A Woven Basket with Others: An Interview with Isabella Wang

The following interview is part four of a seven-part series of conversations with BC poets which I released between January and April 2022. 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, the 2020 interviews here, and the 2021 interviews here).


Ghazal for Heirloom Family Recipes - Isabella Wang

My grandmother taught me five different ways to deflesh a bitter gourd,
how to scrape off the residue left from seeds so it would taste less bitter.

Recipe for old-fashioned liquor: Replace the sugar cube with elderberries.
In an ice-filled mixing glass, stir bourbon, St. Germain and bitters.

The best coffee was served to me by a young woman at the Ethiopian café—
it was sweet on its own, and permeated all the necessary tinges of bitterness.

When you leave water in a cup for too long, it evaporates. Can’t say
the same about honey, but it’s beginning to clump. Tea leaves turn bitter.

My grandfather died while eating crab and red wine—heart attack.
This is a spell we are currently under, but I promise it won’t stay bitter.

Reprinted with permission from 
(Nightwood Editions, 2021)



Rob Taylor: Near the end of Pebble Swing, you write about “friendly grins / tugging on the tight fabric masks,” and note that it’s “A year of the same weekly / appointments, missed blood tests. // The doctor sends requisition after requisition…” The poem (“August”) speaks well to our current COVID moment, but also to your particular medical challenges in recent years (Pebble Swing having been released prior to your cancer diagnosis and subsequent surgery). How has it felt to have these two health uncertainties — one collective, one personal — play out at once?

Isabella Wang: Oh boy, yeah… Both these events in my life have brought immense, as you put it, “uncertainties.” These past few years have just been surreal, in the sense of both being a witness to the world, and my community’s collective experiences of grief and crisis, while undergoing my own. It’s a strange feeling, at a time when we are all physically distanced, to see and hear about loss, illness, and other forms of pandemic-induced tumults every day and then realize I am part of this too. I feel this.

When the pandemic struck, it affected my housing — I moved four times just in the summer of the first wave — and like many poets, not being able to attend in-person events at a rhythm that used to provide us with so much nourishment and support was hard, on both my mind and my creativity. So, at the time when I wrote “August,” I was experiencing symptoms of major depression, housing instability, and severe exhaustion. At one point, that fall, I was waking up at 2 pm and sleeping again by 6 pm. I had a feeling that something was wrong, but you know what it’s like — at 21, generally healthy, my symptoms were easily dismissed for anemia and depression, and I guess I didn’t reach out to as many healthcare professionals as I would have because I knew that clinics and ERs were already understaffed.

Not knowing it was cancer, I didn’t want to take away from resources. But it was true: at the hospital where I had my surgery to remove the malignant tumour early this new year, there was an Omicron outbreak and me and other patients could tell how tired, overworked, and worried the nurses were. They took wonderful care of us, and even if it was to get more pain meds or help sitting up, we often didn’t ring for help when we should have because we didn’t want to disturb them too much. The empathy was mutual.

RT: I can imagine. That must have been incredibly difficult. How did it feel to finally have an answer to why you were feeling so unwell?

IW: Finding out about the diagnosis four days before Christmas was hard, when all the doctors’ clinics and a lot of resources were not accessible, and during another personal housing crisis. I think the hardest part was waiting for a surgery date. I knew that I had an aggressive tumour (they usually are aggressive in younger folks), and if it spread before the surgery my whole life would change. So, that was hard — the toll it took on my loved ones, and feeling helpless to do anything about what was going on in my body.

I think Dr. Linda Thyer at SFU health and counselling is the real hero in all of this, and I wish there was just a way to thank her, more than saying the many thank yous I have already expressed. She saved my life. I haven’t had a family doctor since I was 10, so she didn’t know me or have my long-term medical records. I came in as a walk-in for an unrelated symptom, and she sent me for a thorough scan that then accidentally discovered the tumour, literally just in time. After the diagnosis, she was also working overtime, calling me during after-hours to make sure I was okay. And then another miracle happened. I got a call early in January telling me there had been a cancellation. That I was scheduled for surgery in three days. It was a successful surgery. When my loved ones got the news, they all cried. I was relieved to see them breathe a sigh of relief.

RT: How does it feel to finally have some form of resolution, even if your full recovery is still a ways off?

IW: I think I’m doing good. I have been dealt a difficult hand of cards, but I know now that I have also been dealt a lot of fortunate things. I am grateful for my doctors and the support of my community at a time when I so needed them. I am grateful for miracles, to be recovering well, and after moving twenty times in the past three years, to have finally moved in to what I think will be a long-term home.

