Two Interviews

I've had a couple interviews published in recent weeks (which is odd, this being the one year in the last five where I haven't published a book). It's been nice to ramble on without a product to promote.

The first interview was with Train: a poetry journal, who published a poem of mine last year.

I talk notebooks, book-sequencing, anthology editing, and having no idea what a "mentor" is. Matsuo Bashō also shows up to talk about his (and my) windswept soul. You can read it here:

An Interview with Rob Taylor

The second was with the Port Moody Public Library, as part of their White Pines Local Authors Program, which celebrates Tri-Cities based authors (and adds our books to their circulation). It's a wonderful thing (local writers, send in your books!).

This was the first interview I've done where the interviewer summarized my answers in the third-person. Very swank! You can read the interview here:

Featured White Pines Local Author: Rob Taylor

I hope you enjoy them both!


you cannot wallpaper a room if there is no room

So far, I haven’t answered my own question about authenticity in poetry so I will attempt to put down some thoughts and ideas on the subject here:

1) First of all, I agree with James Geary “that biological experience forms the basis of metaphorical thinking” (88) and “metaphor grounds even the most abstract ideas in the physiological facts of our bodies”(96). As much as we sometimes wish, we cannot escape our bodies and minds. Try to escape the first person singular. Good luck to you. Donald Hall has reasoned, “a poem is human inside talking to human inside. It may also be reasonable person talking to reasonable person, but if it is not inside talking to inside, it is not a poem”(142). Hello, hello, anybody home?
2) Whether you call it intensity of experience or anxiety of being or a conflict of disparate things, subjectivity versus objectivity, past versus present, the inside locked into battle with the outside, no poem is going to exist without it. You cannot wallpaper a room if there is no room.
3) Hayden Carruth has suggested “The metaphor must arise naturally from the things of the poem”(225). You cannot shoe-horn surprise into a poem, nor meaning. They come on their own or not.
4) A poem must enhance our lives in some way – spiritually, intellectually or emotionally - if it is indeed poetry. Call me romantic, or old-fashioned, but I cannot get past this sentiment and I hope I never will.

- Chris Banks, from his essay "Even Better Than The Real Thing: On Authenticity in Poetry," as published on his Table Music blog. You can read the whole thing here.


something I long suspected

rob mclennan: What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

Annick MacAskill: I recently read a new poem by Evelyn Lau, in which every single line break was exactly where I would have put it. The experience was startling -- I read Lau voraciously in high school, but am not familiar with her more recent work. Realizing that Lau’s verse had almost certainly influenced my own ear confirmed something I had long suspected – that I am not always aware of which writers have been the most important for my work.

- Annick MacAskill, answering rob mclennan's 12 or 20 questions over on his blog. You can read the whole thing here.


folding distance

James Lindsay: You have a distinctive abbreviation style when it comes you writing, i.e. yr instead of your, w/ instead of with, etc. What drew you to write like this? It reminds me of Charles Olson and the Black Mountain poets idea of Projective Verse.

Stevie Howell: Bless you for asking me about craft. For sure, one of the most important things is voice — voice as in breath. As Olson outlines. All instruments, our own vocal chords, are just us messing around w/airwaves. So, magic. It’s critical to me to write closer to how I sound IRL. In the neuropsych clinic, my natural voice would be described as “pressured, circumferential.” So, how do I get a line to rush out the way Iiii do? How do I get you to float on what I feel’s salient? Olson talks about language being kinetic—the transfer of energy between author & reader. Abbreviation is one way to speed up the transfer time, to fold distance.

In I left nothing inside on purpose, I collapsed “you/your/you’re” & “year” into an all-encompassing “yr,” b/c I’m writing about the absence of boundaries inside relationships, & the effect of that over time. The absence of those vowels, e.g., “o" & "u” (“owe” “you”) is an attempt for language to serve as embodiment, what Olson calls the desire “not to describe, but enact.”

My book engages w/a real person, Clive Wearing, who experienced a traumatic brain injury, & who has gaps & leaps in comprehension & expression. The synapse—a gap between two neurons—is the fundamental brain communicating mechanism, & I’m interested in how much of a gap in syntax can occur, w/o impairing shared meaning.

- Stevie Howell, in conversation with James Lindsay over at Open Book. You can read the whole thing here.


a way through a moment of bewilderment

I come to poetry with cupped hands. I also come to poetry with certain habits of mind and routines, in that I have come to rely on poetry as a means to achieve, not an epiphany or even clarity, but a way through a moment of bewilderment or doubt. It's not as though the poem should make an order out of chaos, or even navigate it. It has just become my preferred method for living with, and learning from the conundrums and ironies of everyday living. I no longer question if it's the best method or the most effective one...

Poetry comes to those with almost unnatural patience. It is unnatural to be so still and to ask so little, because I clamour for beauty, expression, control, order, and resolution. Poetry works against all of those things. I can give the poem the appearance of desirable elements but the more order and beauty it has, the less of a poem it is. Poetry can come the way a scent comes to a sharp-nosed animal, who depends on its instinct to avoid becoming fodder. It comes like a warning or a lesson that is being shown to your repeatedly until you either grow or you perish.

- Phoebe Wang, in conversation with Susan Gillis over on her Concrete & River blog. You can read the whole thing here.


the act of de-filing

The act of “defiling,” of taking things out of their normal files and putting them into new files (or eliminating files completely) is crucial to what I want to do. Poetry is all about metaphors, which is a form of lying to the reader—saying x is y when it’s clearly x! But it’s also y. I’ve made it y in my head, so it gets to be y in a reader’s head, too. And y is often truer than x or at least more interesting. The poetry I’m most drawn to creates these new connections and wakes me up to the world, allows me to see it freshly. Readers can expect me to lie to them continuously for their own imaginative good the way my favourite poets have lied to me!

