10/18/2021

Achieving An Equilibrium: An Interview with Cicely Belle Blain

The following interview is part four of an eight-part series of conversations with BC poets which I released in April 2021. All eight interviews were originally posted at ReadLocalBC.caThis was the third year of my collaboration with Read Local BC (you can read the 2019 interviews here, and the 2020 interviews here).

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Manitoba - Cicely Belle Blain

I found Black people between groves of wheat
drove hours along open road back to Winnipeg
heard whispers in the topography
Ta-Nehisi said I could go anywhere
he told me in two hundred pages that Black folks could travel
said seeing the world is not a luxury
reserved for white men

we do travel though

some of us are still
on ships


Reprinted with permission
from 
Burning Sugar 
(Arsenal Pulp Press, 2020).

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Rob Taylor: You grew up in London (the big one that people outside of Canada know about) and moved to Vancouver for university. It’s been a relatively short amount of time, then, in which you’ve established yourself in the political (Black Lives Matter Vancouver, Bakau Consulting) and literary (Burning Sugar) life of the city. Could you talk about coming to Vancouver and learning to navigate those particular worlds? What do you think made it possible for you to establish yourself so quickly? 

Cicely Belle Blain: I came to Vancouver to attend UBC. I had never been to Vancouver or even Canada before so it was a pretty nerve wracking experience. Aside from the mountains and beaches, the main selling point was the Karen McKellin International Leader of Tomorrow Award that UBC offered me: a scholarship that makes it possible for international students who cannot afford the high tuition prices to attend. 

I have always been someone who gets involved in a lot of things. As someone with ADHD, the academic side of things is really challenging, so from a young age I’ve thrown myself into extra-curricular activities, especially if they were centered around politics and social justice. In addition, coming from a family of activists and change makers, helped me feel really primed and equipped to jump into activism, no matter the city. 

I think my ability to grow my business, literary career and activism work is a combination of some of the privileges I hold as a light skinned, educated, British person and also the fearlessness I was taught by my grandmother and mum. I have always been instilled with the tools and confidence to stand up for myself and go for every opportunity.

RT: What major roadblocks stood in your way?

CBB: A lot of the road blocks I have experienced are tied to my race, gender and age. Especially in starting my business, I felt so many doors were closed to me because I did not have the intergenerational wealth and business acumen to understand all the complexities of running a business. Especially in the beginning, I felt clients looked down on me and undervalued my intelligence and knowledge. 

RT: In “Hollywood, Florida” you write of “cross-Atlantic love” and it feels possible that you are speaking both of your own cross-Atlantic life and the Atlantic-spanning triangular slave trade. Indeed, in the first section of the book, “Place,” you travel in and around Europe, West Africa, and North America—all homes to either yourself or members of your extended family. 

I’m obviously not equating the two “triangles”, but are there ways in which your travels caused you to think about the slave trade, and its ongoing legacy, in different ways than you would have if you’d stayed put in London?

CBB: Yes, definitely. Moving to North America and the opportunities I have had to travel have really exposed to me the unending and global nature of anti-Blackness. It has allowed me to connect the dots between my experiences growing up in London, the histories of colonialism and slavery, (which didn’t necessarily happen on British soil but were driven and enacted by Britain for centuries), and how my experience as a Black British person is a result of both the wealth generated by the Empire and the creation of anti-Blackness.

RT: Assuming the poems with place names as titles (like “Manitoba”) were written in those places, you traveled over half the planet in writing this book! At one point you mention that your browser has “thirty flight search tabs” and that you own “more bathing suits than underwear,” so I suspect travel has been central to your life and identity (you note at one point that travel “becomes my greatest escape”). 

CBB: The ability to travel freely to so many places is definitely a huge privilege and something I understood to be a privilege from a very young age. My family made a concerted effort to provide us with the opportunity to travel, even at the sacrifice of other luxuries. I remember in ninth grade my teacher asked me why I didn’t choose geography as a subject to pursue and I replied that I felt like I already had front row seats to the best geographical education. I have always valued and appreciated my parents’ willingness to take risks—they’ve moved from the Netherlands to Italy to Kenya in the time I’ve lived in Canada.

RT: We’ve all had to live life differently since the onset of the pandemic, but I wonder if that isn’t particularly true for you, having lost your ability to travel. How has your time been during the pandemic? Has the requirement to stay in one place caused you to look at the world, or yourself, any differently?

CBB: Over the past year the value that travel holds has changed. It is no longer about exploration and fun and leisure, but about connecting or reconnecting with people, ancestors or culture. This has allowed me to view travel less from a Western perspective of ticking things off a bucket list and more as a sacred opportunity to find parts of me that are missing. I hope when the pandemic is over, I can dedicate my future travels to places like Gambia, Jamaica and other lands where my ancestry lies.

RT: In addition to your physical travels around the world, the poems in Burning Sugar also travel the internet in their explorations of racial injustice. “How many white people can say their death will end up on YouTube? Nestled between Ariana Grande and reruns of Ellen?” you write so powerfully in “Dear Philando Castille.” As an activist and organizer, what do you think the internet has enabled you to do that was unavailable to previous generations? 

CBB: I think the unique experience of millennials is that we were the first to grow up almost entirely online. For older generations, it’s something that came along later, while Gen Z are getting to learn from our mistakes and successes. From as young as 6 or 7, I have pretty formative memories that revolve around the internet; by 10 I was using MSN to talk to friends (and strangers) online and so much of my self-exploration around my queerness, race and gender identity is thanks to the internet. While it’s not always safe, I think it is truly influential and I am so grateful to have grown up in this age (I often try to imagine what people did in the Spanish flu pandemic with no technology…). 

RT: You mention that it’s “not always safe” on the internet (to say the least!). In what ways do you think he internet has made activism and organizing more difficult?

CBB: The main issue with the internet in my experience as an activist is the exposure to harm and violence from strangers. Many of the poems in Burning Sugar I wrote in 2017 after I left Vancouver for 6 months because of the hate and death threats I was receiving as a result of speaking up against police involvement in Pride.

RT: I’m so sorry that happened to you. You write about your experience at the Pride parade in the long poem “Toronto” (“We asked for recognition, safety, compassion, empathy and freedom. What we got was dismissal, hypervisibility, vilification and violence”). “Toronto” sits at the centre of your book and is, essentially, a short essay. This kind of genre-mixing is happening more frequently in Canadian poetry, perhaps most notably in your editor Vivek Shraya’s collection, even this page is white, which places a series of interviews at its centre. 

Could you talk about the choice to put the essay (essay-poem?) at the middle of the book? More broadly, can you talk about what ways Shraya helped shape Burning Sugar (which she says “had all of the elements there by the time it reached me”)?

CBB: Working with Vivek was magical. As a young queer person of colour I was completely clueless on how to publish my work, and the opportunities and wisdom she provided were invaluable.

I knew that I wanted to explore different styles and genre. I really love all kinds of writing, and always have, and didn’t want to limit myself to just poems. I had intended to include more essays but they were the most time consuming, to play with the delicate balance of being beautiful and educational.

RT: “Toronto” explores the simultaneous desire to be at once visible and invisible—the desire to stand out (as queer, as black) and to blend into the crowd. Your jobs as a diversity consultant and a writer are very “public facing,” to say the least! How are you feeling now about that balance in your life? Has the nature of the balance you desire shifted at all since the time described in “Toronto”? Do you feel like you’re better able to achieve it?

CBB: I am currently feeling good about this balance. I think that has come from a boost in confidence over the past year; with the release and success of Burning Sugar, I can really feel the validation and affirmation that my work is important and people actually want to read it or hear me speak. 

I have always struggled with impostor syndrome, especially after spending four years in a predominantly white academic institution. To achieve success in my writing and in my business feels like I am finally doing what I am good at, and it is appreciated and admired by others. This allows me to feel like less of a fraud when I post online or appear in media interviews. People are genuinely looking to me for my knowledge and expertise and that allows me to feel less anxious and awkward about it all. Although I am still a very awkward person—but most people who know me say I pull it off well.

RT: Ha! Well, you don’t show it in interviews, at least.

The second section of Burning Sugar, entitled “Art”, explores art exhibits by Black artists, and features letters (“epistolary poems,” if we’re being fancy) to the artists themselves. Your mother was a visual artist, and you note that you spent “many a weekend trawling the galleries of Europe”. How do you think visual and performance art has informed your writing? Your activism?

