Best Canadian Poetry 2019 is here! (Contributors and Notable Poems)

Best Canadian Poetry 2019
Today marks the official publication day for Best Canadian Poetry 2019! We will be formally launching the book at the Vancouver Writers Fest and Toronto International Festival of Authors on October 26th and 27th, respectively.

It was a great honour to be the guest editor for this edition, and while the vast majority of the reading, and the final selections, did fall upon my shoulders, I was pleased to learn that the making of Best Canadian Poetries (BCPs) is very much a collaborative act.

Series Editor Anita Lahey and Advisory Editor Amanda Jernigan played essential roles in guiding me through the process, and in helping me narrow down an initial list of 170+ poems (from a total of 2,133 read) down to the fifty that made the anthology and the fifty listed in the back of the book as "Notable Poems of 2018" (more on those two lists in a minute). I've rarely experienced a gut check like having Anita or Amanda pause at a poem and say "Why's this one on the list?" After a moment's fluster an answer would either come to me or wouldn't - either way, the decision I needed to make was immediately apparent.

Anita, Amanda and I were greatly assisted by three editors-at-large: Michael Fraser, Laboni Islam, and Fiona Tinwei Lam, who were tasked not with reading everything but with noting poems that jumped out at them in their normal course of reading the country's literary magazines. Those poems received a little extra attention from all of us, and a number of their suggestions ended up in the book.

Keeping all of us on task was BCP Managing Editor Heather Wood, and the wonderful new team at Biblioasis (which, this year, took over the BCP series from Tightrope Books) led by publisher Dan Wells and copy editor Emily Donaldson. And blessing it all from afar, series founder Molly Peacock.

So my point is, yeesh, THANK YOU to everyone who made this possible, and who will continue to make new editions of BCP possible for years to come, while I'm off somewhere doing god-knows-what (but definitely not reading 2,133 poems in a handful of months). As I say in the book's introduction:
To be devoted to poetry requires a devotion to the people who write it and read it, and to the stories they have to tell. Though it may be largely invisible, this string of devotions—authors, editors, publishers, readers, parents, children, spouses, friends, neighbours, strangers—holds together the poems that make up this anthology.
This is especially true for the people mentioned above. And also, of course, for the contributors. That list for 2019 is:

BCP 2019 Contributors 
Colleen Baran, Gary Barwin, Billy-Ray Belcourt, Ali Blythe, Marilyn Bowering, Julie Bruck, Sara Cassidy, Sue Chenette, Chelsea Coupal, Kayla Czaga, Sadiqa de Meijer, Adebe DeRango-Adem, Chris Evans, Beth Follett, Stevie Howell, Danielle Hubbard, Dallas Hunt, Catherine Hunter, Sonnet L’Abbé, Ben Ladouceur, Tess Liem, D.A. Lockhart, Jessie Loyer, Annick MacAskill, Domenica Martinello, Laura Matwichuk, Katie McGarry, Jimmy McInnes, A.F. Moritz, Alexandra Oliver, Alycia Pirmohamed, Marion Quednau, Claudia Coutu Radmore, Shazia Hafiz Ramji, Shaun Robinson, Yusuf Saadi, Rebecca Salazar, Ellie Sawatzky, David Seymour, Kevin Spenst, Mallory Tater, Souvankham Thammavongsa, Russell Thornton, Daniel Scott Tysdal, William Vallières, Katherena Vermette, Douglas Walbourne-Gough, Cara Waterfall, Gillian Wigmore, and Ian Williams.

Oh, I love these poets' poems so much. I can't wait for you to read them (or read them again).

I'm also very happy to share the list of "Notable Poems," the silver medalists in this strange Olympian struggle. My first brush with the BCP series was when a poem of mine was "Noted" in the 2011 edition. I flipped a copy open in a bookstore and was floored. The Other Side of Ourselves had come out earlier that year and in the final edits I'd removed the "Noted" poem from the manuscript! So I felt ridiculous and afloat all at once. I was only beginning to learn the vagaries of literary awards and lists of "Bests": how little one should let these things get to them (be they excluded or included), and how impossible it is to fully manage that.

