8/01/2022

A Congenial Barrier: An Interview with W.M. Herring

The following interview is part two of a seven-part series of conversations with BC poets which I released between January and April 2022. All eight interviews were originally posted at ReadLocalBC.caThis was the third year of my collaboration with Read Local BC (you can read the 2019 interviews here, the 2020 interviews here, and the 2021 interviews here).

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Late November, -10 C - W.M. Herring

I forgot to tell you, to say,
(that time you went for so long
came back somewhat changed)
forgot to say:

The barred owl was there
in the paddock at four o’clock
on a stump, hunting mice
catching distilled, chilled amber air.
He lifted off, banked aside the barn,
settled in an aspen by the fence.
Crows massed from nowhere,
everywhere, scolded, circled
as though something
was dead or should be.

The owl slid off the branch
almost liquid
slipped under the bare willow
the swaying heads of grass.
The crows flew east, shed
gloaming from their tails.

I rushed up the hill, up home:
I thought you might be there.

Reprinted with permission from 
(Now or Never, 2021)

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Rob Taylor: Birds of all types appear in A Sure Connection, including the four owls on the cover. Near the end of the book, you seem to acknowledge your obsession via a poem entitled “Another Bird Song.” Why do you think you write so much about birds?

W.M. Herring: I write about birds because I am an observer, and they are everywhere; if you frequent a fairly natural setting and are willing to stay still for a bit, you cannot miss them. Birds differ so much in habitat and habit, yet share so many characteristics. They behave as they were designed to behave, living in a manner that benefits their society. They exhibit beauty in such diverse ways. And, they can fly!

RT: You appear especially drawn to smarter, darker birds like owls and crows.

WMH: Both seem a cut above in complexity and in their ability to reward an observer for their attention. Crows certainly entertain and instruct; that makes them worth writing about. Owls attract because they are enigmatic, riveting, unexpected, otherworldly. An owl sighting pauses everything and makes me take stock of what else is happening, internally and externally, in that moment. I was excited to find Barred Owls in East Sooke as well as in Prince George. I hope the quizzical Barred Owls on the book cover make the potential reader (also) wonder what is within, while providing a broad hint that owls will be involved.

RT: Two other recurring sources of inspiration for the poems in A Sure Connection are photos and fields. The latter can be partially explained by your living at Gleann Eilg, an acreage in East Sooke. Both types of poems involve looking at a still surface and teasing out what’s hidden inside. Could you talk about these two types of poems in your book? What causes you to turn to fields and photos for inspiration?

WMH: I take very few actual photos, but I commit images and incidents to memory for later consideration. The “pictures” so created are starting points, places from which to tease meaning or share delight in the beauty. In “Swimmers,” I talk about my parents through photos that do not exist. What exists are stories they told me and things I observed. Those serve well enough.

The “Gleann Eilg” poems are written at our new place, an old sheep farm in East Sooke, over the course of a couple of years. The other outdoor poems are set almost entirely on a quarter section of overgrown farmland outside Prince George. Thanks to two children, some horses, and a few large energetic dogs, I spent forty years walking that land, watching its inhabitants and the land as it changed. Again, I stored up images and stories, apparently for the time I would finally start writing.

RT: What brought you to finally start writing?

WMH: Retirement brought with it the wonderful gift of time: time to walk slowly, to listen carefully, to contemplate; time to consider a stray thought or to research an event or historical figure; time to daydream; time to wordsmith over a mug of coffee for as long as it takes. In retrospect, I needed time to observe, absorb, and declare before I could produce even the shortest of poems. Until I had that time, I had no idea the writing that would emerge.

RT: Though you didn’t start until retirement, you’ve been observing, absorbing and declaring for a while now! In the acknowledgments at the back of your book, you list magazine publications going back almost a full decade. Did you find it tricky to pull together poems from a decade’s worth of writing, or had your style and themes stayed fairly consistent throughout?

WMH: I wrote my first piece, “Three Black Dogs,” in 2012, the same year it became my first publication in a literary magazine. Eight years later, I pulled the manuscript together. It wasn’t tricky to bring together poems over almost a decade because I am not a prolific writer. I picked poems I particularly liked and thought worth sharing (i.e. that others might find the time spent reading them worthwhile), whether they had achieved publication or not, and I had just enough for a manuscript. The book is a “collected” work — common themes such as family and place are simply common to my work as a whole.

I think my style had not changed much over the years because I started writing so late. My observation skills and worldview had sixty years to mature by then. My writing has become tighter, more spare, over the years; edits to poems in the final manuscript reflect that change and add consistency to the final product.

RT: Most of A Sure Connection feels firmly grounded in British Columbia, but hidden away in A Sure Connection are a number of poems set in far-flung places: Bangladesh, Colombia, England, Germany… And many of these poems seem drawn from your imaginings of historical events. Could you talk about these more wide-ranging poems? How do you think they complement the more here-and-now poems around them?

WMH: The more wide-ranging poems come from people or events, current or historical, that made me stop and think, which in turn made me write. I included them because the interpretation I put on the events is consistent with my worldview, so these poems give a deeper view into the writer’s mindset than a collection of just “family and field” poems could provide.

An important impetus for my writing was a desire to record some stories for my children. “The Councillor,” “Corn in Egypt,” “To The Shops,” “Died of Wounds” and “Swimmers” are among the family history poems. In their telling, they may help readers to recall, reflect upon, and share, their own family stories. 

RT: In the poem “The Red Journal,” you write about a book that functions as a “repository for fragments / one per scribbled line,” then provide examples like “snake closet / wood smoke.” I’m curious if this is a real book, and a real part of your writing process.

WMH: The Red Journal is a real book. In Prince George it sat on the breakfast table, at the window overlooking the backyard, forest and fields. The barn was just out of sight. In East Sooke it sits on my laptop table, at a window overlooking a yard, tall stands of trees and the Sooke Basin. As you know from the book, “snake closet” has already made its way into a poem (“Two Snakes”); “wood smoke” is awaiting a poem of its own.

RT: Is this how most of your poems start, in an odd word or phrase you catch and write down?

WMH: The poems start many ways — an image, a word or phrase, a story, a news headline (particularly the odd ones), a first or last line, an idea, a quote, even a poetic device. The germ of a poem is not the problem; bringing it to a meaningful completion is!

RT: One way you move your poems from germ towards completion is via comparisons, either in the poems’ content or structure. It’s right there in the titles of some (“Three Dogs,” “Two Snakes,” “Two Doors”) and also in poems divided into two parts, each providing a different look at the same thing. Still other poems are structured as numbered lists. Is this kind of itemizing and comparing something you pursued consciously over the course of writing this book, or just one of those little surprises that emerges as you pull a manuscript together? What do you think draws you to these types of poems?

WMH: Aha — you have found evidence and are looking for root causes! Good sleuthing. My brain is wired for logic — comparing and contrasting, counting, listing, parsing, ranking and evaluating. I have no training in Creative Writing, and no studies in literature beyond second year English. I have a degree in Computer Science and spent many years in software development, training, technical writing, and business analysis. Itemising and comparing is not so much conscious as inevitable. The result of all this: I find logical constructs pleasing. That and clean simple words, tight language. I am not completely left-brain, but there are those who would attest that I lean that way.

