The Border Terrain: An Interview with Sadiqa de Meijer

An excerpt from this interview was published in ARC Poetry Magazine's Summer 2021 issue


Ancestor vs. Ancestor – Sadiqa de Meijer

The darkness then was darker than we know;
it never left the corners of a room,
rose velvetly from cellars, where it blinded the potatoes—
like curd it formed a film on wooden spoons.

Grains of darkness clustered between brothers.
Dark moisture kept the cabbage leaves apart.
All over the old country, there were nights: no hands, no ground.
You’ve never really seen the stars.

And what was in it? Specters, wraiths—they spooked the horse.
Some things that people did.

A continent was dark. It could be what we wanted.

Animists, ivory, pith of strange fruits. We must have been,
for all intents, asleep.

When those nations flickered and were lit,
there was no fault to speak of.
And we didn’t speak of it.

Reprinted with permission from 
(Signal Editions, 2020).


Sadiqa de Meijer is the author of the poetry collections Leaving Howe Island and The Outer Wards, and the essay collection alfabet/alphabet. Her work has won the CBC Poetry Prize and Arc’s Poem of the Year Contest, and was a finalist for the Pat Lowther Memorial Award. alfabet/alphabet won the 2021 Governor General's Literary Award for Non-Fiction (long after this interview was completed, or I might have mentioned it!). She lives with her family in Kingston, Ontario.


Rob Taylor: The title poems of both of your poetry collections, Leaving Howe Island (Oolichan Books, 2013) and The Outer Wards (Vehicule Press, 2020), are about leaving one world behind, and the passage to a new one. Both books feature plane trips and end on images from journeys.

Your experiences as an immigrant from the Netherlands seems to run through everything you write. And yet these are two very different books, born out of distinct times in your life. Can you talk a little about the two title poems, and what each says about the larger collection?

Sadiqa de Meijer: Yes, the title poems both have to do with a ferry crossing that is made difficult somehow—in the first, there’s a storm, and in the second, there’s the question of how to take essential things along. “Leaving Howe Island” is a poem of immigration—the continued arrivals that occur after the initial, physical one; it’s based in a real landscape that the speaker and her family are getting to know. In “The Outer Wards,” the landscape resides in memory, the companions are imaginary, and the crossing is between life and death. The speaker herself has become the ferry operator. Your question leads me to name it: Leaving Howe Island as a book is concerned with geographic migration within familial circles, while The Outer Wards encounters the crossing into death from an inevitable solitude.

RT: Yes – goodness, that hits at the core of the books so well (though it does make The Outer Wards sound darker than it is). In considering “crossings,” your two poetry books are joined by your new essay collection, alfabet/alphabet (Palimpsest Press, 2020), though the crossing it explores is never fully completed: “Language is our fatherland, from which we can never emigrate,” reads the Irina Grivnina epigraph to the book.

You write very successfully about the interplay of English and Dutch in your poetry collections, and yet you turned to essays for alfabet/alphabet. Why essays? In what ways did non-fiction allow you to explore things which felt inaccessible in poetry?

SdM: The question of how Dutch inflected my writing in English was first asked of me in written interviews or in conversation about Leaving Howe Island, so my earliest responses were prose-ish attempts at answers. But they felt like the surface of something unexamined, so in the years that followed, I kept a notebook with thoughts on the subject. That’s the second half of the answer, really; I was having thoughts, which is not how poems start for me. The material—which was anecdotes, analyses of Dutch poetry, perspectives on translation—would have had to be transmuted into poems, whereas it was already very close to essays as the ideas arrived. I do love the essay form as a reader, so I imagine that its voices were stirring in me already.

RT: Poems that start from thoughts seem to be all the rage today—I’m glad you resist that temptation. In a recent interview, I heard you say that your poems start with sound. This didn’t surprise me in the least: the “adorable remora”! The “gulls gash[ing] the sky’s graphite fabric”! The nails that “click and slip against her rainbow abacus”! And in alfabet/alphabet you write, “the sound of Dutch exists like a faint carbon shadow in my English.” It seems like Dutch, or at least the “shadow sound” of Dutch, is there in the germ of each of your poems. Would you say that’s true?

