the 2021 roll of nickels year in review

2021 was another busy pandemic year here at Roll of Nickels. I continued my pandemic-inspired efforts to increase content on the blog, posting ten new interviews (see below!), three new poem/poet profiles (Diane Tucker, Tolu Oloruntoba and Molly Cross-Blanchard), and fifty-five new quotes on writing.

Did you have "Elementary school playground
book launch" on your COVID bingo card?
2021 was also the year I launched a book during a pandemic! What fun! Strangers came out in April, and was formally launched in May, with an online event featuring Sadiqa de Meijer and Sue Sinclair, and hosted by my editor Luke Hathaway. You can view that here. Unable to tour the book, this summer I took my tour local, with readings around Vancouver (even those were fraught - one was canceled by a record-shattering "heat dome," another was rained our and had to be moved into the overhang area of an elementary school playground... normal stuff!). I loved getting to hear new poems from fellow pandemic-launching poets - eleven total guest readers over the course of the series. Readings at the Vancouver Writers Fest, Word Vancouver, and the Real Vancouver Writers Series kept me busy all fall, and helped me feel like it might really be reaching readers out there in the world! Reviews of the book and also interviews about the book kept me afloat despite the lack of in-person connections. Thank you to everyone who spent some time with Strangers in 2021 - it meant a great deal to me.

My non-book poetry publishing was all haiku and very short poems, which appeared in a variety of magazines (including a few online). 2021 was perhaps most notable as the year my internet silliness spilled over into the real world: after 25 rounds of it online, I brought my Emoji Book Titles into an actual pub for the Emoji Lit Pub Quiz at the Vancouver Writers' Festival. Even more bizarrely, after a couple years of spamming the internet with William Carlos Williams "Plum Poem" memes, Juliane Okot Bitek called my bluff and gave me a $50 gift certificate to Massy Books to stop making them. Calamity ensued. In the end, my right to make plum memes was restored, and $735 was raised for Battered Women Support Services. I know, right? A very normal year all around.

But on to the main attraction. My 2021 interviews:

April 2021: Rain That Washes Away The Pretty Surface Of Things: An Interview with Jen Sookfong Lee
"Vancouver renews itself constantly, with new condo towers and restaurants and migrations, but the history constantly bubbles up to the surface, impacting the contemporary. We are a port city, where vice has always been and will continue to be an industry all on its own. We have always been a place where people come to be at the end of the world, when the rest of it has become too much. And no matter how hard developers build on old neighbourhoods, the descendants of those razed communities are still alive, still remembering. All of this is a structure that my poems, and my prose, mimic—circularity, past timelines imposing on the current day, rain that washes away the pretty surface of things." - Jen Sookfong Lee

April 2021: I'm Not Supposed to Be Here: An Interview with Junie Désil
"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." - Junie Desil
April 2021: One Foot In, One Foot Out: An Interview with Patrick Friesen

"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?" - Patrick Friesen

April 2021: A Third Animal Emerges: An Interview with Lillian Boraks-Nemetz

"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." - Lillian Boraks-Nemetz


April 2021: Achieving An Equilibrium: An Interview with Cicely Belle Blain

"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” - Cicely Belle Blain

April 2021: Wherever We Are Going, We Are Going Together: An Interview with Terence Young

"The strange thing about death is that we seem to fear it more when we are farthest from it, when we are young. Existential dread is a young person’s malady, and our fear subsides, moderates as we grow older. More and more, I feel the way I do when I board a plane. I look around at all the passengers and tell myself that wherever we are going, we are going together. The universality of death makes it easier to accept somehow.   " - Terence Young

April 2021: Gesturing Out To Different Horizons: An Interview with Dallas Hunt

"There are so many amazing Indigenous poets at this particular moment. That said, I think you’re right in saying that there is a long lineage of Indigenous writers who have paved the way for many of us. Also, there is this term that emerges in relation to Indigenous writing—”renaissance”—that I think is deeply problematic and doesn’t gesture to the peoples who have been writing for decades (Linda Hogan, Chrystos, Eden Robinson, among others)." - Dallas Hunt

April 2021: That Prism of Perspectives: An Interview with Barbara Nickel

"In my previous books, not wanting to be misunderstood or boxed in, I think I’ve tried to hide my thirst for the spirit inside music or my Mennonite family history or even in the sometimes convenient obscurity of language. In these poems—even visually there’s a lot of bare space—there’s really no place to hide..." - Barbara Nickel

April 2021: Speaking to my kohkum Through Dreams: An Interview with Selina Boan

"Poetry doesn’t always have to make “sense” in order for it to hold emotional weight or feeling. The same can be said for learning a new language—though you don’t necessarily know yet what exactly is being said, you can feel and know the language in your body. That has been my experience with nêhiyawêwin. " - Selina Boan

July 2021: Salvaging My Old Dreams: An Interview with Matsuki Masutani

"I was unaware of my poems being minimalist until others pointed it out. It seems that I want to get out of the creative mode as soon as I am in it because of my shyness or self-consciousness." - Matsuki Masutani

I've got a lot to look forward to in the new year, including three essays which should all be coming out in January (in Event, Canadian Notes & Queries, and Resonance: Essays on the Craft and Life of Writing). On the blog, look for extended versions of interviews with Steven Heighton, Sadiqa de Meijer and Shaun Robinson (from which excerpts were recently published, respectively, in The Walrus, Arc and CV2), and, of course, a bunch of other surprises! 

Happy New Year, all!


Salvaging My Old Dream: An interview with Matsuki Masutani


I was at my computer - Matsuki Masutani

My wife was downstairs
at her computer.
She shouted,
“I don’t know
what to do!”
I shouted back,
“Dust the kitchen
light fixture,”
remembering she always says
“I should dust that light.”
I expected she would say,
“No way!”
But she said, “Okay,”
and put on CBC radio.
I went to have a nap.

(Mother Tongue Publishing, 2021).
Reprinted with permission.


Matsuki Masutani is a poet and translator living on Denman Island. He moved from Tokyo to Vancouver in 1976. Ten years later he moved to Denman Island, where he eventually began writing poems in English and Japanese. He has translated Canadian works such as Roy Kiyooka’s Mothertalk, Hiromi Goto’s Chorus of Mushrooms, and from Japanese into English, Kishizo Kimura’s memoir, Witness to Loss, published by McGill-Queen’s University Press in 2017. His poems have appeared in Geist magazine, Capilano Review and in the anthology Love of the Salish Sea Islands.


Rob Taylor: You note in the acknowledgments to I Will Be More Myself in the Next World that, at the encouragement of Roy Kiyooka, you started writing poems in English around twenty years ago. You also work as a translator between English and Japanese, having translated books by Kiyooka, Hiromi Goto, and others. Could you talk a little about that choice, spurred on by Kiyooka, to write in English and not your mother tongue of Japanese? 

Matsuki Masutani: I stopped writing poems around 1970. I decided that direct action was a more effective means of expressing myself. However, I still considered myself a poet. 

My way back to poetry turned out to be long and winding. I met the poet Roy Kiyooka in Vancouver. He was known in the Japanese immigrant community as “a famous painter who doesn’t paint anymore.” I was a poet who didn’t write. I complained to him that my chances of getting back to writing poems were slim because I was away from Japan and my audience. His surprising advice was to write in English, which was unthinkable to me at the time.

Roy hired me as a translator. I interviewed his mother in Japanese and transcribed and translated her answers into English. Based on my rough translation, Roy wrote Mothertalk. I then translated Mothertalk back into Japanese, and it was published in Tokyo. The Japanese title was The Samurai’s Daughter Who Went to Canada.

RT: It must have been interesting to translate a work you translated into English back into Japanese. Did you simply use the original transcriptions, or did you do another round of translating? Did that process teach you anything about the art of translation?

MM: When I was translating Mothertalk into Japanese I could hear his mother’s voice ringing in my head all the time, but I didn’t refer to it directly. I was surprised how close The Samurai ‘s Daughter Who Went to Canada was to her original interview. 

RT: Could you talk a little about translating Hiromi Goto?

MM: When Hiromi Goto asked me to translate her work, I was delighted. I wanted to translate Japanese Canadian works. I feel that the works of Japanese Canadians are variants of Japanese works. Even their English seems coloured by a Japanese sensibility. They needed to be translated and appreciated by Japanese readers. They are part of our works.

RT: Your work, too, is very much “coloured by a Japanese sensibility.” Would you say that when you are writing you are, in a sense, “thinking” in Japanese and translating it into English?  

MM: When I write a poem in English, I don’t think in Japanese at all. English words are my sole guide. It’s the same as when I’m talking to my family and friends in English. It is crucially important to be understood. It is a struggle.

RT: Do you think the poems you write would be different if you wrote them in Japanese first, and then translated them into English? 

MM: I’ve never translated my Japanese poems into English. I started to write English poems in 1999, long after Roy’s demise. For several more years I could not write poems in Japanese. I still feel funny with my Japanese poems, as if I am not recovered from the trauma of separation. For more than thirty years I didn’t write poems in Japanese.

Meanwhile, I wrote English poems every day. Poems poured out. I wrote about myself, my father, an ancestor in a revolutionary war, and a friend who killed himself. I felt I owed them poems. Many of these are included in this book.  

RT: Yes, and they are tremendous. I’m so glad they poured out! Though you haven’t translated your Japanese poems into English, you have gone in the other direction: a number of the longer sequences in the book appear in both English and Japanese, with you providing the translations. Did you find that process simple enough, or was it a struggle? 

MM: I translated some of my Chemo poems into Japanese as soon as I wrote the English versions. I felt these poems were important for me and worthy of translation. That was the first time I translated my own poems. 

