a roll of nickels 2018 year in review

Twelve years and this blog is still (kinda, sorta, somehow) chugging along.

It was a busy year for me, launching two (!) books - "Oh Not So Great": Poems from the Depression Project in January and What the Poets Are Doing: Canadian Poets in Conversation in November (launch photos here and here). I pledge never to do this again, lest folk start thinking I'm the heir apparent to George Bowering or something...

While getting those books out in the world required a good share of my energy, I was still able to make a few things happen here on the blog. The highlights:

January 2018: One Way or Another: On Don Coles and his Poetry

My reflections on the life and poetry of Don Coles, who died in late November 2017. It includes some healthy quotations on the man and his writing from both Don and others. I delivered this essay as part of a reading at the January 2018 Dead Poets Reading Series event.

March 2018: a gift to myself - An Interview with Mallory Tater

"A big part of writing this book was going back into my adolescent mind-frame and seeing what I believed no one to care about, a time when maybe I felt voiceless, and subverting that as a sort of gift to myself and my childhood friends." - Mallory Tater

April/May 2018: BC Poetry 2018

The third, and final, year of the series featured 38 new books (and 38 poems) by BC poets, bringing the total number of books/poems featured up to 94 (you can read the 2017 and 2016 editions here and here). It was a very inspiring - if exhausting - project, and while I'm leaving it behind, I do have a new special project I'm cooking up for 2019. Stay tuned!

May 2018: I keep coming back to what gives me courage - An Interview with Kate Braid

"I think now I’m braver. Or I care less about what people think of me. This is one of the great joys of getting older." - Kate Braid

June 2018: Guest Interview: Brandon Wnuk interviews Catherine Owen

It was a real pleasure to host this interview with Catherine Owen, conducted by my former student at UFV, Brandon Wnuk.

September 2018: caught unawares at the centre - An Interview with Amanda Jernigan

"I suppose that poetry is, for me, among other things, the language — or a language — of faith and doubt. Life, too, is such a language." - Amanda Jernigan

September 2018: an entire page of words about one damn thing - An Interview with Curtis LeBlanc

"Some of the good I wanted to do with these poems was to give a window for other men to look into and see themselves and maybe realize that that resentment they feel and felt towards the way they were expected to be wasn’t misplaced." - Curtis LeBlanc

December 2018: the passport filled with shrapnel - An Interview with Dominique Bernier-Cormier

"“Foreign correspondent” means a correspondent of the foreign, not a correspondent who is foreign. That’s the wrong way around, I think. " - Dominique Bernier-Cormier

December 2018: One Last Dead Poets Reading Series Update

I stepped down as a coordinator of the Dead Poets Reading Series in December, a series I co-"resurrected" with Diane Tucker and Christopher Levenson back in 2011. I really enjoyed writing this piece on my time with the series, which caused me to reflect on the role public readings, and public remembering, have had on my development as a poet.

I finally turned the tide on interviews - my output per year had been dwindling from nine in 2015, to seven in 2016, to four last year. 2018 saw five, and if all goes according to plan (see "new special project" above), 2019 will continue that upward trend.

My posting of new quotes on writing slowed considerably, though. I only added thirteen (down from 29 last year), and none after March (I have a very bloated "to read" file of online interviews and essays which I hope to get to soon). The two new books and editing for Best Canadian Poetry 2019 have kept me busy. Oh, and the kid too.

Thank you once again this year to PRISM international for simultaneously posting interviews from this site. And thanks also to EVENT magazine for providing another new home for some of my interviews. I hope to continue to add new interview venues in 2019, though no matter where they're simul-posted you'll always be able to find them here too, oh stubborn handful of people who still monitor RSS feeds.

Happy New Year, all!


What the Poets Are Doing - Some Responses and Excerpts

It's been just over a month since we launched What the Poets Are Doing in Victoria and Vancouver (photos here!). Since then, the book has been getting some wonderful coverage, including a wonderful review from Tara Henley in the Toronto Star.

“If you think an entire book about the poetic process — chronicled through email interviews, no less — sounds depressing or dull, you are not alone. You are, however, delightfully mistaken. This gem of a book sees several generations open up on writing, loss and life, and is a riveting read, akin to stumbling on private letters between your most literary and intriguing friends.”

WTPAD also made the Writers' Trust's 2018 Books of the Year, thanks to Journey Prize winner Shashi Bhat, who said of the book:

"As a creative writing instructor, I’m finding so much in here that I can share with my students to show the kind of lateral thinking involved in writing poetry, and that poetry isn’t written in a vacuum, but reflects and responds to the world we live in.”

That quote gave me a thrill, in that reaching young writers (or young maybe-I'll-be-a-writer?s) is one of my strongest desires for the book. I'd love to see Creative Writing and English classes take on the text. More generally, I've been pleasantly surprised by how many non-poets have responded very positively to the book - as both a way in to poetry, and a way to look out at the world through the poets' eyes.


Further coverage for the book has come from Read Local BC and The Source newspaper, which interviewed myself and Raoul Fernandes respectively:

Rob Taylor interview with Monica Miller (Read Local BC)
Raoul Fernandes interview with Brittany Thomson (The Source)

Raoul, on the nature of the book:

“I think it can be a wonderful thing to overhear people who care deeply about what they do, and talk about what it means to them.”

On the same theme, while speaking about Where the Words Come From (for which WTPAD serves as a spiritual sequel) in my interview, I mentioned:

"Where the Words Come From came out when I was 19 and only just starting to find my way to being a poet (a long path which I am still walking). But how does one “find their way to being a poet”? Through poems, of course, but also other means—literary readings, critical essays, social gatherings between writers. I like to think of Where the Words Come From as having been a combination of those last three things in book form, which was vital for me as I didn’t know any writers personally, and didn’t (and don’t) like actual parties. In just being there, in the room of that book with all those writers, I got a sense of what a life in writing might be.

I hope this new book can serve the same role for prospective writers and readers alike: a welcoming into this strange world of writerly concerns, habits, fears, jokes, and acts of faith. And for those already fully committed to poetry, I hope it serves to reinvigorate, to take them back to the source, that first feeling."


In addition to reviews and interviews, we've had great support from a number of online magazines in hosting short excerpts from the book itself (a couple more are still to come):

Dionne Brand and Souvankham Thommavongsa excerpt at The Puritan
Marilyn Dumont and Katherena Vermette excerpt at PRISM international
Sina Queyras and Canisia Lubrin excerpt at Rabble.ca
Russell Thornton and Phoebe Wang excerpt at EVENT


If you haven't got a copy of WTPAD yet, and any of the above intrigued you, you can pick one up at the usual places (or, until the end of the month, straight from me). Some of those links:

At Your Local Bookstore!
Harbour Publishing Website
Amazon Kindle
Kobo Ebook
Nook Ebook

Or, please, request a copy at your local library - few things make me happier than the thought of a reader stumbling upon this book in the stacks and having it worm its way into their life, as Where the Words Come From did with mine.


Hopefully there will be more updates along these lines in the new year, and the book will only continue to gain momentum. Regardless, it's been a wonderful first month!


One Last Dead Poets Reading Series Update

As I mentioned at the end of my last post, as of this month I am retiring as a coordinator of the Dead Poets Reading Series, which I helped "resurrect" in 2011 after founder David Zieroth had folded it following a three-year run on the North Shore.

One of my duties with the DPRS was to design and maintain the website, which I did for the final time a couple days ago. I'm going to miss updating a few of those pages, as they gave me a lot of joy. I wanted to take a minute to share a bit of that joy with you.


The first page is the "List of Poets Read" since the series' inception, which is now up to 207 poets (228 readings, which include some repeats). And yet we've barely gotten started. A fun game is to read through the list and find who's not on it - there are some surprises!

I love, especially, reading through and remembering the poets whose work I first encountered through the series who have gone on to have a significant impact on my own writing. That list starts with John Newlove, who I'd barely heard of when David Zieroth read him at the first DPRS in 2007. It goes on to include Mahmoud Darwish, Jim Harrison, Randall Jarrell, Audre Lorde, C.K. Williams and many more.

I also think about the poets I was lucky enough to be able to present as part of the series: Al Purdy, Larry Levis, Jack Gilbert, Don Coles and, in a shorter reading, C.P. Cavafy (a few others, like Kofi Awoonor, Elizabeth Bishop, Elise Partridge, and Muriel Rukeyser I happily deferred to other readers - though now a part of me wishes I'd been more selfish!).

