Dew on the Hummingbird's Wing: An Interview with Yvonne Blomer

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

Sounds A River Makes – Claire Caldwell

Gas leak, ventilator, bear clicking its teeth.

Twelve hundred caribou hooves on frost.

Lips around bottle, bottle clinking

on bar. Rattling aspen, dusky grouse,

sheets drying outside. Grandmas

stuffing envelopes in a high school gym.

Sex in a sleeping bag, house on fire.

A children’s choir after one kid

has fainted.

Reprinted with permission from 
Sweet Water: Poems for the Watershed, ed. Yvonne Blomer
(Caitlin Press, 2020).

Rob Taylor: Sweet Water: Poems for the Watersheds is part two in your “Waterways Trilogy” of poetry anthologies on our oceans, lakes, rivers and drinking water. “Trilogies” are usually reserved for blockbuster movie franchises, not poetry anthologies! Could you talk about coming up with the idea and pitching it to Vici Johnstone at Caitlin Press? Did it take much convincing to get her on board with such an ambitious project?

Yvonne Blomer: It’s true, we don’t often think of poetry anthologies or poetry books as genres that conform to trilogies or series, and this series didn’t begin as such. It began as a single book, Refugium: Poems for the Pacific.

Much of what has led me here, to editing a second, and a third in the future, began with the first book and my sense of responsibility and curiosity as to how to define, for myself, the political and public role of Poet Laureate. I had decided, when I became Victoria’s Poet Laureate in 2015, that my focus would be on the Pacific Ocean. I made a list of possible publishers and started with Caitlin Press. Vici said yes right away. Vici was superb to work with and the book(s) fit into Caitlin Presses publishing mandate.

Joe Denham is in Refugium and he and I were discussing which of his poems to include (I chose his octopus poem “Gutting” because it is so very horrific) and he put forward the idea that his poetry books are a trilogy of books on a similar theme. Some of the poets in Refugium wondered if I’d do another, and with his trilogy in my mind, I broached the subject with Vici. We planned out the timeline and began to move forward on book two: Sweet Water: Poems for the Watersheds.

Refugium was and continues to be an important book. I find it incredibly difficult to assess the success of a book beyond sales, but I feel like a lot of good conversations have been borne from Refugium. Despite the setbacks, and necessary setbacks at that due to our current pandemic and safety measures, I feel Sweet Water can be important too.

Rob: Absolutely! Because of the pandemic’s distancing measures, I feel like there’s increasing value in physical books that connect writers and readers on subjects that are vital to our existence. My hope is that this pandemic will shift how we think about all the essential elements of life that we take for granted. On that: though you wrote the introduction to Sweet Water pre-COVID-19, you note there that a shift in how we talk about climate change and the environment was already underway.

You write that in the three years since the publication of Refugium, the defeat of the Conservative government has allowed scientists to speak more freely and vocal young activists (like Autumn Peltier and Greta Thunberg) have helped change the national conversation. As you put it, “while Refugium may have been just ahead of its time, Sweet Water arrives midstream.”

What effect did being “midstream” have on both the volume and the nature of the submissions themselves? What effect did it have on what you wanted to accomplish with the book?

Yvonne: This is a good question. It is also large and perhaps hard to measure how coming in at the height, perhaps, of the climate crisis and our awareness of the water crisis will affect the book. Probably there are still people not thinking about water conservation at all. So perhaps to them, if they flip open the book, drawn to it by the cover no doubt, they may pause. A moment’s pause can create an immense change in a person, and it’s those pauses that poetry tries to grasp and perhaps seize.

I’m not sure that our stage in the climate crisis influenced my selection process, though it may have influenced the poets in what they wrote and how they approached the subjects. In both books I hoped to remain very open to what I read, and in this one I was open to varying ways of contemplating and considering “watershed.” I didn’t go in with a firm plan, even after I’d edited the first book, but with my mind and my reading tuned to water and watersheds and definitions of those things. Tuned to definitions of the natural world. I wanted the human to be natural as well. I wanted a broad scope throughout the book, with poems that were specific. I felt less sure of the concept of watershed myself, compared to the Pacific Ocean, though both of these entities are vast and uncontainable.

I do wonder, now, today in early April, how our current state will affect the environmental movement. I delight in noting recovery in the ocean and its mammals and fish from a reduction in human movement. I delight in clearing skies and a reduction in emissions. I noticed that when coffee shops could no longer use reusable cups – which I agree with – I couldn’t bring myself to get takeout coffee. We can’t use reusable shopping bags now, so how is that for plastic reduction in the world? We are washing our hands more, our clothes, no doubt, too. How is that for water conservation? I’m curious to know where the environment stands during the COVID-19 outbreak and where it will stand afterward.

Rob: I love the mix of big, abstract, thoughts and simple tangible realities in that response. Our considerations of the environment/climate change so often boomerang between the two. In your introduction, you quote Simone Weil: “The poet produces the beautiful by fixing attention on something real.” What role does beauty play in an anthology with explicitly political/abstract goals? In picking poems, did you ever feel the need to prioritize politics over beauty, or vice-versa?

Yvonne: In picking the poems I tried to prioritize poetry over lines of words and images. I worry as I write this that I sound snobbish or close-minded or closed to experimentation, but I hope I am not. I am open to play with language and line, to awkwardness and strangeness, but I feel that poetry is a specific form of writing and that some of the pieces that came in faltered either by being overwhelmed by the subject or by being too didactic, which can lead to a piece of writing that is perhaps not a poem and is also too overtly political. I think writing poems is hard and writing about a specific subject is perhaps particularly difficult. I think the poet and the poem can drown in the details. The artistry, and craft, can get lost. Much of it comes down to creating a poem that hones in on something specific rather than trying to capture the whole idea of watershed in a few lines. The Weil quote, for me, the heart of that quote, is “fixing attention” and through attention, finding the one moment or small part of the larger, to focus the eye and the poem.

Rob: On this theme of “fixing attention,” your most recent poetry collection, As If a Raven, has its attention fixed on birds, not just writ large, but in their particulars. It dwells in birds and goes to lengths to name them (the first poem of the book, for instance, lists seven different varieties of cormorants, from Pelagic to Olivaceous). That book opens with a quote from Tim Lilburn which reads, in part “The Western religious regard for the world often seems to amount to an attention to the world that thrusts the world aside to grasp the presumed light within.”

Confronting that idea — that in the West we reach past, instead of seeing, what’s in front of us – seems central to this trilogy of anthologies, which asks us over and over to look closely at the natural world. And yet, at the same time, isn’t poetry always, in some way, a grasping for the presumed light within? Are there limits to how much poetry can bring us into attention toward the natural world? If so, what role do you hope for these anthologies to play, knowing their limitations?

Yvonne: I guess the dream of poetry is that it catches a reader and that reader’s pulse slows a bit and they enter the poem and see the thing in the poem. A book with 110 voices maybe has higher odds (do we play in odds with poetry?) of catching a reader because the poems come from so many places and voices. Something will stick. The idea from Lilburn of “thrusting the world aside to grasp the presumed light within” is very much an issue with poetry. What is the light (or meaning, in a metaphorical sense) to that which I’m seeing before me? Why can’t we just see the river and let the river be? This is a hard thing. I think in Sweet Water we have a gathering of multiple ways of seeing water, and some are metaphorical and so see the light below the water, if I read Lilburn’s quote in this way. Some see the water for what it is, in all its essential glory.

Rob: After all that time with the birds of As If a Raven, why did you take on water next, and why (beyond simply being Victoria’s Poet Laureate and needing a project) did you take it on in anthologies and not a themed book of your own poetry?

Yvonne: One of the great things about an anthology is there is no underlying cringe or worry about the poems, once they are selected and fretted over. There’s no fear of being too proud. I’m all in. With my own work, I’m more trepidatious. As Poet Laureate I took the notion of bringing poetry to unusual places and bringing more people to more poetry very seriously. It was the water on which I floated, so the anthology came out of that responsibility. I was surprised by the responsibility I felt as a poet in a political role when I became Poet Laureate, so Refugium seemed to fulfill that responsibility and it fit into my own desires and beliefs and frustrations for the Pacific Ocean.

I am also working on my own book of environmental poems. A selection won the Leaf Press 2017 Overleaf Chapbook Manuscript Competition and was published as the chapbook Elegies for Earth. But these days there are many poetry books focused on the environment, so I’m not sure that’s something I absolutely need to do. I like the anthologies for their many ways of seeing and speaking on water, rather than my one voice.

Birds, both of salt and fresh water, are incredibly endangered. As if a Raven began as my Master’s thesis and as I was writing and researching I often had the passing thought of a second book — there is so much in the mythology of birds, in how we use and abuse them to find our own meanings — which of course is Lilburn’s light behind/within the idea of bird, rather than seeing the real bird. I think by the end I felt guilty and weary of not seeing birds for the wild creatures they are when my whole intent had been to question their use in mythology. I too created metaphors and myths out of them, rather than trying to truly see them as they are. I do still write of birds, though, and their imperilled existence due to our egotistical ways.

Rob: I know this is an extremely cruel question, but could you talk about one poem from the anthology that jumps out to you as representing something important that’s happening in the book?

Yvonne: Ugh. It’s like asking me which kid I love best… I only have one kid.

Rob: Ha! It should be easy then!

Yvonne: Ok, I will speak of George Szirtes’ poem, “Water,” not necessarily as a favourite but as a representational poem. It begins the book, and first appears in his 2004 collection Reel, which won the T.S. Eliot Prize. I was his student at UEA in Norwich, UK and my memory of the award night is conflated with the Boxing Day tsunami that caused so much destruction and cost the lives of over 200,000 people. A group of us students travelled to the Eliot awards in London and George read that poem. I was utterly captured in a moment where I was mourning the human loss and devastation from the tsunami, one of the deadliest natural disasters in recorded history. Its reverberations were felt on the beaches of Malaysia and Thailand, two countries I had cycled through years earlier. The poem captured the awe and power of water in a time when we were mourning the effects of that power. I wanted George’s poem in the book for this very reason – to remind us that we are not in control, and that for us to continue to believe we are is beyond egotistical and arrogant. Yet the poem contains in it such simplicity, and beauty in that moment of water “arching its back,” caught by the poet’s eye. The poem itself may not have a political will, but it contains political reverberation, and for me that is essential.

