My Body Knows More Than I Do: An Interview with Jónína Kirton

The following interview is part six 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).


Rooted – Jónína Kirton

for my niece Gabby

I am rooted, but I flow.
—Virginia Woolf
The Waves (1931)

I am a story within the stories of many
I am a paradox
one thing and then another
parts of a whole
that does not know itself

turning towards the invisible
I can see the limits of knowledge
the places where formulas dissolve
into knowing that can only come
when quiet and walking in a forest
where the standing ones watch and wait
for us to return to ourselves
to the new stories that are waiting to unfold

Reprinted with permission from 
(Talonbooks, 2022)



Rob Taylor: Standing in a River of Time is a hybrid — part prose memoir, part poetry. Each section opens with a prose narrative and closes with poems on the same subject. What drew you to this structure, as opposed to writing one or the other?

Jónína Kirton: This book was to be a collection of poetry. While working on the collection I had been experimenting with essay writing, and had a few essays published in anthologies. One of the essays is in Good Mom on Paper, and it includes a poem that is also in this collection. I found it hard to write about being a mother, and yet it was such a big part of my life. As with every other essay I had written I had many false starts. After a number of attempts an idea emerged: perhaps I could not only merge prose and poetry, but I could also keep the prose short. I give thanks to the editors Jen Sookfong Lee and Stacy May Fowles for allowing me to experiment and to include a poem.

RT: What role did the mentorship of Betsy Warland (she who mastered the form so fully they named a hybrid book prize after her!) play in helping you find this form?

JK: After writing the essay for Good Mom on Paper, I returned to writing my book and did what Betsy had taught me; I let the narrative lead. I never intended for the book to be this long but as I wrote the prose kept coming. Then while working with my substantive editor, Joanne Arnott, a rupture occurred, and the book exploded. Suddenly, I was going back into some of my childhood. The book became about the effects of colonization on one Métis family. Often, the discoveries revealed in the book were happening for me in real time.

In many ways the narrative chose the structure. The writing of it was at times healing and had a mystical feel to it. I would sit at the computer, and it poured out of me. Sometimes I would be crying so much that the front of my blouse was soaked but I could not stop to dry my eyes. I had to keep writing.  

It was my husband who noticed after reading the prose he felt the poems, most of which he knew well, were made stronger by knowing the back story. When he said this, I knew I was on the right track.

In Standing in a River of Time, you write about the difficulties of living “in-between” — being Métis (an in-between of its own), and also Icelandic; never quite light- or dark-skinned “enough” for different people. It struck me that this book, in its hybrid form, is a kind of enactment of that in-betweenness. (Where will it be shelved in bookstores? What awards will it be eligible for? Etc.) Has writing a hybrid form helped you come to deeper understanding of your own “hybrid” nature?

JK: Yes. It has also helped me claim this hybrid nature more fully. I had to let go of concerns like what shelf will it belong on and the fact that it may not be eligible for awards. It is the story of my life. I did not fit anywhere. I was always in the in-between so why not embrace it and make it more visible to the world?

RT: Yes! That’s the spirit! Standing in a River of Time opens with a long epigraph from your aforementioned mentor, Betsy Warland, about “the impossibility of telling the truth.” In it, Warland writes “I had assumed autobiography to be an inscribing of identity. Suspected it to be an inscribing of identity. It is quite the opposite.” Could you talk about your choice to open with that quote?

JK: Honesty and transparency are very important to me, and I wonder how the world could change if we had more of it. It is after all why they called it the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. There can be no reconciliation without truth. Through my relationship with my dad, I learned I couldn’t put my reconciliation, my healing, in his hands. I had to hang on to my “truth” while at the same time understanding it was impossible to know the whole truth. I had so many holes in my memory due to trauma, and adding to this there was so much disinformation about our Indigeneity. For a time, it all caused me to doubt my place in the Indigenous world. I needed to know where I belonged. I had been gathering our stories for years, but in some cases lacked historical context. Reading books like Rooster Town and The Northwest is Our Mother: The Story of Louis Riel’s People, The Métis Nation really helped me locate myself in the Indigenous world. As I learned more about Métis history and my family’s role in the unfolding of what took place on Turtle Island not only did my views about my family change, but I also began to feel more solidly Métis.