RT: Ha! Some poets could use their “left brains” more often — it might help me have a clue what they’re saying!

In “Singing” you write about someone singing while walking alone at their farm: “Why do I suppose joy / brings these songs? // She is singing to the bears.” I love the duality there, singing joyfully to the bears both to please them and to keep them away. I’m tempted to read “Singing” as a bit of an ars poetica: we poets keep death at bay by joyfully singing to it. Would you say that when you write a poem you are singing to the bears?

WMH: Your questions illustrated one gratifying element of presenting poems to others: the reader finds interpretations that the poet had not intended, or possibly just not noticed, but that work. I love that because it shows how utterly a poem can make the reader part of the process. The poem then carries different meaning for different readers.

Singing to the bears lets them know I know that I am in their territory, but intend them no harm. The song builds a congenial barrier. The poem sings to the reader, drawing them into the experience. The poem also sings because it calls out to be read and heard. You are never done with a poem (writing or experiencing it) until you have read it aloud or heard it read.

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W.M. Herring was born in Quebec, grew up in Vancouver, and now lives at tidewater in East Sooke on Vancouver Island. Her work has been published in various literary journals including The Antigonish Review, ARC Poetry, Canadian Woman Studies, Literary Review of Canada and Queen’s Quarterly. A Sure Connection is her first collection.

7/25/2022

BC/AB Road Trip Report

Earlier this month, our family went on a little road trip through BC and Alberta. One of my favourite parts (behind only the water slides, mini-golf and dinosaur bones) was visiting book stores.

If you find yourself making a similar trip, here are three you shouldn't miss:


First up is Baker's Books in Hope, a used bookstore where every book is $2! They have a small but mighty poetry section, and a strong selection of rare poetry books at the back (they cost a bit more). Always worth a stop at the beginning of a road trip.


Another bookstore I'm always sure to visit is The Book Shop in Penticton. With over 5,000 square feet of floor space, it's one of Canada's largest. This time I counted 28 shelves of poetry, ten of which were Canadian (including Laura Farina's Some Talk of Being Human, photographed here). 


My tour of Alberta bookstores was truncated by our skirting around Calgary to avoid Stampede madness (and to spend more time hunting dinosaur bones), but I made sure we popped in to Glass Bookshop in Edmonton. Founded by poets Jason Purcell and Matthew Stepanic, it's an absolute heaven for poetry fans.


Right at the front entrance you're greeted by this fantastic array of (mostly poetry) chapbooks. 


And inside - boom! - eight shelves of brand new poetry, largely from Canada and the US. It doesn't get any better than this.

While I didn't get photos in other places, stores like the Wee Book Inn and Audrey's in Edmonton and Three Hills Books in, strangely enough, Three Hills, were also a pleasure to visit.


Here's the full list of the books I picked up on the trip, along with the bookstores in which I acquired them:

Animal Person, Alexander MacLeod (Iron Dog Books, Vancouver - picked up on the way out of town!)
Some Talk of Being Human, Laura Farina (The Book Shop, Penticton)
Spring and All, William Carlos Williams (Baker's Books, Hope)
The Sound of Poetry, Robert Pinsky (The Book Shop, Penticton)
The Essential Muriel Rukeyser, Muriel Rukeyser (Wee Book Inn, Edmonton)
The Great Canadian Sonnet, David McFadden (Wee Book Inn, Edmonton)
7 to 5, Michael Meagher (Wee Book Inn, Edmonton)
Swollening, Jason Purcell (Glass Bookshop, Edmonton)
Terra Firma, Pharma Sea, Joseph Kidney (Glass Bookshop, Edmonton)
Fugue with Bedbug, Anne-Marie Turza (Glass Bookshop, Edmonton)
ICQ, Matthew Walsh (Glass Bookshop, Edmonton)
Songs for Relinquishing the Earth, Jan Zwicky (Baker's Books, Hope - forgot it in the photo!)

A mere 12 books! My restraint grows with every year (or, at least, the space in our apartment diminishes). You can check out past trip book hauls here: 2011, 2016, 2017, 2019. God and COVID willing, I hope to be making many more such reports in the coming years!

7/11/2022

What Trickles Down the Line: An Interview with Ellie Sawatzky

The following interview is part one of a seven-part series of conversations with BC poets which I released between January and April 2022. All eight interviews were originally posted at ReadLocalBC.caThis was the third year of my collaboration with Read Local BC (you can read the 2019 interviews here, the 2020 interviews here, and the 2021 interviews here).

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Sun Valley Lodge - Ellie Sawatzky

Somewhere in my mind, you’ve become
inseparable from the old boats, the plastic
Adirondack chairs. Listen, I saw plastic
Adirondack chairs long before I ever
saw you. I also saw red cars, fireweed,
deer in the road. I saw ukuleles and Amélie.
I rolled my own cigarettes, smoked them
alone, I crocheted poems to keep warm
at night before you, so step back, love,
this is my line of pine trees. This is my
soft light falling fast behind the lake.


Reprinted with permission from 
(Nightwood Editions, 2021)

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Rob Taylor: A good number of the poems in None Of This Belongs To Me are set in remote locations: lakes, farms, tents, the Sun Valley Lodge, etc. I often think that poets who write about their immediate experiences have their lives distorted in their books: it looks like they’re always on vacation! The reality, I suspect, is that these are simply the moments in a poet’s life when they have the time and mental/physical space to write. Would you say that’s true for you?

Ellie Sawatzky: I actually tend not to write when I’m on vacation. I like to romanticize myself as the kind of writer who is overcome by inspiration, scribbling madly in the lounge car on the night train to Montreal. But in reality I’m too distracted in the moment, and I can’t process what’s happening to me while it’s happening. But I do take down notes and file away moments to revisit later, in my mind, when I’m at home in Vancouver at my desk. I write best in moments of quiet reflection when I’m feeling more grounded. I tend to explore my experiences “away” in my poems for reasons that are probably pretty obvious: they are times when something new has been revealed to me about the world and/or myself.

RT: One lens into the world, and yourself, in None Of This Belongs To Me is your work as a nanny. The third section of the book explores your time helping raise “B,” while you were still quite young yourself. You write “Grown-ups // made me, explained things like / sex and art and garbage. Lately I’ve been // explaining”. Later in that same poem you describe poetry as “the way the night / tries to make sense of its day”. Caring for a child and writing a poem both require a certain amount of “explaining” and “making sense” of the world. What was it like to be engaged in both processes simultaneously? Did you find that how you made sense of the world in a poem bled over in some way in how you made sense of the world for “B”? Or vice-versa?