- Kayla Czaga, in conversation with Kain Stewart, over at Event Magazine. You can read the whole thing here.


To Reach Each Other With Love: An Interview with Shazia Hafiz Ramji

Secret Playground - Shazia Hafiz Ramji

I didn’t tell you of the hands
that led the Internet cable
into the sea,
that they were brown
or that I was thinking
of rows of royal blue binders
in a hospital in Afghanistan:
records of amputations
from drone strikes.
I saw all this on TV,
as in, my laptop: torrents, Netflix.
It doesn’t make sense to ask
if words will ever stop failing me
but I want to ask it. What does it take
for a three-year-old who lived on M&Ms
and barely escaped the Gulf War
to call the first part of her life
I didn’t tell you
because I still don’t believe it.
In Toronto, I read a poem
about another part of my life,
one I still find hard to believe
when I’m not with myself.
A stranger asked me afterwards,
“Are you really clean,
though?” I was.
I couldn’t believe his guts, but I did
because I smiled and nodded
as if I’d just signed him a cheque. Then
I cupped my phone with both hands
and bowed my head, as if to say,
someone is calling me
and I have to go,
as if in fear,
as if in thanks.

from Port of Being
(Invisible Publishing, 2018).
Reprinted with permission.


Shazia Hafiz Ramji’s is the author of Port of Being, a finalist for the 2019 Vancouver Book Award, BC Book Prize (Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize), Gerald Lampert Memorial Award, and winner of the Robert Kroetsch Award for Innovative Poetry. She is a columnist for Open Book and is at work on a novel.


Rob Taylor: You note at the back of Port of Being that the book “began” when a thief stole your phone and laptop from your East Vancouver home and subsequently began stalking you. What an awful experience that must have been. It’s not surprising, then, that Port of Being focuses as it does on the theme of surveillance. Could you talk a little about how the stalking event led to the book?

Shazia Hafiz Ramji: This will sound odd, but I wasn’t aware of how being stalked had affected me until after I finished writing the book. I had a fascination with surveillance before being stalked, but afterwards it became more obsessive. I became attuned to all the ways that we are made visible and invisible. My hypervigilance was one way of dealing with trauma I hadn’t yet admitted or articulated to myself, but it was also intertwined with that stillness of poetic attention that is necessary for writing.

Rob: Isn’t that so often the case – that we write the book to understand the book and, through it, ourselves? What role do you think all this played in sharpening Port of Being’s focus on ports, and the Port of Vancouver especially?

Shazia: Ports are places where visibility and invisibility are crucial. I couldn’t help but notice the opacity of containers, the supposed transparency and clarity of water, the Internet in the sea (huge cables under the sand!), and all the other ways that our lives are shaped by the ocean. Ports have always been places of arrival and departure, places of transience, the sense of which still feels resonant and true to my life.

Even though I’m privileged to call Vancouver my home, it is so difficult to live in this city. It breaks my heart every single day because it’s not easy to live and write here. Many of my friends left for places like Montreal, where living costs are more affordable. To be honest, I don’t know if I could have written about anything else at that time in my life, aside from surveillance and ports!

Rob: Ha – some books do feel inevitable in hindsight, it’s true. While Port of Being is your first book, you’d been a writer for many years when the stalking event happened (we’ve known each other, as poets, since – what – 2006?). Did you set aside your previous work to write Port of Being? Or did that new “hypervigilance” dovetail nicely into what you were already writing? Were the themes of Port of Being major departures from what you were writing before? What you’ve been writing since?

Shazia: Do you know you were one of the first people who brought me into poetry world? It all happened at SFU through the High Altitude Poetry club, which you ran and which I took on after you! I was so depressed and lonely during my undergrad years and I can’t tell you how much of a relief poetry club was.

I had published my first chapbook, Prosopopoeia, a year before Port of Being was published. Writing the chapbook allowed me to see the themes I was drawn to. At the time of the chapbook, the themes were relationships, depression, addiction, and technology (our various online personas and the voices of non-human things; cyborg ways of being!). I think Port of Being was a deep dive into those themes.

Trump got elected while I was in the middle of writing Port of Being. This was very disillusioning. I remember feeling a strong and sudden need to write clearly and directly, to transform my love for theory and philosophy and research in order to speak and write in a way that is more accessible, because frankly I think we all need to be able to reach each other with love. So I made that decision halfway, which likely accounts for the more intimate lyric poems.

I made a breakthrough at the end of the book, especially when I decided to make “Astronaut Family” (which is dedicated to all my friends who left Vancouver because they could no longer afford to live here) the book’s closing poem. Now I’m writing about intimate things: home, family, friends, and (unfortunately or fortunately)… ports.

A few months after publication, it struck me that my ancestors have all lived in port cities or islands as far as I know. My love for all things ports continues to grow, but this time I’m finding a way into the poems through family and my home, Vancouver.

Rob: I didn’t know we’d been your introduction to poetry – yeesh, it’s nice to hear things like that, Shazia. High Altitude, established by Stephen Buckley in the early 2000s, brought me into the poetry world, too, a few years before you. I’m so glad I was able to keep the club around long enough to bring you into the fold. (Recruit you into the cult?)

You talked about finding your way into poems through the city of Vancouver. The city appears to have been central in your writing in Port of Being: while many of its ideas transcend any one locale, every observation in the book seems to be drawn from, or seen through, Vancouver. Do you think you could have written this book if you lived somewhere other than Vancouver? Would any port city – say, those of your ancestors – have given you what you needed?

Shazia: What a difficult question, Mr. Robert! All port cities can be ciphers for each other in some way, because of the nature of ports, but I think that my life is very deeply intertwined with the life of Vancouver and the people in it. I always think of leaving because it’s such a struggle to live comfortably here (I have no time to relax and just live). But when I go elsewhere and am on the plane coming back, seeing Vancouver from a distance makes me feel so relieved to be returning. Vancouver has people like you in it! Where would I be if it weren’t for that!? It is my home and I truly hope I won’t have to leave.

