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

The following interview is part five 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).


The Uncertainty Principle - Terence Young

          —with apologies to Werner Heisenberg

At the beach
you move a stone 
the size of a football and 
the world beneath it panics,
runs in all directions.
You want to apologize 
for the intrusion,
consider returning the boulder to its place,
the damage that might do,
pause instead to watch
crabs scuttling, 
other creatures that bring to mind 
a word from high school science,
annelids, you think, and more words,
radial symmetry, 
then the briefest glimpse of a classroom,
some girl you sat across from,
who recorded observations
in her small neat hand,
history now,
like your intention
to become a marine biologist,
all those days of sandwiches in wax paper,
an apple or an orange,
the kinds of things that disappear
the very second you expose them
to the light. 


Reprinted with permission
from Smithereens 
(Harbour Publishing, 2021).



Rob Taylor: Multi-page narrative poems, written in couplets, make up about 40% of the contents of Smithereens (Yes, I counted!). Could you talk a little about what draws you to that combination: the long line of the narrative running North-South through the poem, and the intermittent bursts of couplets running West-East? 

Terence Young: I am not much of a formalist when it comes to poetry, by which term I mean someone who is drawn to certain forms as a way both to contain and to stimulate writing. Yes, I have dabbled in the pantoum, the palindrome, the sonnet, the villanelle, the glosa, but never for long – I guess I’m one of those people who does not mind “playing tennis with the net down.” More than that, though, I write the kind of poetry I like to read, poetry that is generous with space, that focuses the reader’s eye on just a few words or lines at a time. I’m thinking of writers like Tony Hoagland and Stephen Dunn, whose poems are often in short stanzas with three or four lines. No wonder, then, that I find the couplet appealing, either in lines that cross the page or in shorter bursts. Maybe it’s a kind of intellectual laziness, but I find poems that fill up the page, offering few or no stanza breaks, a little daunting to enter – sort of the way I feel in novels where I find myself in need of a couple of pages of dialogue, some airiness where I can breathe.

RT: Not intellectual laziness at all—I think part of the joy of turning to poetry (and away from the suffocation of a page of prose) is savouring that breathing/thinking space the blank page provides. Some poets don’t agree: your wife, poet Patricia Young, for instance.

Patricia has often put her narrative energies into prose poems, a form you avoid in Smithereens. A few years back, in an interview with me, she said: “My feeling is: if you’re writing sentences, acknowledge that, let your sentences have their day and be what they are.” Though I wouldn’t say you’re “writing sentences” per se, there does seem to be a bit of a family disagreement there.

TY: Actually, there were quite a few prose pieces – a couple of long-ish suites – that I did not include in this collection for the simple fact that the book would have been far too long with them. I tend to prefer poetry books that are shorter rather than longer, and now I have a fair amount of material for a subsequent book. But, to your point about writing sentences, it’s true that many of my poems are narratives, sometimes to the extent that they might as well take the form of the prose poem. And I will often re-shape them by removing the line breaks to see whether they might work better that way. Again, though, because I like the sense of space that comes with short lines or couplets, I often find myself putting them back into their original form. It seems that if I set out to write a prose poem, it will stay that way, and the reverse is also true. There is a common criticism that many poems are really just sentences cut up with arbitrary line breaks that lend the language an undeserved tone of gravity, and my writing may well merit such a reproof. I don’t know. But if the reader takes pleasure from the words on the page, whatever their form might be, the argument is moot. 

I remember Patricia making the shift into prose poems, as well as her observation that one should acknowledge and even celebrate the sentence, if that is what one is writing.

RT: You spoke about Patricia’s role in your writing life in a “Falling in Love with Poetry” essay you wrote for The New Quarterly (“Before I fell in love with poetry, I fell in love with a poet”), and at the end of Smithereens you note that without her “inspiration, love and encouragement” the book wouldn’t have come into being. Could talk a bit about how that encouragement manifests day-to-day? To what extent have Patricia’s attitudes on poetry (or her poems themselves) shaped your own?