For many of the poems in Sweet Water I can hear the poet’s voices in my head. Or I can recall working with the poets: one a grade 12 student who tweaked her piece with me; others I worked with to help focus and refine their already strong poems; some pieces I asked for specifically because I wanted cities in the book, and boreal forest, fires, and poisons. There is a thread of feminist poems and that is important to me as a female writer and a feminist, so perhaps the other poem I’ll highlight is…

No, it’s too hard. I have flipped through, I have landed and reread. All I can say is read the book. Write in the margins, argue with the poems, write counter poems and response poems. I love them all.

Rob: Your answer re: Szirtes’ poem was lovely. Still, I promise not to torture you like that again! Let’s stick to talking about anthologies writ large.

We’re in the middle of a “boom time” for anthologies published by BC presses, including Arsenal Pulp’s Hustling Verse, Harbour’s Beyond Forgetting, Anvil’s The Revolving City and many more. No one is championing the anthology more, though, than Caitlin Press, which in recent years has put out BIG, Rising Tides, Body & Soul, Swelling with Pride, Love Me True, Making Room, Boobs and In Fine Form. Prior to the “Waterways Trilogy,” you co-edited the anthology Poems for Planet Earth, so you’re in your own anthology “boom time,” too! What do you love about anthologies, and what role do you think they play in our larger literary culture?

Yvonne: It’s interesting because often anthologies do not sell as well, yet the desire to bring voices together is compelling. Literary journals are a kind of anthology, too. I think writers, and particularly poets, are lonely creatures who work in their small spaces talking to themselves (I certainly do…), so when a book can pull in many voices and let them talk to each other, I think a kind of magic happens.

Working with the 110 poets here has been a phenomenal experience in community building outside of the conversations held by the actual poems. As with how we’ve come together at this particular time in world history to protect ourselves from a virus, we must come together and communicate for the ecology of the planet, too.

Zach Wells recently posted on Facebook that he received his copy and that he has an old poem in the book. Poetry does not care how old it is. Water is ancient. Conversations that writers began over two thousand years ago, continue today.

In anthologies like Refugium and Sweet Water varied voices and perspectives bounce off each other. Just now I was trying to choose a favourite and I came to page 162-163 with Elee Kraljii Gardiner’s poem “Exorcise” on the left and Aaron Kreuter’s “Hydrophobia” on the right. Elee’s is about running in a forest, a watershed forest. It is a feminist poem: the female voice will not speak to men because rage builds in her as she runs, rage at all the fears and frustrations caused by bad men, by arrogance and can-do attitudes. Aaron’s poem comes from an utterly different space and place except for the fear: in his poem it is fear of water and all that lurks within it. How is Aaron’s poem read differently after Elee’s? What if I flip from Brent Raycroft’s “Blue Roof” to Aaron’s, how might that alter how I read his, or Brent’s or any other poem before or after? This is an anthology. Shifts in tone and voice awaken the reader, language builds, mood deepens or completely turns around.

Rob: I love that idea of each poem rearranging the next on some quasi-molecular level (though I, too, am a serial anthologist, so perhaps I’m biased). But as a fellow serial anthologist, I can appreciate how much work goes into making a book like this. Many people don’t have a sense of it, including those inside our industry (a small example: the Canada Council’s Public Lending Rights program only credits anthologists as the creators of their anthologies if their introductions are over 10 pages long – as if the introductions were the most demanding part!). How do you think the work involved in pulling together an anthology compares to the work of writing and assembling your own poetry collection, both in the effort involved and the nature of that effort?

Yvonne: Yes, it is a shame that more funds can’t be provided for editors of anthologies and that Public Lending Rights doesn’t acknowledge the work in curating a book in the way an anthology editor does. It is a lot of work and it takes time. I recently helped with a chapbook with nine poets and I jokingly called myself Poet Wrangler. Perhaps the Canada Council should have a special grant for Wranglers in the Literary Field to acknowledge this work. I think publishers also could use more support for anthologies, as from the publisher’s perspective, an anthology is a whole lot of writers from whom contracts must be gathered and cheques or books sent out. They add a fleet of people to track, that individual books do not.

There are so many more people involved in an anthology and the pressure on the editor has a unique texture to it. The editor carries each poem and poet’s words, and is ultimately responsible for the shape of those words being set in an object, a book. The selection process can be difficult. I know many of those who submitted, making the rejections even harder. There is an immense obligation to do the work and get on with it. Sweet Water took longer than I anticipated. With my own books, of course, there is no pressure to ever finish and I think that adds an element to the process, you have to keep yourself on track rather than keeping other people on track or being responsible to others to stay on track.

Also, I miss a lot of errors or blips in my own work but I am good at seeing them in other people’s, which defines the role of editor and shows why it is so important.

Rob: In addition to your work as an anthologist, you organized poets as the long-time coordinator of the Planet Earth Poetry reading series in Victoria. In what ways did that work prepare you for your work as an anthologist? What do you see as the main differences between these two curatorial processes (beyond the obvious ones!)?

Yvonne: I think I would not have become an editor without Planet Earth Poetry, where in a sense I was a curator, or “impresario” as Patrick Lane always called me. In 2000 my husband and I, newly returned from Japan, decided to go out to a poetry event we’d seen in Monday Magazine called “Mocambo Poetry.” From then on, I was hooked into a community created by Wendy Morton and others. That community shaped me into a writer who doesn’t just write her own work, but who champions other writers and causes. I got to know a lot of poets across the country from bringing them to Victoria and that gave me a lot of people to invite to submit to Poems for Planet Earth, my first anthology. Cynthia Woodman Kerkham came on board to help with selection and was a great co-editor and continues to be a great friend. I love the Neil Astley anthology Staying Alive. Cynthia and I decided to organized PEP’s anthology in a similar way, but we also wanted to capture a night at Planet Earth Poetry. By that I mean there are often 12-14 open mic-ers and two featured readers and on any wild night the poems create connections, like tiny roots weaving through the room: some microscopic, some large enough to hold a Garry Oak.

My faith in my ability to put together a book came from my experience in assembling the series for for nigh on ten years, both from getting to know so many poets from across Canada and the more mundane skills of organizing a whole year, filling in grant application, doing the scheduling, communicating with a lot of people over several months, etc. All those skills have helped me in numerous ways beyond building anthologies.

Rob: In addition to the poems, this book teems with epigraphs and quotes! Many of them are drawn from scientific sources or writers who have focused on water, such as Maude Barlow (author of many books on the future of water, including Blue Gold and the recent Whose Water Is It, Anyway?). Beyond the contributors, what books or authors helped you frame your thinking about water and the anthology’s approach to it?

Yvonne: Because of my concern for the environment, for water systems and species that rely on them, I have been reading and pondering both ocean and fresh water for a while. For Refugium, one book in particular was Dancing at the Dead Sea by Alanna Mitchell. The Pacific Ocean, vast as it is, is a single entity, but oceans and seas cover most of the planet. For Sweet Water, I spent time deepening my understanding of how our planet’s essential water systems work. It is important to have a broad understanding in order to not have that awful Imposter Feeling that can come with new projects. Despite the fact that I am not a scientist, through editing these books I have a much better understanding of water and how it moves on and below the earth.

As for other books or authors who helped me frame my thinking: Rita Wong, of course. The Council of Canadians website as well as papers published by the UN on climate and water. Jan Zwicky and Robert Bringhurst’s book Learning to Die: Wisdom in the Age of Climate Crisis is still within reach and was a kind of essential text. I read a lot of poets. I read a lot of Seamus Heaney. I read at the Whistler Writers Festival and Maude Barlow was a speaker. She knew her subject so well and devastated me again and in multiple ways about water. After having her sign my book, I bravely gave her a postcard for Sweet Water and a copy of Refugium, then emailed her to ask for a blurb.

Rob: Speaking of voices you brought into the book, Philip Kevin Paul opens Sweet Water with an excellent foreword. In it he notes that when we visit bodies of water we can come away “touched for a time, and held in the shape that we might truly accept, for once, ourselves.” Beyond the immediate politics, how has editing these anthologies influenced your thinking about your body (surrounded by water and composed more of water than anything else) and your wider self?

Yvonne: It’s a great honour to have Kevin’s introduction in the book. He and I worked together in a magical state of close listening, emails and phone calls. I so appreciate his voice and his presence in the world.

“During my pregnancy, I became a swimming pool with eight extra litres of water that I imagined my son swimming in.”

For my own part, I really don’t want to touch anything on this planet anymore. I don’t want to make a path or mark with a footprint. I cringe at our impact. With COVID-19 I’ve felt a shift in myself, that maybe after this, rather than a return, there will be some recovery for the planet, and I won’t feel ashamed to dip my feet in a lake. While I revel in the beauty of humanity, I worry humans are a poison. During my pregnancy, I became a swimming pool with eight extra litres of water that I imagined my son swimming in. When I think of that, I understand that we too are watershed. If my back garden is part of the natural world because there are plants and birds and things made of wood, is a fire hydrant? How about a well? Or a slough dug for water drainage? I want to better understand how humans can be part of the natural world, rather than constantly butting our heads and machines against it.

I think the first ghazal in Elegies for Earth (Leaf Press, 2017) speaks to this:

Ghazal 1

In the middle of the end you begin to make lists. Again.
Sea stars. Coral. Bull kelp. The American Avocet.

On a bicycle riding uphill among trees, lost or close to, you plot
a route to coast. Light through leaves. Morse code that could be expressive.

Something about speed and time. Loss, or tread’s rumble on road.
You tire of marring the earth. Rust caught in the scent of spring. Rot.

Somewhere, substance, a lifeform to grip. The moon evaporates with the tide.
Rain and you, thirsty for the green dark.

If the crow steals the murder weapon? If the bicycle is no longer enough?
At the top of your lungs sing … dew on the hummingbird’s wing.

Rob: Can you tell us anything about book number three of the trilogy?

Yvonne: Yes. We are all recovering, and holding our places for the future when the machine of humans revs back into action (May we learn from this how to protect what is precious!), but when that happens the book will focus on the Atlantic Ocean (may cruise ships be forever in a state of demise) and the flora and fauna of it.

Water – George Szirtes

The hard beautiful rules of water are these:
That it shall rise with displacement as a man
does not, nor his family. That it shall have no plan
or subterfuge. That in the cold, it shall freeze;
in the heat, turn to steam. That it shall carry disease
and bright brilliant fish in river and ocean.
That it shall roar or meander through metropolitan
districts whilst reflecting skies, buildings and trees.

And it shall clean and refresh us even as we slave
over stone tubs or cower in a shelter or run
into the arms of a loved one in some desperate quarter
where the rats too are running. That it shall have
dominion. That it shall arch its back in the sun
only according to the hard rules of water.

