one hand up one hand down

Early into my writing life I was sitting at an Indigenous writers conference, it was one of the first I believe, and Lee Maracle got on the stage and she spoke to us. And one of the things she said was something I always felt but could never articulate, and it’s really the way I have set my life up now. The teaching she gave us was that we must live by the one hand up one hand down teaching. Meaning as we climb the ladder, we must always have one hand down pulling up the youth behind us. For me that is how I always want to live my life. I currently spend about half my year working with Indigenous youth teaching writing and visual art. It gives my life joy. And the more youth I can bring with me as I continue writing the more they can bring and so on and so on. There’s no limit to how many of us can rise, which is something I try to teach to. I feel like in some artistic fields that is the attitude, that there’s a limited amount of spots, but it’s not true. The more Indigenous voices I see on the shelf the more happiness I feel.

-Francine Cunningham, answering rob mclennan's 12 or 20 questions over on his blog. You can read the whole thing here.


Poetry in Transit 2020

If you've followed this blog for a good long time (two thoughts: "Wow," and also, "Who else would still be following a blog?") you'll know that I have a deep and abiding love for the Poetry in Transit program. Who couldn't? A free poem! On the bus! Where there's usually an add for cheque cashing or energy drinks. 

So it was an honour to be able to introduce this year's selections in a little essay. Think of it as the editor's introduction that opens an anthology or an issue of a lit mag, with the selected poems as the book's content:

My introduction features the poems, and also cameos by wise seagulls, Russian winds, and the *expletive* wasp that stung my toddler on the eyelid this summer... 

Poetry in Transit 2020 will officially launch next Friday at 1 PM as part of Word Vancouver (hosted by Evelyn Lau!). The free online event will feature readings by Susan Buis, Dominique Bernier-Cormier, Francine Cunningham,
Ruth Daniell
, Adrienne Drobnies, Cornelia Hoogland, Kyla Jamieson, Fiona Tinwei Lam, John Pass and Russell Thornton. You can learn more about the event, and register for it, here.

And the next time you're on transit (in BC), keep an eye out for the poems!

p.s. On the subject of Word Vancouver, I'll be hosting the event "The Poetics of Place" on Saturday, September 26th at 1 PM. It will feature three poets who write about Vancouver: Alex Leslie, Betsy Warland and Trevor Carolan. Learn more and register (it's free and online) here.


to extract from them a form

In a talk [Bronwen Wallace] gave in 1987, she spoke of the day when, as a student twenty-one years prior, she’d attended her first meeting about the “women’s movement.” She recalled, “For me, that meeting represented the first time I had ever been in a room full of women talking consciously about their lives, trying to make sense of them, trying to see how the unique and private anecdotes became part of a story that gave each of our lives a public and collective meaning as well.”

Coming up a full generation behind Wallace, I can claim no corresponding turning point. What I remember, as far back as memory goes, is my mother and her friends, my cousins, and me and my own friends talking in exactly that way, fully engaged in sharing and examining the events of our lives, their contexts and substrata, seeking sense and meaning. It’s a gripping, lifelong, all-in kind of project. It’s exactly what Wallace undertook in her poems: not to represent or mimic these conversations, not to make of them metaphors but to stage them in verse, to extract from them a form—and perhaps a new way of being in the world.

- Anita Lahey, from her essay "The Poet Whose Work Helped Set the Stage for #MeToo" in The Walrus (May 2020). You can read the whole thing here.


a little printing of a little poem

I've taken great joy in reading and teaching haiku over recent years, and have started writing them more frequently this year (three will appear in my next book).

I haven't really started sending them out in the world, but I was intrigued by The Blasted Tree's "Flash Haiku" competition. The barrier between haiku publications and general literary publications is usually impermeable, so it was exciting to find a publisher who liked to jump the divide. I sent in a few haiku and one of mine - a senryu, technically - was picked as the winner!

As the winner, it was published as a "mini-leaflet":

You can order a copy here for $1 (8 cents per syllable, though that number swells up to 40 cents per syllable with shipping). You can justify the shipping cost by picking up a few other of The Blasted Tree's publications, which are varied and wonderful.

Thanks so much to Kyle Flemmer and The Blasted Tree for the contest, and for making space for haiku in the world!


how to talk about drowning without drowning

Mandy Grathwohl: I find that your poetry gives readers strategies on how to understand and digest their grief and trauma—and also their longings and desires, the underbellies of their own selves. Your art has given comfort to those that needed it, even when it seemed that on your end, as artist, there was little comfort at all. With this in mind, what does the writing of a poem look like—"The Field of Rooms and Halls" from War of the Foxes, for example?

Richard Siken: A man found a door and hung it on the wall. What kind of strategy is that? It's not Socratic; it's not scientific. I envy it. I strive for it. How should we size the days, where should we put our sadness, how can we find the hallway that isn't there? Reframe the question, the poem suggests. I love that poem. I love the fact that I can read it in public without crying. It's about desperation but it doesn't enact the desperation, which is the kind of poem I usually write. Admitting failure hurts. Admitting desire hurts.

Remembering with or without feeling hurts. I like all kinds of poems—emotionally distant or emotionally close—and I'm still amazed that words in a certain order can re-enact an event, but I want to learn how to talk about drowning without drowning. And sometimes I worry: what if I'm only painting the walls of the room I'm locked in? That's a really uncomfortable question to consider.

- Richard Siken, in conversation with Mandy Grathwohl over at The Matador Review. You can read the whole thing here.


pulling all the feathers off

rob mclennan: Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?

Emily Davidson: Both, oh my land, both. Having Michael Kenyon edit Lift made the book so much more than it was to begin with—he pushed me, very gently, on the order of the manuscript, the poems included and left to the side, the section headings, the themes. But I really had to keep coming to the table, and it was raw. I took a day off work in the fall to implement a round of edits and ended up spending the day wandering my apartment in circles crying (this is probably the most poet thing I will ever admit to). The editing process felt like someone had pulled all the feathers off my beautiful poems, and I had to decide how to reassemble them. (This is zero commentary on Michael, he was a gem.) “Kill your darlings” is merciless and unkind, is what I think I’m saying. I love darlings. More darlings.

- Emily Davidson, answering rob mclennan's 12 or 20 questions over on his blog. You can read the whole thing here.


necessarily disfigured by history

I’m not in a position to know everything about how whiteness inflects or determines or delimits my writing. Part of what makes writing worthwhile—for the writer and for the reader—is not just what artistry achieves but how it fails, how it is necessarily disfigured by history, which includes, which is dominated by, what Baldwin called the “lie” of whiteness. Certainly [The Topeka School] is a book about whiteness, is more intensely focused than my others on how racist (and other forms of) violence fills the vacuum at the heart of privilege for white boys on the cusp of becoming white men, how whiteness is a radical imaginative poverty. But I don’t pretend I got it right or that getting it right is the point of making art.

I like what you say about the powerlessness of whiteness, which is why I thought of Baldwin’s “On Being White and Other Lies,” and the “terrible paradox” with which that little essay ends: “those who believed that they could control and define Black people divested themselves of the power to control and define themselves,” which makes me think, too, of Fred Moten’s urgent and loving demand in The Undercommons, which you no doubt know: “The coalition emerges out of your recognition that it’s fucked up for you, in the same way that we’ve already recognized that it’s fucked up for us. I don’t need your help. I just need you to recognize that this shit is killing you, too, however much more softly, you stupid motherfucker, you know?”

I feel hailed by that—as a person, as a writer, as a member of an interracial family—that I need to work towards the recognition he’s describing, without pretending I can achieve it singly or finally, without reinscribing some kind of white victimhood (the flipside of the savior complex), without expecting to be congratulated for it, and so on. And/but to keep faith with that possibility of emergent “coalition,” new modes of filiation, a sense of a future beyond repetition.

- Ben Lerner, in conversation with Ocean Vuong over at Lit Hub. You can read the whole thing here.


eyes to see otherwise

I have something very simple to share. Make it a force of habit as early as you can. Don’t stick yourself with a single project, if you can help it, and don’t make writing your everything you do every day. Get a partner, fall in love, squabble as partners do, make up, or if you go off on your own, join a political party or an indoor bowling, lawn bowling or curling team. Any kind of team to get you out of yourself and into the place where you live, so that you come back to the page with… as Homero Aridjis put it in the title of one of his books — Ojos de otro mirar, which I translated as "Eyes to see otherwise."