RT: In Pebble Swing you write “I’ve planted flowers / Phyllis, so they may appear in future hours, and surprise me.” In the months and years after their first book is published, most poets look back at what they’ve written — the flowers they’ve planted — and are surprised! You’re a few months post-book now, but in your case it’s been a very eventful few months. Looking back at the book, what are you surprised by?

IW: The one thing that surprises me the most is my audience, be it readers on the page, or listeners at a live or Zoom reading. As you say, a lot has happened. One of my professors once observed that Pebble Swing has many voices, and that is a reflection of my perspectives and experiences shifting a lot over these eventful years of my undergrad. A lot has continued to change, including my poetry voice and style, working with two new manuscript projects. So, even though I personally feel like I relate a lot more to my current poetry and recent events in my life — because, of course, that’s how we write and grow — it’s still really moving to encounter readers of Pebble Swing of different ages, and through different contexts, and be told that what I wrote during this phase of my life has resonated them, or comforted them. It’s the greatest gift I find myself receiving from pursuing this work.

Another surprise, since you bring up Phyllis Webb, was that even though I had never met her in person, she knew of me and the work I was doing responding to her ghazals. Pebble Swing was the last book she had read before she passed away last Remembrance Day. I still think about her, and often talk to her, every day.

RT: Oh yes, how frivolous all of the concerns of the book “business” appear next to a beloved writer loving your work. It’s everything, eh? I’m so glad you were able to have that relationship with Phyllis Webb, both on and off the page.

How has it felt to put a book out during COVID? All writers who’ve put a book out during this time have had to mix celebration and grief together in some way, but that feels especially true in your case.

IW: Well, I guess I was lucky that my medical treatment didn’t get in the way of Pebble Swing’s launch celebration so much, and equally lucky that I was able to have a joint in-person launch with my talented friend, Ellie Sawatzky and her collection, None of This Belongs to Me, who I know you interviewed earlier in this series. So many of my dearest, most beloved friends came to that launch, and my partner, Scout, was also able to attend before they headed for Waterloo. It is one of my favourite memories.

I remember, at the time of the launch, I had just been informed that a tumour had shown up on my ultrasound, unexpectedly. Given my age and other factors, my doctor was able to give me peace of mind that what I had was probably the most common benign tumour or cyst; even though the result turned up otherwise a month later, I am grateful to have had that extra month right around my book launch where I didn’t have to be too worried yet. I think if I had known beforehand, and my friends and loved ones had known, the diagnosis would have gotten in the way of a “normal” celebration that I, like many poets, had worked very hard for.

RT: I’m so glad you managed to create that momentary safe space for celebration. All poetry book launches feel like little miracles in one way or another, yours especially.

In one of your book’s most powerful poems, “I Remember,” you write about Li Bai’s “静夜思” (“Quiet Night Thought"). It’s one of my very favourite poems, but as a poem about dreaming of one’s homeland, it must resonate differently for you than it does for me (translator Arthur Cooper stated in the ’70s that it must be the best known poem for Chinese people living overseas). You write, “I remember looking at the distance we’ve crossed / and the distance a poem / still has to voyage to make it in translation.” Could you talk about coming to that poem, and to Chinese poetry more generally, and how they helped you feel more connected to your personal and cultural history? What of each (the poems, the history) inevitably gets lost in translation?

IW: Aww, thanks Rob! I’m so glad this poem resonated with you, and I didn’t know the name of Li Bai’s poem translated to “Quiet Night Thought.” This poem started in Dr. Lindsey Freeman’s “Spaces of Memory” sociology class. For the first class, Dr. Freeman got us to read an excerpt from Joe Brainard’s I Remember — a book of poems that starts each line with the words “I Remember.” That still is one of my favourite books. For an exercise, we were instructed to list fifty lines the way Brainard had done, beginning with “I remember.” I got inspired to write my poem.

For years I had been struggling to find the right form and words to express the emotions I felt surrounding my family’s story and involvement in the Chinese Cultural Revolution, which took the life of my grandmother. Brainard gifted me with the form, and after that, the words just flowed. When I think about what I remember, those memories are inherently mixed with sentiments of forgetting; in the spaces of a few words of my mother tongue that I still possess, there are gaps of what I am no longer able to express in that language.

In the story of what I know about my family’s ancestral history, there are chasms of intergenerational narratives lost with my grandmother, lost in my forgetting of language, that I long to fill. I translate, but the untranslatable is ultimately what gives me the momentum for poetry — the trying; reaching toward a horizon that always ends up blurry, in metaphors with a double-edge.