Reprinted with permission from 
Sweet Water: Poems for the Watershed, ed. Yvonne Blomer
(Caitlin Press, 2020).

Yvonne Blomer is the author of a travel memoir Sugar Ride: Cycling from Hanoi to Kuala Lumpur, and three books of poetry, as well as an editor, teacher and mentor in poetry and memoir. She served as the city of Victoria poet laureate from 2015-2018. In 2018 Yvonne was the Artist-in-Residence at the Robert Bateman Centre and created Ravine, Mouse, a Bird’s Beak, a chapbook of ekphrastic ecological poetry in response to Bateman’s art. In 2017 Yvonne edited the anthology Refugium: Poems for the Pacific (Caitlin Press) with poets responding to their connection to the Pacific from the west coast of North America, and as far away as Japan and New Zealand. Sweet Water: Poems for the Watersheds is the second in a trilogy of water-based poetry anthologies coming out with Caitlin Press. She lives, works and raises her family on the traditional territories of the WSÁNEĆ (Saanich), Lkwungen (Songhees), Wyomilth (Esquimalt) peoples of the Coast Salish Nation. She gives thanks for the privilege of water.


Visible and Unmistakable: An Interview with Kyla Jamieson

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

Self-Image So Far – Kyla Jamieson

Like the allegory
Of the cave but a girl
Seeing only her shadow
On the bottom
Of the outdoor pool
Never the pattern of light
Rippling across her back.

Reprinted with permission from 
Body Count by Kyla Jamieson
(Nightwood Editions, 2020).

Rob Taylor: The second half of Body Count is centred around, and transformed by, a concussion you experienced. You write about “lying / in bed with a two- / week headache / bored & lonely / while everything / happens in sound / waves around me / & I can’t even / write a good / poem.” How did that inability to write, and do much of anything, affect the trajectory of your writing? What kind of a book do you think you would have written had the concussion not happened?

Kyla Jamieson: There’s no simple answer, because writing and living are so intricately entwined, and my concussion has impacted, and continues to impact, every aspect of my life — it leaves nothing untouched.

One thing that happens in the second half of my book is that the texture of time changes as I shift from living on normative time to living on sick time. Alongside that shift, my focus narrows, because when I wrote these poems my world was constricting around me. With the loss of my peripheral vision, my area of vision became smaller, and my headaches felt like my skull was contracting around my brain. I was housebound most of the time, and this was before pandemic-era Zoom brunches, so both my social circle and the physical space I occupied narrowed.

For a long time, the furthest I’d get from my apartment was four blocks, when I’d go for walks on this walking route I developed that avoids traffic noise and has crossing lights at the busy intersections. It’s scary to cross the street without peripheral vision, especially when drivers and cyclists think you look “fine” and that you’ll be able to see them or to move out of the way. Meanwhile, I didn’t have the reading capacity to roam around the internet, either. My capacity to travel both physically and mentally was altered.

So many people read as part of their writing processes. What happens to your writing when reading’s not an option? What happens when physical and virtual worlds are inaccessible to you? What happens when what brought you pleasure — sunshine, reading, movement, conversation — brings you pain, or is unavailable to you? The second half of Body Count is my answer to these questions. If it weren’t for my concussion, I would have been asking and answering different questions.

Rob: You mentioned our sudden new era of Zoom brunches. I think a lot of people who have gone through a major event in their personal life, as you have with your concussion and recovery, are finding it surreal to watch everyone collectively deal with the upheaval of the COVID-19 outbreak, having experienced their own upheaval, alone, previously. How are you doing? In what ways do you see overlaps between what you experienced recovering from your concussion and what we are witnessing and experiencing now?

Kyla: Isolation is not new to me. Getting groceries only once a week or once every two weeks is not new to me. Being unable to leave the house or see people and being unable to access basic healthcare is not new to me. I already know how the light falls inside my apartment at all times of days and in all seasons. It’s been three years since my injury, and symptom management is still my primary occupation.

I can see how this might sound bleak, but isolation has been my reality, and I’ve found ways to live within the restrictions my disability imposed, rather than waiting for it to be over so I could go back to “normal.” Right now, I see people questioning normalcy and who the status quo serves more than ever. Crisis can force re-examinings, it can be generative, but the cost can be unbearably high.

If I may, a few pandemic pieces by disabled writers that I’d recommend: this Grazia essay by Mimi Butlin — filed under “Health & Fitness,” because the perspectives of chronically ill folks are now considered relevant instead of fringe; this Vice piece featuring Sharona Franklin, the artist behind one of my favourite disability-related instagram accounts, @hot.crip; and Liz Bowen’s newsletter from New York.

Rob: Yes, of course! Thank you so much for those links, and for bringing in new ways of looking at and thinking about the world. Your book does a lot of that, too. In “I’m Not Better I’m Just Less Dead” you write “I have nothing / to offer Literature / or Capitalism / not even a body / just an illness.” Similarly, you write in a subsequent poem “Has illness / made me more / or less human?” All of that struck me, the separating of the body, the self and the illness, each influencing the other but apart from it. It made me think about “me” in a different way. Which of those parts (the body, the self, the illness) do you consider “you” and which feel outside of “you”? From which do you think these poems emerged?

Kyla: I think I was working at the Prose Editor at PRISM international when I wrote that first poem, but I could barely read, and I was hiding the extent of my symptoms because I didn’t want to lose my job. I couldn’t review books, I couldn’t host or attend events, I couldn’t hang out with other writers or read their work. The amount of labour I could do, either intellectually or physically, was really limited. And so much of the messaging we receive, implicitly and explicitly, is that our value is rooted in our productivity, our ability to labour in particular ways and under particular conditions. That’s part of the reasoning used to justify and perpetuate ableism.

When I became disabled, I simultaneously became less useful to capitalism (except insofar as I was spending everything I had on rehabilitation) and some of the people around me, and more useful to myself and the people who understood me. I think the self is the core, but it can’t be cleaved from the body, or the ways illness imposes itself on that body. These poems came from a need to make that imposition visible, and unmistakable.

Rob: You and Kayla Czaga have a little back-and-forth going in your two books. A section of Czaga’s Dunk Tank is written to you and the second poem of Body Count is a reply from you entitled “Dear Kayla.” Czaga opens her sequence with the lines “You told me the epistolary form broke / your silence, Kyla,” and your devotion to poems-as-letters is borne out in Body Count, which features poems written directly to Czaga, and also “Adèle” (Barclay, I assume), “Frank,” “Libby,” etc.

How did the epistolary form help “break your silence”? What does writing directly to a particular reader allow you to do in your poems that otherwise feels elusive or impossible? When you write non-epistolary poems, do you still have a particular reader in mind?

Kyla: Before my poems-as-letters there were emails-as-letters: over the course of about a year my platonic life partner Libby and I each wrote 70,000 words to each other. About the present, the past, our thoughts, our bodies, our lives. Writing to someone who knew me and understood me was what allowed me to find a sense of freedom in my writing again after years of stultifying creative writing workshops. Feeling like I didn’t have to defend myself, or convince anyone to be interested in what I was saying, being able to explore rather than explain, and knowing my reader cared about me—all of that was transformative for me.

In her book Love Speech, Xiao Xuan/Sherry Huang writes, “the moment of address is the tear in the air we need to get going.” I think there’s an energy that comes from addressing someone. The poem has the energy of conversation. Of trust or sometimes transgression. It’s intimate, it feels private but you have permission to be there. Whenever I write a poem, I’m writing it for the person who’s going to get it. I’m not interested in writing towards anyone I have to impress, or protect myself from, or perform my pain for, because I’m not interested in being vulnerable within that kind of dynamic.

Rob: As mentioned, one of the people you address in Body Count is the poet Adèle Barclay. She not only appears in poems in Body Count, but she also edited your chapbook, Kind of Animal, which was published last year by Rahila’s Ghost Press. Can you talk about Adèle’s role in making this book happen, both in terms of her editorial work on the chapbook (many poems from which appear in Body Count) and otherwise?

Kyla: Adèle is phenomenal — as a writer, an editor, a mentor, and a friend. I interviewed her years and years ago, and she shared something Brenda Shaughnessy had said to her: “She said not to worry about trying to fit in because in a few years poets are going to want to fit in with me.” It was so important to me to know that you could not fit in and still get a book published and have that book do well, because at the time I was in my MFA but I was not getting published, I was not being encouraged in the direction of my interests by my professors, I didn’t fit into CanLit, and I didn’t really want to, either. I looked around me, and it seemed like the people with book contracts weren’t necessarily better poets than the people without them—they were just the ones who kept going, who wrote enough to put a manuscript together.

I think that’s when it clicked for me that it didn’t really matter what my professors thought of my work. I could move in my own direction, and if I could be my own source of encouragement, and dedicate myself to my own vision, I could have a chance at a book deal, too. I sort of said to myself, “I’m going to put a manuscript together, and then people can reject it. But I’m not going to let the expectation of rejection, or other people not understanding or supporting what I’m doing, stop me before I even get to that point.” I made that decision after I’d let other people’s criticism inhibit my work in a really big way, because I knew I didn’t want to repeat that cycle. Adèle had also gone through trying times in academia, and seeing her move beyond those obstacles and prove that loyalty to your own vision can pay off gave me hope.

Rob: You talk openly about your trying times in academia in Body Count. In “F for Effort” you write about a mentor who wanted you to be “great / I guess like america?” and you later note “I don’t think / I’m trying / to learn what / they’re trying / to teach me.” The competition and careerism of grad school writing programs can often be disorienting, especially for poets who I think understand more intuitively (or at least ought to) that the rewards of the writing life are far removed from the book sales, awards or accolades. Can you talk more about the gulf between what you wanted out of your education in writing, and what was offered?

Kyla: Those lines in “F for Effort” reflect on working with American mentors I had at the Banff Centre who were very successful, established novelists. I felt like they wanted me to aspire to greatness, when all I wanted was to not feel triggered all the time. They weren’t malicious at all. I think a lot of it was rooted in differences between American and Canadian literary culture, but it did echo this feeling I had at UBC that the spaces I hoped to find inspiration and guidance in weren’t going to come through for me in the ways I’d expected them to.

During my MFA, competition and careerism just felt like part of the landscape—they didn’t register as concerns for me. 2015 through 2017 were, to put it mildly, difficult years to be a Creative Writing student at UBC, especially as a woman, and a feminist, and someone whose trauma history is flooded with male violence. I think sometimes people who’ve had a lot of power for a long time forget the weight of that power, they forget their responsibilities to their students, and they forget what it’s like to lack power. I witnessed and experienced manifestations of this particular kind of amnesia throughout my time at UBC.