Rob: Ha! Yes, and people like you keep me here. One of us really needs to make the first move and go somewhere affordable. (Though for me, too, the reality is that such a move from my hometown is ultimately unimaginable, no matter how financially ruinous that proves to be.)

We talked before about our meeting in university, but I’m curious about your interest in poetry before that. With the name “Hafiz,” I suspect your parents played a role, but perhaps not? What role do you think poetry has played in getting you to the place in your life where you are now?

Shazia: I don’t think my parents knew what they were getting into with me! A poet in a poor immigrant family is hellish for all involved.

Hafiz is a popular name in Persian and South Asian and Muslim cultures, as I know you know from the infamy of Hafiz/Hafez the big poet. I was named by my grandparents as “Shazia Hafiz,” which is my full first name actually (but I go by Shazia in conversation). The grampy and grammy must’ve known what was coming more than my parents did! Though, they were initially going to name me “Sasha.” I don’t know why… or I don’t think I’m ready to find out!

My dad used to sing ghazals when I was young – on tape, every day! At the time I really disliked them. To my little kid ears, they sounded so sad and slow. They stopped me from living in my fantasies of becoming an explorer when I grew up. My dad also used to tell me stories at bedtime. We all used to sleep in the same room, because our house was small and because the Gulf War situation scared the crap out of us. I would not be able to sleep if he didn’t tell me a story!

I also remember reading voraciously. My parents would take me to the bookshop and the owner would let me exchange the book for one on the shelf (without ringing it through), because he knew my parents were broke and that we’d be back in no time.

I don’t think I legitimately knew what a poet or a writer was until I was into my teens, but I remember writing constantly when I was young. I would sit in front of the TV and watch snakes and other creatures on National Geographic, and I remember feeling awed by so much beauty! And that’s when I would pick up a notebook and write “a poem,” which was just descriptions of deserts and oceans and cool stuff on National Geographic.

I still watch Blue Planet and Planet Earth to get into the writing zone. Wonder and awe return me to a good place.

Rob: I love that story of the bookstore owner. And “deserts and oceans and cool stuff” – yes! Port of Being, too, roams widely. Its sections feel like distinct chapbooks: each involves distinct compositional techniques, which lead to poems which look and sound very different from those in the preceding section (some lyrical, some experimental, some univocal, some polyvocal, etc.). Did the book involve gathering multiple “parts” together to form the whole, or did one mini-project flow out of another in a more linear way?

Shazia: Fascinating! A chunk of my writing process was built on research. So the more modular poems of a section like “Surveiller” were attentive to the forms of the technology I was thinking about (like the Internet and it’s assemblage of parts, where each part can function as a separate entity but together they are this emergent force… For example: a neighbourhood camera is one part of a chain in a network). The more impressionistic poems of the first section, “Container,” were written while walking and hanging out by the port!

Chronologically, the poems in the “Spooky Actors at a Distance” came first. Some of these poems were in my chapbook. I was very taken by the chorus of voices of human and non-human things around and in the ocean, so these poems are strange and uncanny as they shift perspective, alternating between “I,” “you,” and “we” to voice themselves.

Rob: Let’s talk more about “Spooky Actors at a Distance.” That section feels like its about orbiting (one poem is even called “Orbiter”): how on social media we are always close to everything, but we can never actually touch it (as you say in “Inquest,” “We can only talk around her death”). That section is followed by the title section, “Port of Being,” which is made up of lyrical, confessional poems (i.e. the stuff that fills up all of many writers debut collections!). (A side note, but of interest to me: that section, the one most about “you,” is the only one in the book that doesn’t open with an epigraph.)

In reading “Spooky Actors” and “Port of Being” back-to-back, I can’t help but draw connections between social media and the confessional lyric: both create an intimacy that is ultimately, if not false, at least limited. And yet those confessional poems are still in there, they are still an important part of the whole you are making in the book. Could you speak a bit about the relationship between the more experimental and lyrical sections of the book?

Shazia: I love that you said the poems in “Spooky Actors at a Distance” are about orbiting. It feels like a very apt description. As I mentioned, some of those poems are in Prosopopoeia. That sputtering word refers to a technique of personification and a trope of autobiography that gives voice to objects and people (essentially, a mask). I was thinking about the ways intimacy and relationships have changed, and the new words and forms that are given to name them. How could we give voice to our new cyborg selves? To “voice” these selves, I had to circle around objects and subjects, accruing bits of their lives to create their voice. This seemed like the only way in, since it felt like a huge transgression to inhabit and speak “as” something or somebody.

About the section title, “Port of Being,” all I can say is: oh shit, busted! In a way, I think I’d been working towards this more confessional and lyric section from the beginning, though I didn’t know it. It may have begun in my chapbook. Prosopopoeia is a title I stole from a Norwegian movie called Reprise,directed by Joachim Trier. One of my all-time favourite movies. In the movie, a character publishes a novel titled Prosopopoeia. I think the movie captures the frustration writers feel regarding autobiography. This felt very true for me at the time. I still struggle with it. The confessional mode comes very naturally to me, but at the same time, it can create problems in real life.

Port of Being was the first time my parents found out about the extent of my addiction. I am very lucky that they accepted me and continue to love me. In a strange way, that book has allowed me to feel more at ease in the world because it loosened some secrets (especially the addiction-related ones) and trauma.