- George McWhirter, in conversation with Gerard Beirne over at The Honest Ulsterman. The interview also talks about his relationship with Seamus Heaney, UBC in-fighting, and Laurence (Larry) Lerner dropping his feet in a desk drawer (in other words, it's pretty fun). You can read the whole thing here.


and this...

David Ly: With poetry, what do you think it can do in terms of telling a story that you don’t find prose can achieve?

Tess Liem: The first thing I thought was that it’s just the difference between saying “and then…” or “and this…” to imply that poetry may be less concerned with organizing things in linear time than prose; maybe poetry is more concerned with pointing one’s attention to moments, and accumulations or inventories, but I don’t think that’s fair to prose. I’ve actually been trying to revive my short story writing lately, and when I was asking my friend for advice about craft books, we actually came to the conclusion that I was not a very good story teller, but that that was OK. This also reminds me that my first workshop was for fiction and I had a habit of editing my stories by cutting out most of what I’d written initially, and breaking the lines until they were poems. So maybe it is that poems leave space, literally and figuratively, for stories to happen in a different way, maybe by mood rather than action.

- Tess Liem, in conversation with David Ly over at PRISM international. You can read the whole thing here.


to be seen and known

Albina Retyunskikh: With the pandemic, so many people are being confronted with the ways in which illness can disrupt parental duty. What lessons or comforts do you hope these poems offer in this time?

Sadiqa de Meijer: I'm not sure I expected the poems to be of comfort—they were written almost as a witnessing of something painful—but I've been moved to hear from people that they do find solace in them. I believe the line "Tell me of your life without evasions" is an arrow towards an answer. To be seen and known, past our surface constructs of identity, is a longing in us, no matter what our life stage. And when we do make that moment of contact, within a relationship, it is atemporal in nature—meaning that it somehow holds its own within the pain of the losses, which are always losses of time with a person, the nature or the length of time you expected or imagined.

- Sadiqa de Meijer, in conversation with Albina Retyunskikh over at Maisonneuve. You can read the whole thing here.


not real matter

The internet has done some wonderful things but, in my opinion, publishing is not one it does well. Since I began reading, my fascination with the written word has been as much with texts as it has been with book (or print) objects, which I view as physical manifestations of language. Analogous with digital music, the digital poem is not real matter, but a collection of ordered ones and zeros translated into a form our eyes can understand. You can not hold a digital poem in your hand, smell the ink, or feel the grit of the paper between your fingers. These tactile pleasures are equal to the interpretation of content in how I experience poetry. Books and broadsides can live for hundreds of years, can be read far into the future. How long can we honestly expect the internet to last before it devours itself?

- Geoffrey Nilson, in conversation with Shazia Hafiz Ramji over on the Invisible Press blog. You can read the whole thing here.


poems do things with the language that the language wants to do

There’s been a lot of disagreement on... whether writers have a social responsibility or should be artists for art’s sake. As a poet, I think my role is to keep writing poems, even though it’s hardly the most lucrative job in the world, and causes a great deal more grief than it does satisfaction (if you’re doing it right). There’s a reason that poems are read at weddings and funerals, at presidential inaugurations and on other milestone life occasions: poems are both products and articulations of what we value most as a culture. They can be calls to action, or they can be assertions of the primacy of lived experience, which I believe is a political act in itself. As the poet Matthew Zapruder puts it so eloquently in his recent book, Why Poetry, poetry “trains us in a radical kind of empathy that is maybe what’s missing in our culture more than anything.” I believe poems are important, that by bringing them into existence, we can and do change the world. Poems do things with the language that the language wants to do, so the very least we as poets can do is to provide containers for language to shape-shift into.

- Lisa Richter, answering rob mclennan's 12 or 20 questions over on his blog. You can read the whole thing here.


writing outward

My practise is to invite words over time to share and chronicle my living processes, as opposed to making set pieces that are products in that they would strive for perfection and publication.

The long sequence and collage—forms I mostly work in—are anti-perfection. I seek words to embellish my flaws.

I am trying to change the nature of revision—so that instead of chiselling away at a first draft to sculpt it, I might instead invite more into it, and keep adding, toward cornucopia.

That’s why I started writing essay-poems: so the kitchen sink would know it was welcome.

I expose myself in my poems because I trust the reader to know what is dishonest and what isn’t.

I try to be honest. I try to find forms in which to be honest. I try to be musically honest.

When I first write something it is usually occasional and personal, but if I keep writing outward, I will come to an underlying rage, or an underlying joy that is impersonal—and that is shareable.

That’s why I write: to share music and form, rage and joy.

- Phil Hall, discussing his writing practice over at Atlantic Books Today. You can read the whole interview here.


god-like sorting

Elise Partridge: Avison is... refreshing to read in my opinion because she avoided joining one of the major movements of the 20th century, one that still holds sway in North America: confessionalism. In the Foreword, Avison pays tribute to a grade nine teacher who gave her what Avison refers to as “this valuable counsel: ‘For the next ten years do not use the first person in any poem you write.’” One author said that when Avison examines her work, she allows her “no self-pity... Her most frequent comment to me is: ‘Forget the I’s.’”

Barbara Nickel: A voice that avoids the “I” can take on an authority it otherwise wouldn’t. “The Swimmer’s Moment,” for example, opens with the sweeping statement “For everyone/The swimmer’s moment at the whirlpool comes,” and then goes on to divide people into those who will not recognize the whirlpool, and those who are “whirled into the ominous center.” Elsewhere, in another poem, that omniscient voice divides people between “Those who fling off, toss head,/Taste the bitter morning, and have at it” – and “Those who are flung off, sit/Dazed awhile, gather concentration...”

Part of the reason I’m convinced by the voice is because it’s not trying to support these observations of humanity, this god-like sorting, with personal experiences, emotions, and anecdotes. One of the benefits of having so much of Avison’s work brought together in one volume is that the distant, omniscient narrator can become a presence for the reader over a space of many poems. You come to simply accept that there is no poetic “I” here – and with that, after reading many poems, comes an acceptance of the authority of the all-knowing voice.

- Elise Partridge and Barbara Nickel in conversation about Margaret Avison's Always Now: The Collected Poems, Volume One. The whole discussion is so good that even I, an avowed confessionalist, am sharing it!

"The Wholehearted Poet: A Conversation about Margaret Avison" was originally published in Books in Canada (September 2004), and is now available in full on Barbara Nickel's website. You can read it here.


more or less blindly

In this mortal frame of mind, which is made of a hundred bones and nine orifices, there is something, and this something can be called, for lack of a better name, a windswept soul, for it is much like thin drapery that is torn and swept away by the slightest stirring of the wind. This something in me took to writing poetry years ago, merely to amuse itself at first, but finally making it its lifelong business. It must be admitted, however, that there were times it was almost ready to drop its pursuit, or again times when it was so puffed up with pride that it exulted in vain victories over others. Indeed, ever since it began to write poetry, it has never found peace with itself, always waving between doubts of one kind or another. At one time it wanted to gain security by entering the service of the court, or at another it wished to measure the depth of its ignorance by trying to become a scholar, but it was prevented from either by its unquenchable love of poetry. The fact is, it knows no other art than the art of writing poetry, and therefore it hangs onto it more or less blindly.

- Matsuo Bashō, from the section "Bashō on Poetry" in The Essential Haiku: Versions of Bashō, Buson & Issa, translated by Robert Hass.


trapped in the skin of your imagination

Every poet I've ever translated has taught me something. One of the perils of poetry is to be trapped in the skin of your own imagination and to remain there all your life. Translation lets you crack your own skin and enter the skin of another. You identify with somebody else's imagination and rhythm, and that makes it possible for you to become other. It's an opening towards transformation and renewal. I wish I could translate from all the languages. If I could live forever, I'd do that.

- Stanley Kunitz, from his Paris Review interview (Spring 1982). I originally found the quote in The Other 23 & a Half Hours by Catherine Owen, which is chock-full of poetry goodness.


vines need lattice

Poems are unpredictable. A good poem contains some discovery that takes us by surprise. But there’s a contradiction there, since you also have to have predictability in order to appreciate a surprise. (Otherwise, you have surprises exploding like war—or, in my case, like growing up with an alcoholic father.)

For a richly lived life—as well as for a poem—there has to be a basis of predictability punctuated by surprise...

My marriage crosshatches periods of illness and health. My husband is a 9-time cancer survivor. I’m the anchoring wife. Yet he’s the steady one—the thinker; I’m the flow—the feeler. (Just to massively over simplify!) When he is sick, I’m called upon to think and feel for both of us. It’s huge to have to take on both roles. At those times I’m so glad to have poetry.