SdM: That’s interesting—that is indeed the sum of those ideas, though I hadn’t reached the conclusion myself, which underscores my feeling that alfabet/alphabet would continue to change with every conversation and passing year if I didn’t draw a line. But yes, I suspect that when I hear a phrase (in my mind or ear) that sounds like the germ of a poem, the awareness is rooted in the depths of me, where Dutch is a major sonic current. Sound then continues to be part of the writing, like an invisible foundational pattern to the process, say as a snail shell keeps growing in a spiral—so I do believe that elements of the germ phrase (its rhythm, pitch, vowel intonations, etc.) would resonate outwards. And that’s probably part of what readers or listeners notice as a Dutch influence.

RT: Yes, I think so. Even if they don’t identify it as such, it’s there, doing its work. In alfabet/alphabet you write of the first poetry reading you attended in the Netherlands, where poets from various countries read without translations: “The sounds that came through the speakers were enigmatic and incantatory, almost like secular prayers.” Do you ever think about your own poems as strings of sound for non-English speakers? If so, how does that influence how you write?

SdM: You know, I think the reading made that impression on me because of my father’s Muslim prayers at home—I don’t speak Arabic, so one of my earliest and abiding notions of prayer was as enigmatic, lyrical sounds. I haven’t thought of how my own poetry registers with non-English speakers, but for alfabet/alphabet, I did ask English-speaking friends what Dutch sounds like to them. There was quite a consensus in the answers: invocations of other, similar languages (German, French, Old English), a sense of gray moods and weather elements, and a vast number of references to phlegm.

RT: Ha! You’ve lined up here your father’s religious prayers and the “secular prayers” of the poetry reading—do you think of your own poems as secular prayers, and is that part of your attraction to writing them?

SdM: No, I don’t think of my poems as prayers. But prayer as an idea and practice does draw me. I grew up in a mixed religious household (Muslim and Christian) and now I don’t consider myself to be either, but I do have a sense of faith that remains both nourished by and in struggle with what I was taught. I’m exploring some of that in a visual/literary project with a friend who was raised Jewish. I’m fascinated with prayer’s culturally divergent qualities of petition or lament or praise or interrogation, and what that implies about the entity being addressed. This is perhaps evident in that The Outer Wards contains poems exploring the direct address—to death, to a mountain, to a child, to a country, and to a river landscape, for example. It’s a voice that I love for its implied relational world. It is also a natural part of early childhood—in nursery rhymes and picture books, and especially in the child’s sense that all things are animate. Those of us who discard it sustain an enormous loss, and become capable of great harm.

RT: Isn’t that true—children, and their worldviews, can “reset” our minds in such necessary ways. The Outer Wards is full of profound moments of you seeing yourself more clearly through the eyes of your child (“I’ve never / elated anyone // as much as her inside our headlong now,” “I’ve never looked at the back of my hand as intently / as we have examined this street,” “I’m foreign, and she is home”). What has parenthood allowed you to learn about yourself that was previously invisible or inaccessible or muted?

SdM: Well, before I became a parent, much of what I lived and believed was grounded in a sort of communal struggle: I was against things (like patriarchy and racism and poverty and environmental degradation). I took part in protests and organizing and talks, and that was good and important work. I’m still against all the same things, but with the sense of being responsible for someone small and new, I felt an urgent question—I wanted to know what I was for, what I could pass on as things to believe in. The Che Guevara quote goes “…the true revolutionary is guided by a great feeling of love,”—but his preface to that is “At the risk of seeming ridiculous, let me say that…” and I believe I’d unconsciously been placing more weight on that first phrase. It was protective; a layer of cynicism over the vulnerability of feeling love and grief for what was under siege. And that has turned—I can still be a marvellous cynic, but my emphasis has shifted to the side of that love, and to risking myself in its name, whether in a playground interaction or a broader, structured campaign.

RT: Let’s risk ridiculousness, then, and talk more about resistance and love. In the essay “heimwee/homesick,” you write of an encounter with a skinhead during a visit to the Netherlands. You note that the Dutch language has compound words for just about everything, but none that can describe that encounter, and that if Dutch is “that animate, evolving language… the medium of all our lives” then it’s “going to have to find the words.”