CBB: Art was definitely my first introduction to politics and activism. My mum, who is an artist and art teacher (she was even my art teacher in school), has always taught me that art has meaning and the power to make change. Almost all of the exhibitions mentioned in the book, I went with my mum and she has always provided spaces for critical thinking and exploration of creativity.

RT: Your speaking to/with visual art by Black artists reminded me of Chantal Gibson’s wonderful collection, How She Read (you can read my interview with Gibson, from a previous iteration of this interview series, here). In addition to exploring the art, you both also focus on the overwhelmingly white spaces (the walls and the people) in which visual art is usually displayed. In your letter-poem “Dear Selina”, about UK performance artist Selina Thompson, you write:

Under the dim lights, I felt the vibrations of white people. Consumed by an intergenerational fascination with you/me/us. Enraged at their ancestors and counterparts—but never at themselves. Oblivious, mostly, to their complicity in the story you tell.

I also felt the Black bodies—some were my friends; others were people I wished I knew. Most were tense, leaning forward, metaphorical arms outstretched to hold you or be you or something else.

You obviously think a lot about space and audience: how they influence the art; how the various parts of an audience receive a work differently. A poetry book, like a gallery, has a lot of white space and is predominately consumed by white/straight “viewers,” though the reading of a poetry book is usually a private act, invisible to the poet. What were your thoughts about audience as you prepared Burning Sugar for publication? How do you think the unavoidable whiteness of a large portion of your audience shaped, and shapes, the book? Who do you imagine are the various members of your invisible “room” full of readers, and what do you hope they’re taking away from it?

CBB: I definitely had the potential whiteness of the audience in mind when writing, which is one thing I regret about the book. It is only very recently as people start to question and critique diversity and inclusion consulting or anti-racism training, that I realised a lot of anti-racism education is directed towards white people. We simplify big concepts, or sometimes even exploit our own trauma, to educate white people (I write about this here). 

When I was writing Burning Sugar, I was doing this—writing for white people to understand me better, when really I wanted to be writing for myself and other Black queer people. I think I did achieve an equilibrium but I’m not sure.

RT: The last section of Burning Water, “Child”, is about – surprise! – your childhood. The default assumption would be that one would put their poems about childhood at the beginning of their first book, not the end. Could you talk about that choice to close the book with it? Is it connected in any way to that equilibrium you were seeking?

CBB: I put “Child” at the end of the book because I felt like people had to do the hard work to get to the most intimate part! As a British person, I am not accustomed to being overly vulnerable with my emotions and even though I think there is so much power in emotional intimacy—with one another and with our readers—it does not come naturally! I felt it was important for people to first understand the larger systemic issues I was referencing and understand my adult experience, which is also a reflection of so many other Black queer people’s experiences. Then we could go down the rabbit hole into my past!

I also saw it as a reflection of how much access people have to me. As a “public figure” (I still cringe at the idea of this but I also have to recognize the responsibility and privilege that comes with my social position and capital), I constantly feel exposed, easily accessible to everyone at any time. This is extremely exhausting—people feel they can ask me anything, comment on everything I do and say and wear, even when it’s unsolicited. I felt with the this structuring of the book I was able to take back some control—assuming people read it in order—and invite people into my deepest memories and truths at my own pace.

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Cicely Belle Blain is a Black, multi-racial, queer writer, activist and CEO from London, UK. Cicely Belle is noted for founding Black Lives Matter Vancouver and subsequently being listed as one of Vancouver’s 50 most powerful people by Vancouver Magazine twice, BC Business’s 30 under 30, and one of Refinery29’s Powerhouses of 2020. They are now the CEO of Bakau Consulting, an anti-racism consulting company with over 1000 clients worldwide. Cicely Belle is also an instructor in Executive Leadership at Simon Fraser University and the Editorial Director of Ripple of Change Magazine. They are the author of Burning Sugar (Arsenal Pulp Press and VS Books) which was recently longlisted for the 2021 Gerald Lampert Memorial Award and the Pat Lowther Memorial Award.

10/11/2021

A Third Animal Emerges: An Interview with Lillian Boraks-Nemetz

The following interview is part three of an eight-part series of conversations with BC poets which I released in April 2021. All eight interviews were originally posted at ReadLocalBC.caThis was the third year of my collaboration with Read Local BC (you can read the 2019 interviews here, and the 2020 interviews here).

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Kiss in Nitobe Garden - Lillian Boraks-Nemetz

How I kissed you that night
in the Japanese garden where we sat
framed in cherry blossom
and bamboo

even time was tangled
in its own twilight foliage
where only the leap of a fish
marked our separation

last night I went back to Nitobe
and there we were
framed in cherry blossom
and bamboo

and I remembered
the leap of a fish
and how I kissed you
that night

 

Reprinted with permission
(Ronsdale Press, 2020).


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Rob Taylor: As a child in WWII, you were incarcerated in the Warsaw Ghetto for eighteen months and survived the war in hiding in several Polish villages, before immigrating to Canada in 1947. You’ve written about this time in your life extensively in a variety of genres: the YA novel The Brown Suitcase (1994), the poetry collection Ghost Children (2000), the anthology Tapestry of Hope (2004), and the adult novel Mouth of Truth (2018), for instance. The first section of Out of the Dark is likewise devoted, in various ways, to memories of the Holocaust, but is then followed by poems about other parts of the world (including Vancouver), poems about gardens, about family, etc.

Could you talk a little about writing about your childhood, and the Holocaust, in Out of the Dark, and how it compares to your approach to the subjects in previous books? Have you noticed ways in which your writing on the subject has shifted from the last time you wrote about it in poetry, twenty years ago?

Lillian Boraks-Nemetz: When I first started writing about the Holocaust my voice came from an abyss, a place of indescribable pain inside me, and the sound would not be stilled.

I thought not only of myself but of all the other children of war, for they surely are the first most vulnerable, victimised by fear, hunger, loss, isolation and persecution. The feeling that society hates you for who you are (in my case, a Jew). 

When I first started writing about the Holocaust my voice came from an abyss

A great injustice befell the Jews of Europe. We were a family who lived comfortably, who loved and played. My father was a successful lawyer and my mother a beautiful socialite. Soon it all fell apart when we lost our human rights, especially the right to live. This is what I write about both in prose and poetry. This is what I speak about to students and sometimes adults who understand less and are less compassionate that the young students. 

The Warsaw ghetto, where my family and I were incarcerated and quarantined for typhus, was a treacherous place, and the wall that imprisoned us is still standing in my mind. Out of the Dark is the only book I’ve written that I’ve read many times after publication. It is my book of healing, a journey from the abyss to the world of life and love.

RT: Yes, I can sense that, and also that “the wall… is still standing in [your] mind.” In “Terezin, 1998” you write “why do we Jews keep returning?” and while that question can be asked of literal travel to the sites of the Holocaust (in Poland, Germany, etc.), it can also speak to this still-standing wall, and to the literary “returns” you keep making to the country on the page.  Could you talk a little about your travels in adulthood to the region?

LBN: Terezin is in the Czech Republic, near Prague, where I attended one of the Holocaust Child conferences. It represented for me all camps, better or worse. But I did return to Poland frequently where I visited the Warsaw Ghetto grounds, a bit of the wall still standing. I visited Treblinka where my family was murdered, then Auschwitz. I brought all these images with me to put into stories and novels.

RT: The theme, and question, of “home” hangs over much of this book. Warsaw, Vancouver and Jerusalem are all presented as places to which you are in some way bound, and from which you are in other ways alienated (language, history, religion, etc.). You’ve lived in British Columbia for over seventy years, so I’m sure Vancouver must feel like “home” in most regards, but could you talk a little about what traveling to, and writing poems about, these three places did for your thinking about the ideas of “home” and “homeland”?

LBN: Immigrants who lose their homeland forever live in exile, even when they accept their adopted home as their own. I love and respect Canada, but my language was broken when, having written in Polish, I was forced to switch to English. So my writing is that of a late bloomer. 

It’s here in Canada I was able to heal, in a society where peace prevailed. I am aware of Canadian parks, trees and flowers. I am aware of climate change. People only see me as a Holocaust Survivor and I resent that. They do not read my work as that of a writer.

RT: This leads us nicely to talking about parks: a central theme in Out of the Dark‘s second section is the garden, both as a physical space and an idea. In the book, we visit UBC’s Nitobe Garden and “Irina’s Garden in Southlands”, presumably just a little ways down the road, but also the Jardin de Luxembourg in Paris, among others. 