Rob: I like the sense there of one mode of writing propelling you, in some way, into another. And then all the good that came from that process. One of the confessional poems in the book’s last section, “Conspiracy of Love,” was selected for inclusion in Best Canadian Poetry 2019 (which, full disclosure, I edited!). In your biographical note at the back of Best Canadian Poetry, you write that the poem was in part inspired by Anne Michaels’ collection All We Saw. You write that that book’s poems “brim with conviction and belief – not so much belief by choice but out of necessity.” Could you unpack that sentence for us a bit – both what All We Saw meant to you and how it shaped the poems in Port of Being?

Shazia: I can’t articulate how surprised and happy I was to see that you anthologized “Conspiracy of Love.” I think that there is a leap of faith every writer takes when they write. This poem is definitely a leap of faith because it was written during an extremely dark time for me.

In Anne Michaels’ All We Saw, I felt this leap of faith in every single poem. I don’t think I can explain it, but I reviewed the book and Anne herself reached out to say thank you, and that the poems had been deeply understood and “found their peace.” That is what a leap of faith can do.


Take a leap of faith and pick up a copy of Port of Being at your local bookstore, or via the Invisible Publishing website or, I suppose, from Amazon.


The Monastery of Poetry: An Interview with Evelyn Lau

The following interview is the seventh 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).

January - Evelyn Lau

These are the days of not writing.
January, the month of no words.

Wine tastes watered down, food
so flavourless I gnaw a hole

in the side of my mouth,
mining the salt crystal of blood,

its candy tang. The fog again,
shrink-wrapping trees and buildings,

erasing the bay. The opposite shore
a leaf etching under wax paper,

milk glass, the faint sketch
of a fossil in stone. It’s not

the light, or lack of it. Small birds
rustle in the bare trees,

searching for winter berries.
Nothing’s missing. What’s not here?

Reprinted with permission from 
Pineapple Express by Evelyn Lau
(Anvil Press, 2020).

Rob Taylor: “These are the days of not writing… Nothing’s missing. What’s not here?” feels like a good summary, for many, of our current COVID-19 moment. A major theme in Pineapple Express is isolation (in “Disturbances” you write “For months you haven’t seen your neighbours,” which also strikes home right now). A common joke these days is that self-isolation is something poets have been training for their whole lives. Could you talk a little about the knife-edge of isolation for writers — that need for solitude in order to be able to write, and the negative consequences that can come with it? Do you have any advice for people — writers or otherwise — in this time of externally-imposed isolation?

Evelyn Lau: Solitude is bliss for introverts, and most poets would agree that they crave time, space and isolation in order to write and think. I’ve lived alone since I was sixteen, and the challenges inherent in that have always been practical — i.e. financial — rather than emotional. My partner and I have been together for two decades, but we’ve never lived under the same roof. What some people would find painful — coming home to an empty apartment — is the greatest source of solace for me. Is that strange? It feels so essential that anything else is unimaginable. The easy explanation is to say that I need solitude to write, but really it’s just to stay sane.

The danger is that isolation leads to rumination, which can lead to depression. Those of us who need very little social interaction to feel fulfilled definitely have an advantage over the extroverts right now. My advice isn’t original: establish a structure to the day, get out of your head by getting into your body (exercise), find beauty and wonder in small things.

Rob: Yes, yes, excellent advice (the good advice doesn’t always have to be novel — it usually isn’t)!

Speaking of changes brought on by COVID-19, you’ve traditionally avoided work on computers (I seem to recall that you didn’t have an email address until you took on the role of Vancouver poet laureate in 2011, a position which required one). Could you talk about that choice to stay “offline” as much as possible? How are you finding life now that you’re forced to use the internet for work, etc? Is it affecting your capacity to write?

Evelyn: AARGGH! Right now I’m sprawled on the floor outside my building lounge, using my partner’s laptop to pick up on the WiFi signal. This pandemic has yanked me into the 21st century!

Normally I maintain a distraction-free zone by not having WiFi or a modern computer at home, and not having a cellphone. It might be odd to hear this from a writer, but writing doesn’t come “naturally” — it’s often very painstaking, and so much time and creative effort are wasted in email correspondence.

Rob: Pineapple Express opens with poems about your family members. As we’re all partially reflected in our family members, I’m curious: did thinking and writing so closely about your relatives have any effect on how you see and understand yourself?

Evelyn: I’ve been estranged from my immediate family since leaving home at fourteen, so the parental figures have remained distorted in my psychological landscape. Of course, as we age we see patterns more clearly, and how things like personality traits and mental illness are passed along to us.

Rob: On this theme of seeing family patterns more clearly, in “Kate Braid’s Salon: the role of the poet” you write “Families, lovers / were scraps caught up in the storms / of creativity… collateral damage / in the cause of poetry.” As much as writing about family can lend clarity to the self, to what extent do you think writing about family alters or distorts how you see and remember your family?

Evelyn: Writing about anything fixes it in place, doesn’t it? What we choose to emphasize, what we don’t. The stories we tell ourselves, the scabs we pick at, the memories we excavate. This is true of any experience or relationship, not just familial ones.

Rob: “Earthworms,” the second section of Pineapple Express, “excavates” relationships beyond the familial. It contains a number of poems about social gatherings with other poets, one of which is about Elise Partridge’s funeral service (“Yellow Melons”). I think Elise would have particularly enjoyed the ten-line stanza you devote entirely to considering whether or not to eat a granola bar — how small and precise and human and funny!

Could you talk about that poem, and about what drew you to Elise, the person and the poet? More generally, why do you think it’s important for poets to memorialize other poets, and moments between poets, in this way?

Evelyn: I’m happy to hear you think Elise would have enjoyed the granola bar moment. Yes, the demands of the body don’t evaporate just because one is at a funeral! I didn’t know Elise Partridge personally, only through poetry events, but her warmth and humility endeared her to everyone. The poems she wrote during her cancer treatment were breathtaking.

I love when poets pay tribute to other poets in their work; those moments of grace are a small acknowledgment of what writers have given to us through their words.