RT: I’m so glad you are writing in and around those spaces. We all carry such gaps with us in one way or another, but it’s so valuable to stop and look at what was lost, and what still exists around them.

The pain of separation sits near the heart of Pebble Swing. Having written about so many types of separation (from culture, from language, from family, from community…), I’m curious if you have thoughts on what poetry can do about them. Can poetry only acknowledge the pain of separation, or can it in some way help soothe the pain, or bridge the gulf?

IW: I’ve been using caesuras a lot. My caesuras signify breath, rhythm. In poems such as “Synapses and Grass,” caesuras also compose visual fragmentation and the loss of memory — perhaps, separation, as you say. Recently, however, while caesuras are still very prevalent in my poems, they also serve as different forms of bridges: not so much closing any gaps as much as offering a way to cross them, to learn through wading across the lessons that separations offer us. I talk about them in this poem, as part of a new manuscript I’m working on called Choreography of Forgetting. That manuscript traces the choreography of strokes of Chinese characters to tell a story. It’s my way of reclaiming my mother tongue in the only way that I know how, through poetry, the form of expression where I feel most at home. A way of bridging the gulf that emerged in my entire family, not just an immigrant like I, when the Chinese Cultural Revolution took away my paternal grandmother.

RT: We’ve already talked a bit about one real-life way poets bridge the gaps between one another: book launches, readings and other social gatherings. The old truism is that poets don’t make money, but they have the best parties!

Many writers only slowly come to understand the importance of community in their (otherwise often very isolated) writing lives, but you seemed to “get it” right away. You’ve volunteered and worked at magazines, reading series, university programs, you name it. And if you’re not hosting or organizing, you’re an enthusiastic presence in the audience. Could you talk about diving into the poetry community, and how that’s influenced the trajectory of both your writing and your life?

IW: Well Rob, you are at the heart of how that story began. I was sixteen, in my last year of high school, when I sought out the weekend poetry workshop that you and Evelyn Lau were teaching with SFU Continuing Studies. It was under your mentorships that I learned not only about the craft of writing and editing my own work, but about the work that was out there in the community by other local poets whom I didn’t know anything about at the time, as well as how to get involved through literary readings and volunteering. At first, when I didn’t know a lot of people, I would just go to your events as you shared them on Twitter. While there, however, I would meet lots of new poets who would invite me to other events, and that’s how I learned to get out there in the community.

I remember going to your book launch for Oh Not So Great, probably my second time attending a literary event ever, and I was so excited about it that I had arrived on scene like an hour early. You had me helping out, setting up the refreshments and greeting folks at the door. That was probably my first time “volunteering” in this community that I grew to really love, and so, more occasions followed.

In reading the work of other poets in I’ve connected with at events, I’ve learned a lot about craft and what it means to read words that move you. The people in the community, my friends and loved ones, have also offered me many generous lessons on caring, listening, reciprocating, and what it means to hold one another. They’ve taught me how to take turns being a woven basket with others. I’ve grown so much as a person over these years, and I mean, money gets you certain necessities in life, but these human experiences with other writers have been equally, if not more, enriching.

RT: I love that image of the woven basket. You mentioned your partner, Scout, earlier, and your interweaving closes the book: Pebble Swing’s last poem is a love poem. The poem is directed both to Scout and to sunflowers, of which you note “Only young flowers move; only young flowers have to.” Sunflowers seem to have become your motif, as seen in your author photo and the cover of a recent chapbook of poems dedicated to you, Calling to the Sun: Poems for Isabella Wang. What attracts you to sunflowers? What can they teach us about love?

IW: Sunflowers are Scout’s favourite flowers, for one thing. They don’t demand for a lot, but always try to offer more than they take in: you can plant sunflower seeds almost anywhere. But when they grow up, they are tall, sturdy, and magnificently beautiful. Their petals make people happy. Their seeds can also be roasted and consumed. I’m also thinking about this absolutely profound story that I think will resonate in people’s hearts for a long time, about the Ukrainian woman offering Russian soldiers a handful of sunflower seeds for their pockets, telling them that when they die, at least sunflowers will grow over the land that they’ve invaded and devastated, making her home beautiful again.


Isabella Wang is the author of the chapbook On Forgetting a Language (Baseline Press, 2019). She has been shortlisted for The Malahat Review’s Far Horizons Award for Poetry and Minola Review’s Poetry Contest, and was the youngest writer to be shortlisted twice for The New Quarterly’s Edna Staebler Personal Essay Contest. She studies English and world literature at Simon Fraser University and is an editor at Room magazine. Pebble Swing is her debut full-length poetry collection. She lives in New Westminster, BC.