The contradictions that serve our marriage are love and anger. That goes for periods of dramatic illness and for the badminton court. My husband is a super strong badminton player with a speedburst of a strategic, shallow serve, illness notwithstanding. I am a butterfly of a badminton player who depends on my intuition. He is stronger at the game than I am, and you would think he would win every time. But I play intuitively, and he cannot predict me. So I can win just with sheer footwork and body response. I baffle him. I surprise. Together we make a kind of poem that depends on predictability and surprise.

You cannot have the surprise without an underpinning constancy. Vine needs lattice. My husband has huge respect when I return a shot he never thought I’d get (his surprise causes him to miss), and I have huge respect for his steady strength and speed. We’re a match.

- Molly Peacock, in conversation with Susan Gillis over on her Concrete & River blog. You can read the whole thing here.


a continual reinsertion of me into this

Leanne Betasamosake Simpson: The liberation of Black people’s bodies and Indigenous People’s bodies is, as Robyn Maynard says, “an interlocking justice project” because of this, although our experiences and perspectives are different. This erasure, disappearing, outright killing is a continual, relentless process and it plays out differently in each community. It is important for me to continually and critically think through visibility in this context. There is a gendered asymmetry to the disappearance of Indigenous bodies, and there are a large number of ways that being Nishnaabeg is not okay, and makes one a target. There are benefits to performing a certain kind of Indigeneity particularly in the shadow of state reconciliation. There are certain kinds of Indigeneity that are acceptable in the context of liberal multiculturalism.

Dionne Brand: Right, having to perform a certain kind of Indigeneity.

Simpson: And so what happens when you write books that I think are perhaps opaque, but then they are getting recognized for book awards? That makes me think that maybe I’ve made a mistake….

Brand: That’s the paradox…

Simpson: …and so for me there is a continual negotiation and a continual refusal and a continual reinsertion of me into this. Whiteness erases it, and we reinsert it. Mohawk scholar Audra Simpson and Dene scholar Glen Coulthard’s work on recognition and refusal was so influential in the formation of As We Have Always Done.

Brand: Yes. There is a certain dexterity, I’ve certainly learned, about living Black. About producing creative work that gets co-opted and that must be reconstituted all the time. I mean, you think about Black music in particular, which is constantly being reconstituted, mainstreamed, and then of course when the living conditions that art evinces haven’t changed, one must always make more imaginaries for one to live in. Art is often reproduced as belonging somehow to the national, to the nation-state, if you will. But artists such as you and I have to constantly undo that. You are living the undoing of it and constantly have to produce against it. So it is a real paradox, what becomes of one’s work.

- Leanne Betasamosake Simpson in conversation with Dionne Brand over at The Literary Review of Canada (June 2018). You can read the whole thing here.


an irrational, sensual link

The freedom to not-rhyme must include the freedom to rhyme. Then verse will be “free.”


Rhymes may be so far apart, you cannot hear them, but they can hear each other, as if whispering on a toy telephone made of two paper cups and a length of string.


Off rhymes founded on consonants are more literary than off rhymes founded on vowels (assonance). Vowels are shifty. Assonance is in the mouth, not the ear. It is performative.

Consonance brings forth what is different, so we listen for what is the same (harmonic). Assonance brings forth likeness; we listen for dissonance. The vowel is the third of the chord.

Translators who translate poems that rhyme into poems that don’t rhyme solely because they claim keeping the rhyme is impossible without doing violence to the poem have done violence to the poem. They are also lazy.

Rhyme is an irrational, sensual link between two words. It is chemical. It is alchemical.


Rhyme frees the poet from what he wants to say.

- A.E Stallings, from her essay "Presto Manifesto!", as published in Poetry Magazine (February 2009). You can read the whole thing here.


ask for the work you want to see

Recently, you asked me for some work. I sent you a poem called "Conspiracy of Love," which I thought I could avoid sharing, because it's a harrowing poem for me. The fact that you asked me for work made me feel okay and safe to share this scary poem, which was received surprisingly well! It was a relief to see this poem in the world because it's a very important poem for me. It's dedicated to those who have experienced addiction and clinical depression. It's not meant to be a poem for anyone else. This was partly the nervousness around this poem. My point is that editors have to ask for the work they want to see.

- Shazia Hafiz Ramji, in conversation with D.W. Adams over at Train: a poetry journal. You can read the whole thing here.


Two Interviews

I've had a couple interviews published in recent weeks (which is odd, this being the one year in the last five where I haven't published a book). It's been nice to ramble on without a product to promote.

The first interview was with Train: a poetry journal, who published a poem of mine last year.

I talk notebooks, book-sequencing, anthology editing, and having no idea what a "mentor" is. Matsuo Bashō also shows up to talk about his (and my) windswept soul. You can read it here:

An Interview with Rob Taylor

The second was with the Port Moody Public Library, as part of their White Pines Local Authors Program, which celebrates Tri-Cities based authors (and adds our books to their circulation). It's a wonderful thing (local writers, send in your books!).

This was the first interview I've done where the interviewer summarized my answers in the third-person. Very swank! You can read the interview here:

Featured White Pines Local Author: Rob Taylor

I hope you enjoy them both!


you cannot wallpaper a room if there is no room

So far, I haven’t answered my own question about authenticity in poetry so I will attempt to put down some thoughts and ideas on the subject here:

1) First of all, I agree with James Geary “that biological experience forms the basis of metaphorical thinking” (88) and “metaphor grounds even the most abstract ideas in the physiological facts of our bodies”(96). As much as we sometimes wish, we cannot escape our bodies and minds. Try to escape the first person singular. Good luck to you. Donald Hall has reasoned, “a poem is human inside talking to human inside. It may also be reasonable person talking to reasonable person, but if it is not inside talking to inside, it is not a poem”(142). Hello, hello, anybody home?
2) Whether you call it intensity of experience or anxiety of being or a conflict of disparate things, subjectivity versus objectivity, past versus present, the inside locked into battle with the outside, no poem is going to exist without it. You cannot wallpaper a room if there is no room.
3) Hayden Carruth has suggested “The metaphor must arise naturally from the things of the poem”(225). You cannot shoe-horn surprise into a poem, nor meaning. They come on their own or not.
4) A poem must enhance our lives in some way – spiritually, intellectually or emotionally - if it is indeed poetry. Call me romantic, or old-fashioned, but I cannot get past this sentiment and I hope I never will.

- Chris Banks, from his essay "Even Better Than The Real Thing: On Authenticity in Poetry," as published on his Table Music blog. You can read the whole thing here.


something I long suspected

rob mclennan: What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

Annick MacAskill: I recently read a new poem by Evelyn Lau, in which every single line break was exactly where I would have put it. The experience was startling -- I read Lau voraciously in high school, but am not familiar with her more recent work. Realizing that Lau’s verse had almost certainly influenced my own ear confirmed something I had long suspected – that I am not always aware of which writers have been the most important for my work.

- Annick MacAskill, answering rob mclennan's 12 or 20 questions over on his blog. You can read the whole thing here.


folding distance

James Lindsay: You have a distinctive abbreviation style when it comes you writing, i.e. yr instead of your, w/ instead of with, etc. What drew you to write like this? It reminds me of Charles Olson and the Black Mountain poets idea of Projective Verse.

Stevie Howell: Bless you for asking me about craft. For sure, one of the most important things is voice — voice as in breath. As Olson outlines. All instruments, our own vocal chords, are just us messing around w/airwaves. So, magic. It’s critical to me to write closer to how I sound IRL. In the neuropsych clinic, my natural voice would be described as “pressured, circumferential.” So, how do I get a line to rush out the way Iiii do? How do I get you to float on what I feel’s salient? Olson talks about language being kinetic—the transfer of energy between author & reader. Abbreviation is one way to speed up the transfer time, to fold distance.

In I left nothing inside on purpose, I collapsed “you/your/you’re” & “year” into an all-encompassing “yr,” b/c I’m writing about the absence of boundaries inside relationships, & the effect of that over time. The absence of those vowels, e.g., “o" & "u” (“owe” “you”) is an attempt for language to serve as embodiment, what Olson calls the desire “not to describe, but enact.”

My book engages w/a real person, Clive Wearing, who experienced a traumatic brain injury, & who has gaps & leaps in comprehension & expression. The synapse—a gap between two neurons—is the fundamental brain communicating mechanism, & I’m interested in how much of a gap in syntax can occur, w/o impairing shared meaning.