ES: I think something that I’ve learned both from taking care of children and writing poetry is that some things just don’t make sense. Anyone who’s ever spent time around children knows what it is to ultimately answer a line of questioning with “I don’t know why, it just is.” It can be very humbling — and existentially terrifying — to admit that you don’t know something, or to acknowledge that there are multiple contradictory truths. In childhood so much is unknown and there are so many possibilities. As we get older things seem to narrow. But when you spend time with children, you connect with that sense of mystery and possibility and its inherent vulnerabilities, and this certainly inspired my poetic practice while I was working as a nanny. To me, poetry is a space that allows adults to ask questions the way children do. So it’s not so much about “making sense” as it is about wondering.

RT: In “Poetry Wants My Imaginary Boyfriends,” you write that poetry “wants me to malfunction perfectly forever.” You expand on that a few lines later: “poetry wants my ache and ache and a thumb / lost to frostbite.” We are certainly in a moment in poetry where, like the 6 o’clock news, “if it bleeds, it leads.” It feels like there’s an unspoken expectation that lyric poets will put the darkest moments of their life on display. You meet that expectation in many ways in this book, but you equally seem to resist the pressure: in their humour and surprising imagery and music, even the most difficult poems in None Of This Belongs To Me feel buoyed by lightness. Could you talk about that pressure to “malfunction perfectly,” and how you embraced (or rejected) it in this book?

ES: I think it’s important to be vulnerable when writing poetry, and I definitely feel that I followed that impulse in the poems in None of This Belongs to Me (how else to explain the massive vulnerability hangover I’ve been feeling since my book came out), and I also think that humour and levity are important when it comes to conveying meaning and connecting with a reader. Sometimes the process of writing poetry is a way to remind myself not to take myself too seriously. I agree that there are expectations around a poem’s content/tone/style, presuppositions about what poetry is and does, and in the process of writing this book I found myself embracing funny and joyful content — something I wish to see more of in poetry — alongside the more serious stuff. Part of that comes across as self-consciousness, I’m sure: in drawing attention to the process of writing a poem, pointing out its expectations and the ways in which those expectations are subverted. Poking fun at the process, even. For example, in “Ways to Write a Poem” (“Imagine how you might be murdered, but / make it beautiful”).

RT: The joy is there in the content of the poems, and also their playful musicality—rhyme and consonance in particular, especially plosive sounds like hard “t”s. Lines like “thistle-stitched ditch of adulthood”, or “a quivering / night lit occasionally by lightning”, or “a still moonlit / morning in Lillooet”, or “slips out into the wet knit of night / to unhitch the horse…” revel in plosives to an extent I’ve rarely seen in recent years (speaking of things we wish to see more of in poetry, that’s one of mine!). Could you talk about your interest in creating these dense sonic landscapes in your poems? How does this sound-making contribute to the sense-making of a poem’s content? 

ES: To be honest, I’ve never thought too much about why I do that, but now that I’m thinking about it, that kind of writing strikes me as being very “muscular,” so perhaps when I’m playing with language in that way I’m just flexing a little bit — constructing a moment where the imagery really packs a punch (pardon the plosive). It seems to me that these dense moments affect the pacing of a poem; they might force a reader to slow down a little bit, to linger on an image, to really hear it, or feel it in the mouth.

RT: Were you inspired by particular poets in writing in this way?

ES: I’m certain I learned how to do that from watching other poets flex their linguistic muscles. A few that I can think of include Ken Babstock, Ellen Bass, Sonnet L’Abbé, Liz Howard, Selina Boan, Adèle Barclay — and you, Rob!

That being said, my mother is a speech language pathologist, and I sometimes wonder if I’m a bit obsessed with the way words sound and feel in the mouth because of something that was instilled in me in the early years of language acquisition. 

RT: Yes, I think your mother deserves to be at the top of the list!

While many of the poems in None Of This Belongs To Me are united by their “muscle flexing,” some are much more plain-spoken. Other stylistic choices seem to shift from poem to poem, too: in the book’s fourth section, for example, we start encountering poems written entirely in lower-case letters and in shorthand (“u” instead of “you”, etc.). Some poets have a singular style, while others seem to decide anew their style from poem to poem. Where would you put yourself on that spectrum? Do you write in one “mode” for extended periods, or are you starting fresh with each poem, or somewhere in between?

ES: I would say I decide anew with every poem. I often worry about being repetitious with my poetry, or hitting the same note too many times, so I’m always switching it up. Over the ten years I spent writing this book, I’ve tried a lot of things. Some have worked, some haven’t. This is a collection of what’s worked. It’s a wide spectrum of practice. The oldest poem in the book is “The Boy Next Door,” a narrative poem that is arguably more “conventional,” and tonally it’s very heartfelt and sincere. It almost reads like a short story. And the newest poem in the book is “Blessings Upon U and Ur Bullshit,” in which I’ve tried something new with lower-case letters and shorthand, but also with form and tone; it’s more playful and sassy. I think it’s cool to put those two poems beside each other and imagine the ten-year journey it took to get from one to the other — both in life and in poetry.

In recent years I’ve landed more comfortably in myself as a poet — which is to say I have a better understanding of what I like and why I like it. For example, I like reading and writing poems that don’t use conventional punctuation, because there are more opportunities for experimentation: word play, double entendre, etc. So maybe there’s more stylistic consistency in the work I’m producing nowadays. But I still like each poem to be its own being.

RT: I’m not sure if it’s one of your older or more recent experiments, but one recurring “shape” to your poems is what I’ll call “shrinking quatrains,” in which each line of the stanza is noticeably shorter than the one before it. In your endnotes, you credit a Ken Babstock poem for inspiring the shape of those poems. What drew you to that form originally, and what kept you returning to it? Are there other shapes you often find yourself returning to?

ES: “Shrinking quatrains”! Yes! I’ve been looking for a name for that particular shape. I really love the Ken Babstock poem that first inspired that shape (“Carrying Someone Else’s Infant Past a Cow in a Field Near Marmora, Ont.”); the content of that poem was evocative for me too, and reminiscent of my own experiences with other people’s children. I loved how the shape seemed to reflect lineage, the ways in which a young child is influenced by what has come before—what trickles down through the line, what is retained, what is forgotten, what makes an impact even if it isn’t remembered.

The first poem I wrote in that form was “This Little Girl Goes to Burning Man,” and at the time Ken Babstock was my poetry instructor at UBC. I remember him telling me, after the poem was workshopped, that if I’ve found a shape that works, to write more poems in that shape. I really took that advice to heart. I wrote “Crystals” a while after that, and then “Kenora, Unorganized.” I’m sure it’s one I’ll return to again in the future.

Another shape that I find myself returning to is one I’ll call the “indented couplet” (“New Moon, Gemini Season” and “Self Portrait as Ostrich”), where the second line of a couplet is indented and often shorter than the line before it, and each couplet sort of bleeds into the next. This is one I made up, and it’s reflective, for me, of the natural stream-of-consciousness rhythm of my brain, aka my failed attempts at compartmentalization.

RT: Another form that runs with a bit of a “stream-of-consciousness rhythm” is the list poem. None Of This Belongs To Me features a number wonderful ones, including the powerful opening poem “Overnights at the Hospital.” What draws you to write about certain experiences in list form instead of a more narrative approach? Are there certain subjects that you find more conducive to the form?

