church surfaces as a theme in Lift—it was inextricably linked for me to family and morality, and I get to continue wrestling with it as I age. And then there are the implicit themes that bleed through (no pun intended) in my work that I may have borrowed: belonging, identity, doubt, purpose. Would I be so interested in these things with different roots? I mean, probably, but the answers, and the paths I take in search of them, will be informed by this strange heritage.

I’m reading The Odyssey for the first time right now (I know, I know, I’ll turn in my poet badge to security), and I got a little way in and thought, “Huh, this feels familiar.” Then I realized my brain had gone into Bible-reading mode—historical text, ancient culture, gods and quests. I’m loving it.

Side note: I’ve discovered that a lot of PKs also end up as actors—I wonder if there’s something in the water/wine that makes us turn to art. Incidentally, have you heard of missionary’s kids? Those MKs are a whole other ball of wax.

Rob: MKs! Oh dear. What will they think of next? That connection with acting makes sense – ministers are up there performing all the time. The PK poets I know are definitely on the more performative side during their readings, or at least have above-average confidence in front of a microphone. So I do think there’s something there. Mostly, though, I think the PK-artist connection is about what we talked about earlier: all that space to rearrange structures, which the Anglicans provided you. Art as a secular way to create a similar space for people.

The poems in Lift create different kinds of “spaces” for their readers to think in. While many of the poems follow a linear narrative, others leap in subject matter from stanza to stanza, in a style reminiscent of the ghazal form. Some of these are written in ghazal-like couplets (say, "Interlock" or "Night Walk, Saint John"), while others like "Tenant" have irregular stanza lengths, and still others, like the excerpted poem that opens this interview, are built out of a numbered sequence of smaller poems. When in your development as a writer did you start experimenting with these kinds of non-linear poems? How do you think each of these different approaches to leaping from stanza to stanza alters the poems?

Emily: I was introduced to ghazals in undergrad, mainly through the work of John Thompson, and I love the weird, sparse connectivity between the stanzas. It’s tenuous: poems held together by thematic hum. The tenets of the ghazal tend to creep into even my more linear work.

I think the leaping in subject matter between stanzas is my way of stringing unlike pearls. My brain collects images over time until somehow the final one drops in and I have a fistful of something. In “Interlock,” for example, the fisftul was: two-stranded knitting, two people getting married, two romantic leads in a dumb movie about leap-year proposals, one person alone. Once I’d strung the components, it became a poem about fabrication—one person’s hands making something for two people in the context of the stories we tell ourselves about love. But it’s an uneasy fit, all of these images, so “scattershot” felt like the best method of organization. The throughline is absurd. Could I have achieved a poem without these leaps? Possibly, but less effectively, and with visible effort.

“Night Walk, Saint John” is more of a snapshot poem. Each stanza is a flash exposure: here’s a new build going up, here’s the ocean seeping, here are the church bells tolling. All taken the same night, all showing you the photographer’s perspective. You get to take home the set and make a collage. The poem gains an eerie resonance by being choppy.

Each poem I write emerges suggesting its own shape. Sometimes the stanzas are simply meant to mirror my own thought process, or how the poem fell out: fragmented, sharp-edged, scrappy. The numbered poems are often baby poems that needed to be in conversation with one another to hold water.

Rob: Many poets write their poems entirely in lowercase letters, but they usually do so consistently throughout the book. In your case, three of the poems have lowercase titles, while the rest are capitalized. Even among those three there is variation as to whether or not the first-person "I" is capitalized. It feels as though you've resisted standardization that might alter your original vision for each individual poem (the poems, as you say, suggest their own shape). Could you talk a bit about your interest in using all lowercase at these particular times? In what way do you think it changes how/what the poem communicates?

Emily: There were poems in the book that asked to be spoken in a smaller voice, or with the hush of lowercase to speed their journey. And the reasons were all different: “child’s drawing” was always written, to my mind, in crayon, before proper capitalization mattered. The “I” in the poem is clear on who she is, but she’s realizing she was not completely clear on anything else. “the baptismal is a fish tank” is a poem trying to crack open the idea of the mystical in the mundane by circling it, uninterrupted. Removing all punctuation and capitalization was a way of bringing down the stakes—you know, we’re just having a regular conversation about immersion baptism, no big deal, we do this all the time, right? Totally normal. And “i meant for my heart to be an invertebrate” is a heartbreak poem whispered after the beloved has left. The lower case is a relinquishing, a retreat, a whisper, a confession.

It’s okay if I did this wrong. I certainly baffled my copyeditor. But there are things in this book I had a hard time writing. Pushing them through in the smallest letters possible seemed to help. And for the reader, I hope they land with gentler footfalls.

Rob: Ha! Your poor copyeditor. But I applaud your commitment to your poems and their particular voices.

That leads us well into talking about poetry mentors, encouraging and guiding younger poets along. In your acknowledgements you thank two mentors, Rhea Tregebov and Anne Compton, who you call your "poetry guides on opposite coasts." Could you speak a little bit about your relationships with them, and how each of them shaped the poems in this (bi-coastal) book?

Emily: Oh my goodness, yes, thank you. Can we just take a moment to appreciate mentors? I feel so much gratitude to have had the instructors I did. It actually sort of makes me sweat to think about my luck.

Anne Compton took me under her wing while I was an undergraduate student at the University of New Brunswick Saint John. She’s a Governor General’s Award-winning poet and a respected critic, and she was generous to my work from the very beginning, which was gracious of her, as it was bad and I was learning. I remember in particular one batch of poems I handed in, Anne gently and resolutely passed one back to me with the singular comment, “This is not a poem.” And she was right—it wasn’t! I’m so glad those drafts are buried somewhere on my hard drive and not out in the world.

I am indebted to Anne for the shaping of a young poet’s ear and resilience and hope. She read and supported the first two poems I ever had published—“Conurbation” and “Night Walk, Saint John”, which appeared in their earliest forms in The Fiddlehead and later in Lift. She taught me pantoums and ghazals and when to take out the pruning shears and cut a poem back to its essentials. Anne is a poet deeply rooted in place, and I came up through the same soil. She’s a teacher and a friend.

Rhea Tregebov and I crossed paths during my graduate studies at the University of British Columbia—Rhea is also a decorated poet, and a phenomenal professor. It is something to be in Rhea’s classroom: she teaches with great empathy and precision. She used to diagram every poem we workshopped on the board—what was happening, when, to whom—and we’d be in stitches by the end, because the drawings were so deeply bizarre. But the point was taken: a poem should hold up to scrutiny. It should not be soft, structurally, should contain no sinkholes of laziness or inattention. The building blocks of the poem mattered.