I pursued my MFA because I wanted a writing life — I wanted to have a voice in the world, and I wanted to hone that voice. But the messaging I received was that my voice was a liability, not an asset — that it would “get me in trouble.” I almost wasn’t hired to edit PRISM international because I was seen as “too outspoken.” But I also knew, throughout my degree, that the same institution that tried to muffle and confine my voice would also happily take credit for anything I accomplished in the wider world. I knew this because I’d talked to alumni, I’d heard stories, I’d seen how adjuncts were treated. The institution is shameless. It will claim any cultural capital it can.

Rob: One exception to what you describe here seems to have been UBC professor Keith Maillard, who you thank in your acknowledgments for his “words of encouragement and solace.” Could you talk about the role Keith played/plays in your development as a writer, and what he’s shown you about how mentorship relationships can be done well?

Kyla: Keith was the second reader for my MFA thesis, so we only had one meeting, but his feedback was, “This is a publishable manuscript — send it out. It will touch many people.” I’m paraphrasing, because I can’t find the piece of paper, but I had it pinned to the bulletin board above my desk for months. Alongside understanding what I was trying to do with my writing, Keith demonstrated a real acknowledgment of the power he had within the institution, and did so in a way that was very moving to me.

Support isn’t genuine if it comes with an expectation of obedience. You can’t say, “I’ll support you if you do things my way.” That’s not support, that’s control. Good mentorship balances taking responsibility for the power you have with a lack of attachment to your place in the hierarchy. You have to respect the people you’re mentoring, and be willing to work in service of their vision for their work, rather than imposing your own.

Rob: You talked earlier about your work as Prose Editor at PRISM international. What did sifting through the slush pile, and making the difficult decisions of what gets published, teach you about the Canadian writing world?

Kyla: I hesitate to draw conclusions about the Canadian writing world at-large based on my time at PRISM or our slush pile, because when I started the magazine still had a reputation of being kind of establishment or status quo and not championing the work of marginalized writers, and I think that perception likely influenced who was submitting. I will say that there was not an abundance of work being submitted by trans folks, sick folks, disabled folks, Indigenous folks, poor or low-income folks, sex workers, incarcerated or previously incarcerated folks, or other groups that have historically not been celebrated by the Canadian writing world. I learned how necessary it is for magazines to demonstrate to people writing from these perspectives that they’re invested in, and receptive to their stories. It’s not enough to just include a note about diversity in the submission guidelines.

Rob: Turning back to your own work, your chapbook Kind of Animal came out just one year ago! It must have been a little odd to go from editing the poems for the chapbook straight into editing the poems for Body Count, especially when they were often the same poems. Were there other ways you rethought/revised your approach to the poems from Kind of Animal when you returned to them? Did publishing Kind of Animal and seeing it out in the world spur new writing for Body Count, as you saw possible new opportunities of where to fill gaps or go in new directions?

Kyla: Most of the poems in Kind of Animal are also in Body Count. With my chapbook, I had a very particular reader in mind, and a very specific purpose, which was to make poetry about my concussion and post-concussion syndrome available to people who knew what I was talking about but maybe, because they weren’t writers, or because of their own concussion symptoms, struggled to articulate it. Aside from the first four poems, which are there to ease readers into the text and establish the voice and narrative identity, each of the poems in Kind of Animal speaks really specifically to some aspect of living with a concussion, from descriptions of symptoms to the frustration of not being able to afford care. Body Count encompasses all of that and more. The frame is wider, and ideas that were under the surface in my chapbook come up for air.

Rob: The dominant shape of a poem in Body Count is icicle-like, one long, skinny stanza with each line containing no more than 3-5 words. There are many exceptions to this, of course, but this seems to be your “go to.” Have you always written in this shape? Why do you think you are drawn to it?

Kyla: The short answer is Eileen Myles. I’ve been a fan of their work since I found a copy of Chelsea Girls in the library and carried it around in my backpack all summer with my queer longings like it was the one person who got me. Their poems introduced me to that narrow shape. “Five Parts Rape Poem One Part Self-Care” is one of the first poems I wrote for my book, and one of the first poems I remember writing in that style, inspired by Myles and this incredible Morgan Parker poem, “If You Are Over Staying Woke.” I actually started writing that poem at Adèle’s apartment, during a little poetry séance.

“Five Parts Rape Poem One Part Self-Care” is about literary culture and rape culture and being gaslit both within the institution and outside of it, and I submitted it for a poetry workshop at UBC. There was a “fuck you” in using that shape, and taking up space, using up so many pages, to say things I felt people really didn’t want to hear or didn’t want me to say. We were always being told to “tighten” things up, to condense, to compress. This form and the colloquial tone are kind of the opposite of that. There’s more space in and around the poem. There’s room to breathe, even though the poem itself is kind of breathless. It didn’t work for me to use the poetic structures we were taught in class to undermine or critique the institution. I needed a form from my own canon to carry what I was saying.

Rob: Your attention to form as being essentially bound to content is also evident in your concussion poems. A notable shift happens in one of the book’s first concussion poems, “Sex Wave Moon Nest,” where the words are spaced out within individual lines, and line breaks appear everywhere, sometimes separating nothing more than a single piece of punctuation. It’s a striking change from the poems that precede it. Can you talk about the choices you made in that poem, specifically, and more generally how your concussion influenced how you thought about how you physically display your thoughts on the page?

Kyla: “Sex Wave Moon Nest” takes that shape because it’s one of the only poems from the second half of the book that I wrote on my computer. Having a whole page that size to work with felt like it allowed me to cover more ground, and to physically represent the fractured nature of my memory, thinking, and reality. But working on my computer was difficult for me — my concussion made me need reading glasses, but I didn’t get to see a specialist who could pinpoint that issue until over a year after my injury, so I was struggling that whole time. I went back to writing poems on my phone, because the narrow boundaries of the screen held the words together in a way that allowed me to see what I was writing.

The thing with something like post-concussion syndrome is that the distance between what you’d like to do and what you can do tends to be painfully vast. I had to write about what I could access, which was often just my own symptoms or memories or body, using the forms and tools that I could work with, and not get hung up on what eluded me.

Rob: A tension between beauty and utility runs through Body Count. It manifests as a tension between direct statement and metaphoric abstraction, and also between rejecting the feminine and embracing the beauty within women’s bodies. “Self-Image So Far” works with these themes, as does the book’s epigraph, by Ariana Reines (“I don’t need the luxury of representation / Just tell it to me”). The book ends on the image of a tree, its branches filled with spring flowers, and the thought “Yes, I can hold all this beauty up.” Elsewhere lines like “I think she / wanted my sentences to do more / to be more purposeful / like a man” (“F for Effort”) and “before I wanted to be pretty I wanted to be on time” (“Body Count”) expand this set of considerations.

How did writing this book, and thinking through all the things its poems think through, influence your feelings on beauty, in both poetry and in the world in general?

Kyla: My relationship with beauty is complex, because it was central to my livelihood as a model for years and was the reason that, as a teenager, I found myself in some pretty horrific situations. In my mind, there are so many ways to draw a straight line connecting trauma and beauty, but I feel like very few people see it that way.

For a long time, disassociating from beauty and rejecting it, by quitting modelling and refusing to wear makeup, or cut my hair, or buy new clothes, was one way I tried to both cope with trauma and keep new trauma at bay. Part of healing from my past trauma, which is a process I started anew when I began trauma therapy in the aftermath of my concussion, has been acknowledging beauty, allowing it to be present in both my life and my writing. I’m almost thirty and I’m just now learning, in a way that both my mind and body believe, that it’s not inherently bad or dangerous to engage with beauty.

Intellectually, I knew that engaging with my own beauty didn’t give people permission to violate me, but my body and subconscious mind had learned otherwise so young, and our culture tells us otherwise so often, that I struggled to internalize this truth.

Rob: There’s such a gulf between knowing a truth intellectually and truly feeling it inside. Maybe writing it out is part of that journey from one to the other. Another journey written out in Body Count is your journey away from silence and towards asserting yourself in the world. In the title poem, you write “I used to think I could trade obedience for safety,” and in the following poem you add “I am beginning / to think of myself / as a historian / of my own / silence / I am trying / not to repeat it.”

Your outspokenness is testified to in this interview, and also in Kayla Czaga’s sequence of poems for you. In “This is Garbage!,” she writes that you “always open / bags of other people’s garbage / and say, This is garbage! / while I hang air freshener and say, Maybe this is ok.” Could you talk a little about this journey from historian of silence to garbage calling-outer, and how it manifests in your poems? Connected to the question on beauty and utility, how do you balance the need to have poems speak out and yet still contain silences, moments of reflection, etc. (if you desire such a balance at all)?

Kyla: I feel like every poem is an exercise in saying something true. I guess it becomes “speaking out” when that truth doesn’t align with the status quo, or articulates something that’s supposed to remain unsaid. Whether a poem seems political or not, what I’m trying to do is articulate my experience in a way that has the potential to make others feel seen.

I’m not saying, “Hey, rape culture is real.” Within the realm of my work, that’s a given. What I’m saying is, “Here’s how my body feels within this culture, and I don’t know how you feel, but does this make sense to you? Is it maybe adjacent to how you feel?” I think this goes back to the question of who I’m addressing. I’m always exercising the muscles I developed writing to Libby. I’m coming at it like I’m talking to my best friend.

One of the fundamental questions I ask myself is how I want my work to make people feel. Where do I want to take people, and what do I want to leave them with? Can I leave people feeling like they’re closer to themselves than they were when they started reading? I never want to remind people of injustices that might have a very real connection to their own lives without also offering some kind of comfort or hope.

Kyla Jamieson is a disabled writer who lives and relies on the unceded traditional territories of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh Nations. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Room Magazine, Poetry Is Dead, Arc Poetry Magazine, Vallum, Peach Mag, Plenitude, GUTS, and The Account. She is the author of Kind of Animal, a poetry chapbook about the aftermath of a brain injury. Her first book-length collection of poems, Body Count, placed third in the Metatron Prize for Rising Authors and was recently released by Nightwood Editions.


to love our beautiful planet even more: An Interview with annie ross

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

Photos accompanying "fix it."
fix it – annie ross

swarm of Grasshoppers
looking for dinner, yes?
if i had anything i would give it to you
no one here planted, i didn’t.

how hot can it be
did we do this?
mercilessly, we did this.
the long meandering highway
stares blankly at the Sky

what, here, for a Wolf to eat?
the sign reads, good beef jerky, thirty-four miles ahead
everything is always
somewhere else

Reprinted with permission from 
Pots and other living beings by annie ross
(Talonbooks, 2019).