I’m writing to you during the protests and riots that have followed the murder of George Floyd by the police officer Derek Chauvin. People are still, unbelievably, arguing over the validity of the phrase “Black Lives Matter,” though of course their semantic debate is largely subterfuge for a far darker one. English, too, struggles to find the words.

It leads me to wonder to what extent language can save us. How much can the word correct the heart, as opposed to the heart correcting the word?

SdM: That’s such a profound question. I suspect it’s really more about our state of receptivity than the words themselves.

There are also distinctions in who is speaking to whom. When I was twenty-ish and a group of people at a BIPOC event welcomed me to their table with “you look like another mixie,” that last word was new and potent to me. Ethnically and racially, it was so unusual to be named with a term that signalled belonging. Within countless communities, established and transient ones, having a vocabulary for forms of ourselves, for our experiences, is crucial. Among BIPOC people, for instance, a phrase like “white fragility” is such a balancing force to the allegation that naming racism is inappropriate or hostile.

But those are examples of language affirming the heart, and you are asking about correction. I think that words may find their limits there. People can recite the proper terms while their world view remains exactly as it is—that’s widely evident right now in the Black Lives Matter statements from various corporations and politicians, for example. But limits are interesting, kinetic regions. When Dutch newspapers pledge to remove from their vocabulary a standard, antagonistic term for immigrants and refugees, that change won’t automatically overturn any racist ideas in individual readers, but it may gradually raise the public discourse to a more respectful level. And that isn’t nothing.

Of course there are writers who work at those limits so brilliantly. Part of my love for James Baldwin is for his sustained faith in his white-identified readers’ capacity to become receptive to words again—it remains such a generous and unearned gesture.

RT: Do you think the limits of how far language can push us vary from language to language, culture to culture?

SdM: For sure. Writing alfabet/alphabet, and having attendant conversations with people about their mother tongues, taught me that I only have the very beginnings of an understanding how profoundly languages can vary. Within my own realm, the Dutch approach of creating new compound words for culturally new practices or items is an example of language and thought working a particular way; the idea that existing terms, rearranged and coupled, will suffice—which implies that, even as it expands, the language is also already considered complete.

And culturally, so much is at play, including the differences between oral and written traditions. Anything that we store in ourselves to recite has more potential to shape and change us than text on a page. Words also lose power when they arrive in a deluge, as they do in many of our current lives. There are too many, and a great proportion are manipulatively oriented—for me, being a receptive reader or listener these days includes making room for silences, and choosing material that is particular and sincere.

RT: Do you ever wonder what kind of a poet you would have become if the two languages you’d been immersed in were different, say Swahili and Punjabi (two languages spoken by your father)?

SdM: Yes, I do wonder! And writing alfabet/alphabet caused me to really ask myself outright, though of course the answers rest in speculation. My father has often referred to Punjabi and Urdu as flowery and poetic languages—meaning in relation to English and Dutch, I suppose, in which he’s also fluent. When I imagine being immersed in a linguistic atmosphere like that, I feel excitement and curiosity about what poetry would or could then sound like, in harmony and in dissonance with the language itself. I’ll be reading more poetry translated from Urdu and Punjabi, in order to explore that further.

RT: In the essay “xenofobie/xenophobia,” you write “I have not experienced the limits of my languages as the limits of my world, but I am familiar with the sweet revelation of finding that the formerly inexpressible has a name.” To me, a poet’s greatest delight comes in discovering unexplored linguistic terrain – places where we don’t have a word or phrase to succinctly capture an experience (so we need to call on the poets!).

The first half of your quote feels in keeping with that delight, while the second half feels counter-intuitive (what’s the poet left to do?). But I suppose discovery unites the two: the poet creates new connections; the language-learner finds a connection others have made and handed down to them. Do you think your attractions to those two acts—creating and discovering your languages—are derived from the same source? Or are they distinct, if complimentary, impulses?

SdM: Yes, I agree that poets work in that border terrain between where language does and doesn’t usually go. But it’s a region that differs for each of us; it depends on which Englishes we speak, on our vocabularies, our courage, our subject matters, our aesthetic. Those things aren’t static—and to me, learning a word for something formerly nameless is simply another small movement of that edge of language. So I would say that the attraction is to a single practice; dwelling at that border and getting to know what is possible there.