Gardens are presented as places of both respite and creation, spaces for the ever-renewing (and possibly infinite) amidst life’s changes. Could you talk about the role of gardens in your life, and your creative process? 

LBN: I love gardens. My first love was a Polish garden where sunflowers, which are my favorite, grew taller than me. It was in Poland, where I roamed forests and fields, that I learned the magic and beauty of nature. 

My first garden was after all the primal garden, the garden of Eden. A place of peace and beauty, also of deceit and betrayal, like the world.

Here in Canada I saw those images in translation at first, then they became authentic. As I walk along the streets I do not miss a little park, flowers growing on the side, and magnificent trees in all their season. Finery… even barren winter trees stretch out their branches in beautiful configurations…. 

My first garden was after all the primal garden, the garden of Eden. A place of peace and beauty, also of deceit and betrayal, like the world.

RT: This idea of a “place of peace,” a place of respite amidst the world’s betrayals, runs through many of your poems.  In “Old-Fashioned” you mention that meditating in a garden shelters you “from the wind / and modern cacophonies”. Often enough, though, it’s those very cacophonies that you’re writing about! Does the shelter – manifested in gardens, or meditation, or otherwise – give you the space and rest you need to go back out in “the wind,” so to speak?

LBN: I carry within me an inner garden, so even in a trench I can envision the garden’s beauty and its influence on my writing.  I don’t have to go there physically. James Joyce said that he finds what he needs in the “smithy of his soul.” 

RT: You mentioned earlier that moving to Canada allowed you to heal from the “cacophony” of your childhood. In a sense, would you say that Vancouver has acted as a garden in your larger life, just as the gardens within Vancouver have granted you shelter from the larger city?

LBN: I don’t look at my Polish experience as a cacophony. I look at it as partly my childhood discoveries of life’s nature and attributes, and partly as an apocalyptic garden of WWII. As in the Garden of Eden from which we were all exiled.

Canada is the real world where I came to heal. The cacophony persists in a social world, where people are selfish , self-oriented, asleep and materialistic.  I see this in the way some of my books are perceived and read… their eyes lacking inner vision.

RT: Your poems eschew punctuation, with the exception of the occasional question or exclamation mark. Similarly, with the exception of proper names (and the opening word of every poem), they lack capitalization. All of this prioritizes the importance of enjambment – your strategic breaking of the line – to communicate pauses, breaths, and often the logic of sentences. Could you talk a bit about your decisions to minimize capitalization and punctuation, and the role of enjambment in your poetry?

LBN: I use spaces instead of commas. I don’t use periods at the ends of lines. I hate punctuation, but my publisher, who had a hard time with the rhythm of my poetry, managed to sneak them into certain places unnecessarily. I tend to sacrifice English constructions for my own rhythm and content.

RT: You’ve translated the poetry of Wacław Iwaniuk and Andrzej Busza, Polish poets who, like yourself, immigrated to Canada soon after the war. Could you talk a little about how translation and, more broadly, Polish poetry and the Polish language, have influenced your own writing style? 

LBN: Translation influenced my English writing hugely. J. Michael Yates, an American poet teaching a creative writing course at UBC, noticed that I had a knack for translation and encouraged me. I was also encouraged by a British Poet at UBC , Michael Bullock, also known worldwide for his German translations.

I come from a broken language. I wrote in Polish as a little girl, then I was told when we came here that my past did not exist, only my English future. When I saw a Polish poem translated into English, I saw the possibility of my own writing. Here no one understood my harsh imagery, nor anything else I wrote about, and my work was rejected. A Polish scholar and a German poet told me once that when two animals fight with each other a third emerges. That was my version of English poetry. 

I come from a broken language. I wrote in Polish as a little girl, then I was told when we came here that my past did not exist, only my English future. When I saw a Polish poem translated into English, I saw the possibility of my own writing.

RT: In your acknowledgments, you thank George and Angela McWhirter, and also Ronald Hatch (Ronsdale’s publisher), for their support of the book. You’ve had long relationships with all three, having studied and worked with George in UBC’s Creative Writing program, and having now published three books with Ronsdale over a 20 year span. Could you talk a little about the role these three people have played in bringing you to the place of publishing Out of the Dark?

LBN: The McWhirters are great. They have always been hospitable and good natured and non-judgmental. Whenever I needed help, George was always there, and Angela too. I am grateful for their help.

I love and respect Ronald Hatch. He has done so much for Canadian poetry including a few immigrants like myself. He should be applauded and thanked for his contribution to Canadian literature.

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Lillian Boraks-Nemetz was born in Warsaw, Poland, where she survived the Holocaust as a child, escaped the Warsaw Ghetto and lived in Polish villages under a false identity. She has a Master’s Degree in Comparative Literature and teaches Creative Writing at the University of British Columbia’s Writing Centre. She is the author of numerous books, including Ghost Children, a collection of poetry, The Old Brown Suitcase, a young adult novel, and her recent adult novel Mouth of Truth: Buried Secrets.

10/04/2021

One Foot In, One Foot Out: An Interview with Patrick Friesen

The following interview is part two of an eight-part series of conversations with BC poets which I released in April 2021. All eight interviews were originally posted at ReadLocalBC.caThis was the third year of my collaboration with Read Local BC (you can read the 2019 interviews here, and the 2020 interviews here).

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putrefaction - Patrick Friesen

putrefaction, yes, it’s often on my mind,
not oftener than it was, but with a smell
to it now, the harbour at low tide, the
scent of a rose bush in the backyard,
and I see it in the flamenco dancer’s 
articulate articulated hands, raised
above her head, finding the spotlight,
that is perhaps the deeper beauty now,
not that things are becoming something
else, but that the hands are already appalling,
and exquisite, one holds one’s breath, as
they say, each time beholding for the first
time what has been beheld forever,
remembering how my young daughter,
watching a ballet, believed she was all
dancers, and she was.


Reprinted with permission
(Anvil Press, 2020).

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Rob Taylor: In your essay in A Ragged Pen: Essays on Poetry and Memory (Gaspereau Press, 2006), you write, “So much of the writing, the poems, that occupied me as a young man in love with ideas lose their resonance, and I find myself entering simple songs of longing.”

You’ve had the rare opportunity to gather not just one 20+ year span of writing in a Selected Poems, but two (Blasphemer’s Wheel: Selected & New Poems was published by Turnstone in 1994 and outlasting the weather: selected and new poems 1994-2020 was published by Anvil Press in 2020). Looking back over that longer span, do you see that transformation – from poems of ideas to simple songs of longing – as having played out? If so, how do you think it’s presented itself in the poems?

Patrick Friesen: One thing you need to know is that whatever I have said at one point in time is true, for me, for that moment, and it may remain true for a long time, or not. That statement of mine was true at the moment and is still partially true. But it implies that I left behind the love of ideas. I didn’t. I think what I meant was that the world of ideas became less important with time. At that moment I was in a space of longing. It’s not something I’ve abandoned, but it doesn’t have that same importance now. One’s life keeps moving on relentlessly and the poetry with it, and ideas are always there. 

Time means different angles of looking at things, different lenses one looks through. Yet, there is a constant which we call voice, and voice, I think, consists of personality, experience and craft. These things affect voice on the page and one’s physical voice. For me, that is. So, this Selected contains some of those changes, contains ideas and longing, but the development is not as neat as saying that once I was in love with ideas, now I have entered simple songs of longing. The longing was always there, the ideas too. It’s all interwoven.

RT: Yes, very true. It was reckless of me to present a fifteen year old quote to a poet! Have you noticed other large changes between the two books, or between where you started in outlasting the weather and where you’ve arrived?

PF: I think my changes in poetry are organic, like life. Changes happen. There are causes behind the changes but not always conscious causes. In fact, usually not. I don’t stop and think that it’s time for a change. Rather I find myself in the beginning of a change and then I pursue it, explore it, see where it takes me. I think it takes an outside eye to objectively see what big changes there are in this book. I know there have been changes that went in directions that were dead ends, which doesn’t mean everything that happened on that road was wrong. It’s just that it didn’t work finally.