- Stevie Howell, in conversation with James Lindsay over at Open Book. You can read the whole thing here.


a way through a moment of bewilderment

I come to poetry with cupped hands. I also come to poetry with certain habits of mind and routines, in that I have come to rely on poetry as a means to achieve, not an epiphany or even clarity, but a way through a moment of bewilderment or doubt. It's not as though the poem should make an order out of chaos, or even navigate it. It has just become my preferred method for living with, and learning from the conundrums and ironies of everyday living. I no longer question if it's the best method or the most effective one...

Poetry comes to those with almost unnatural patience. It is unnatural to be so still and to ask so little, because I clamour for beauty, expression, control, order, and resolution. Poetry works against all of those things. I can give the poem the appearance of desirable elements but the more order and beauty it has, the less of a poem it is. Poetry can come the way a scent comes to a sharp-nosed animal, who depends on its instinct to avoid becoming fodder. It comes like a warning or a lesson that is being shown to your repeatedly until you either grow or you perish.

- Phoebe Wang, in conversation with Susan Gillis over on her Concrete & River blog. You can read the whole thing here.


the act of de-filing

The act of “defiling,” of taking things out of their normal files and putting them into new files (or eliminating files completely) is crucial to what I want to do. Poetry is all about metaphors, which is a form of lying to the reader—saying x is y when it’s clearly x! But it’s also y. I’ve made it y in my head, so it gets to be y in a reader’s head, too. And y is often truer than x or at least more interesting. The poetry I’m most drawn to creates these new connections and wakes me up to the world, allows me to see it freshly. Readers can expect me to lie to them continuously for their own imaginative good the way my favourite poets have lied to me!

- Kayla Czaga, in conversation with Kain Stewart, over at Event Magazine. You can read the whole thing here.


To Reach Each Other With Love: An Interview with Shazia Hafiz Ramji

Secret Playground - Shazia Hafiz Ramji

I didn’t tell you of the hands
that led the Internet cable
into the sea,
that they were brown
or that I was thinking
of rows of royal blue binders
in a hospital in Afghanistan:
records of amputations
from drone strikes.
I saw all this on TV,
as in, my laptop: torrents, Netflix.
It doesn’t make sense to ask
if words will ever stop failing me
but I want to ask it. What does it take
for a three-year-old who lived on M&Ms
and barely escaped the Gulf War
to call the first part of her life
I didn’t tell you
because I still don’t believe it.
In Toronto, I read a poem
about another part of my life,
one I still find hard to believe
when I’m not with myself.
A stranger asked me afterwards,
“Are you really clean,
though?” I was.
I couldn’t believe his guts, but I did
because I smiled and nodded
as if I’d just signed him a cheque. Then
I cupped my phone with both hands
and bowed my head, as if to say,
someone is calling me
and I have to go,
as if in fear,
as if in thanks.

from Port of Being
(Invisible Publishing, 2018).
Reprinted with permission.


Shazia Hafiz Ramji’s is the author of Port of Being, a finalist for the 2019 Vancouver Book Award, BC Book Prize (Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize), Gerald Lampert Memorial Award, and winner of the Robert Kroetsch Award for Innovative Poetry. She is a columnist for Open Book and is at work on a novel.


Rob Taylor: You note at the back of Port of Being that the book “began” when a thief stole your phone and laptop from your East Vancouver home and subsequently began stalking you. What an awful experience that must have been. It’s not surprising, then, that Port of Being focuses as it does on the theme of surveillance. Could you talk a little about how the stalking event led to the book?

Shazia Hafiz Ramji: This will sound odd, but I wasn’t aware of how being stalked had affected me until after I finished writing the book. I had a fascination with surveillance before being stalked, but afterwards it became more obsessive. I became attuned to all the ways that we are made visible and invisible. My hypervigilance was one way of dealing with trauma I hadn’t yet admitted or articulated to myself, but it was also intertwined with that stillness of poetic attention that is necessary for writing.

Rob: Isn’t that so often the case – that we write the book to understand the book and, through it, ourselves? What role do you think all this played in sharpening Port of Being’s focus on ports, and the Port of Vancouver especially?

Shazia: Ports are places where visibility and invisibility are crucial. I couldn’t help but notice the opacity of containers, the supposed transparency and clarity of water, the Internet in the sea (huge cables under the sand!), and all the other ways that our lives are shaped by the ocean. Ports have always been places of arrival and departure, places of transience, the sense of which still feels resonant and true to my life.

Even though I’m privileged to call Vancouver my home, it is so difficult to live in this city. It breaks my heart every single day because it’s not easy to live and write here. Many of my friends left for places like Montreal, where living costs are more affordable. To be honest, I don’t know if I could have written about anything else at that time in my life, aside from surveillance and ports!

Rob: Ha – some books do feel inevitable in hindsight, it’s true. While Port of Being is your first book, you’d been a writer for many years when the stalking event happened (we’ve known each other, as poets, since – what – 2006?). Did you set aside your previous work to write Port of Being? Or did that new “hypervigilance” dovetail nicely into what you were already writing? Were the themes of Port of Being major departures from what you were writing before? What you’ve been writing since?

Shazia: Do you know you were one of the first people who brought me into poetry world? It all happened at SFU through the High Altitude Poetry club, which you ran and which I took on after you! I was so depressed and lonely during my undergrad years and I can’t tell you how much of a relief poetry club was.

I had published my first chapbook, Prosopopoeia, a year before Port of Being was published. Writing the chapbook allowed me to see the themes I was drawn to. At the time of the chapbook, the themes were relationships, depression, addiction, and technology (our various online personas and the voices of non-human things; cyborg ways of being!). I think Port of Being was a deep dive into those themes.

Trump got elected while I was in the middle of writing Port of Being. This was very disillusioning. I remember feeling a strong and sudden need to write clearly and directly, to transform my love for theory and philosophy and research in order to speak and write in a way that is more accessible, because frankly I think we all need to be able to reach each other with love. So I made that decision halfway, which likely accounts for the more intimate lyric poems.

I made a breakthrough at the end of the book, especially when I decided to make “Astronaut Family” (which is dedicated to all my friends who left Vancouver because they could no longer afford to live here) the book’s closing poem. Now I’m writing about intimate things: home, family, friends, and (unfortunately or fortunately)… ports.

A few months after publication, it struck me that my ancestors have all lived in port cities or islands as far as I know. My love for all things ports continues to grow, but this time I’m finding a way into the poems through family and my home, Vancouver.

Rob: I didn’t know we’d been your introduction to poetry – yeesh, it’s nice to hear things like that, Shazia. High Altitude, established by Stephen Buckley in the early 2000s, brought me into the poetry world, too, a few years before you. I’m so glad I was able to keep the club around long enough to bring you into the fold. (Recruit you into the cult?)

You talked about finding your way into poems through the city of Vancouver. The city appears to have been central in your writing in Port of Being: while many of its ideas transcend any one locale, every observation in the book seems to be drawn from, or seen through, Vancouver. Do you think you could have written this book if you lived somewhere other than Vancouver? Would any port city – say, those of your ancestors – have given you what you needed?

Shazia: What a difficult question, Mr. Robert! All port cities can be ciphers for each other in some way, because of the nature of ports, but I think that my life is very deeply intertwined with the life of Vancouver and the people in it. I always think of leaving because it’s such a struggle to live comfortably here (I have no time to relax and just live). But when I go elsewhere and am on the plane coming back, seeing Vancouver from a distance makes me feel so relieved to be returning. Vancouver has people like you in it! Where would I be if it weren’t for that!? It is my home and I truly hope I won’t have to leave.

Rob: Ha! Yes, and people like you keep me here. One of us really needs to make the first move and go somewhere affordable. (Though for me, too, the reality is that such a move from my hometown is ultimately unimaginable, no matter how financially ruinous that proves to be.)

We talked before about our meeting in university, but I’m curious about your interest in poetry before that. With the name “Hafiz,” I suspect your parents played a role, but perhaps not? What role do you think poetry has played in getting you to the place in your life where you are now?

Shazia: I don’t think my parents knew what they were getting into with me! A poet in a poor immigrant family is hellish for all involved.

Hafiz is a popular name in Persian and South Asian and Muslim cultures, as I know you know from the infamy of Hafiz/Hafez the big poet. I was named by my grandparents as “Shazia Hafiz,” which is my full first name actually (but I go by Shazia in conversation). The grampy and grammy must’ve known what was coming more than my parents did! Though, they were initially going to name me “Sasha.” I don’t know why… or I don’t think I’m ready to find out!