Priscila Uppal
The 2011 guest editor was Priscila Uppal, who I met for the first time when she came to Vancouver for a BCP 2011 launch. There were only a handful of Vancouver-based BCP contributors that year (I don't want to shock you, but seven of the series' first ten guest editors were Ontario-based!), so I was asked to read as a "Noted" poet. From the stage, I teased Priscila/BCP/the universe about my runner-up status, and though she laughed it off with the good humour she was so known for, I could tell it pained her a bit as well, and I later regretted doing it. In hindsight, I understand her reaction - oh, how you come to love all of these poems and their poets! The arbitrary severing at poem #50 feels unbearably cruel, as does the one at poem #100. So I very much appreciate this chance to recognize the "next 50" poems, which would make just as strong an anthology as the fifty selected. I wish I could have included an "Also Notable Poems" featuring the next 50, too, and another after that, and another after that...

Funnily enough, Priscila herself is on the 2019 "Notable" list. She published a powerful, very funny suite of poems in ottawater not long before she died in September 2018. I agonized over including one of her poems in the anthology, and I wish I could invite her up on stage at one of the BCP 2019 launches to read it. I like to believe she would have teased me mercilessly (as I would have rightly deserved).

To the poets on the "Notable" list (posted below and included in the back of the anthology), I hope you float a bit, as I did in 2011. And I hope you aren't too hard on me for making what is obviously the wrong decision. Where possible, I've provided links to the poems themselves. These poems may not have made the book, but the upside is that you can read them now for free (and, goodness, you should)!

BCP 2019 Notable List

Hugh Anderson “Splitting Wood” Grain 45.2
Chris Banks “The Book of the Dead for Dummies” Taddle Creek 42
Joelle Barron “Ghoul Goblin Ghost” Poetry Is Dead 17
Gwen Benaway “speak” West End Phoenix October 2018
Ronna Bloom “Happiness” Queen’s Quarterly Winter 2018
Tim Bowling “Sweet Sixteen” Queen’s Quarterly Winter 2018
Melanie Boyd “The Falls” Event 47.2
Maggie Burton “Wiping down the counters” Riddle Fence 30
Lucas Crawford “Potential Stops on Our Maritime Bus Tour” Prairie Fire Spring 2018
Molly Cross-Blanchard “First Time Smudge” CV2/Prairie Fire ndncountry Fall 2018
John Degen “To You, Who Gave Me Directions in Greenwich Village” Taddle Creek 41
Jonathan Dyck “On not learning to speak German” Prairie Fire Summer 2018
Victor Enns “Reading Mary Oliver” Prairie Fire Summer 2018
Connie Fife “Edmonton to Regina” CV2/Prairie Fire ndncountry Fall 2018
Adrienne Gruber “Push” The Maynard 11.1
Joy Gyamfi “Moonlight/Sunrise” The Capilano Review 3.34
Matthew Hollett “The Day After the Best Before” The Fiddlehead 275
Doyali Islam “Sites: Mill Road” PRISM Winter 2018
Cellan Jay “Mother” Grain 45.2
Heather L. Kelly “I Was Here” Vallum 15.1
Paula Kienapple-Summers “Onion Skins and Brushing Hair” Existere 37.2
Lynn Knight “The Remedy” The Dalhousie Review Summer 2018
Aaron Kreuter “Cousinage, A Meet Cute” Pithead Chapel 7.7
Jeff Latosik “Pack” The Walrus April 2018
Evelyn Lau “You Are Here” The Fiddlehead 275
Nancy Lee “No Place for a Heart” The Puritan 41
Alex Leslie “The Purity Detector” Arc Poetry Magazine Summer 2018
Julie Mannell “For the Sake of Transparency #UBCAccountable” The Fiddlehead 276
Dave Margoshes “Dictionary of Small” The New Quarterly 145
Steve McOrmond “The Epistemology of Balloons” New Poetry March 7, 2018
Alessandra Nacaratto “Homestead” Room 41.3
Zara Neukom “My Mother’s Body” Glass Buffalo Fall 2018
Rebecca Păpucaru “The Panic Room (Glue Ear at Forty-Five)” The New Quarterly 146
Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha “Parliaments on the Stoop” Room 41.3
Mia Poirier “les enfants des francophones” Room 42.2
Jason Purcell “I Go Over It Again” Glass Buffalo Winter 2018
Shannon Quinn “Lousy Guide to Awful Goodbyes” CV2 Winter 2018
kerry rawlinson “Savage Lands” Literary Review of Canada April 2018
Brent Raycroft “Ghost” Vallum 15.1
Robin Richardson “The Afterlife and All That” Riddle Fence 29
Lisa Richter “Theory of Loneliness” Minola Review 19
Jane Riordan “The Buoy Line” The Malahat Review 203
Adam Sol “Butcher” The Fiddlehead 276
Waaseyaa’sin Christine Sy “go-” CV2/Prairie Fire ndncountry Fall 2018
Anny Tang “birthright” The Malahat Review 203
Richard Teleky “6:20 am” The New Quarterly 146
Kim Trainor “Little Mountain” The Antigonish Review 194
Priscila Uppal “Poetry” ottawater 14
Sarah Wolfson “Apples” The Fiddlehead 274
Catriona Wright “Apprenticeship” The Fiddlehead 276