Rhea was my thesis supervisor: she read the early drafts of Lift, and blurbed the final version seven years later. She sensed somehow that the thesis process for me was going to be a long, slow uncovering—she didn’t press me to present work, but let me come to her in my own time. I felt skittish and untested, and she really put the legs on my work and got it to stop wobbling. As anyone who’s had the privilege to work with her can attest, Rhea champions each of her students—even those of us with long incubation periods. If I’d taken nothing else away from my MFA, Rhea’s friendship would have been enough.

Rob: I know it's a terrible question to ask when one is still basking in the glow of the first, but do you have a sense of what book number two might be?

Emily: None whatsoever. Is that okay to admit? I’ve got a novel I’m trying to breathe life into. And I remain hopeful that I’ll figure it out. Rhea has the most lovely poem in the opening of her book All Souls’ about being rediscovered by poetry: “You thought all the poems had grown up / and left home. You didn’t expect to find one / putting its little hands on your face.” I’m happy to live here for a while, waiting for the small hands of poetry to find me again. I have to trust they will. This is fine.


Lift is more than fine! You can pick a copy up at your local bookstore, or via the Thistledown website or, I suppose, from Amazon.


Best Canadian Poetry Launches - Vancouver and Toronto!

The Best Canadian Poetry in English 2019 will be launching in Vancouver and Toronto on October 26th and 27th, respectively. I will be taking the red eye to Toronto between the two events, so someone have some smelling salts ready in case I collapse on the podium in Toronto. Though, hell, I had the kids just to prepare myself for this sleep-deprived moment, so I should be just fine.

If you're in Vancouver or Toronto, I'd love to see you at the local event!

Best Canadian Poetry
Saturday, October 26th, 2:00 – 3:30 PM
Waterfront Theatre
1412 Cartwright Street
Moderator: Rob Taylor
Panelists: Billy-Ray Belcourt, Kayla Czaga, Dallas Hunt and Souvankham Thammavongsa
This event is part of the Vancouver Writers Fest.

Best Canadian Poetry of 2019
Sunday, October 27th, 2:00 PM
Brigantine Room, Harbourfront Centre
235 Queens Quay West
Hosted by: Anita Lahey, Amanda Jernigan and Rob Taylor
Readers: Gary Barwin, Sue Chenette, Sadiqa de Meijer, Adebe DeRango-Adem, D.A. Lockhartt, Katie McGarry, Jimmy McInnes, A.F. Moritz, Alexandra Oliver and Souvankham Thammavongsa.
This event is part of the Toronto International Festival of Authors.


some kind of honest submission to life

What made me think that my poetry could add to the social and political transformations going on at the time, I don't know. And, why poetry? Because I thought then, and still do, that poetry was/is some kind of perfect speech, some way at getting at the core of things, their true meanings; some kind of honest submission to life. Why writing at all? Because somehow I figured out that words were durable, expansive, perhaps because I had understood their effects in creating what I can in another work, the "fictions" of Africans in the New World. And I understood that these fictions took place regardless of the actual, the real lives lived. Perhaps even back then as a child, a teenager, it seemed to me compelling to rewrite these fictions. In a poem in my work No Language is Neutral I called these fictions "... the hard gossip of race that inhabits these roads." And I felt that this hard gossip could only be confronted by a kind of perfect speech.

So in the seventies I went to work to learn to be a poet. There was a common understanding back then in the circles I travelled that the civil rights and human rights movement of the period needed poets; it needed preachers, organizers, workers, thinkers and poets. Again, I was lucky. To be part of a social movement, which considered poets essential, was thrilling. As we said back then, poetry was also supposed to be put to the defence of the people. The poet and revolutionary Che Guevara once said, Déjeme decirle, a riesgo de parecer ridículo, que el revolucionario verdadero está guiado por grandes sentimientos de amor. (At the risk of seeming ridiculous, let me say that the true revolutionary is guided by great feelings of love.) The well of this sentence I pondered on many nights. It watered my poetry, it helped me to think about the need for a revolution at the level of human consciousness, and it helped me to think about poetry's job in tending to the wrecked and brutalized consciousness of oppressed peoples.

- Dionne Brand, from her lecture A Kind of Perfect Speech, as published in a chapbook of the same name (Institute for Coastal Research, 2008).


Love is not all: "The Brightest Thing" by Ruth Daniell

The following interview is part nine of a nine-part series of conversations with BC poets which I conducted in April 2019. All nine were originally posted at ReadLocalBC.ca.

Main Characters – Ruth Daniell

I remember one evening in your car, that silver Malibu
with the 7-11 cups rolling in the back. You drove us
up Foothills, rounding our way back up to the Hart,
the radio crooning a cover of The Time of Our Lives
and you told me you didn’t know if you’d ever have what I have.
You were talking about love. I didn’t understand.
The sun was setting in the same colours the pine beetles
had turned the valley, and that were curving in the glint
of the car’s hood: a dry red that fell, too, through the windshield,
across your forehead. I sat silent in your passenger seat, guilty
for daydreaming about my boyfriend, the one
I knew then, already, I would marry. In the fairy tales,
there are never any weddings for two princes. I get it now.
Those silent years must have felt to you like those
the miller’s daughter suffered when she could not speak
without dooming her brothers to be birds, or like
the pained quiet of the little mermaid whose tongue was cut out
because she loved the wrong kind of person, or of the eldest princess
who couldn’t explain how she wore out her dancing shoes,
or like something else I just can’t understand.

Reprinted with permission from 
The Brightest Thing by Ruth Daniell 
(Caitlin Press, 2019).

Rob Taylor: A major theme in your debut poetry collection, The Brightest Thing (Caitlin Press), is stories: what gets told, and how, and by whom. This is explored both in the book’s personal narrative and in its study of the history of fairy tales, where the same archetypes (like Folk Tale Type 425, the “search for the lost husband”) are repeated and repeated, each time slightly changed by the new author. The Brightest Thing describes how certain tales moved from the oral tradition into the writing of Franz Xaver von Schönwerth, Hans Christian Andersen, and the Brothers Grimm (often via their neighbour, and Wilhelm Grimm’s future wife, Dortchen Wild), and then were transformed into 20th century pop culture artifacts by the Walt Disney Company. 

Of that last move, from Grimm (et al) to Disney, you write in the book’s end notes that Disney’s changes “seem to emphasize the role of the saviour/prince and on opportunities to experiment with new visual techniques rather than expanding a community of storytelling.” Could you unpack that quote a bit? How do you believe a “community of storytelling” should deal with these stories, and in what ways did Disney (and perhaps others) neglect to do this? Do you see your book as an answer, and an alternative, to Disney’s approach?