TY: Patricia is always growing as a writer, and she likes to challenge herself by embracing new forms, new approaches. I’m lucky to be able to observe how she alters her process, how she moved away, for example, from the autobiographical into more fantastical and imaginative realms, areas that allow her to play more. I can still see bits and pieces of our life in such poems, but they no longer take centre stage. They are useful only to the extent that they serve a larger purpose, to add detail and depth to the poem. I still write largely out of my life, but she inspires me to push boundaries a little, to experiment. 

RT: Are you one another’s first editor? 

TY: We will show each other our work when we’re happy with it, but she is far more content than I to sit on a poem for months or longer before she shares it, by which time it is pretty much perfect. I am a little more impulsive, and I probably benefit more from her editorial eye than she from mine.  

RT: Speaking of The New Quarterly, I’ve gotten to know your poetry fairly well in recent years because you keep beating me in their Nick Blatchford Occasional Verse contest! You won it in 2019 (I placed third) and were runner-up in 2018 (I was an honourable mention). So here I am, humble bridesmaid to your bride. 

TY: Ha! I don’t know if you have the same reaction to contests as I do, but whenever I’m fortunate enough to place or win, I read the poems that didn’t place and am certain the judges have made a mistake. I remember reading yours and thinking that. Doubt is essential to the success of any artist, I believe, and once we cease to doubt ourselves, we become less successful. 

RT: I always think the judges have made a mistake, whether I win or lose. It simplifies the thought process considerably. 

When I first entered the TNQ contest I was confused by that word “Occasional.” I’d always thought “occasional poetry” referred exclusively to poems that were written to be read aloud at weddings, funerals, etc. The contest, though, widens the definition to include “poems that make an occasion of something ordinary… by virtue of the poet’s attention.” In my case, that summarises nearly everything I write! Poems come to me, I don’t seek them out. Something happens that I find interesting and I write it down; if nothing of note happens, nothing gets written. 

It seems that this looser definition of “occasional” speaks to your writing practice, too (as you’ve said, “I still write largely out of my life”). Many poems in the book feel pulled out of specific (often minor) events in your life, including the flipping over of a stone in “The Uncertainty Principle.”

TY: I agree that one could easily argue all poems are occasional: a thought, some precipitating incident, some emotion serves as the occasion for the author’s sitting down to explore the experience. More traditionally, though, the occasional poem, at least in my understanding, arises out of a specific event, something that, at the time or latterly, acquires significance in the writer’s mind and merits articulation. Wordsworth’s “Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey” is a good example of an experience “recollected in tranquillity.” Because there is often a narrative structure in such poems, the qualities of a good story apply. The reader likes to be engaged immediately, and the elements of the poem – the details, the tone, the imagery, the figurative language – should all contribute, as Poe suggests for the short story, to a single powerful effect. 

Helen Vendler, in her wonderful book, Poems, Poets, Poetry, spends an entire chapter on Keats’ “On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer,” and her analysis not only helps students develop the skills that can help them look deeper into a poem, but also demonstrates how coherent and unified the language and structure of the poem truly are. In addition to these elements of technique, the reader must also be drawn to the voice of the poem, which may or may not be the voice of the poet. In Keats’ poem, we can feel the speaker’s astonishment and joy upon discovering Homer’s “wide expanse,” and I believe every good occasional poem should convey as much as possible of the poem’s emotional weight.

RT: On a practical level, how do you start the process of turning your life events into poems? Do you wait for “occasions” to strike, or do you pursue poems a bit more methodically? Another way to ask it: are you more of a “pocket notebook” poet or a “tidy desk” poet? 

TY: I don’t really have a writing process. Like you, I respond to events or experiences, and whether what I write becomes a poem or a story remains a bit of a mystery. Some things just feel like poems, their trajectory shorter, their focus tighter, and others feel like they want expansion, especially if characters are involved. 