ES: If I don’t know how to start writing or what to write about, I write a list poem. Usually it’s a kind of free association exercise. I find list poems easier to write than other kinds of poems, probably because of the free association aspect. It makes it more fun, like a game almost. It gives me more freedom, too, maybe because it isn’t tethered to a narrative arc. A list poem is like a movie montage, where each little scene or image is a story unto itself. 

I don’t do a whole lot of planning or thinking about what I’m going to write before I write it, but in retrospect the featured list poems in None of This Belongs to Me all tend to cover vast swathes of time and move between childhood and adulthood, so there’s something there… Perhaps list poems work well when I want to pull back the lens and move through time in a different way.

RT: What’s the key to writing a good list poem? Once you get writing one, how do you know when to stop?

ES: I think the key to a good list poem is surprising the reader, whether that’s by using a particularly provocative image or by playing with cadence/rhythm/pacing in such a way that you subvert the pattern that’s been established. That could be done by playing with enjambment, cultivating breaths and beats between lines, mixing up short lines and long lines — or using short sentences after a long one.

There always seems to be a natural place to end; I tend to arrive at a breaking point, and then there’s a denouement, a slowing to a stop.

RT: Subverting the pattern—yes! I’m glad you said that. I’m interested, too, in this idea of a list poem as a movie montage. Many of the poems in None Of This Belongs To Me feel cinematic to me, especially in their compelling closing images: the boy across the frozen water “going into / the lit house” at the end of “The Boy Next Door,” or the family in “Recalculating” who arrive late at a Days Inn, switch off their bedside lamps, and “blink in the black room / like mice.” I could easily see some of your poems being turned into short films, the final image before the fade-to-black already set in place.

Could you talk about the relationship between narrative and image in your poems? Do you more often start with the image, and build toward the story, or vice-versa? Another way to put it: in your narrative poems, do you think of yourself more as script-writer or cinematographer? Or, looping back to our discussion about sound, perhaps more film composer?

ES: Someone please buy film rights to my poems! I definitely think of myself more as a cinematographer. I also write fiction, and my approach to a poem is much the same as my approach to a short story. I almost always start with a landscape, character or image and then the narrative unfolds from there. For me, writing a poem is more about telling a story than it is about exploring a concept or theme the way a lot of poets do.

RT: Ok, let’s end things with a Very Important Question: you reference Tom Petty in two different poems in the book. I love Tom Petty as much as the next person, but still an explanation seems in order…

ES: I had to go looking for the second reference to Tom Petty in my book (in “Spotify My Body”). It wasn’t even really on my radar. Ha! I guess Tom Petty lives in my brain rent-free.

Funnily enough, there was actually a third Tom Petty poem that got cut from my manuscript — one that I wrote when I was asked to perform at Mashed Poetics a few years back. The album we were “covering” that night was Tom Petty’s Full Moon Fever. I wrote a poem after “Feel a Whole Lot Better.” And I dressed up as Tom Petty for the performance—I had the right sunglasses and the right haircut. The resemblance was uncanny.

Okay, so I’m a Tom Petty fan. My parents listened to Full Moon Fever A LOT when I was growing up, so it’s very nostalgic.

RT: Ok, I’m going to need to see a photo…

ES: Boom.


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Ellie Sawatzky is a writer from Kenora, ON. A finalist for the 2019 Bronwen Wallace Award for Emerging Writers and the recipient of CV2’s 2017 Foster Poetry Prize, her work has been published widely in literary journals such as Grain, The Fiddlehead, PRISM International, The Matador Review, The Puritan and Room. She works as an editor for FriesenPress, and is the curator of the Instagram account IMPROMPTU, a hub for writing prompts and literary inspiration. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from UBC and lives in Vancouver.

6/27/2022

Suspension, Some Dread, A Lifeline: An Interview with Neil Surkan

Reservoir – Neil Surkan

Carp lurk through suburbs
when runoff jumps the dam, sucks
manhole covers up like corks, slops
wallpaper with septic hands.

I mostly keep my body close – rove,
but rarely quit, its cul-de-sacs –
save in, say, a dense flicking
stand of thin birches, their tigered

stalks quivered by the spring
wind, cool light trickling
through the tossing stems.
Then, if lifted, if moved

to swim among the future
sprigs, balled now in burgundy-
armoured buds like tiny
minarets, I see it all

without me – abandoned nests,
old anthill pocks – and am re-
minded that the verb to be
gears down but never loses speed

completely. I am not undying,
nor ever pre-bloom, just
a reservoir of energies
that pour in, spool around me, stream

in floods of words that,
like fish scales on furniture,
cling for a while and shine
the dull way dried tears shine.

 

(McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2021).
Reprinted with permission.

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Neil Surkan was born in Penticton, BC. He is the author of the poetry collections Unbecoming (Fall 2021) and On High (2018), both from McGill-Queen’s University Press, and the chapbooks Their Queer Tenderness (Knife | Fork | Book, 2020) and Super, Natural (Anstruther Press, 2017). Neil earned a PhD in English from the University of Calgary in 2021. He currently lives and teaches in Nanaimo, on the traditional and unceded territory of the Snuneymuxw First Nation, with Luca, Edi, and Lloyd.

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Rob Taylor: Unbecoming opens with a wonderful epigraph:

To be coming apart.
To be, coming apart.
To becoming, apart.
To becoming a part.

This speaks so well to many of the poems in the book, including “Reservoir,” where you use a first-person narrative to question the self, the ego to take the piss out of the ego. This theme was also present in your first collection, On High (its cover an ant towering like royalty on top of a thimble), but it felt less central. Could you talk a little about this theme of “coming apart” in order to become “a part,” and how your thinking on it may have shifted or expanded between books one and two?

Neil Surkan: When I was in my early twenties I drew a comic for a friend of a dejected, ovular guy. It was captioned, “All his life he strived to be well-rounded. Now he never has an edge.” The comic was, up to that point, the truest thing I’d ever written about myself. Likeability was a very important trait to my parents, and I was raised to be obedient, competent, and extremely extrinsically motivated. When I started reading poems in earnest at nineteen, I was inspired and flummoxed by the way original language diverges from likeability: the poems that drew (and still draw) me refused acquiescence and revealed how disingenuous obedience can be.

At that same time, I was starting to figure out I was queer and punishing myself for it because I was worried the people I’d grown up with would reject me or only see me as queer (like it’d explain everything). On High pokes around in that substrate, but it wasn’t until I learned I was going to be a dad midway through writing Unbecoming that I truly stopped aiming to “please,” both in my life and in my poems (there’s no distinction—ha), and started interrogating the beliefs I’d perhaps misunderstood about what it means to be a community member. How might I contribute by being myself, instead of who I think people want me to be? I love On High and I love how in love with poetry (and invested in pleasing the poets I love) it is, but I think that Unbecoming is my first unapologetic collection—the one that affirms the ego before playing around with (and sometimes shattering) it.

