roll of nickels year in review: the interviews

In 2016 this blog didn't die, no one wrote an open letter about it, and it wasn't cast off in a surge of right-wing populism, so I'm putting it down as a good year. On top of that, 2016 was Roll of Nickels' 10th birthday, and we celebrated by trimming half its name and going out and buying it a slick new baby-blue wardrobe (complete with sideways tree).

This year also saw a four-year high in posts, spurred on by my BC Poetry 2016 feature in April (a new BC poetry book profiled each day) and my endless, shameless promotion of my new poetry collection, The News. Along the way I added 46 new quotes to my ever-growing (almost 400 total!) list of quotes on writing, and bombarded my readers, Vancouverites and (poor, sweet) non-Vancouverites alike with local event announcements.

The most fun for me, though, and increasingly the reason I keep this blog running, were the interviews. I conducted seven this year, right on my yearly average since 2012. I know, loyal reader, you've read them all in great detail. But in case you, too, have a toddler and can't remember what you ate for breakfast, let alone the interviews you read in March, here's a refresher:

January 2016: For Heavensake I Don't Have in MFA in Feelings: Kingdom by Elizabeth Ross

"I guess repentance is an aesthetic, too." - Elizabeth Ross

March 2016: Who Wants to Forget and Who Wants to Remember: 100 Days by Juliane Okot Bitek

""Never again" has also shown itself to be a promise that is true for some and not others." - Juliane Okot Bitek

March 2016: Outside of the Rhetoric: Dagoretti Corner by Ngwatilo Mawiyoo

"As far as I can tell we’re not yet at a place where “African poetry audiences” are necessarily aware of poets across the continent." - Ngwatilo Mawiyoo

May 2016: Maybe Memory is Just Part of the Event: serpentine loop by Elee Kraljii Gardiner

"Aren’t all of us always outside some language? Isn’t being a human a constant act of translation?" - Elee Kraljii Gardiner

June 2016: When You Embrace the Power of Not Caring, Everything Rhymes with Orange: Country Club by Andy McGuire

"The leathery Ohioan I saw every day at the pool led my spirit-animal entourage." - Andy McGuire

October 2016: Christ In Heaven, Isn't That The Most Depressing Sentence You've Ever Read?: Caribou Run by Richard Kelly Kemick

"Christ alive, these are difficult questions. What ever happened to, “Do you write with a pen or pencil?”" - Richard Kelly Kemick

October 2016: Juggled Casually in with the Ordinary Messy Rest of It: The Fire Extinguisher by Miranda Pearson

"I suppose writing this book was a way of fighting back, wrestling back some control. Me holding a fire extinguisher of poems up against all that, saying “get back!”" - Miranda Pearson

Thanks once again this year to PRISM international for simultaneously posting my interviews on their site. You can read all my interviews (forty and counting!) in one long stream here, or pick some out from an alphabetized list here.

Happy New Year, all! Here's hoping we all survive 2017!


January Dead Poets Lineup!

The next Dead Poets Reading Series event will take place at the Vancouver Public Library's Central Branch on Janaury 8th, 2017, from 3-5 PM. (Due to flooding in the Alice MacKay room, the reading will be held on the library's 3rd floor in the "L3 Program Area").

It will feature:

Charles Baudelaire (1821 - 1867), read by Steven Brown
Lawrence Ytzhak Braithwaite (1963 - 2008), read by Cecily Nicholson
Kenneth Koch (1925 - 2002), read by Kayla Czaga
Egill Skallagrímsson (904-955), read by Emily Osborne
Alfred Lord Tennyson (1809 - 1892), read by Kim Fu

Attendance is free. For more info, visit the DPRS website.

I hope to see you there!


going forward anyway

I think one of the ways poetry is so vital and, by proximity or extension, myth, is how it can witness and then respond to our times with a metaphorical translation. I’m really interested in how poetry can assert another species of narrative into the conversation with its imaginative design and construction. And how it asserts wildness back into language. Poetry reminds words of their fur and their hoofs, of their seaweed and their hurricanes and, in the same way, reminds us of the more complete version of ourselves. In this way, it’s a crucial lifeline and energy source for a variety of kinds of languages: visual, sensual, emotional, political, animal, botanical, aquatic, astronomical. The list is endless and poetry is the host inviting us to a collective conversation where anything is possible. To that end, there’s a vulnerability involved in being in the proximity of poetry, of being comfortable not knowing the lay of the land but going forward anyway, whether it’s reading poems or writing them. These are good things to practice right now, I think. Crucial, even.

- Sue Goyette, in interview with Hannah Green over at CV2. You can read the whole thing here.


Vancouver Sun Review of The News

Friend and Dead Poets Reading Series co-coordinator Christopher Levenson (cue my first awkward all-poets-know-each-other moment of book promotion season) wrote a very thoughtful review of The News for the Vancouver Sun:

Review: The News poems full of casual, offhand profundity

I appreciate so many parts of the review (including the disclaimer "Clearly no baby shower material"), but my favourite part comes at the end:

His charming and insightful blending of life and death, memories and premonitions, often catches the reader off guard with casual offhand profundity.

As a slide-show of the state of mankind it is both endearing and alarming but always chillingly authentic. Thanks to his poetic directness we are emotionally with him and his family all the way.

The Sun being a member of Postmedia, the review also turned up in the Vancouver Province, Calgary Herald, Edmonton Journal, Saskatoon StarPhoenix, Windsor Star, Ottawa Citizen, Montreal Gazette, whatever Canada.com is, and something called WN.com, which decided to pair the review with this photo of a demon clown:

Sadly, not my worst ever author photo...

Please think about this demon clown the next time someone tells you media conglomeration and a proliferation of fake news sites are destroying the healthy flow of information. There is hope and beauty everywhere, if we only look.

Thank you to Christopher, and to the Sun, for giving space and time to a poetry book. I feel incredibly fortunate.


not everything gets written down

A reason to broaden the definition of political is because each individual is different, and our poems will necessarily reflect that. In a democracy, that seems to me to mean that those who must write as witness to the savagery of, say, war should do so — that’s part of the record of what it means to be alive right now in 2016. So too, though, is the intimacy between a parent and child, so too is the agony of private despair that can blind us to what also counts as part of life — joy, in its myriad forms. To be alive has never been one thing, any more than a period of history is. At the same time, people are complex creatures, and we manifest our sensibilities in many ways. Writing is just one of them. Which is to say, speaking for myself at least, my poems are simply how one aspect of my sensibility gets enacted; other parts might be manifest in how I dress, or interact with others, or by the hobbies I choose. Not everything gets written down, nor does it have to be. We should no more make assumptions about who a person is, based on that person’s poetry, than we should be assuming how they should write, and about what, based on who we think a person is.

- Carl Phillips, from his essay "A Politics of Mere Being" in the December 2016 issue of Poetry Magazine. You can read the whole thing here.


correctly political

There are countless aspects to a self; race and sexual orientation are only two of them, it seems to me, neither the least nor the most 
important. It’s more accurate to say there’s a constant shifting of 
hierarchy, depending on any given moment in experience. Am I a gay black man when roasting a chicken at home for friends? Sure. But that’s not what I’m most conscious of at the time. Am I necessarily, then, stripped of political resonance at that moment? Or is not the sharing of food with others a small social contract analogous to the contract of giving and taking — of interaction — that we call citizenship in a democratic society? Is this a stretch? Can we only be political when we are speaking to specific issues of identity, exclusion, injustice?