I tend to write in the morning, stopping in the early afternoon to garden or walk the neighbourhood. Many people think that COVID should be a writer’s ideal opportunity to get some words on paper, but I have not found that to be true. Alison Flood speaks about “writer’s blockdown” in the Guardian, and it is clearly a real thing. The idea of writing about anything but the plague seems silly, just as it does to try to write a story without including cell phones or computers. But writing about COVID also has its problems. We haven’t enough distance from it to reflect about its implications. Adam Gopnik wrote about that distance recently, the fact that we are living through history without any real perspective of its impact, just as my parents went through WWII living day by day, uncertain of the outcome. Covid is too recent. It’s a kind of limbo where what I write seems a little like historical fiction. I’m sure it will pass.

RT: Hmm… yes, I’m experiencing this too. I feel a need to write around COVID, but how can you? I’ve been writing a great deal about nature; visiting a local park and simply recording what I see. Your “occasional” writing strikes me as observational, too: in certain ways it reminds me of haiku or imagist traditions, in other ways like Frank O’Hara’s self-proclaimed “I do this I do that” poetry. Can you point to any influences in encouraging you to write “occasionally” and “observationally” in this way?

TY: I’m glad you mentioned Frank O’Hara, because one of my favourite poems is “The Day Lady Died.” The poem is really just an itemizing of the things he did, the places he visited – the numerous quotidian acts that make up most of our lives – and one of those acts is his picking up a copy of a newspaper with a picture of Billy Holiday. Then the poem shifts to a single memory of a night at a place called the 5 Spot, where “she whispered a song along the keyboard” and “everyone and I stopped breathing.” He was a friend of the writer John Ciardi, who wrote about the death of JFK in the same manner, exploring all the details of New York city surrounding the day of the president’s death without commentary, without interjecting his own thoughts and feelings. 

I think it’s always wiser to approach a subject through things – at least it’s one way, and, if it’s done properly, the ultimate effect can be very powerful, as O’Hara shows us in his poem. Philip Levine’s poem “Late Moon” also is moving for the same reasons. Here is the opening:

2 a.m.
December, and still no moon
rising from the river.

My mother
home from the beer garden
stands before the open closet

her hands still burning.
She smooths the fur collar,
the scarf, opens the gloves

crumpled like letters.
Nothing is lost
she says to the darkness, nothing.

A son observes his mother arrive home from a night out and relates what he sees and hears with only minor embellishments (“gloves/crumpled like letters,” “hands burning”). It is a devastatingly sad poem primarily because he doesn’t intrude, because he allows the details to say it all for him. Of course, not all of my poetry adheres to this style, but a lot of it does.

RT: Oh, that Levine poem. The first stanza’s a haiku, more or less, and it keeps its energy throughout. Thank you for introducing me to it. It’s obvious from our discussion how much you love introducing poems and ideas on poetry to others. Could you talk a little about the role of teaching in your life-long relationship with poetry? How have you found retirement? Are you delivering lectures to your garden?

TY: I didn’t set out to be a teacher. I don’t think I set out to be anything. In 1978, I applied to law school and was accepted, but our finances were non-existent, and we already had a great deal of student debt, not to mention a one-year-old (Clea), so I forgot about law and registered in a fast-track teaching diploma. By 1980, I was standing in front of a classroom, making it up as I went. Ten years later, I re-invented my teaching by introducing a section of creative writing, which transformed how I taught. By providing students with models of contemporary poetry and fiction – Karen Solie, Louise Glück, Denis Johnson, Ray Carver, Lorrie Moore – and by giving students the freedom to write what interested them, I found a way to help them become invested in what they wrote. They started to care about spelling, punctuation, diction and imagery, and they learned how to use language to express what mattered to them. 