My dad used to sing ghazals when I was young – on tape, every day! At the time I really disliked them. To my little kid ears, they sounded so sad and slow. They stopped me from living in my fantasies of becoming an explorer when I grew up. My dad also used to tell me stories at bedtime. We all used to sleep in the same room, because our house was small and because the Gulf War situation scared the crap out of us. I would not be able to sleep if he didn’t tell me a story!

I also remember reading voraciously. My parents would take me to the bookshop and the owner would let me exchange the book for one on the shelf (without ringing it through), because he knew my parents were broke and that we’d be back in no time.

I don’t think I legitimately knew what a poet or a writer was until I was into my teens, but I remember writing constantly when I was young. I would sit in front of the TV and watch snakes and other creatures on National Geographic, and I remember feeling awed by so much beauty! And that’s when I would pick up a notebook and write “a poem,” which was just descriptions of deserts and oceans and cool stuff on National Geographic.

I still watch Blue Planet and Planet Earth to get into the writing zone. Wonder and awe return me to a good place.

Rob: I love that story of the bookstore owner. And “deserts and oceans and cool stuff” – yes! Port of Being, too, roams widely. Its sections feel like distinct chapbooks: each involves distinct compositional techniques, which lead to poems which look and sound very different from those in the preceding section (some lyrical, some experimental, some univocal, some polyvocal, etc.). Did the book involve gathering multiple “parts” together to form the whole, or did one mini-project flow out of another in a more linear way?

Shazia: Fascinating! A chunk of my writing process was built on research. So the more modular poems of a section like “Surveiller” were attentive to the forms of the technology I was thinking about (like the Internet and it’s assemblage of parts, where each part can function as a separate entity but together they are this emergent force… For example: a neighbourhood camera is one part of a chain in a network). The more impressionistic poems of the first section, “Container,” were written while walking and hanging out by the port!

Chronologically, the poems in the “Spooky Actors at a Distance” came first. Some of these poems were in my chapbook. I was very taken by the chorus of voices of human and non-human things around and in the ocean, so these poems are strange and uncanny as they shift perspective, alternating between “I,” “you,” and “we” to voice themselves.

Rob: Let’s talk more about “Spooky Actors at a Distance.” That section feels like its about orbiting (one poem is even called “Orbiter”): how on social media we are always close to everything, but we can never actually touch it (as you say in “Inquest,” “We can only talk around her death”). That section is followed by the title section, “Port of Being,” which is made up of lyrical, confessional poems (i.e. the stuff that fills up all of many writers debut collections!). (A side note, but of interest to me: that section, the one most about “you,” is the only one in the book that doesn’t open with an epigraph.)

In reading “Spooky Actors” and “Port of Being” back-to-back, I can’t help but draw connections between social media and the confessional lyric: both create an intimacy that is ultimately, if not false, at least limited. And yet those confessional poems are still in there, they are still an important part of the whole you are making in the book. Could you speak a bit about the relationship between the more experimental and lyrical sections of the book?

Shazia: I love that you said the poems in “Spooky Actors at a Distance” are about orbiting. It feels like a very apt description. As I mentioned, some of those poems are in Prosopopoeia. That sputtering word refers to a technique of personification and a trope of autobiography that gives voice to objects and people (essentially, a mask). I was thinking about the ways intimacy and relationships have changed, and the new words and forms that are given to name them. How could we give voice to our new cyborg selves? To “voice” these selves, I had to circle around objects and subjects, accruing bits of their lives to create their voice. This seemed like the only way in, since it felt like a huge transgression to inhabit and speak “as” something or somebody.

About the section title, “Port of Being,” all I can say is: oh shit, busted! In a way, I think I’d been working towards this more confessional and lyric section from the beginning, though I didn’t know it. It may have begun in my chapbook. Prosopopoeia is a title I stole from a Norwegian movie called Reprise,directed by Joachim Trier. One of my all-time favourite movies. In the movie, a character publishes a novel titled Prosopopoeia. I think the movie captures the frustration writers feel regarding autobiography. This felt very true for me at the time. I still struggle with it. The confessional mode comes very naturally to me, but at the same time, it can create problems in real life.

Port of Being was the first time my parents found out about the extent of my addiction. I am very lucky that they accepted me and continue to love me. In a strange way, that book has allowed me to feel more at ease in the world because it loosened some secrets (especially the addiction-related ones) and trauma.

Rob: I like the sense there of one mode of writing propelling you, in some way, into another. And then all the good that came from that process. One of the confessional poems in the book’s last section, “Conspiracy of Love,” was selected for inclusion in Best Canadian Poetry 2019 (which, full disclosure, I edited!). In your biographical note at the back of Best Canadian Poetry, you write that the poem was in part inspired by Anne Michaels’ collection All We Saw. You write that that book’s poems “brim with conviction and belief – not so much belief by choice but out of necessity.” Could you unpack that sentence for us a bit – both what All We Saw meant to you and how it shaped the poems in Port of Being?

Shazia: I can’t articulate how surprised and happy I was to see that you anthologized “Conspiracy of Love.” I think that there is a leap of faith every writer takes when they write. This poem is definitely a leap of faith because it was written during an extremely dark time for me.

In Anne Michaels’ All We Saw, I felt this leap of faith in every single poem. I don’t think I can explain it, but I reviewed the book and Anne herself reached out to say thank you, and that the poems had been deeply understood and “found their peace.” That is what a leap of faith can do.


Take a leap of faith and pick up a copy of Port of Being at your local bookstore, or via the Invisible Publishing website or, I suppose, from Amazon.


The Monastery of Poetry: An Interview with Evelyn Lau

The following interview is the seventh in a seven-part series of conversations with BC poets which I released in April 2020. All seven interviews were originally posted at ReadLocalBC.ca. This was the second year of my collaboration with Read Local BC (you can read the 2019 interviews here).

January - Evelyn Lau

These are the days of not writing.
January, the month of no words.

Wine tastes watered down, food
so flavourless I gnaw a hole

in the side of my mouth,
mining the salt crystal of blood,

its candy tang. The fog again,
shrink-wrapping trees and buildings,

erasing the bay. The opposite shore
a leaf etching under wax paper,

milk glass, the faint sketch
of a fossil in stone. It’s not

the light, or lack of it. Small birds
rustle in the bare trees,

searching for winter berries.
Nothing’s missing. What’s not here?

Reprinted with permission from 
Pineapple Express by Evelyn Lau
(Anvil Press, 2020).

Rob Taylor: “These are the days of not writing… Nothing’s missing. What’s not here?” feels like a good summary, for many, of our current COVID-19 moment. A major theme in Pineapple Express is isolation (in “Disturbances” you write “For months you haven’t seen your neighbours,” which also strikes home right now). A common joke these days is that self-isolation is something poets have been training for their whole lives. Could you talk a little about the knife-edge of isolation for writers — that need for solitude in order to be able to write, and the negative consequences that can come with it? Do you have any advice for people — writers or otherwise — in this time of externally-imposed isolation?

Evelyn Lau: Solitude is bliss for introverts, and most poets would agree that they crave time, space and isolation in order to write and think. I’ve lived alone since I was sixteen, and the challenges inherent in that have always been practical — i.e. financial — rather than emotional. My partner and I have been together for two decades, but we’ve never lived under the same roof. What some people would find painful — coming home to an empty apartment — is the greatest source of solace for me. Is that strange? It feels so essential that anything else is unimaginable. The easy explanation is to say that I need solitude to write, but really it’s just to stay sane.

The danger is that isolation leads to rumination, which can lead to depression. Those of us who need very little social interaction to feel fulfilled definitely have an advantage over the extroverts right now. My advice isn’t original: establish a structure to the day, get out of your head by getting into your body (exercise), find beauty and wonder in small things.

Rob: Yes, yes, excellent advice (the good advice doesn’t always have to be novel — it usually isn’t)!

Speaking of changes brought on by COVID-19, you’ve traditionally avoided work on computers (I seem to recall that you didn’t have an email address until you took on the role of Vancouver poet laureate in 2011, a position which required one). Could you talk about that choice to stay “offline” as much as possible? How are you finding life now that you’re forced to use the internet for work, etc? Is it affecting your capacity to write?

Evelyn: AARGGH! Right now I’m sprawled on the floor outside my building lounge, using my partner’s laptop to pick up on the WiFi signal. This pandemic has yanked me into the 21st century!