Ruth Daniell: You’re right to note that by putting a personal narrative alongside an engagement with the history of fairy tales I am hoping to contribute to something I’d like to think of as a community of storytelling. I think that many fairy tales—whether they’re the folk tales we receive (via Dortchen Wild and other sources) through Grimm, Perrault, and von Schönwerth, or those literary ones written by Andersen, Mme d’Aulnoy, and Mme’ Leprince de Beaumont—have been the most useful, and the most personally transformative, when they were offered as part of community-building. The original folk tales were shared from teller to teller and adapted to comment on, and console against, local fears.

Then literary fairy tales, when those folk tales were first brought into the Parisian literary salons and institutionalized, were used to question the aristocratic society of the time. Although we tend to remember Charles Perrault—a man—most of all, it was really a lot of women who were mastering the old folk tale motifs and reworking them to comment on contemporary society. They were dreaming up magical solutions to their problems. The stories were now preserved in books, and interest in them grew, but the oral tradition continued to flourish simultaneously alongside the newer literary versions, and there was lots of borrowing and trading of folk motifs that went on and enriched the stories.

The move from books to film was more dramatic. Disney’s versions of fairy tales are the ones with which Western audiences are now most familiar. The films are so skillfully done, and the marketing so relentless, so attractive and addictive, that they tend to subsume the versions of the stories that came before them. This is by design, really: the fairy tale as story is used as a vehicle for animators to express their talents and develop their technology. Actually, in one way, films bring the fairy tales back to a wider community; the stories are simplified, the gags and jokes and emotions made accessible to a wide audience in a way that the move from public oral storytelling to private literary reading did not. For example, in Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937), the dwarves are given individual names and personalities and have their own peculiar visual quirks and gags. These antics allowed the animators to show off their skills—the new visual techniques you asked about—and aren’t there for any particular storytelling necessity. They’re just fun, and impressive from a technological standpoint.

Of course, what most annoys me about the Disney films now is the emphasis on the male role in this idea of “happily ever after.” The idea of “true love’s first kiss” revolves around the prince’s ability to swoop in and save the princess and represent everything her heart desires. But this “true love’s first kiss” is almost entirely Disney’s invention; it’s not nearly as frequent an occurrence in fairy tales as is believed in our popular consciousness. Out of the most well-known fairy tales, the only one that pivots on “true love’s first kiss” is Sleeping Beauty, and even then that’s only in some versions—in older stories, Sleeping Beauty is woken up when, after having been raped while asleep, she gives birth to twins. One of the babies suckles at her breast, and the other manages to suck the splinter from the spindle out of her finger and thus wake her.

Whether bestowing true love’s first kiss or not, however, the male role in Disney movies do tend to be maximized, whether or not he was important to the original story. Disney was looking to establish himself as the king of animation. The way in which he adapted his fairy tale material, including framing the narrative through the presence of the prince, served to celebrate the enterprising young (male) hero who earns his reward through hard work and ingenuity, outwitting his opponents to achieve his happily ever after. There are pretty compelling reasons to think that many of his films, including Snow White, were autobiographical: Disney’s own rags-to-riches story of rising to the top of the animation industry. To quote Jack Zipes, author of Breaking the Disney Spell, Disney wasn’t looking “to explore the deeper implications of the fairy tale narrative and its history.” I am. My hope is to explore those implications, its history, and the way it plays out in our contemporary society and my own personal life. Like some of the fairy tale tellers before me, perhaps like Mme d’Aulnoy or Dortchen Wild, I’m looking to see what is hidden in the stories that I can bring out and offer in our present moment.

Rob: Wow! It’s always humbling to think of how much research and thought is tucked away—often almost invisibly—in someone’s poems. Thank you for bringing some of your background work to the foreground here.

One theme you’re bringing forward from these stories is imperfection. The book’s titular “brightest thing” itself is a jester’s hat the speaker’s father wore in a photo, when he was expected to wear a crown. It’s the one thing in the photo that didn’t “belong,” and it ends up being the most memorable part of the photo. The Brightest Thing interweaves expectations of perfection and purity, as captured in the princesses of fairy tales, with the speaker’s experience of being raped by her first boyfriend, and her subsequent journey to move forward with her life. In the process, both become more complete through an embracing of “imperfection”: the perfect princesses are made more flawed, nuanced, and human, and the speaker begins to be able to heal (“One day it occurs to her that the act of love / might not be a gift he stole / but might, in fact, never have been precious at all”).

What do you think the traditional fairy tales taught young female readers about imperfection, when compared with the Disney versions? To what extent do you think the personal narrative of the speaker aligns with that of many of the fairy tale characters, and in what ways do they diverge?

Ruth: The Disney versions are just meant to delight their audiences, I think. They’re full of humour and beauty. They’re pleasurable to watch. Of course, this pleasure is a little limited by the images, too—the images are very specific and so the audience may not envision a fairy tale for themselves in the same way as they might while reading or sharing the story aloud. This is where representation becomes so important. My favourite literary fairy tale is Beauty and the Beast. Part of the reason I latched on this story when I was a child was because the protagonist, like me, loved books and felt like an outsider amongst her peers, but I’m not fooling myself into thinking that I didn’t primarily like Belle because she looked like me: out of all the princesses, she was the only one with brown hair and brown eyes. (I try to imagine being a child of colour and wanting to be a princess and it makes me sad, though I know representation has gotten better.)

I fear that one of the things that the Disney versions teach their audiences is the importance of physical beauty, and a specific unrealistic, thin, usually white, clean, tidy, heteronormative, unthreatening kind of physical beauty. There’s not a lot of room for imperfection there. And that’s on purpose, of course, because if the Disney movies are meant to be entertaining, meant to be showcases of the animator’s skills—and as far as I know, today’s Disney studio is still at the top of that technological race—then there’s no room for imperfection. All the images must be perfect, the characters drawn in sharp ink lines and pretty colours and synchronized precisely with the film’s sound.

While the traditional fairy tales do emphasize female beauty and virtue—and that virtue is usually depicted in their skills in domestic work—I think there’s more wiggle room in the stories to interpret how we see the characters and how we see ourselves in the characters. And it’s easy to imagine how the stories would have altered from telling to telling, from teller to teller, to include regional or personal details.