I also found myself sitting down with the class and writing the exercises I had assigned – simple prompts that I made up or borrowed from writers like Natalie Goldberg. I had already published several stories, but the draw of writing poems was irresistible, and I had a good teacher at home. I invited poets and short story writers into the school – Patricia, of course, and Bill Gaston, John Gould, Linda Rogers, Marian Farrant, Mark Jarman, and many others. Pretty soon other teachers wanted in, and before long they were writing and publishing their own poems and stories. I have always believed that writing teachers should also be teaching writers. 

In 1992 we launched a magazine, The Claremont Review, which published poetry and stories from students across Canada and the U.S. It lasted twenty-five years, closing finally in 2017, when we could no longer find the perfect combination of teacher/writers in a school to take it on. During those years, many of those students became friends and went on to explore writing further, writers like Claire Battershill and her brother Andrew, Maleaa Acker, Elizabeth Ross, Emily Yoon, Lyn Li Che. 

I miss the vitality of a writing class, the pleasure of introducing young minds to the works of great writers like Jane Kenyon, Claudia Rankine, Patricia Lockwood. I still dream of teaching, of finding myself nattering away about the power of imagery, even the joy of grammar. I left at the right time, when it was still fun. Now, the thought of standing in front of a bunch of teenagers and talking terrifies me. Once you step out of the river of relevance, you are quickly left behind. 

RT: Sorry to be pulling you back in the river! And thank you for your work on The Claremont Review—I was so disappointed to hear that it was shutting down after all those years.

We’ve talked a great deal about the narrative elements of Smithereens. But it should be noted that the book features two distinct forms—palindromes and list poems—which in their nonlinearity feel like a bit of a response to the rest of the book, almost “anti-narratives.” Could you talk a little about your interest in these forms, and how they complement/resist the narrative poems in the book?

TY: There has to be a little fun in writing, and forms like the palindrome and list poems are a lot like playing. One of the first list poems I encountered was “Loves,” from Stephen Dunn’s book, Landscape at the End of the Century. I liked the poem so much that I copied it, except that my poem was called “Lies.” Since then, I have come back to lists on several occasions. I think I like the way they can jump around from one thing to another without any need for a connection, apart from the title, and how they create a kind of coherence on their own, as though simply by being a list, the elements add up to something larger. As you point out, I have more than a few of these list poems in the current book, specifically in the lighter section “Pranayama” and also in “Epilogue.” One that is not in those sections is the poem “Gary,” about a friend who passed away a few years ago. He was such a collection of contradictions, and I think by juxtaposing certain details of his character, the reader gets an accurate snapshot of the man himself. I’ve also written a non-fiction piece about him, which was shortlisted for the CBC. I think I can safely say that I’ve never met anyone like him before or since. 

RT: “Gary” appears in the second section of Smithereens, entitled “Legacy,” which focuses on death: not only as an abstract concept, but also – and perhaps chiefly – as a bodily experience. You write about the physical process of dying in more than one poem, and in “Fern Island Candle ®” you write about being “happy / for now… to revive / those days when the metaphor of the candle, what it means / to snuff out, to be snuffed out, was still a metaphor.” 

Could you talk about your current thinking on death as a metaphor and a bodily reality? Have your thoughts on “death,” in all its manifestations, changed in recent years? Has the concept of “death” become more clouded or clearer?

TY: Yes, well, not a happy subject, certainly, but one that has gripped all of our imaginations in the last year, and, by all, I mean the entire world. Both Patricia and I are truly orphans now, since our parents have all passed, my mother being the most recent in 2012 at 97 years. We are also grandparents, a demographic that has us taking over the role that our parents played for our own children. Everywhere, we encounter signposts that tell us where we are heading: the various grades we pass through at school; the hats we don as husbands, fathers, wives, mothers; our status as retirees, pensioners, grandparents. We somehow acclimatize to each change in our job description, possibly because the shifts happen so slowly that we almost fail to see them until we turn around and look at the distance we have travelled. 