I chose Betsy’s quote as it is impossible to “tell the truth” as the truth shifts as we grow in our understanding of ourselves and the world. I live by something I once heard Gregory Scofield say, “These are my words for today.” I felt it was important to let everyone know that this is simply what I what I know right now.

RT: Though “the truth” is impossible to achieve, are there ways poetry more effectively approaches it than prose? Or vice versa?

JK: If I can just let myself go and write, “the truth” reveals itself to me. I am often surprised by what comes out and it is through poetry that the most startling things usually present themselves. Perhaps this is because I feel safer writing about abuse and things like metaphysical experiences, visits from the dead, etc. through poetry. In part this is because I do think about my readers and would not want to burden them with trauma that is too explicit. With poetry I can gesture towards things and create an ominous feeling that does not require too many details. I can write into the absence of information and allow my body to tell its story.

My body knows more than I do. It holds ancestral memory, what some call blood memory, and it also holds the cellular memory of my own life. It usually speaks to me through metaphor, and images, which lend themselves to poetry, but I did break with this tradition in the book. In order assist the reader in understanding the effects of the layering of the abuse I have experienced and how it impacted the way I navigated the loss of my two brothers and my mother, I needed to be more explicit. I did this sparingly. Sadly, I have experienced a lot of physical and sexual violence in my life, beginning as a child. I only tell what I feel is necessary to move the story along. Whether that is through poetry or prose is not up to me. I lean in and listen deeply to the story that wants to be told.

I am more comfortable with poetry, but that does not stop me from trying prose. Neale Donald Walsh, the author of Conversations with God once said, “Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.” I would say that some of my best writing has come when I was willing to write outside of my comfort zone.

RT: Speaking of being outside your comfort zone, in her introduction to Standing in a River of Time, Wanda John-Kehewin writes, “Through poetry, Kirton teaches others that it is okay not to feel okay.” That’s a hard lesson to learn, and an equally hard one to teach others. How did you learn this lesson yourself?

JK: When I first entered recovery, I thought that one day I would arrive at normal. I would be healed, and all would be well. That never happened and eventually I began to see the problems with my desire to be “normal” — it was never the right fit for me. I could see that many of the more successful members of my family were boxed in by religious beliefs and colonized thinking that never allow them to feel the freedom that comes with just being human. They were living proof that being judgemental — having the scorched earth thinking that comes with the colonized way of life — burns the one who is judging just as much as the one they judge. Seeing the difference between the way they were with each other and the way my Métis family would tease each other (in a good way) about their faults helped me understand that it is much kinder to myself and others if we accept our imperfections.

RT: Does poetry play a role in reminding you of this?

JK: I think one reason I am so attracted to poetry is that it is filled with possibility, and it attracts others who are considered “rule breakers.” Some like myself are also spiritual seekers. Through teachers like ingrid rose, who offers “writing from the body” workshops, I found that if I can allow myself to enter deep emotions more fully. I can gently excavate the pain that resides in my body. When I do this all the pain, anger, and sadness are moved from my body to the page, where it then becomes a communal experience. It can open conversations, as Otoniya Okot Bitek, a dear poet friend, once said:

“The poet in the Acholi tradition, is not just someone who says the flower is beautiful because it’s beautiful but gathers people to think and talk about whatever it is they’re doing and what’s happening around them… For me, as an Acholi poet, the poem is the container, the space and opportunity for people to gather in community.”

I am not an Acholi poet but I relate to this way of thinking about poetry and the role of the poet in the world. If we can share our brokenness with each other, we will get to see that at times we are all “not okay” and that this is okay.

RT: It’s hard enough to be okay with not being okay inside ourselves; it can be even harder to be open about our not-okayness with others. In Standing in a River of Time you write about your family’s tradition of “respectability politics” and “keeping up appearances.” Most movingly you speak of your mother’s preoccupation with makeup and how, as she was dying in hospital, you were still putting makeup on her whenever your father visited. (“Our attempts look foolish. She looks like the doll I had when I was little.”) Was it difficult to push against that tradition in writing and publishing your life story?