A Gift of Mystery and Many Hands: An Interview with shauna paull

The following interview is part three of a seven-part series of conversations with BC poets which I released between January and April 2022. 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, the 2020 interviews here, and the 2021 interviews here).


as you come to dust - shauna paull

let its settling be rare
let it carry the great, low hum of mountain
tune of sap      notes of summer
leaves under high tide pull, under low
that hush before the opening of wings

let it caress, as hands have done, the bare feet of a fraught child
an adventuring child
let its sparks of want, want     burn softly away
let its final quiet be a listening, solace for difficult necessary voices
let its listening protect the ones who remain
let it rest, lift, soften the edges of wind, lift again
and be carried

Reprinted with permission from 
(Mother Tongue Publishing, 2021)



Rob Taylor: So many of the poems in blue gait feel timeless: they deal with abstract, existential questions that we as a species have been asking of ourselves since time immemorial. But another stream of poems in the book is tightly bound to the political world of the here and now, centred around particular injustices (such as the confirmation of the 215 children buried at Kamloops Indian Residential School or the ongoing actions at the Unist’ot’en Camp). In these poems you speak very specifically and politically.

These two “modes” seem to mirror your larger life, in which you work as both writer and activist. Could you talk about these two “modes” in your writing: the abstract/eternal and the political/immediate? Do you think of them as distinct from one another, or as part of an indivisible whole?

shauna paull: Thank you for this question, Rob. I think I mostly resist separations between art and world. In the presence of my community work, which was political as well, my most fervent hope was to create access to abundance for the highest number of people. It’s natural then that the work emerges from ontological concerns and enlarges to encompass the concerns of those whose lives are marked by xenophobia of one sort or another. I am aware that some of the poems that address what is present in the “here and now” are doing so because the stories of alterity that open in them are longstanding.

I think song is the one thing that can cross just about every barrier — what moves a space of air cannot be contained by any regulatory or political body, or set of convictions. For me, these poems are a small attempt at creating song-space for witness — my own. This space is limited in various ways, but my hope is to honour what remains alive in the communities I am engaged with and hope to support.

The root values of well-being, autonomy, and dignity for all, will likely always be central to my thinking and making. It’s possible that a practice of paying attention with one’s heart is present in the work, too. Nobody is really safe until we are all safe. At this point in time, I carry an awareness that witness will always be needed, but also celebration and beauty and kindness, all of which are under-sung in the dominant myths of our country and in capitalism. Simplicity and relational attentiveness take time and care and it seems to me, from almost every direction, these benefit humanity.

RT: In blue gait you make space not only for the historical and ongoing injustices experienced by Indigenous peoples in Canada, but also draw upon the words of a number of Indigenous poets, from Joanne Arnott, to Gregory Scofield, to Leanne Betasamosake Simpson. Could you speak to the importance of Indigenous history and voices in your life, and in this book in particular?

sp: My undergrad was focused on post-colonial literatures so I am aware now that although I had to read Eurocentric canonical texts alongside, I was able as a young person to access world literatures, literatures of liberation and resistance, as well as Indigenous literatures from across the globe. I am grateful to have been opened in my early learning to stories that unsettled individualism as a value and, again and again, enlivened ideas of communities working together for larger substantive change.

I think current Indigenous writers share with us a world view that has been responsible for the stewardship of lands, and particular connections with the land (and each other) that are essential for all of us to understand. Those stories are also longstanding. Across time, and especially now, they have been great gifts toward my thinking and making.

My community work has for years located me near Indigenous leaders and Elders as well. I have had the great gift of being invited into ceremony, for which I am grateful, and there it’s impossible not to witness the wisdoms of the people of these lands. The necessary work of reconciliation and decolonization will be long, but I locate this as the most important conversation of our time. In writing this book, I was accompanied by all these gifts. My hope is that the respect I have for Indigenous communities that work and celebrate, create and re-create, in this ongoing genocide, is present in the text.

RT: The arrival of your “starlit granddaughter,” Shai, seems of vital importance to blue gait. When you write about Shai the abstract questions of human existence and the grounded realities of political injustice seem to come more pointedly together. Could you talk a little about Shai’s arrival in your life? Did it cause you to think about your writing in a new way?

sp: It is difficult for me to speak about my daughters or my granddaughter without becoming immediately corny. Daughters are unaccountable beauty and mystery. To be near that for all these years still leaves me mostly speechless. Much of my community work was rooted in modelling for my daughters a woman’s responsibility toward well-being in our world. Shai’s arrival was no different — although she is a new iteration of my mother, another wildly extroverted creative. And that was an added gift.