Initially, when we are young, the idea of death is appalling. It is “absurd,” as Camus wrote in The Myth of Sisyphus, and we read books like The Outsider and Heart of Darkness with alarm and indignation – “the horror, the horror!” Later, we lose ourselves in work and family, and forget about death for a while, only to be reminded when a friend or relative leaves the earth too soon. The ages cited in obituaries always seem far in the future, and we still hold in our minds our flexible understanding of what old people look like, which is anyone over twenty, then thirty, then forty, then fifty… 

I remember sitting on the back porch of the family home when I was quite young. It was a summer day, the big apple tree in blossom and the neighbourhood alive with the sounds of spring. I leaned over the railing and looked down at the backyard lawn – I might have been eight or nine – and I tried to imagine what it might feel like not to exist. The effort overwhelmed me, as it does when I try to comprehend an infinite universe, and I think I changed a little that day. I have never followed any religion, never accepted any articles of faith, any of the promises of immortality, an afterlife. There have been no miracles to sway my conviction that there is more to this world than meets the eye, because – as one exceptionally bright student pointed out in a screed he wrote – this world, this solar system, this galaxy, should be miracle enough for anyone. What need have we of angels or heavens when we have this? 

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.   

RT: For all the sadness in Smithereens, there is also a great deal of levity. In my interview with Patricia, she spoke of the virtues of serious humour (she quotes Donald Hall, who describes it as humour which “carries discomfort with it”). I think here you might have some agreement! There are so many funny moments in these poems, including my personal favourite “The Party,” in which two people debate the value of going to a party: 

They were told the party was on.
They were told everyone would be at the party.

They should come. They should really come.

But they were of two minds.

It’s a party, they said in one mind.
It’s a party, they said in the other mind.

The fun of Smithereens is most often “serious,” and “carries discomfort with it.” Could you talk about the role of humour in your poems? What does humour allow you to access that you’d otherwise have difficulty reaching?

TY: Poets have long been criticized as taking themselves too seriously. One has only to think of the oft-satirized “poetry voice” to feel a shudder of agreement. The thing is, though, many of the poets we revere, like Shakespeare and Donne, are actually quite humorous. How can we not laugh when Shakespeare laments being “in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes” and wishes to possess “this man’s art [talent] and that man’s scope [intelligence]”? Shakespeare? Really? You want to be more talented and smarter? Now, that’s funny. Donne, too, who borders on blasphemy when he attempts to seduce a woman by comparing both lovemaking and the Holy Trinity to a flea whose body contains his blood and that of his mistress. Never mind Marvell, who argues to his mistress that “The grave’s a fine and quiet place, / But none, I think do there embrace.” So, I always like to keep my own tendency to “lament” in perspective by recognizing how privileged I am to have the leisure to set words on paper, and how my problems stack up in comparison to the world at large. 

One way, as you suggest, is to leaven the light with a little dark, as Burns does in “To a Mouse,” in which he apologizes for breaking up the small creature’s burrow with a plough. His apology seems overblown, too much, too ardent in relation to his subject, a small mouse, and thus humorous, but the second stanza’s faux erudition and departure from the broad Scottish accent make it clear that he’s targeting a larger issue, the displacement of the poor by Progress. In my own mouse poem – another list poem – I shift from the concrete details of the various items that have been damaged to the more abstract ideas of ethics and our belief that we sit at the top of the Great Chain of Being, the kind of belief that crumbles when one looks at how “speciesism” has damaged the planet and caused untold suffering to other animals. 

Of course, having children deals a fairly heavy body blow to one’s self-importance, too, and in a poem like “Younger Than That Now” (thank you, Bob Dylan), I reduce the worldwide imperative for immediate changes in the ways we do business on this planet to the efforts of a single child in her quest to educate her father. In that context, the poem is humorous, but its overall message is serious. I may have learned this tactic from Patricia who mined the lives of our children for details almost from the moment they were born, but I think it’s also a universal experience to discover that certain aspects of our lives – the concerns over appearance, fame, money – take a comic backseat once we become parents. I think Patricia has been far subtler in her poems with regard to this change, and in many ways funnier. In her poem, “The Fire,” she describes our son’s obsession with keeping a campfire going, and her portrait is both loving and absurd: he sits “at the edge of a pit in a derelict lawn chair— / an old man chewing tobacco and staring at nothing.” 