The May 2012 DPRS readers: Lilija Valis (Hanshan),
Chris Gilpin (David Lerner), Catherine Owen (Loren Eiseley),
Rob Taylor (Larry Levis), Evelyn Lau (John Updike)
I've shared abridged versions of my talks on two of those poets - Jack Gilbert and Don Coles - on this site. I remember, too, reading a quote from Larry Levis about every poem being the same poem, and moving from that to discuss how Levis' poetry always seemed to be building on the same handful of themes and moments, turning them over and over until he produced "Winter Stars," which to me is his (and, well, just about anyone's) finest poem . I said how that seems like a more-than-valid way to build a literary career, like a gyre - circling and circling, moving in on your one subject. I remember saying all that and then seeing Catherine Owen, another of the readers that day, nod in agreement, and something that should have been obvious clicked in me - that I had been doing, and should continue to do, the same in my own writing. That was back in 2012, and my fairly obsessive poems and books on family (my father, my mother, my wife, my son) have followed over the years.


Another page I'll miss updating is the "Photos" page, not because the photos are thrilling (Are poetry reading photos ever thrilling? I was never willing to humiliate the poets enough to find out if they could be...) but because they capture so many of the Vancouver (and visiting) poets who I care deeply about, and the important moments when we came together.

Here are a few of my favourites:

This is from our May 2015 reading, where Heidi Greco (in blue) read Lorraine Vernon. The folks surrounding her are Lorraine's family. Lorraine died in 2004 and her writing has gone underappreciated since. That day both Lorraine and her poetry were celebrated as they should be.

This one is from our March 2015 reading when - stars aligning as they sometimes do - we had four poets in town who are all primarily known for living elsewhere (and have since returned to said places): Karen Solie (Toronto/Saskatchewan), Sarah de Leeuw (Prince George), Alice Major (Edmonton) and Ngwatilo Mawiyoo (Nairobi).

As an unfunded series in which no money changes hands (not since we moved to the VPL and stopped having to pay rent, at least), it's always been tough for us to get non-Vancouver poets into our lineups. It has happened a few other times, though: Yvonne Blomer, Kim Fu, Nora Gould, Carol Glasser Langille, Rhona McAdam and - just this November - Amanda Jernigan have all paid us out-of-town visits.

When I look at this photos I think about how lucky we were to get those four poets in one room - something that's very unlikely to happen again - and all the warm, good thought that that particular combination generated on that singular afternoon. I also like to think about the good warmth of that Vancouver room traveling out with them across the country/world.

Two more photos: the first one is from our September 2012 reading. Three of these poets (Jamie Reid, E.D. Blodgett and Elise Partridge), who took time out of their busy lives to celebrate other poets, have since died themselves (the other two, Christopher Levenson and Elena Johnson are - I'm happy to report - alive and well!).

The second is from our September 2017 reading - five years and one day later - when Jamie and Elise's poetry was read by Wayde Compton and Barbara Nickel, respectively (recently deceased BC poet Peter Culley was also read that day, by Weldon Hunter). At our November 2018 reading Heidi Greco read a poem by E.D. Blodgett, who only recently passed away.

That repeating cycle, of honouring and being honoured, seems to me to be at the heart of poetic practice, and of this series. We read, we write, we celebrate, we forget, we discover, we return.

The series serves many (many!) purposes, and remembering Vancouver poets is only one of them (another - an education in poetry - was what drew me in in the first place). But giving our community a space in which to collectively remember, to honour and be honoured, has certainly meant the most to me.


My last link, truth be told, is very tedious to update (formatting those damn photos!) and I won't miss having to do so, but now that it's done I find myself particularly fond of it nonetheless: the "Meet the Organizing Team" page.

I've loved so dearly working with the co-coordinators I've had, especially Christopher Levenson and Diane Tucker, who did the "reviving" with back in 2011. And the new team! Wow! Joanne Arnott, Jane Munro, Shazia Hafiz Ramji, Kevin Spenst, Diane Tucker, Isabella Wang - what a group! They are going to do great things.


It's quite possible the amount I blog about DPRS events will decline in the future - cutting back on side projects so I can write a little more (i.e. at all) was the point of this - but who knows. Regardless, if you aren't already connected up with the DPRS' social media accounts (Twitter, Facebook, Instagram), or on their mailing list (you can sign up by entering your email in the text box at the bottom of the homepage), you should get connected ASAP.

And then come out and celebrate the world's poetry (which is also ours) and our own poetry (which is also the world's), alive and dead and alive once more.


Some What The Poets Are Doing Launch Photos

What the Poets Are Doing was officially launched (on the West Coast, at least) on November 17th and 18th, with back-to-back events in Victoria and Vancouver.

The Victoria event was a co-production with Best Canadian Poetry, which had recently released its 2018 edition, while the Vancouver event was partnered up with the Dead Poets Reading Series' November reading, which took place immediately following the launch.

Both events were, well, really quite lovely. Good thought, plenty of laughter, and some damn fine poems.

Here are a few photos from the two day blitz!

Best Canadian Poetry series editor Anita Lahey kicks off the Victoria launch.
waaseyaa'sin christine sy reads her poem from Best Canadian Poetry 2018.
Kayla Czaga reads from What the Poets Are Doing,
and cracks everyone up with her Winona Ryder poem.
Amanda Jernigan reads excerpts from What the Poets Are Doing alongside a poem
from Best Canadian Poetry, for which she serves as Advisory Editor.
After I made a wrong turn on the highway, Amanda and I came within five cars of not making
the ferry back to the mainland (and missing the Vancouver launch!). Here's Amanda
celebrating our crooked end-of-the-ferry parking spot!
Me, opening the Vancouver launch of What the Poets Are Doing.
Arleen Paré, a Victoria-based Best Canadian Poetry 2018 contributor who found herself 
on the wrong side of the Salish Sea that weekend, reads first at the Vancouver event.
Raoul Fernandes reads from What the Poets Are Doing, and adds
an amazing poem by his conversation partner, Tim Bowling.
Russell Thornton discusses his conversation with Phoebe Wang,
while pointing at the skylight for some reason.

My crack team of book sellers (Marta, Lucas and Diane Tucker)
are all business.

Lucas, already in training for the fourth edition in the Poets in Conversation
series (which, at the current rate of one every 16 years, will come out in 2050).

The November 2018 Dead Poets Reading Series Lineup: Phanuel Antwi (June Jordan),
Amanda Jernigan (Richard Outram), Carleigh Baker (Gwendolyn MacEwen),
Bibiana Tomasic (Audre Lorde).
The Dead Poets event was my last as one of the coordinators of the series, which I helped "resurrect" alongside Diane Tucker and Christopher Levenson back in 2011 (you can see more photos from the reading here). It's tough to leave the series behind, but necessary if I want even a sliver of time here or there for writing. The DPRS is in wonderful hands, though - just look at this incredible organizing team!

We'll be heading out east with Where the Words Come From in the new year - if you live west of the Rockies, I hope to see you soon enough!


Holiday Book Sale

I've got too many books in my damn apartment, so I'm having a little Christmas sale to try to move some copies!

Prices are:

What the Poets Are Doing: $20
The News: $12
Oh Not So Great: $12
The Other Side of Ourselves: $12

*Free Shipping if you order two or more books - Canadian orders only*

You can order copies and learn more over on my website:



the passport filled with shrapnel: "Correspondent" by Dominique Bernier-Cormier

Two Excerpts from Correspondent - Dominique Bernier-Cormier

Early morning, August 12. Hydrogen peroxide leaks from an I-15 torpedo aboard the Kursk. Liquid falls, drop by drop, onto a ring of copper insulation. At 11:29 a.m., seismographs in Norway detect an event of magnitude 1.5 on the Richter scale. The submarine sinks 108 metres to the bottom of the Barents Sea, fire in its hull. Two minutes later, a second torpedo explodes in its launching tube, triggering a chain reaction. Torpedo heads burst one by one, a long rosary of flames. Seismic needles shake as far as the New Mexico desert. Scientists in white coats and round glasses analyze scribbles of lead, pinpoint the location of the event fifty miles off the coast of Kola, in Russia. Holes in the hull the size of bodies. The whole sea trying to squeeze itself in.

We feel bad, weakened by carbon dioxide.


My mother, at fourteen, swims for hours before school every day. Her palms cup water, wrapped in bracelets of silver bubbles, rosaries of air. She breathes to the rhythm of morning prayer. Je vous salue Marie, pleine de grâce. A kick on Marie, a breath on grâce. Clockwork. Outside, nuns circle the pool in their black habits. Hands behind their backs, the white clouds of their voices. Snow falling on Quebec City’s copper roofs. A bell ringing. When she swims the backstroke, my mother balances a cold glass of water on her forehead. To learn to keep still. To learn not to shake when she runs out of breath, when breath runs out of her. The glass throws a ring of light across her freckled face. If it falls into the water, the clock will stop, go back to zero.