RT: Did you see your poems in a new light through the process of translating them?

MM: Some of the verses work for English readers but not for Japanese readers. This is because of cultural differences. Translating my own poems gave me an opportunity to adjust these verses.  It helped keep the translations poetic. 

RT: There are obvious connections between your poems and traditions of minimalist poetry in Japan, and then in certain small ways the book feels very Canadian, too, very West Coast. 

MM: I was unaware of my poems being minimalist until others pointed it out. It seems that I want to get out of the creative mode as soon as I am in it because of my shyness or self-consciousness.

RT: I love that: being unintentionally minimalist because whenever you start a poem you are already in a hurry to end it! Could you talk a little about the influences that shaped your writing, be they minimalist or shy or otherwise?

MM: In my early twenties, a whole bunch of Japanese contemporary poets influenced me. They were mostly avant-garde and some were influenced by the New American Art Movement. Only a few people understood them. But I loved their experimental verses. I thought their audacity helped to revive something at the heart of Japanese traditions.

RT: Your being inspired by artists “few people understood” is interesting, as your own writing is—at least on the surface— very easy to understand. Could you say a little more about how their audacity revived something at the heart of Japanese traditions? Do you see their work reflected in your own writing today?

MM: When I was young I was proud not to be understood by others. Now, I feel completely opposite. Probably this is because of my age, but it could be the influence of Charles Bukowski. I read his work The Last Night of The Earth Poems. I was not impressed by the content of the poems, but very inspired by his plain speaking.  

RT: Ha! Yes, I think I share your mixed feelings around Bukowski’s content and style. And that’s so interesting that an American poet brought you towards a type of plain-speaking that seems to me very much in keeping with that of Japanese minimalist traditions like haiku (at least as I read them, in translation). Your poems are a meeting place, I suppose, where your Japanese and North American influences (and your shyness!) can come together.

We’ve talked a lot so far about how you came to write your poems, but of course writing them is only part of the process—you have to send them out in the world. Could you talk about how the book came into being, and how your daughter Hanako—a tremendous writer in her own right—assisted you in the process?

MM: A few years ago, my daughter Hanako told me to put my poems together. I did that without any enthusiasm and forgot about it. She created the sections and presented “Marriage Poems” to Geist. The choice of poems was excellent and very well edited. That was the beginning. It was also Hanako who prepared the manuscript with her friends, especially Meg Todd, for Mother Tongue Publishing. I was still recovering from my sickness and didn’t participate in editing until the last stage. It is both satisfying and humbling to have my daughter help me.

RT: I can only imagine what a joy that must have been—a dream of any parent. On the theme of dreams: most of the poems in I Will Be More Myself in the Next World feel born out of individual experiences in your life and bound to the “real” world, but some move into the mind and the dream mind (“The view is so monotone, I ended  / up looking into my own / mind”). Were dreams always important in your writing, or has their importance increased with age? 

MM: I have always felt that dreams are an integral part of my life. But as I get older, the reality of the dream world has intensified. Meanwhile, the real world looks more and more confusing. 

RT: The waking mind and the night mind changing places… yes, that resonates with me (perhaps there is a correlation between old age and raising young children—the stabilizing power of sleep!). In recent years, your poems have been preoccupied with both aging and illness: the latter half of I Will Be More Myself in the Next World is largely devoted to your diagnoses with cancer and Parkinson’s. 

During remission from your cancer, you wrote “I long for the expansive / feeling I had / when I thought / I was leaving the world.” It’s of note that your late-in-life writing and publishing of poetry correspond with your illnesses. Do you see a connection there, between these diseases and your desire to write and publish your poetry? Is it, in some sense, a way to dwell in, and share, that “expansive feeling” you describe?

MM: It was very mysterious that sickness and the publication of my poems came to me hand in hand. A few years ago, I had rectal cancer and my wife and I were staying in my daughter’s basement in Vancouver. From there, we commuted to the Cancer Center on Broadway. We took a Fraser bus to Broadway and walked the rest of the way. It was a cloudy November. On the road, I encountered many homeless people. I remember feeling acute envy towards one of them who was particularly vigorous. 

The same nurses and doctors received us warmly. Everything seemed perfect except I was seriously sick. I spent a lot of time sleeping and praying. Fortunately I had no pain.

In the middle of this, suddenly, I received two unexpected emails both wanting to publish my poems. I wondered if someone was salvaging my old dream to inform me of the end.  But I began to see that there was something I could be alive and doing.

When I was told I had cancer, I panicked. I had no idea what it was like to be a cancer patient. I thought I could avoid cancer by avoiding the word cancer. So I wrote chemo poems to show what it is like to have cancer for people like me. That was a new beginning for my poetry writing. I was seventy-three. 

RT:  Has Parkinson’s changed what you want to write about in your poems?

MM: After my cancer treatment, I thought I would go back to normal, but Parkinson’s changed all that. I felt it wasn’t fair. Once I’d adjusted to it, I noticed that the world had changed. There is a lot of sickness, suffering and death in the world. This is depressing, but I found it made life somehow more real and sacred. This is the world where angels appear and miracles happen.

RT: Speaking of angels and miracles, though the second half of I Will Be More Myself in the Next World is focused on aging and your illnesses, you chose to close the book with a section on grandchildren. Could you talk a bit about that decision, and how grandchildren have shifted your thinking on aging?

MM: After aging, sickness and death comes rebirth. Children are sacred. So, there is a bright light in the darkness.


You can pick up a copy of Matsuki Masutani's literary miracle, I Will Be More Myself in the Next World, at your local bookstore, or via the Mother Tongue Publishing website or, if you must, from Amazon.


Speaking to my kohkum Through Dreams: An Interview with Selina Boan

The following interview is part eight 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).


a run, a burn, a beck - Selina Boan

Reprinted with permission 
 (Nightwood Editions, 2021).



Rob Taylor: Early in Undoing Hours you write about a kid “learn[ing] quick that being native is okay as long as you aren’t too native, as long as your skin is as yt as it is, as long as you’re pretty, and you fit in with the other yt kids, and you don’t talk much, don’t make ppl uncomfortable…” The poem that’s from is entitled “how to find your father,” and it feels to me like the theme of “finding” (the Cree language, your father, yourself) sits at the very heart of Undoing Hours. Could you talk a little about your life before all the “finding” explored in the book, and how it prepared you (or didn’t prepare you) for what was to come?

Selina Boan: It is exciting to hear different interpretations of Undoing Hours. This is my debut collection and getting the chance to learn how my work translates is a special (and wild) experience.

For me, I don’t think about my experience of learning as a “before” or “after” – nêhiyawêwin and my identity as a nehiyaw has always been a part of my life and who I am. I grew up with my mom and step/adoptive dad on the traditional, ancestral and unceded territories of the Cowichan Tribes and observed an immense amount of racism towards Indigenous folks in our community. I am light-skinned and move through the world with white privilege. Observing so much racism in our community made me very aware of that privilege, though I didn’t necessarily have the language for that feeling yet. For me, the book is less about “finding” and more about reclaiming/claiming what has been historically stolen from me and my family as nehiyaw.

RT: That’s a good clarification – thank you! Undoing Hours explores this process of reclaiming/reconnecting with both people in your family and nêhiyawêwin (the Cree language). Could you talk a little about the chicken-and-the-egg of it? Did one journey inspire the other, and how did each journey influence the other as you went along?

SB: I have always wanted to learn nêhiyawêwin but it took me a long time to gain the confidence to try. Reconnecting with my father and that side of my family helped me build that confidence. I initially began trying to teach myself nêhiyawêwin from the internet and resource books. It was a starting place (and there are so many wonderful resources available) but language learning is so much more than just looking words up in a dictionary. nêhiyawêwin comes from the land and so learning is intrinsically tied to reciprocity, community, and place; I am so grateful to the Elders and knowledge keepers who I am currently learning from. nêhiyawêwin is such a beautiful language with so many different dialects and variations depending what community you come from. As with any language, there are often words or ideas that don’t translate. Language is central to the way we view and construct the world around us.

RT: At one point, you write “what i’m trying to say / is english is failing me” – did nêhiyawêwin help fill the gaps?

SB: There is inherent tension and violence between English and nêhiyawêwin, a tension I think about a lot given my work as a writer. nêhiyawêwin was spoken by my nohkom and nimosom. As a result of residential school and other assimilation tactics used by the Canadian government, my father can understand nêhiyawêwin but is not a fluent speaker. Language learning for me is one way to connect and empower myself while challenging assimilation policies on my own being and the landscapes I inhabit. It is about being able to communicate with Elders and with ancestors in our own language. Throughout the collection, I experimented with forms as one way to think about the ways language and naming yield power and inform identity, memory, and cultural knowledge.

RT: Let’s talk about some of those formal experimentations! In Undoing Hours, stanzas roam about the page, large gaps or caesuras appear within lines, and one sequence in the book is even printed sideways to allow for very long lines running down the page. Perhaps most intriguing of all is your use of front slashes (“/”), which are usually reserved to mark line breaks, as additional punctuation within lineated poems. For instance, the first poem in Undoing Hours opens:

ask / what is the history / of a word / a lake of commas /
a pause in the muscle of night / a dry river and the snow it
holds / …

It feels to me like there are alternate (skinnier) versions of these poems hidden within the larger poems! What inspired you to make this formal choice? Do you just like line breaks so much that you couldn’t get enough?