JK: There is no question that I needed to be comfortable with not looking good if I was to publish a book like this. To be fair to others in the book, I needed to divulge details about myself that might shock or upset some of my friends and family. Truth is that my life was always messy and unconventional, but that was not public. I lived a quiet existence and kept a lot to myself. I needed time to get strong enough to not only carry my story to the page but also to do the work that comes after you publish a book like this. I am ready to defend my need to tell what I have told. I could not have done this sooner and I am grateful that I waited. I have a much deeper understanding of it all now that I have lived some years.
RT: What advice would you give to younger writers with similar family upbringings who are hesitant to tell their own stories?

JK: I would say go at your own speed. Trauma is complicated. It will have its tentacles in everything you say and do; this includes your writing. Perhaps you need some distance before sharing your work publicly. Keep some writing for yourself and a trusted few. If you find yourself revisiting the same story over and over, stay with it. There is something it is trying to tell you. Perhaps the earlier versions are not for others but for yourself so that you can write that one version that is the one for the world. 

I think it is important to acknowledge that my age does offer me some protection. The things I write about are from long ago and to a certain extent have been resolved. My family is used to me being the one who says the things no one else will say. Not that they like it, but they are over trying to stop me. Some are relieved that someone finally told the truth.

RT: Standing in a River of Time is a book full of ghosts, both literally and figuratively, most notably your aforementioned mother and two brothers, all of whom you lost rather early in life, and your nephew. Sometimes they appear to you as spirits, while at other times their memory and the legacy of their loss are simply omnipresent.

In a poem near the end of the book, “Tumbling,” you write “I have been carrying the dead my whole life // I had to let them go.” In many ways, this book feels like a release of these people, but in other ways a holding on — a calling them back into being. How has writing and publishing this book influenced your relationship with the dead? Do you still feel you’re carrying them?

JK: The poem is not about my nephew Jaime. That grief is still very fresh. I cannot look at a picture of him or see his favourite chocolates at the grocery store without crying. The poem is about how long I grieved about my mother and my two brothers. I knew that my mother never recovered from losing her two sons and that in their short lives they had all experienced unthinkable violence. My brother Murray had run away from home at eighteen and was killed while out East. I couldn’t save him or my mother from my dad’s anger. The poem is really about what I now understand to be survivors’ guilt. Until I wrote the poem, I did not even know that I was sitting with unspoken questions: How can I enjoy my life? How can I forget them and what they experienced? How can I let that guilt go? I did not even know all this was laying below the surface until we did two months of palliative care for Jaime. He was the one that opened my eyes so many things about death and dying, about how clean grief is so very different.

RT: Speaking of opening your eyes, a powerful moment in the book comes when an ER doctor informs you that you’d had your nose broken many times. Only in hearing this do you remember some of your father’s past assaults. Our truths aren’t only hard to communicate, they’re also often hard to know inside ourselves. Did researching and writing this book return memories to you? Did you find the process did more to clarify, or complicate, your sense of your own history?

JK: When I first entered therapy in my early thirties it quickly became obvious that large chunks of my life were not accessible to me. For many years the fact that I could not remember a single bedroom, or classroom, or teacher, was deeply disturbing. What I could remember was brutal. What else was there? My therapist was convinced that I had been sexually abused. Not knowing what has happened to your own body is terrifying. At least it was for me. Not only that, it was problematic when attempting to write about my life. It’s likely the reason I leaned into poetry so much. I didn’t need all the facts. All I needed was the feelings. I could follow the thin threads of what I did know. These days I am okay with not knowing everything.

While writing and researching this book some good memories returned to me. Not only that I began to understand my life in terms of the historical context of my family and my nation. It clarified many things for me, but I still feel incomplete. I have so much more research to do about the Métis and the Icelanders that I descend from.

One way you recounted your memories prior to this memoir was in Step Four in Alcoholics Anonymous’ Twelve Steps: “make a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.” It feels like this was another training ground, or template, for the book you would later write. More broadly, it feels like your journey towards healing taught you as much about how to write this book as your formal literary training. Would you say that’s true?