RT: I’m glad you brought up “Younger Than That Now,” where the daughter implores her father to leave behind certain bad habits (cigarettes, white sugar, leaf blowers): “What spell will wake you from / your sleep?” 

While I can easily see my children growing up to think of me as “asleep,” I can’t imagine them becoming writers, as your daughter Clea Young has (her first collection of short stories, Teardown, was published in 2016). How did you feel about Clea taking up the family addiction (I mean writing, not cigarettes or leaf blowers)? 

TY: Yes, Clea writes fiction, and she also writes amazing poetry. It is wonderful to see her incorporating the elements of her own life as a mother and wife and daughter into her own work. I now know how my mother felt when she would see parts of our shared family history pop up in my poems and stories. She called me a “magpie,” a term of endearment, but it also refers to the way I would steal little gems of moments to line my own nest. 

Luckily, Clea’s childhood was not the series of character-crushing traumas that some children experience, and while I may wince to see some comical aspect of myself in her lines, I also know that both Clea and Liam, like the child in “Younger Than That Now,” have been very tolerant and have taught me a lot. 

RT: Returning to “The Party,” now that we’re a year into COVID quarantines, have your attitudes about parties changed at all? Are you feeling a bit less ambivalent about getting out of the house?

TY: Ha! I don’t really know. This period of enforced isolation has had some fairly strange effects, some of them quite serious. For someone like me – retired, a homeowner with access to a summer cabin the woods – this hiatus in the busy calendar of socializing, of “getting and spending,” as Wordsworth puts it, has actually been reasonably tolerable, even pleasant at times. As you suggest, though, it may also have reinforced certain tendencies to avoid the world, to shut the door on humanity. 

It’s hard to imagine how we will react to the return of parties, theatres, pubs, poetry readings and unexpected knocks on the front door, but I think it will take some getting used to. Getting older means a more limited life simply because many of the reasons for social interaction are no longer relevant – networking, sex, the urge to go a little crazy, let off steam – and perhaps this transformation has been a little more precipitous because of lockdowns and social distancing. But I have also noticed how eagerly people now chat with each other when they have a chance, at a distance or over media like Zoom, and this enthusiasm, almost desperate in its intensity, suggests to me that the transition back to a more convivial life may not take all that long. Nevertheless, I think the idea of blowing out birthday candles, then serving our guests with a piece of potentially infected cake, is a tradition that may be gone forever.  

RT: What about leaf blowers?

TY: Lord! Is there anything more annoying? A local municipality has gone so far as to ban them. Has no one heard of a rake? Those and power washers, two of the most horrible machines ever invented. There has to be some kind of Freudian connection, the way you see their operators waving them about, but really…


Terence Young recently retired from teaching English and creative writing at St. Michaels University School. He is the author of several books: The Island in Winter, shortlisted for the Governor General’s Literary Award for poetry and the Gerald Lampert Award; Rhymes With Useless, a runner-up for the Danuta Gleed award for short fiction; After Goodlake’s, a novel and winner of the City of Victoria Butler Book Prize; Moving Day, nominated for the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize and the City of Victoria Butler Book Prize; and The End of the Ice Age, a collection of short fictionYoung lives in Victoria, BC.


Achieving An Equilibrium: An Interview with Cicely Belle Blain

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


Manitoba - Cicely Belle Blain

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

we do travel though

some of us are still
on ships

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



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

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

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

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

RT: What major roadblocks stood in your way?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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


Kiss in Nitobe Garden - Lillian Boraks-Nemetz

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

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

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

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


Reprinted with permission
(Ronsdale Press, 2020).



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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


putrefaction - Patrick Friesen

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

Reprinted with permission
(Anvil Press, 2020).



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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