Pressure is increasing in the compartment.

from Correspondent
(Goose Lane Editions, 2018).
Reprinted with permission.


Dominique Bernier-Cormier's Correspondent (Goose Lane, 2018) is no ordinary first book. It’s autobiographical, recounting the author’s adolescence - yes, yes, I know, like almost all of them! - but it does so slantwise. Bernier-Cormier refers to his upbringing in hints and flashes around the larger political events which dominated the news, and his life, at the time (his father was a CBC correspondent in Moscow). So the sinking of the Kursk become intertwined with Russian lessons in school, car rides through new neighbourhoods, memories of Canada, and visits to Central Asian marketplaces. It’s a powerful portrait of a time, a place and, tucked within it all, a person.

The book is broken into three sections, one for each of the major political events explored (the Kursk sinking, the assassination of Ahmad Shah Massoud, and the Nord-Ost siege). Each section opens with a description of the political event, followed by nineteen untitled prose poems, each of which includes a short piece of found text.

I'm both a poet (with a strong interest in nerdy form stuff) and a History major, so needless to say I was compelled when I learned about the book, and I continued to be so after having read it. And it didn't hurt that I knew Dom to be one of the kindest poets around (who tolerated my blathering to no end when he was training to replace me as Poetry Editor at PRISM international). So I was very happy to have the chance to ask Dom a few questions about the book, writing about an "other," writing in his non-native tongue, family literary rivalries, and more. I hope you enjoy!

Dominique Bernier-Cormier, patiently waiting for me to stop
explaining the minutia of updating PRISM's online store.

Rob: This book stands out from most first books in a number of ways, especially its uniformity of content and form. This is no general first "collection" of individual poems, and though it does explore some common "first book" themes (the author's childhood, chiefly), it does so slantwise, in the cracks and margins of larger political stories. You write stand-alone non-prose poems too (like this and this and this). Could you speak about how and why you decided to lead off with this themed book and not a more general collection? To what extent was this book initially created in the shape we see now v. cajoled into its current shape and focus (I note that that last poem I linked to, "At the Izmailovo Flea Market" lives on in Correspondent as a significantly re-worked poem in the "Massoud" sequence). Do you have another unthemed accumulation of poems waiting in the wings?

Dominique: I wouldn’t say it was a “choice” to lead off with this book, rather than a collection of unthemed poems. Honestly, this one was just ready. It had found its form and its three central stories were told. I felt like it was prepared to go into the world, and I was prepared to “let go” of these images and narratives I’d been obsessed with for a long time. I saw this book as a project that had a clear end, whereas I think of writing my stand-alone poems as a continuous process.

That being said, I think I’m close to having a collection’s worth of unthemed poems, yes. But I’m in no rush. I used to worry about this first book not being “representative” of my other work, and about people knowing me only as a “long-political-prose-poems-about-Russian-politics” poet. But I’ve learned to be proud of that formal and thematic range. Hopefully, each book will feel like a curve-ball! I think that’s a good goal.

It took me two years to find the form of Correspondent, then two months to write it, and another year to obsessively micro-edit it. I think a lot of the poetic work had already been done by the time I found the form—I’d been mulling over certain images, certain turns of phrase, certain thematic connections for years at that point, and so when I finally found a frame for them, I was really well-prepared to write them into it. But I still have hundreds of pages of failed attempts, fragments, quotes, metaphors on my Google Drive. The epilogue references that process (These are the fragments left on the cutting room floor) and is made up of some of these abandoned lines.

Rob: Yes, finding the right “frame” can make all the difference, eh? The “frame” for these poems is quite literally rectangular, like a picture frame. Your chosen form (prose poems with the injection of found text from people connected to the political events) reminds me of both the Japanese haibun (a block of prose followed by a haiku-length poem) and the Spanish glosa (a form which integrates a poetic epigraph into the lines of the poem). There's also something journalistic about prose poems, I find—the formality of having the words reach all the way to the far side of the page. How did you settle upon this structure for the book? What role do you hope the shape of the poems might play in how people experience the content of the book?

Dominique: The form definitely came from feeling torn between journalistic and poetic impulses. It was important to me to tell these three news stories with all the clarity and complexity they deserved. My regular “style” of poems didn’t allow for enough narrative clarity, but journalistic language didn’t allow for enough complexity in terms of images and metaphors. So I tried to strike in the middle.

I think of each prose-poem as a one-minute stand-up from a journalist on scene. I tried to emulate that brevity, clarity, and physical immediacy: a narrative voice anchored in a visual background and contained in a rectangular frame for a brief window of time. There’s also a certain rhythm to the broadcast stand-up that I like—that cadence is very clear in my mind, from hearing my dad on TV throughout my childhood.

It was very important for me to include the quotes, and they were there from the very beginning. The voices I quote in the book represent immense acts of courage and defiance, and my intention there was simply to amplify them. They are voices that manage to rise clearly out of the noise of war, of grief, of fear. They’re the final words on every page—after all the reporting and analysis and narration, they’re what’s left resonating through the white space.

Rob: Regarding the quotes and how they resonate, a profound turn occurs in Correspondent on page 43 (of 86 total pages - dead centre!) when the location of the quotes shifts from a haibun-style end-of-poem placement to a glosa-style integration throughout the text. The found lines being to crop up all over the place, almost chaotically. The poem on page 43 describes a translator returning to consciousness following the assassination of Ahmad Shah Massoud by suicide bombers—waking up in a new world, as it were—the body of one of the suicide bombers severed at the waist beside him. The horror of the poem seems to cleave the book in two—the found text is never the same after that. At what point in the assembling of this book did you decide upon that turn, and was it an easy decision to make? How did bringing that turn into the book help you see what you were doing with the book as a whole?

Dominique: Yes, good math! I have to give some credit to Sheryda Warrener for prompting that turn. At first, the quotes all ran at the bottom of the page. Sheryda gave me some edits and mentioned that the power of a pattern often comes from being established, then disrupted. So I broke the pattern, and it taught me what I was trying to do with the book.

What I want to show is the intrusion of public narratives and images into private lives, and vice-versa. And so the two texts (narration and quotes) had to clash, blend, intrude, become entangled, start speaking to each other, in the way they do in our lives.

The scene you mentioned is also the point in the book when journalism becomes literally violent—when the two terrorists, disguised as journalists, detonate explosives hidden in their camera, when the lens becomes weapon. From that point on, it becomes impossible to think of journalism as purely benevolent, objective and observant. Journalism has agency and consequences. It doesn’t just observe the world, it changes the landscape. And so it’s not just the quotes infiltrating the narrative, it’s also the narrative infiltrating the quotes and influencing the way we read and experience them.

Rob: The third sequence of poems in the book, "Nord-Ost" (about the 2002 Nord-Ost Theatre hostage crisis), closes with the words of one of the surviving hostages: "I didn't even catch a cold // even though the river was full of ice." This speaks directly to the sequence's narrative, but also to your role as observer/outsider/"correspondent" in Russia at that time. In this way and many others Correspondent explores the complexity and challenges of both foreign reporting and travel writing: you are talking about someone else's stories which is also (at least peripherally) your own. As you put it in your "Notes on the Facts" at the end of the book, "Their narratives and images became enmeshed with the fabric and rhythm of our everyday lives in Moscow. It is this entanglement that I tried to capture and express here."

We're in a time when a premium is (understandably) put on "telling your own story," which puts a writer like you in a bit of a spot! To what extent do you think of this book as a part of your life v. apart from your life? And how important is it to you to make that distinction, especially in a highly interconnected world where major events in one part of the world are experienced in real time (and via the same media) on the other side of the planet?

Dominique: The question of how much this book is part of/apart from my life is one that I constantly asked myself as I was writing it, and that I keep asking myself. I think it’s a really important one. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how to navigate other cultures, countries and stories in a responsible way.

I think that ethically responsible journalism, and documentary poetry, needs to perform a sort of double-think: it needs to make itself as transparent as possible, as much a clear vehicle for other people’s stories and voices, and at the same time be hyper-aware that it can never be that, that any story that passes through it will necessarily be changed, be affected, be distorted. I think it’s about both minimizing that distortion, and also drawing attention to it and examining it.

In a way, this book is a work of translation, and therefore a record of failure. Translations are never able to fully capture and represent the original. It’s important to acknowledge that, to be aware of what’s lost in translation. It’s the first step. But then, we’re able to also ask what’s gained in translation. I don’t think this is a book about the Kursk, or Massoud’s assassination, or the Nord-Ost hostage crisis; it’s a book about how these stories were processed through my particular body and memory, and what happens to them when they pass through the filters of journalism, translation and poetry.