RT: A wondrous thing happened to me while in the border terrain for your essay. As an example of the “sweet revelation of finding that the formerly inexpressible has a name,” you provide the example of the Punjabi word jugaad, which translates roughly as “mak[ing] do with what is at hand.” In reading that, I realised that some spirit of jugaad is central to my writing practice and my interest in confessional “domestic” poetry. I write about my own life because I believe it’s important to approach the universal through the particular, but also, I think, in this life-hacky, improvised spirit of “making do with what is at hand.” I limit the “materials” to what I encountered that week, or that day, or that hour, and use that as a generative restraint. Having a word for that was, indeed, a “sweet revelation.” You talk in your essay about the jugaad of your improvised standing desk and light-reflecting takeout container lids. Do you see jugaad in your writing practice as well?

SdM: I love that you had that realization. Yes, you’re right that my writing itself practice qualifies as jugaad—improvised, between interruptions, sometimes on the back of an envelope. When you apply the jugaad idea to subject matter—and of course I can very much relate to being drawn to the confessional and domestic there—it raises the interesting question of what particular problem those makeshift, available materials are meant to solve. Which is almost like asking, what is the purpose of a poem?—for which I have no real answer at this stage of my work, though I do know that whatever it is occurs inside a reader or listener. What about you?

RT: I suppose I react most strongly to the idea that my assemblies of makeshift materials are meant to solve anything! It feels somewhat like starting a poem with thought—it goes against the improvisational spirit in the making. I agree entirely that a poem is “made,” ultimately, inside the reader, so you only have so much control over its design, and its purpose. You just have to construct something sturdy and vital and lively enough to thrive in the “border terrain” between the sayable and unsayable, the writer and the reader.

One way you wrestle with the border between the sayable and unsayable, and between the writer and reader, is by translating your own poetry into Dutch. What does translation allow you to learn about your poems? Do you become more connected to the content, or detached? Are you increasingly channeling the muse or the mechanic?

SdM: There are occasional poetic revelations to translating, but I find the feeling closer to the mechanic, or the mathematician even. And I love it—the inherent conundrums feel as if they bring me right up against the sinews of the language. I make the attempt with other people’s poems as much as my own. Translation reveals the essence of a poem (in the translator’s estimation)—and it’s fascinating to learn that without the upward slant of pitch in one line, for example, or without the three-legged dog in the third stanza, the piece will no longer function.

RT: It’s exhausting to think of all the ways a poem can fall apart! That’s probably part of why I rarely write long poems. Your poems are usually shorter, too, but you’ve got an eight-pager in The Outer Wards with the sprawling title “It’s the Inner Harbour neighbourhood, but everyone calls it Skeleton Park.” The poem gathers a wide range of thoughts and observations connected to living in Kingston’s Skeleton Park (i.e. it’s got big jugaad energy).

The poem’s jugaad-ian “making do” seems tied to parenthood and how it shrinks one’s world down to this handful of repeated people, places, objects, etc. That world-shrinking is followed by another: the next poem, “Shut-In,” introduces the theme of injury and illness, which is omnipresent through the rest of The Outer Wards.

In “It’s the Inner Harbour…” you describe parenthood as “this submerged world” and note that “I know the minutes as the lichens / on the breakwater know them,” which seems like it could equally apply to the conditions that followed. Do you see connections between the two narrowings (of one’s perceptible world, of clear-headed moments, of time/capacity to write)? Did parenthood in some way prepare you for the more dramatic narrowing to come?

SdM: It’s funny and astute that you noticed the lichen line as you did, because I realize now that unlike the entire rest of the poem it came from later notes based on my experience of time during rehabilitation. One thing the two experiences had in common was that the narrowings held a depth. During those repetitive days, fairly devoid of distractions (I didn’t have a cell phone until my child was older), big things happened in the quiet of the living room, like witnessing a baby’s first amazed look at their own hand, or my own seeing of colours for the first time after much darkness.

RT: Speaking of darkness, it’s everywhere in The Outer Wards, and understandably so. In “Ancestor v. Ancestor,” which opens this interview, darkness “blinded the potatoes,” “clustered between brothers,” and “kept the cabbage leaves apart.” Did early parenthood and concussion cause you to think about darkness more deeply? Differently?