Resistance might be the one thing that governs what we think of as political. And in that light, I’d hardly call roasting a chicken a political act (unless perhaps I were to roast a chicken and serve it defiantly to my vegetarian friends ... ). But who determines what the things we choose to resist should be? We’ve heard the term “politically correct” forever, it seems. But increasingly there seems a push to be 
correctly political. How this translates is that there are a small group of things that we — by which I mean poets of outsiderness, of whatever kind — are expected to write from and about, and it comes down to an even smaller group of identity markers (race, gender, sexual orientation, as I’ve mentioned), when in fact there are so many aspects by which identity gets both established and recognized. This is in no way to say that the identity markers I’ve mentioned aren’t immensely important; they just aren’t solely important.

- Carl Phillips, from his essay "A Politics of Mere Being" in the December 2016 issue of Poetry Magazine. You can read the whole thing here.


Incite Reading Series - January 18th

I'm thrilled to be taking part in the Vancouver Writers Fest's Incite Reading Series this January. I'll be one of four poets reading at the opening event of the 2017 season. The details:

Incite Reading Series
Wednesday, January 18, 2017, 7:30 pm (doors 7:00 pm)
CBC Studio 700
700 Hamilton Street, Vancouver
Featuring: Rachel Rose, me, Patricia Young and Jan Zwicky!
RSVP here.

Two items of note here:

1. That list of names is alphabetical! Rose, Taylor, Young, Zwicky. It's like they did that thing where your high school teacher picks names from the bottom of the class list, just to shake things up.

2. That list of names!!! I'm incredibly fortunate to read with these three. It will be especially meaningful to me to read with Jan Zwicky, whose Lyric Philosophy was an important guide for me during the writing of The News (and one of the reasons I sought out Gaspereau as a publisher).

For regular attendees of the series, please note that this event will be held across the street from the usual venue (the VPL) in CBC Vancouver's Studio 700. The VPL's lower floors are still being cleaned up from the flooding back in September (Dead Poets will be relocated again, too, for the same reason).

I hope you can make it out to the reading. Even if you're sick of hearing me read, the rest of this lineup will be worth putting up with me for a few minutes!


Tuesday Reading Extravanganza

The Lower Mainland will be home to two killer readings next Tuesday (and I'm only biased in saying that about one of them). First, at 1 PM in Abbotsford, Jordan Abel, Bren Simmers and Kevin Spenst will be reading at the University of the Fraser Valley's bookstore.

I'm currently teaching a poetry workshop at UFV, and these three's books have played prominent roles in the class, so it will be a pleasure to have them out to speak with students and give a reading (which I'll be hosting!). If you're out in the Valley, come say hello:

That evening, in Vancouver, local poets Aislinn Hunter and Danielle LaFrance will be joined by Patrick Warner (St. John's) and Robyn Sarah (Montreal) for one hell of a knockout lineup of readings:

I hope to see you at one or the other (and a BIG gold star if I see you at both!).


Vancouver Reading - Tomorrow at Twisted Poets!

I'm very happy to be featuring at Twisted Poets tomorrow, alongside Danny Peart. Danny is a heck of a guy, and Twisted Poets is like a home to me. Also, it was at Twisted Poets a year and a half ago that I first publicly read from my draft manuscript of The News (at that time, I was about 14 weeks in). The encouragement I received from the audience helped keep me going to the finish line.

It should be a special night. I hope to see you there. The details, in non-poster form:

Twisted Poets Literary Salon
Thursday, November 24th, 7:00 PM
Cottage Bistro
4468 Main St, Vancouver
Featuring: Danny Peart and me!
By Donation


The best/worst part of a book tour...

is coming home with more books than when you left. Five years back, on tour for The Other Side of Ourselves, I picked up an absurd 24 new books along the way.

This time around I was determined to restrain myself, and in my five-day tour I managed to buy only 12 new books. I know, right? I am a strong and capable man.

In keeping with the style of my last tour-book-haul post, here are the mighty twelve, with notes on their city of acquisition:

Digressions: Prose Poems, Collage Poems, and Sketches, Robyn Sarah (Montreal)

Slow States of Collapse, Ashley-Elizabeth Best (Montreal)

All The Gold Hurts My Mouth, Katherine Leyton (Picton)

The Last White House at the End of the Row of White Houses, Michael Casteels (Picton)

Model Disciple, Michael Prior (Montreal)

Forests of the Medieval World, Don Coles (Toronto)

The Prinzhorn Collection, Don Coles (Toronto)

What if red ran out, Katia Grubisic (Toronto)

A Sparrow Came Down Resplendent, Stuart Ross (Toronto)

How Festive the Ambulance, Kim Fu (Toronto)

Beautiful Country, Robert Wrigley (Toronto)

Infinite Citizen of the Shaking Tent, Liz Howard (Picton)

The tour itself was grand - it was really nice to reconnect with people I met on my first spin out east (or "out middle" as the transplanted Maritimers liked to point out), and to gain a number of new friends and readers.

AND I got to be part of not one but two reader collages (at the Resonance Reading Series in Montreal, and the Pivot Reading Series in Toronto):

Resonance Reading, w/ Margaret Christakos, Michael Prior,
Ashley-Elizabeth Best and Michelle Winters. 
Pivot Reading, w/ Stevie Howell, Leesa Dean and Erin Wunker.

Thanks to all who organized, attended, hosted, ferried, welcomed, etc. It was a wonderful, if blurry, five days!


Ubyssey Review of The News

The Ubyssey's Curtis Seufert has written the first (of hopefully many) book review for The News. You can read it here:

The News is a powerful meditation on birth and empathy

Curtis came to my Vancouver launch, and followed up with a short interview with me as he prepared his review. It's a very thoughtful, very generous piece. My favourite part:

"While other works might choose either to be only a personal journal, or simply a critique of the state of the world and humanity, it is Taylor’s journey towards a more empathetic perspective that allows him to transcend both."

Thank you to Curtis and The Ubyssey for the coverage!


Escaping After All

Leonard Cohen on Hydra, with Nancy Bacal. 1964. Source.

In July, Marta and I hauled our son, Lucas, up and down the near-endless narrow stairways of the Greek island of Hydra, looking for Leonard Cohen's house - the house where he lived with Marianne, and where he lamented as the town's first telephone wires were installed: "I would stare out the window at these telephone wires and think how civilization had caught up with me and I wasn't going to be able to escape after all." From this came Bird on the Wire.

That day in July it was +35° and we all nearly sweat to death. We found no house, no Leonard, but instead came upon unforgettable views, and donkeys cooling in the shade of abandoned buildings, and at door after door and window after window, his quietly welcoming former neighbours.

Now I think of Lucas growing up in a world without Leonard Cohen, and Marta and I growing alongside him. The man will forever be as elusive as his house was to us that day. Even following closely behind his poems and songs we won't catch him, not really, not ever (he's finally eluded us, and our civilization). But it will be a good journey, nonetheless, and what we will find will be as beautiful and sustaining and open-hearted as what we will miss. Maybe more so.