Rob: On the theme of translation: you've written in the past about writing in English as a native French speaker, but I wonder about it particularly here, in exploring these stories which took place primarily in Russian, French and Dari. What role do you think language (and language barriers) played in your understanding and exploration of "foreignness," both in your childhood and in the writing of this book? How do you think this book feel different if written in French or Russian?

Dominique: I didn’t speak English at all at the time when this book “took place,” so that adds another layer of translation to the events. The problem, of course, is that every time we remember an event, we’re not actually remembering it: we’re remembering the last time we remembered it. And so, the more I read and spoke and wrote about these events in English, the more English intruded into my French and Russian experience of them. (That being said, there are words that I experienced and remember so physically that I couldn’t translate them: Молодец, шашлык, ГАИ.)

I think my childhood provided me with a pretty unique experience and understanding of “foreignness,” and I still think a lot about that concept. The term “foreign correspondent” itself carries a lot. The adjective “foreign” doesn’t actually qualify “correspondent” (as it should). “Foreign correspondent” means a correspondent of the foreign, not a correspondent who is foreign. That’s the wrong way around, I think.

I think it’s important for anyone (but especially Anglophones, and especially poets) to experience their language being decentralized and destabilized; to find themselves walking down a street where they can’t understand the fragments of conversations floating by. It’s a good exercise in humility and empathy: I am not the center, and There are meanings I don’t have access to.

Interacting with other languages also teaches you how profoundly connected the acts of speaking and thinking are. In my family, we still use Russian and Mandarin words, and Parisian slang, because no word in our French-Canadian vocabulary would be able to convey their exact meanings, in all their cultural and sonic specificity. It’s not only our vocabulary that changed by living in these places, it’s also the concepts we have access to. It’s a scary and amazing discovery that a single language can’t say everything, that even our thinking is accented.

Rob: In ways we've discussed above, and others, a central theme in Correspondent is reportage (your father's work as a CBC journalist being the impetus for your "entanglement" in these events). The book contains both a cautioning ("I hope // I remember it is the correspondent who is foreign // not the landscape") and an embracing of journalistic practices (each section opens with a journalistic account of the news story under consideration, and similar journalistic descriptions pop up throughout the poems). Did writing this book, and navigating the various difficult decisions that had to be made in the process, bring you new understandings of your father's work and the decisions he made when you were a child?

Dominique: Yes, it’s both a celebration and a criticism of journalism, especially of the work of the foreign correspondent, and I think I was dealing with similar dilemmas: how much do you show of yourself and how much do you let others speak through you? Where is the line between witnessing and voyeurism? I had really great discussions with my father about these issues.

I had to make a decision very early on about historical accuracy. Would the book be simply “inspired” by these historical events, or would it have journalistic standards of factuality? I decided I wanted the work to be as historically accurate as possible, and that involved a lot of research and a lot of checking in with my father about his experiences. A few times, he even had to tell me to cut lines that I really loved because they didn’t reflect his experiences. He has incredible high standards of ethics when it comes to his work, and I tried to live up to that.

So yes, I feel like I learned a lot from his work and the humility he brings to it. I’m learning how to efface myself at times, how to prioritize the story over my own voice and style.

Rob: Speaking of your father, Michel Cormier, he also wrote a book about this time in your family's life - La Russie des illusions (and the damn thing was a finalist for the GG - yeesh! No pressure following that...). His book, too, has sections on the sinking of the Kursk and the assassination of Ahmad Shah Massoud. What was it like writing this book knowing that other one existed? Did you lean on it as a resource, or try to keep some distance from it? Obviously they are very different creatures, but how important it for you to cover new ground (or the same ground differently) in your book? Has Correspondent torn the family asunder re: which to display more prominently on the mantelpiece?

Dominique: Yes, good research, Rob! I think of my father’s book and mine as complementary, as two different perspectives on similar events—journalist vs. poet, adult vs. child, French vs. English. But yes, I did lean on it as a resource, and I checked in with him about using some of the stories he had covered and writing about some of his experiences. He was so great about it and supported me the whole way. As did my entire family.

Writing Correspondent became an act of collective memory for us, I think. Conjuring images and sensations and details from that time in our lives was very much a collaborative act. I would often check-in with my brothers and parents about how they remembered certain things. It was a lot of fun to time-travel back to the early 2000s together.

The two books are different in form, perspective and approach, but also intention. My father’s intention, I think, was to re-tell some of the news events he had covered in greater depth and with greater context than he could in a two-minute TV segment. Mine was to tell these stories more “poetically,” because there was something missing for me in the way journalists, political analysts and historians told them.

I wanted to use more poetic language, yes, but I also wanted the stories to behave more like poems. In a way, the nineteen prose-poems in each section speak to each other the way lines do in a poem. I wanted image, as much as chronology, to determine the order of poems. The poems that open this interview, for example, are tied by ring of copper/ring of light, rosary of flames/rosaries of air, rather than timeline. The narrative is driven by echoes, by a logic of image. That allowed me, I think, to reach political conclusions without using the language of politics—to show the passport filled with shrapnel that acted as a shield, rather than to say that nationality is a privilege.

Rob: You note at the end of the book that a portion of the proceeds from sales of Correspondent will be going to the Massoud Foundation. Could you speak a bit about the work of this organization, and why you chose to support them in this way?

Ahmad Shah Massoud
Dominique: The Massoud Foundation is a non-profit, non-governmental organization established to preserve and spread the values, leadership and ideals of Ahmad Shah Massoud. It’s chaired by Massoud’s brother, and is involved in humanitarian and cultural efforts to improve the living standards of Afghan citizens, increase the literacy rate, and build schools, libraries, and computer labs. It also funds the Mandegar Daily, an independent newspaper that advocates for democracy, anti-terrorism and the elimination of government corruption.

Poetry is nice, but actual resources are essential. I wanted to give back to Massoud and his family in a tangible way, and in a way that they had control over. It made sense to me for the book sales to support literacy and freedom of the press in that way.


Like all poetry, Correspondent may not be essential, but it's definitely worth a read. You can pick a copy up at your local bookstore, or via the Goose Lane website or, I suppose, from Amazon.


Interview with Read Local BC

Thank you to Read Local BC for this interview about editing What the Poets Are Doing: Canadian Poets in Conversation:


Monica at Read Local BC asked so many thoughtful questions that this interview covers my thinking behind the book and how it came together more thoroughly than the book's introduction (which includes more jokes about shipping heiresses and ulcers, but less about cat cafes).

If you're interested in the book and you live in Victoria or Vancouver, please do come out to one of our launches this weekend!


Victoria Launch of What the Poets Are Doing

The evening before the Vancouver launch, we will be launching What the Poets Are Doing: Canadian Poets in Conversation in Victoria! The event will be a co-launch with Best Canadian Poetry 2018.

The launch will feature Yvonne Blomer, Kayla Czaga, Amanda Jernigan, Sonnet L’Abbé, Anita Lahey, waaseyaa’sin christine sy, and me. It will take place at the Bent Mast restaurant.

The event's full details:

Awash in Poetry: Best Canadian Poetry 2018 and What the Poets Are Doing Victoria Co-LaunchSaturday, November 17th, 2018, 7 PM (Doors 6:30 PM)
The Bent Mast Restaurant and Lounge
512 Simcoe Street, Victoria
Featuring: Yvonne Blomer, Kayla Czaga, Amanda Jernigan, Sonnet L’Abbé, Anita Lahey, waaseyaa’sin christine sy, and Rob Taylor.
Free! Books for sale.

You can RSVP for the event via Facebook here.

If you're in Victoria, I'd love to see you on the 17th!


Vancouver Launch of "What The Poets Are Doing"

Come join me in celebrating the release of What the Poets Are Doing: Canadian Poets in Conversation!

The Vancouver launch will feature readings and discussion with four of the book's contributors: Elizabeth Bachinsky, Raoul Fernandes, Amanda Jernigan and Russell Thornton. Hosted by your truly.

The launch will take place in the brand new Montalbano Family Theatre, which is part of the newly redesigned top floors of the Vancouver Public Library'sCentral Branch (8th Floor). Space will be limited, so come early.

The event's full details:

What the Poets Are Doing Vancouver Launch
Sunday, November 18th, 2018, 1:00 PM
Vancouver Public Library Central Branch
Montalbano Family Theatre, 8th Floor
Featuring: Elizabeth Bachinsky, Raoul Fernandes, Amanda Jernigan and Russell Thornton. Hosted by Rob Taylor.
Free! Books for sale.