SB: Ha ha, I love this question! I love the formal possibilities within poetry and I am often drawn towards work that takes formal risks: Jordan Abel, jaye simpson, Justin Philip Reed, Layli Long Soldier, Aisha Sasha John, Joshua Whitehead (to name only a few!). I have always been led by sound in my poetry, so experimenting with the slashes was connected to the way I was hearing a poem out loud. I first saw slashes used by Sandra Ridley (my very first poetry teacher) and it felt like something cracked open for me. I also love the way they visually break up a poem on the page. To be honest, many of my first drafts emerged in this slash form and it wasn’t until later that I changed the form or lineated them.

I was once told that slashes in poetry are “unearned” and I spent a lot of time thinking about that. To be honest, it took me a while to trust my own instincts. I was very lucky I got the opportunity to go to Banff for the writing residency in 2019, where I got to nerd out with the other poets about form and punctuation. I often laugh, thinking about the amount of time poets spend thinking about slashes, or the particular placement of a comma or pause. It sounds like a ridiculous way to spend your time, and yet it can be those subtle choices that help guide the sound and feel of a poem dramatically.

RT: You’re talking to the wrong person if you want to suggest thinking about punctuation is ridiculous! I have to restrain myself from not exclusively talking about this stuff. Could you talk a little about what drew you to some of your other formal choices?

SB: Ha ha, same. Many of the forms stemmed from my attempts to show the messiness of language learning, of grief, of heartbreak, of making mistakes. I also wanted to play with the blurring of time and the idea of “undoing” within the book. Form was a great way to move towards those themes.

RT: There’s something very “honest” about these choices – we are on an imperfect journey with you, and the imperfection of it makes it all the more real or “truthful.” Poetry, though,is of course in no way obligated to tell “the truth!”

Near the end of the book, you write that “i’ve decided not to tell / the whole story as i know it,” and soon after, “forgive me, i don’t remember… which lie i kept // which truth i made.” Could you talk about “the truth” in this book? How does its “truth,” recorded in poems, differ from the “truth” of autobiography?

SB: Two of my mentors, Sheryda Warrener and Aisha Sasha John, read my work-in-progress and pushed the manuscript into a new place. They reminded me that I had to put my guts (my whole self) into the work I was making; they could tell I had been holding back. This is where the spine or “truth” of a poem lies for me—at the emotional centre. That kind of truth is one that I feel in my whole body when I’m reading a brilliant poem. It can be hard to go into the places a poem might require. I struggled and worked hard to try and do that with the poems in this collection, while also maintaining my own boundaries about what it is I wanted to share.

I sometimes changed specific details in the book, or added images, to help build and create space for the emotional centre of a poem. Our memories are fluid and what one person remembers about an event, another will not; even within autobiographical non-fiction there is always a selected narrative, there is always something left out, or altered, there is always limitation. Towards the final stages of editing, I took out a lot of specific details, sometimes to the detriment of the poem, but I wanted to respect my own boundaries and the stories of people I love and care for. It is so important in my work that I am actively caring for the people I love alongside making work that is emotionally honest.

RT: In a number of poems in Undoing Hours, we witness the speaker thinking through many of the decisions you spoke of just now (poetry’s “truths,” what should be told, what should be withheld, etc.). In these poems, the act of choosing to turn a lived experience into a poem is stated directly (for instance, “i write the moment in a poem and send it / to you”).

As I read the book, I became more and more conscious of the decision at the heart of any poem: the poet chose to record this particular moment, in this particular way, over and above many others. This opens up big questions: what is recorded, what is withheld (“i know you want / the piece of the story // that is clandestine / but i won’t give it to you // & i’m not sorry), and why record it in poetry? In “email drafts to nohtâwiy,” you write “i’ll admit, i’ve been afraid to write. so here is my deflection, for everyone to read.” What parts of your life do you find easier, or perhaps more necessary, to “deflect” into poems? What does turning a moment into a poem open up for you? What does it close off?

SB: So much of my writing in this book circles in on identity; what it means to contribute to community, how to negotiate my position as both a settler and an urban nehiyaw, how to be mindful of where I come from, how I was raised, and how I am learning. I spent a lot of time thinking about the ways in which I wanted to approach telling these stories.

In the poem, “email drafts to nohtâwiy” and throughout the book, I wanted to be transparent about the performative aspect of making a poem. As with any story, there is always something withheld. The moments in the poem where I directly address the reader became a way to nod towards the absurdity of poem-making. Many of the poems in this collection feel vulnerable and intimate to me. They hold parts of my heart and they were really hard to write. Those deflections and acknowledgements are ways for me to guard myself a bit, and to remind readers that while I am revealing intimate moments or emotions, I am still in control of what I share. This felt especially important given the history of Indigenous stories being consumed, stolen, and maltreated. I would say it offered a sense of empowerment during the writing process as well as catharsis.

RT: I love that answer. Your control over the poems is clear throughout the book. At the same time, this is a book about taking on new, hard-to-control challenges in language: a first poetry book about learning a new language (nêhiyawêwin), when poetry itself is, in its ways, also a new language!

You studied Creative Writing at UBC in the years leading up to this book, and many of your classmates and teachers are thanked in the book’s acknowledgements. Were you learning the two “languages” concurrently? What did learning nêhiyawêwin bring to your thinking about poetry, and vice-versa?

SB: I love thinking about poetry that way! It reminds me of conversations I have with some of the youth I teach poetry to. Poetry doesn’t always have to make “sense” in order for it to hold emotional weight or feeling. The same can be said for learning a new language—though you don’t necessarily know yet what exactly is being said, you can feel and know the language in your body. That has been my experience with nêhiyawêwin.

That said, I don’t want to over-romanticize language learning. This book was also written to show the messy, sometimes hilarious, journey to learn one’s own language. I wanted to celebrate nêhiyawêwin while being transparent about the process—it is really hard to learn a language! My dream is to one day be able to speak to my kohkum through dreams in the language she spoke.

RT: What a beautiful, beautiful dream. As you say, the book takes a variety of approaches to its subjects: sometimes romantic, sometimes messy, sometimes hilarious (or all three!). Reading Undoing Hours sometimes felt like reading a series of interrelated chapbooks. The book features a number of sequences that are formally distinct, as well as long poems.

It could have felt like a bit of a Frankenstein project, awkwardly stitching all those pieces together, and yet it doesn’t at all: the through-line of language and family is both clear and powerful. Did you always have a sense of how you would structure the book? In your acknowledgements you thank “Shaun” (Robinson, I assume) for his “brilliant editorial eye,” noting that he “gave [Undoing Hours] a shape.” Could you talk a little about how he helped you pull everything together?

SB: I knew I wanted Shaun Robinson to help edit this book and was very lucky he agreed to help. I wanted the structure of the book to play into the blurring of time (the undoing of time) but I wasn’t sure how far to push it or how to achieve that. Shaun has a particular way of looking at a poem—he turns the poem over and is able to see it from all sides. He meets poems where they are and finds a way to nudge you toward the gut, or centre, of a poem. We also have very different poetic styles and I wanted his perspective on the collection.

In particular, he offered several ideas about how to structure the book that were immensely helpful. He helped build a loose narrative spine for a book to help guide the reader. I also want to mention he recently published a book called If You Discover a Fire, out with Brick Books, and I cannot recommend it enough. His poems do such unexpected and delightful things with images.

RT: I couldn’t agree more! I have an interview with Shaun about If You Discover a Fire coming out in the fall with CV2. Shaun’s book came out a season before yours, but he wasn’t your only UBC colleague working on a book around the same time! Also in your acknowledgments, you thank “Molly” (Cross-Blanchard, I assume), saying that you’re “so grateful to have gone through this book journey with [her].” Molly’s debut collection, Exhibitionist (Coach House Books), is also being published this month. Could you talk about working your way to your first books together? Did your conversations before and during the making of your books shape how you thought about the process, or your book itself?

SB: I feel so lucky to have gone through this experience with Molly. Towards the end of the editing process with our respective publishers, we decided to exchange manuscripts to help one another with edits and book structure. It was the first time I had read her manuscript the entire way through and I was blown away—I laughed, I cried. I felt the whole book in my gut in the best way possible. She uses humour in a way I could only dream of. Her poems are tender, raunchy, and moving. We have very different styles of poetry and she proved to be one of the most invaluable editors to my book. She offered some truly brilliant last minute edits to poems in the collection I was still struggling to get “right.” I have to thank her for answering those late-night panicked text messages and phone calls. It was so special to have a friend to go through this process with. Go buy her book. You will not regret it.

Speaking of the writing and editing process, I also want to mention Brandi Bird, who is another person who had a huge influence on this book. When I first met Brandi, I was in awe of their poetry and immediately felt connected to their work. This book truly wouldn’t be what it is without them. They helped me with a lot of the early drafts of this collection. They would look at one of my poems and understand what I was trying (but often still failing) to do, and help me push the poem into that sweet spot.

RT: Brandi’s work will be getting some love in the closing post of our series, coming in a couple days! Speaking of all this editing work, you yourself have worked as an editor at PRISM international, and now serve both as a poetry editor at Rahila’s Ghost Press and Room Magazine. Could you speak about the role of editing and publishing others within your creative life? Is there some balance you’re interested in there, between publishing your own writing and the writing of others?

SB: Honestly, it may sound cheesy but I feel so lucky to have the opportunity to work with so many incredible poets and writers through my editing work at Rahila’s Ghost Press and Room Magazine. I approach editing the same way I approach my own poem-making. I ask a lot of questions, to both the writer and the work itself. My goal is to get the work to a place the writer feels good about. That is my priority. Everyone deserves their work to be seen and held in a way that expresses care and meets the work where it is at. In my experience as a writer, we usually know when a poem has “landed” or not. As an editor, my goal is to help guide a poem or collection to that place so that the writer I’m working with has that feeling at the end of their project or piece.