Rob: In many of the poems in Pineapple Express, you talk explicitly about the effects anti-depressant medications have on dreams, appetite, energy, etc. In “Depression in Summer” you note “You’ve grown immune to plenitude.” Thank you so much for writing openly about mental health — it will be a great help to many people. I’m curious specifically about the relationship between anti-depressants and writing: have anti-depressants helped or hindered your writing, or both, and in what ways?

Evelyn: For years I resisted antidepressants out of concern for how they might affect the writing process. Frankly, though, I haven’t noticed a difference. There’s less attachment to outcome, to how the work is received — but that’s likely due more to age (and an acceptance of poetry’s limited audience) than medication.

Rob: Shaking off attachment to outcome is so valuable, and often elusive for writers (it’s certainly elusive for me) — I’m glad you found your way there one way or another. Speaking of “you,” many of the poems in Pineapple Express are written in the second-person, the “you” usually referring back to the speaker (though not always). What draws you to the second-person address?

Evelyn: I’m drawn to the inclusiveness of the “you,” how the second person voice pulls the reader into the poem and creates a common experience.

Rob: One physical gathering place for common experiences that is feature prominently is Pineapple Express is the seawall around Vancouver’s False Creek. Could you talk about the role of walking in your writing practice?

Evelyn: Writing prose seems to involve keeping one’s butt in the chair, while most of the work of writing poetry doesn’t involve sitting at all — it’s the hours/days/weeks of wrestling with a line break or image or metaphor while shopping, watching TV, washing dishes. Most poets find a walking practice essential to their craft. I’m usually so deep in thought while walking in circles that it’s a disaster if someone stops me to ask for directions or, God help them, spare change!

Rob: Ha! Your deep-in-thought wandering spills out across the continent in the book’s fifth section. “Sunset Boulevard” features a series of travel poems which often explore the big choices we make in life. In “Paradise Tours (or, “I’m in Miami Bitch!”),” for instance, you write “Was it wrong to have stopped wanting / the world’s glamour, to have disappeared // into the monastery of poetry?” What is it, for you, about travel that induces such considerations?

Evelyn: I’ve always been fascinated by America’s contradictions — its glamour and seediness, how its citizens can be so open-hearted yet closed-minded. Travel demands our attention at every moment, and it can be physically or psychologically uncomfortable. If nothing else, it takes us out of our routines and our comfort zone, and allows us to look at our lives from the outside.

Rob: Keeping on this idea of disappearing into the “monastery of poetry,” at the beginning of your writing career you published three books of poetry in four years. Following that you published a novel and a collection of short stories, but it would take eleven years until your next collection of poetry, Treble, was published in 2005. Since then you’ve exclusively published poetry books, with four in the last decade. Could you talk about this journey — both the time away from, and the return to, the monastery?

Evelyn: It was a lawsuit from another writer, after I published a personal essay about our relationship that led me to abandon prose and return exclusively to poetry. The reaction to that essay, by him and others, basically shut me down for years. There’s nothing more stifling to creativity than starting to think like a libel lawyer — analyzing every line for its potential to cause offence — and I developed an antipathy to prose. Poetry saved me from shutting down entirely; its limited audience, its lack of public scrutiny, was a gift.

Rob: I hadn’t realized the lawsuit had kept you from prose all this time. I’m very sorry to hear that. Do you think there’s any chance you might find your way back to it in the future? You mentioned earlier that writing doesn’t come “naturally” to you, but at the same time there must be something — some unavoidable, necessary impulse — that keeps you writing, and that makes it important you don’t “shut down entirely.” If that’s true, is it just for poetry, or also prose? If it’s true for prose, has it been difficult to suppress that impulse all these years?

Evelyn: At this point it’s doubtful there’s any chance I’ll find my way back to prose, but this isn’t something I mourn. I spent years mulling over my relationship to non-fiction after the lawsuit, which happened in my mid-twenties — still a very formative time, both as a person and as a writer. My urgent need to expose the ugliness in relationships, to push the boundaries of personal revelation, had been slapped down, and I lost momentum and trajectory. Fortunately poetry was there, and I could explore some of the same territory in a form that held little interest for lawyers or the public.

That “necessary impulse” once existed both for prose and poetry, but I managed to channel it entirely into poetry and found a kind of purity in the process that was compelling. The idea of writing prose is repellent now. Weirdly, though, in dreams I’m always working on a novel or short stories — never poetry!

Rob: Nightmares are on the rise in this stressful time, I’ve heard. That might explain it!

The publication of Pineapple Express comes 30 years after the publication of your debut collection, You Are Not Who You Claim (which won the Milton Acorn People’s Poetry Award). That book was preceded a year earlier by your best-selling memoir Runaway: Diary of a Street Kid and followed two years later by Oedipal Dreams, which was a Governor General’s Award finalist. All this by the age of 21! Needless to say, your writing career had a rather rocket-fueled start. How do you think that early success shaped your writing in the years that followed?

Evelyn: Ha! Well, it’s all been downhill ever since. The downside of early success is that sometimes “serious” writers dismiss your work, and don’t believe you’re in it for the long haul. Now that I’ve gone from a national bestseller to writing poetry collections that sell 300 copies each, I guess I showed them!

Rob: Evelyn! This is very much not true, five straight poetry books means your career is heading in exactly the right direction. Though I suppose as an unabashed poetry lover, I’m biased. Does that make me a “serious” writer? Oh God, I hope not…

Speaking of new directions taken in your writing, the back-cover copy for your 2010 collection Living Under Plastic notes that the book,

“represents a major departure from the author’s previous poetry books. Instead of the obsessive focus on relationships and emotional damage that has characterized much of her earlier work, this book opens up to explore new subjects: family history, illness, death and dying, consumerism, and the natural world.”