RT: As an outside eye, I can say that one of the joys of reading outlasting the weather came in tracking the formal evolution of your poems from book to book. In one book, we watch you experiment with a form, only to find that form front-and-centre in the next. For example, your experiments with the Whitman-esque long line in 1998’s st. mary’s at main lead to the long-lined “clearing poems” of 2002’s the breath you take from the lordand your experiments with short-lined couplets in 2012’s a dark boat lead to the book-length couplets of 2015’s a short history of crazy bone

Is this something you do consciously – take up a certain line-length or shape (the sonnet-shaped poems in Songen, as another example) and see what you can squeeze out of it over a number of years? Or is it less intentional than that? When you hitch yourself to a certain form, do you write in it exclusively for an extended period of time, or are you able to move back and forth between forms?

PF: My changes always happen at some given moment in the act of writing. I don’t think I ever think about a formal shift and then do it. It begins to happen, and I explore it, think about it. Often, by the time I’ve kind of figured out what I’m doing I shift to some other form. You know a person can get bored writing something over and over again. One day you just feel too bored with a poem to continue it so you do something different right there and then. The poem needs something different, it’s not doing what it’s supposed to be doing, there is no resonance, as if repetition has killed the form. Something else happens. And off you go with that. 

RT: I can sense that creative restlessness in your books. There aren’t too many poets out there whose line lengths vary like yours do, from 2-3 words-per-line in a short history of crazy bone to 20+ in the breath you take from the lord to the new prose poems – one long line! Could you talk about that long line of yours a bit? What draws you to writing it? Have you found that it’s better suited to certain subjects (or, perhaps, certain ways of thinking)?

PF: My long run-on sentences, without punctuation, were influenced somewhat by Walt Whitman, and even more by Jack Kerouac’s On the Road and certain books in the Bible. Phrasing, phrasing within the long line, phrases overlapping sometimes so the larger phrase could be seen two different ways. The long line opened things up for me, and this was essential. I understood that the conventional line at that time was actually not how my poetic thinking process worked. It truncated my thinking, so why not open up the line so it expressed the process? In fact, I realized this from doing readings.  I wasn’t paying attention to the conventional line endings; they just didn’t work with my breath.  There was a permanent learning in that. It felt wonderful. Later when I tried to write much more tightly I still had a freedom I had learned with the long line. 

Somewhere in the development of the long line I found my voice, or rather I clarified it. I think the voice was there earlier, but I didn’t know exactly what it was. I freed myself with the long line. Readings changed because of it; there was more of a flow to my reading, a horizontal flow which allowed my physical head voice to sink into my body. 

RT: What about the opposite, the very short line?

PF: The short line came out usually when the long line felt like a habit and maybe I was getting lazy and a bit too prosey. So, tighter lines, couplets, whatever, to get back to precision. I’ve always done a kind of balancing act, I think, between tight poetry and a more prosey line. Always, though, I believe my voice is woven into the line, whether tight or long and loosey-goosey.

RT: One of the great forms for honing precision is the haiku. Though you don’t have any haiku in outlasting the weather, the form still feels very important to you. The closing poem of outlasting the weather, and your new CD of music and spoken word (created in collaboration with your son, Niko), are both entitled “Buson’s Bell”, after Buson’s famous  bell/butterfly haiku (“Clinging to the bell / he dozes so peacefully / this new butterfly”). Basho’s Kyoto/cuckoo haiku (“Even in Kyoto / hearing the cuckoo’s cry / I long for Kyoto”) also seems significant to you, as it takes up much of the focus of your essay in A Ragged Pen. Could you talk about the influence haiku has had on your poetry?

PF: Yes, haiku has had an influence though I’ve never managed to write a good one. First off, because of the differences between English and Japanese, I expect my version of a haiku would be a bit longer than three lines of seventeen syllables. But, most likely, I haven’t reached a point where the brevity of the form completely matches how I’m thinking. There are haiku-like lines within long poems fairly often, and I’ve written some brief pieces, played with couplets, and so on. In a chapbook not included in this Selected I wrote only in couplets, none of which had more than 3, maybe 4, words in it. I was compressing some feeling/thoughts that I couldn’t get at in longer lines, more syllables. I don’t think I managed it, but it was an excellent exercise in becoming a little more precise in my writing than I’d been at that point. It clarified my poems somewhat. This, too, has always been part of my poetic process. I’ve numerous times written briefly, even writing a bunch of haiku, not to publish them but to work my way back to some kind of precision and evocation. Buson’s poem is fundamentally important to me in form and in what it’s saying about that incredibly brief moment which is an eternity. The two come together perfectly in that poem, though I don’t know it in its original language. Yes, haiku, and related Japanese forms, have long had an influence on me. As have certain long-lined poets who play that balancing act between prose and poetry. The long line with heightened language of image and music.

RT: “That incredibly brief moment which is an eternity” – yes! I’ve always felt like there are two types of poets: those who want to write and write and write until the moment the universe stops them, and those whose writing is a means toward reaching an eventual silence (even if they never fully arrive). Funnily, considering you’ve published eighteen books of poetry (in addition to plays, essays, translations…), I’ve long thought of you as the second type. Your poems are filled with words, but your longing for “the clearing” (in the breath you take from the lord), for the impossible “pure concept” of home (in A Ragged Pen), for religious peace (“The Church of Critical Mass”), and for Buson’s butterfly, all speak to a reaching beyond words, towards a silent place.

Would you say the path you’re walking is one toward (voluntary) silence? If so, has it been a smooth one? (I note that you write elsewhere “rising to speechlessness, that ladder of desire… how many times you’ve fallen.”) What role does poetry play, for you, in walking that path?

PF: I don’t have a clear answer for you here. I’m just walking the path, no goal in sight. Not aiming for silence or for more noise. Just moving along. There are points where I become “speechless,” whether because of events in my life or because I’ve reached some kind of impasse, or point of boredom, in my writing. This just happens quite naturally. Then, after a pause, it continues. Perhaps one of these days that pause will become permanent, but it’s not something I’m aiming for. I have a friend who wrote every day, published a lot, much more than I have, but he reached a point where he said he suddenly couldn’t write anymore. That was it. He thought he might write again, but it’s been a couple of years. How to explain that? In my life I arrive at times where I am silent, need to be silent, and sometimes I think this is the way it should be from then on. I have great admiration for those mystics who achieved silence. But how does that happen? Would I run out of words? Get tired of putting them on the page? Would the words feel so empty finally that silence already existed, only I had to recognize it? I’ll be vague here and say it’s a process of spirit.

RT: Yes, yes, yes. Perhaps it was foolish of me to frame it as a singular process from speech to silence, and not a cyclical process of speaking and falling silent and speaking again. And a process of spirit, as you say. 

On the matter of the spirit, you were born and raised, and spent much of your adult life, in Manitoba before moving to the West Coast, so it’s not surprising that outlasting the weather has one foot in each place (and its distinctly different weather that must be outlasted!). 

In the poem “wind”, you write “on the prairies you walk through god’s breath most of your life.” Do you think you approach the subject of religion and spirituality differently when writing in each place? The distance from your Mennonite roots seems like an obvious difference, but I wonder if there’s more to it – something connected to the landscape?

PF: Whatever spiritual fabric I have is undoubtedly woven out of wherever I live and have lived. I do think physical environment is absorbed by a person. And the birth and early growth years are the most fundamental. Whatever that terrain was. When I spend time in Manitoba I am immediately at home no matter what changes have been wrought, particularly in Winnipeg. Walking outside my home town always feels deeply home to me. But, I’ve also always felt that wherever I live is a present home. Where I exist is home for me. Yet, that first home is the foundational one. It is about landscape, or terrain, which is the word I tend to prefer. Human-created environments change more swiftly than terrain, and what was is no longer. Still, something remains of the city I lived in. How much of it is just in my imagination I don’t know. 

There is the Portuguese word “saudade”, a concept of nostalgia, of longing for what was the first home. That home no longer exists, everything has changed, but that original home is in the person, perhaps not as nostalgia but as part of the creative imagination. That’s how I feel about Winnipeg. And, now that I’ve lived on Vancouver Island for a dozen years I have a slight touch of that for Vancouver. Maybe a map-grid image is appropriate. In each place I live I form a grid in my mind. So, one grid goes over the previous, and so on. After a while the first grid becomes somewhat obscured beneath the others, but it’s always there. In each new grid one has that previous grid/grids deep in the imagination. And the first grid is the most important. 

And, is it possible that the home of my people more than a thousand years ago, which as far as I know was Northern Europe and Scandinavia, is the first home and still exists within me somehow? I think so.