As an editor, I learn something new from every writer I work with. I don’t think I’d be doing my job properly if I didn’t feel that way. I have the privilege of editing work that I want to see more of in the world and believe so deeply in. Reciprocity and community are very important to me and as I move forward in my career, I know that mentorship in an editorial capacity will continue to be something I dedicate time and energy to.


Selina Boan is a white settler–nehiyaw poet living on the traditional, unceded territories of xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), səl̓ílwətaɁɬ (Tsleil-Waututh), and sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish) peoples. Her work has been published widely, including in Best Canadian Poetry 2018 and 2020. She has received several honours for her work, including Room’s 2018 Emerging Writer Award and the 2017 National Magazine Award for Poetry. She is currently a poetry editor for Rahila’s Ghost Press and a member of the Growing Room Collective.


That Prism of Perspectives: An Interview with Barbara Nickel

The following interview is part seven 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).


12 (Door) - Barbara Nickel

To let you find another place and shadow,
hollow in my old backyard, before 
the summer’s gone, let’s set out before dawn
to get the sun and mist past Hope. I know
the route. You whistle, off and on. Hours
allow us the braided streams and blackbird, ditch garbage, wet faces
of rock, paintbrush, wild vetch and, after a day, a glacial
snout too far away, discharging milky water. Rock flour
I say as if I still know more than you.  
Doritos on the floor. Even at night the wheat
stays waiting near where your grandpa hated
picking rocks from the soil and now he’s moving
toward the door to us— 
I wish. We can’t. Too dangerous. 

September 10, 2020


Excerpt from the long poem “Corona.”
Reprinted with permission
from Essential Tremor 
(Caitlin Press, 2021).



Rob Taylor: Your last poetry collection, 2007’s Domain, was structured around a house – each section opened with a sonnet named after a different room (“Master Bedroom, ” “Utility Room,” “Storage Room” etc.) It seems telling that your new book, Essential Tremor, opens with a poem about an abandoned house, “seen-through, its thin frame all pane-/less windows.” Then we continue into a book which seems to have left the house behind and moved into a more fundamental vessel: the body. 

Essential Tremor features long sequences on body parts (scientific, biblical), poems on autopsies and accidents, and of course the long poem on COVID-19, “Corona,” of which “12 (Door)” is one part: our bodies as sites of disease and distance. The book’s title, too, is drawn from the quavering of a body breaking down.

Could you talk a bit about this focus on the body in Essential Tremor? Did you intentionally frame this book in response to Domain, or was this just where your writing naturally took you in your more recent writing? 

Barbara Nickel: That’s an insightful perception—what you say about the house focus and structure of Domain connected to Essential Tremor’s opening poem, “Saskatoon to Coaldale, July, Highway”—leaving behind an old house and moving on. I wish I could claim your insight as being part of my master plan, but it absolutely wasn’t! Yes, to your second question, though, about the body being where my writing has naturally taken me in the last thirteen years. 

That opening poem is set on a road trip. I still can’t explain it and it keeps changing on re-readings, a bit like when you’re in the car and looking out at a landscape in flux. Now that I think of it, exploring the body in its various forms (i.e. human body, world, divine) in this manuscript happened in a road trip sort of way. I remember reading “Onychomycosis”—a poem inspired by my infected fungal toenail—at the Vancouver Writers Fest in 2007, only months after Domain’s release. During the reading I was only able to stand straight because I was on morphine to kill the pain from a herniated disc for which I later had surgery (that occasioned the poem “Hospital Room”). Since that time, poem projects about the body in its various forms just seem to have arisen, even as late as November 2020, right down to the wire a few days before I had to submit the final manuscript to Caitlin. 

Over the years my feelings about the body have intensified. For instance, Essential Tremor contains two poems of that name: the first was written as a portrait/tribute to the caregiving of my father-in-law for his wife, while the second was written years later for my husband, who’d been diagnosed with an illness. So the tremor moved as it were from an earthquake happening at a distance, to occurring in the body of my own spouse, a major disruption within my own family. The title Essential Tremor was a working one (interchanged with other possible titles) long before the second poem was even written. I was thinking about the body in a general sense all along, but specific outside events kept intensifying over the years of the manuscript’s journey. 

RT: Looking back, can you see other broad changes between your three books?

BN: In my first book, The Gladys Elegies, I was taken up with family history—stories of aunts and uncles and distant ancestors in events such as the Russian Revolution and the Great Depression in Saskatchewan. Domain, as you mention focussed on a house in the past—more specifically, concerns of my childhood home and what branched from it. I’d say Essential Tremor is much more concerned than the other two with the present—what’s happening in the body (be it planet, spouse, family, friend) I’m living and breathing in now, although in many poems obviously I draw from the past. 

RT: The book is concerned with the present, no doubt! I’m not sure I’ve encountered a book that was so current: Essential Tremor contains a long poem on Coronavirus (a “Corona corona”), a poem on Donald Trump’s election defeat, and more (some of them are tagged as having been written mere weeks before I received my electronic review copy!). On the other hand, as you say, some of the poems are quite old, dating back to just after the publication of Domain. This results in some significant chronological leaps in the book.

It feels like you had this “body” (Sorry! Couldn’t help myself!) of writing you’d accumulated slowly over more than a decade, and then the “outside events” of 2020 crashed in and shifted everything about (even after, I assume, you’d signed your book contract with Caitlin Press!). My guess is that you usually work slowly and methodically, and writing so much new content in the months before publication was unusual. 

Could you talk about the slow-fast way the book came into being? Did bringing together the book’s old and new parts give you insight into how your writing style (or substance) has shifted within the relatively large span of time in which this book was written?

BN: If you can believe it, I’m grateful in this case for rejections. I thought the manuscript was ready years ago. This was just under a decade past Domain’s publication; I admit I’m a slow cooker writer at the best of times. But this time around, placing the manuscript was much more difficult than placing my first two collections. The reasons for this are many and varied and complicated—the current publishing climate, time and place and circumstance, manuscript queues and less availability—everyone is booked; the wait times can be years. 

But perhaps also, Essential Tremor simply wasn’t ready when I thought it was. After some rejections occurring over a span of years, I began to look at it carefully and as objectively as I could. I took out poems and even sequences I thought weren’t working anymore. When the pandemic hit last spring, I began the “Corona” series and although it was still in process, I included most of that sequence in the full manuscript I sent to Caitlin in early June. After I received Caitlin’s book offer in late summer 2020, I was still finishing the “Corona” series and added a few new poems in the fall while working to prepare the manuscript for publication.  

As a result, you have these bizarre juxtapositions in time: old poems that I felt had staying power alongside new responses to what was happening in the world out my window at a very specific and disruptive time. This unusual, often really discouraging and sometimes exhilarating timeline in the evolution of a manuscript was such a gift in the end.

Essential Tremor wouldn’t be complete without the “Corona” series. I’m grateful to Caitlin for taking the risk of accepting a book that was in flux right down to the final deadline. “From Beethoven’s Autopsy” was published in CV2 in the spring of 2014; its companion poem, “Beethoven’s Ninth (Finale),” which is partly a response to Trump’s election defeat, was completed a few days before I turned in the final manuscript in mid-November! As I write this, I’ve just posted a tribute poem on my website for a musician and friend who died suddenly last week after complications from brain cancer surgery. If it weren’t so late in the game, I’d probably want to include that poem as well.     

RT: Writers seemed to divide into two camps during the first year of COVID-19. One group wrote prodigiously while the other wrote little or nothing. You’re certainly in the former group, writing all these new poems (especially, of course, your thirteen-part crown sonnet, “Corona”). What drew you to writing about COVID-19 head-on and with such energy? 

BN: The “Corona” sequence was the main work I completed during the first part of the pandemic. With the exception of four other poems written in 2020, most of the book had been written years before.

Maybe I was poetically prepared for the series when COVID-19 came along because I’d already written a sonnet corona for Domain; the “room” sonnets you’ve mentioned formed a sort of circular foundation to my book about the reach of my childhood home. Like so many households across the planet at the start of the pandemic, ours was stressful and chaotic. Suddenly everyone was home at the same time and space felt limited. Computers (including mine) were in high demand. I was constantly washing my hands and reading the news and stressing about it.

The idea of writing a “corona for the Corona” had been simmering for a little while. Looking at images of the spherical virus with its spiky crown, I knew that these physical and poetic shapes would need to merge; how couldn’t they? Then late one night I couldn’t sleep for desperately itchy hands (from all that washing), and I decided enough is enough, this project needs to begin.

I stayed up all night and emerged in the morning with a draft of the first sonnet. From then on, you could say that I’d found a container for all the stress and overwhelm, but also for the current events daily grabbing my attention. My “new” office was the walk-in closet, a fitting space to write in the sonnet form at a time of isolation and fear. It felt safe in there, even with the smell of dirty laundry wafting up. Every week or two, I’d start with a page, blank except for the last line of the previous sonnet. Potential topics abounded; everything was new. Should I write about those one-on-one classical music concerts taking place in airports in Germany (I never did), or that tragedy at the Cargill meat-processing plant in Alberta, the queen’s speech in green, Dr. Bonnie Henry’s latest stats, or Trump rejecting the WHO? 

Tied to this current was the current of how I was publishing the work. Having spent years sending only very polished and long-worked-over poems to journals, waiting sometimes for the good part of a year to hear back and then, if accepted, possibly another several months before a poem would appear in print, I’d decided at the project’s conception that I would publish on my website each sonnet as soon as it was “finished,” then send out an email alert to my subscribers. It felt momentous at first, to press “Send” on MailChimp, watch the chimp’s big hands applauding, know that within seconds people would be reading my poem. (I’ve taken all the sonnets down now because of the book, though the first five sonnets have just appeared in subTerrain.) 