Thank you, Leonard, for the poems, the songs, the path you've left us, snaking up into the hills.


your precise allergy

15. To me the most profound point of integration between experience and art is in rendering faithfully and resonantly a well-known trope. To do so is to surrender, to submerge the ego in something greater than itself. The ego wants to be iconoclastic and “experimental” and puts up a hell of a fight. If you can allow yourself to commit the pedestrian sin of employing a recognizable trope, or somehow sneak a recognizable trope into your work by accident (then, upon seeing it, realize you like it, and feel reluctant to strike it), the reward of seeing something universally understandable drawn by your own hand, which then becomes not recognizably your hand at all but a vessel of culture and humanity, is one of the sovereign experiences, I think, of being alive.


27. One of the many reasons why “giving up” and “being lazy and insincere” is necessary to create good art (cf. Wilde, Nabokov) is because once you have internalized a trope to the point where you can employ it at the drop of a hat with no effort, it feels to you fake and insincere. But if you maintain your precious allergy to something that feels easy and understandable, you’ll never allow yourself to employ this trope which, despite being pure math to you now, once meant so much to you, and still has power for others who don’t spend all day every day dissecting art.


93. You find what works for you. However, you cannot choose what kind of (good) artist you will become. Be humble enough to share the gifts you actually have with the world (even if they don’t feel cool), be nimble enough to follow your genius, and be open enough to dabble and discover it.

- Three of Stephen Thomas' "14 Notes on Tropes" (itself an excerpt from a presumably much longer essay) over at The Puritan's Town Crier blog. You can read the whole thing here.


the words are chameleons

English is a fun tool. It is much more malleable than French, especially for a non-native speaker. Lucien Carr, [Jack] Kerouac’s friend at Columbia, wrote that they were both constantly “overawed by the versatility of the English language.” The poetic form and the English language allowed me to shed two rigidities: that of classical prose and that of French grammar. In English, verbs and nouns often have the same form (a race, to race; a treasure, to treasure). Conjugation is childishly simple: just add an S to the third person singular. The words retain their core while fulfilling many functions. The words are chameleons. They keep the same shape, but change colour. In French, the words have to accessorize instead, put on -er, -ais, -ette. They have to put on hats, pearl necklaces, the right capes or the right masks in order to switch roles. The language is much more dressed up. When I write in English, I feel stripped of the costumes.

- Dominique Bernier-Cormier, from his essay "Taking English for a Spin" over on The Puritan's Town Crier blog. You can read the whole thing here.


Some Vancouver Launch Photos

Thank you to everyone who came out to my Vancouver launch for The News on Thursday night - I felt so honoured to be in your company, and especially to get to hear some great new (and old) work from Aislinn, Karen and Raoul.

Some photos are below. Thanks to Kevin Spenst, Danny Peart and Kat Louman-Gardner for taking these!

Raoul Fernandes opens the night.

Raoul, trying to settle the rowdy crowd, during his first ever hosting gig.

Aislinn Hunter, refusing to read about monkey brains.

Karen Solie, delivering her also monkey-brain free (though not bed bug free) set.

Raoul, opening the second half with his magical baby books and kind pizza man.

I took the stage, bringing with me my formidable shadow.



Lucas, stunned after coming out of hiding in the green room, with super-volunteer Rae!


Wax Poetic Interview + Vancouver Launch TONIGHT!

Yesterday I was very fortunate to sit down with Pamela Bentley and Kevin Spenst of Coop Radio's Wax Poetic for a discussion of The News, though our conversation wandered steadily enough to the subject of birds (crows, Goosey Goosey Gander, etc.) and even to this here blog and its terrifically-out-of-style ".blogspot" url.

You can listen to the interview here:

Wax Poetic, Wednesday, October 26th

I was especially grateful that the Wax Poetic team made space for me the day before my Vancouver launch.

Speaking of which...


If you're in Vancouver, I hope to see you tonight! If you're in Picton, Montreal or Toronto, I hope to see you soon!


The News on the CBC

Things I expect when promoting a book: tweets aplenty, some blog posts, a poster here and there, and a lot of sweat and desperation amounting in not-terribly-much. This weekend, for reasons unbeknownst to me, the CBC decided to laurel The News with a couple unexpecteds.

Leading up to my Vancouver book launch, and subsequent mini-tour, Sheryl MacKay interviewed me for CBC BC's weekend morning show, North by Northwest. You can listen to that interview here:

Sheryl had read the whole book (!) with attention and care - and had even picked out the poems she wanted me to read. It was a dream interview.

Then that night the dream kept going! The CBC BC web team picked up the interview and turned it into a news article:

Vancouver poet writes a poem per week during wife's pregnancy

The article popped up on the CBC BC webpage, right below the Canucks game highlights...

I'm now expecting a flood of Canucks fans, demoralized by the team's first regulation loss, to turn up at my launch on Thursday.

In summary, thank you to the CBC! And dejected Canucks fans, here's the launch info one more time:


dismantle the workshop

Catherine Graham: Last year, when I spoke with Griffin International Poetry Prize Winner, Michael Longley, he said at this point in your writing life you have “all the tools for producing forgery and it’s important not to.” What constitutes “forgery” for you?

Don Paterson: Professing to feel what you don’t. And deluding yourself you’re breaking new ground when you’re just digging up the old. As the Sufis say, when you finish the work, dismantle the workshop. Michael’s bang on. There are times when you have nothing to say, or at least nothing you haven't already said. I think you should take poetry seriously enough to not write it.

- Don Paterson, in conversation with Catherine Graham over at The Rusty Toque. You can read the whole thing here.


enough resistance to stop me saying the thing I wanted to say

Catherine Graham: What is it about the [sonnet] form that compels you to keep writing them? Is form a requirement of poetry?

Don Paterson: “Compels” is maybe the right word, as I can see that my involvement with the damn thing might imply love, which would be an overstatement, or at least a bit misleading. Some days I’d be happy never to write another, but I guess you should try to cultivate a zen-like indifference to these matters. It’s quite simple, really: they just make certain poems not just easier to write but possible to write. They’re a way of me working through something I would otherwise find too difficult or uncomfortable or upsetting or contradictory to engage with. Speaking purely selfishly, I find increasingly that the poem feels more like a by-product of me just trying to… work out what the hell is going on here, exactly, a kind of means to an end. I mean I know that’s not true, but it doesn't seem a bad strategy to think of that way, to be more interested in what the poem is proposing than the poem itself, or something. I don’t see poetry as distinct from form any more than I do music, really; I’d say that all poetry has form. There are just different kinds of rules that different poetic temperaments find productive. Personally, I like things that offer enough resistance to stop me saying the thing I wanted to say, which was often pretty stupid, or something everyone else already knew.

- Don Paterson, in conversation with Catherine Graham over at The Rusty Toque. You can read the whole thing here.


they were never explained to me, these sensitivities

I do think that poetry has the ability to instigate change in the world in a small way. Most poems don't but some do. Poetry is not a good way to transmit facts to people, for instance, but it is better-suited than most other media to transmit empathy. I really do think this. Really good poetry has helped me understand the lives and situations of other people -- refugees, old ladies, WWI soldiers, Mesopotamians -- in some sub-logical way I'd be hard-pressed to explain outside of the medium. Because they were never explained to me, these sensitivities, these things! They were sent in poems.