RT: Speaking of homelands (ancient and present), we’re in the middle of a transformation in how people think about “Canada,” and Canadian literature, when it comes to Indigenous-settler relations. For one, we use terms like “settler” now! For another, Indigenous writers and their perspectives (both long marginalized) are finally moving to the centre of our literary conversations. Lagging behind are settler perspectives on what this all means; what the flawed colonial project of “Canada” really is, and should be. 

I say all this to highlight that you’ve spent decades working through these issues: in the broken bowl, for instance, you describe the law as “the paperwork of victors” and in “homeless” you describe Manitoba settlers as “orphans / wandering further from home… barefoot finally on the stage / with nothing to say”. Has your sense of “Canada” as a country, and the place of settlers within that country, shifted at all over the years covered in this book? If so, how? What do you think the balance ought to be, for settler writers, between listening and speaking?

PF: I think the biggest change in how I saw Canada probably happened once I left my home town to go to university. The small town I lived in was somewhat sheltered from the big world outside. It had been built to achieve this. No rail line through the town, for example. Staying separate from the world, trying not to let it influence the town. 

The history books didn’t do a very good job of covering the beginnings of this country. We certainly didn’t see the notion that white European settlers had stolen land from the people who already lived here. It was somehow swallowed up in a more general idea of “exploration”, “development”, and so on. The exploitation of First Nations, the theft of land, the attempts to destroy their languages, their spiritual traditions, their culture in general, these things were not covered. 

However, even then, I didn’t see Canada so much as a nation as I thought of it as a country. It seemed to me many different peoples lived here, not one nationality; I really distrust nationalism. But my education began in my late teens. I read books, heard news reports, talked to people, and I began to understand some of what had happened. John A. MacDonald, for example, was not some saintly figure who created this country. Yes, he was one of the white men who forged this country on European models of law and governance, but he quite obviously tried to have First Nations eliminated, perhaps even physically, using force, broken promises and deception. My home province had seen thugs from the east arrive to get rid of Metis Nation all under the approving eye of MacDonald. We were, at best, guests, at worst invaders. 

As a fourth generation settler I believe I belong to my home terrain, but I also know much injustice has to be rectified. We’ve just begun the process. As to the “paperwork of the victors”, this happens all over the world, and it happened in Canada. History from an entitled position of power and privilege. It’s not a new concept. 

I also believe it is incumbent on us to learn our history truthfully, all of it, and from different perspectives, and to make recompense and make changes in our legal system, educational system, and so on, to create actual equality. We need to listen and not get in the way. Meanwhile, as an individual, I keep writing, hopefully with an understanding of who I am, where I come from, and how I live now. Always I’ve felt I have one foot in, one foot out.

RT: Yes, it seems that way, in more ways than one! Speaking of education—learning and listening—you taught Creative Writing for many years before recently retiring. Around 18 years ago, when I was just starting out as a writer, I was lucky enough to attend a one-off workshop you ran for undergrad students at SFU (it was likely my first interaction with a “real” poet!). I remember you standing over my shoulder and reading my rather abstract poem, then suggesting I add something concrete (a lawn sprinkler, I recall) to it. I remember, too, rejecting the idea, only to later circle back to it and now (of course! of course!) I constantly encourage my own students to ground their abstract thoughts in things

Could you talk a little about how teaching has influenced your writing? Are there ways in which it’s clarified elements of the writing process that had previously been clouded for you?

PF: I have mixed feelings about teaching creative writing. I never believed that, as a teacher, I could make poets (or any kind of writer) out of students. And I told them that at the beginning of each semester. I could teach them how to become better readers of poetry and, in the process, they might find what they needed to do for the betterment of their writing. But a creative writing course or workshop cannot give a person voice; in fact, it can prevent voice, short-circuit a potential development of voice. 

I always tried to ground my teaching in things, as you suggest, in the world around us, on earth. There is a place for abstraction, but it usually needs some grounding in physical reality in order to have any resonance. Abstraction tends toward exposition and opinion. It doesn’t help with a poetic exploration. There you need connotation, ambiguity, resonance. It’s difficult to make music with abstract language. That’s always been my approach anyway. Things I learned in my own writing, though, entered my teaching. So, there was, I think, a fluidity to how I taught, discovering new approaches to teaching.

RT: You write in a very distinct style – no capitalization, and no periods (except, sometimes, to close the poem). Could you talk a little about how you came to those choices, and why you think they stuck? My sense is that they help communicate some of the themes we’ve discussed thus far. Would you say that’s true? 

PF: Some of my punctuation changes are quite arbitrary, happened without a plan. In the writing of one poem or another, the given punctuation didn’t make much sense, so I tried other kinds of punctuation, or none at all. This is partly because I write my poems aloud. They are spoken as I write them. I listen for music, for sound. For a while I used the caesura a lot, until I realized I was using it out of habit, so I quit. It served its purpose in trying to show how to read the poem. Like musical notes, I guess. 

After years of using almost no punctuation, writing poems according to phrases within the long line, the way I would read the poem aloud, I made a significant shift with the poems in Songen. There were small shifts and changes all along, but this was a big one. The way it began is that I was beginning a poem about a haircut. At different times I’ve been interested in what haircuts mean, how they’re used to depersonalize for example. In the military hair is shaved off right at the start, or at least used to be. In my own environment I had a brush cut, was not allowed to have longer hair. I don’t know if the purpose behind that was at all similar to the one in the military, but it felt like it. Anyway, I wrote the word “haircut”, then realized I had previously written a piece, several years previously, about haircuts, so I put a comma there, to indicate a hesitation, and then wrote “again”. I liked the look of that and decided to write the rest of the poem putting in commas wherever a phrase ended. I liked it. The poem disappeared, but I wrote a few hundred poems like that, exploring further how I could use the comma in different ways, both for the page and for reading aloud. 

At the same time I was rereading Chaucer, noting similarities between Low German and Middle English. I was intrigued by the fact that English, one of the world’s major languages, and Low German, a language not a lot of people speak, came from the same Saxon roots. My first language existed, in a way, within this massive language called English, and I could see that in Middle English. So, why not weave some of those words into my poems? It wasn’t long before I began throwing in Middle English and Low German words. I went further and used High German words, and Danish. A lot of these poems didn’t make the cut, but Songen had quite a few Middle English and Low German words or phrasings. Even that title is a Middle English word, indicating more than one person singing. 

RT: In the years leading up to Songen, you were also working, with Per Brask, on a translation of Danish poet Ulrikka S. Gernes’ Frayed Opus for Strings & Wind Instruments (Brick Books, 2015). That book would go on to be shortlisted for the Griffin Prize. That Danish and other similar languages were working their way into your writing seems a bit less surprising with that context.

Frayed Opus was the second book of Gernes’ that you and Brask translated (a Selected Poems was published by Brick Books in 2001). It feels noteworthy that one of those books was published near the beginning of the time period covered in outlasting the weather, while the other was published near the end. What effect has traveling the last 20 years alongside Gernes poems, the Danish language, and the act of translation, had on your own writing? 

PF: Translating has always had a beneficial effect on my work. I return to my own poetry with a greater clarity, having had to try to balance adherence to content and to the music and imagery of the poet I’ve been translating.

Working with that problem blows a few cobwebs out of my mind. I co-translate with Per Brask, a friend in Winnipeg. We’ve translated other Danish poets, like Niels Hav, too. The collaboration is a great pleasure, and it contributes to me looking at my own poetry with a slightly different lens, or perhaps a cleaned lens. 

RT: Oh, I like that idea. Don’t we all need a cleaning from time to time? What a challenge it must have been for you to look with clear/clean eyes upon your books and pick out “favourites” for your Selected Poems, especially when pulling poems out of your book-length sequences. Was it more or less difficult to pull them apart than the other books? Did figuring out how to represent those sequences via only a fraction of their composite parts teach you anything new about them?

PF: Yes, breaking up certain books can be difficult. I experienced that with my first Selected, Blasphemer’s Wheel. I chose certain bits of The Shunning, bits I thought might still hold a through-line. But I don’t think it worked. I wouldn’t do that again with that book. That question came up with a broken bowl and a short history of crazy bone. Whereas many bits of The Shunning were never meant to stand alone, in fact didn’t make sense on their own, it was easier to find individual poems within these other books, poems that could stand on their own. The same was true for the “clearing poems” in the breath you take from the lord. Each individual piece was a poem on its own. They were not interwoven in the same way as they were in The Shunning. I think the pieces from a broken bowl work as fragments, pointing toward the whole book, but still interesting as fragments. 