JK: Absolutely, AA taught me what was important about my story. I have so much gratitude for AA and all who have walked with me there. The twelve steps teach us that honesty, openness, and willingness is the way out of our addiction. Those three traits support me when writing. But it is more than that. We learn to pray daily, to ask for guidance. When writing I ask for a lot of guidance. I take long walks and talk to the trees. I lay tobacco and ask the Creator and my Ancestors for assistance. This is not just my story. It is their story as well. They need to be consulted and I need not only their support, but also the support of the Creator, if I am to be as brave and honest as I hope to be. Staying open, being willing, allowed me to be responsive to the shifts and ruptures that took place.

Standing in a River of Time is an entirely different book than I had originally intended. It is a collaboration between me, my Ancestors, and the universe. As I was writing it, books and stories from friends and family would come to me. I believe these arrived because I prayed and stayed open to what was making its way into my awareness.

RT: Your life has been filled both with mentors (Warland, Richard Wagamese, AA sponsors, etc.) and your own mentoring (you describe yourself as a “mother bear” more than once, and not only to your own son!). What do you think makes for the most successful mentors?

JK: I believe the best mentors do not offer much in the way of advice. They mainly teach via storytelling. Any advice they offer is simply a suggestion. They remain open to the fact that you have as much to teach them as they have to teach you. I remember having an AA sponsor who was a bit too heavy handed with their advice. I talked with an old-timer in AA, and he said, “You just tell her that you have lived thirty years and that that experience is worth something.” I don’t know if he knew that what he was doing was not only acknowledging my experience, but he was also validating my own knowingness. I believe that our knowingness is the most precious thing we have and sadly the colonized world is very dismissive of this.

RT: That’s such excellent advice—to think of mentorship as a two-way exchange of knowledge. What do you think makes for the most receptive mentees?

JK: I often tell those I work with to trust themselves. I encourage them to explore their particular gifts. As a mother, I wanted to know who my son was, what gifts did he hold? What does he need from me to allow those gifts to thrive? He is now thirty years old and still calls me for advice about many things. He tells me how much he “likes” me, not just loves me. I do feel that being very thoughtful about what he needed, not what I wanted, made him more receptive to me. I see the same thing happen when I work with writers on their manuscripts. I first interview them, get to know them and their intention for their book before I offer a single suggestion. It’s not about me. It’s their book or in the case of my son, it’s his life. He has his own path; one only he knows.  

RT: In the poem “Asking for a Friend” you write that “no degrees but well-read is never enough.” The under-valuing of lived experience in academia is a chronic problem, one felt all the more acutely in Creative Writing, where life experience honing your craft is just about everything! It warmed my heart, then, to see you get a teaching opportunity at UBC. How did it feel to get that position?

JK: It has been a life changing event. I used to dream of being a professor and had no idea that one could be an adjunct professor if they had never been to university. I was stunned when they offered me the position. Turns out those career aptitude tests are right. Mine had always said that I should be a professor.

RT: How has teaching gone for you so far?

JK: The term is over now. It was a challenging time as not only was I teaching at a university for the first time but also I had a husband in the ICU with COVID and we moved into seniors housing while he was there. Admittedly I was a bit wobbly at times, but the students were great to work with and I learned a lot. I would change some things next time but was happy to see that my efforts to decolonize the classroom did bring forth some fantastic poetry. It was an honour to work with them.

RT: You chose to end Standing in a River of Time with a section on forgiveness. Why was that important to you?

JK: I could not figure out how to end the book. Every time I thought I was done there was more to write. None of the new writing felt like an ending. I was past the deadline for the book when I attended a ceremony for the two hundred and fifteen little ones whose unmarked graves were found by the Tk’emlúps te Secwe̓pemc First Nation at the Kamloops Indian Residential School. Something an Elder said there allowed me to feel more compassion for my dad. After thirty-five years of trying to forgive him, it happened in an instant. It was then that it occurred to me that the whole book was about making my way to forgiveness, not only for others but also for myself. As I reread the chapter today, I saw that I should have said more, but the book was due. Maybe I will write more on this another time.

RT: I think what you’re saying, about your long journey to forgiveness, comes across powerfully in the book. Though I agree you could probably write another whole book on the subject.