SdM: Yes, for sure, the notion of darkness changed for me, in particular during my recovery. Being in the dark was so many things at once: relieving, isolating, claustrophobic, disorienting, generative, primal. And just as questions about my first language led to a book of essays, I believe this question might only be answerable in book form or at least something book length. It remains an unformed idea for now.

RT: Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry makes multiple appearances in The Outer Wards: in an epigraph to the book, and in the closing lines to “The Roaring Alongside” (that title, too, a quote from Bishop’s poem “The Sandpiper”). And poems of yours like “Formation of a Dragonfly” mix deep attention to the natural world with in-the moment asides (“and a line of is it yellow?– / yes, bright yellow–) in a very Bishop-like way. What draws you to Bishop’s poetry, and what of her do you see present in your own writing?

SdM: It’s true, Bishop is a real presence in the book, including in “Formation of a Dragonfly” as you say. I admire her naturalist observation skills, and her unexpectedly bold surrealism, and I love the quiet, conversational, self-sharpening precision of her language. I find the permission to interrupt yourself and refine a thought—I noticed it also in the work of Bronwen Wallace—so human and intimate. The writer hasn’t reached a conclusion and told us, they’ve invited us to accompany them. I would like that to be true of my work.

On the subject of Bishop’s poetry, I highly recommend Zachariah Pickard’s Elizabeth Bishop’s Poetics of Description.

RT: On the theme of recommendations: if you could alert Canadian readers to the work of one Dutch poet—not necessarily the most famous, but someone who really speaks to you—who would it be, and why?

SdM: Ida Gerhardt! Which isn’t really fair because her work is almost untranslatable. I write of that in alfabet/alphabet because I admire her poetry so deeply; its precise, evocative, and utterly believable conflations of Gerhardt’s landscapes and inner life. I can’t recommend an English translation that I like, but I will keep working on my favourite poems of hers.

I also love the poems of J.A. der Mouw, for their domestic imagery, contemplative spirituality and self-deprecating wit. In this case there is a strong English translation, by John Irons: Full of God and tiny pancakes.

RT: What a title! Another influence on your writing seems to be your writing group, the Villanelles, who you thank in the acknowledgments of both of your new books. Can you talk a little about how that group helped you in developing the books?

SdM: The Villanelles have been together for approximately a decade now, and my writing would be nothing like it is without them. We’re currently a group of seven, and at this stage we’ve celebrated releases of poetry, short stories, children’s books, essays, novels, and more together. We workshop our drafts—usually poems, but sometimes prose as well. There’s a natural flow of honest critique and true encouragement that can happen because we trust each other. Our meetings also take the isolation out of writing. The group is one of my favourite things.

RT: Two books out in one year is no small feat—it’s very reasonable to take a break for a while! That said, you’ve already mentioned potentially writing more about darkness. Do you have any other inklings of what might come next?

SdM: Both books were several years in the making, so really their convergence is a matter of chance. Yes, I am working towards new things (though very slowly in the COVID-induced absence of school and summer camps, etc.). I’ve started a new essay collection having to do with bodies, spirits, and medicines. And some new poems that are a reckoning with mixed ancestry.


You can relish all those years of making by picking up The Outer Wards and alfabet/alphabet at your local bookstore, or via the Vehicule Press and Palimpsest Press websites or, if you must, from Amazon.


"A is for Acholi" by Ontoniya J. Okot Bitek


It's been six years since Otoniya J. Okot Bitek published her debut poetry collection 100 Days, which powerfully revisited the one hundred days of the Rwandan genocide. I was lucky enough to interview Otoniya shortly after that book came out - you can read that interview here. 100 Days went on to be shortlisted for the Dorothy Livesay, Pat Lowther and Robert Kroetsch awards, among others. 

I've been waiting patiently for Otoniya's next book - and I need wait no more! Her new book, A Is For Acholi, will officially be published next week. As the titled suggests, this book focuses attention on her people, the Acholi of Northern Uganda. 

A bit of a side note: Song of Lawino, the most famous work by Otoniya's father, Okot p'Bitek, was originally written in Acholi. p'Bitek opened the English translation of the book with a note that read: "Translated from the Acoli by the author who has thus clipped a bit of the eagle's wings and rendered the sharp edges of the warrior's sword rusty and blunt, and has also murdered rhythm and rhyme."