The speaker in The Brightest Thing—the autobiographical “I” of the book—sees herself as both a princess and not a princess, as someone who does and does not qualify for a “happily ever after,” because of what she blames herself for and learns not to blame herself for. The main difference between me and the fairy tale characters is that I live in the contemporary world, and I have more time and access to people and tools and resources that help me cope with my trauma. And one of those resources is, of course, fairy tales themselves.

Rob: This blurring/comparing of the fairy tales and the speaker’s narrative is central to one of the most fascinating poems in The Brightest Thing, “Learning to Be Two.” The poem is broken up into “she” sections, written in the third person, and “I” sections, written in the first person. Both tell the same story of the speaker coming to terms with her rape, years earlier, and finally telling her parents about it, with the support of her new boyfriend. But of course they aren’t the “same”: the perspective shift changes how we engage with the content; how intimate and immediate it feels. Between the two parts is a meeting place of “stories” and “real life,” though that real life is not entirely, or necessarily, yours as the author (the book’s description reads, “The Brightest Thing tells the story of a young woman…”). So the “real” becomes a story and the story perhaps a bit more real.

Could you talk about writing this book in this way, where the narrative hews closely to your own life and also moves far away from it into the worlds of centuries-old fairy tales? If the book is pursuing a “truth,” is it yours? Or does it move beyond you? Is it a narrative truth, or something else? 

Ruth: Oof. Big questions. Yes, “Learning to be Two” is a deliberate juxtaposition/blending of perspectives. Part of the intent is to mimic the way that talking about yourself in the third person can be a very useful coping mechanism post-trauma. But as you mention, it also lends a sort of un-real/magical fairy tale sheen to the personal story, which has its own uses—and is a particularly relevant approach within a book that wrestles with the ways in which the fairy tale lens can be harmful or healing. I wanted to be okay with sitting in clichés and in contradictions. I mean, fairy tales are full of them—and so is life, and the whole idea of living and loving is messy and weird anyway. Why not explore that? Perhaps that’s the truth the book is pursuing. Love is good. I want that to be true. It is true. But how we define love is not always good, and how we pursue it is not always good. That’s getting to the narrative truth of the fairy tale.

It’s one of my dearest wishes that the truth of the book moves beyond me. I really hope that this book finds it readers, and they can find something beautiful and useful in it.

Rob: Which came first, the interest/research in fairy tales or the desire to tell a more personal, present-day story? Did writing about one induce in you a desire, or necessity, to explore the other?

Ruth: As a poet, I’ve always been interested in the personal, and as a person living in the world I’ve always been interested in fairy tales. The Brightest Thing arose out of the simultaneous desires to explore fairy tales and to explore the ways in which present-day stories mirror and diverge from fairy tales—to connect to that community of storytelling we talked about earlier.

I’ve been interested in fairy tales since I was a small child, and I think you could say I’ve been researching them since I first read an authentic retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid and was mortified to discover that not only does she not get the happily-ever-after that the Disney version portrays but that she straight-up dies at the end of the story: I was an extremely furious fourth grader that week. That was probably a formative experience for me. I remember very distinctly the single-headed determination I had when I then proceeded to read every single fairy tale book that my elementary school library had. I was going to find out what other lies the movies had been telling me about my favourite characters. Of course, I didn’t stop loving the movies, but I also became more and more entranced by the strange, sometimes sad beauty of the original stories.

I’ve always felt some kind of urgency about the importance of fairy tales and the injustices that the female characters face (that poor mermaid!), and this sat discontentedly with my rather typical little girl’s desire to be a princess and grow up and live happily ever after. This discontent got more sophisticated as I grew up, gained life experiences both good and bad, and became, almost concurrently, a feminist and a married woman.

Rob: Fourth-grade-you gets her chance to set things straight in the second section of the book, “The Princess Who Felt the Pea,” which is a series of dramatic monologues delivered by female fairy tale characters. This feels like a feminist revision on multiple fronts: the content itself, but also the form, which has most famously been connected to male poets (I’m thinking of Browning, Tennyson, Arnold, etc.,—Browning’s “My Last Duchess” looming largest). When in the writing of the book did you come upon the idea of doing this? Was your goal primarily the idea of giving these silenced or sidelined women a voice (and a voice within a dramatic monologue, at that), or was it more about the particulars of what they had to say?  

Ruth: What a fun question! The book began with the dramatic monologues. The first seed of the book really took hold years ago when I first read Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus (which is not a fun play at all). One of the characters is Titus’s daughter, Lavinia, and her story—which is horrific—gets swept under the rug for the sake of the male characters’ own drama and folly, and that really struck me. I wanted to know more about her; enough about all the nonsense with the men and their war and pride and treacheries. Lavinia is quite literally silenced—her rapists cut off her tongue as well as her hands—and unable to tell her story. She spends most of the play in the background as a pitiful ornament, the perfect victim, and generally we’re expected to be sad about her because of what it means for her father and his reputation; he ends up “mercy” killing her because her purity and beauty are forever tarnished. I wanted to know Lavinia’s story, but I wanted more than just her unhappy ending. Who was she before she was a victim? What did Lavinia say and think about before her tragic wedding day? She didn’t stop being her because of what happened to her, and yet we often treat survivors of (sexual) violence like that: we define them only by the trauma they’ve experienced.

So yes, I wanted to give these silenced women a voice, but I also wanted to know the particulars. Not just the “facts” of the trauma (“this and this” happened or she was a victim of “such and such”), but the impact of it beyond the initial experiences. I wanted to know who these people were before their trauma but also because of it—the aftermath of it. We tend to completely dismiss trauma once the women get their “happily ever after.” Oh, you get to marry the prince, so all the hardship you’ve endured before was totally worth it, right? But of course that’s so dreadfully simple. I have to imagine that a pretty wedding—for those who get a wedding, and obviously that isn’t the case for every character—wouldn’t erase those difficult memories. They’d be bound to have some serious trauma to bring into their true love unions. How did they cope?

Awful things happen to characters in fairy tales. Lavinia’s counterpart in the Grimms’ stories lives but still goes through terrible violence. Fairy tale characters endure abusive (step)parents, vindictive (step)siblings, starvation in the woods, punishing manual labour, torture, sexual violence, the wrath of corrupt kings or witches or ogres…. What did the Little Mermaid’s sisters think about her dying for the sake of a human man who didn’t love her? Did the princess who married the frog king ever feel guilty about nearly killing him when she threw his amphibian body against her bedroom wall? How could the giantess have withstood being married to the bloodthirsty giant—and how could she live without him after he fell from that beanstalk? Did Sleeping Beauty ever blame her parents for failing to protect her from the spindle’s curse? After seeing past his physical ugliness, did Beauty ever doubt the Beast’s love matched her own?