I don't think that it's always the intention of the poet to help people understand something. The poet just writes with whatever intention -- working out emotions, having fun with words, being heard, being found impressive. But if the poem is really good, there is a chance that it will change, if not the minds of its readers, then I don't know, their neural connections, their inner djinns, their bodily humors. There is a change, and it is for the better. Again, the poem has to be good.

- Ben Ladouceur, in interview with rob mclennan over on his blog. You can read the whole thing here.

p.s. I'm reading with Ben, the current Al Purdy A-frame writer-in-residence, in Picton, Ontario on October 30th. You can learn more about that reading here.


juggled casually in with the ordinary messy rest of it - "The Fire Extinguisher" by Miranda Pearson

Cagliari - Miranda Pearson

In Cagliari we walked along alleys
through the thick, foreign air. Ate spaghetti
and clams, cheese and salami. Drank
a bottle of local wine. I was happy.
Everything was a mess, my luggage lost,
my father dying. At dinner the lights flickered
off, the waitress brought candles to the tables,
all around: warmth, darkness.

We walked to the fortress above the city;
the young girls were out in their short dresses,
parading their gold, smoking cigarettes.
It was a blessed night and in the morning
the kindness of the people, a group
cooing over a pram, the sweetness of the orange juice—

from The Fire Extinguisher
(Oolichan, 2015).
Reprinted with permission.


Early on in The Fire Extinguisher (Oolichan Books, 2015) Miranda Pearson writes: "Here I am no one, / which is how it should be." (p. 16) Has a truer statement from a poet ever been said? I think League of Canadian Poets membership should include a button with that quote on it.

But in the world of Canadian poetry, such anonymity is not (or at least should not) be the case for Miranda. The Fire Extinguisher, her fourth poetry collection, was a finalist for the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize (as was her third, Harbour). And, goodness, the nod was well earned. The Fire Extinguisher is a wide-ranging, moving, often harrowing book, which spans continents and repeatedly takes us to (if not beyond) the precipice of great losses, most notably the death of the poet's father, and her own diagnosis and treatment for cancer.

As the book goes along, then, that early statement: "Here I am no one, / which is how it should be" takes on deeper and deeper resonance. It deepens, too, as you come to see Miranda for the careful watcher that she is, on the edge of things (even while participating in them), looking in on foreign cities, family, love and decline - even in on herself on the operating table: "a runway. Bisected and branded" (p. 85).

All those carefully witnessed and considered scenes are presented in one striking stanza after another - reading the book, I began thinking about how different poets write with different "units" of primary (or default) consideration: some sound-driven poets (and all of us, ultimately) operate by the syllable or word, some experimental or narrative-driven poets think in terms of the book as a whole, while others work with a primary focus on the line, or the sentence, or the poem, or the chapbook-length section. In The Fire Extinguisher, Miranda is a master of the well-wrought, often ghazal-like stanza: couplet or tercet or (occasional) quatrain, standing at once independent and yet closely bound to the stanzas around it. Each stanza a someone, and at the same time nothing without those around it. As we are; as we should be.

Miranda and I exchanged emails over the summer - I was traveling throughout Europe at the time, and her poems felt particularly pertinent to me because of it. I finally settled back in Vancouver and we finished the interview earlier this month. I think it was worth the wait, and I hope you enjoy!

Miranda Pearson. That's two straight interviews with
dog-inclusive author photosFingers crossed that it becomes a trend!


Rob: "Cagliari" is part of the opening section of poems in The Fire Extinguisher, which is made up of European travel poems. These poems feel stretched between two worlds - a Europe of both your past and your immediate moment, and your home here in Canada (one is even called "Five Postcards", and could very well have been five postcards you sent back to Canada). Could you speak a bit about that poem, and how it fits into the book as a whole?

Miranda: This poem comes near the beginning of the book; on one level it’s a straight forward poem of place, imagistic and descriptive. Poem as still-life, where familiar, domestic objects (food and jewelry for instance) are zoomed in on and become an arranged composition, perhaps allegorical or symbolic. I was thinking of John Steffler’s poem “I Didn’t Know This Would Happen”, a liminal moment on a plane where the line “my / broken marriage” is juggled casually in with the ordinary messy rest of it, which is more or less how life is. Cagliari is a coastal town in Sardinia; my partner and I had arranged to meet up there and travel across the island to Alghero. My father was very ill – I was torn as to whether to make the trip and in fact that first night he died at, we think, approximately the same time as the power cut mentioned in the poem. So the poem is a “momenti mori” where an imagistic tableau (the dinner, wine, candlelight etc.) illustrate both impermanence and comfort. I’m trying to capture a chaos-magic, where life and death are compressed, and the sensual beauty and richness of living is somehow magnified and made acute.

Much of the The Fire Extinguisher is concerned with this brink, the sometimes perilous balancing place between safety and disaster. The title itself contains both danger and antidote. When I was thinking about structuring the book I realized that fire imagery recurs, bodies ignite, overspill their boundaries, are radiated and cremated, volcanoes erupt, fire alarms go off and so on. I’m exploring meeting points, confluence. Adrienne Rich’s poem "Power" speaks of this: “her wounds came from the same source as her power”, and I call radiation treatment “this toxic cure” in my poem "Radiant".

Elemental themes have shown up in my previous books – water, air, earth… and the themes of thresholds and conflations appear repeatedly in my poetry too; both in terms of low/high cultural references that I find interesting and entertaining, but also more seriously as a sense that so much in life is contradictory. As you suggest, perhaps this sense of “between-ity” comes from spending my life in two different sides of the world – half in the UK and half in Canada, and that spanning and reaching across of place and cultures certainly occurs in all my books. But also I’ve worked for many years in mental health care and we have to hold dialectical contradictions in that work all the time in ways that are often difficult – impossible – to make much sense of, but can be apertures between people that lead to more compassion and understanding, or at least acceptance.

Rob: Well, that line "my father dying" certainly leaps out like Steffler's "broken marriage" - once it's read, the whole poem tips towards it. Continuing with what you were just touching on, how has working in Psychiatry affected your poetry?

Miranda: Having spent a long time working in that field does inform my poetry—not directly but in my abiding fascination with what makes us tick, what is said and un-said, what connects us and the spaces between people. Being a deep listener and an observer, often of sub-text. Participating in the writing life – teaching, editing, reviewing, attending readings and so on is another life again. I suppose to me it’s become normal to compartmentalize and live several lives simultaneously, though as I’ve got older I have begun to see these as less fragmented and more linked, with creative overlap and interplay.

I started writing late, after I moved to Canada from England when I was 29, and since then poetry and books have been my consistent home, a nest of words that I have built myself.

Rob: Could you talk a bit about how you chose to sequence the book, and how you hoped for the various sections to speak to one another?