One of the influences on me in working with fragments was Anna Akhmatova. Her fragments came about because of necessity, fear of Stalin. She wrote secretly, often in her head, sometimes dictating to a friend to remember as she didn’t dare put things on paper. As a result she often came out with fragments she hoped to come back to but usually didn’t. I also discovered that over decades some fragments, written years apart, resembled each other, were identical in some instances. So, over many years the broken poem continued. That intrigued me, and I began writing fragments, as it felt natural at the time. For me it came to be hummingbird writing. That is still with me. Even the poems in Songen are, in a way, fragments welded together with commas. 

RT: You left two poetry books from this time period out from your Selected: 1999’s carrying the shadow and 2004’s bordello poems. Was this, in part, because like The Shunning, you couldn’t pull them apart?

PF: Both those books were experiments. With carrying the shadow I got into a rhythm of trying to combine simplification of language and form and telling a story. Well, it wasn’t really a story, but it was kind of a narrative of death, of some of the details of death, some of my tangential thinking around death. How could I do that? That was the question at the time. Looking back I don’t think it was a successful experiment for me. In particular I had to rethink what simplification meant for me. There were very few poems in that book that could stand on their own; they needed the rest of the book to support them. Choosing a few poems was like picking a weaving apart. I’ve had that problem with a few books, as we’ve discussed. In this case, I just couldn’t manage it. 

The bordello poems were also an experiment with simplification, especially form. I gave myself permission to write in very short couplets, seeing how much I could carry in such a condensed way. Also, there was a specific theme, or subject in that chapbook. The book needed all the poems. Once again I couldn’t pick out threads. 

RT: Obviously a poet is both, but I wonder if you think of yourself more as a writer of poems or as a writer of books? Is the distinction important to you? Was it drawn more into focus by the editing of outlasting the weather?

PF: I have at some points written books, knowing I was writing a book, not individual poems. a broken bowl is an obvious example: the image of the broken bowl, which I think I got from the Bible, was central to how I wrote those pieces. They are shards of broken crockery. When I was working on Songen I wasn’t thinking of a book, but I wasn’t just thinking of the individual poem either. Rather I got into a rhythm of exploring commas and Middle English and there was a flow to that, and I just kept going from poem to poem. At one point I decided I would stop for a bit, choose some of the poems and publish them as a book, a kind of winnowing. Perhaps one day the remaining poems will become part of another book. Winnowing is something I do all the time. I did it to some extent in creating the new Selected book. Throw them up in the air and see what lands, and what the wind blows away. Of course, what lands one day might be blown away another day. One changes one’s perspective a lot. That is, I do. 

RT: Speaking of impermanence and winnowing, in your essay in A Ragged Pen you write “my own death is something more than a concept of some distant future event. It is in my body. I know I am nearing the mist ahead of me.” That was back in 2006, when you were only 60 and 2/3rds of outlasting the weather was still unwritten! In the intervening fourteen years, has death and always felt steadily closer, or does the mist part at times? Is death a spur for your writing, or your writing on particular subjects?

PF: “Mist” is the wrong word, a little precious. I don’t know what the right one is. But, yes, death is always present though I’m not sure it’s a conscious “spur” for my writing. I don’t sit down having decided I’ll write about death. It emerges in poems now and then like a fish rising to the surface. It has, mostly, that kind of lurking presence.

RT: Death as a lurking presence—oh, isn’t that something we feel fiercely during this time of pandemic? The title of your book comes from one of your new prose poems, “Who Can Outlast the Weather?”, which talks about the radio turning on “with news of a world-wide plague.” In other prose poems, like “Horizon,” you seem to be looking back over your writing life. All of this gave me the sense that you were writing new poems during the book’s editing process, perhaps right up to it going to press! Is that true, and if so, do you think the experience of looking over all your books in some way shaped what you wrote (or what you’ve written sense)?

PF: The title of the book came before that prose poem. I had written a piece for my son Niko to put to music; it was called Outlasting the Weather. In the end I didn’t like it, so it didn’t show up on Buson’s Bell, our CD. But, while trying to think of a title for the book I remembered that piece and used the title. Later, I wrote a new piece and gave it that title as well. Yes, that piece was written shortly after the pandemic began. I wrote several of the pieces in the New Work section while the manuscript was with Anvil Press. I made changes before it went to print, adding and subtracting pieces. There’s nothing new in that for me, I’ve done it before. My writing since the book came out has just been a continuation of what I was doing in New Work.

RT: Ah, so in keeping with your pattern of experimenting with a form in one book, and then diving deep into the form in the next, should we expect a book-length sequence of prose poems soon? 

PF: I don’t know what the next book will be, or if there’ll be one. I have a lot of prose poems and other poems, enough easily for two books. I could end up with a book of just prose poems, or one with other poems, or a combination. Or, meanwhile, it’s possible I’ll begin writing another way, and those poems will stay in their folders. I just keep working as always. At some point I have a sense that I have a group of poems that would work as a book, and then I begin shaping toward that end. Thinking of an order, for example. Sometimes when I put together an order it becomes evident that certain poems don’t work in relation to the others, and they get eliminated. Meanwhile, still working, and maybe some of the new ones will find their way into the manuscript. So, in a way what began as simply writing poems becomes the shaping of a book.  It’s all about rhythm.

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Patrick Friesen has published more than a dozen books of poetry, a book of essays, has written stage and radio plays, and has co-translated, with Per Brask, five books of Danish poetry, including Frayed Opus for Strings & Wind Instruments by Ulrikka Gernes, which was nominated for the Griffin Poetry Prize in 2016. In January 2020, he released a CD, Buson’s Bell, which consists of composed, as well as improvised music, and text. He lives in Victoria, BC.

9/27/2021

Two Word Vancouver Readings - Recordings Online!

Due to COVID-19, WORD Vancouver has been forced to move online for the second straight year. Vancouver's loss is the internet's gain, though, as the online readings have been recorded and archived, and can be viewed anywhere in the world.

I was involved in two events this year. First as a reader, reading from Strangers alongside one of my favourite new poets, Matsuki Masutani (you can read my interview with Matsuki, about his debut collection I will be more myself in the next world, here):


Then a week later, I was honoured to host the 2021/22 launch of Poetry in Transit, for which I've sat on the jury for the last few years: 


Both videos will only be up for a month, so view them while you have the chance! And be sure to check out Word Vancouver's YouTube channel to see all the other readings they've poster there.

9/20/2021

I’m Not Supposed to Be Here: An Interview with Junie Désil

The following interview is part one of an eight-part series of conversations with BC poets which I released in April 2021. All eight interviews were originally posted at ReadLocalBC.caThis was the third year of my collaboration with Read Local BC (you can read the 2019 interviews here, and the 2020 interviews here).

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excerpt from “transatlantic | zombie | passages” - Junie Désil

in the ocean where we were disposed of by drowning or shark ravaging
salt-brined unmarked graves paradoxically our freedom the very molecules
of sea-womb water we are here we still remain our DNA ingested and
upcycled by every single organism our bodies extracted ingested this
probably made your heart lurch and sink and beat and flutter all at once
if i say that in fact time is unable to absolve/dissolve if i say five hundred
years ago we were bondaged bodies if i say that despite the passage of time
if i say that time in this case is measured in residence time and that five
hundred years is not five hundred years ago that past horror is not past
that it is present time if i say our ancestors are still here we are still here
if i say that we are zombies we are ghosts we are traces we are revenants


Reprinted with permission
from eat salt | gaze at the ocean
(Talonbooks, 2020).


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Rob Taylor: Early in eat salt | gaze at the ocean you wonder “how to write about zombies: / when you’re a generation / removed from the soil”. Your parents immigrated to Canada from Haiti, and you were born in Montreal. Did writing this book bring you closer to your Haitian culture? In writing and publishing this book, what insights have you learned about writing about a home you weren’t born in?

Junie Désil: I can’t say that writing this book brought me closer necessarily. I think the fact is I will always be removed from “home” and “culture.” There are ways of being and knowing that I can attribute to my culture and upbringing, but at the end of the day there is a sense of loss at the interruption, whether it’s my parents immigrating to these territories as a result of the political atmosphere in Haiti, or the larger interruption of the collective “Black” history. Certainly, that not-home/un-home feeling informs my writing and, in particular, this collection. I think it’s something you’ll note in many of the Caribbean diaspora writers.