In “What Endures” you write “perhaps our wills should say / burn my books   especially the journals… let us fade into the foreverness” and in the following poem you write “There is no one here // to correct you. // You can create new pathways, tell new stories.” So many writers turn to writing (and especially writing memoir) in an attempt to last—to transcend death via the page—so it was refreshing to see you, at the end of your own memoir, voicing the opposite. Yet there must be some balance between the two extremes, or else history is completely remade every few years, the lessons of one generation lost on the next. How do you want your book to live in the world?

JK: Words are powerful medicine. They can harm or to heal. Some of the harm comes from disinformation and, as a Métis woman, I have lived in the shadow of disinformation. My earlier writing reflects old understandings, so I do struggle with the idea that some of my writing could live on, as it now feels inaccurate. Adding to this are the feelings that come with telling on someone like a parent. Is it fair to them or to my other family members? And yet, if I and others don’t bring abuse into the open, we are doomed to repeat family patterns and societal wrongs. I do hope my book will help future generations avoid some of the shame I carried. I never wanted the book to be a “how to heal” book, but rather to reflect that it is a long journey, a very personal journey that will be as unique as your particular circumstances.

RT: How do you want your book’s life to end?

JK: I honestly think it is simply a book for “this time.” I doubt it is one of those that should live on. There will be new books, with a deeper understanding of it all. I may be the one tasked with writing one of those books or I may simply have been a stepping stone for the next writer or writers who will see more than I could see now. 


Jónína Kirton is a Red River Métis/Icelandic poet. A late blooming poet, she publisher her first collection of poetry, page as bone ~ ink as blood, in 2014 and was sixty-one when she received the 2016 Vancouver’s Mayor’s Arts Award for an Emerging Artist in the Literary Arts category. Her second collection of poetry, An Honest Woman, was a finalist in the 2018 Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize. She has just released her third book, Standing in a River of Time


"Dream of Me as Water" by David Ly

I'm delighted to see that David Ly is about to release his second collection, Dream of Me as Water (Palimpsest Press, 2022). I interviewed David back in 2020 when his first collection, Mythical Man, was published. 

Here's a sample poem from the new book:

Ask and Answer - David Ly
He asks when the octopus lost its shell and it twirls the end
of an arm, pointing back to the Mesozoic Marine Revolution

He asks when it would be okay for him to lose his carapace,
but the octopus doesn’t move, waiting to feel safe

He asks why the octopus lost its shell and it melts
into a glass bottle to try and evade questioning

He asks why he needs to learn to be softer,
so the octopus emerges to embrace him

He asks how the octopus lost its shell, begging to learn,
and its skin flushes from mottled brown to yellow and orange

He asks how he can lose the ability to be so hard on himself
and the octopus wipes away his tears with the tips of its arms


I love that casual twirl all the way back to the Mesozoic! David is clearly continuing his tradition of making old stories new, which we discussed back in 2020. Where else can he go? In this book, wherever water flows, it seems. From the jacket copy:

Using water as his central metaphor, Ly meditates on how identity is never a stagnant concept, but instead something that is intangible, fluid, and ever-evolving. Dream of Me as Water revels in the nuances of the self, flouting outside perceptions for deeper, more personal realities.

David's Vancouver launch for Dream of Me as Water will take place on Sunday, September 18th at 6pm, at the Massy Arts Gallery. He'll be joined by poets
 jaye simpson, Adèle Barclay and Jen Sookfong Lee (you can read my interview with Jen here). 

Here's the fancy poster:

You can register for the event via Eventbrite here. And wherever you live, I encourage you to pick up a copy of the book!


David Ly is the author of Mythical Man (shortlisted for the 2021 ReLit Poetry Award) and Dream of Me as Water, both published under the Anstruther Books imprint at Palimpsest Press. He is a co-editor of Queer Little Nightmares: an Anthology of Monstrous Fiction and Poetry (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2022). (Author photo by Joy Gyamfi.)


Admiration, Applause, Adoration: An Interview with Arleen Paré

The following interview is part five 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).