Rob, I also want to say that in the midst of this I had to think of your book The News and its tying together of news and the body, and the inspiring Pound quote (“news that stays news”). That led me to an article I found online in NiemanReports, “Poetry: The News that Stays News,” by Stephanie Burt, where she discusses a long tradition of poetry, and sonnets in particular, being used to react to the news. She writes that the “supposed oppositions between poems and news just dissolve on scrutiny…” I kept all that in mind when the content of my project wanted to stray from the virus to, say, Black Lives Matter (“8 (Ghost)”), or the environment (“13 (Smoke)”). It gave me assurance that it was okay to go beyond the confines of COVID-19. 

RT: Oh! Well, I’m glad I could be of help, though I think Pound and Burt did the heavy lifting in this case. I wonder, also, if your pre-existing theme of “the body” (and captivity, in the “Anchoress” poems) helped make the transition to writing about the virus feel more natural? 

BN: It never felt like a transition but more an inevitability, a natural extension of the work I was already doing. For instance, long after I’d finished the series and was working with my editor, David O’Meara, on order and rewriting, I discovered the connections between the “Anchoress” series—poems about a medieval sister who sealed herself because of religious conviction into a cell for life—and the themes of isolation, desire and the body present in “Corona.” That felt like a surprise gift.  

RT: In 2004, Books in Canada published a discussion between you and Elise Partridge about the poetry of Margaret Avison. In it, Partridge expressed gladness that Avison avoided writing in a confessional mode, and you replied that “A voice that avoids the “I” can take on an authority it otherwise wouldn’t,” and you go on to say that:

“Part of the reason I’m convinced by the voice [in Avison’s poems] is because it’s not trying to support [its] observations… with personal experiences, emotions, and anecdotes… the distant, omniscient narrator can become a presence for the reader over a space of many poems. You come to simply accept that there is no poetic “I” here – and with that, after reading many poems, comes an acceptance of the authority of the all-knowing voice.”   

I know—egads—that that was 17 years ago, but I wonder to what extent you currently aspire to Avison’s all-knowing voice in your own writing, and to what extent you might resist it. I wonder because certain sections of Essential Tremor seem to be channeling personal experience and emotion (and often the lyric “I”), while others present an all-knowing voice of sorts (the “Anchoress” poems, the Haydn sequence, etc.). 

Could you talk about the role of the “I” in this book? Did you feel it particularly necessary, or unavoidable, in the “Corona” sequence? What effect do you think this mix of the personal voice and the more “distant, omniscient narrator” has on the way the book operates as a whole?

BN: That’s such an interesting and important question. What’s present but not stated in that interview with Elise is a piece of information given by Avison at the end of her Foreword to Always Now, the first volume of her Collected. She mentions her debt to Gladys Story, a teacher she only knew for one term in grade nine. Avison writes, “It was she who…gave me this valuable counsel: ‘For the next ten years do not use the first person in any poem you write.’ The impact of that advice is likely perceptible down through the years.”

It’s timely to think about Avison and voice just now because only a short time ago, I “attended” an extraordinary reading at Concordia in Montreal, part of their “Ghost Reading Series,” where a group of people on Zoom listened, on January 27, 2021, to a recording of a reading given by Avison in Montreal on January 27, 1967. As you can imagine, the juxtapositions, questions of present or absent, time and place, here or there, especially as listened to remotely, loomed eerily and thought-provokingly and might require an essay! In the recording, Avison read “Thaw,” one of my favourite poems and a classic example in her work of the absent “I.” I was surprised by her deadpan, casual voice that was somehow disappointing but at the same time highlighted the music of her lines, the articulation of her consonants. I feel the absent “I” gives her voice a kind of neutrality that allows you to hear the music better than you would otherwise. 

Avison is a huge influence, and I’m sure that counsel from Story via Avison stuck with me as well, even long before the publication of Domain. I think in poems like “Passport,” “Nickel Mines,” “Essential Tremor (Her shaking),” even “Hospital Room,” my intent was to become so absorbed in the presentation, observation and reflection of the subject so as to lose the surface self, the “I,” entirely. (In “Hospital Room,” the “I” appears but only at the end, in a statement about Avison.) 

I’m realizing just from thinking about it now that Elise also influenced me in this regard. Consider “Everglades,” the first poem of her first book, Fielder’s Choice. The “I” is invisible and yet we learn so much about the “I” because of the choice of diction and detail of observation. Christopher Patton, Stephanie Bolster and I talked about this poem, its great seeing, at length in the opening of “For Elise,” our conversation about Elise published in CV2 (Fall, 2015). Paging through her Collected Poems now, I see poem after poem about other people or even things (“If Clouds Had Strings”) that use this “I-less” sensibility to render poems filled with close-seeing.

I can’t leave this question without talking about Elizabeth Bishop, who I know was a huge influence for Elise and whose Complete Poems are never far away. I find it’s difficult sometimes to avoid the “I,” and obviously some of the poems in Essential Tremor absolutely need it. But then there’s the option of using the “we,” this sort of collective consciousness you find all over the place in Bishop. I’m thinking of a poem like “The Moose” (“Moonlight as we enter/the New Brunswick woods”) or “Questions of Travel.” What is it about the “we” in these poems? Somehow it allows the poet to travel as an “I” but to lose oneself in the crowd and give voice perhaps to the concerns of the collective. That’s a comfort, sort of like the moment I discovered that I could hide “Self View” on Zoom and still speak and be seen by others. A self-consciousness, all those awkwardnesses, can be lost although the voice is still there. 

And then there’s the address to a “you” found in, for example, “12 (Door),” the poem you’ve published here. And a different use of “you,” the second-person, where the “I” is the “you” but somehow more distant, in “The Milk River.” And the persona poems, taking on an “I” for another in “Onychomycosis” and the “Anchoress” poems. All these ways of getting around the “I”! But really, it’s not so much avoiding the “I” as simply finding the voice that the poem needs. Perhaps all along, unconsciously, I wanted the book to speak from a lot of different angles, to resonate with da Vinci’s voice from his anatomical manuscript in the found sequence “Body in a Mirror”: “I have looked/from/outside from inside/from/outside from/behind…” I wanted that prism of perspectives.    

RT: That prism of perspectives spreads out over the book’s various themes, too. In addition to the body, Essential Tremor is also concerned with the spirit. Two longer sequences are built out of/around biblical passages, most notably the sequence which looks at references to body parts in the Gospels. How did thinking about the spirit shape how you thought about the body, and vice-versa?

BN: By “spirit,” I’m assuming you mean a divine spirit (as opposed to the human spirit, poetic spirit, etc.), since you mention the sequence referencing body parts in the Gospels? 

RT: Yes, though I think those other “spirits” are in there, too.

BN: It’s interesting, when I was writing a book description for Caitlin, I wrote about the spirit as a body I was exploring in the book, along with the body of the world and the human body: “…and the divine body, questioned, encountered and not, sought by people from the margins in the body of a biblical palimpsest.” 

I hope that readings of this sequence (previously titled “Consider the Ear,” though it’s now untitled) and other poems in Essential Tremor might render body and spirit not as separate themes but as inextricably entwined and even as one. 

“Consider the Ear” was a response, years ago, to a poem I heard at a reading that seemed, at least to me, to mock what I hold sacred. As a person of faith, I wasn’t so much offended as thinking there’s more to it than that, layers beneath the laughter in the room. In the weeks and months and years following that experience, I was drawn to stories from the Gospels about marginalized people—women, a servant, a blind homeless person—whose encounter with the divine occurred in a part of their body—ear, eye, hair, uterus. In trying to discover the poem, I’d zone in on the word for a particular body part—say “hair”—and research its etymology. This, in turn, called up a palette of possibilities in terms of narrative, diction and tone. In addition, a new form for these poems emerged, giving me a poetic body for this confluence of body and spirit. 

In my previous books, not wanting to be misunderstood or boxed in, I think I’ve tried to hide my thirst for the spirit inside music or my Mennonite family history or even in the sometimes convenient obscurity of language. In these poems—even visually there’s a lot of bare space—there’s really no place to hide, and so I suppose it’s no surprise that I tried to sequester “Consider the Ear” in the manuscript when trying to find a publisher, maybe hoping editors wouldn’t notice and therefore (I imagined) I’d have a better chance of acceptance. Yet I couldn’t take the sequence out. In the end, David came up with the excellent suggestion of nesting them within the “Anchoress” series; I felt suddenly they’d found a place to be unashamedly themselves, I like to think perhaps part of this woman’s lifetime of meditation in her cell on scripture and spirit not bound by time or place.

RT: I share your frustration with how some writers, and publishers, treat religious themes: as though all religious thoughts and beliefs are of a kind and easily dismissed. So much richness is discarded in the process, richness you’ve explored with great success in Essential Tremor. I’m sorry you felt a need to hide it away. But, as is often the case for you, form offered a solution!

Like your previous books, Essential Tremor features a wide range of poetic forms, both traditional and of your own devising. You’ve spoken about how you decided to write a “Corona corona” in advance of any of the poems being written – to what extent is that your standard approach? Do you more often say “I’m going to write a [insert form here],” or do you start writing and somewhere along the way the content moves into a pre-established shape?