Rob: On the far more mild end of curses and hardships, in “Waiting for Spring, or Something,” you write “I’m still sad here in the city’s / never ending construction, its building and babble.” That very much sounds like Vancouver! You’ve lived in many different parts of BC: Prince George, Victoria, Vancouver, and now Kelowna. Those moves have involved being further from, and closer to, both your family and the world you were familiar with in your childhood. What effect did being in each city have on what you wrote: both the subject matter and the tone? Which city do you attach this book to most readily in your mind?

Ruth: Oh, yes, in my mind this book is most firmly attached to Vancouver, its rain and bustle and loneliness and beauty, and the life I began there. Although we met in Victoria and held our wedding in Prince George, my husband and I spent our newlywed years in Vancouver and it’s where The Brightest Thing was written (with some late addition exceptions since our move to the Okanagan). Each move did have an effect on what I wrote. In particular, when I was in Vancouver, it was easy to become homesick for Prince George, especially during the winter—the West Coast rain was hard on my mental health—and that homesickness leaked into the poems. The poem you mention, “Waiting for Spring, or Something,” explicitly looks backward to Christmas in my hometown. It’s a self-aware idealization of time and place. I think it’s easy to get nostalgic about the past and build it up so that places seems more mythic and beautiful than they might actually have been—our own lives can take on a “once upon a time” quality that we’d like to return to but can’t. I play with that idea—through Prince George, Victoria, and Vancouver—in the book, in part because it works with the idea of looking at my own life, whether happy or sad, as a fairy tale, and also because it grounds the book in the real, contemporary world, which was also important to me.

Rob: Moving to another part of the province, The Brightest Thing was published by Caitlin Press, located on the Sunshine Coast. Though this is your first book, it wasn’t your first time working with Caitlin Press, as you edited an anthology with them (Boobs: Women Explore What It Means to Have Breasts) back in 2016. Did working on that anthology give you any insights which helped you in the writing of your own book?

Ruth: The Brightest Thing already existed in a complete draft by the time that I was working on Boobs. Working on Boobs was a wonderful way to feel engaged with the writing and publishing world and a lot of the feminist, female-body-centred issues that fascinate me while also giving myself time away from The Brightest Thing. I think working on Boobs, and the world of non-fiction, after spending so long entrenched in the world of fairy tales, was useful in terms of keeping me grounded and productive. The success of Boobs, too, gave me a little nudge of confidence as I returned my editing eyes to The Brightest Thing.

The deeper I got into The Brightest Thing the more complex the project got. I realized I had to spend more time making sure that I was being as responsible to the subject matter as I could before the manuscript was ready to be published, but the project was (is!) so dear to me, and felt so urgent, it was difficult to set it aside and gain some necessary distance. Working on Boobs provided a distraction and helped me return to the editing stage of The Brightest Thing with new energy. Of course, Boobs was another project that was extremely meaningful to me in its own right. I’m still reeling from how amazing the experience of working on the anthology was. I believe Boobs is intelligent and necessary and community-building. It’s my hope that The Brightest Thing will prove itself useful too.

Rob: It’s rare that a poet can edit a large anthology before publishing a book of their own. How did you convince Caitlin to get Boobs made? (I never though I’d write that sentence.) Did working with Caitlin on this book grow out of working with them on the anthology? More generally, what role would you say Vici Johnstone and Caitlin Press had in making The Brightest Thing what it is today?

Ruth: Honestly, I just pitched the idea of Boobs to Vici and she was immediately enthusiastic about the idea. This isn’t very humble of me, but the idea for the book was just a really, really, really good idea. No one had done it yet! And the idea was mine, which I think was reason enough at the time to trust that I would be a good editor for the project. I’m very grateful for the amount of trust and space that Caitlin Press gave me for Boobs, and enormously grateful to all the writers who submitted pieces to me.

For The Brightest Thing, once again Vici Johnstone and Caitlin Press really supported me and my vision. Working with Caitlin has been very positive. And can I just say how delighted I am with the cover design that Vici made for me? It’s exactly what I hoped for. Vici found the image for the book. The illustration is by a woman named Virginia Frances Sterrett whose career really ought to be as celebrated as those of Edmund Dulac, Kay Nielsen, all those other (male) canon artists of the Golden Age of Children’s Illustration. I wish I’d known about Sterrett earlier. I might’ve written a poem for her in the same spirit in which I wrote for Dortchen Wild and Mme d’Aulnoy.

Rob: The last poem in The Brightest Thing, “Book of Alternative Services,” hints at the possibility of children in the speaker’s life, in the form of a cat-as-baby proxy (“Can’t fool me, you say, what you want is a baby…”). You now have two children—almost! My wife and you share a due date for our second babies: our baby has just arrived and yours very well might have by the time this interview is posted. I think having children invariably alters how we think about fairy tales, and about the people we were when we first consumed fairy tales in story books, Disney movies, etc. Did having your own children shift how you thought about your subject matter, either at the time of composition or during your final edits for the book?

Ruth: Congrats to you and your wife on your growing family! I love babies.

I don’t think having children (Ah! Plural!) changed the book during its final edits (aside from slowing it down—as you well know, babies are very time-consuming), but I do think about how and when I’ll share fairy tales with my children. When I lived in Vancouver and was composing the first drafts of the book, I was teaching K–12 speech arts full-time, and then, as now, I used fairy tales in the classroom quite often as ways to teach the traditions of storytelling, and the performance of storytelling (versus the performance of memorized or read prose). Fairy tales are just so rich—there’s so much to be mined there—and they really do resonate in the mind in a way which seems magical, or sacred, or primal, or necessary (but which of course psychologists and other writers have tried to research and explain in less mystical terms). Fairy tales talk about our most basic desires and fears—of possessiveness and abandonment, of poverty and wealth, of starvation and greed, of loneliness and love. I know they have their problems—I wrote a book about them!—but I also think they’re wonderful. They still deserve a place on our bookshelves.

I think there are responsible ways to share fairy tales—by sharing a diverse range of them, by talking critically about the ways in which gender, class, violence, love, etc. is depicted in them—and I think it’s worth doing that work to do so. They’re worth preserving and adapting and telling and retelling and making our own. And wasn’t that one of their original purposes anyhow, back in the age of oral storytelling? To build community, to share stories, to pass on dreams of wish-fulfillment, to come up with ideas for problem-solving, ways to safely criticize the way that others hold power over us and to discover happiness?