Please do pick up a copy of Best Canadian Poetry 2019, and if you're in Vancouver or Toronto, I'd love to see you at one of this weekend's launches!


Poems + THANKS

It's been a couple years since I last posted about poems of mine which have snuck out into the world via one magazine or another.

In addition to the sample poems from my new chapbook, The Green Waves: Poems from Roblin Lake, two other poems of mine appeared online recently:

Juniper: A Poetry Journal, Summer 2019 (Issue 3.1): "The Baffled King"

A poem about the boy's wonderful imagination, featuring everyone's favourite Leonard Cohen song.

Thank you so much to Juniper for featuring the poem!

Train: a poetry journal, Fall 2019: "Love, fidelity, etc."

A poem about my sneaky, sneaky wedding ring.

Two other poems of mine, “Vancouver” and “What Wisdom’s In Wisdom Recorded?” were just published in the sixth issue of Train's print edition. You can order a copy of that (for the absurd price of $4!) here.

Thank you all around to Train  for their support!

Speaking of print editions, I've got a few poems out or coming along in those fancy paper magazines that you have to go out and buy in the physical realm:

Hayo, Spring 2018 (#3): "18:00"

I was very grateful to have a poem I wrote about living in rural northern Zambia featured in Hayo's "North" issue.

This poem had been published once before in The Cascadia Review. You can read it on their website here.

Thank you to both magazines for their support of this little poem!

Vallum, Fall 2019 (16:2): "The Artist"

A poem about the boy's imagination (are you noticing a trend?) - this time how he used it to freak himself out while playing with a remote control T-Rex. I rarely find my poems fit into themed submission calls, but this one lined up perfectly with the issue's "Fear" theme.

Thank you Vallum-folk, one and all!

The New Quarterly,  Fall 2018 (#148): "What did you dream about?"

You can actually view this one online if you have a subscription to the magazine. This one's another poem about the boy's imagination, though this time his dormant one, "What did you dream about?" was a runner-up in The New Quarterly's Nick Blatchford Occasional Verse Competition.

I also have two poems forthcoming in the Fall 2019 issue of The New Quarterly (again runners-up in the Nick Blatchford contest). Their titles are "Transmission Tower" and "The Commons" and only one of them is about the boy, and that one is only partially about his imagination. So I think I'm getting myself back under control on that front.

Thank you to The New Quarterly for being so damn terrific and giving me some space in the magazine!


A Little Retreat in Myself: An Interview with Matthew Walsh

Cargo memories - Matthew Walsh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


The Green Waves: Poems from Roblin Lake

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

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

Here are three sample poems:

County Roads
Last Embers

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

The blurbs:

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

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

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

—Bola Opaleke, author of Skeleton of a Ruined Song

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

—Bren Simmers, author of Narratives of the Lost

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

—Anna Swanson, author of The Nights Also

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

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


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

Nobody Does This On Purpose - Emily Davidson

I have been keeping my virginity
like the special occasion dishes

the company tablecloth

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

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

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

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

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

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

it is something to be
bright white and monstrous.

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


Best Canadian Poetry Launches - Vancouver and Toronto!

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

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

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

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


some kind of honest submission to life

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

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

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