BN: Most often I start writing and find a form along the way. My poems usually begin with images and ideas and maybe a kind of tone, and after I’ve been playing around with these for a while, a voice will emerge that seems to reach out for a form. For example, “Cyclist Killed in Collision on Highway 22” was conceived at a time when I was emotionally distraught at the sudden loss of a very close friend. It was inspired in part by a newspaper article and photo of his accident. A reporter’s voice that holds emotion at a distance emerged and needed a container. Years before, I’d been reading Maggie Nelson’s Bluets and thought after the accident that the numbered, prose poem-like sequence that she uses might be a way forward for this poem. I tried it and knew that the form was serving the voice; it felt right. The voice seems to know if it will need an expansive container or a tight one, one that uses meter or if things can be looser. 

In a number of poems in Essential Tremor, I believe I started out writing a sonnet and then found that I needed shorter lines—iambic pentameter roughly cut in half—to get key images and verbs on the ends of lines. So these “thin poems” emerged, still roughly metered but with only two or three beats per line. Somehow these poems seemed to let the voice out of a container so that it could almost float down the page. 

RT: I love that idea—building containers so you can later release your poems from them. I sense an increase in this kind of formal experimentation—making new shapes out of, or in response to, traditional ones—in Essential Tremor. It feels like something that comes with time and experience writing formal verse (knowing the rules to break them, knowing the container to throw it open, etc.). Do you think that’s true? Have you sensed your relationship with form shifting over the years?

BN: I’d definitely say that I feel more free and confident formally since my first two books. As I mentioned earlier, there was this new form that emerged with the “Consider the Ear” sequence. I call it “sound scaffolding.” I was choosing from word hoards I’d developed where consonance seemed important. Take a word like “plucks,” that opens the poem “Hair.” That word got me “chicken,” followed by “lily” then “hair, fear, guitar.” It was a stanza—k, k, l, r, r, r; all the little words in between didn’t count. That set the stanza pattern I’d follow for the rest of the poem. Those poems probably come across as loose and free, spatially on the page as well, but actually they’re sonically very tightly structured. 

I like your word “experimentation.” I think even with the sonnets, I felt bolder in Essential Tremor to play with the form, to trespass against the rules. I felt free to relax the voice and vary the pentameter, let a line find hexameter or tetrameter or even trimeter if I felt the poem needed it, especially in the “Corona” series but even, when I look now, in the “Anchoress” poems. If you look at the line that ends “Anchoress (2)”—“Kneel for lauds. Confess.” I wouldn’t have tried that in previous books, especially for the last line! But I wanted it short and terse to reflect the anchoress’s sparse conditions, the way she’d stripped down her life to the bare bones. 

Same thing with rhyme. I’ve always been drawn to slant rhyme but sometimes, at least in the “Corona” sonnets, there was something that I wanted to say and the “right” rhyme just wasn’t available to me, so I pulled in what I could at the time. I’m looking at “6 (Doctor)” in “Corona”—I mean, really!—“foil” and “circles” as rhyming pair? But then, I’d used “frail” (with “until”!) earlier in the sonnet so maybe I argued with myself that the echo counted for something, especially in such a small space. 

I think back to an essay that was formative for me—“The Triggering Town,” by Richard Hugo. It explores the question: what comes first, the truth or the music? He answered—and I wholeheartedly agreed—that the music should lead the way. And that’s how it’s always been for me, especially at the start. I’d agonize for weeks over a single syllable or rhyme and somehow that would lead me to what I wanted to say. It’s still like that to some extent but I think mixed in with that now—especially with “Corona”—is a need to say something, and I was just reaching into a bag and pulling out what I required to say it right. Maybe as a result the newer poems don’t take themselves as seriously although they are still serious poems, if that makes any sense. 

RT: Yes, entirely. I love that Zach Wells’ book of Canadian sonnets was entitled Jailbreaks. Some level of trespass is almost required these days. I suspect few contemporary Canadian poets have thought about the constraints and opportunities of the sonnet as much as you do: I did the math, and one-quarter of the poems in Domain, and almost half of Essential Tremor, are sonnets and sonnet sequences. And as mentioned above, sonnets make up the foundation of your book on houses, and the spine of your book on the body! 

What is it about the sonnet that keeps you returning to it? The shape, the structure, the tradition, the length-of-thought? 

BN: Your mention of Jailbreaks takes us back to Avison, as Zach titled that anthology after a word from her sonnet “Snow”! It’s probably telling that The Gladys Elegies—the title of my first book—is also the title of its opening sonnet sequence; there are a lot of sonnets in that book as well. I started writing sonnets almost at the same time that I started writing poetry, inspired by a sonnet sequence published in PRISM international by the British poet Selima Hill. As a musician, I resonated with the form; the sonnet gave me a very tight structure to follow and was so closely tied to music—the word comes from the Italian sonetto meaning “little song.” I could let music lead the way and because I was just starting out, I could let the form shape a voice that wasn’t very confident at the time. I needed something tangible to hang on to, and found the dissonance of slant rhyme energizing—I remember the satisfaction of coming up with “ice” and “face” for a couplet in my first book, for instance. 

The sonnet’s brevity has always challenged me to work for every syllable; the form itself is a kind of editor. And a sonnet’s sensibility seems to embody many of the themes I’ve been drawn to—restriction and release in music and faith, family, the body, love, death, travel, landscapes, time and its various puzzles. The sonnet allows me to explore these things from the outside in and the inside out; it’s a form equally suited to inward and outward moments, and it allows the poet to move between the two. There’s enough space to do this, but not so much that the move gets old after a while. It’s really marvelously flexible and versatile. 

I spoke earlier of current events in the “Corona” series, how the form became a medium for the news that always seemed to be breaking in the early stage of the pandemic. They were a bit like news shorts with some reflection and observation twisted in. Burt, in the article I mentioned earlier, says “The form of the sonnet, so often associated with erotic love, has become so prominent in English in part because poets use it to react to the news…” and then goes on to mention Milton, Wordsworth, Gwendolyn Brooks, and others. Without meaning to, I’d fallen into a tradition that was somehow risky and stable at the same time. Which again reflects the pandemic—the humdrum activity of going to the store or staying at home suddenly felt new and dangerous.

New—I think in the end that’s what keeps me coming back to the sonnet. It’s like writing on those old chalkboard school slates—you can erase it and come up with something entirely different every time, but always within the same small frame. In the “Corona” series, inspired by Donne’s “La Corona,” I switched from the Shakespearean sonnet that I’d used exclusively since the start, to the Italian form. It was really refreshing—suddenly I had this new shape to work with. I could play with the octave and the sestet, and use the “gulf” of a stanza break between octave and sestet to evoke different worlds (the world of the family, the world of the news). And the “new” rhyme pattern was liberating as well—the freedom suddenly of a rhyming pair in consecutive lines! 

RT: Are there particular subjects that you find you can’t quite fit into the little slate of a sonnet? 

BN: Yes, for example the poem about the cyclist friend, which I mentioned earlier. I had this garbage bag full of his bike parts that had been strewn all over the ditch, which a bunch of us had collected in grief a week after his accident. It all was much too raw and sprawling for a sonnet, at least that’s how it felt at the time. 

RT: A form that makes a small, but powerful, presence in both of your last two books is the triolet, a dense and twisting French form. With rigorous rhyme and repetition requirements, most notably that the same line is repeated three times over a mere eight lines, it’s a form I suspect is rarely attempted and even more rarely satisfactorily completed. And yet here you are, writing them so very well! The triolet “Five Years” in Essential Tremor closes the book. It’s in response, and tribute, to Elise Partridge’s “Vuillard Interior,” which is the finest triolet I’ve ever read. You’ve touched upon Elise’s influence on your writing already, but could you talk particularly about her effect on your thinking about form, and specifically the triolet?

BN: In that conversation about Elise in CV2 with Christopher and Stephanie, we talked at length about “Vuillard Interior,” Chris quoting the poem in full. I noted at the time that it’s the only triolet in Elise’s oeuvre, and called it “a form that seems to circle endlessly like the ouroboros eating its tail…” I mentioned Elise’s masterful rhyme and meter, the way it all blends so seamlessly as to make the poem’s subject, the servant, vanish, and yet this very success ensures she’ll never disappear—it seems no one can forget this poem.

And sure enough, here she is showing up in “Five Years.” As with so many occurrences in the process of bringing this book together, it wasn’t something I planned. After years of indecision about what the last poem in the collection should be, this poem came as a gift shortly after the fifth anniversary of Elise’s death. 

Elise was a dear friend. We met decades ago at the Vancouver Poetry Dogs, a group of mostly scholars and poets devoted to reading and discussing poetry not our own. She gave so much of herself to everyone she knew; she was a formidable scholar as well as a great poet, and tirelessly shared her wisdom with others. Writing in form was such a huge part of her work, and she was devotedly interested in my sonnets and other work in meter and rhyme. When I was working this past fall on editing the book, I came across lengthy comments she’d given on two of the “Anchoress” sonnets. What a treasure trove! There was her voice in my ear—praising, questioning, drawing connections and highlighting allusions I’d forgotten. I made some late changes to the poems based on comments she’d given years earlier! She also suggested that I consult her husband, Steve, so I did; he offered valuable help as well. 

I’ve never stopped learning from Elise; hearing her voice, reading her essays and looking up words I don’t know, puzzling over the intricacies, subtleties and images in her work. The “stone in your book on my desk” in the last line of “Five Years” refers to “Algaed Stones: Prayer” in the Uncollected and Unpublished section of her Collected Poems. Elise’s stone is both ancient and currently alive, an observation I used in my triolet to try to get at both my grief for her absence and wonder at her ongoing presence. 

I listened to an amazing podcast “at” the Vancouver Writers Fest this past fall, a conversation between Marilynne Robinson and Ian Williams. Robinson near the end says, “I believe in the reality of dead people.” For me this both startled and resonated, especially in the context of Elise and her work.   