Haiti is there whether I speak to it or not. I suppose it’s like loss, you don’t get over it, it’s always there, it imparts a gauze on your lens, and you either make peace or not. For myself, I found it organized my thoughts and feelings on the subject. It forced me to confront the things not talked about in my family. As a result of who I am, where I was born, the choices my parents made, the choices I’ve made and continue to make, there will always be unknowns and the unresolved. I suppose then that the insight is just that writing about “home” will always be an unfillable hole.

RT: Let’s move from “home” to the other half of that quote: zombies. “How to write about zombies” speaks not only to your distance from Haiti, but also the trickiness of writing about zombies within a Canadian/American cultural context (earlier in the same poem, you list zombie movies you’ve watched: I Am Legend, World War Z, Shaun of the Dead, etc.). Was it daunting to write about Haitian zombies through the fog of American media representations? Do you think the gap between Haitian traditions and pop culture is bridgeable, and if so, was it important for you to try to bridge it?

JD: It certainly was fascinating (appealing to the nerd part of me) and daunting for a number of reasons. The information and the directions I could go with zombies were so vast; I felt inclined to write a dissertation of sorts! I think what was overwhelming was realizing how much heavy lifting the zombie imagery does. For a moment it left me bereft. I know this sounds dramatic, but hear me out. The zombie is a metaphor for the condition of slavery, and here this very metaphor is still “working” across the screen, across various narratives, to be what we need it to be. It’s seeing how this symbol in Haitian culture has become American culture. That even in death/undeath Haitians can’t catch a break. 

Anyway, it was more important to share what zombies mean and that zombies aren’t what we’ve grown up knowing; that zombies have been misrepresented. There was also the thrill of understanding and re-discovering what zombies meant to Haitians, and more so the thrill of discovering that Zora Neal Hurston, a writer whose fiction, essay and anthropological work I long have admired, was also interested in Haitian folk tales, zombies, etc. She really put her whole self into the study of zombies and Haitian spiritual and cultural life.

RT: You mentioned there that you “felt inclined to write a dissertation of sorts” and in your book’s acknowledgments you note that you “have not pursued what [you] thought would be a career in academia.” It’s clear, though, that you brought some of the academy into eat salt | gaze at the ocean: the book teems with historical research (and archival documents, which sometimes appear directly in the text). Could you talk a little about your movement away from the academy and towards creative writing? How did that journey shape the book you ended up writing?  

JD: I love academia, or rather learning. I’ve had terrible experiences with academia, and also realized it’s not the be-all and end-all. I can still learn, share, educate in other ways. What I did not realize or what I did not have in my academic time was the ability to be creative about my academic pursuits; the permission to weave creative writing with academic research/learning.  

I moved from Montreal when I was 19. I’d never been in BC and didn’t know much about it. I gave up a scholarship and acceptance at McGill. I struggled. I struggled with the blatant and subtle racism. I struggled with the lack of room to explore and shape my thoughts and opinions in a political and creative way. I struggled with the loneliness of being Black in BC. I couldn’t articulate this. I thought that academia could be a place to intellectually pursue research, work and study on equity and justice etc., and found that I couldn’t research these things while actively being the “PROBLEM.” So writing on the side, in secret, was my only way to exist and articulate these things.

I’m lucky and blessed that over time various people like Wayde Compton, Dr. Yvonne Brown, Cecily Nicholson, Mercedes Eng, Hari Alluri, Betsy Warland and so many others, saw that there was something of value in what I had to say. I wouldn’t be here without folks like the aforementioned. Listen, in a (paused) heartbeat I would do it again, but maybe only because I’m older and supposedly wiser with a lot more resources around my belt, and a strong, supportive community of folks and family.

RT: I’m glad you struck off on your own path, interweaving academic research and creative writing. It comes together so powerfully in eat salt | gaze at the ocean. In the excerpted poem that opens this interview, you write that “past horror is not past”. In another part of that same poem you say that “there is no pastness”. Throughout the book, your own life is palimpsested over, or mixed into, the more “academic” historical events the book explores. The Haitian Revolution, the crimes of The Cotilda, the 2010 earthquake, Black Lives Matters protests, and your father’s saying he’s “never met a cop who doesn’t respond to respect,” all seem to be speaking back and forth to one another simultaneously. Similarly, in an image from the book you map out your own “triangular passage” between Haiti (Ayiti-Kiskeya-Bohio), Winnipeg (Treaty 1) and Vancouver (Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh), beside that of the slave trade.

Could you talk a bit about how the present and the past feel merged, for you, as you go about your daily life? Do you think it could have been possible for you to write authentically about your ancestral past without also writing about your present (or vice versa)?

JD: I don’t think I could have written this without merging past and present. I mean – who I am, how I am here, is informed by my past, my ancestry, and my ancestor’s experiences. I’m here in these occupied territories because my ancestors were removed from their lands and shipped various places. I’m here because my parents’ lives were impacted by US (and Canadian and French and other) imposed dictators, ongoing colonial projects and practices. I’m here and not there (Haiti/Dominican Republic) because there isn’t necessarily a home to go to. Also, this is how I understand and organize my world, if we’re being literal. All of this only makes sense in the context of the past that keeps haunting me/us.

As to the matter of authenticity, the other reason I wrote it this way was to ensure that what I wrote about wouldn’t necessarily be taken as absolute truth. There are omissions and gaps in this text; these are both deliberate and accidental (because of time, memory, and trauma). I’ve mentioned, or tried to convey, that this writing is an act of re-membering (Toni Morrison): putting myself back together through memories, stories, and events, but I only have a particular perspective so the process will be incomplete, imperfect and ongoing. So is it authentic? Yes and no. I couldn’t get complete answers from my folks, they too have an incomplete memory, and their experiences are mediated by their own traumas, their own displacements.

RT: Incomplete and inauthentic are different things – I appreciate so much how you threaded together what you knew of both your past and your present. 

To close the book you ask “when will I feel alive”: is there a connection between the omnipresence of the past and your inability to feel alive? What would change for you if the past could truly be in the past?

JD: It’s a complicated question (and answer), and also a vulnerable one for me. I’m not supposed to be here. Historically our timeline was interrupted; there is an active, subtle and not so subtle desire to extinguish us. I mention briefly being 15 and making an attempt on my life. I couldn’t explain it, my mother was so preoccupied she was not aware that I’d swallowed half a bottle of pills, and I was trying to cover up what I’d done. What I’m saying is that it is an act of labour to stay alive, in myriad ways, despite the zombie personas we adopt (or have placed on us).

The more I know, the more I explore, the more I wonder when I will feel alive. This uncovering, re-membering is painful. Like therapy; sometimes you keep digging and unpeeling and it’s too much and you want it to stop, but you keep going because… well you have to have hope sometimes. So while I say that I don’t feel alive, that I am the walking dead, I am here and that’s an act of love, on my part, on my family’s part, continuing on even when there seems to be no reason to.

RT: Yes, an act of love—exactly. What do you think would change for you if the past could truly be in the past?

JD: I don’t know that the past could ever truly be the past. I think that’s the thing we argue when seeking reparations, asking for statues to come down, renaming schools, streets, etc. None of these horrors are past; they just have a different form and serve as a reminder. We’re all collectively haunted, and hauntings are about the unresolved, unconfronted and unacknowledged horrors.

RT: In regards to endless haunting, in the book’s middle section you write “it is exhausting to write about slavery, ongoing oppression / as if that’s my only history or point of interest… in fact it is your history”. Did writing about slavery and oppression in eat salt | gaze at the ocean feel like a choice? If not, to what extent was that because of your own needs and desires v. those of white Canadian readers?

JD: It didn’t feel like it was going to be a choice, but in my “limited choices” I made decisions of how and what I was going to talk about. I considered implications on my family and myself: putting out personal things, and being aware of the balance of how to write about the difficult things that implicate parents while shielding them from potential judgement.

I also chose not to do too much “trauma porn.” When it got too much I couldn’t write. There was a period of a few weeks where nothing was coming out. I knew what I wanted to write but I couldn’t find my way in or around. I took it to mean that there are some things I’m not prepared to confront, or write about; there are some things that are not meant for the world. Some stories deserve protection and care. So I made a series of choices along the way. Sometimes I think What if I had written this collection this way or another way, what would it have looked like? I know I made choices because of time constraints. I made some choices instinctively and wonder what it would have looked like to be mentored through the process. Would I have taken more risks?

RT: I think all writers wrestle with those kinds of questions (before and after our book are published!). 