Our daughter has a very minimum amount of anything Disney or princess—although we’re open to that changing as she begins to have her own preferences—but she does have a few board books that depict fairy tales, and I recently achieved “Peak Ruth” when she pointed at the princess in one of her books and declared that the character was “Mommy.” I look forward to sharing fairy tales with her—and her sibling—as she grows up and to the conversations we’ll be able to have about her ability to tell her own story.

Rob: Congratulations to you as well! In many ways it does seem like you’ve found your “happily ever after” (I mean, yeesh, you’re even a princess now!). Perhaps that’s why, in the last section of the book, the place reserved in most fairy tales for the “happily ever after,” you chose to include poems about depression, self-harm, arguments, etc. The end of the book is still very much a happy one, but it’s a realistic type of “happy.” On this subject, you write, “the happily ever after / is the return to the disenchanted life” and, elsewhere, the speaker’s love is described, via the moon, as “perfectly ordinary and rare.” Why was it important for you to end the book in this way?

Ruth: “Love Is Not All (Sonnet XXX)” is one of my favourite sonnets—do you know it? Not everyone loves Edna St. Vincent Millay (I gather you’re more of a William Carlos Williams guy)...

Rob: No, I actually lean toward Millay (she’s just far less meme-friendly). “What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why (Sonnet XLIII)” is one of my favourite poems. I hadn’t read “Love Is Not All,” though, and now you have me crying. I’m going to blame the sleep deprivation!

Ruth: “What lips my lips have kissed…” is another of my favourites. I’m pleased I got to be the one to introduce you to “Love Is Not All” (and I wish you a good night’s sleep!).  It’s a lovely poem, isn’t it? “Love is not all” is a recurring thought behind much of my poetry, although any direct reference to Millay left the book many revisions ago. We have other needs—food, water, shelter, medicine—that are arguably more important than love, but we tend to treat love, especially romantic love, as if it can cure anything that’s wrong in our lives. Fairy tales tend to propagate that idea, as I mentioned before; it’s as if we believe that achieving the “happily ever after” will make our other problems go away. That’s not true. We’re still going to be sad sometimes. Maybe even more than sometimes. We may still struggle with depression, with self-harm, with arguments, with the aftermath of sexual violence and other traumas, with sexism and homophobia and all kinds of awful things. Love, even good love, can’t make all the bad stuff go away. But good love is still really… good—and good love can come from anywhere, not just from romantic partners. It can’t magic the bad stuff away but it can help.

You’re right that it was important for me to be honest about the messiness, maybe even improbability, of “happily ever after” but it was also important for me that it did end on the hope for a kind of “happily ever after”—probably because I’m still just a romantic at heart and always will be, but also because I think that we need to be honest about how restorative and nourishing love can be. It’s usually easier to believe in the bad stuff than in the good, but I need more tenderness than I need bleakness, and I think that’s true for everyone.

Rob: What do you think a younger version of yourself would think of this more honest “happily ever after,” and what would you say to her about it, if you had the chance?

Ruth: I think a younger version of myself would probably be pretty okay with this more honest “happily ever after.” I’m not sure what I would say to her if I had the chance. Maybe I’d point out to her that the majority of her “good love” people—the people who love her well and who she will love for her whole life—are already in her life. I might tell her not to be impatient for her “true love” to come along, though he will. I’d remind her to spend time with those lovely people she already has in her life. I’d tell her to go hug her mom, dad, brother, her best friend Matt. And if I was daring I might tell her that all four of them will one day make pretty darned spectacular, very moving speeches on her wedding day. And even later down the road, that every single one of them will insist on a signed copy of her book of love poems.

Ruth Daniell is an award-winning writer whose poems have appeared in Arc Poetry MagazineGrainRoom magazine, Qwerty, the Antigonish Review, and Event. The recipient of the 2013 Young Buck Poetry Prize with CV2 and the winner of the 2016 Nick Blatchford Occasional Verse Contest with The New Quarterly, Daniell is the author of The Brightest Thing (Caitlin Press, 2019) and the editor of Boobs: Women Explore What It Means to Have Breasts (Caitlin Press, 2016). She holds a bachelor of arts degree (honours) in English literature and writing from the University of Victoria and a master of fine arts in creative writing from the University of British Columbia. She lives with her family in Kelowna, BC.


Getting closer to the truth: "Bounce House" by Jennica Harper

The following interview is part eight of a nine-part series of conversations with BC poets which I conducted in April 2019. All nine were originally posted at ReadLocalBC.ca.

Excerpt from Bounce House – Jennica Harper

Once, within twenty-four hours, I’d washed
both their hair. Each fine & lightly waved,
the saturation darkening, straightening. One
had been a wash of mercy: fingers massaging
a scalp untouched for weeks. Then the other,
to get the guck out, honey & brambles, detritus
of a day not worth remembering – that one had
been a mercy for the washer; for these hands.

Reprinted with permission from 
Bounce House by Jennica Harper 
(Anvil Press, 2019).

Rob Taylor: Bounce House, your forthcoming Anvil Press book, is a long poem which explores that in-between place many young parents face: raising a new generation (their children) while losing another (their parents). Just as you start to gain insights on your own parents (having become one yourself), they begin slipping away from you.

In your poem the speaker is stretched between the world of her young daughter and her dying mother (which involves cross-country flights, underscoring the great divide she’s trying to hold together). Mid-way through the poem you write: “I’d worn her pearls to the funeral. / Dressed in floral, like a woman or // a woman in costume as a woman.” Could you talk a bit about what raising your daughter taught you about your mother, who died in 2017? What watching your daughter being raised taught you about yourself?

Jennica Harper: I always understood, intellectually, that everyone was a child once, including my mother. But when I was bouncing back and forth between helping build a world for a kid and watching the world be un-built for my mom, I really felt it in my gut. That my mom was once a kid, a teenager, a young woman entering hopefully into a doomed marriage. That my kid would one day be where I am, waiting for me to die – sometimes impatiently. And that my kid would one day be the one dying.

I suddenly had much more empathy for my mom. There’s a poem in the book that alludes to the fact that when I was young, I changed my first name. I felt, for the first time, how that might have hurt my mother (even though the name Jennica was her idea.) I feel almost hyper-aware of the little wounds each generation inflicts on the others. A full life means lots of little wounds.

Rob: Oof. Yeah, ain’t that the truth. I love how deeply you explore this difficult set of realizations: a poem on the theme that’s so long it spans a whole book! That said, Bounce House isn’t your first book-length poem/suite of poems. That was What It Feels Like For a Girl (Anvil Press, 2008), and after it came Wood (Anvil Press, 2013) which contained multiple section-long suites of poems on particular themes, often written in particular styles.