Some of these poems were composed when I was at home during COVID lockdown, and when my daughters were younger I worked mostly from home as well. So, there was a kind of circling around the wonder that a new life represents, whatever the circumstances of the world. A balancing and re-invigorating of the importance of nurturing responses to the devastations of both history and the present moment.

blue gait is your first book in thirteen years, following 2008’s roughened in undercurrent (Leaf Press). Despite this long time in which you had to accumulate poems, given their immediate political nature many of these poems must have been written in the last year or so. You mentioned writing during lockdown: could you talk a little about the slow-fast nature of this book’s creation? 

sp: I consider this book a gift of both mystery and many hands. Several of the poems arrived in the spaces between a very demanding work and community life, across probably a decade. During lockdown, I was able to work from home and so was able to settle into a gentler pace. I didn’t have to navigate the space between public discourses and more intimate expressions. It occurs to me now that meaning is not only constructed in the mind, but also made by hand. In reengaging with the quiet and the simple, where my senses were most settled, I was able to complete the work.

I think, for all artists, it’s a balancing act to maintain ourselves and also create work that has some relevance to the communities we belong to. I hope the poems welcome those communities to share in what is produced. I worked from home for maybe fourteen weeks and then returned to work, but in that time, though I continued to teach, I was able to just pay attention to sounds and light and gather myself toward the poems that had kind of been humming and waiting.

Mona Fertig had contacted me a year before and I had said I would need a year to finish what I was working on. And then, a year later she asked again. So, with that encouragement — Mona is an amazingly creative and skilled champion for poetry — I was able to finish the work.

There is also this: over time, although I will likely always identify as a poet, I think I am moved as much by the stories I know from my community work as I am from the mysteries that I encounter from a place of trust in beauty and abundance. I am not so much interested in being seen as a poet as I am in living like one, and by that I mean in trust that the sharing of stories helps us continue. This isn’t new to me but I think I did experience a deepening acceptance of the ephemeral nature of everything as I moved through my particular iterations in these poems.

RT: You mentioned your publisher, Mona Fertig of Mother Tongue Publishing, who recently announced her retirement. As you say, she’s one of our province’s great champions of poetry, including yours! Mona’s published your poems in her anthologies Rocksalt: An Anthology of Contemporary BC Poetry and Forcefield: 77 Women Poets of British Columbia, and now, of course, in blue gait. Could you talk a little about Mona’s role in your writing and publishing life?

sp: For a poet to work with a publisher is an unaccountable gift. Mona walked me through this very graceful and respectful process, and every step of the way I was able to feel her insight breathing the text and helping it along. I remember when Mona’s The Unsettled, from Kalamalka Press, came out. That book got me through the whole winter. We first met at a residency at Green College, called Booming Ground. I was so struck by Mona’s joy and her ability to create community wherever she was. When the calls for Rocksalt and Forcefield came out, Mona made sure I got that information, which I really appreciated. And Mona’s presence for art and poetry is not limited to me. She has been like an artery for poetry and art books for decades. I really feel, and I thank her for this, that she has done an enormous amount to shape literatures on the West Coast. A treasure for us, and to us.

RT: Oh, I agree! I still can’t believe she can retire: how can you retire from being Mona Fertig? You’re right, community blossoms wherever she goes. You make community, too, through your work teaching creative writing at the Shadbolt Centre in Burnaby, and your coordination of the Deer Lake Artist Residencies. Has working with artists from a variety of disciplines influenced how you think about your own art, both the making of it and how it is received by the public?

sp: My teaching has been such a gift. The Shadbolt is a unique place to teach in that it is a community-based fine arts centre. For me, that has meant a kind of openness to anyone who might want to share a story. I have taught here for 23 years. I began with two classes and now I teach several. Building a program that is connected to the creative process of those at the table is very connected to my way of being a poet in general: to watch, to intuit, and then to make it happen.

The Deer Lake Residencies welcome artists from all creative forms, and so interacting with them across their residencies has been affirming—some aspects of the creative process cross genres and forms. I am beginning to see how our creative forms want to merge and morph. I think our longing to connect may be at the root of it, in these uncertain times when isolation and individualism seems to be unsettling its hold. Public reception of the work, for me, is not as important as the conversations and insights that emerge for others as they encounter the work. In many ways, that is how a poem lives: after the poet has given and shared it, the poem’s energy moves through the reader’s worldview, becoming itself in new ways.