Pop Culture 1 - Arleen Paré

Why is it so difficult to see the lesbian?… In part because she has been
“ghosted”—or made to seem invisible by culture itself.
—Terry Castle

In the last century   the twentieth   the late nineteen-nineties   everyone wanted
to be a lesbian   this may be exaggeration   maybe not everyone   maybe not
Pope Saint Paul II or John Ashbery or Sarah Palin   but many   enough   lesbians
then being the media darlings of that period of time   TV   magazines   photomontages
the lesbian at last   at long long last   becoming visible   transmuting the zeitgeist
a time out of time   refreshingly free of sham
if you can’t bring back the past
                                                          in time you can
                                                                                      bring forth the future.

Reprinted with permission from 
(Caitlin Press, 2022)



Rob Taylor: Time Out of Time is many things, but perhaps at its heart it’s a love story about reading: how a reader can fall in love with the words of a writer and, in a sense, even with the writer themself. In this case the writer is Lebanese poet Etel Adnan, and the book is her 2020 Griffin Prize winning collection, Time.

“I would follow you anywhere… I don’t even know / what you look like,” you write, and later, “I have fallen in love with an arrant ideal.” Could you tell us more about this one-sided love affair? And would you describe it as “one-sided”?

Arleen Paré: Oh yes, this was a one-sided love affair. Etel Adnan knew me not at all from the vantage point of her very full international life and that was fine with me. People used to ask if I had sent her the manuscript and would I not want her to know that I was writing about her. But no, I was happy that she hadn’t heard of me and my infatuated manuscript. How could she ever have heard a whisper of me? And then she died in November 2021, just as the manuscript was going to print and the possibility was gone. It was a fortuitous crush that enriched my life enormously.

RT: Time Out of Time is a sequence of 49 short, numbered poems, supplemented by a handful of titled poems (including “Pop Culture 1”). This mirrors Adnan’s approach in Time, which contains six numbered sequences. Did you know you were going to mirror Adnan’s style from the beginning, stringing out a book-length project from these smaller responses? Or was the book something you stumbled into, a bit love-drunk?

AP: I knew I wanted to mirror almost everything about Adnan’s poetics in Time; I was entirely smitten with her elegant, spare style. But the project-as-book developed as the month of April 2021, poetry month, the month of writing a poem-a-day, stretched out day by day, poem by poem and suddenly I had over fifteen pages of poetry. By the end of April, I knew I was aiming for a full-length collection. It was an energized period, and I was a little love-drunk. Yes, it was both, stumble and drive. I find I can only really write about someone or something if I begin to fall in love with them.

RT: And you have a lot of love in you! As “Pop Culture 1” demonstrates, Time Out of Time isn’t just a love note to Adnan, but to lesbian writers in general. Your “Notes and Acknowledgments” section in Time Out of Time opens with a list of 138 lesbian and bisexual poets, from Sappho to Adnan to young Canadians, whose poetry “hold[s] you up.” Why was it important to you to expand your praise in this way? Was this always your plan in approaching this project, or did you find your lens widening the more you wrote?

AP: I started by writing with only Etel Adnan in mind, meaning she was the object, but as I added the titled poems, and as the project grew, I knew it was broader, for and about all lesbian poets, in the same way that former women’s and lesbian movements were aimed at and for all women and lesbians. It began to feel more political and yet still very personal. In the way of the old second wave movement saying, “The personal is political.” And how could it be otherwise?

RT: How has reading lesbian poets shaped your own writing, and your thinking about poetry?

AP: I began to write poetry later in life, as I was approaching (early) retirement. Before that I hadn’t written, or in fact read, poetry, apart from high school English classes. My first poetry teacher, Betsy Warland, is a lesbian, who is political and writes in unconventional ways to emphasize the importance of moving away from the status quo, including as a writer, to expand literary possibilities for those of us who are not entirely a part of the conventional status quo. I was fortunate to have studied with her at the time that I was entering a literary life. She gave me endless permission and a lot of space on the page.

Later I studied more conventional lyric poetry with Lorna Crozier at UVic and with Patrick Lane for decades in poetry retreats. All three teachers are/were incredibly knowledgeable and wise. I feel I have been able to learn from the greats. So while it is supportive to write within a community of lesbians, all of whom have been courageous, and supportive to me in their presence alone, that is not the only support I’ve felt in my rather short-lived writing career.

