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.

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