RT: Oh wow, what a gift to find those notes on your poems! I wish I could stumble upon the same from Elise—few things lifted me as a writer more than a note from her on some poem of mine. 

Two other poets who have profoundly influenced your writing life are Stephanie Bolster and Christopher Patton, who we’ve referred to at various times throughout this interview. The second-to-last poem in Essential Tremor is dedicated to them, and you thank them in your acknowledgments for their “decade plus years of sustained dedication to these poems.” Flip open Domain to its Acknowledgments page and there they are again, similarly being thanked for “a decade of commitment to these poems.” That’s 23 years of commitment, Barbara! These two are in it for the long haul! Could you talk a little about your triangular friendship? What role have they played in making your books happen? 

BN: Chris, Stephanie and I met in my first poetry workshop, with George McWhirter in UBC’s Creative Writing Program. For me it was an incredibly formative class; friendships I made with several of its members have lasted for years afterwards. At first, the triangular friendship you mention wasn’t as prominent; it was more like three strongly bonded pairs. Then at some point along the way—I’m not sure how or when—this “we three” thing happened. We worked together to give presentations at several conferences and maybe that helped to solidify it. Chris and I launched books together in 2007 and Stephanie was there to give an introduction. In it she said something jokingly about the three of us starting a school, which of course couldn’t happen because our work is so vastly different. And yet there’s a common sensibility, a deep understanding about where the other is coming from and what they’re trying to do. 

These two friends have always been my first and last and everything-in-between readers, and I’ve been the same—in different ways—for them. You can’t measure the kind of trust that develops over years of this kind of working relationship. And we’ve rarely lived in proximity to each other, so it’s formed over decades of email correspondence along with those rare times we can actually meet in person. Just the other day, something came up with a line break when I was going over the page proofs for Essential Tremor. I immediately emailed the two of them with the small dilemma. Within hours, I’d received responses—of course they had different opinions, that always happens, and that’s part of the strength of it. 

And it’s not just about the work—all of those crises and joys life tosses at you through the seasons and years—Chris and Stephanie are there. How to express gratitude for this ineffable thing? A gift poem for them, about the gift of the body of a book, is what I can offer. 


Essential Tremor is Barbara Nickel’s third collection of poetry. Her first, The Gladys Elegies, won the Pat Lowther Award. Her work has appeared in many publications including The Walrus and Poetry Ireland Review. Barbara is also an award-winning author of books for young people. She lives and writes in Yarrow, BC. 


Gesturing Out to Different Horizons: An Interview with Dallas Hunt

The following interview is part six 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).


Porcupine IV - Dallas Hunt

my kôhkom’s tongue cuts through the air like a helicopter blade
thrumming acerbic nursery mobile a bed fit to curse you with a spell
no roadside crystals can remedy a burial ground full of hipster
dream-catcher tattoos & smudge kits bought off Amazon for $19.99
the cure for existential angst not for sale here vituperative stones fall
from round mouths looking for gemstones millstones she’ll let you
gawk as long as you drown while you do it 

Reprinted with permission
(Nightwood Editions, 2021).



Rob Taylor: I’ve loved your writing for a number of years now, and I’m so glad we get to chat about your first book, CREELAND. I think the first thing of yours that I encountered was your “Cree word of the day” tweets: since 2015, you’ve been sporadically posting Cree words connected to popular topics of the day. Most recently, following Joe Biden’s inauguration, your tweet on the Cree phrase for “Bernie sits” (“apiw Bernie”) was liked over 2,000 times!

The theme of translation between Cree and English is also central to CREELAND. The book presents various forms of translation, from the more traditional glossary of Cree words in the endnotes (which, notably, only translates a selection of the Cree words used in CREELAND), to poems like “Cree Dictionary,” which provide less literal “translations” (“the translation for joy / in Cree is a fried bologna sandwich”, “the translation for evil / in Cree is the act of not calling / your mother on a Sunday”, etc.).

In exploring both technical translations and “translations” that capture the feeling of a word, CREELAND reminded me of the choice the poet Don Paterson once said must be made by all translators between honouring “the word or the spirit” of the original text – if a translator attempts both equally, “we are likely to come away with nothing.” A poem can be “right” in certain ways a dictionary can’t, and vice versa. Could you talk a little about your approach to translation in CREELAND?

Dallas Hunt: I think that in many ways most of the translations are “imperfect” (in “Cree Dictionary,” purposefully so) and that’s fine. I mostly post things on social media to increase my own vocabulary or to work on my verb conjugation. That said, I think there is much about “Cree life” that can’t be fully captured in the language—things spill over and exceed—so I try to get at those feelings with the language I have available to me. It’s never enough, but I’m fine with that.

RT: The limitations of what language can and can’t accomplish is certainly another theme in the book. One of the (darkly) funniest lines in CREELAND comes in “Entry Four”: “Every time I write “kôhkom,” / some settler, somewhere, / cums.” We’re in a time where there is a desire among many settlers to understand and “consume” Indigenous culture, but this engagement happens under the consumer’s terms. Certain subjects/words are fetishized, others ignored (your poem “Curriculum of the Wait” explores how “every ndn poem / is about residential schools” – alongside every novel, play, memoir, etc.). All writers face the mixed blessing that their words will go out in the world, unchaperoned, to be used and interpreted as the reader sees fit, but in your case this process seems particularly fraught. 

Could you talk a little about how you would ideally like the Cree language, as presented in CREELAND, to be engaged with by settler readers?

DH: The language is going to be engaged with however the reader sees fit. One thing I do like, though, is that more people appear to be seeing Cree as a “living language,” so I guess in the grand scheme of things, as long as people see our languages (and us) as alive, there really isn’t much more I could hope for. I do think that there are “particular” forms in which Indigenous peoples are legible (like through language), so that’s something I do try to complicate in the collection. If people take notice of that, great, but I do have a bit of an ambivalence toward it, too (not to be overly obscure or combative!).

RT: Fair enough! Could you talk a little more about complicating the ways Indigenous people are “legible”? 

DH: I think that non-Indigenous peoples are more than willing to interpret us through particular lenses (e.g., language, residential schools, “culture”) but are far less willing to take our political assertions seriously. I think whether we’re in rural, reserve, or urban environments, Indigenous peoples are constantly asserting a politics that is so summarily dismissed, sometimes in favour of something as capacious as “culture,” that we’re not being really heard or engaged with. Engage with us—our politics, our assertions, our communities. We’re not going anywhere, so it might be prudent to do so.

RT: What do you hope for Cree speakers to find in these poems?

DH: The collection is about everyday Cree economies of care. I hope there is some recognition there, disagreement, even contention—we are vast, complex and varying communities, so I hope some Cree people (and other Indigenous peoples) appreciate the writing. But I also hope that, if I were there, Cree and Indigenous peoples would argue with me about some of the articulations or interpretations of things in the collection. That’s what being in community or visiting as a method is all about.

RT: One way language, community and politics come together in CREELAND is in what I think of as your “dictionary” poems: list poems that explore the meaning of a particular term from various angles. Some of the most joyful, and angriest, moments in the book come in list poems like “Cree Dictionary” (“the translation for X is…”), “Mozart, Saskatchewan” (“a white man is…”), and “kôhkom Freedom” (“freedom is…”). 

“Cree Dictionary,” from which I’ve already quoted, is filled with humourous lines, while “Mozart, Sasktachewan” opens with “a white man is a fist / that ends families” and “kôhkom Freedom” closes with “and / fuck them / anyway”—possibly the greatest ending of a book ever! Another, from the list poem “Nathan Apodaca”: “I wish I cared about anything as much as white people care about toilet paper.”

What draws you to these kinds of list poems? Is there something about the non-narrative way they approach their subjects that allows you to tap into a deeper vein of humour and anger?

DH: Wow, Rob, I like how much you’re nudging me to think about form here. Ha ha. Some of the poems you’ve listed here I don’t actually consider list poems, though I do think the repetition might frame them that way—an interesting thing to think about. I guess generally I like repetition as a rhetorical device, and that it may have the potential to “open things up” or really emphasize a particular idea or concept. In a sense that might not be particularly subtle, but I don’t think CREELAND is subtle at points. Sometimes I do feel joy or anger or a variety of feelings, and I guess the repetition of words or phrases articulates that (betraying me in the process).

RT: So many books these days are in one mode: subtle or not, a whisper or a shout. It’s refreshing to read a book that both embraces subtlety and sets it aside when the poet really needs to make a joyful or anger-filled point. 

The joy and anger in the book seem to converge near the end of CREELAND in poems that focus on Indigenous futurities (“futures whose / formation(s) / make another / one hundred and / fifty years impossible”) and, more broadly, desire: desires for a people, and for oneself, both now and in the future (“desire / is a struggling river”). Could you talk a little about desire and futurity as themes in the book, and in your life?

DH: Desire and the future share a particular terrain—I think as Indigenous peoples we’re constantly desiring a different future, one that looks radically different from the present (and orients how we act in the present, hopefully). I’m someone who constantly thinks of the future, but I also understand desire and its entanglements—how in many ways, we have no control over our desires. So the desire I write about in the text is deeply personal, but it also is this gesturing out to different horizons. What do we want, what have we internalized, and how do we disentangle how we’ve got here? They’re massive, capacious, but intensely personal and intimate questions, so I guess if I want the book to do anything in this instance, it’s to get us all to think through these questions a bit more.

RT: You have an obvious love of massive, capacious questions: in addition to being a poet, you are also an academic and activist. Your politics are thoughtfully and powerfully presented throughout the book, and many of the poems – about settler colonialism, the prison-industrial complex, etc. – could easily have been “translated” into essays. In “Small” you write:

yes, i don’t mind
feeling small

’cause you can
see, and plot,
a lot from down here.