RT: The energy in your poems is certainly evident on the page. The words refuse to stay tethered: they roam the page, often eschewing the left margin and leaving significant gaps between words and phrases. In this way, your work brings to mind that of another Mother Tongue poet, Daniela Elza.

When I asked Daniela about the spacing in her poems, she said that writing poems the way they traditionally “should” look made her feel claustrophobic, and that spacing her words out felt “akin to the mind dreaming and connecting. How it darts off. There was a kind of control and at the same time a letting go. A kind of freeing myself and the reader to experience the fluidity of the words…” Does your thinking on shape in your poems mirror, in some way, Daniela’s? What do you think the shape of your poems allows them to do that a left-justified poem would not?

sp: My practice is rooted in a kind of deep listening, which I fail at a lot! John Berger says that art is a conversation between the maker and the materials. When I work with language then, there is a waiting and listening. And a reverence for where the text is heard in the body and where I think it wants to arrive on the page. This is partly to respond to the music of the text which I am hearing, which can be done syntactically, yes. But for me, allowing the text to find its place on a page is a part of letting go of authorship, which is important to me in the context of the noise and individualism of our world.

I have a fairly strenuous engagement with hope in the power of language and art to sustain us. So, it would be unlikely for me to impose a form on a text. Certainly, I’m just not that interested in traditional Eurocentric forms, although I appreciate them. I think there is a space in which a poet can listen across time and incorporate the gifts and guidance of the past and the future in a way that defy logic. It’s possible that this text may have wanted even more than I was able to provide for it. So, I suppose my intentions in terms of form have more to do with how the work might be heard and carried than any kind of intellectual or theoretical intention. 

RT: Your “fairly strenuous engagement with hope” often leads you to writing about birds (““Hope” is the thing with feathers,” according to Emily Dickinson, after all!). The book opens with a goldfinch, and many other birds appear in the poems that follow. On top of that, the beginning of each poem in blue gait is marked by the little image of a bird, a different one for each section of the book (hummingbirds, eagles, etc.).

sp: The birds were Mona’s idea, which I loved, and the drawings are the work of designer, John Malcolm. It’s just one example of Mona’s insight as a poet/publisher that she could choose the birds that went with the sections of the poems.

RT: In “on the first morning,” you speak of learning about the world by watching birds, and write that “hawk vision transforms the sky.” What draws you to watch birds so closely?

sp: I think I am not really watching the birds as I am listening to them. When my first book was almost finished, a small brown bird came into our house and stayed for just a few minutes and once we opened all the doors and windows, if flew out. The same thing happened with this set of poems. I received an email from Mona about acceptance of the manuscript and that same evening, another bird came in and stayed for a bit and then returned outside. It’s such a thing to have happen.

The art centre where I work is located in a park with a large central lake and the residencies that I support in my work are located in a couple of houses on the other side of the lake. So, I am back and forth quite a bit as new artists arrive and work and then finish up their residencies. There are routinely eagles and herons—and so many geese! In our neighbourhood, we have a resident raven and a resident hummingbird that don’t seem to migrate. Also, a pair of cooper’s hawks that nest in the alley behind our house.

RT: How has listening to birds helped you think about the world differently? Do you think your considerations of birds have influenced how you write poems?

sp: I grew up in a rural setting and we had a big piece of land so there were pheasants and cranes in the garden and robins in the cherry tree – all through my growing up. And at that time, migrating geese too. In this set of poems I was aware of these beings as members of the communities that have made me and accompany me. I was also aware of the space between the material and the immaterial as well as the tender vitality of ecosystems. For sure, there is something about the ease and grace of flight and song that gets me as a poet. Motion that I resonate with. Also, in the presence of so much heaviness in the world—including the pandemic, but also the histories that have led to it and the work ahead for the planet—I feel a kinship with the sounds bird make just for the sake of song. Attending to small joys is sustaining. Mostly, though, as a new generation arrived into our family and as my parents passed, I was aware of my own personal location on the planet as very much less central to anything that matters. I think unsettling the myth of human dominance on the planet will become more widespread as we greet the future. Many communities across the globe move through lives without that dominance. And although humility isn’t very often seen as a sign or source of strength, I think what we’ll find is that in whatever ways we are able to be in community with other living things, the planet will be affirmed and possibly healed. The intersection between our lived experiences and the art we make is interesting to me. So, as I was contemplating the ephemeral nature of individual lives—the folding and unfolding of time—all living things became more precious and more companioning to me. Birds especially, because of their movement and sound, which seem generously given.


shauna paull, poet, educator and community advocate, completed her MFA in Creative Writing at UBC. blue gait is her second book of poetry. Shauna has led creative writing workshops at the Shadbolt Centre for the Arts on the ancestral and unceded territories of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation since 2000. She currently coordinates the Deer Lake Artist Residencies. In community, shauna has worked extensively with migrant and refugee women in areas of labour and mobility rights, poverty alleviation and legislative reform. Shauna represented Canada at the UN Commission on the Status of Women in 2006.