Normally I maintain a distraction-free zone by not having WiFi or a modern computer at home, and not having a cellphone. It might be odd to hear this from a writer, but writing doesn’t come “naturally” — it’s often very painstaking, and so much time and creative effort are wasted in email correspondence.

Rob: Pineapple Express opens with poems about your family members. As we’re all partially reflected in our family members, I’m curious: did thinking and writing so closely about your relatives have any effect on how you see and understand yourself?

Evelyn: I’ve been estranged from my immediate family since leaving home at fourteen, so the parental figures have remained distorted in my psychological landscape. Of course, as we age we see patterns more clearly, and how things like personality traits and mental illness are passed along to us.

Rob: On this theme of seeing family patterns more clearly, in “Kate Braid’s Salon: the role of the poet” you write “Families, lovers / were scraps caught up in the storms / of creativity… collateral damage / in the cause of poetry.” As much as writing about family can lend clarity to the self, to what extent do you think writing about family alters or distorts how you see and remember your family?

Evelyn: Writing about anything fixes it in place, doesn’t it? What we choose to emphasize, what we don’t. The stories we tell ourselves, the scabs we pick at, the memories we excavate. This is true of any experience or relationship, not just familial ones.

Rob: “Earthworms,” the second section of Pineapple Express, “excavates” relationships beyond the familial. It contains a number of poems about social gatherings with other poets, one of which is about Elise Partridge’s funeral service (“Yellow Melons”). I think Elise would have particularly enjoyed the ten-line stanza you devote entirely to considering whether or not to eat a granola bar — how small and precise and human and funny!

Could you talk about that poem, and about what drew you to Elise, the person and the poet? More generally, why do you think it’s important for poets to memorialize other poets, and moments between poets, in this way?

Evelyn: I’m happy to hear you think Elise would have enjoyed the granola bar moment. Yes, the demands of the body don’t evaporate just because one is at a funeral! I didn’t know Elise Partridge personally, only through poetry events, but her warmth and humility endeared her to everyone. The poems she wrote during her cancer treatment were breathtaking.

I love when poets pay tribute to other poets in their work; those moments of grace are a small acknowledgment of what writers have given to us through their words.

Rob: In many of the poems in Pineapple Express, you talk explicitly about the effects anti-depressant medications have on dreams, appetite, energy, etc. In “Depression in Summer” you note “You’ve grown immune to plenitude.” Thank you so much for writing openly about mental health — it will be a great help to many people. I’m curious specifically about the relationship between anti-depressants and writing: have anti-depressants helped or hindered your writing, or both, and in what ways?

Evelyn: For years I resisted antidepressants out of concern for how they might affect the writing process. Frankly, though, I haven’t noticed a difference. There’s less attachment to outcome, to how the work is received — but that’s likely due more to age (and an acceptance of poetry’s limited audience) than medication.

Rob: Shaking off attachment to outcome is so valuable, and often elusive for writers (it’s certainly elusive for me) — I’m glad you found your way there one way or another. Speaking of “you,” many of the poems in Pineapple Express are written in the second-person, the “you” usually referring back to the speaker (though not always). What draws you to the second-person address?

Evelyn: I’m drawn to the inclusiveness of the “you,” how the second person voice pulls the reader into the poem and creates a common experience.

Rob: One physical gathering place for common experiences that is feature prominently is Pineapple Express is the seawall around Vancouver’s False Creek. Could you talk about the role of walking in your writing practice?

Evelyn: Writing prose seems to involve keeping one’s butt in the chair, while most of the work of writing poetry doesn’t involve sitting at all — it’s the hours/days/weeks of wrestling with a line break or image or metaphor while shopping, watching TV, washing dishes. Most poets find a walking practice essential to their craft. I’m usually so deep in thought while walking in circles that it’s a disaster if someone stops me to ask for directions or, God help them, spare change!

Rob: Ha! Your deep-in-thought wandering spills out across the continent in the book’s fifth section. “Sunset Boulevard” features a series of travel poems which often explore the big choices we make in life. In “Paradise Tours (or, “I’m in Miami Bitch!”),” for instance, you write “Was it wrong to have stopped wanting / the world’s glamour, to have disappeared // into the monastery of poetry?” What is it, for you, about travel that induces such considerations?

Evelyn: I’ve always been fascinated by America’s contradictions — its glamour and seediness, how its citizens can be so open-hearted yet closed-minded. Travel demands our attention at every moment, and it can be physically or psychologically uncomfortable. If nothing else, it takes us out of our routines and our comfort zone, and allows us to look at our lives from the outside.

Rob: Keeping on this idea of disappearing into the “monastery of poetry,” at the beginning of your writing career you published three books of poetry in four years. Following that you published a novel and a collection of short stories, but it would take eleven years until your next collection of poetry, Treble, was published in 2005. Since then you’ve exclusively published poetry books, with four in the last decade. Could you talk about this journey — both the time away from, and the return to, the monastery?

Evelyn: It was a lawsuit from another writer, after I published a personal essay about our relationship that led me to abandon prose and return exclusively to poetry. The reaction to that essay, by him and others, basically shut me down for years. There’s nothing more stifling to creativity than starting to think like a libel lawyer — analyzing every line for its potential to cause offence — and I developed an antipathy to prose. Poetry saved me from shutting down entirely; its limited audience, its lack of public scrutiny, was a gift.

Rob: I hadn’t realized the lawsuit had kept you from prose all this time. I’m very sorry to hear that. Do you think there’s any chance you might find your way back to it in the future? You mentioned earlier that writing doesn’t come “naturally” to you, but at the same time there must be something — some unavoidable, necessary impulse — that keeps you writing, and that makes it important you don’t “shut down entirely.” If that’s true, is it just for poetry, or also prose? If it’s true for prose, has it been difficult to suppress that impulse all these years?

Evelyn: At this point it’s doubtful there’s any chance I’ll find my way back to prose, but this isn’t something I mourn. I spent years mulling over my relationship to non-fiction after the lawsuit, which happened in my mid-twenties — still a very formative time, both as a person and as a writer. My urgent need to expose the ugliness in relationships, to push the boundaries of personal revelation, had been slapped down, and I lost momentum and trajectory. Fortunately poetry was there, and I could explore some of the same territory in a form that held little interest for lawyers or the public.

That “necessary impulse” once existed both for prose and poetry, but I managed to channel it entirely into poetry and found a kind of purity in the process that was compelling. The idea of writing prose is repellent now. Weirdly, though, in dreams I’m always working on a novel or short stories — never poetry!

Rob: Nightmares are on the rise in this stressful time, I’ve heard. That might explain it!

The publication of Pineapple Express comes 30 years after the publication of your debut collection, You Are Not Who You Claim (which won the Milton Acorn People’s Poetry Award). That book was preceded a year earlier by your best-selling memoir Runaway: Diary of a Street Kid and followed two years later by Oedipal Dreams, which was a Governor General’s Award finalist. All this by the age of 21! Needless to say, your writing career had a rather rocket-fueled start. How do you think that early success shaped your writing in the years that followed?

Evelyn: Ha! Well, it’s all been downhill ever since. The downside of early success is that sometimes “serious” writers dismiss your work, and don’t believe you’re in it for the long haul. Now that I’ve gone from a national bestseller to writing poetry collections that sell 300 copies each, I guess I showed them!

Rob: Evelyn! This is very much not true, five straight poetry books means your career is heading in exactly the right direction. Though I suppose as an unabashed poetry lover, I’m biased. Does that make me a “serious” writer? Oh God, I hope not…

Speaking of new directions taken in your writing, the back-cover copy for your 2010 collection Living Under Plastic notes that the book,

“represents a major departure from the author’s previous poetry books. Instead of the obsessive focus on relationships and emotional damage that has characterized much of her earlier work, this book opens up to explore new subjects: family history, illness, death and dying, consumerism, and the natural world.”

Those sentences jumped out at me as it seemed like a reviewer had written then, not your own publisher! That said, I definitely see the mix outlined above present in Pineapple Express and your other more recent books (though emotional damage is in there, too!). Looking back, do you think Living Under Plastic marked a turning point in your writing? And if so, what caused the shift at that time?

Evelyn: Most of my thirties, when Living Under Plastic came out, was basically spent in hibernation. I had stopped writing prose, and couldn’t find enough work to sustain myself; rather than admit my increasingly dire circumstances, I hunkered down and went through my savings as slowly as possible. When your external life shrinks, your interior life opens up — something to remember, perhaps, in these current times.