I’m interested in how you come upon a writing “project”: do you write one-off poems and then find a theme or style gathering between them, or does the idea come first and the poems follow? I’m curious particularly about how Bounce House came to be: did you take the same type of approach as you did for previous books?

Jennica: I don’t start a book thinking “this is going to be a book.” I can’t think top-down at the beginning; that comes later. So far my approach has been to just start writing. A couple of poet friends (Marita Dachsel and Laisha Rosnau) and I periodically set aside a month and commit to writing a poem a day. Sometimes this results in some great writing (much of both Marita’s and Laisha’s recent collections were drafted as poem-a-day poems).

For me, I have found the daily writing practice doesn’t usually result in great poems, but it does make me realize what’s picking away at my brain. I often discover the thing I want to write about this way – looking at 10 drafts of poems and realizing what they have in common. Bounce House began with a poem-a-day poem contemplating the connection between my kid standing on a basketball, not believing she was going to fall off it, and Flat Earthers. For a couple of weeks, I wrote these short poems about my daughter, my mom who had recently died, and kind of meditated on the globe, basketballs, and all things round. Once I started seeing themes within those quick drafts, I started new poems with more intent.

Rob: Wow, that’s amazing that your poem-a-day months can be so productive! I can’t imagine pulling that off. Do you still write single poems, and if so, will you ever find a way to give them a home, or is it themed-books from here on out?

Jennica: I do sometimes write single poems! But I fully admit I’m drawn to groupings. I don’t know why. If I write a one-off I like, I sometimes search for a jumping-off point within that poem to another one.

Rob: The form of the poems in Bounce House—four couplets per page—is very compelling. It features the compression of a haiku (or, dare I say, a tweet), the appearance of a ghazal, and the energy of a sonnet (short, square-ish, with that last couplet often snapping it into place at the end). How did you come to this shape? Why do you think it worked for this particular book?

Jennica: Thank you! The four-couplet shape was instinctive more than conscious. It’s not dissimilar to the form of the poems in What It Feels Like For a Girl: they’re also four-couplets apiece. I do think of them a little like pithy sonnets.

If the form works for this particular book, I think it’s because the piece overall isn’t narrative so much as meditative or impressionistic. I hope the poems add up to a whole, but it’s not intended to be linear and come to a “conclusion” per se. In fact, there was a time in which my editor Michael V. Smith and I discussed the possibility that the book might be presented as cards that can be shuffled and read/experienced in any order. That didn’t feel quite right in the end, but I do feel that these little boxes exploring one, or maybe two ideas, provide pieces of an experience without necessarily all the connective tissue. I leave that to the reader.

Rob: As you’ve now written in this particular length and shape in two books, to what extent has writing this way become natural to you? Did you start “thinking” in the form, and not needing to corral them much to get them into the shape, or was it always a struggle to edit into being?

Have you written much poetry since you finished Bounce House? If so, did you find it easy to “shake” the form and write something else?

Jennica: While the four-couplet shape was natural, the drafts had wildly varying line lengths. They were much less boxy. There were also a number of poems interspersed throughout the manuscript that weren’t four-couplet box poems. I thought of them as interstitials.

But both my first trusted reader, Marita, and my editor Michael pushed me to keep the form consistent: the poems as boxes without the “filler” of the other poems in between. I think Michael’s argument to me was that there was great tension in just the compact poems, and I should lean in to that. Let the tension remain without defusing it; let people be uncomfortable even.

The truth is I needed the encouragement – I think I was instinctively leaning back from the intensity of the box poems. I needed to know they were strong enough and would carry the book.

It has been surprisingly hard to shake the form. I don’t think I’ve written a poem I’ve liked since finishing the book. Which I hadn’t fully realized until now. THANKS, ROB.

Rob: Ha! Any time. Now to get you to over-think another formal quirk in the book (it’s kinda my thing!).

Bounce House follows the growing trend of referring to presumably-real people by their initials. In this case, the daughter is “D.”, the brother “B.”, and the husband “J.” (which align with their real names, listed in the dedications at the end of the book). It seems to position the book in between autobiography and fiction—the character’s almost the real thing. But maybe I’m misreading that entirely! Maybe it just helps shorten the poems so they fit the boxy shape!

Why did you make the choice to use initials? What freedoms or restrictions do you think it put on writing about your “real” life? And, more generally, would you say this book is autobiography-in-verse, or—like the initials—a little adjacent to the real thing? 

Jennica: I didn’t know this was a trend! I thought it was an old-fashioned Victorian epistolary thing, very “Dear Reader.” There were two reasons I chose to use this convention. First, as you suggest – if it’s not their name, I’m not married to some kind of literal truth about these people. There’s some flexibility in the telling. The second reason was purely practical: I couldn’t imagine, in the size of poems I was writing, repeating those names over and over again. There just wasn’t space.

Rob: Picking up on this idea of “flexibility in the telling,” midway through Bounce House you write, “This is not a story. I want to narrativize / but the planks don’t meet clean. It’s all // slivers and gaps between the slats.” Beyond how damn lovely this is—the sound of it!—these lines contain an interesting statement on poetics, for the book and perhaps for writing in general, with the couplets as planks and the white space between them “all slivers and gaps.”

Poems don’t align, not entirely. They have gaps (and slivers!) inevitably, and often intentionally. If a poem’s “truth” isn’t a narrative truth (if the “truth” that a poem tells is not a “true story”), then what is it? What kind of truth (if any) are you seeking as a reader when you pick up a book of poetry, especially a book which contains seemingly autobiographical first-person narrative poems? Are you looking for something different than what you’re looking for when you pick up a (prose) memoir?

Jennica: Thank you again. I’ve thought a lot about what I want a poem to be. At one point there were more “meta” poems in this manuscript but, like the “interstitial” poems I’d had at one point, they defused the tension too much. I had a lot of drafts of poems that were asking: “Why write these poems at all?” That’s an internal conflict I have much of the time (“Who cares about this?”) and more than ever before with this book. People have parents who die, and people have children who need raising, and what is so special about my voice on either subject? Can I write something that is both wholly true and actually, you know, interesting?

The conclusion I’m coming to is I’m not as interested in narrative truth as I am in authentic emotion (including ugly ones). My goal is to get closer to that truth: finding something raw and real. I don’t think I’m perfect at this. It’s just a goal. I hope Bounce House gets at a particular way of experiencing grief – non-linear, circling back on itself. Maybe some readers will relate to that emotion, if not my specific experiences.