A Congenial Barrier: An Interview with W.M. Herring

The following interview is part two of a seven-part series of conversations with BC poets which I released between January and April 2022. 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, the 2020 interviews here, and the 2021 interviews here).


Late November, -10 C - W.M. Herring

I forgot to tell you, to say,
(that time you went for so long
came back somewhat changed)
forgot to say:

The barred owl was there
in the paddock at four o’clock
on a stump, hunting mice
catching distilled, chilled amber air.
He lifted off, banked aside the barn,
settled in an aspen by the fence.
Crows massed from nowhere,
everywhere, scolded, circled
as though something
was dead or should be.

The owl slid off the branch
almost liquid
slipped under the bare willow
the swaying heads of grass.
The crows flew east, shed
gloaming from their tails.

I rushed up the hill, up home:
I thought you might be there.

Reprinted with permission from 
(Now or Never, 2021)


Rob Taylor: Birds of all types appear in A Sure Connection, including the four owls on the cover. Near the end of the book, you seem to acknowledge your obsession via a poem entitled “Another Bird Song.” Why do you think you write so much about birds?

W.M. Herring: I write about birds because I am an observer, and they are everywhere; if you frequent a fairly natural setting and are willing to stay still for a bit, you cannot miss them. Birds differ so much in habitat and habit, yet share so many characteristics. They behave as they were designed to behave, living in a manner that benefits their society. They exhibit beauty in such diverse ways. And, they can fly!

RT: You appear especially drawn to smarter, darker birds like owls and crows.

WMH: Both seem a cut above in complexity and in their ability to reward an observer for their attention. Crows certainly entertain and instruct; that makes them worth writing about. Owls attract because they are enigmatic, riveting, unexpected, otherworldly. An owl sighting pauses everything and makes me take stock of what else is happening, internally and externally, in that moment. I was excited to find Barred Owls in East Sooke as well as in Prince George. I hope the quizzical Barred Owls on the book cover make the potential reader (also) wonder what is within, while providing a broad hint that owls will be involved.

RT: Two other recurring sources of inspiration for the poems in A Sure Connection are photos and fields. The latter can be partially explained by your living at Gleann Eilg, an acreage in East Sooke. Both types of poems involve looking at a still surface and teasing out what’s hidden inside. Could you talk about these two types of poems in your book? What causes you to turn to fields and photos for inspiration?

WMH: I take very few actual photos, but I commit images and incidents to memory for later consideration. The “pictures” so created are starting points, places from which to tease meaning or share delight in the beauty. In “Swimmers,” I talk about my parents through photos that do not exist. What exists are stories they told me and things I observed. Those serve well enough.

The “Gleann Eilg” poems are written at our new place, an old sheep farm in East Sooke, over the course of a couple of years. The other outdoor poems are set almost entirely on a quarter section of overgrown farmland outside Prince George. Thanks to two children, some horses, and a few large energetic dogs, I spent forty years walking that land, watching its inhabitants and the land as it changed. Again, I stored up images and stories, apparently for the time I would finally start writing.

RT: What brought you to finally start writing?

WMH: Retirement brought with it the wonderful gift of time: time to walk slowly, to listen carefully, to contemplate; time to consider a stray thought or to research an event or historical figure; time to daydream; time to wordsmith over a mug of coffee for as long as it takes. In retrospect, I needed time to observe, absorb, and declare before I could produce even the shortest of poems. Until I had that time, I had no idea the writing that would emerge.

RT: Though you didn’t start until retirement, you’ve been observing, absorbing and declaring for a while now! In the acknowledgments at the back of your book, you list magazine publications going back almost a full decade. Did you find it tricky to pull together poems from a decade’s worth of writing, or had your style and themes stayed fairly consistent throughout?