Those sentences jumped out at me as it seemed like a reviewer had written then, not your own publisher! That said, I definitely see the mix outlined above present in Pineapple Express and your other more recent books (though emotional damage is in there, too!). Looking back, do you think Living Under Plastic marked a turning point in your writing? And if so, what caused the shift at that time?

Evelyn: Most of my thirties, when Living Under Plastic came out, was basically spent in hibernation. I had stopped writing prose, and couldn’t find enough work to sustain myself; rather than admit my increasingly dire circumstances, I hunkered down and went through my savings as slowly as possible. When your external life shrinks, your interior life opens up — something to remember, perhaps, in these current times.

Rob: Those lines about entering the “monastery of poetry” resonate more and more with me as we talk. What an experience it must have been to leave whole genres behind and to find new ways to communicate your world.

That leads me to thinking about “truth,” both seeing and speaking it. We’ve discussed how your first book was non-fiction. Your fiction, too, feels “truthful” — a Globe & Mail review of your first short story collection, Fresh Girls and Other Stories, described your writing as “blend[ing] startling prose talent with a fierce determination to be true.” Your poetry carries similar characteristics. How do you think about “truth” in your writing? Are you, as the reviewer described, “fiercely determined”?

Evelyn: I love how poetry can often blaze a more direct path to emotional truth than prose. Yes, it has always felt necessary to strive for that emotional honesty, no matter the cost.

Rob: Following the lawsuit and your move away from non-fiction, did your thinking about being “truthful” in your poetry shift at all? Is the “truth” you go after in poetry the same as non-fiction’s “truth”?

Evelyn: Well, for years after the lawsuit I was overthinking everything. I’d want to dedicate a poem to someone, or use someone’s name in a poem, and I’d worry that would open up another can of worms. You can never predict how someone will react to seeing themself in your work – whether they’ll feel honoured or offended, exposed or betrayed. The truth in poetry is an emotional truth, not a journalistic one, so maybe that’s what I’d been seeking all along.

Since his death, I’ve been revisiting the relationship that led to the lawsuit, this time in poetry. I still make desperate attempts to understand that whole mess. “Gagged,” in Pineapple Express, touches on one aspect of that experience.

Rob: Do you approach the writing of poetry, at the level of the sentence, in the same way you once approached prose? Do you put different pressures, or pay different forms of attention, to a sentence you write in a story compared to a line you write in a poem?

Evelyn: There’s far more attention paid to each line in poetry than in prose — each word, each bloody comma and period! That distillation and compression is why it takes so long. There’s no room for sloppiness when there are so few words on the page. That process of carving away the fat is hugely satisfying, but it also takes a punishing degree of focus.

Rob: If someone asked me how long an Evelyn Lau poem was, I would say “Around a page-and-a-half.” Obviously, there are many exceptions to this “rule,” but it does seem to be your “home base” of sorts. Is that length something you pursue consciously, or do you innately get itchy around line 35 or 40 and start looking for an exit? Is it, in one way or another, the length of your thoughts?

Evelyn: Ha, that’s funny! I guess we all have our “set point”, in poetry as in — well, weight for example? We gain a few pounds, lose a few pounds, the body eventually returns to where it feels right.

Rob: Yes, I guess that’s true. I see poets putting their poems on diets all the time, or sending them to the gym for weight training!

You twice quote John Updike in the epigraphs to poems in Pineapple Express, and you read his poetry and spoke about his influence on your writing at a 2012 Dead Poets Reading Series event. For those who missed that, could you talk a little about the role Updike’s writing played in the development of your own? What is it in his writing that keeps you returning to it, year after year?

Evelyn: What I loved most about Updike’s work, aside from the masterful crafting of his sentences, was his commitment to writing about those moments we’d rather overlook — either because they’re shameful, or because they’re too plain and ordinary. He could write in such loving detail about the littlest thing. And nothing was too embarrassing for him to write about; not in a gesture of self-display, or to shock, but just to acknowledge that it was all part of the human experience.

Rob: Speaking of learning from beloved writers: you’ve been just that beloved writer for many people in Vancouver, where you’ve taught creative writing for many years. That experience is reflected in poems like “Earthworms.” How, if at all, has your teaching made you think differently about your own writing?

Evelyn: I avoided teaching for a long time, because with my Grade Nine education I had zero confidence that I had anything to give in this area. I still have a hard time using the word “teach” to describe my workshops and consults at SFU Continuing Studies. I’m very fortunate to have worked with talented students who have also been smart, interesting, wonderful people. But as any writer knows, it can be difficult to have anything left over for your own writing when you are immersed in other people’s work.

Evelyn Lau is the Vancouver author of thirteen books, including eight volumes of poetry. Her memoir Runaway: Diary of a Street Kid (HarperCollins, 1989), published when she was eighteen, was made into a CBC movie starring Sandra Oh in her first major role. Evelyn’s prose books have been translated into a dozen languages; her poetry has received the Milton Acorn People’s Poetry Award, the Pat Lowther Award for best book of poetry by a Canadian woman, and a National Magazine Award, as well as nominations for a BC Book Prize and a Governor-General’s Award. Her poems have been chosen numerous times for inclusion in the Best Canadian Poetry series, and she has been writer-in-residence at UBC, Kwantlen and VCC as well as Distinguished Visiting Writer at the University of Calgary. From 2011-2014, Evelyn served as Poet Laureate for the City of Vancouver.


Playfulness and Gravitas: An Interview with Jillian Christmas

The following interview is the sixth 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).