RT: I love that you start from a place of honesty, acknowledging the ego. Elizabeth Bishop once did the same, saying “there must be an awful core of ego somewhere for you to set yourself up to write poetry.” The tension between the ego-stripping desire to “unbecome” and the ego-preserving instinct to write poems (“Gather round, I have something to say!”) is present in a many of your poems.

NS: It’s funny that you’ve quoted Bishop to opens a discussion on ego and permanence, because I have her face tattooed on my leg.

RT: What? Ok, I’m going to need a photo…

NS: 

RT:
Ha! Amazing! If only Elizabeth could have seen that tattoo—how her awful core of ego would have swelled! How do you reconcile your “awful core’s” desire to last with your desire to “unbecome”? Does your thinking along these lines ever tip you toward writing less? To silence?

NS: I try to write with the poem’s (and my own) inevitable collapse into silence in sight, and some days I choose silence (or, I get so overwhelmed by trying to write something perfect that silence chooses me). Bishop is one of my favourite poets so I feel weird saying this, but I’d quibble with her word choice in that quote: to “write” poetry can be, I think, a kind of prayer—a rummaging through one’s experience of the world via language’s precarious, imperfect, evasive scratching. Publishing poetry, on the other hand: yeah. That’s an ego imbalance, especially when it comes to questions of audience (I often write to poets I’ve never met, for instance: the gall!).

That said, I can’t help but believe that publishing writing isn’t just ego-stroking: practicing relinquishment of a finished creation can be a valuable way to live, no? Likewise, surely it’s reasonable to do something with intention and extreme attention while accepting its imperfection. That’s my justification, anyway, and it’s why I choose poetry over, like, Twitter: to me, poetry is the most demanding genre in terms of how many times one agonizes over punctuation, or rhythm, or suggestion. People who Tweet in a diary-like fashion terrify me (except for Henri Cole: Henri Cole’s tweets are the most generous, gorgeous hymns to life) because I find it almost impossible to trust someone who can rattle off words on their phone without suffering over every syllable (and savouring the suffering).

Bishop’s ending to her elegy “North Haven,” for Robert Lowell (who was a perpetual reviser), speaks to the interplay of futility and hope I feel when I’m writing: “Sad friend, you cannot change.” Language is imperfect, its exact effect on another human can never be absolutely confirmed, and yet to publish, in particular, is to accept that something that could have probably been made better will persist so long as someone has the book. I often choose silence, but I also try to remind myself that it’s okay to make mistakes, or at least missteps, while working through an idea, if only because the associative, generative time of writing poetry is also, for me, the time when I feel consistent astonishment. Rummaging through lines until something unexpected happens may be a sign of ego imbalance, but it can also be a relegation of the ego to the backseat.

RT: That’s a wonderful way to put it. I like the idea of moving deeply into a poem as involving the steady demotion of the ego: from the driver’s seat, to the passenger seat, to the back seat, until you ditch it at a gas station (to be picked up again, soon enough).

Now that you’re a dad, you’ll soon have lots of practice dealing with someone who won’t shut up in the backseat! The third poem in Unbecoming is about becoming a parent, and is delightfully titled, “My Favourite Death Sentence.” In “Shore,” you write about an ultrasound: “I’ve a new, / unfurling sense… of the sounds under silence.” You mentioned that becoming a dad caused you to stop aiming to please. Could you expand on that? How has parenting helped you “unbecome” and “become a part”?

NS:
I think the stakes of the poems in Unbecoming got higher when I learned I was going to be a father. In reflecting on the morality of bringing another life into the Anthropocene (or, more aptly, the Necropastoral), I was forced to directly confront comforts and complicities I had downplayed all my life. The selfish act of creating another human inspired me to consider the possibility of self-less nurturance. Suddenly having a significant stake in the generation to come meant imagining the world beyond my lifetime—no matter my idiosyncratic beliefs and oft-insular routines—and so a newfound sense of accountability awoke.

The collection’s opening long poem, “The Minimum,” explores both the optimism and complicity I felt when I became a father by inhabiting the space between becoming a part of my father’s family line and breaking apart from our family. In particular, I wanted the poem to examine, rather than condemn, the patriarchal family structure in which my father and I were raised. “The Minimum” is a poem that struggles with the interplays of complicity and loyalty, conscience and tradition, and, thereafter, the rest of the collection expands around its (implied) question: what beliefs will my son one day critique me for upholding due to my own failures of self-reflexivity?

RT: Themes of conscience and tradition also come up in your poems on religion and religious doubt, which appear in both your books, but feel more pronounced in Unbecoming. “Faith,” for instance, has its speaker on the lawn in search of a sprinkler head: “Even as the clouds give and drops / of doubt accumulate, / I can’t stop crawling.”

I’m a minister’s son and I’ve come to learn that PK (“Preacher’s kid”) poets, and other poets who were raised in a church, are a common phenomenon. You make this connection, too: in a poem in On High, the religion and poetry sections share an aisle in the library. Could you talk about the interconnections between poetry and religion in your life? Does faith in one compensate for your doubts in the other? Or are the doubts shared around more evenly?

NS: After my MA at the University of Toronto, I seriously considered becoming a minister. The job seemed marvellous in the way it combines performance, careful reading, community building, and spiritual accompaniment. The only problem was (and is) that I don’t (can’t?) believe. Faith evades me. Most of the meaningful experiences in my life have been ineffable, so The Word can’t do the heavy lifting, but it’s my hunch that if a minster were to begin with a preamble about how incredible it is that words almost exclusively fail us, the majority of their congregation would boo and depart. On the contrary, I love poetry precisely because the art form depends on the acknowledgement of the imperfection (and failure) of its medium. A poem that doesn’t attempt to adjust for its patchy communication, and for the problem of speaking to and for others, usually devolves into assertions and truisms (which is what I’ve experienced preaching as, mostly). Or, more simply put, a poem that lets an acceptable amount of wonder in gets productively blown open by a whopping dose of doubt.

RT: My father worked in the United Church, and talking with a number of his colleagues I came to the conclusion that the ministers had more doubts than their congregants. You might be right about the booing, but you probably could have bluffed and gotten away with it! “Bluffs” of all sorts abound in Unbecoming: both hill cliffs and the fakes and feints of animals and people. You even have poems entitled “Bluff (I)” and “Bluff (II)”! Seeing through one’s own “bluffs” to reveal the true self seems to naturally fit within the book’s themes. Was this something you planned, or a surprise you came upon in pulling the manuscript together?

NS: When I put the first “full” draft of a new manuscript together, I love to spread all the pages out on the floor (and surrounding furniture) and then physically move the poems around. That moment marks the break from “writing poems” to “making a book,” and it’s a ritual I adore specifically because it draws my focus upward/outward—toward the sleight of hand that can be done in sequencing. I really appreciate that you pointed out the “Bluff” poems because their separation in Unbecoming (they were written back-to-back but appear quite far apart in the book) marked an important shift in the ordering of the collection: placing them apart felt a little sly, a little playful, as though I was giving myself permission to bluff on the level of organization.