WMH: I wrote my first piece, “Three Black Dogs,” in 2012, the same year it became my first publication in a literary magazine. Eight years later, I pulled the manuscript together. It wasn’t tricky to bring together poems over almost a decade because I am not a prolific writer. I picked poems I particularly liked and thought worth sharing (i.e. that others might find the time spent reading them worthwhile), whether they had achieved publication or not, and I had just enough for a manuscript. The book is a “collected” work — common themes such as family and place are simply common to my work as a whole.

I think my style had not changed much over the years because I started writing so late. My observation skills and worldview had sixty years to mature by then. My writing has become tighter, more spare, over the years; edits to poems in the final manuscript reflect that change and add consistency to the final product.

RT: Most of A Sure Connection feels firmly grounded in British Columbia, but hidden away in A Sure Connection are a number of poems set in far-flung places: Bangladesh, Colombia, England, Germany… And many of these poems seem drawn from your imaginings of historical events. Could you talk about these more wide-ranging poems? How do you think they complement the more here-and-now poems around them?

WMH: The more wide-ranging poems come from people or events, current or historical, that made me stop and think, which in turn made me write. I included them because the interpretation I put on the events is consistent with my worldview, so these poems give a deeper view into the writer’s mindset than a collection of just “family and field” poems could provide.

An important impetus for my writing was a desire to record some stories for my children. “The Councillor,” “Corn in Egypt,” “To The Shops,” “Died of Wounds” and “Swimmers” are among the family history poems. In their telling, they may help readers to recall, reflect upon, and share, their own family stories. 

RT: In the poem “The Red Journal,” you write about a book that functions as a “repository for fragments / one per scribbled line,” then provide examples like “snake closet / wood smoke.” I’m curious if this is a real book, and a real part of your writing process.

WMH: The Red Journal is a real book. In Prince George it sat on the breakfast table, at the window overlooking the backyard, forest and fields. The barn was just out of sight. In East Sooke it sits on my laptop table, at a window overlooking a yard, tall stands of trees and the Sooke Basin. As you know from the book, “snake closet” has already made its way into a poem (“Two Snakes”); “wood smoke” is awaiting a poem of its own.

RT: Is this how most of your poems start, in an odd word or phrase you catch and write down?

WMH: The poems start many ways — an image, a word or phrase, a story, a news headline (particularly the odd ones), a first or last line, an idea, a quote, even a poetic device. The germ of a poem is not the problem; bringing it to a meaningful completion is!

RT: One way you move your poems from germ towards completion is via comparisons, either in the poems’ content or structure. It’s right there in the titles of some (“Three Dogs,” “Two Snakes,” “Two Doors”) and also in poems divided into two parts, each providing a different look at the same thing. Still other poems are structured as numbered lists. Is this kind of itemizing and comparing something you pursued consciously over the course of writing this book, or just one of those little surprises that emerges as you pull a manuscript together? What do you think draws you to these types of poems?

WMH: Aha — you have found evidence and are looking for root causes! Good sleuthing. My brain is wired for logic — comparing and contrasting, counting, listing, parsing, ranking and evaluating. I have no training in Creative Writing, and no studies in literature beyond second year English. I have a degree in Computer Science and spent many years in software development, training, technical writing, and business analysis. Itemising and comparing is not so much conscious as inevitable. The result of all this: I find logical constructs pleasing. That and clean simple words, tight language. I am not completely left-brain, but there are those who would attest that I lean that way.

RT: Ha! Some poets could use their “left brains” more often — it might help me have a clue what they’re saying!

In “Singing” you write about someone singing while walking alone at their farm: “Why do I suppose joy / brings these songs? // She is singing to the bears.” I love the duality there, singing joyfully to the bears both to please them and to keep them away. I’m tempted to read “Singing” as a bit of an ars poetica: we poets keep death at bay by joyfully singing to it. Would you say that when you write a poem you are singing to the bears?

WMH: Your questions illustrated one gratifying element of presenting poems to others: the reader finds interpretations that the poet had not intended, or possibly just not noticed, but that work. I love that because it shows how utterly a poem can make the reader part of the process. The poem then carries different meaning for different readers.

Singing to the bears lets them know I know that I am in their territory, but intend them no harm. The song builds a congenial barrier. The poem sings to the reader, drawing them into the experience. The poem also sings because it calls out to be read and heard. You are never done with a poem (writing or experiencing it) until you have read it aloud or heard it read.


W.M. Herring was born in Quebec, grew up in Vancouver, and now lives at tidewater in East Sooke on Vancouver Island. Her work has been published in various literary journals including The Antigonish Review, ARC Poetry, Canadian Woman Studies, Literary Review of Canada and Queen’s Quarterly. A Sure Connection is her first collection.