With some more time and experience behind you now, do you see a way forward to being able to write about other “points of interest” in your life? What would you like to talk about?

JD: I‘ve been thinking about this question for a while now, and don’t have an answer. In November, while on vacation, I felt like I could write again. I worry about not being able to write. I once had a five year absence from writing because of work, and I promised myself I wouldn’t let that happen again. I could see myself getting back to that place and I started worrying. While on the break I felt inspired and thought Great, I can write about something else. Well, I realized that it would again be somewhat autobiographical (again) and that it would be political.

I’ve wrestled with how to balance writing about the things that “matter” and the things that I want to write about, and I keep coming back to this poem by Ross Gay, “A Small Needful Fact.” This beautiful poem is about Eric Garner, and the extrajudicial killings of Black people at the hands of law enforcement, but it’s also about life; he talks about seeds, and the gentleness of placing seeds in the ground to grow and nurture, the circle of life. I think I worry that writing about “other points of interest” means giving up writing about the difficult things, the political things. American poet Tiana Clark‘s debut collection, I Can’t Talk About the Trees Without the Blood, perfectly encapsulates what I’m trying to say. Clark recognizes that the trees where Black folks were lynched contain a history that is inescapable, and like me she weaves in personal and public accounts to talk about the horrors, the present hauntings: trees.

There will always be this tension; I can’t un-know things so I can’t write about anything neutrally. I haven’t found a way to do so. And some of the tension is about participating in trauma porn, commodifying Black pain.

Ross Gay sums up some of the concerns that I grapple with in his blurb for Clark’s book

“Critiquing the commodification of [B]lack pain while also acknowledging and revealing your hurt as a [B]lack person is tricky as hell. It is dangerous. And that is precisely what Tiana Clark does in these beautiful, vulnerable, honest poems.”


I always look to the writers I admire when trying to sort out these questions. I’m not the first to navigate these things, and I know that the ability to tap into such wisdom lies in access and privilege. In any case, what I want to learn to do is just what Toni Morrison says: “The best art is political and you ought to be able to make it unquestionably political and irrevocably beautiful at the same time.”

RT: That’s no small task, and one I think you’ve accomplished here. And I’m glad that you pointed to Gay’s poem on Eric Garner as an influence. 

As the book’s title suggests, salt, and the awakenings salt induce, are central themes in eat salt | gaze at the ocean. In one story/poem, eating salt is what awakens the Haitian zombies working in American-owned sugar cane fields, reminding them they are dead and sending them running to their graves. The salt sting of the ocean into which rebellious slaves were tossed is also tied to both awakening and death.  

The salt sting that seems to explode this book into awareness—that sears together its composite parts so fiercely—is the Black Lives Matter movement, and specifically the 2016 killings by police officers of Black and Indigenous people. When you write about that year, the poem overflows (both emotionally and formally, as the poem becomes prose and fills almost two pages with solid text). Would you consider that moment in the book an “awakening” of sorts? Was 2016, and all that came with it, a kind of “salt” you consumed, bringing with it both awareness and death?

JD: Growing up Black one is always taught about the “dangers” of existing while Black. My parents tried to shield us from this as much as they could as they were going through their own painful processes. I remember hearing some of the stories and being unable to comprehend why my parents were subjected to the treatment they received at work.

I didn’t have a political language to articulate the experiences of growing up Black in Winnipeg or attending high school and CEGEP in Montreal, and I was a relative baby when I moved to Vancouver. Still, I had awareness. While I was in high school in Montreal, the police infamously pulled up to our school and bribed young Black boys with pizza so they could take their pictures for a lineup. I also experienced the Rodney King beating and riots when I was 13, and the horrific beating and sexual assault of Abner Louima at the hands of the police in 1997, when I was 19. Those two events were shocking to me, and started to linger in my consciousness.

So yes, perhaps I was like a zombie and over the past five or six years there was a strange and repeated awareness and death cycle. What I’m saying is that absolutely 2015/16 was a particularly explosive awakening; this was when cell phone videos provided irrefutable proof that law enforcement was killing Black people. But also it wasn’t an awakening; these were part and parcel of being Black. I think 2019/20, with what seemed like an epidemic of extra judicial killings of Black women, Black trans folks, and Black men, was too much. The difference being that I had actually watched the video of George Floyd’s killing, and it hit differently.

RT: What made it hit differently? The “watching” instead of “hearing about”?

JD: I don’t know that I can talk about it properly; likely I’m not ready. Obviously watching the filmed extrajudicial killing of George Floyd is the difference; I have always avoided watching any of what is tantamount to snuff films. This time I did. I honestly don’t know why.  After watching the film, I avoided people, but went to work and went through the motions of existing in this world. I asked my partner to shield me from people and their desire to imperfectly do or say something. I avoided text messages, emails, etc. from well-meaning people. And I just grieved for about a month. It’s not an answer to the question, I know, but how does one articulate their feelings about ongoing state-sanctioned killings of Black people, and having to defend their very existence? Perhaps the hardest part of this was that it felt impossible to mourn, or when we mourned we wondered what about this particular death made it harder. And the mourning for me felt messy, the grief didn’t feel like it had a proper container to hold it.

RT: Thank you for talking about this, difficult as it is. It’s hard to imagine any container could hold such grief. But I think you hold a portion of it, in a powerful and transformative way, in eat salt | gaze at the ocean

A book that had a similar effect on you as I suspect your book will have on young Black and Caribbean readers, was Haitian poet Edwidge Danticat’s Breath, Eyes, Memory. In your acknowledgments, you write that reading that book made you believe you “had something to say.” Could you speak a little more about Danticat’s influence on your writing?

JD: Edwidge Danticat occupies a particular place for me. Growing up I was an avid reader, and while reading was encouraged, I did not have access to Black writers or writers of colour. My parents would talk about Haitian literary greats, but they were also the product of a colonial education system, so they referenced THE CANON of French, Russian and English writers.

My father had a closet full of textbooks and other books, so I would dig through and read Checkhov, Tolstoy, Orwell, or French philosophers. When I was old enough to check out books on my own from the public library, I wasn’t really reading anything by writers of colour. The African-American History class I took in my undergrad year at UBC was the first time I read Richard Wright, Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Morrison, Frederick Douglas, W.E.B. DuBois, etc. All this to say that I was in my 20s before I read something by a Black Writer, and later still when I read Edwidge Danticat.

When I discovered Danticat, it was like pieces of my childhood narratives coalesced: being Haitian, understanding some of my parents’ unnamed trauma. I think it was the moment when I realized that I too could write stories that matter, that influence, that change people. Of course I must mention Toni Morrison as a literary role model. I hope that once I start writing fiction that I can write so well about hauntings and horror.

RT:  In addition to Danticat (and Morrison—yes!), eat salt | gaze at the ocean also brings to mind so many tremendous Caribbean-Canadian poets (Dionne Brand, M. NourbeSe Philip, Jillian Christmas…) who write about slavery and the history of the African diaspora in the Caribbean and Canada. Could you talk a little about other writers on these subjects, whose books showed you a way forward?

JD: Dionne Brand writes about not having a home, as Caribbean diaspora. Yes we can say we are from Haiti, Jamaica, Dominican Republic, but this is an interrupted history as well, a second other home, with an inability to trace back precisely where/what home is.

There is a familiarity and a specificity, and a range of experiences in the Black Caribbean Canadian experience, and to me this has been a beautiful thing to see and be a part of. Toni Morrison says to write the book you never got to read (I’m paraphrasing) and I think there are still books that have yet to be written. That moment of recognition is beautiful when you read something that speaks to you and your experiences. Something that understands the deepest, most secret parts. That is what I love the most about writing and reading, and what I look for. 

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Junie Désil is of Haitian ancestry. Born of immigrant parents on the Traditional Territories of the Kanien’kehá꞉ka on the island known as Tiohtià꞉ke (Montréal), raised in Treaty 1 Territory (Winnipeg). Junie has performed at various literary events and festivals. Her work has appeared in Room MagazinePRISM InternationalThe Capilano Review, and CV2. A recovering academic, a UBC alumnus, and most recently a participant in Simon Fraser University’s Writer’s Studio, Junie currently works in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, on the unceded and Ancestral Lands of the xwməθkwəy̓əm, Sḵwx̱wú7mesh, and səl̓ílwətaʔɬ (Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh) and lives on qiqéyt (Qayqayt) Territory (New Westminster), juggling writing and life.