RT: Speaking of supportive community, while you’ve published a number of books elsewhere, Time Out of Time is your third book with Caitlin Press and first with its relatively new imprint Dagger Editions (“Canada’s Queer Women’s Imprint”). It feels like it must have been important to you to put out this book with this particular press, correct? What does it mean to you to have an imprint dedicated to queer women’s voices in this country?

AP: I am entirely grateful for Vici Johnson’s brave and far-seeing vision for Dagger Editions. I don’t think I could have published this volume with any other press. I thought of them immediately when I thought about publishing Time Out of Time at the end of August last year. It was perfect for Caitlin’s Dagger Editions and Dagger Editions was perfect for me. I think it’s important to have these kinds of outlying presses for those of us who are writing outlying books.

RT: Yes, bless the outlying books! Your vantage point on lesbian love feels a bit different from Adnan’s, who grew up a generation before you in Lebanon, and only came out as a lesbian after having lived for some time in the United States. And at the same time your vantage feels very different from that of a young lesbian writer coming up today. Yet of course there’s a through-line. How do you hope young lesbian readers will come to your own writing on the subject?

AP: Like Etel Adnan, I came out later in life, but during a period of great excitement when the Women’s Movement was at its peak, and so not quite as risky or shameful. I had, perhaps, a more ecstatic entry into the lesbian life, which was quite popular at the time.

As outliers, I think most lesbians are excited to find others, especially in the writing life. It means a lot to find writers with similar concerns. For instance, I recently asked the wonderful young poet and university prof, Annick MacAskill, to host my online launch. She knows my work and we support each other. This was important to me, especially for this book.

In her translator’s note for Time, Adnan’s translator Sarah Riggs writes about translation as a way to “feel the other under your own skin.” Do you think of Time Out of Time as, in its own way, an act of translation? In writing it, were you feeling Adnan under your own skin?

AP: I think Time Out of Time as an act of derivation, not so much as an act of translation. There isn’t anything in Adnan’s (and Sarah Rigg’s translation of) Time that I would want to translate in any direction at all, but I wanted to learn from Adnan’s poetics in Time, and to praise them. My mother used to say that imitation was the sincerest form of flattery. Time Out of Time isn’t, I hope, simple flattery, but true admiration, applause, adoration. On the other hand, I have definitely felt the other under my skin. As writer Charles Bernstein has noted, and [my wife] Chris reminds me, “translation (is) a condition of reading.”

RT: One of the main stylistic elements you draw from Adnan’s poetics in Time Out of Time is brevity. Early in your book, you ask “does brevity not bear / its fair share / of depth”. Was that, in some way, a lesson Adnan was teaching you?

AP: Yes. I was learning brevity from Adnan, receiving permission from her splendid work to attempt brevity, which I admire simply for the fact of brief, but which I have seldom achieved myself. At the same time, I was also recognizing that Sappho’s work is also brief and fragmented in its contemporary iteration and we find it interesting and profound nonetheless.

RT: Another stylistic element present in both books is plain speech. You write, “there were no birds… no roses or grape lilacs… only / words in their best unlilted order // a place for the genuine.” Could you talk more about how “lilted” speech, so often associated with poetry (as are birds and flowers, for that matter!), can get in the way of the genuine?

AP: I often try for ornamentation, which is thrilling in its own right, but Adnan did not strive for ornamentation, almost eschewed it, caring, it seems, only that the poems were true and strong and wise. I wanted to learn from that: add it to my inventory of poetic possibility.

RT: What can unlilted words communicate that lilted words cannot?

AP: Unlilted words convey strength and clarity. These poetics are straightforward, trustworthy, and do not distract the reader in the way that ornamented poetics sometimes can do. At the same time, I admire ornamentation very much. Both lilted and unlilted have their place, I suppose. Time helped me enjoy and admire the unlilted in new ways.