Rob Taylor: The opening poem in Pots and Other Living Beings, “future tense,” reads: “walk up / wake up / walk away.” I get a sense that this may be your life’s mantra. So much of this book is about waiting, watching, learning…

annie ross: deep seeing, deep listening, deep feeling from which emanates work.

Rob: Yes – in another poem, for example, you write “Animal Teachers, their arms, their chests, / their patience for, their Power to / live.” That stillness, that steady watching and listening, is central to the arts of both photography and poetry. Each piece in Pots and Other Living Beings is a triptych: two photos beside one poem, all speaking to one another.

annie: the photos are 1 and 2, the poem = 3, you, the reader = 4, the space within us between us = 5.

Rob: A “pentaptych” then (yes, I looked the word up)! How do you think your work in these arts — photography and poetry, in this particular arrangement together — has influenced your ability to “wake up” in the company of Earth’s teachers?

annie: could it be i am trying to express moments of relationship with all Wild, Sacred, Good? does it make natural sense to describe and share via many aesthetic methods?

there’s a miracle in a triple rainbow, in a Heron standing one-legged in recovered wetlands, a giant black bird perched upon a fencepost, arms open, the span of twelve feet. Impossible pinks, oranges, in centers of folded flowers – bumblebees gathering yellow pollen. it’s all right here, every day and never, or perhaps, never again. every miracle is a hidden (yet in plain-view) supernatural event.

i am not saying the natural and supernatural are separate; they are all of this world and the Spirit world in this world. they are the same, and they are different, at the same time.

Rob: I get this sense of a folding in of images and ideas, one over another, all in conversation, united yet apart. It’s beautiful. And yet in some way they must have all started somewhere, in a single image or poem, and grown. Could you talk a little about the chicken-or-the-egg origins of the photo-poem pairings? How did you arrive at these final combinations of photos and poem, and was it the same process each time? Did it come more naturally to you to pair the photos or to write the poems that connected them?

annie: in order of creation (process):

dreams, thoughts, meditation.
quiet time.
worries, silent moods. dwelling in my hermitage.
readings, praying, talking with folks in communities.
writing notes, poems or phrases
drawing sketches, taking photos
painting. weaving. more work.
the back and forth of this and that.
years (a lifetime) in the deep water.

the process above happens first.

this project began while on a research trip. i was frustrated with trying to find a way in which to talk about our beautiful and Sacred Earth, and how humans have brought us to ruin. something i did with intention for this project was to stop and photograph those deep moments.

after this research journey, i gathered years of photographs created with intention. i was surprised to see i had 4000+ digital photos, and these were my memories of thoughts and experiences which hit me hard. i then made written phrases and mini-poems. (all done ‘on the side’ as i performed my testimonio work in the southwestern u.s. and my primary duties at my job.) at home again, i sorted photos and concentrated on the finalization of short poems for the meanings of the three.

in its first life, this project placed two pictures and one poem on real estate signage, the signs installed on campus at sfu (unfortunately, that night was ‘pub night’ and many of the signs were vandalized).

over time, i re-wrote the poems (alongside my other responsibilities), to make them, well, more themselves. one poem stayed the same:

where am i?

to power

these moments when Earth and her Beings reveal themselves, creates a flash – in feeling, in vision, understanding – you know? it’s that revelation, magical moment, the Natural that is the Supernatural (there really is no division here), which reveals itself.

maybe listening comes first, or that openness, as a way of being, a practice; with whom is speaking and living alongside; miracles in a flash, an event, a moment.

some beauty may be photographed. when looking at photos later, i attempted to recall the moment in a poetic form. so the images are the story, the written word just helps us get to the “spell” of being under what i perceived as a message.

Rob: You mentioned your testimonio work just now. Could you tell us a little more about that work?

annie: testimonio/testimony work is first-person, experience-based, recalling of events from individuals at the front lines of harms and injustices from lawless powerful groups and state-sponsored actors.

its practice acknowledges the ancient Indigenous governing system of truth-telling, witnessing, and re-yelling, in order to have collective remembrance of history in its full: its actors, facts, motivations, results. in modern times it finds compatriots in liberation theology, truth and reconciliation commissions, and in the goal of uplifting agency for the poor, marginalized, Indigenous peoples, and the work of achieving our collective and potential rights, justice.

i’ve been working in testimonio since 1981, in and with community. i have worked with many diverse individuals from many Indigenous Nations, and non-Indigenous folks as well from many countries, age groups, and walks of life. this has always been a part of my practice, in all aspects of my work.

i suppose story-telling, truth-telling, was a constant feature of my daily upbringing, and it naturally carried over into my professional work. if i wanted to know something, or say something, i needed to talk to those who had the personal experience, read what book ‘experts’ had to say, and go from there.

Rob: I love the feeling your description gives me, of wide-reaching arms pulling everything in, all the beautiful and ugly truths others avoid or are unable to see. Your time collecting testimonio in the US Southwest involved documenting both the region’s beauty and the ruin we have brought upon it (as seen through the lens of the nuclear bomb, invented and tested in the region). I am curious about your favourite place in the Southwest, a place where you’ve felt most at peace, like the world was in balance and whole?

annie: Peace:

* felt in community ceremony (as an invited observer, a relative, a close friend),
* with my beloveds; found in those open places,
* during long walks along mesas with fantastic bats, butterflies, ancient corn remnants and pots,
* ceremonially grinding corn in ancient meal bins while drummers sang,
* in dreams of land, running, water, and
* with the smells of fresh clean springs and evergreens.

Rob: Lovely. I can hear the water, smell the evergreens, just thinking about it. What are places where you’ve felt the opposite, disconnected and damaged?

annie: there are times in a city, where all is perpetually broken or in the process of breaking, and will never be put back together again. witnessing large pads of asphalt, their waves not of water but heat; shuttered inner-cities, places for hungry rats and ants, abandoned dogs, forgotten humans, gifts transformed to litter; clear-cuts; Beings wandering and wondering where other Beings fled to, and where shall we all go when rescue and sanctuary are undone?

Rob Taylor: Can you separate the two feelings — the peace and the destruction – or are they always tied together in some way?

annie: i am thinking. i could answer this question one hundred different ways, and they would each be correct, although they would maybe not all tell the whole story, and contradict one another (maybe). “one hundred poems for peace and destruction.” hmm, i like this.

i often say: it is a little bananas, really, how human primates decide what is real, and what is not. in the united states, breaking apart is considered “progress,” making more chaos and destruction, is considered “genius.” this is why we have the nuclear bomb.

Rob: Do you think this book could have existed without the tensions and contradictions created by the nuclear bomb?

annie: this book could not exist without pain. loneliness. sorrow. or desire, for putting back together, all broken apart, which lives alongside futility and hopelessness. a profound (and embarrassing) need to stop war against our Mother, Earth. faith in a great evening-out, a balancing, of all that is. all actions have re-actions, they say.

this book was a way to discuss root questions around the bomb, such as:

what is genius?
where is God?
if humans manifest their concept of God in their/our work then is God destruction, omnicide, pollution that will cause harm and never be remediated?
why is it easy for governments to lie?
why is “news” actually reports on meaningless popular culture, while testimonio towards justice is “gossip”?
what has happened while occupying time with meaningless concepts of human physical beauty, when all the while the culture of violence proliferates?
why are the dominant economic culture’s mores at odds with many of the world’s Indigenous peoples? (for example, the concept of “genius,” “sustainability,” and “responsibility” have very different interpretations, using history as the proof for these answers).

Rob: I feel like you’ve approached these questions from a variety of different angles (beyond the aforementioned poetry and photography). Your doctoral dissertation, for instance, was entitled “One Mother Earth, One Doctor Water: Environmental Justice in the Age of Nuclearism. A Native American View.” Does Pots and Other Living Beings take on the themes of Nuclearism and Environmental Justice in ways you were unable to engage with in the dissertation? If so, how?

annie: the dissertation (so very long ago) was accepted for publication by a university press. there was a shift in editors, and the new editor stated there needed to be one change in the manuscript: all of the words of Native/First Nations authors had to be removed. i asked why, and she stated, “because they are all lies. Native people lie.” she assured me it was no problem, just take all of the testimonio out. of course, this is the opposite of the point of the work, in process and product. to do so would have broken my promise and relationship with community members, and would have further marginalized those in the direct line of neoliberal destructions.

another reviewer at a well-known press in Santa Fe, NM, said they couldn’t print it, as it was full of lies, and “we will be sued.” a colleague of mine at UCD implored me to ask “sued by whom?”

i am grateful i grew up in a home where ghosts and others considered “impossible” by mainstream culture were my everyday experiences. this prepared me for the mainstream world’s inability to understand things outside of the status quo, their lack of desire to learn and include others whose reality differs from theirs, and their rush to declare themselves experts upon things they know nothing about. being relatively poor in our neighborhood prepared me for the hierarchical world-view imposed from without in the mainstream working world.

i was prepared, then, from the first, to be the outsider, to perform the work needed to understand full histories, and to be able to forge ahead while being labeled wrong, stupid, or primitive.

the entire book is about life, moments in time. my dream is to make work (art, community work, teaching and writing) that shares feelings, how to say this to make work that encourages myself and others to love Earth and her Beings even more.

Rob: I’m sorry your dissertation faced such challenges, and you’re right about our desire to maintain a status quo and shun whatever’s outside it. Art allows for a bit more leniency, I think — especially photos, which simply are. You took most of the photos in Pots and Other Living Beings, but eleven were taken by Mi’kmaw artist Robert Pictou. Could you talk about Robert’s role in making this book happen?

annie: i find Robert a great photographer and artist, but this isn’t why.

Robert Pictou was with me on some of my journeys. he was a confidant and ally. when he wasn’t with me (as i have done most of the travel for this manuscript alone), he was a phone call away, and i depended upon him to help with my terrible anxieties, dark and over-whelming feelings of dread and hopelessness, and in the struggle for work that will somehow “help.” i am overwhelmed often, with the sorrow of life, and Robert is the one person who is able to understand. i have also depended upon others, dear good friends with big hearts. i am lucky. but Robert had been the closest to the work of these years of this manuscript. to exclude him would have been a form of dishonesty. a cruel exclusion.