Rob: Those lines about entering the “monastery of poetry” resonate more and more with me as we talk. What an experience it must have been to leave whole genres behind and to find new ways to communicate your world.

That leads me to thinking about “truth,” both seeing and speaking it. We’ve discussed how your first book was non-fiction. Your fiction, too, feels “truthful” — a Globe & Mail review of your first short story collection, Fresh Girls and Other Stories, described your writing as “blend[ing] startling prose talent with a fierce determination to be true.” Your poetry carries similar characteristics. How do you think about “truth” in your writing? Are you, as the reviewer described, “fiercely determined”?

Evelyn: I love how poetry can often blaze a more direct path to emotional truth than prose. Yes, it has always felt necessary to strive for that emotional honesty, no matter the cost.

Rob: Following the lawsuit and your move away from non-fiction, did your thinking about being “truthful” in your poetry shift at all? Is the “truth” you go after in poetry the same as non-fiction’s “truth”?

Evelyn: Well, for years after the lawsuit I was overthinking everything. I’d want to dedicate a poem to someone, or use someone’s name in a poem, and I’d worry that would open up another can of worms. You can never predict how someone will react to seeing themself in your work – whether they’ll feel honoured or offended, exposed or betrayed. The truth in poetry is an emotional truth, not a journalistic one, so maybe that’s what I’d been seeking all along.

Since his death, I’ve been revisiting the relationship that led to the lawsuit, this time in poetry. I still make desperate attempts to understand that whole mess. “Gagged,” in Pineapple Express, touches on one aspect of that experience.

Rob: Do you approach the writing of poetry, at the level of the sentence, in the same way you once approached prose? Do you put different pressures, or pay different forms of attention, to a sentence you write in a story compared to a line you write in a poem?

Evelyn: There’s far more attention paid to each line in poetry than in prose — each word, each bloody comma and period! That distillation and compression is why it takes so long. There’s no room for sloppiness when there are so few words on the page. That process of carving away the fat is hugely satisfying, but it also takes a punishing degree of focus.

Rob: If someone asked me how long an Evelyn Lau poem was, I would say “Around a page-and-a-half.” Obviously, there are many exceptions to this “rule,” but it does seem to be your “home base” of sorts. Is that length something you pursue consciously, or do you innately get itchy around line 35 or 40 and start looking for an exit? Is it, in one way or another, the length of your thoughts?

Evelyn: Ha, that’s funny! I guess we all have our “set point”, in poetry as in — well, weight for example? We gain a few pounds, lose a few pounds, the body eventually returns to where it feels right.

Rob: Yes, I guess that’s true. I see poets putting their poems on diets all the time, or sending them to the gym for weight training!

You twice quote John Updike in the epigraphs to poems in Pineapple Express, and you read his poetry and spoke about his influence on your writing at a 2012 Dead Poets Reading Series event. For those who missed that, could you talk a little about the role Updike’s writing played in the development of your own? What is it in his writing that keeps you returning to it, year after year?

Evelyn: What I loved most about Updike’s work, aside from the masterful crafting of his sentences, was his commitment to writing about those moments we’d rather overlook — either because they’re shameful, or because they’re too plain and ordinary. He could write in such loving detail about the littlest thing. And nothing was too embarrassing for him to write about; not in a gesture of self-display, or to shock, but just to acknowledge that it was all part of the human experience.

Rob: Speaking of learning from beloved writers: you’ve been just that beloved writer for many people in Vancouver, where you’ve taught creative writing for many years. That experience is reflected in poems like “Earthworms.” How, if at all, has your teaching made you think differently about your own writing?

Evelyn: I avoided teaching for a long time, because with my Grade Nine education I had zero confidence that I had anything to give in this area. I still have a hard time using the word “teach” to describe my workshops and consults at SFU Continuing Studies. I’m very fortunate to have worked with talented students who have also been smart, interesting, wonderful people. But as any writer knows, it can be difficult to have anything left over for your own writing when you are immersed in other people’s work.

Evelyn Lau is the Vancouver author of thirteen books, including eight volumes of poetry. Her memoir Runaway: Diary of a Street Kid (HarperCollins, 1989), published when she was eighteen, was made into a CBC movie starring Sandra Oh in her first major role. Evelyn’s prose books have been translated into a dozen languages; her poetry has received the Milton Acorn People’s Poetry Award, the Pat Lowther Award for best book of poetry by a Canadian woman, and a National Magazine Award, as well as nominations for a BC Book Prize and a Governor-General’s Award. Her poems have been chosen numerous times for inclusion in the Best Canadian Poetry series, and she has been writer-in-residence at UBC, Kwantlen and VCC as well as Distinguished Visiting Writer at the University of Calgary. From 2011-2014, Evelyn served as Poet Laureate for the City of Vancouver.


Playfulness and Gravitas: An Interview with Jillian Christmas

The following interview is the sixth in a seven-part series of conversations with BC poets which I released in April 2020. All seven interviews were originally posted at ReadLocalBC.ca. This was the second year of my collaboration with Read Local BC (you can read the 2019 interviews here).

An excerpt from “hard to tell if this is just the internet, or another dream where I am in front of the class in only my dirty underwear” – Jillian Christmas

Jillian is feeling … Jillian is … Jillian …
wasn’t the only one who got a little too excited
about a new facebook status “back in the day”
safe to say none of us knew any better
safe to say I was ahead of my time in the feeling-myself department
newly imagining me, a writer, with a reputation to create
I needed to appear busy, desirable, productive
what brilliant and profound statement could
be the messaging for this soon-to-be-published
high-functioning persona?
Jillian is … busy writing
satisfied with my own genius I sign out
presumably to watch reruns of judge judy
several hours later my best friend calls me
wonders if I know that “writting” isn’t a word

Reprinted with permission from 
The Gospel of Breaking by Jillian Christmas
(Arsenal Pulp Press, 2020).

Rob Taylor: In “Talking with Ancestors After the Show” you write “if there is a moment this is it / know better than to beg a minute’s sojourn // reminder to the artist: this is it.” I can imagine so vividly that line being delivered in a spoken word performance, and how it might resonate differently (and, in some ways, similarly) in that context. That Venn diagram between the “stage” moment and the “page” moment — their audiences, their performative spaces, their “voices,” their ephemerality.

As a writer whose background is in spoken word, how have you found the experience of putting your words, often first meant for public performance, onto the page? What have you been able to bring over with you, and what have you had to leave behind? What new opportunities has writing for the page granted you?

Jillian Christmas: I love that you frame them as opportunities. When I first approached the challenge it seemed to present itself as a fear of what would be lost, what eye contact or small facial expression would be missed and what emotional information would go with it. But your framing is absolutely correct, somewhere along the process, I discovered that it was in fact a great joy, almost a game, to figure out what choices I could make on the page that uplift the poem to a similar effect as I would have on the stage. In some places I learned that the voice of the page poem would be different, more concerned with shape, spacing, or a leaning, possibly tumbling word. In some places a more direct translation would occur, a long slender diving presentation, where my voice might have dipped or swayed (as in “But Have You Tried”). In the end I decided that there were no limits to my choices, allowing each poem to have as many lives as it needs, perhaps one for the page, a longer more lyrical or repetitive version for the stage reading, perhaps a third snappy edit for tucking inside the nest of the perfect song. A multitude of mechanisms to coax every bit of connective tissue from any given piece.

Rob: On this theme of connection, do you think about your audience differently when writing for the page than when writing for the stage? Does that distance — the loss of the aforementioned facial expressions; not hearing the crowd laugh or gasp or cheer — change what you want to say or how you want to say it?

Jillian: One thing I’ve learned from years of performance, is that you never know who might be in your audience. Who happened into the room that night? Who was led in, unexpectedly, by a poetically-inclined friend? Who might find your book or some recording passing across their desk? My audience is almost always a mystery to me, but you learn to read a room, to select the next poem or the movement of a rise and fall, depending on what the room needs, or what energy is being exchanged there. On the page, that immediate feedback is absent, but there is still opportunity to create an arc, a flow that moves the reader from one emotional landscape to another. As for the applause, I have an excellent imagination.

Rob: Ha! Yes, that comes in handy. I was certainly nodding along (the reading equivalent of applause?), and sometimes chuckling, as I read through The Gospel of Breaking.