And stick around after the reading for the Dead Poets Reading Series' November reading, which will take place in the same venue at 3 PM.

You can RSVP for the event via Facebook here. If you can't make it, you can still participate in the afternoon's events by tweeting your questions for the poets to #WhatThePoets!

And if you're not in Vancouver - we might be coming your way soon. Launches in other parts of the country are being organized as we speak. Stay tuned. For now, you can always pre-order the book via your local book store, or Chapters or Amazon.

I'd love to see you on the 18th!


November Dead Poets Lineup

The next Dead Poets Reading Series event will take place at the Vancouver Public Library's Central Branch on November 18th, 2018, from 3-4:30 PM. The reading will be hosted in the Montalbano Family Theatre, a brand new theatre space on the library's 8th floor (learn more about our venue here).

It will feature:

June Jordan (1936 - 2002), read by Phanuel Antwi
Audre Lorde (1934 - 1992), read by Bibiana Tomasic
Gwendolyn MacEwen (1941 - 1987), read by Carleigh Baker
Richard Outram (1930 - 2005), read by Amanda Jernigan

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

This event will be a double-bill with the Vancouver launch of What the Poets Are Doing: Canadian Poets in Conversation, which will take place at 1 PM in the same space.

I hope to see you on November 18th!


an entire page of words about one damn thing: "Little Wild" by Curtis LeBlanc

Sonnet for the Driveways of Our Childish Years - Curtis LeBlanc

All the tennis balls that our Gretzky curves
couldn't guide past the taut rubber screen
of a Shooter Tutor cratered garage doors.
Personal moons for the parties we missed,
where some young men made the porch-like climb
to violence. For instance: I knew a kid
who got pushed to bite the curb, lost his two
front teeth on the concrete foot of his own front lawn.
We heard stories like that everyday, dribbled down
the driveways of this Northern-most America.
Shaq's hand burned into our basketballs, dishing
high-fives to the pavement, eclipsing our palms.
Forced outdoors by our fathers and mothers,
we learned to forget each other and be alone.

from Little Wild
(Nightwood Editions, 2018).
Reprinted with permission.


"Don't tell me what the poets are doing / Don't tell me that they're talking tough / Don't tell me that they're anti-social / Somehow not anti-social enough, all right." Those lines, from the song "Poets" by The Tragically Hip, have looped in my mind for the last few months, in part because I've titled my forthcoming book of poetry conversations after it, but also because I've been reading and rereading Curtis Leblanc's debut poetry collection, Little Wild (Nightwood Editions, 2018).

Little Wild
The book is a traditional "first collection" in that its content, speaker and style shift from poem to poem, section to section. Yet at the book's core is a consistent study of the socialization (or lack thereof) of the young Canadian male (perhaps specifically the young Albertan male). Nightwood's description of the book sums this up as "explor[ing] the performance of masculinity in contemporary Canada, with a focus on how toxic masculinity relates to mental health, aggression, substance abuse and crises of identity."

The characters in the poems, who participate in destructive (and self-destructive) activities while also longing for liberation from those same actions, take us right to the heart of the term "anti-social" (which means both "contrary to the laws and customs of society" and "not wanting the company of others"): the simultaneous desires to belong and to be apart; to follow the expectations of society and to upend them. As the book advances, these tensions make room for tender poems on family and new love (two of the later poems are dedicated to Mallory Tater, fellow poet and Curtis' fiancée - you can read my interview with Mallory about her debut collection here), without ever fulling dissipating their nervous energy.

There is a good deal of tough talking in Little Wild, and plenty of anti-social behaviour. But also the best kind of "anti-social" behaviour, which is often in short supply: the eye that sees, and the mind that questions, the customs around how we engender young boys. And the voice that offers an alternative.

I had the pleasure of getting to ask Curtis a few questions about, among other things, his new book, his unexpected rhymes, Kelly Buchburger, milk separators, and releasing his debut collection at the same time as his fiancée. I hope you enjoy!

Curtis LeBlanc, being anti-social enough, alone in a garage.
Rob: The promotional copy for your book says that Little Wild "focus[es] on how toxic masculinity relates to mental health, aggression, substance abuse and crises of identity." Indeed, the characters in these poems drink, steal, and burn their way through their teenage years - never more harrowingly than in "An Outdoor Education", in which the speaker is tied to a birch tree and set on fire by "Those other kids--friends of mine, I'd say still" (a scene hinted at in the cover image). There appears to be a gulf, needless to say, between the people you describe in the book and the man you are now (running a poetry chapbook press and a reading series, and also teaching youth). Could you talk a little about your youth, how it informed the writing of these poems?

Curtis: I think I’ve always been interested in characters who are at odds with the world around them, struggling with how people expect them to be. A lot of the speakers in Little Wild—and they are definitely not all ‘me’ per se—feel this way. Growing up, and still to this day, I’ve always pushed back against the kinds of behaviours and beliefs that are so often celebrated in men—the recklessness, the violence and aggression, the one-upmanship.

When I was younger and really struggling with the cognitive dissonance of wanting to be better than the person I was expected to be—to be a different kind of ‘good’ than what the world around me defined in a ‘good man’—I anticipated a great deal of shame in the words and actions some of my peers took pride in. I’ve never been a reckless person. In fact, a big facet of my mental illness (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) compels me to be extremely careful. But when I was a kid I took risks in exchange for laughs and high fives from friends, and it tore me apart mentally and emotionally and even sometimes physically. In the book, I tried to make sense of some of that dissonance, to illuminate it for readers through the retelling of stories and past experiences. Some of the good I wanted to do with these poems was to give a window for other men to look into and see themselves and maybe realize that that resentment they feel and felt towards the way they were expected to be wasn’t misplaced. That it was and is very real and very valid.

Vivek Shraya recently wrote a piece for Vice explaining how the term “Toxic Masculinity” should probably be retired because there isn’t really any kind of masculinity that isn’t toxic. I think she’s probably right and if I could go back in time I would erase the word “toxic” from the promo copy you quoted above.

Rob: Though you grew up in Alberta, you’ve spent the last few years here in Vancouver, completing your MFA at UBC. Two of the "blurbers" on the back of Little Wild - Kayla Czaga and Raoul Fernandes - also lived in Vancouver with you while you were writing much of your book. I see so many ways in which your themes align with theirs - suburban teen years (yours in St. Albert, Raoul's in Tsawwassen), 90s pop-culture nostalgia (Kayla's VCR tapes, your basketball with Shaq's palm print), etc. Can you speak of the influence those two, and their writing, has had on yours? Can you suggest a few others who have shaped your writing, or in some way shown you the way?

Curtis: The first time I met Raoul was at a reading for my first ever undergraduate poetry workshop organized by our professor, Rachel Rose. All the students in the class read a handful of poems and Rachel invited a few local poets to headline the night. Raoul was one of them. He read a number of poems that ended up in his Nightwood collection, Transmitter and Receiver, and I was just blown away by the tenderness of the work and how it dealt with the everyday. I was still in the process of learning that I could write about the commonplace aspects of my own life and Raoul was one of the poets that showed me how to find significance in those things. He approached me after the reading and we started a bit of a correspondence. He would pass along opportunities he thought I might be interested in, offered to read some of my poems, and I thanked him endlessly—and still do. His encouragement was a big push for me early on.

Fast forward to my first MFA poetry workshop and that’s where I met Kayla. For Your Safety Please Hold On was published during the course of that workshop and I was so in awe. I absolutely adore that book—the similarities you mention probably weren’t even present in my own writing until after I’d encountered Kayla’s work—and there I was in a class with the person who wrote it. She’s incredibly kind, generous and sharp with her feedback. Overall she’s just the best person.

In terms of other poets who have helped shape my writing, I’m so fortunate—ridiculously so, it feels—to be part of a community that is so nurturing and supportive. We’re always reading each other’s work, listening to each other at readings and events or sometimes just around the campfire, and in that way I’m constantly surrounded by inspiration and also getting useful feedback on my work.

Rob: I very much enjoyed your occasional use of rhyme in Little Wild. A reader might go for pages without the hint of a rhyme, and then all of a sudden you'll drop a delightful one (say, "stripped down to briefs..." / "reconstructed streets" midway through "Public Works", or "chrome machine" / "heavy cream" to open "Milk Separator") and just as quickly you move on with the rest of the unrhymed poem, as if tricking the rhyme-averse reader into thinking nothing had happened at all - but an energy has been shot into the poem, nonetheless. In this way, rhyme feels at once of minor importance to most of your individual poems and vital to the larger energy of the book. What is your thinking on if/how/how best to deploy rhyme in contemporary poetry? Has your thinking changed over time? And did pulling this manuscript together make you think about the use of rhyme in your poems in a new light?