Rob: Many of Robert’s photos feature you engaging with nature, your face always hidden from the camera in some way. Why did you think it was important to (sparingly) include these photos of yourself, taken by someone else, in this book that is otherwise almost entirely “unpeopled”?

annie: i do not use my face willingly in anything (i completely dislike being photographed). it wasn’t my plan/idea to take or use the photos. in all cases, i was not aware Robert was photographing me.

i hesitated using these. none of this is about me. i think my body stands in as a placeholder for anyone’s body.

Rob: Ok, yes, that was my sense. That bodies were important, that human bodies appearing in this landscape were somehow essential, and that yours was a reluctant placeholder. Along those same lines, mannequins feature prominently in the book’s photos, providing stand-in “people” in your de-peopled book. What do mannequins suggest, to you, about the world of the US Southwest?

annie: mannequins here are the “perfect” person: height, weight, colour, non-descript facial features, non-imposing presence, the obedient non-verbal citizen.

i find mannequins frightening, as i do clowns and maniacs. while mannequins are said to portray all of us, they make me feel terribly lonely. they represent an expected type of citizen i shall never be (even if i tried), a stereotype of normalcy while the world suffers. they wear clothes most cannot afford, suggest a place in life that most will never enjoy, economically. they live in a world without concern, work, care.

specifically, mannequins describe the perfect utopian human, the human who has all and is all. dressed in store windows, they remind us of the fun we should be having, the parties that we should be invited to and attend. they tell us to be slim and conform to societal standards of physical acceptance and the sameness of our homogenized mores and motivations.

for the nuclear bomb “tests,” mannequins were dressed in suits and dresses, staged in positions as if entertaining, and placed in homes constructed at the Nevada test site, where their “home life” reality was filmed as they succumbed to a nuclear blast.

live pigs were used to measure their pain and suffering from heat, fire, and radiation (more cruelty upon more beings). we are told to be indifferent to those souls whose bodies are not like the mannequins.

Rob: That connection, between the mannequins of the storefront and the mannequins of the nuclear test sites, is so striking — I’m glad you explored it here.

You talked before about your difficulties in trying to publish your dissertation. This book, though, has quite beautifully made it into the world. Could you talk a little about the role Talonbooks played in the making of Pots and Other Living Beings?

annie: the people at Talon were wonderful. i am still a little shocked that this has all happened. i make work (studio and writings), and don’t really expect anyone to be on the other end to see, hear, or listen. there are so many talented Beings in the world. who sees their work? it is a lonely place, one we may share with the Beauty Beings of the Woods and Wilds.

i was simply happy that someone read this manuscript (Stephen Collis). i fretted for some time about how it would be read or understood, or not. i was a stranger with a headache. Catriona Strang, first at The Capilano Review, then at Talon, was welcoming with her criticisms and kindness. i liked her right away, we seemed to be already aligned. i felt understood at Talon, and this continued throughout the process of editing and going into publication.

Rob: It’s so nice to find a welcoming home, isn’t it? You mentioned Catriona’s “criticism and kindness” — to what extent the shape/structure/content of the book shifted as you worked together toward a final printed book? Was the layout as we see it always the same (black-and-white images on left, poems on right, etc.) or did that take some trial and error to figure out?

annie: i had hoped the images would be presented in colour, but it is too expensive for anyone to print it that way. i had enough guilt thinking of using paper and trees for a book, let alone the cost of colour prints. i still struggle with this question of how much i use. what i have taken and do take.

we had ideas of placing the text in various creative ways within the photos, but that idea disappeared. i don’t know why, perhaps a financial reason, which makes sense to me.

i greatly appreciate Catriona and Charles Simard, who both were absolutely allies with understanding my attempt to create new rules for usage of capital letters with this manuscript. Kevin and Vicki Williams are always kind and welcoming. that goes a long way.

Rob: In addition to your poems and photographs, Pots and Other Living Beings features your art, too.

annie: the cover is a wool applique on an old red and black trade blanket, part of a fabric series entitles Corn Mother our Ceremonial Sister v. the Terminator Gene.

Rob: You work as an artist in a wide variety of mediums – poetry, photography and embroidery, of course, but also weaving, painting, taxidermy, even fruit-tree arranging! Could you discuss your journey to/through these arts a little? Did you come to certain arts first, and then others? Have you arrived at any only recently? Do you find yourself connected to/thinking through one for a while, and then another, or are you always engaging with all of them in some way?

annie: i am not sure i have chosen anything. in other words, i haven’t been controlling it all, not at all. there are ideas that come from somewhere and some i am able to pick up and do, others flow past and back into their home. i am very grateful for the practice of seeing, listening, and responding (what some may call meditation), and i feel i have a strong spirit life.

i imagine this is true for all of us; things come to us somehow, and if we are lucky, we can listen and respond. life’s responsibilities make it impossible to respond to all of these, but i give love and thanks.

Rob: I love that idea of making something out of some of what comes to us, and letting the rest “flow past and back into their home.” Yes, I am feeling that a lot these days.

I wonder, with so much art to choose from, what drew you to the applique you picked for the cover?

annie: i think i chose several from which the editors could pick, and they both chose the cover image. i was thrilled that they liked this one.

Rob: It’s always delightful to be reading a book and thinking “This reminds me of…”, and then I turn the page and there that poet is, making an appearance in the book! This happened for me in Pots and Other Living Beings when you quoted Gary Snyder in your poem “no food allowed.” (I had been thinking about his Turtle Island sporadically during my reading of your book.) The quoted line is “Wild, Sacred, Good” and it seems to capture so well the way both you and Snyder see the landscape of the Southwest. What role did Snyder’s writing play in your thinking about the Southwest, and about poetry? What other writers have helped you better see/understand the region?

annie: my primary teachers are my home family, Land and her Beings. so many stories about this!

as for your question, i have been blessed by communications with land, waters, and learned beings. this phrase from Snyder, and some from Wendell Berry, reflected back to me the way i feel the world. i find solace in their words and in my many conversations and life experiences in community.

Wild = as is. true to one’s Natural Being-ness. unashamed. their/our needs and wants are what they are. source of Power, knowledge, understanding, compassion, responsibilities.

Sacred = from the original source of Creation. perfect, autonomous, sovereign.

Good = authentic being-ness within our inherent needs, wants, and work in the world to shore one another up and to provide for all other living beings in our thoughts, words, actions, dreams.

Rob: You mentioned earlier how Catriona and Charles at Talon worked with you to “create new rules for usage of capital letters.” In your book, certain nouns are capitalized and other aren’t (for instance, in the short poem “cage,” the words “Stream” and “Flowers” are the only capitalized words, with all other nouns (bowls, stagnant water, lipstick, hand, etc. all lowercase). Could you share some of your thoughts about capitalization and how you use it in your poems, and your life in general?

annie: the nuclear bomb, wwi, wwii, all capitalized in vain-glorious attempts to indoctrinate society as to what is meaningful, lasting, sacred. these are the opposite, of that — life-takers, not life-givers.

normal everyday natural things — shit, fuck, cunt — society considers taboo words. the real taboo words are war, bombs, bullets, casualties, starvation, murder, violence, trophy “hunting,” extinctions.

Grizzly Bear (in all of his/her Indigenous names), Wolf, all Natural/Supernaturals are Sacred. capitalizing them is an attempt to re-sanctify, to put back in place, the identities broken apart by imperialist, omnicidal methods and philosophies. Beings made by Nature and Power, Those with Supernatural affect, are capitalized here.

i attempt(ed) to do the same in my studio work. animal-centric works, made with community communications and with my own (to my mind) Maya-centric view of the world.

Rob: In one case, you write the word “cake” as “c(C)ake,” which seems to suggest to me its simultaneous human and supernatural existences.

annie: you are absolutely correct. “cake,” as in heavily-processed ingredients, especially gmo wheats, heavily dependent upon pest/herbicides, the vanquishing of biodiverse Beings, erosion, erasure of wild, and pollution of the water table. cake can be calorie-high and nutritionally-poor, as true for many processed foods. these make up a bulk of available foods in many urban centers and in remote areas, found readily in grocery stores, restaurants, school cafeterias, and are often the go-to “food” for those in remote areas or in urban poverty centers. a cake for 99 cents is more affordable to the poor than is an apple. often the apple is not available at any price, unless one is able to grow their own, or trade/barter for them.

when we lost our sustainable, craft-based manufacturing capability (and job opportunities), our spiritual relationships to all Beings, Land, Elements and Water, we created urban centers that are food-insecure, where basic needs are not met. highly-processed foods replace heritage foods and Their Ecosystems, replacing nutrition with artificial sugars, salts, and laboratory-made substances.

Foods are Power-Beings, replaced by human-made things, to control the world food supply for the empire and other power elites.

gmos have benefitted monocrop masters, destroyed biodiversities, and broken family farms globally, placing corporate farming in their place. “Cake” refers to any food source close to the source (Earth). however, when “cake” is all we have, and separates us from hunger and starvation, cake = Cake.

in other words, where is our innocent meal?

Rob: You pack a lot into that “c(C).” Another “C” that is relevant to your book’s themes, though it exists here and not in the US Southwest, is the Site C Dam. Near the end of the book, you include some photos from BC, including one featuring a “Stop Site C” button. Why was it important to you to move beyond the US Southwest, and toward your new home in Vancouver, in that way?

annie: Land, Land, Forever. everything is from, with, and all about Land — her sanctity, her ability to give, promote, and sustain all life, and her need to thrive in all of her majestic Power.

similarly in range, but opposite in matter, meaning, and motivation, the neoliberal agenda is one large many-armed machine whose reach is global.

one promotes life, the other destroys life. destructions via the seven deadlies are a part of the human condition.

this is all our One Mother Earth. all Her Beings, and all of the thoughts and ideas, are a part of Earth and the on-going Creation and Transformations all around us.

Rob: Pots and Other Living Beings has such multifaceted themes and sets of concerns, it can be difficult to summarize quickly. What is the main idea you hope a reader would take away from the book?

annie: i feel a bit embarrassed, but, if i may say, my goal in all of my work is that somehow, in some way, the work will encourage others to love our beautiful planet even more.

annie ross (Maya/Irish) works with and in communities, and is in love with Mother Earth and all her Natural and Supernatural Beings.


Bowing to Silence: An Interview with Lorna Crozier

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

Photo accompanying “Nom de Plume.”

Nom de Plume – Lorna Crozier

There’s the sensitive fern, the fragile fern,
the interrupted. There’s willow feather moss,
fire moss, whip broom moss.
There’s poverty oat grass, fox sedge, field
hawkweed, coltsfoot, viper’s bugloss.
And flickering above the seed heads there’s
little sulphur, hoary elfin, northern
cloudywing, splendid palpita snout.
That’s it. My old name’s gone.
I’ll only answer to Splendid Palpita Snout.
Ah, that’s a mouthful! Then let’s try
twelve-spotted skimmer, mudpuppy,
warbling vireo, rose.