An excerpt from “hard to tell if this is just the internet, or another dream where I am in front of the class in only my dirty underwear” – Jillian Christmas

Jillian is feeling … Jillian is … Jillian …
wasn’t the only one who got a little too excited
about a new facebook status “back in the day”
safe to say none of us knew any better
safe to say I was ahead of my time in the feeling-myself department
newly imagining me, a writer, with a reputation to create
I needed to appear busy, desirable, productive
what brilliant and profound statement could
be the messaging for this soon-to-be-published
high-functioning persona?
Jillian is … busy writing
satisfied with my own genius I sign out
presumably to watch reruns of judge judy
several hours later my best friend calls me
wonders if I know that “writting” isn’t a word

Reprinted with permission from 
The Gospel of Breaking by Jillian Christmas
(Arsenal Pulp Press, 2020).

Rob Taylor: In “Talking with Ancestors After the Show” you write “if there is a moment this is it / know better than to beg a minute’s sojourn // reminder to the artist: this is it.” I can imagine so vividly that line being delivered in a spoken word performance, and how it might resonate differently (and, in some ways, similarly) in that context. That Venn diagram between the “stage” moment and the “page” moment — their audiences, their performative spaces, their “voices,” their ephemerality.

As a writer whose background is in spoken word, how have you found the experience of putting your words, often first meant for public performance, onto the page? What have you been able to bring over with you, and what have you had to leave behind? What new opportunities has writing for the page granted you?

Jillian Christmas: I love that you frame them as opportunities. When I first approached the challenge it seemed to present itself as a fear of what would be lost, what eye contact or small facial expression would be missed and what emotional information would go with it. But your framing is absolutely correct, somewhere along the process, I discovered that it was in fact a great joy, almost a game, to figure out what choices I could make on the page that uplift the poem to a similar effect as I would have on the stage. In some places I learned that the voice of the page poem would be different, more concerned with shape, spacing, or a leaning, possibly tumbling word. In some places a more direct translation would occur, a long slender diving presentation, where my voice might have dipped or swayed (as in “But Have You Tried”). In the end I decided that there were no limits to my choices, allowing each poem to have as many lives as it needs, perhaps one for the page, a longer more lyrical or repetitive version for the stage reading, perhaps a third snappy edit for tucking inside the nest of the perfect song. A multitude of mechanisms to coax every bit of connective tissue from any given piece.

Rob: On this theme of connection, do you think about your audience differently when writing for the page than when writing for the stage? Does that distance — the loss of the aforementioned facial expressions; not hearing the crowd laugh or gasp or cheer — change what you want to say or how you want to say it?

Jillian: One thing I’ve learned from years of performance, is that you never know who might be in your audience. Who happened into the room that night? Who was led in, unexpectedly, by a poetically-inclined friend? Who might find your book or some recording passing across their desk? My audience is almost always a mystery to me, but you learn to read a room, to select the next poem or the movement of a rise and fall, depending on what the room needs, or what energy is being exchanged there. On the page, that immediate feedback is absent, but there is still opportunity to create an arc, a flow that moves the reader from one emotional landscape to another. As for the applause, I have an excellent imagination.

Rob: Ha! Yes, that comes in handy. I was certainly nodding along (the reading equivalent of applause?), and sometimes chuckling, as I read through The Gospel of Breaking.

In “Black Feminist” you write:

They said I could be a feminist too!
after all, they are going to need someone at the meeting
who knows how to tighten up
all those white girl dreadlocks

and in “Northern Light”:

what strange things are we creatures
of the Diaspora treasures
of the Caribbean Sea,
knocking our knees together in parkas

Poems like these are drawn from your perspective as someone who inhabits two distinctly different parts of the African diaspora: Vancouver and Trinidad and Tobago (where people of African descent make up 36% of the population, compared to 1% in Vancouver). Notably, neither of those places is the United States, which tends to dominate conversations about the North American African diaspora. How do you think the experience in each country have informed how you think about the other and, more widely, about what it means to be black in the diaspora in the 21st Century?

Jillian: I often wonder what people imagine when they think of the word “home”. I’ve used that word to describe so many places that I’m sure anyone listening could easily get confused. Perhaps that is the skill set of people who move and have been moved across great distances: the ability to make home within whatever is in reach, to call up history and memory from an unfamiliar skyline.

I can’t say what it means to be a member of the black diaspora in the 21st century, the experiences are vast. But I know that the land that I live on is not mine, that it has been cared for and considered sacred long before my arrival, and that I am grateful for each moment I get to call it home. I know that through solidarity with Indigenous communities I can work to excise the hovering feeling of displacement (mine and others), and locate myself as a useful piece in this moment in time, which is a kind of home that cannot evade me.

Rob: Speaking of hovering feelings of displacement, what has performing and publishing your poetry to largely white, Canadian audiences taught you about your role in the cultural and political life of the country?

Jillian: For certain it has taught me that I cannot allow whiteness to define or direct my role as a writer and creative, which is and always has been the same as any artist, to speak about what I experience and imagine, to question, to disrupt, to channel and unveil — to dream freedom where there was none.

If anyone has said it better than the great Audre Lorde herself, I have yet to hear it: “If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive.”

Rob: I love those responses — both yours and Lorde’s. When it comes to defining yourself for yourself, in The Gospel of Breaking you write honestly and openly about a number of subjects that would have been taboo a generation ago, or perhaps still are now, including sexuality, race and mental health.

The tension in trying to speak about these subjects with those on the “outside” is present in a number of your poems — I think here particularly of your poem about Robin Williams’ suicide (“do you know what it is to think of the thing a hundred times before coffee / to make the bed anyway”). How do you reconcile the range of readers for a given poem (the “insiders” who know it all and want to hear it spoken, the “outsiders” who know very little but hopefully want to learn, etc.)? Or do you not think about it at all? Do you prioritise a particular audience when you write, and simply let others listen in?