Curtis: Before I ever wrote a poem, I was writing song lyrics in my teens. That’s probably the real reason for the presence of those occasional rhymes. I’ll be writing a poem and all of the sudden find myself driven by the sound and rhythm of work in progress, sometimes even more so than the content. I’ll find the perfect word contextually but scrap it because it doesn’t land the way I want it to sonically. I can’t say there’s any rhyme (*haha*) or reason to the way I do this. It’s more of an organic, spontaneous thing. When I was first beginning to write, I was told that poems don’t rhyme anymore, so I fought the urge to employ rhyme. Now I see it as something integral to my work that I really do enjoy working with. I absolutely love Natalie Shapero’s collection Hard Child and it uses rhyme and sound beautifully to charge the poems with a gripping energy. Her poems are musical and conversational all at the same time.

Rob: Sticking with craft for a minute, another of my favourite elements of Little Wild is how physical it is. The poems are usually anchored in physical objects, often right off the bat in the title, and even abstract ideas are made tangible (I'm thinking of that wonderful line in "Milk Separator" in which a large sum of money is explained as "ten tanks of gas or one month's rent"). Most of the students I work with struggle with this mightily - much of what they say is watery and floats off as soon as it's said. Has this physicality always come naturally to you, or was it something you had to learn (and if so, how)? Given the subject matter you chose to explore in Little Wild, did you have extra desire for the poems to be felt in a visceral way?

Curtis: It’s funny, my grandpa was reading the book while I was back home this summer and he came up to me and said, “Curtis, how do write an entire page of words about one damn thing? Like porridge. You wrote a whole page about porridge.” Most of this comes from meditating on an object for a long time before writing. In the case of that milk separator, he’d shown it to me during one of our visits and I thought I’m going to write a poem about that. I had no idea what it would be about, but I find that if I’m stubborn and think about an object/subject for long enough, a poem will come spilling out eventually, usually all at once. I write a lot of poems this way. Editing always follows, of course.

I came of age reading the short fiction of Amy Hempel and she’s a writer who I think is exceptional at meditating on the physical world around her characters. I think of Hempel’s story “In a Tub” which opens her collected stories; three separate spaces, physical and chronological, are connected intimately through the image of a tub. In “San Francisco,” it’s a watch that is central to the story in this way, and it draws together a lifetime of familial complexities for the two sisters wanting to inherit it and their mother who left it behind.

Rob: Though all its poems are not autobiographical, Little Wild feels like a deeply personal book, centred around family and friends, and sitting at its centre is a long poem, "Bucky" - an erasure drawn from a conversation you recorded with your grandfather, Bill McPherson. It's interesting, then, that the conversation focused on the career of NHLer Kelly Buchberger, and not, say, your grandfather's own life, or that of your parents or yourself. Could you speak a bit about how that poem came to be, and how you think it speaks with the rest of the poems in the collection?

Curtis: I was worried that “Bucky” might be too much of a departure in the middle of the book but the feedback I’ve received so far about that section has been really positive. It’s still a family poem in the sense that he’s my mother’s cousin and Bill’s nephew. Being from Edmonton and having cheered for the Oilers for as long as I can remember, it was hugely significant for me to have that sort of family relation to the captain of the team (at the time). For me, as a kid, Kelly took on mythic proportions. He’s also a topic that my grandpa, who has always battled a thick stutter and will sit for long periods of time in rooms full of people without saying more than a few words, will actually talk at length about. So one day, with his permission, we sat down and I recorded him telling Kelly’s story much like he always tells it. I added line breaks and removed words or sentences here and there for efficiency, but I really wanted to preserve his voice.

Rob: Speaking of family, I interviewed your fiancée, Mallory Tater, back in March, and she mentioned that one of her upcoming writing projects was her vows for your fall wedding (Congrats!). In the months since then, you've toured much of the country with your debut collections (hers, This Will Be Good, also came out this Spring, with Book*hug), making yours the most revoltingly heartwarming love story in the Canadian poetry world. Both of your books explore your childhoods and the gendered expectations that you had to navigate, especially in your teenage years. Do you think of them as united in some way? In conversation with one another? Any plans to co-write book #2?

Curtis: The books coming out at the same time was a bit of a fluke, but getting to tour our first collections together and share that experience was something we’ll never forget. I think there are some overarching similarities like you pointed out, but on a poem level I think the two books are very different, stylistically, tonally, thematically—you name it. Overall, I’ve been given a tremendous amount of space to speak, both in the form of the physical book, at readings on tour and elsewhere and in interviews like this one, and I’m so grateful for this opportunity, and to have been able to share much of it with my best friend and closest kindred spirit.

Mallory has her novel, The Birth Yard, coming out in 2020 with Harper Collins and I’m currently working my way through a second poetry collection, so I’m not sure we’ll overlap like we did this year anytime in the near future. It’s been a blast.


Have a blast, yourself, by picking up a copy of Little Wild. You can pick one up at your local bookstore, or via the Nightwood Editions website or, I suppose, from Amazon.


caught unawares at the centre: "Years, Months, and Days" by Luke Hathaway

Three poems from Years, Months, and Days – Luke Hathaway

I can see the place,
near to me as you are,
clearly as your face,
but I cannot go there.


A man
goes here
and there
to sow
the seed
falls here
and there
the birds
go here
and there
to eat
the seed
the man
goes forth
to sow.


Summer to autumn,
how do we travel,
autumn to winter,
one to another,
winter to springtime,
how do we travel,
springtime to summer,
one to another.

from Years, Months, and Days
(Biblioasis, 2018).

Reprinted with permission.


I've long admired Luke Hathaway's poems for their compact precision (see his poem "Catch," for instance). Few writers can say as much, in as few words, as Hathaway does time and time again in his first two collections, Groundwork and All the Daylight Hours, books steeped in mythological and philosophical considerations. How lovely and fitting it was, then, to have Years, Months, and Days (Biblioasis, 2018) arrive in my mailbox.

Years, Months, and Days
The book, "a transfiguration of Mennonite hymns" (specifically the nearly 200-year-old Mennonite hymnal Die Gemeinschaftliche Liedersammlung), explores religious thought (its philosophy, its myth) in poems so tiny you might easily overlook them. At sixty pages, few of which contain more than thirty words, Years, Months, and Days is so small that this interview about it exceeds the book's word count many times over. And yet the poems contain whole worlds, whole schools of thought, which can be unpacked and unpacked, if you so desire, or simply enjoyed for the work they do on the tongue and ear. If some books can be read in one sitting, this one can be read ten times in that same span, and in each reading it will be a new book, making of itself a new offering. Needless to say, it's a rather singular reading experience in the world of contemporary Canadian poetry.

I sat down with Luke to discuss Years, Months and Days, the recent deepening of religious themes in his work, the mentors who shaped his writing life, a new poetry-dirty-word to replace "accessible," and much more. I hope you enjoy!

Luke Hathaway

Rob: In the afterword to Years, Months, and Days you note that the poems in the book “are not translations so much as they are meditations on the possibility of translation.” Can you unpack that a bit more? What were the anchoring points which kept the poems tethered in some way to the original text? Do you think there’s a limit, no matter how up-front the translator is, to what can reasonably be considered a “translation”?

Luke: In order to consider these poems translations, we have to define the word “translation” very loosely indeed — though as I’ve written elsewhere, the word translation can mean both “carried across” (i.e. preserved) and “transformed” (i.e. changed utterly — as in Shakespeare: Bless thee, Bottom, bless thee! Thou art translated!). So “meditations on the possibility of translation” is really more apt. And the kind of translation at issue here, as I say in the afterword, is not only, or even centrally, translation across languages, but translation “between religions, or between religion and secularity; between a world defined by the presence of God, and a world defined by His absence — or perhaps by other sorts of presences and Presences.” That is to say, I embarked on the work as a secular person, an atheist person, trying to see what I could understand (and not just intellectually, but with all my heart, and with all my soul, and with all my mind, as they say in the Book of Common Prayer) of these hymns that are expressions of religious faith: of the Old Order Mennonite faith specifically, and beyond that of Anabaptist faith more generally, of Protestant faith, of Christian faith.

What I could understand, initially, was very little: that is one reason the poems are so short. I worked not with whole hymns but with fragments of hymns, sometimes mere phrases — but fragments or phrases I felt I could understand. Often these were moments of doubt and darkness in the hymns. Sometimes they were moments of longing. Sometimes they were moments in which faith is expressed through or in the rhythms of the natural world.

What I did not understand, embarking on the work of translation, were, among other things, the words God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit. And such occur very often in the hymnal, as you will not be surprised to hear. So in this sense, as a translator, I was profoundly limited.