Miranda: In terms of shaping this manuscript, my friend Aislinn Hunter helped me with the order, which was invaluable, as with this particular body of work I couldn’t see clearly how the poems could work together. I trusted her and hoped for the best, and often with a piece of art it only emerges after you’re done making it, and it turns out to be quite different from The Plan. It has its own life. Not to mention how the reader brings their own experience to the poem. I think now that the book’s too long; I wish I had cut about 20 pages.

Rob: I do like the idea of shorter books, but goodness, what would you have cut? I'm definitely glad you kept your section of cancer poems. Like few poems I've read in quite some time, they give off a visceral sense of having been not only lived, but "live-recorded" in those moments, transformed into metaphors and similes on the spot - as if the turning to metaphor were a way of remembering, and processing, what was happening. I'm thinking of lines like "Meticulous rummagers, miners or tailors" ("Surgery", p. 82) and "You are a runway. Bisected and branded you / keep still." ("Radiant", p. 85). Were you writing throughout your diagnosis and treatment? Taking notes? Or did the poems come later? What role, if any, did poetry play in helping you through that time?

Miranda: I see art and life as corresponding, interdependent. Aside from writing and my work in health care, I’m very interested in visual and material art. This is frequently referred to in The Fire Extinguisher. I draw, paint, knit, sew and have just started learning to throw pots. I love animals, especially dogs. Gardening, being outside, preferably by water, rivers, lakes, sea… walking and swimming. I think I’m more of a physical person than an intellectual, but these things serve each other. I write of the body quite often. I’ve also been a single parent for two decades, which obviously has shaped things massively.

Miranda with the Fire Extinguisher
My first book Prime started out as my Master’s thesis. It was mainly concerned with sex, pregnancy, birth and becoming a parent. It birthed the other books. Children still show up constantly – even in The Fire Extinguisher. The heart remains a child, and the poems are often written from a child’s perspective. “Blizzard” and “Short Flight” for example. And in the title poem of The Fire Extinguisher, where all the teenagers are lounging around and the mother fantasizes about lying unconscious in a glass casket like Snow White. Children use play and fantasy to cope and escape; as adults we use drugs, alcohol, and so on for similar reasons. I think writing poetry has served a function for me in that way, a way both of controlling and structuring experience but also distancing and disassociating from it. The cancer poems particularly. I often refer to Fairy Tales and nursery rhymes — Lewis Caroll, nonsense verse — they are the source for me, the building blocks. Along with the Bible – or more accurately, hymns (thanks to the School for Religious Maniacs I attended). And Shakespeare, unavoidably.

I really only started reading contemporary poetry after I came to Canada. Canadian and American poetry has influenced me far more than British. Phyllis Webb, Sharon Thesen, Daphne Marlatt, Don McKay, Robert Kroetsch, Erin Moure. Raymond Carver, Louise Gluck, Sharon Olds, Mark Doty. I don’t see myself as cool – I don’t try and copy anyone or follow poetry trends, I just follow whatever thread is showing up, and see where it goes. If people like the poems of course I’m pleased but I read and like all sorts so have never particularly attached myself to a “school” – aside from definitely having a feminist lens. I don’t think I would have become a poet if I’d stayed in the UK; the Canadian poetry tribe has been incredibly welcoming and supportive. And there’s space to breathe.

As to the question of my process, yes, I tend to write scraps and notes towards poems more or less constantly, as if catching fragments floating by in the air. Gradually ideas and lines cohere. Then every few years take myself off to a retreat setting and try and make something of them. I think all my books have come together this way. I have tended to write when going through something painful – it’s comforting, a way of calming myself. It provides witness, a sense of order, much as a child would enact trauma through play. But it doesn’t have to be through crisis; Too much crisis is just distracting and bad for your health! Political events, weather, a change in the light—anything can trigger a poem. Reading certain writers often does it, or finding a poet that I haven’t read before. I get ideas from other disciplines – science, history, architecture, anything. The element of surprise is important, something unplanned; but it can be a tiny thing, a shift or shadow just caught in the corner of your eye. Sometimes nothing happens for a long time, at least consciously. I’m ok with that – I just get on with something else and wait.

Rob: Speaking of being "cool", and poetry trends, it seems increasingly popular these days for poets to write poems in single stanzas - long, and often intimidatingly dense, blocks of text. The poems in The Fire Extinguisher were a refreshing change for me as a reader - most poems were written in couplets or tercets, with each poem giving the reader plenty of time to breathe ("Cagliari" - a loose sonnet - being one of the most "dense" in the collection). Could you speak a little to your attraction to shorter stanzas, especially couplets? When you're writing the first drafts of a poem, are you already thinking about spacing and shape? Do the thoughts come out as couplets, or do you let them wander the yard a while before you pair them up?

Miranda: Yes, many of the poems are short spare couplets, as in "Belvedere" or "Nil by Mouth". I like to see how a couplet or tercet can work on its own, like a ghazel, as well as part of a larger piece, and how space and pause effect meaning. How couplets can be linked or separated by tone and nuance. I like the openness on the page, the clarity and breath and the way the couplets create their own collage. In this book the poems employ various forms of rhyme, most frequently in internal or slant form, and sometimes end-rhyme – as in "Small Town" or "Tudeley Church". Using rhyme so extensively is new for me, but I like the musicality and look on the page, and it happened spontaneously in this work.

Rob: The fourth and fifth section of The Fire Extinguisher - the emotional heart (and, often, gut-punch) of the book - focus on your father's illness and death, and your own diagnosis and treatment for cancer, respectively. In many ways the spaces in which these poems take place - doctors’ offices, hospitals and operating rooms - seem as alien, or more so, than foreign countries. It's compelling to me, then, that the book opens and closes with poems very consciously set in Europe, which allowed a theme of "reporting from abroad" to weave its way through the entire book. I realise, of course, that as a native of England, what's "abroad" and what's "home" is very different for you, so I wonder if you had this in mind at all. Do you see it as a theme of the book?

Miranda: The Fire Extinguisher is structured by five sections: In the first, the poems ask questions of attachment; erotic desire and appetite — both destructive and creative. Painting and visual art are invoked, as well as food and the materials of travel. Animals and birds feature, both free and in captivity. In the second section the poems move from the exotic to the more interior and domestic: Children and office work, a circling back to an English childhood home — actual and remembered — foreshadowing those in the next section in their recognition of aging and loss: “How the body / is a new sort of friend, flawed / unreliable”. Sections 3 and 4 combine in their close-up examination of illness. Yes, my own and my father’s though I hope these resonate for anyone who’s felt held captive in the body, or witnessed this. How physical illness is both intimate and distancing.

I was consciously seeking an alternative, more honest discourse rather than the militaristic language of cancer usually available – that didn’t seem to fit with my experience which felt more like a careful navigation through danger, and feeling bewildered and rather embarrassed by it. “Winning” or “losing” isn’t all that relevant in a situation where we have so little control. And actually being a patient is to be quite passive. I suppose writing this book was a way of fighting back, wrestling back some control. Me holding a fire extinguisher of poems up against all that, saying “get back!”

In the final section of the book many of the poems are set in Scotland, particularly the land and sea of Shetland. I was introduced to this part of the world quite recently, so it’s been a homecoming to Britain but via a new direction. Scotland is so different from the South of England where I was brought up. Getting to know the North has been like finding a whole new country.