Rae Armantrout’s collection Versed does this feinting echo chamber trick I really admire and often return to, where in one poem there’s a buzz and then a few poems later BEES appear. The first time I read Versed, I felt both inspired and overwhelmed by the possibilities of organizing a collection as a series of ripples and echoes that exist without being explicitly articulated, like a mind not wholly made up, or a cluster of evidence with its purpose unstated.

RT: Yes! Robyn Sarah once told me, “sequencing a collection is like writing one last poem, which is the book itself,” but I think she undersold her case. The sequencing in a well-wrought book like yours is worth, hell, at least five poems!

The attention you give to sequencing is exceeded only by the attention you give to your individual poems. I love especially how many of your poems end. Jack Gilbert once said, “If I’m writing well [a poem] comes to an end with an almost-audible click.” Your “click” often comes with a rhyme, rarely a perfect end-rhyme like the rhyming couplet that closes a Shakespearean sonnet, but something that’s a bit more ragged, reaching back maybe two or three lines to some unexpected word. What draws you to this type of ending? Did writing in this style come naturally to you, or was it something you saw in others and wished to emulate?

NS: When I was 12 or so, my dad took me up to a half-finished house being built on our crescent so we could check out the floor plan. The insulation hadn’t been inserted, so the walls were just studs. We walked down a hallway and I stepped into the hole where the staircase to the basement was going to go. My dad caught my elbow as I hung over the void. That’s what a good ending to a poem feels like: suspension, some dread, and a lifeline.

I love poems that end with a near-resolution, or a statement that makes sense in a “peripheral vision” sort of way (like, if you look a little to the left you can almost glean the rationale). Gilbert is a good example: so often, the thrust of his poetry verges on familiar sentimentality, but then he frays convention to its limit. His speaker’s personal grief transforms into sprawling, savoury, wonderful existential terror. In line with Gilbert, I try to make my poems’ music resonate in the holes left by withheld pieces. Micro-devastations. Clapper-less bells. The “click,” for me, happens when I get a hunch that the last line couldn’t be anything other than what it is, even though I never saw it coming: half-confusion, half-satisfaction, a distant cousin of comfort.

RT: “A distant cousin of comfort”—oh, I love that! I’m reminded of Philip Larkin’s “almost-instinct almost true” that “What will survive of us is love” in “An Arundel Tomb.” Reaching for something we can’t quite reach, and the music we make in trying.

You talked there about “the holes left by withheld pieces.” Earlier you spoke of how it was in Unbecoming that you became more confident writing about being queer. A year before Unbecoming was published, you released a chapbook with knife|fork|book called Their Queer Tenderness—I suspect that was part of that process. How did preparing the chapbook, and working with Kirby at knife|fork|book, help you think about the larger collection to come?

NS: Their Queer Tenderness was originally titled Desire Path. Kirby, a dear friend, contacted me shortly before the collection headed to press with word that another Canadian press was publishing a poetry collection titled Desire Path in the same season. When Kirby suggested we revise the title to Their Queer Tenderness (a line from my poem “Outposts”), I felt the world swoop in—part of me screamed FUCK NO: if we call it that…strangers will…know I’m queer. I am forever grateful to Kirby for myriad reasons, but the title change suggestion is right at the top: Kirby made space for me to be seen as I see myself at a time when my queerness felt like an ice cube that had melted almost to nothing. Parenthood, living in Calgary—it was becoming easier and easier for me to appear as a straight dad. And until the chapbook came out, I hadn’t realized how stifling that felt. The way desire works in my poems makes a lot more sense, I think, now that Their Queer Tenderness exists.

RT: “Yes, as is often the case with desire, / it swerves suddenly, / got shy,” you write in “Desire Path.” I wouldn’t say that that poem, and others in Unbecoming, are “shy” about your queerness, but they are subtle. That said, so are most of your poems about parenthood, religion, etc. —as you say, they withhold pieces. To what extent would you say the subtleness of the queer themes in your poems is tied to that “FUCK NO” instinct? To what extent is it a manifestation of your general aesthetic leanings towards subtlety?

NS: At this point in my life, poems that contain the “FUCK NO” instinct are memory-poems that meditate on past shame and fear, rather than on the way I feel about my queerness presently. However, in my poems I generally prefer suggestion, and the way suggestion can elevate attention. In turn, I’m interested in the ways queerness can inflect, rather than direct, description or intimation: for instance, how desire can recalibrate the depiction of a friendship without overtaking it. Or how being bisexual, in my own life, makes quiet alienation creep into a poem’s scenes of communal space or collective action. Some of Carl Phillips’s poems have been a huge influence in this regard (although celebrations of physicality are also an important part of his poetics). Julie Joosten, too: she is, in my opinion, the most undercelebrated living poet (I am repeatedly agog at both Light Light and Nought). Other influences include Mark Strand’s prose poems, early Daphne Marlatt, and Mary Jean Chan.

RT: Does it get any better than Carl Phillips? And I’ll need to check out Julie Joosten! Has how, and how openly, you’ve written about your queerness continued to evolve since the publication of Their Queer Tenderness and Unbecoming?

NS: Majorly. The longer I live, the more in love I feel with the life I chose to make from the materials I was given. The tenderness keeps expanding!

But that’s also why, I think, my poems keep getting sadder and, probably, sourer. I’m increasingly heartbroken by disparities of all kinds, but especially the disparities of tenderness I witness around me every day.

RT: Sadder, maybe, but I wouldn’t say sour. More open and honest.

We’ve been talking about influences and editors. You’ve been lucky to work with a number of talented writers, including your editor for both books, Carolyn Smart, and fellow BC-turned-Calgary-poet Larissa Lai. I once heard you say that Lai convinced you to move “The Minimum” up to the front of the book (long poems more traditionally being tucked further back in a book, to not intimidate readers!). I thought that was a wonderful decision, as it set up these two pillars—your grandfather’s death and your child’s birth—that hold up everything that follows. Could you talk about the role of editors and readers in your creative process? How have they helped you see your poems and books in new ways?

NS: When I get the opportunity to share my poems-in-progress with someone I truly admire—like Larissa, like Carolyn, and like the friends I feel safe to request feedback from—I get overwhelmed with gratitude for their attention. Attention is a precious, finite resource, and I try to always remind myself that if another poet spends their attention reading my poems, they’re reducing the amount of time they get to work on their own. That’s huge, and immensely humbling, and I do everything in my power to not take it for granted. I’ve learned so much from mentors, editors, and close poet-friends alike about both the possibilities of poetry and the complexities of relation: to edit someone else’s poem with the intention of helping it be itself more clearly, rather than with the intention of making it do what it “should,” involves deep, active listening and observation.

When Larissa suggested I move “The Minimum” to the front of Unbecoming, for instance, I felt heard and cared for in a rare and energizing way: she’d not only engaged with my poems so actively that she’d noticed resonances I might never have arrived at on my own, but she’d also invested herself in supporting my work to such an extent that she’d seen a better version of “my” book! That “my” is really important, there, because it’s a misnomer: the book is ours, now. Unbecoming would have been something different without Larissa (and Carolyn, and the myriad friends who added their input throughout the process). For me, collaboration is a sacred part of writing.