Jillian: That’s an interesting dynamic you bring up, between the insider and the outsider. I can’t say that it occurred to me quite like that, though I can see that it is present, hopefully not static or unmovable. When I think about writing those lines I’m reminded of how little we ever know about each other’s experiences of the world. Who is in fact an outsider, to the experience of loss, or mental illness? Who is an insider to the feeling of isolation? Some questions that appear to be asked hypothetically are, in fact, earnest. What do you know of rest or the needing of it? What do I know? Could we possibly speak of those things honestly? Can we unveil for ourselves and each other the losses we carry to discover understanding, and maybe even collective healing? I hope so.

Rob: I like how your answer here embraces the slipperiness of “knowing.” That’s a theme in a number of the book’s poems, where you write very insightfully about the plasticity of memory. At one point you describe depression as “the disease of our memories either we remember too / much darkness or we forget too much light.”

In addition to mental health’s ability to warp our memories, a writer is always rearranging their memories as they excavate them and turn them into art. What do you think the writing, performing, and publishing of your memories has done to them? Do you think you’ve made them lighter or darker? Do you see yourself in these poems, or someone adjacent to yourself, or someone different entirely?

Jillian: I’ve always been fascinated by the worlds we create with our memories, the alternate universes we all suspend. I remember hearing once that each time we remember a moment we change it just a little, we colour it with our current emotion or perspective, some new lens that wasn’t there in the moment of making. I’ve spent time worrying about that, called my own mother to check the validity of one recollection or another, found myself soothed when our stories map neatly onto each other. More and more often, I find myself surprised when they do.

I try in my writing to speak from my experience but to leave room for the experiences that I could only ever imagine. I most certainly have coloured memories with my own emotional imprints, some lighter, some darker, but all true to my experience of them — and hopefully none so etched in stone that I cannot make room to see the many versions of myself who have pressed them into story.

Rob: On this theme of “many versions of yourself,” the poems in The Gospel of Breaking about your time in Trinidad and Tobago often feature titles in parentheses (i.e. “(no gift like a loosened fist)” or “(sugar plum)”). Could you talk about this choice, and the distinction you aim for it to bring into these poems?

Jillian: As a child of immigrant parents, a first generation “Canadian” growing up on Indigenous land, the shaping of my cultural knowledge came both from the small everyday expressions of phrase or flavour, as well as the short trips that I took “home” to collect pieces of my heritage from the mouth of my grandmother or aunty. The pieces in parentheses all hold stories from these times. The parentheses are meant to illustrate what it is to carry only small pieces, sometimes compartmentalized, sometimes foreign even to myself, but still an integral part of the puzzle.

Rob: Sticking with formal choices, the poems in The Gospel of Breaking take on a wide variety of shapes and sizes — for every longer poem designed for three-minute delivery at a poetry slam there’s a very short poem; for every prose-like block of text there’s a thin, line-break-filled offering. Could you talk a bit about how you came to the shapes of your various poems? When you originally wrote the poems which were performed at slams, was the shape of the poem still important to you (even if no one would see it), or was that a consideration you had to come to later as you worked your way toward this book?

Jillian: I always consider shape when bringing a poem to life. However, the shape is important for different reasons. When preparing for the stage, I will study my poem from a page version that has been broken down into segments that will help to imprint and inform what will come next. It is a memorization tool. If I can create markers that make a visual impact in my memory of the poem, it will assist in those moments on stage where the next line feels stuck or frozen. I remember the page, the layout, the rhythm. In the book, those shapes are meant to stand in for my body, my face, my voice. The ebb and flow that the audience would hear are invisible on the page, so I try to offer direction, a structure that feels like a fit for each piece.

Rob: You use rhyme powerfully (and often playfully) in The Gospel of Breaking, especially in the longer poems. I often find that collections by poets with a background in spoken word show a greater facility and comfort with using rhyme than those by page-only poets. Even within a single book, the longer poems that most likely originated as spoken word pieces seem to use rhyme more frequently, and more playfully, than the shorter poems. It’s as though using rhyme is “ok” with a live audience, but should only be dipped into hesitantly on the page.

Why do you use rhyme? What effect do you hope for it to have on the listener/reader? Did you feel a need to dampen down your use of rhyme in The Gospel of Breaking compared to what you’d perform on the stage?

Jillian: Rhyme seems to me like a tool that shines especially bright on the stage. A mechanism for holding the audience in a trance, taking them on a long and winding ride, but offering a tether for them to hold onto. Something somewhat reliable. However my one rule for using rhyme has nothing at all to do with page vs stage, or with the length of the piece.

I love for rhyme to live everywhere, including everyday speech. My one rule, and the rule I often offer in workshop, is that if I can predict the rhyme that is coming next, it’s better to choose a new one. I use that lens for my writing, and I am not always perfectly within its scope. However, I think the worst offence a rhyme can commit is predictability. Certainly each of us is guilty of that on occasion.

Rob: Ha! Oh no, never!

You ran Vancouver’s Verses Festival of Words, which bridges the gap between Vancouver’s spoken word and page poetry communities, for a number of years. What influence do you think that work had on your writing/performance? Having built the Verses festival into such a success, what do you think Vancouver’s poetry community is most in need of next?

Jillian: I have been incredibly lucky, over years of curation, to connect with folks who have been inspirations and heroes to me. It has reminded me that I am one sparkling thread in this expansive weave of peers and mentors, friends and students, performers and organizers. It has encouraged me not to fix myself to any one role, but to move fluidly through the many iterations of myself, to foster playfulness and gravitas.

Vancouver has held and continues to hold an incredible wealth of creative energy. In this interesting time of isolation, I think that what we all need are reminders of how deeply and intrinsically connected we are to each other.

Jillian Christmas lives on the unceded territories of the Squamish, Tsleil-Waututh and Musqueam people, where she served for six years as Artistic Director of Verses Festival of Words. An educator, organizer, and advocate in the arts community, utilizing an anti-oppressive lens, Jillian has performed and facilitated workshops across the continent.