Rob: Touching on the Scotland poems, there's a powerful moment in that section where you write "I wanted to stay. Last year that's all I wanted, / to curl upon the straw and wait" ("Shetland Broch", p. 90). Then again, in "Year's End, Scotland" (p. 94) you write "Last year we walked out across ice, / not knowing if it would bear us or if we'd go through. // At the time we hardly cared." For me, both lines capture that feeling, which resonates throughout the book, of "coming through" great loss or difficulty. I'm wondering if that journey, and exploring that journey through poetry, changed or reaffirmed in some way your sense of poetry - why you write it, read it, its "function" in the world? Has it helped show you a path to what you might write next?

Miranda: Has this book changed my sense of poetry? It’s quite a dense, dramatic book, elaborate. It took a lot out of me. Next time I think I might move towards the more spare, the more minimal. I’m also thinking about a Selected. At the moment I’m writing notes about sea, and ice. And I’m looking at the work of a young poet I worked with who very tragically took his own life last year – Alex Winstanley. I would like to write in response to some of his poems. I think about short fiction or memoir – but for now poetry continues to be the medium I swim through, with its beautiful hocus-pocus and infinite possibility.


Now, poetry lovers, let's not go losing Miranda to fiction and memoir, ok? You can encourage her to stick to her beautiful hocus-pocus by picking up a copy of The Fire Extinguisher at your local bookstore, or from the comfort of your home via the Oolichan website. Or, if you prefer your possibilities finite, from Amazon.

to stay alive while I am living

Writing is a movement towards silence: a movement to break the silence, to grab a flake of it and then throw it into language, make it speak. It is a space where you plunge yourself into with the hope and anxiety to understand and surpass and expand the limits of experience. Make what is unknown or silenced or forgotten, yours (or yours again). Only then life becomes alive. Only then you see life in growth. As roots crackling the pot. Growing towards new limits. That’s what we need to learn. Or know. Or speak out. Or remember. It sounds like a question of faith. Very much so. In short, I am writing to stay alive while I am living.

- Birgül Oğuz, in interview with Rachel Rose, over at The Fiddlehead. You can read the whole thing here.



I don’t write because I “want to be a writer.” I don’t want to be famous and I don’t need my ego inflated. I write to make sense of things, to make order from chaos, to make something from nothing, to examine my own thinking. Because what I have found in the writing of others sustains me. Because while I am struggling to live, the writing—a kind of parallel life—helps me along. Because language is my jam. Because I never learned to play the guitar and no one ever asked me to sing in a band.

I mean, writing is liberation! Or so I tell my students, over and over and over again. Flex your muscles, I tell them. Feel the sun on your face, the wind in your hair! Struggle with your shortcomings. Leave everything out on the field! Do it again tomorrow! What rigor. What joy. What privilege. Say whatever the hell you want to say, however you most accurately can! Complete and utter freedom. Work.

“The notes for the poem are the only poem,” wrote Adrienne Rich. There it is. There’s my ambition: Notes.

- Elisa Albert, from her essay "The Snarling Girl: Notes on - and against - ambition" over at Hazlitt. You can read the whole thing here.


idiosyncratic and pretty much impossible to monetize

Some ambition is banal: Rich spouse. Thigh gap. Gold-buckle shoes. Quilted Chanel. Penthouse. Windowed office. Tony address. Notoriety. Ten thousand followers. A hundred thousand followers. Bestseller list. Editor-in-Chief. Face on billboard. A million dollars. A million followers. There are ways of working toward these things, clear examples of how it can be done. Programs, degrees, seminars, diets, schemes, connections, conferences. Hands to shake, ladders to climb. If you are smart, if you are savvy, who’s to stop you? Godspeed and good luck. I hope you get what you want, and when you do, I hope you aren’t disappointed.

Remember the famous curse? May you get absolutely everything you want.

Here’s what impresses me: Sangfroid. Good health. The ability to float softly with an iron core through Ashtanga primary series. Eye contact. Self-possession. Loyalty. Boundaries. Good posture. Moderation. Restraint. Laugh lines. Gardening. Activism. Originality. Kindness. Self-awareness. Simple food, prepared with love. Style. Hope. Lust. Grace. Aging. Humility. Nurturance. Learning from mistakes. Moving on. Letting go. Forms of practice, in other words. Constant, ongoing work. No endpoint in sight. Not goal-oriented, not gendered. Idiosyncratic and pretty much impossible to monetize.

- Elisa Albert, from her essay "The Snarling Girl: Notes on - and against - ambition" over at Hazlitt. You can read the whole thing here.


Rob Taylor, with special guests THE NEWS and GASPEREAU PRESS

Thanks to the WISE Hall for their ad in this week's Georgia Straight, even if they think my book and publisher are my opening acts. This poetry thing is confusing, ok?

Two weeks until the big day! More info, and RSVP, here.

substitute recognition for enlightenment

Last week a young writer emailed me to ask for advice. How could she get more attention for her book? Where should she send it? The subtext: She wants what (she imagines) I have. It was funny, given that, in truth, I had right at that moment been pouting about my own status (Not Good Enough). I barely know this girl, haven’t read her book, she’s a bore on social media, but hell, what does it cost me to be generous? I wrote back right away.

Send it to writers whose work you admire, I told her. Keep your head down. Do your work. Focus on the work at hand, not the work that’s done. Do the work you’re called upon to do. Engage with what moves you. Eventually you’ll get recognition. And if you don’t get recognition? Well then, all the more badass to continue working your butt off. Recognition has nothing to do with the work, get it? The work is the endeavor. The work is the process. Recognition comes, if/when it does, for work that is already done, work that is over. Recognition can really fuck you up. Remember the famous koan? The day before enlightenment, chop wood and carry water; the day after enlightenment, chop wood and carry water. Substitute recognition for enlightenment, putting aside how ironic that is, and there you have it.

- Elisa Albert, from her essay "The Snarling Girl: Notes on - and against - ambition" over at Hazlitt. You can read the whole thing here.


The News Oct./Nov. Mini-Tour

I'm going on a little blitz of launches and readings for The News, straddling Halloween (not sure where I'll be on the 31st, but I'll be sure to be dressed as a "bedraggled poet").

If you're in Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal or Picton/Belleville, I'm coming your way:

The News Vancouver Book Launch
Thursday, October 27th, 7:00 PM (Doors 6:30)
1882 Adanac Street, Vancouver
Featuring: Raoul Fernandes, Aislinn Hunter, Karen Solie and me!
Free! And free snacks!
RSVP here.

Three Poets Walk Into a Cafe
Sunday, October 30th, 3:00 PM
Books and Company
289 Main Street, Picton, ON
Featuring: Michael Casteels, Ben Ladouceur and me!
RSVP here.

Resonance Reading Series
Tuesday, November 1st, 9:00 PM
Resonance Cafe
5175A Ave du Parc, Montreal, QC
Featuring: TBA, but I'm one of them!