RT: Writing an entire book around one discrete subject is unusual for many poets, but it kinda seems to be your thing. You’ve written whole books on a lake, a street, a relationship, and a pair of sculptors! Could you talk about this predilection in your writing? Do you really like having a project to write around, or is it more that you get obsessed with something and the project comes later?

AP: Oh yes, I really like to write around a topic or territory, terrain, or heaven forefend, a theme. This allows me to focus all my poetic energies in one gridded direction. I bring out my spotlight and always find places, information, issues, that fit into my current topic. It spurs me to research deeply, and I love to research what I’m trying to poeticize; I learn more carefully and more deeply when I am learning for my poems. I also then get to shape the collection, the narrative. The collection becomes a piece art in itself, a whole. I’m also a very amateur visual artist. I think of a collection visually and in kinetic terms; I find this very satisfying. It adds another ongoing dimension to the project.

RT: Did writing all those themed books better prepare you for writing Time Out of Time?

AP: I think writing all those other themed books did prepare me for writing Time Out of Time. For instance, I began to realize that I was writing a lesbian inflected book, and so when the time came to augment the collection, I knew how I could add those titled lesbian poems and that they would fit right in.

RT: What lessons would you pass on to other poets who were interested in writing a book with a singular focus?

AP: First, find a focus that intrigues you, that you are curious about, that concerns you, that allows you some elbow room. Often it will fall into your lap. It’s waiting for you. Start writing. Research the focus. Keep writing. Maybe even fall in love with the focus. Keep writing. Consider how the focus attracts depth, breadth, tangents. Keep writing. Keep digging. Keep writing.

RT: I think most readers have experienced the thrill of falling in love with a writer, and racing out to a bookstore to find more of their work. Have you had similar surprise “love affairs” previously, with other writers?

AP: Sometimes I fall in love with a poem or a single book, maybe not an author in their totality. My favourite was Don Domanski’s All Our Wonders Unavenged. I love parts of that book. The beginning was a surprise for me — it’s unnerving beauty, wonder and angst.

RT: The love affair isn’t always only with the writer, or the writing, but also sometimes with the physical book itself. In Time Out of Time you write that “the material conditions of this particular bond / is a book / letters and binding and ink,” and elsewhere you write about the journey the physical book took with you through your life (to the bank, into bed, etc.). For you, is the printed book an important element in falling in love with a poet?

AP: I love reading from a hard copy book. I’m a bit of a troglodyte when it comes to books, maybe to everything; I haven’t ever read an ebook. I do listen to audio books but more often when I’m travelling by car.

RT: If books move fully into the digital realm, how do you think reader/writer love affairs might change in the future?

AP: If books shift form clearly into the digital world, my love affairs might end. If I can once again attend in-person readings, though, they may still have a chance; I love listening to a poet read their own words!

RT: We’ve spent all this time talking about your various loves, but we’ve left out, of all people, your wife! Chris Fox, your wife of forty years, is a major recipient of your love in Time Out of Time (“o yes we were forked lightning / and thunder”). At the end of the book, you acknowledge Chris as your “first reader and in-house editor par excellence.” Looking back over Time Out of Time, where do you see Chris’ fingerprints, both as life partner and editor?

AP: Chris is my first editor, first reader and in-house techie, yes, and given how much technological ability is required to move a collection from manuscript to publication and then into marketing and sales, I would not be able to manage this writing business without her. That’s huge. As well, she’s a Canadianist; her doctoral focus was queer Canadian women writers. She also owns an excellent and substantial reference and fiction library, which has been an important contribution to my writing life.

When I thought I wanted to write poetry, later in life, she bought me some of my first poetry collections. We will be celebrating our forty-second anniversary this June.

RT: She must have been patient, watching you fall in love with another woman!

AP: Though she was cognisant of Etel Adnan’s stature and importance in my writing life, she was never jealous of her, a testament to her mostly equanimous, yet romantic, nature. She knows her worth. And I do, too.


Arleen Paré is a Victoria writer with eight collections of poetry, including a recent chapbook. She has been short-listed for the BC Dorothy Livesay BC Award for Poetry and has won the American Golden Crown Award for Poetry, the Victoria Butler Book Prize, a CBC Bookie Award, and a Governor Generals’ Award for Poetry.