RT: Unbecoming’s dedication page features an epigraph from our pal Jack Gilbert: “The painful love of being permanently unhoused.” In comparing your two-book, On High felt very firmly grounded in the Okanagan, while Unbecoming's connection to place feels looser, broader. A sense of feeling “unhoused” seems to speak to so much of what we’ve already been discussing, but on a more basic level, also simply about your moving about (from the Okanagan, to Calgary, and now Nanaimo). Has your sense of “home,” both what it is and how to write about it, evolved over the years? In what ways is it connected to your broader considerations of the self?

NS: I find it almost impossible to write about where I am living. Instead, I usually wind up writing about places in retrospect: it’s often as though old homes, or at least places where my body was, take a long time for the associative parts of my mind to process. Especially because I often begin a poem with a phrase or image knocking around, the place fills in around the phrase or image, adding details and fragments of memory until I get a better sense of what the poem is getting at.

Take the title poem in Unbecoming: the first line, “Night advances like molasses,” started clacking around my head, and then a few weeks later I saw that creeping darkness from the vantage point of Munson Mountain in Penticton, looking across to what used to be the Peter Brothers gravel pit. When a poem appears in this way, questions of accountability sometimes sharpen into focus, too: I wind up thinking about how I behaved in a given situation (or how I heard someone else behaved—I love bringing in snippets of gossip). Then I pose it (as question, as posture) in the poem.

Presently, what I really want is a community to get invested in long-term, so that writing and living synch up a little more (though it’s possible I’ll keep writing about places I used to call home instead, as they glimmer more and more faintly in the past). I deeply admire how someone like Alex Coleville stayed mostly in one place and made place-specific art all his life.

RT:
In your books the Okanagan comes across as a place of collective embarrassment and personal significance. Rich and tender and humiliating all at once. Having now lived in Alberta and on the coast, it seems like you’ve experienced two extremes (of culture, climate, politics, etc.) which converge in the Okanagan, both metaphorically and literally: the main sources of the vacationers who pour in each year! How do you feel about Penticton and the Okanagan now?

NS: I was born in Penticton because my grandparents on my mom’s side moved there: they thought the Okanagan was Heaven on Earth. My parents followed because they agreed. Yes, the Okanagan is Canada’s Florida (in the worst ways), but whenever I feel disdain for, like, the fact that you are still very likely to hear Eminem’s “Without Me” blaring unironically from a car down by the beach, I remind myself of how my grandfather, in particular, would treat every moment he ate a peach in the summer, or every moment he sat out front of his Scamper camper by the channel in Oliver, like the best scenario available to him in the entire world. His certainty was justified: he’d grown up brutally poor on the prairies, worked doggedly all his life, and now had made it. I try to splice my own oft-painful memories and sardonic observations of Penticton with vignettes of him feeling unabashed satisfaction because I respected him so much.

RT: Your grandfather is quite present in Unbecoming, most notably in the aforementioned long poem, “The Minimum.” Could you tell us a little more about him, and how his life and death shaped your thinking in the book?

NS: There are actually two grandfathers in Unbecoming: my father’s father, the focus of “The Minimum,” and my mother’s father, who played a much larger part in raising me, who was incredibly kind, and whom I found it very difficult to relate to because he never seemed interested at all in art (he was a practical and dependable former railway supervisor). I let them blur together across the poems, but I want to acknowledge that they’re both a part of the book. My father’s father, the focus of “The Minimum,” wrote his autobiography by hand (in a frenetic, near-impenetrable scrawl) in the months before he died. Typed out, it’s about one and a half pages long, and mostly lists his achievements as a physician. It does, however, reference the brutal poverty of his upbringing, and the fact that he became a doctor much later in life because of the war and his responsibilities on the family farm. As a child, I admired his matter-of-factness, though I found him intimidating and perplexing—except for when we were trolling for pike on Waskesiu Lake. I’m pretty sure we both enjoyed that. Troll fishing aptly illustrates our relationship: I felt like I was constantly towing a hook through the water, waiting for it to snag something definitive I’d be able to engage with. I also have a distinct memory of him looking extremely disappointed when I gagged while gutting my first fish.

RT: In a poem in On High, “Ars Poetica,” you compare poems to terrariums in which the speaker tried to “[make] creatures thrive.” In your first book you play with a number of personae and voices—little terrarium worlds, in a sense—while the poems in Unbecoming feel more in the shared voice of one speaker (Neil Surkan himself!). These new poems feel less constructed in the head than written from the gut (and, presumably, they were written more quickly, as your books come only three years apart). Would you say there’s something to that assessment? If you wrote your “Ars Poetica” today, how might it be different?

NS: I think that’s true. Maybe put even more frankly, I felt more confident writing Unbecoming. And I guess that’s how my “Ars Poetica” has changed, too: I think of poems now as my best crack at communication, rather than as intricate arrangements or sleight-of-hand suggestions. The poems I’m writing now, and the poems I want to keep writing (for the time being), brush aside the instability of language instead of obsessing over it. They still posit the precarity of speaking about anything, but there’s also an element of, “Ya ya, sure, language is ‘faulty.’ I still really want to tell you this.”

---

You can let Neil Surkan tell you stuff (and you should!) by picking up a copy of Unbecoming at your local bookstore, or via the McGill-Queens website or, if you must, from Amazon.

6/23/2022

some poems take a dozen years to come to themselves

There is no gap between poetry and agriculture. Twenty years ago, my friend Mike planned a Beurre D'Anjou pear tree. It grew and grew.

"I love pears," said Mike. "When am I going to get pears?"

"Not yet," I said.

The tree grew taller. Within seven years, without a blossom to show for it, it was the tallest tree in Mike's orchard. 

"Can't you prune that tree so it can give me some pears?" asked Mike. "Can't you shorten that thing? I don't have a ladder that tall."

"Just wait," I said.

For many years, Mike was doubtful. I didn't prune the tree at all. It grew tangled and messy. The Sterile Codling Moth Release technicians put a codling moth trap in it, because it was such a landmark.

Finally, when the tree was twelve years old, it came into the spring covered in fruit buds, on wood that the year before hadn't shown a single one. 

"You're going to get three hundred kilos of pears," I said to Mike. 

"Good," he said. "It's about time. I love pears"

That year, I pruned the tree for the first time. I cut out four big branches with my saw.

"Don't cut out all my pears!" said Mike.

"Don't worry," I said. "It's time."

...

Some poems take a dozen years to come to themselves in this way. They, too, are not financially justifiable. So? If you worried about that, you wouldn't have any poems.


- Harold Rhenisch, from his book of essays The Tree Whisperer: Writing Poetry by Living in the World (Gaspereau Press, 2022).

6/20/2022

my most reliable way to turn my body into a prayer

Poetry is, in my understanding, one of the most robust allies ever granted to humankind in our quest to find satisfactory language for the intangible. For many years now, and while claiming no specific religious affinity, I have thought of poetry in these terms: a resilient spiritual technology that helps me create links between embodied knowing and disembodied knowing...