Pivot Reading Series
Wednesday, November 2nd, 8:00 PM
The Steady Cafe
1051 Bloor St West, Toronto, ON
Featuring: Leesa Dean, Stevie Howell, Erin Wunker and me!
PWYC (Suggestion Donation: $5)

I hope to see you there (wherever there is)!

it starts with passion even before it starts with words

Talent is overrated, and it is usually conflated with nice style. Passion, vocation, vision, and dedication are rarer, and they will get you through the rough spots in your style when your style won’t give you a reason to get up in the morning and stare at the manuscript for the hundredth day in a row or even give you a compelling subject to write about. If you’re not passionate about writing and about the world and the things in it you’re writing about, then why are you writing? It starts with passion even before it starts with words. You want to read people who are wise, deep, wild, kind, committed, insightful, attentive; you want to be those people. I am all for style, but only in service of vision.

- Rebecca Solnit, from her essay "How To Be A Writer: 10 Tips From Rebecca Solnit" over at Literary Hub. You can read the whole thing here.


Happy Thanksgiving!

In keeping with the season, a cranberry-themed excerpt from The News:

Seven Weeks - Rob Taylor

Each year, Thanksgiving and Christmas,
I make the cranberry sauce. Everyone
around the table agrees it’s the best
they’ve ever had, even those
who used to swear by the canned stuff.
I used to swear by the canned stuff.

At first everyone assumed your mother
made it, but she would always clarify.
Now they ask how I do it and I say
I follow the instructions on the bag.
They ask what I put in it and I say
water and sugar and cranberries.

Every Thanksgiving it’s the same,
then, amazingly, again each Christmas—
something to fill the spaces between mouthfuls.
When we tell them about you this Christmas
they’re going to lose their minds. Then once
they’ve calmed down we’ll go back to eating

and maybe later they’ll ask about the cranberry sauce
and I’ll say Instructions Water Sugar Cranberries.
Or maybe we’ll just keep talking about you
until it seems we’ve conjured you from our dreams
and you’re there, flesh and blood, in the room,
which of course you will be.

The News launches in Vancouver on October 27th. It will be like Thanksgiving, but with poems instead of wishbones.

All the best to you and yours this holiday weekend!


November Dead Poets Reading

The next Dead Poets Reading Series event will take place at the Vancouver Public Library's Central Branch on November 13th, 2016, from 3-5 PM.

It will feature:

Aloysius Bertrand (1807 - 1841), read by Richard Therrien
Pat Lowther (1935 - 1975), read by Christine Lowther
Josephine Miles (1911 - 1985), read by George Stanley
Mark Strand (1934 - 2014), read by Jennifer Zilm
Dylan Thomas (1914 - 1953), read by D.N. Simmers

Attendance is free. For more info, visit the DPRS website.

I hope to see you there!


Christ in heaven, isn’t that the most depressing sentence you’ve ever read? - "Caribou Run" by Richard Kelly Kemick

The Love Poem as Caribou - Richard Kelly Kemick

It's hard to imagine. As doves, yes,
or even vultures. But there’s nothing of a ballad
in the hard weight of antlers. You can’t cut
into an ode, stripping its skin to bones cabled
with muscle, or search its creased face for something
you can almost explain. And a sonnet has never
made me see myself inadequate beneath
the bright light of evolution's long apprenticeship,
acutely aware of the many failings of my own form.
But maybe it’s in how a love poem will cross
a body of water without being able to see
the other side. Or maybe it's in the deep prints
left in the drifts, that speak of how hard
it must have been to move on from here.

from Caribou Run
(Goose Lane, 2016).
Reprinted with permission.


Richard Kelly Kemick is that writer you're allowed to dislike (and by dislike, I mean compress your overwhelming jealousy deep down inside you until it becomes a bitter little diamond). He's crazy talented, publishing his non-fiction, fiction and poetry every damn place you look, winning a National Magazine Award, and showing up on the shortlist of just about every literary magazine's subscription-or-death contest (if not winning them outright). Case in point: Richard was recently named first runner up in PRISM international's non-fiction contest, his third shortlisting in the last three years, each in a different genre. From now on I'm pretty sure PRISM is going to cut out the paperwork, and just mail him a cheque at the start of each year...

All this, and he's got a cute dog, a hell of a nice set of locks, a formidable Christmas Village, and a date of birth that's very nearly in the 1990s.

But none of that matters, so long as his actual writing is lousy, right? No luck there, either - his pieces are diamonds, all of them, and not the bitter kind. Richard's first full-length collection of anything (and I assure you, you'll be reading full-length collections of everything for years to come) is the poetry collection Caribou Run (Goose Lane/icehouse, 2016). The book takes a part-lyric, part-scientific, 100%-tirelessly-obsessive look at the Porcupine Caribou. The range, the mass of the herd, the individual caribou, wolves, researchers and everything else involved in that ecosystem (including, oh yes, you and I) are drawn into the book's consideration.

At first, inevitably, you wonder why this guy is so into caribou, but very quickly you're hooked. And by the end, Richard has turned the caribou herd into one mass, one grand evolutionary outcome, which moves over the tundra teaming with hooves and hearts, antlers and eyes. And the herd's migration has been transformed into this great, pulsing, essential, dying metaphor for everything in life, a persistent heart at the centre of the world.

In summary: it's a nifty thing.

Richard agreed to let me barrage him with my usual long-winded questions, and only twice did they drive him to shout out the Lord's name in vain, which is more restraint than most can muster. I hope you enjoy!

Richard Kelly Kemick, with that cute dog,
his glorious mane, and some stairs.


Rob: Let’s start at the beginning: epigraphs. Caribou Run might set the record - six epigraphs before the start of the first poem! Seven, if you include the map of the Porcupine Caribou's range. But then this is a collection whose jacket blurb praises the book’s “sheer depth of research” (how often do you read that on the back of a poetry book?), so perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised. The epigraphs – most of which come from scientific or historical sources – set up an expectation that this will be No Ordinary Poetry Book, especially No Ordinary First Poetry Book, which certainly proves to be the case. Caribou Run is not your standard lyric poetry collection, but one which butts up against science and nature – a book both researched and lived.

Could you speak to the function of epigraphs throughout the book, especially the blocks of four epigraphs which open each section, and the effect you hoped for them to have on the reader?

Richard: Well, I was originally of the understanding that Goose Lane was paying me by the word, so I thought “Why not have a whole bunch of words that aren’t mine?”

The idea with the epigraphs was that I was trying to give the book a similar feel to scientific writing, a style of writing that is characterized by its use of sources. I hoped the epigraphs would ground the reader within the geography of each section place but also within the ear for the writing I was attempting to emulate.

Rob: Yes, you certainly accomplished that.

Now, on to the subject of your research: Why caribou? You’re obviously hooked on them (and perhaps equally, or more so, on the wolves following behind them), and I was curious how this interest developed in you. Have you traveled to the area of the Porcupine Caribou range (as outlined in the map – a space straddling the northern half of the Alaska/Yukon border), and if so (or not) how did that influence and shape the book?

Richard: I’m a fraud; I haven’t actually visited the herd. I did receive an Alberta Arts grant that I considered putting towards a plane ticket, but then my wife and I bought a used car instead. Christ in heaven, isn’t that the most depressing sentence you’ve ever read? “I was going to fulfill a life-long dream of mine but I thought it best to get a 2005 Chevy Trailblazer.”