Reprinted with permission from 
The House the Spirit Builds by Lorna Crozier 
(Douglas & McIntyre, 2019).

Rob Taylor: To start things off, should I refer to you as the “juggernaut of Canadian poetry” (as does the press release for The House the Spirit Builds) or “Splendid Palpita Snout” or just Lorna? I’m open to any of them.

Lorna Crozier: Lorna or Splendid Lorna will do.

Rob: Ok, Splendid Lorna, The House the Spirit Builds will draw obvious comparisons to The Wild in You, your bestselling photos-and-poems “gift book” published by Greystone back in 2015. The location has changed (from BC’s Great Bear Rainforest to Ontario’s Frotenac Arch), as have your collaborators (this time photographers Peter Coffman and Diane Laundy), but in both cases poems alternate with complimentary photographs.

Could you talk a bit about how The Wild in You came together and started you on this multi-book journey of collaborations?

Lorna: The two projects came about in similar ways. Kim Grey, the editor of Toque and Canoe, commissioned me to write a travel piece about the Great Bear Rainforest and sent me there to do so. She set up a meeting with Ian McAllister and suggested that perhaps he and I could do a book together. Both of us started out with little faith and some suspicion about that ever happening, but we liked each other, we both felt passionate about that particular patch of watery wilderness, and we decided to have a go and see what might occur. Ian sent me photos, and I responded in poems to the ones that sparked my imagination.

I wouldn’t have been up to it had I not focused my attention for so many years on the natural world and had I not been the kind of poet who is influenced by place, the weather and the wind. I’d written a couple of poems inspired by my simply being in the rainforest, not by Ian’s photos. I sent him those and he looked through his archives for what might like to sit beside them. In one case, he had to go out a take a picture of a raven. In all of his years on the coast, he hadn’t photographed a raven. He told me later it was because they hung around his back yard in Bella Bella. It was just too easy for him to find them. His pictures of them were brilliant. I told him if I ever become famous for anything, it will be for forcing Ian McAllister to photograph ravens.

Rob: Ha! And a fine legacy it would be. How did The Wild in You lead you into writing The House the Spirit Builds? Though structured the same, the latter feels different – more ekphrastic, for instance, with the poems seeming to be written in direct reply to the photos instead of working more broadly around the same themes or ideas.

Lorna: The House the Spirit Builds probably wouldn’t exist were it not for The Wild in You. Rena Upitis, the founder of Wintergreen, where the photos for the second book originated, was smitten by Ian’s and my collaboration and wondered if I’d repeat the process, focusing on the Frontenac Biosphere instead of The Great Bear Rainforest. Once a year for over a decade, I’ve facilitated a poetry workshop at Wintergreen Studio, and it’s become one of my places of regeneration and reconnection with the land. Rena did some artistic matchmaking and set me up with Peter Coffman and Diane Laundy, photographers who’d gone to the studio for private retreats and produced photos that catch not only the beauty of its ecosystem but also the warmth of the objects that define the place and that are smoothed and worn by human hands. The images of objects — a skeleton key, a broken salt shaker, tea cups on a windowsill — pleased me immensely, perhaps because I spent an apprenticeship trying to understand the significance of things when I wrote Book of Marvels: A Compendium of Everyday Things.

Objects, which often outlast us, shimmer with meaning if we look at them closely; the photographers were able to translate that meaning into colour and light and shadow. My job was to translate it into words. It has more to do with discovery than with invention—with seeing what is there rather than imposing from the outside. I’d like readers to say, “Ah, that’s the way it is. I’ve never seen that before,” whether they’re referring to the photo or the poem. This is all to say that the book didn’t try to work around concerns or themes common to the three of us. Instead, we worked around what scenes or images wanted to find the camera’s eye and then rouse the writer into another kind of seeing on the page.

Rob: Did knowing that the photos would appear next to the poems change how you “translated” them, some of the pressure of ekphrastic writing having been lifted? Or do you think you would have written them the same way regardless?

Lorna: I see the poems and photographs as companion pieces, both brushing up against each other and taking on the other’s sheen. The poems aren’t explanations of the visual images or captions—they don’t need any—but both, I hope, offer unexpected responses to what the eye and mind ponder in the world. All of the photos could exist without the poems, and some of the poems could strike off on their own, but I’d be sad if they abandoned one another. Each is stronger because of the other’s presence. At least that was my intent in responding to the photographs, in writing the poems.

Rob: You’ve mentioned how attention to the natural world is central to much of your writing and life. In The House the Spirit Builds this is doubly so – both poems and photos about subjects that otherwise might be overlooked, from a toad to a key to a shovel handle to an entire vibrant biosphere you race past on the 401 on your way to Toronto.

As such, it feels so appropriate to have the words of a haiku master, Kobayashi Issa, present in the book (closing the poem about the aforementioned toad). Bashō, Buson and Issa are all mentioned, in one way or another, in your books. Could you speak about the role of these poets and their poems in helping you pay deeper attention to the natural world? Have other poets or artists played a similar role?

Lorna: I have the deepest of respect for the haiku poets and if I could accomplish what they do in three lines, I’d stick to that limitation. Every good haiku — by such masters as Buson, Bashō, Issa — raises the hair on my arms. There’s a clarity that seems oracular to me. They drop small perfectly formed grenades that explode bees or bells or horse’s farts into your cool contemplations of the natural world and change everything. The leaps they take between the first two lines and the last are rarely found in the poetry we write today. I also love the silence they create around them. These few, bare syllables appear delicately out of a great hush so much vaster than a page. The words pull that hush with them and remind us they are but small whispers in the darkness of not speaking. The silence that is part of the haiku I adore also comes from the smallness of what they describe and the lack of any forceful conclusion. Perhaps because the last two lines of the form they came from, the tanka, have been lopped off, the concluding couplet is always the emptiness of the page, the place where utterance can’t go. Like Bashō’s frog, the three lines in that stillness create ripples that circle out and touch the margins. It’s an active quietness.

Some contemporary poets that take me to similar places and that inspire or help shape my poetic response to the natural world include Charles Wright, Peter Everwine, Patrick Lane (in Winter), Douglas Lougheed (in High Marsh Road), Don McKay, Susan Musgrave (in The Sangan River Meditations), Jane Hirshfield, Robert By (in Silence in the Snowy Fields); more recently, Clea Roberts, Kevin Paul, Randy Lundy, Lise Gaston, Steve Price, Donna Kane.

Rob: The concluding couplet is the emptiness of the page – yes!

You spoke earlier of “translating” the objects from Wintergreen, which reminded me of something you said in the afterword to your Wilfred Laurier Poetry Series selected poems, Before the First Word. You write of the prairie, the landscape of your childhood: “the impossibility of translating the place… seduces you into language.” Elsewhere you note that you wish to draw the prairie’s “unbroken, undulating landscape” into your poems without “caging” them.

Your two photo books have both been set in very un-prairie locations. Is the prairie, which first seduced you into language, present when you write about these other places? Has being in BC for so long altered your frame of vision in some way, or will the prairie always be a “first language” through which, in a sense, all other languages you learn are translated?

Lorna: My mother tongue is Southwest Saskatchewanese, no matter how many years I’ve lived away from my birthplace and the home of my young adulthood. I do think, to loosely paraphrase Eli Mandel, it is the site of first word, first dream, first sorrow, first wonder.

There’s an accent that comes from there (we really draw out our vowels) and a vocabulary. Words like caragana, slough, coulee. Others might know them but we say them more often. Perhaps more important, there’s a paradoxical feeling of being huge and small at the same time. Often you’re the only upright thing for miles. That’s the bigness, but then look how insignificant you are under the vastness of the sky. I believe my poetry is comfortable with paradox and contradiction and that it likes to hold at least two contradictory things at the same time. Maybe that’s why I love poems in series and parts. Here’s one way of looking at something, and here’s another, and one more yet. There’s a feeling when you grow up in a small prairie town that you should leave, that you can’t wait to get out, but once you’ve gone, it refuses to abandon your dreams, your imagination, your artistry. I also think the prairies trained me to open my eyes and look for beauty. It’s more subtle there, it doesn’t smack you in the head like a mountain or an ocean, or a forest of old-growth trees.

At the same time, I’ve lived on Vancouver Island for almost half my adult life and I’ll probably die here. What has this new landscape done to me, my diction, the rhythm in my lines? I don’t know, but I’m sure the influence lies beyond my learning to spell rhododendron. Before Patrick fell ill, we cleared the forest across the road of ivy. Every tree, and there were about 400 of them in the park that separates our property from the ocean. We touched them and they touched us back. We inhaled their scent and they breathed us in. I’ve never felt closer to a forest and a place. That forest is now what I pray too and some days, what I write poems to. In Swift Current, Saskatchewan, there was only one wild tree. This difference between where I was born and where I live now, where I will die, must have changed my poetry, but I don’t know enough at the moment to say how.

On the technical side, what I’ve explored in form since I moved to Vancouver Island, the prose poem, for instance, or the ghazal, might have more to do with my university teaching and the things I had to become familiar with so that I could be a resource to my students. I had to be well read in the forms and some of them captured my interest and I tried them out.

Rob: You mention your love of poems-in-series, and that’s made clear in so many of your “project” books – from Book of Marvels to God of Shadows to Bones in Their Wings to the two recent photo books, it’s obvious you are drawn to larger thematic and/or formal structures. Your rate of publication of these types of books seems to be increasing in recent years compared to your publication of “un-themed” general collections. Is this change more about you and your writing practice or about what the book industry is interested in publishing?

Lorna: I have no idea what the book industry is interested in publishing, except I’m pretty sure it isn’t poetry. So few have continued with their poetry lists, and those that have deserve much appreciation and praise. I write what I have to write, with no expectations except that I might be lucky enough to figure out what it is I need/want to say. I feel fortunate to have been published but I don’t think of that when I start something new. I just try to keep up a sense of discovery and wonder as I move through one poem after another. I have the most fun when I get an idea that takes me beyond the single solitary poem and into a series of them, perhaps a whole book of them. I think that’s because I love a stone with facets. “See how many ends this stick has,” Montaigne wrote. How many ways are there to look at a blackbird, a vegetable garden, a cockroach, a pond in winter? That’s what fascinates me. Glory be to God for dappled things.