But moments of doubt and darkness, of longing, of a deeply felt resonance between the rhythms of faith and the rhythms of the natural world — it turns out that all of these things figure, both in the hymnal and in the mythos that is its source, not at all peripherally. Centrally. So, by following my way along what I felt to be the margins of the text — like Chuchundra, the muskrat in The Jungle Book, who creeps around by the wall out of fear — I found myself caught unawares at the centre. The poems read very differently to me now than they did when I wrote them.

Rob: Can you compare your experience with Years, Months, and Days to that of writing your new chapbook, The Temple (Baseline Press, 2018)? The two books are united in that the chapbook is also a rendering of religious song (the text for a new cantata for the Feast of the Presentation). Do you see the two projects as linked?

The Temple
Luke: My process in the writing of The Temple was quite different. It is quite a different book. The two projects were not directly related, though they both have had a life as words for music. The first was commissioned by Inter Arts Matrix as part of a choral work by Colin Labadie, the second by countertenor Daniel Cabena as part of a cantata by Zachary Wadsworth: as such, both projects brought me into meaningful contact with other artists, musicians and composers, whose worlds of art and faith and doubt informed what I ultimately wrote.

But the engagement of Years, Months, and Days is with the texts of specific, German-language Protestant hymns. The Temple engages with the Christian mythos much more generally — but specifically with the mythos, or mythoi, of the Gospels. And I entered this world not from the margins, like Chuchundra, but in the middle, through the experiences of conception and pregnancy and labour and birth and motherhood — in their literal manifestations, and in their imaginal manifestations, also — experiences that are of crucial importance in the Gospels. And I use that word “crucial” advisedly.

The Temple is a story of motherhood, specifically; it is also a story of a woman in love more generally. And it is a story that attempts to bring face to face two knowledges: that of Person in Love, in the largest sense; and that of Person Out of Love, or on Love’s margins — of Mary, the new mother, a woman on the verge of life; and of Simeon, the old prophet, a man on the verge of death.

In his introduction to the letters of John Keats, the critic Lionel Trilling writes:

[In this letter, Keats] has brought his two knowledges face to face, the knowledge of the world of circumstance, of death and cancer, and the knowledge of the world of self, of spirit and creation, and the delight in them. Each seems a whole knowledge considered alone; each is but a half-knowledge when taken with the other; both together constitute a truth.

The Temple is, I think, an effort to constitute — or at least to contemplate (the word is cognate with “temple”) — a truth, in this sense.

Rob: In the afterword of Years, Months, and Days you mention not being religious yourself, and yet here you are with both of these books (Years, Months, and Days and The Temple). What’s up?

Luke: What’s up, I suppose, is that somehow in the writing of Years, Months, and Days and The Temple — not necessarily because of the writing, but through the time in which the writing took place, and beyond it — those words God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit have come to mean something to me.

In a 2001 interview with Michael Carbert, Richard Outram writes:

… when I say I am a theist, one of the things I certainly mean is that I use the word “God” and if I use the word I have to mean something by it. Or stated negatively, I am not an atheist and I am not an agnostic. But here one is plunged into the very dangerous areas of belief and the question of the nature of belief. I use the word God and I mean something by it. I wish to indicate something about myself and about the nature of reality as I understand it by using that term. But I suspect that what I mean when I use the word is not what most people mean when they use the word. I use it with caution, but in a number of different ways, including the ironical and occasionally the satirical, and I feel free to do that in all conscience. But if you are going to use the word in any meaningful terms then it seems to me that you have to do so on a basis of faith …

I think this puts it very well. In the course of the past year, those words — God, Christ, the Holy Spirit — have come to have some application for me, to indicate something about myself and about the nature of reality as I understand it.

“I believe in God” is not an empty phrase: certainly not as it is enshrined, for instance, in the Creed and elsewhere, in the speech acts of ritual. No more is “I do not believe in God.” But both of these phrases taken in isolation are in a language that is, for me, other than the language of faith and doubt. I suppose that poetry is, for me, among other things, the language — or a language — of faith and doubt. Life, too, is such a language.

Rob: “The language of faith and doubt.” Yes! On that theme: having studied both closely now, what do you see as the points of overlap in the Venn Diagram between poetry and hymn? Poetry and prayer? Do you think you’ve always worked in the space between these things?

Luke: There are prayers that are, among other things, great poems — and poems that may have, among other things, application as prayer. But I don’t think I’ve ever seen poetry as prayer, in any simple sense. A prayer is a supplication. A poem is an offering.

The making of a poem — perhaps that can be a kind of prayer. (A prayer for a good poem, say.) Certainly, it can be a meditation, or a form of devotion. But the poem itself? Yes, an offering. Let the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in thy sight: that to me is the poet’s prayer. Or one of ’em.

But poetry does, for me, work in an intrinsically religious space. Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them: although poetry is (certainly for me) a solitary pursuit, there is something inherently communal about it. A poet works in language, that beautiful collaborative construction, the fruit of all the speakers and writers and singers who have come before. So when we work in language, we do not work alone. And we do not, I think, write solely for ourselves: certainly I do not. Even in my deepest solitude there is the sense of an interlocutor, inherent in the words I’m speaking. And because we do not move alone in language, there exists in language that which is beyond ourselves. Whatever we wish to call it.

A hymn can be a poem, or a prayer, but it does not have to work as words on a page, as a written-down poem does; and it does not have to be a supplication. It can be, for instance, a celebration. Or a lament. Certain hymns seem to me to work very well as poems on the page. Others do not. I think there is good (I mean, meaningful) work for poets in trying to make more and better words for music, for use in liturgical contexts. One of my favourite poets, Jay Macpherson — “a hopeless agnostic,” she called herself — did such work, producing new and revised translations for the revised hymnary of the United Church of Canada. But the poems in Years, Months, and Days are not hymns. They are poems. This is another way in which they have been translated.

Rob: Wow – I didn’t know that about Jay Macpherson! My father was a United Church minister, and I’m sure I’ve sung some of those revised hymns.

Earth and Heaven
Your anthology of myth poetry, Earth and Heaven (Fitzhenry and Whiteside, 2015, co-edited with Evan Jones), includes poems on Christian themes alongside poems drawn from Greek and Roman mythology. You’ve, similarly, written poems drawn from both Greek and Christian sources. Do you think differently about what you are doing in each? Does the fact that some are tied to peoples’ spiritual practices shape how you approach them (in writing your own poems and in reading others)? If so, how?

Luke: This is certainly a question with which I’ve wrestled. I’ve taken to heart what Macpherson says about myth and religion:

I think that a mythology that is no longer capable of change and absorbing new layers of possibility is a dead one that can only be studied from books.

So, when a poet makes use of a myth — the myth of Persephone is Macpherson’s example — what we see is not the death of the myth but rather

its stability, its durability, [and] also its metamorphic power, the protean flexibility and, if one can say it, venerean openness that has belonged to the life of such elements since they were fully released from religion into art.

With the Christian mythos, we are working — in 21st century Canada — with elements that I would say have been partially released from religion into art. This makes such elements both peculiarly powerful and peculiarly dangerous, for a poet — and I think the fear and trembling with which I move among such elements has increased, as my sense of their religious freight has increased. But I still move among such elements: I think a poet must. I would even go so far as to say (with fear and trembling) that I consider it a sacred charge.

Rob: “Peculiarly powerful and peculiarly dangerous” – yes, I like that. And the necessity of working in that space.

On to another “sacred charge” in your work: it seems to me that running through all your books is a focus on exploring and reviving the past. Your first book, Groundwork, literally starts in an archaeological dig, and in addition to your book on myth poetry, you’ve also edited or authored books on elder poets Peter Sanger and Richard Outram. Have you always been preoccupied with the past? What do you think is the source of that instinct for you (if an instinct at all)? Is it a reach to say that that instinct is akin to a religious one, in a sense: that desire to preserve and to be preserved?

Luke: I think I’d prefer to think about this as a preoccupation with reality: not so much with that which was but with that which is. The forms that the past takes in the present are many, and include: artifacts buried under the ground, and unearthed; our selves and skins; the texts of poems. That which has been appears to us in the form of that which is: this is fascinating to me.

What moves me as a scholar I think (you mention my work on Sanger and Outram) is not so much a drive to preserve as a drive to recollect: to bring back into being that which has fallen into abeyance. To revive, as you say. Which is I think on some level what we do whenever we read, whenever we remember: we call to mind something that isn’t (or wasn’t) directly before us, whether separate from us in time or space. It is a making-now, a making-present. It is amazing to me that we are able to do this.