I was drawn to the caribou because of the poetry that is already within the migration: the grandeur of the habitat, the prehistoric size of the herd, the plodding discipline of parenthood. I was interested in writing about animals without anthropomorphizing them - to see if that was possible or if we would always revert back to seeing ourselves in their eyes.

Rob: Caribou Run is chock-full of form poems: sonnets, glosas, ghazals, tankas, list poems, and more. In many ways reading your book feels like taking part in two well-researched explorations at once: one of caribou and the other of poetic form. Could you speak about the interaction of form and content in Caribou Run?

Richard: Part of the idea of limiting myself to one subject was that a singular topic would force me into exploring poetic form. The practical function of a lot of forms seems to have an almost scientific exactness - the way they deal with repetition, metre, etc. - and I wanted to put myself in a situation where that exactness would empower the poem rather than hamper it.

I know form has fallen a bit out of fashion (unless you’re talking about the haiku which seems to be having a tremendous renaissance at the moment), but I think there’s a lot form can add to the momentum of a poem’s narrative. Form is limitation but it is also possibility. I wanted a collection which was able to select which form best enhanced the content: what parts of the migration are most like the severe limitations of a villanelle, which parts are like the open constraints of free verse?

Did Caribou Run achieve this perfect balance between form and content? Of course not. But I think I’m a bit closer to getting there than I was before writing the collection.

Rob: Oh, it does a pretty darn good job of balancing the two. I'd like to take a moment to talk about one poem that really nailed that balance.

“Postpartum from the Perspective of Grade Ten Biology” is a repudiation of a high school science teacher’s pronouncement that “The anthropomorphizing of animals is the lowest form of science…” While your poems, as you say, work to avoid anthropomorphizing the caribou, they do often aim to elevate or mythologize the caribou and their journey (I think here of your drawing in of Greek myths, the Laetoli footprints, etc.). Was mythologizing the caribou a goal of yours when you envisioned the book, or did it come along the way? Do you see the whole book, in a way, as a response to the science-only approach of your former teacher?

Richard: Christ alive, these are difficult questions. What ever happened to, “Do you write with a pen or pencil?”

The line between anthorpomorphizing and mythologizing is tricky. Perhaps the difference is that anthropomorphizing forces an animal into our notion of the self, while mythologizing frames the animal within a context with which we’re able to increase the understanding of ourselves. Does that make sense? I’m saying that in some ways the two are the exact opposite.

Sure, the book is a response to the science-only approach of my former teacher, but the more I think about it the more the collection seems not a contradiction but an affirmation of that teacher’s philosophy - which is an odd admittance for me to make since I loathed the man. The parts of the book that I most wish I could take another swing at are the parts where I feel I got too close to forcing a humanoid sentience that may not have been honest.

And, for the record, pen.

Rob: Oh, now you've gone and spoiled my next question...

I want to return to “Postpartum…”, anyway - and focus on the "form" side of the content/form balance. The poem shifts back and forth between long-lined prose-y sections and short-lined sections which feel more like “traditional” poems. This seems like a nod both to some poetic forms (the haibun, for instance), and to the alternating of “foreground” and “background” which is common in prose writing today (this comes up again in the next poem, “To What Is Left Behind”).

In addition to being a poet, you’re a fiction and non-fiction writer (and Christmas Village critic of some renown), so in many ways “Postpartum” felt to me like a hybrid or missing link – a literary Archaeopteryx, of sorts (though “Postpartum” isn’t the only poem in the book to dabble in prose: “Thumbing a ride on the 93” is essentially a postcard story, for instance). Can you speak a bit about your interests in poetry and prose? Did one come first, and if so which is the dinosaur and which is the bird?

Richard: You never forget your first, and poetry was my first. I wanted a grounding in poetic diction and form because I wanted (and still want) to be a better writer. Poetry forces such a microscopic attention to detail that there is very little to hide behind. Coleridge (or somebody else who is undoubtably as old, dead, and white as a full moon) said that prose is words in their best order but poetry is the best words in the best order.

Many of my favourite prose stylists have a background in poetry (Ondaatje and Atwood, sure, but also Mark Jarman, Carmine Starnino and Elizabeth Smart), and I don’t think that’s a coincidence. All of the above writers craft their prose with an awareness of metre and a narrative which, because of its prosody, emerges as deeply stylish. I don’t think my interest in prose informs my poetry; I think my interest in poetry informs my prose.

Rob: Suck on that, prose, you magnificent bird!

As I mentioned briefly in my last question, you made a bit of a media splash last winter with your very compelling and funny Walrus essay, “Playing God” – which describes your interest (obsession?) with miniature Christmas villages, and which led to you being interviewed by CBC, Global TV, and other legitimate news sources out there in the real, non-literary world.

The humour in “Playing God” – and in other fiction and non-fiction pieces of yours that I’ve read – is less immediately evident in most of Caribou Run (with the obvious exceptions of the Genesis poems). Would you say your poetry tends to be more serious that your prose? Or was that something more specific to this project? Did you think about how “funny” or “serious” you wanted the book to be as you were writing it?

Richard: I think Caribou Run veers more towards the tragic and less towards the comedic not because it is poetry instead of prose, but because of where I was as a writer when I wrote it (which was about three or four years ago now). One of the collection’s failings is that I think it is overly concerned with the authority of its voice.

I believe poetry suffers from taking itself too seriously. I’m not saying that everyone has to start writing dirty limericks but if for every sonnet about suicide we had one about whoopee cushions I think there’d be a lot more people interested in poetry.

I think it’s safe to say that tragedy is valued over comedy. But this isn’t just a poetry thing. I’m sure we can all agree that Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” is the greatest work ever written in the history of the English language. But ask someone to quote some capital-L Literature and you’re going to get a mouthful of Hamlet reciting the infinitive form of verbs and scuffing the battlements with his foppish shoes.

I’ve been writing prose a lot more than poetry lately, and I’m finding out that you can still write comedically about Serious Themes such as desire, heartbreak, inadequacy. Comedy is just a different road (an admittedly less-traveled and pot-holed one) to reach those themes.

The good news is that I think contemporary poetry is accepting this. Poets such as David Seymour, David McGimpsey, and Katherine Leyton have all recently released collections that crackle with comedic timing. Michael Prior does this (among everything else) exceptionally well, writing about tamagotchis and Ophelias within the same collection.

Going back to the Bard, if we look at the trajectory of Shakespeare’s collected works, we can see that his worldview evolves as his career progresses, appreciating the artistic merits of both the chuckle and the sob. Just before his retirement, he is writing plays that are neither tragedies nor comedies (The Tempest, A Winter’s Tale, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead); and I think there’s something beautiful, something more artistically honest, about this non-binary portrayal of life - that most stuff that happens isn’t hilarious or devastating but often a confusing mixture of the two.

As writers, we want to write about issues of emotional depth, and I think we’re afraid that we must do so in a Serious Tone so people will think we’re Serious Writers. But who, I implore you, will be the Most Serious Writer who rhymes “suicide” with “blowdried”?


I'm pretty sure Richard just compared himself to Shakespeare. Even if he's only half right in that assessment, you should check out his new book! You can do so at your local bookstore, or from the comfort of your home via the Goose Lane website. Or, if you want more suicide with your sonnets, from Amazon.