Rob: Your afterword to Before the First Word delves into language’s capacity to capture and contain the world. You mention the Chinese saying “poetry is like being alive twice” (which chimes well with the many ends of Montaigne’s stick) and then add,

“What a blessing this is… you get to experience all of that again in the small charged world of the poem. There’s the image and then there’s the image finding its way into words. You get a chance to relive the experience. You go deeper, and if you’re lucky, you capture the ephemeral significance of what would otherwise be lost.”

At the same time, you note the limitations of language, when you describe catching a fox’s attention eye-to-eye: “for once, your human language doesn’t get in the way.”

This tension between language’s capacity to help us better see/know the world, and yet at the same time act as a barrier to full engagement with the world, feels present in much of your writing. What do you think poetry can know about the world? What do you think it cannot get at at all? Are there particular subjects/moments in your life that you don’t bring to the page because you know language would only get in the way?

Lorna: Sometimes I think poetry can be described as a small machine for creating failure. Can a poet ever get it right? Can any word contain all that we feel and think and imagine? There are poems written by others that, for me, reach perfection but I bet the poet didn’t feel that. Yet nothing pays more attention to language than poetry, nothing dusts words off and lets them gleam more than poetry. I always work with that double knowing: words won’t do it but words are all I have. I’ve been cursed/blessed with going back to them time and time again, for almost fifty years, to figure out who I am in my small life on earth. There’s a weight of exultation and a weight of sorrow that language can’t bear. Yet it must bear it if you are a writer, if you are a reader.

One of the reasons I love poetry is that it bows to silence. There are spaces after the end of the line and spaces between stanzas and sometimes spaces before you get to the end of the page. Those spaces pay tribute to what can’t be spoken, to pauses, to hesitations, to gaps in our knowing and speaking. When we chose one word, we are gagging dozens of others. Poems, I believe, honour the impossibility of being able to utter something that matters in order to utter something that matters. Only in that state of doubt and doubtless failure can poetry come into being.

Rob: As I prepare these questions, I’m sitting beside a stack of thirteen of your books. Nearly every one of them is dedicated to your husband, Patrick Lane, who died in March 2019. Unique among your dedications is the one that opens The Blue Hour of the Day, which was published soon after your mother’s 2006 death. You dedicate the book to her, and follow the dedication with a quote from Patrick’s poem “Fathers and Sons”:

Wait for me. I am coming across the grass
and through the stones. The eyes
of the animals and birds are upon me.
I am walking with my strength.
See, I am almost there.
If you listen you can hear me.
My mouth is open and I am singing.

This same quote open’s Patrick’s 2004 memoir There is a Season. I suppose I just wanted that quote to live here, as part of this larger conversation, and to say that I’m so sorry for your loss. And, since this is an interview: a question. You’ve written in any number of places over the years about how Patrick’s writing and partnership shaped your own. Are there ways in which, when you write, you can hear his voice in there alongside your own?

Lorna: Thanks for bringing back those beautiful lines from Patrick’s poem. My mouth is open and I am singing. It makes me weep. I hear his voice everywhere: even when I turned on the radio at 5 a.m., on March 8th a year ago, the morning after he died, when I lay in the darkness of our bedroom, for the first time knowing I would wake up forever without him, after having been together for forty years, there he was on the CBC national news, reading a line from a poem, “Some days there’s just too much rain,” followed by an announcement of his death. It shocked me, hearing his rich baritone coming from a place where I couldn’t reach him. It washed over me with warmth and comfort, until it didn’t. Until I registered what it meant. I was hearing his voice on the radio because he was dead.

Rob: I imagine in some way, your garden and the forest across from it (where you together cleared the ivy), must be another way his voice reaches you. In There is a Season, Patrick quotes your poem “Garden Going on Without Me” and says “it pointed the way to [his] sobriety.” Your garden in Victoria clearly meant a great deal to both of you in your life and writing. Have you had much time to work in the garden of late? If so, how has that space changed for you since Patrick’s passing?

Lorna: Patrick was the gardener and I was his assistant. I’d ask him what I should deadhead and how low I should cut the plant. I’d ask what was a weed and what was new growth. I’d ask how much fertilizer to apply to the Spanish moss around the pond and then say he should do it. And I’ve discovered, sadly, as in many other ways, I depended on him, I’m not doing well in the garden on my own. I don’t even know if I like gardening. It was one of the things we took joy in together and now that I’m on my own with a gigantic garden, it is overwhelming. Anyone out there who wants to grow vegetables? I’ve got the plots—I’m serious. I’d like them to be enjoyed by someone who delights, as Patrick did, in growing things. He used to tease me when he’d say at readings we did together, “I planted sexy vegetables so Lorna could write about them as if she knew them, but it was my garden.” He was right.

Rob: Oh, I’m sorry to hear that, though it’s entirely understandable. I’m hopeful that it means new things will come your way to fill that space (and maybe new gardeners, replying to your open call!).

I’d like to ask you a little about your memoir, Small Against the Sky, which was published in 2009, five years after Patrick’s There is a Season. I often think of poetry and non-fiction as the genres with the most overlap (especially for more confessional poets), so I am always curious why an autobiographical poet takes a turn at writing memoir. What, or how, did you want to explore in Small Against the Sky that wasn’t available to you in poetry?

Lorna: I do find that poetry and a certain kind of non-fiction wear the same jacket, whereas poetry and fiction don’t. I wrote the memoir after writing several essays, usually at the request of anthologists like Carol Shields for Dropped Threads. What I submitted to Greystone was a collection of the essays, which they accepted and I signed a contract, but when I met with my editor, she said she and the publisher actually wanted a different book, the story of my growing up in Saskatchewan. I didn’t want to write it. For one thing, I said to her, the word memoir has two “me”s in it, English and French, and I didn’t think my life was interesting enough to turn into prose. I came around by convincing myself that I’d write not about me, but about how landscape shapes character and how a class system exists even in small-town Canada, though few would admit it. I do find that creative non-fiction allows more room than poetry, not only in the obvious way—it is longer—but it allows for more description, more diversion, more concentration on character and dialogue and plot. Yet I still fell back on including prose poems, as punctuation marks or breathing spaces, throughout the manuscript between the chapters. I thought if I fail with the non-fiction, I’ll still have the poems.

Rob: Poetry is always a solid backup plan! What role did being with Patrick as he wrote and published his memoir have on your writing one of your own?

Lorna: Patrick had an almost photographic memory about his past. When he wrote There Is a Season, the scenes unrolled in his mind like a film. I don’t remember things that way—I told him I didn’t remember enough to write a memoir. His advice? Start writing and it will come back to you. He was right.

Rob: You mentioned ghazals earlier – how your teaching the form at University led you to testing it out yourself. In Bones in Their Wings, your collection of ghazals, you write about your experience reading the ghazals of John Thompson: “Sometimes, if readers are lucky, in a certain writer’s life form and content come together like two strangers who know they are about to experience a great and passionate love.” Thompson’s ghazals obviously had a direct influence on Bones in Their Wings, but what lessons about form and content did they teach you that you carried with you into your writing in general? What’s caught up in your great and passionate love?

Lorna: I’ve written a few series of ghazals since I read John Thompson’s wonderful book. Before Bones in Their Wings, they appeared as a section in two books and in one after (The Wrong Cat). But even if I don’t explore that form again, it shows up in my work. I am fascinated by how to incorporate the leaps between the couplets, characteristic in the ghazal, into a poem that is not a ghazal. A musician friend told me her jazz trio leader said to them, “Take it to the left.” That’s kind of what I learned from the ghazal and what I’d like to sneak into my poems. How do I execute the unexpected, the surprising, in the middle of poem. Yet the turn shouldn’t feel cheap or contrived. The swing to the left should startle but be the right way to go. That’s what I got from the ghazal—the disunity being part of the unity, the surprise being a surprise that deserves to be there.

Rob: Poets quote favourite writers in epigraphs often enough, but in both Small Mechanics and Small Against the Sky you write about John Berger being fundamental in inspiring some portion of the writing, which feels like a “next level” of engagement. Could you talk about how Berger has caused you to think about your poem (and world) differently?

Lorna: Oh, John Berger! One of his questions is forever embedded in my mind: “What does it mean when an animal looks at you?” And he had such a respect for the local rural people he lived among in France. He learned from them. For instance, and I’m quoting this from memory, so it won’t be exactly right, he said the farmer down the road wouldn’t say, “We loved the pig but we killed it to eat the meat,” he’d say, “We loved the pig and we killed it.” For me, learning from Berger, I hang upon that difference between “but” and “and.”

Rob: Your books of late have largely been published by two presses, Greystone and McClelland & Stewart, though other presses have appeared here and there (Douglas & McIntyre, Hagios, Freehand, etc.). As you are writing a book, do you already have a sense of what “home” you’d like it to end up in? What’s coming next?

Lorna: I’ve had a kind of unspoken agreement with M&S, my main publisher since 1985 (god, that’s a long time ago) that I will bug them only every three years. No one bangs on a poet’s door, at least not my door, because most of us are not making anyone money, including ourselves. Greystone was a good home for my memoir and the publisher, Rob Sanders, bullied me into writing it. Freehand asked me for a book, hoping for prose poems, I think, but what I had was poetry and they graciously accepted it. They hadn’t done poetry before. The book I’m working on now is about living with someone you love who you fear might be dying. I started it three years ago when Patrick fell ill because besides caring for him and loving him and worrying, I didn’t know what to do to survive. I went, as I have always done, to words.

For the first time in my life, I found an agent, and he sent it to M&S, who accepted it. It’s coming out this fall. Interwoven in the months of our despair are scenes of our lives together—how we met, how we fought and laughed and partied and loved and wrote poetry. It’s called Through the Garden: A Love Story (with Cats). It’s also a biography of the five cats we lived with in our forty years and the book ends, not with Patrick’s death, but the death last November of the cat we named Bashō.

Photo accompanying "Blessing."
Blessing – Lorna Crozier

Its is-ness,
the inner spark
that makes it grass—
not twig, or word, or feather—

leaps from inside
and ignites
the seed head.

Nothing you know
of rain, of grief,
of darkness
can put it out.

Reprinted with permission from 
The House the Spirit Builds by Lorna Crozier 
(Douglas & McIntyre, 2019).

Lorna Crozier is the author of several books including Small Beneath the Sky (Greystone, 2009), The Book of Marvels (Greystone, 2012), and What the Soul Doesn’t Want (Freehand, 2017), which was nominated for the Governor General’s Literary Award for Poetry. She is a professor emerita at the University of Victoria and an officer of the Order of Canada. She lives in North Saanich, BC.