Scholarship is also, for me, a form of devotion: in its careful attention there is an ethic. It is a kind of love. I love witty, intelligent literary criticism — reading it is one of my chief pleasures — but the kinds of scholarship that most move me are sometimes the least superficially interesting: bibliography, textual criticism. In attending to the minute particulars of human expression, they attest to the meaning of experience.

Rob: Could you speak a little about the role of Peter Sanger in your writing life? I was struck, in the introduction to Living in the Orchard: The Poetry of Peter Sanger (Frog Hollow, 2014), by how his long-time collaborations with photographer Thaddeus Holownia mirror your collaborations with your husband John Haney (whose woodcuts, as in so many of your books, play a prominent role in Living in the Orchard). You grew up in a literary household, so probably had plenty of role models, but still I wonder if Sanger showed you (both) a path you hadn’t quite seen before?

Luke: I am glad that you have asked this, for it gives me a chance to express my debt of gratitude to Sanger, which is enormous. I hardly know where to begin.

I am writing to you from Wood Point, New Brunswick. I moved here in July, a month and a half ago. It is in some sense a return for me. I was an undergraduate student in nearby Sackville, and I have known this shore, to visit, for more than twenty years. And as an imaginative landscape, too, Wood Point is familiar — from the work of Holownia and Sanger, and also from the work of the poet John Thompson, who preceded both of them here. I hear the voices of these artists very strongly. I have to squint through and past their words and images to see, for instance, the view out my study window. Their voices both conceal it and reveal it.

For example: When I look at the eagle who scans the bay from the lone spruce on the eponymous Wood Point, I see him, or her, through and beyond the eagles that nest in the white pine of Cameron Creek’s intervale, in Sanger’s essay “A Knowledge of Evening.” (And I imagine Sanger squinting to see those eagles through and beyond Blake’s portion of genius — and Blake himself squinting to see an eagle through and beyond the Biblical exhortations to lift up thy face, lift up thy voice, lift up thy prayer…) When I look at the tumbledown blacksmith shop behind the farmhouse from which I write, I see it through and beyond the vanished smithies of Cameron Yard, from Sanger’s Ironworks. When I look at the tidal race of the Bay of Fundy I see it through and beyond the “wide reach of reddish-brown water” from Sanger’s essay “Na: The Carry.”

So, Sanger is everywhere for me, here. But the role he has played in my writing life goes beyond my relationship with this particular landscape, the environs of Fundy. There is his ongoing collaboration and conversation with Holownia, which as you note has modelled for both me and my husband a way of working that embraces solitude and company, meditation and conversation — a way of working grounded in an ethic of close observation and sustained attention. And for me, specifically, Sanger has modelled a kind of writing life that embraces both poetry and criticism, not — or not simply — as antagonists, but as symbionts. Sanger’s poetic sequence Abatos, in Aiken Drum, is a beautiful portrait — a show, as Sanger might say — of the relationship between poet and critic, not just as these two roles may be manifest in separate individuals, but as these two roles may be manifest as aspects of a single personality. From Sanger, too, I think I’ve learned to value what I guess I’d call a certain decorum, in letters. I don’t just mean that in the sense of mannerliness, or a respect for privacies — though it is those, too, in Sanger’s work — but in the sense of “fittingness,” of being able to find the right words for the right time and place. A sense of occasion.

Rob: The back cover of Years, Months, and Days features a quotation from Ange Mlinko, in which she says your poetry is “... Supremely intelligent, and full of love...” How true! And what a rare combination! Too often in our culture, I find intelligence is presented as cold intellect, and love as simple or foolish, detached from deep thought. We posit intelligence as being antithetical to religious thought, also, and our poetry culture regularly praises dense, often-indecipherable poetry as “intelligent” and therefore superior to more “accessible” work which prioritizes direct narrative or feeling (the “A” word having become as close to a curse word as you can get in some circles). I see in your writing both a movement toward religious thought and one away from density — you seem to be embracing a stripped-down language in which sound, shape, and breath take the lead. Combined, these developments feel like a common path away from intellectual “knowing” and toward uncertainty and wonder (“O wake / me from / the sleep / of being / sure.” you write in Years, Months, and Days). Do you see this trajectory in your writing? If so, why do you think this might be?

Luke: Here again I think we are in the presence of two knowledges brought face to face. Love, unchecked, can cause terrible damage; but so too can intelligence, unilluminated. Simone Weil writes that faith is the experience that the intelligence is illuminated by love, and that resonates with me. (In the Christian mythos, God, incarnate as an infant, trusts himself not to intelligence, but to motherlove — or perhaps I should say, to the intelligence of motherlove. This is part of the burden of The Temple.)

I wouldn’t say I strive for accessibility, per se, but I do strive for usefulness. I know, Oscar, all art is quite useless: on one level, I believe that. Poets are not servants of the utile. But on another level I hold with Sanger’s dictum, from his “Some Notes on Poems of Occasion,” a small essay first published in The New Quarterly:

The defining crux of a poet: whether he or she can write a poem of occasion with conviction and inspiration. // Sever poetry from occasion and you sever it from most of life.

I think that it is very meet, to filch again the language of the Book of Common Prayer, that a poet should look to lay her skill at the feet of the human needs “to praise and lament” — these “occasional needs,” as Sanger calls them. Epithalamia, elegies, liturgical words, or words for music …. Not all of my poems fall into these categories, but I think it’s fair to say that many of them do attempt to answer to those occasional needs, in myself and others.

You talk about “uncertainty and wonder”: it seems to me that we have a need for these, too, which is in some sense just as basic as our human needs to praise and lament. Such a need is served sometimes by simplicity, sometimes by complexity. So a poem that is complex and difficult and allusive might be just as “useful,” in a certain time and place, as a poem that is simple and accessible. (Also, simplicity can sometimes be the form in which complexity appears.)

Rob: Usefulness — a new term (and thought) for writers to squirm over!

Ok, last question: you’ve put out as many books in celebration of other writers (a selected, an anthology, a monograph) as you have full-length poetry collections. Was it always a desire of yours to strike that less-than-common (though highly admirable) balance? I ask in part because I now, like you, have kids in the house, and I’ve found myself more drawn to editing and anthology work than I expected I would be, largely because I’m able to do that work in the fits and starts of (foggy-minded) time available to me. It’s a work-around that’s let me stay nestled up to the source. But then another part of me thinks you would have done all this work regardless of the kids — that it’s in your nature to balance creation and curation, work on the self with praise for the other. What are your thoughts on what’s brought you here? Are you surprised, looking back, at the sequence of books you’ve strung together? And do you think you’ll keep the balance going in the future?

Luke: As you note, I grew up in a literary household — my mother a literary editor, my grandfather a newspaper man. What was modeled for me at home, then, was this kind of literary work — editorial, curatorial — in both its critical and nurturing aspects. And also teaching, which has been another part of my life of letters. (Both my parents are teachers.) Such practices, as you note, allow us to stay nestled up to the source (my mother says, just to touch the hem of what I love…). But they are also creative practices in their own right.

My mother is not someone who edits because she can’t write: she is someone for whom editing is a true vocation. The same was true for my grandfather. I think my own vocation is different than theirs. I am a writer. But I have some aptitude for teaching, editing, scholarship. These are things I’ve done sometimes out of a service ethic (something I’ve seen modelled not only by my mother, but by Holownia and Sanger and very many of the artists I’ve admired), and sometimes to earn my bread. But also, as I say above, there is a sense in which poetry and criticism (in its broadest sense, which includes for me scholarship, editing, and teaching) are deeply symbiotic. I have sometimes been graced to participate in this symbiosis. And sometimes — as a person who contains poet, scholar, editor, and teacher — I have felt it at work within myself.

Right now on my desk (figuratively, not literally: literally, there are beach stones and a notebook and several accumulated drinking vessels and many papers and the Book of Common Prayer) there is a book of my own poems, slowly taking shape, and a book of my essays. Posing dandyishly in the wings there is a libretto about Oscar Wilde’s time in Canada which I’m dying to write. There is an unfinished play. And then there is a box of unread manuscripts for me to consider, in my new capacity (or incapacity) as Poetry Editor at Biblioasis; and ongoing work on The Collected Poems of Richard Outram; and new work, in collaboration with the scholar Michael DiSanto, on an edition of George Whalley’s book Poetic Process; and the work of friends… I say “I’m a writer, not a critic,” but really the evidence of my desk is that both have an equal claim upon my heart.


Luke's poetry will quickly have a claim on your heart, so pick up a copy of Years, Months, and Days at your local bookstore, or via the Biblioasis website or, I suppose, from Amazon.