I write through my body because it is an effective tool, yes. But to speak of my physical relationship to poetry as merely the outcome of good pedagogy would be to oversimplify, to lie. I write through my body because it is my most reliable way to turn my body into a prayer. It is the best language I can muster for brokering conversation between my human condition and my spiritual condition. Of course, the poems are imperfect. Of course, the years have piled onto my flesh with some harshness. I cannot always align my limbs to the demands of divine exercise, but at their best the poems are medicine. They convince me that healing is possible, and they are the natural technology I offer whenever I am preparing myself to say things I hope God, or the angels, or the ancestors can hear.


- Brandon Wint, from his "Notes on Writing" essay "Divine Animal: Writing Through the Body & Toward Healing" for Event Magazine (Winter 2021/22).

6/13/2022

Four Essays

After having publishing only a handful of essays in my life, an odd conflagration of requests and acceptances resulted in my publishing four essays in recent months. I think this might mean that I'm getting old, and people believe that wisdom has somehow accumulated in me? I doubt that, but I did at least learn that I quite like writing essays.


First up, I had an essay published in the anthology Resonance: Essays on the Craft and Life of Writing. The book was edited by Andrew Chesham and Laura Farina, who run SFU's Creative Writing program (where I teach "Poetry 1"), and my essay is drawn in part from my lecture material in that class. Entitled "The Power of Adjacency," it looks at how poetic language's greatest strength is its ability to "pock the linear with collaborative gaps": to leave things out so that the reader can fill them in using their own imagination. While my essay isn't online, I've posted small excerpts from the book here and here.

The book features 43 (!) essays on the writing life and craft, and I encourage you to check it out on the Anvil Press website or at a bookstore near you!


Next, I was honoured to be asked to write a "Note on Writing" for EVENT magazine. The notes are an annual tradition dating back to 1989, with the first 32 years of essays being collected recently in a really tremendous anthology (I've posted a bunch of excerpts on the blog, you can read some *deep breath* here, here, here, here, here, here and here.) 

My essay was part of the first set of essays after the anthology - so if EVENT survives another 50 years, it should appear right at the front of the next anthology. EVENT 50.3 features Notes of Writing by me, Anna Ling Kaye, Amanda Leduc and Brandon Wint. My essay, "On Silence," is about my motivations for writing: why I write and why I might stop writing one day. Check out the issue if you get the chance.


Last fall, I was asked to deliver a keynote to open the 2021 Fraser Valley Literary Festival. I spoke about my mother's dementia, and moments of social dislocation (Pandemic, anyone?) and how poetry can see us through. I was really pleased with the talk and hoped it might find a way to live on in print. It was a blessing, then, when a few months later the League of Canadian Poets asked if I could write them an essay for their Poetry Month series "On Intimacy." The essay that resulted expanded on my lecture, and you can read it here: "Why? And Why Now?: On Poetry and Companionship."


My fourth essay brings to mind the Sesame Street song "One of These Things is Not Like the Others" as it has nothing to do with poetry, wasn't written in recent months, and is far longer than any of the others. I wrote the essay, entitled "The Missing Page," in 2014 as part of my Masters program at UBC. It mirrors a trip Marta and I took from Dar Es Salaam to Kigoma, Tanzania, with the trip Henry Stanley took along the same route to find David Livingstone in 1871. It's quite possibly my favourite thing I've ever written, and I tinkered with it endlessly over the intervening eight years. I was thrilled when Canadian Notes & Queries took it for their Winter 2022 issue. Please do think of picking up a copy.

6/09/2022

a recipe for a time bomb

The healthiest, sanest advice I've received: Don't put pressure on your art to make you money. Also: Doing what you love while thinking you deserve nice things is a recipe for a time bomb. (The latter from Austin Kleon.) I have these wisdoms written in a little notebook every writer is supposed to carry around with them wherever they go. I genuinely believe in this advice, and, most of the time, I live it. I haggle with bank clerks over the tiniest fees, buy whatever I can second-hand, forage in parks and forests, use syringes to inject my printer cartridges with bulk ink. One Texan morning, when an inch-long roach crawled out of my pajama sleeve, I was almost elated. What purer symbol of low-budget living? I felt cleansed in that moment, like I'd at last let go of my material desires. My little notebook approved. In that moment, I though I was a true artist.


- Maria Reva, from her "Notes on Writing" essay for Event Magazine (Winter 2020/21)as collected in 50 Years of Event Magazine: Collected Notes on Writing.

6/06/2022

the space to be imperfect

In meditation, we're taught to sit with the uncomfortable energy of silence and stillness. Our habits and thoughts and behaviours are made clear, our cravings made visible, because there's nothing left to distract us. Without our habitual ways of relating to the world, we become fidgety, edgy. Yet in this unguarded space, it's possible to experience openness, to recognize the interconnectedness and complexity of all things. It becomes more difficult to view the world in simple binaries.

Wrestling with the uncomfortable in meditation provides a way to see the world from a fresh perspective, to acknowledge the limitations of our own view. As a writer, this is liberating. It's helped me to become 'unstuck' from patterned and lazy thinking. But it's also risky. We allow ourselves to be vulnerable. We acknowledge that we might not know what comes next. We risk falling onto our faces, to be misunderstood or unintentionally cause offence. Yet in order to move beyond the people-pleasing aspects of ourselves, in order to create work that is meaningful to our own growth as artists and as humans, it is necessary to take these steps.

This has been the path of artists throughout time. We seek to create and express the world anew. To create with honesty, we need to experience the world and grapple with our own place in it with as much clarity and compassion as we can muster. This compassion and clarity can take many forms and will look different for each one of us. The language and shape and form of our creations are as unique as our fingerprints. But I believe that all good writing contains this seed of compassion.

In turn, I believe we must extend this compassion to other writers, other creators - to all humans. To allow one another the space to make mistakes, to be imperfect and complicated creatures. When we shrink the space for others to be imperfect, we shrink that space for ourselves. We set ourselves up for failure or cling to the false idea that some of us our morally superior, worthier than others.

It's a complicated dance, in a complicated world.


- Trevor Corkum, from his "Notes on Writing" essay for Event Magazine (Spring/Summer 2017)as collected in 50 Years of Event Magazine: Collected Notes on Writing.

6/02/2022

it's music that determines the outcome

In his poem, 'Out of delusion,' Franz Wright says, 'I speak in the mask of the first person.' Inner voices, outer masks. No wonder poets can scare their neighbours, every new poem another trick or treat. But it's true: No poet is strong enough, smart enough, mad enough to think that they alone can add up to a worthwhile poem. It takes so much more than a memory or a story. The inner voice has to agree with you; it has to start exercising its unreasonable, exhilarating demands...

If there's one thing I've learned about writing, it's that the letter I has minimal power. The voice says Here and the right pronoun eventually follows. But it's music that determines the outcome, the form that decides who and what will be allowed in.


- Barry Dempster, from his "Notes on Writing" essay for Event Magazine (Spring/Summer 2010)as collected in 50 Years of Event Magazine: Collected Notes on Writing.