That poem isn’t an ars poetica, per se, but I wonder to what extent it ties into your thoughts about genre – choosing poetry over, or in accompaniment to, other forms of writing. What led you to poetry, small as it is, as a way to explore such big ideas?

DH: I started to write poetry when I was reading a lot of criticism and theory. I was trying to finish up my comprehensive exams for my PhD and found my desire for academic writing waning. What I did in response was to start to write poetry, and I found a lot of the concepts I was encountering in my scholarly work were coming through in my poetry. Thankfully, though, some of it was not, and I got to explore issues or themes that I never would have in an academic article. Poetry also enabled me to start writing about myself and using that first-person pronoun “I” (for better or worse). While the speakers in my poems are not always me, I am grateful to be able to use that “I” (or “i”) in poetry now. I guess I have theory to thank for that, which is probably the first time anyone has ever said that.

RT: Ha! It’s interesting that theory brought you to the personal, the “I,” and now the personal in CREELAND returns the favour, helping bring the theoretical concerns that underpin the book to the reader. Poems like “Spiraling (Fine for Now)” and “I Almost Had a Mental Breakdown During My Master’s Degree” firmly place your personal mental health struggles amidst these larger theoretical and political ideas. How do you think these poems shape the poems around them?

DH: I think that it’s a perfectly rational response to the current conditions we occupy to have to deal with mental illness. I have for a while and know personally that a lot of Indigenous peoples deal with these issues in a far more severe way than I do (in ways that are legible or make sense to me). I guess in writing about mental illness, I wanted to illustrate how it’s a part of the colonial process—that these issues aren’t just structural, but rather play a huge part on the personal and collective psyche of Indigenous peoples and communities. We have a lot to contend with here. I also think we’re at a place now where we can talk about mental health openly (or, at least, I hope that’s the case), and I guess I wanted those poems to catalogue how I felt at particular times and how it is okay to feel those ways. One of the things a therapist said to me that still resonates is that “it’s okay to feel anxious,” and that reoriented so much for me. I’m not perfect in any way, but I’m interested in how this world, in a sense, can feel far less lonely. 

RT: Did the learning you acquired while writing CREELAND help you think about your academic writing in new ways?

DH: Interesting question! I guess I’m far more attuned to form while writing academic articles and, depending on the publication, might be far more adventurous in how I write or construct certain arguments. I’m a big fan of the theoretical writing of Saidiya Hartman and Fred Moten and would like to have my critical writing be anywhere near as poetic as their writings are (this is a doomed project, I know, but I love their texts and want to have that wedding of poetics and theory at the base of my writings. I’ll fail, I know, but how lovely it is to try!). 

RT: In one of your poems that could easily have been turned into an academic article, “There Are No Good Settlers,” you write about the problem of “woefully unprepared” institutions deciding if someone is “‘Indigenous enough’ for a title or position” (including people who claim Indigeneity to “help them in this institutional moment”). In the poem you suggest that “perhaps a poetics of accountability can allow us to see each other differently.” Could you talk a little more about a poetics of accountability, and what role poetry, or poetic thinking, can play in dealing with this issue?

DH: These issues can be touchy or hard to talk about at times. There’s something about the obliqueness of poetry, of how it can come at an issue from a different or interesting angle (a parallax view), that I think allows us to be able to have hard conversations that we might not in alternate arenas. I do think we’re in a particular moment (this “reconciliatory” moment) that has allowed people to attain a certain level of peace, but has also enabled others to attempt to capitalize on the violences Indigenous peoples have endured historically. And while I know that might be an incendiary statement, I think all of us, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, might recognize this to be true. In fact, there have been a few high-profile cases of this recently in the art world and I think, ultimately, it hurts Indigenous peoples a great deal more than people think.

RT: Not incendiary at all. One of the many downsides to these false claims is that they eat up space that should be given to deserving Indigenous artists. It’s wonderful to see that, in addition to publishing your own book this year, you’re also making space for another Indigenous poet who is well worth celebrating: (Re)Generation: The Poetry of Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm, a selection of Akiweznie-Damm’s poetry which you edited, will be published in August from Wilfred Laurier Press. Could you talk a little about that book and the influence Akiwenzie-Damm’s poetry has had on your own writing?

DH: Kateri is a great writer. It was an enjoyable process to inhabit someone else’s thinking and poetic works and try to think through how they wrote a piece—the why and how of it. In many ways, Kateri’s project has been great because I’ve been given the chance to become more familiar with a writer I wasn’t completely familiar with before. If you have a chance, read Kateri’s work, especially her erotic work, because I think it’s incredibly generative and courageous (a lot of us don’t write about sex, but Kateri has no qualms about it and I really admire it).

RT: In your introduction to (Re)Generation, you talk about Akiwenzie-Damm’s connections to spoken word and performance. While most of your poems seem designed for the page, one way the spoken and sung makes its way into your book is through rock music: Daughters, Sufjan Stevens, Talking Heads, Chris Gaines, and even Fleetwood Mac (via-Nathan Apodaca’s-Cranberry-Juice-Skateboard viral video), all make appearances in epigraphs, poem titles, etc. What role do music and lyricism play in your thinking about poetry, and your writing process? Is something always playing in the background as you write?

DH: Interesting question! I’m responding to these questions while listening to Tei Shi’s “Even if it Hurts” on repeat. Ha ha. Sometimes, I think, I write to music, but other times I’m in bed in total silence or having a morning coffee and reading something. The weird thing is that my musical interests verge towards hip hop or R&B, so I guess the rock bands are a surprise to me (though not untrue). I like music, I play music occasionally, and I guess I wanted to acknowledge what I was writing to at particular times (I learned this from Richard Van Camp—who you should read if you haven’t already!—because I think he lists what he was listening to while he composed certain pieces). Leanne Simpson also borrows from songs for titles and other things (I’m thinking of “It Takes an Ocean Not to Break,” Leanne’s short story which is titled after a song by The National). Anyway, I guess those are gestures to particular writers who have influenced me.

RT: Do you see a through-line there of some sort, from Indigenous oral traditions, to performance-oriented poets of previous generations (like Akiwenzie-Damm), to Richard Van Camp’s notes and Leanne Simpson’s songs and stories, to your listening to Tei Shi on repeat? 

DH: That could be true, yes. I mean, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that both Kateri and Leanne have made musical renditions of their written, creative works. Richard, too, acknowledges the music he has written to as well, and I think what this might all speak to is the way we acknowledge one another and pay respect to inspiration and its sources. Generally, for Indigenous peoples, we gesture to where particular forms of knowledge come from, and song is a form of knowledge. 

RT:  In CREELAND you make far more use of the blank space on a page of poetry than many poets. Poems shift from left to right margins, or are split between the two, creating huge gaps in the middle of your lines. Other poems are simply presented with very short lines, a handful of words running down the left margin. What is the importance of line breaks, gaps and silences in your poems? What do they allow you to say/do in your poems that would be otherwise unavailable to you?

DH: Some of this is aesthetic—I like the sparseness. Part of that is reflected in the cover as well. But I also think particular words or lines function better as standalone phrases or even objects. I like the idea of dwelling, and I think sometimes it’s easier to dwell in a particular narrative or spatial sense if a word or line is on its own. It’s an invitation to dwell.

RT: Circling back to Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm, in addition to being a poet she is also an organizer: in the early 1990s, she both founded the Indigenous publisher Kegedonce Press and co-founded the Writers Independent Native Organization (WINO). These organizations helped foster a generation of Indigenous writers (and Kegedonce continues to do the same to this day!). Here in 2021 we see another generation of Indigenous poets, thriving perhaps like no other, many of whom you thank at the back of your book (Jessica Johns, Selina Boan, Billy-Ray Belcourt, Brandi Bird, Jordan Abel…). There’s a tendency to treat these cultural “moments” as spontaneous, almost magical occurrences, overlooking all the work done by previous generations to prepare their coming.

DH: There are so many amazing Indigenous poets at this particular moment. That said, I think you’re right in saying that there is a long lineage of Indigenous writers who have paved the way for many of us. Also, there is this term that emerges in relation to Indigenous writing—”renaissance”—that I think is deeply problematic and doesn’t gesture to the peoples who have been writing for decades (Linda Hogan, Chrystos, Eden Robinson, among others). I also think we need to be attentive to this moment, and why audiences might be interested in this particular work at this time (that reconciliatory moment I spoke to before). I don’t say this to disparage anyone’s writing, but rather to get us to think about Indigenous knowledge and cultural production and its palatability at this point. Why are readers engaging with us and how, and what affective attachments, investments, or desires might they have? Will they be reading us in ten years?

RT: Do you think Indigenous creators can transform this reconciliatory moment into something more lasting? Or do you think that will come down to the will and desires of settler readers, funders, etc.?

DH: In many ways, this is the conversation or question facing many Indigenous peoples, both academically and in artistic circles. I think we’re starting to write for one another, outside of the eyes of settler readers, and I think it’s a beautiful thing. I’m happy I get to read Indigenous poets and writers while listening to Jeremy Dutcher or Black Belt Eagle Scout—it’s a wonderful space to dwell in. I think I’ll stay here awhile. 


Dallas Hunt is Cree and a member of Wapsewsipi (Swan River First Nation) in Treaty Eight territory in northern Alberta. He has had creative worked published in Contemporary Verse 2Prairie FirePRISM international and Arc Poetry. His first children’s book, Awâsis and the World-famous Bannock, was published through Highwater Press in 2018, and was nominated for several awards. Hunt is an assistant professor of Indigenous literatures at the University of British Columbia.