In “Black Feminist” you write:

They said I could be a feminist too!
after all, they are going to need someone at the meeting
who knows how to tighten up
all those white girl dreadlocks

and in “Northern Light”:

what strange things are we creatures
of the Diaspora treasures
of the Caribbean Sea,
knocking our knees together in parkas

Poems like these are drawn from your perspective as someone who inhabits two distinctly different parts of the African diaspora: Vancouver and Trinidad and Tobago (where people of African descent make up 36% of the population, compared to 1% in Vancouver). Notably, neither of those places is the United States, which tends to dominate conversations about the North American African diaspora. How do you think the experience in each country have informed how you think about the other and, more widely, about what it means to be black in the diaspora in the 21st Century?

Jillian: I often wonder what people imagine when they think of the word “home”. I’ve used that word to describe so many places that I’m sure anyone listening could easily get confused. Perhaps that is the skill set of people who move and have been moved across great distances: the ability to make home within whatever is in reach, to call up history and memory from an unfamiliar skyline.

I can’t say what it means to be a member of the black diaspora in the 21st century, the experiences are vast. But I know that the land that I live on is not mine, that it has been cared for and considered sacred long before my arrival, and that I am grateful for each moment I get to call it home. I know that through solidarity with Indigenous communities I can work to excise the hovering feeling of displacement (mine and others), and locate myself as a useful piece in this moment in time, which is a kind of home that cannot evade me.

Rob: Speaking of hovering feelings of displacement, what has performing and publishing your poetry to largely white, Canadian audiences taught you about your role in the cultural and political life of the country?

Jillian: For certain it has taught me that I cannot allow whiteness to define or direct my role as a writer and creative, which is and always has been the same as any artist, to speak about what I experience and imagine, to question, to disrupt, to channel and unveil — to dream freedom where there was none.

If anyone has said it better than the great Audre Lorde herself, I have yet to hear it: “If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive.”

Rob: I love those responses — both yours and Lorde’s. When it comes to defining yourself for yourself, in The Gospel of Breaking you write honestly and openly about a number of subjects that would have been taboo a generation ago, or perhaps still are now, including sexuality, race and mental health.

The tension in trying to speak about these subjects with those on the “outside” is present in a number of your poems — I think here particularly of your poem about Robin Williams’ suicide (“do you know what it is to think of the thing a hundred times before coffee / to make the bed anyway”). How do you reconcile the range of readers for a given poem (the “insiders” who know it all and want to hear it spoken, the “outsiders” who know very little but hopefully want to learn, etc.)? Or do you not think about it at all? Do you prioritise a particular audience when you write, and simply let others listen in?

Jillian: That’s an interesting dynamic you bring up, between the insider and the outsider. I can’t say that it occurred to me quite like that, though I can see that it is present, hopefully not static or unmovable. When I think about writing those lines I’m reminded of how little we ever know about each other’s experiences of the world. Who is in fact an outsider, to the experience of loss, or mental illness? Who is an insider to the feeling of isolation? Some questions that appear to be asked hypothetically are, in fact, earnest. What do you know of rest or the needing of it? What do I know? Could we possibly speak of those things honestly? Can we unveil for ourselves and each other the losses we carry to discover understanding, and maybe even collective healing? I hope so.

Rob: I like how your answer here embraces the slipperiness of “knowing.” That’s a theme in a number of the book’s poems, where you write very insightfully about the plasticity of memory. At one point you describe depression as “the disease of our memories either we remember too / much darkness or we forget too much light.”

In addition to mental health’s ability to warp our memories, a writer is always rearranging their memories as they excavate them and turn them into art. What do you think the writing, performing, and publishing of your memories has done to them? Do you think you’ve made them lighter or darker? Do you see yourself in these poems, or someone adjacent to yourself, or someone different entirely?

Jillian: I’ve always been fascinated by the worlds we create with our memories, the alternate universes we all suspend. I remember hearing once that each time we remember a moment we change it just a little, we colour it with our current emotion or perspective, some new lens that wasn’t there in the moment of making. I’ve spent time worrying about that, called my own mother to check the validity of one recollection or another, found myself soothed when our stories map neatly onto each other. More and more often, I find myself surprised when they do.

I try in my writing to speak from my experience but to leave room for the experiences that I could only ever imagine. I most certainly have coloured memories with my own emotional imprints, some lighter, some darker, but all true to my experience of them — and hopefully none so etched in stone that I cannot make room to see the many versions of myself who have pressed them into story.

Rob: On this theme of “many versions of yourself,” the poems in The Gospel of Breaking about your time in Trinidad and Tobago often feature titles in parentheses (i.e. “(no gift like a loosened fist)” or “(sugar plum)”). Could you talk about this choice, and the distinction you aim for it to bring into these poems?

Jillian: As a child of immigrant parents, a first generation “Canadian” growing up on Indigenous land, the shaping of my cultural knowledge came both from the small everyday expressions of phrase or flavour, as well as the short trips that I took “home” to collect pieces of my heritage from the mouth of my grandmother or aunty. The pieces in parentheses all hold stories from these times. The parentheses are meant to illustrate what it is to carry only small pieces, sometimes compartmentalized, sometimes foreign even to myself, but still an integral part of the puzzle.

Rob: Sticking with formal choices, the poems in The Gospel of Breaking take on a wide variety of shapes and sizes — for every longer poem designed for three-minute delivery at a poetry slam there’s a very short poem; for every prose-like block of text there’s a thin, line-break-filled offering. Could you talk a bit about how you came to the shapes of your various poems? When you originally wrote the poems which were performed at slams, was the shape of the poem still important to you (even if no one would see it), or was that a consideration you had to come to later as you worked your way toward this book?

Jillian: I always consider shape when bringing a poem to life. However, the shape is important for different reasons. When preparing for the stage, I will study my poem from a page version that has been broken down into segments that will help to imprint and inform what will come next. It is a memorization tool. If I can create markers that make a visual impact in my memory of the poem, it will assist in those moments on stage where the next line feels stuck or frozen. I remember the page, the layout, the rhythm. In the book, those shapes are meant to stand in for my body, my face, my voice. The ebb and flow that the audience would hear are invisible on the page, so I try to offer direction, a structure that feels like a fit for each piece.

Rob: You use rhyme powerfully (and often playfully) in The Gospel of Breaking, especially in the longer poems. I often find that collections by poets with a background in spoken word show a greater facility and comfort with using rhyme than those by page-only poets. Even within a single book, the longer poems that most likely originated as spoken word pieces seem to use rhyme more frequently, and more playfully, than the shorter poems. It’s as though using rhyme is “ok” with a live audience, but should only be dipped into hesitantly on the page.

Why do you use rhyme? What effect do you hope for it to have on the listener/reader? Did you feel a need to dampen down your use of rhyme in The Gospel of Breaking compared to what you’d perform on the stage?

Jillian: Rhyme seems to me like a tool that shines especially bright on the stage. A mechanism for holding the audience in a trance, taking them on a long and winding ride, but offering a tether for them to hold onto. Something somewhat reliable. However my one rule for using rhyme has nothing at all to do with page vs stage, or with the length of the piece.

I love for rhyme to live everywhere, including everyday speech. My one rule, and the rule I often offer in workshop, is that if I can predict the rhyme that is coming next, it’s better to choose a new one. I use that lens for my writing, and I am not always perfectly within its scope. However, I think the worst offence a rhyme can commit is predictability. Certainly each of us is guilty of that on occasion.

Rob: Ha! Oh no, never!

You ran Vancouver’s Verses Festival of Words, which bridges the gap between Vancouver’s spoken word and page poetry communities, for a number of years. What influence do you think that work had on your writing/performance? Having built the Verses festival into such a success, what do you think Vancouver’s poetry community is most in need of next?

Jillian: I have been incredibly lucky, over years of curation, to connect with folks who have been inspirations and heroes to me. It has reminded me that I am one sparkling thread in this expansive weave of peers and mentors, friends and students, performers and organizers. It has encouraged me not to fix myself to any one role, but to move fluidly through the many iterations of myself, to foster playfulness and gravitas.

Vancouver has held and continues to hold an incredible wealth of creative energy. In this interesting time of isolation, I think that what we all need are reminders of how deeply and intrinsically connected we are to each other.

Jillian Christmas lives on the unceded territories of the Squamish, Tsleil-Waututh and Musqueam people, where she served for six years as Artistic Director of Verses Festival of Words. An educator, organizer, and advocate in the arts community, utilizing an anti-oppressive lens, Jillian has performed and facilitated workshops across the continent.