Rob: Speaking of themes that have traditionally been unfairly hampered by “Who cares about this?” questions, Bounce House is also “on trend” in that it’s part of a larger surge of writing on motherhood (this Spring season alone sees books specifically on motherhood by Elizabeth Ross and Adrienne Gruber, as one small example). Do you have any thoughts on why that’s happening now? Did any particular writers, or books on motherhood, inspire you in taking on this project? 

Jennica: Feeling like I was part of a trend was definitely daunting for me. As I mentioned, I really wasn’t sure I had anything unique to bring to the subject. On the other hand, has it been so long, in the grand scheme of things, that women have been writing about motherhood? No. Not compared to men writing about lovers. So bring it on!

I was almost explicitly not reading other writers on the subject when I was working on the book. Some poets that were influential (not formally, but in energy) were Ada Limon, Sina Queyras, and Kim Addonizio.

Rob: On the theme of influences, Bounce House opens with a Van Halen quote—”Might as well jump. Jump!”—which is one hell of a way to start a poetry collection! Reading the book, though, the song lyric that kept returning to me was “She means we’re bouncing into Graceland” from Paul Simon’s “Graceland”(late in the book you refer to death as “slip-slid[ing] / into the dark,” which seems like another nod to Simon). The girl from New York City who calls herself the “human trampoline” feels so at home in this book of bouncing balls, spinning globes, and turning wheels; of falling, flying, and tumbling in turmoil.

When in the process of writing the book did you come to the title “Bounce House”? Was it in any way tied to Simon’s “human trampoline,” or do you think yourself and Simon were just on similar wavelengths when it comes to the good and the bad, the joy and the danger, of bouncing?

Jennica: This is amazing. Slip-sliding is definitely a reference. But now I’m wondering how much of Paul Simon is in the book – in spirit if not directly. The complete Simon & Garfunkel collection was in constant rotation in my house growing up. At my mom’s service, we had a singalong to “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” And after she died, I saw Paul Simon live for the first time, and could not stop connecting songs to memories of her. So it’s entirely possible he’s everywhere in this.

The title came from a phrase used in a draft of a poem that never made it into the collection. But isn’t it fun to say? So round and pleasing.

Rob: And it led to a hell of a cover! It and the book’s interior are illustrated by poet andrea bennett. The interior images consist of whimsical line drawings of the (largely) circular objects mentioned in the poems (a quarter, a basketball, a ball of yarn, etc.). The objects aren’t always located next to the section which mentions them: sometimes they precede the mention and sometimes they serve to remind us of a previous section of the poem. How did the idea of interior illustrations come about? How do you think the book reads differently with them in there?

Jennica: They are largely round objects! I was tempted to keep them all round, but andrea had ideas for other ones (for example, the House of Birthday Cards) that I liked too much not to include. Choosing the images was very collaborative – I had some I knew I wanted, and she proposed some. But for the most part, they’re circular. Spheres amongst all those boxes.

The idea for illustrations was instinctive. I just had a feeling that this might feel a little like an artifact instead of a conventional book. I think they serve partly as breaths between movements. I wanted the order to be fluid because that’s really what I wanted to get at: memories returning unexpectedly. Everything part of the churn. And I wanted the reader to sometimes be anticipating some motif or moment that had yet to come. I resisted logic and linearity – I wanted the experience to be full of undertows. To be messy.

Rob: You work as a writer and producer for television, most recently as co-creator and executive producer of the CTV comedy Jann. That, combined with parenthood, must not leave must space for your own creative writing. How/where do you fit the poetry in?  

Jennica: I’m very excited and grateful that another form of writing is my “day job.” I love what I do. Poetry definitely takes second (really maybe seventh?) priority. But I like the balance. When I have time to return to poetry, usually during longer hiatuses from TV, it’s an amazing change of gears. What I love about my poetry life is there’s no pressure there. None of the intense deadlines I get in my TV life. I find it freeing and really rewarding to come back to. Like a summer romance…

Rob: Do you find writing for TV influences your poetry in some way, or vice-versa?

Jennica: I think there are a lot of similarities between screenwriting and poetry. They’re both about crafting an image, and often use language economically. Nothing thrills me more than figuring out how to say something in the fewest words possible and still have an impact. Which you’d never guess from the answers to these questions!

Rob: As an interviewer who asks long-winded questions, I’m not about to throw stones at your bounce house over your thorough answers. I love it!

At the end of the book you thank two poets, Michael V. Smith and Marita Dachsel. You’ve talked a bit about each of them here, but could you expand on the role both of them have played in your life, and in the creation of this particular book?

Jennica: Marita is my best friend and first reader for all my poetry. She’s been instrumental in how my last three books came together. She actively helped me with the order and structure of What It Feels Like for a Girl. And she’s the one who, after I wrote a poem about Sally Draper having an abortion, insisted I write more Sally Draper poems! Which I did, for Wood. For Bounce House, Marita helped me figure out what the heart of the book should be (and what I should leave out). Basically, I trust her to prevent me from making a fool of myself!

Michael V. is a wonderful friend and an extraordinary writer. I hadn’t asked him to read or edit my poetry before, but I had read his book My Body Is Yours (Arsenal Pulp Press) on one of the weekends I was visiting my mom in the hospital. One aspect of the book is Michael’s father’s death, and all the big and small revelations surrounding it and their relationship. I was moved by the book and how Michael wrote it with such clear-eyed self-awareness and empathy for his father. And I love Michael’s poetry. It seemed a natural fit to ask him to edit the book, and I’m so grateful he said yes. He was incredibly supportive yet honest, and pushed me a little, which is what I wanted.

Rob: Speaking of long-term collaborators, this is your third book (and eleventh year!) with Anvil Press. What has that relationship been like for you? In your acknowledgments you specifically thank Brian Kaufman and Karen Green at Anvil for their “faith”: do you think their continued support of your writing has influenced the kind of projects you’ve taken on, or perhaps bolstered your courage to go after them?

Jennica: I’m really grateful Anvil has allowed me to go in VERY different directions for all three of these books. They don’t expect me to have a “brand” – they’re supportive of me and seem to be fine with me pursuing really different kinds of work. I do think feeling like I have a “home” with Anvil
allows me to pursue experiments and take risks.

Jennica Harper is the author of three previous books of poetry: Wood (Anvil Press, 2013), which was shortlisted for the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize, What It Feels Like for a Girl (Anvil Press, 2008), and The Octopus and Other Poems (Signature Editions, 2006). Her poetry has been translated for the stage (Initiation Trilogy), gone viral, and won Silver at the National Magazine Awards. Jennica also writes for television and lives with her family in Vancouver.