Here's an excerpt from A Is For Acholi, which shows that Otoniya's rhythm is alive and thriving:

A dictionary
for un/settling
so now I reckless I damned I candied I salt I tempered I soft I terrified I terrified I terrified they said you weren’t dead yet I terrified that that might also be true so I reckless now I given up I sullied I done they said you’re on the way back I terrified you bandied you toughness you vented you fought you kicked you beat you shouted you lied now I terrified that you’re here I terrified that you’re here & I terrified that you’re here for good

so I reckless now painting my nails only after three in the afternoon I doting on cats I watchful for new news I watchful for the bizarre the whispered the curse I dried hard I cracked I happened only in the shatter oh gather oh lean in listen listen these are only moments stacked up against atop beside each other moments beaded like necklaces moments incremental incidental instrumental sometimes dire because dream because fate because old gods pointed right not left oh gather & listen to this refuse this stance this rejection this rant assemble now poets now singers now crowd in the cords & the lyrics in the back room where you stored tune & rhythm assemble now poets singers & drummers where are the dreams where’s the tune & rhythm section

so reckless me thrown reckless me down reckless me throned to moments without you in the periphery in the distance or shadow at my door reckless me damned reckless me sinner there was never anything else offered in the clamour

The book ranges more widely than the tight thematic and stylistic focus of 100 Days. Its subject matter includes "exploring diaspora, the marginalization of the Acholi people, the dusty streets of Nairobi and the cold grey of Vancouver." Formally, the book is wide-ranging as well: lineated poems brush up against prose poems, concrete poems, erasures and - in keeping with Otoniya's 2019 chapbook Gauntlet - voluminous footnotes. 

Otoniya recently went and moved away from cold grey Vancouver (to far colder Kingston, Ontario!), but she's making a very welcome return for two events at the Vancouver Writer's Fest later this week: Poems for the Twelfth Hour on Friday, October 21st, and Poets in Conversation the following day. 

Do consider checking out the events, or picking up the book, or - gold star for you! - both.


Otoniya J. Okot Bitek is a poet and scholar. Her collection of poetry, 100 Days, was nominated for several writing prizes including the BC Book Prize, the Pat Lowther Award, the Alberta Book Awards and the Canadian Authors Award for Poetry. It won the 2017 IndieFab Book of the Year Award for poetry and the 2017 Glenna Lushei Prize for African Poetry. From the fall of 2020 to the spring of 2021, Otoniya was the Ellen and Warren Tallman Writer-in-Residence and one of the SFU Jack and Doris Shadbolt Fellows. She has recently moved to Kingston, Ontario, to live on the traditional territory of the Haudenosaunee and Anishinaabe people. Otoniya is an assistant professor of Black Creativity in Queen’s University, Kingston.


"Openwork and Limestone" by Frances Boyle


Ottawa-based writer Frances Boyle has been busy in recent years. Since 2018 she's published four books: a novella, Tower, in 2018, followed by a second collection of poems, This White Nest, in 2019 and a short story collection, Seeking Shade, in 2020. (The latter was a finalist for the Danuta Gleed and ReLit awards.) After taking a year off to catch her breath, Frances is back with her third poetry collection, Openwork and Limestone, published by Frontenac House.

Here's a sample poem from the book:

Strange Scattered Year

I cobble together some shape like stars, 
gas cloud of spangles, sensory noise
a beautiful typeface of serifed
angels and italicized galaxies. Last year 

declines to cohere. I’m out of practice 
reaching for the shelf
to take down fragments rattling 
in their sealer jar. Bright ring

and clamouring disk with its ovoid dance
on tabletop or dark drift of space. 
Dust of that year toxic to breathe; 
I need a particulate mask to filter it. 

That year, melded by star-shine,
stuck to those before and aft, adhesion
of moist exhales. Trial and tributary, ribbon
of spilled milk. I gather it in handfuls,
sop it up, recap the static, staccato 
tumbling voices, eerie dance

of memory. The monitor dial inches 
through situations half-heard. A moving line,
a pointing finger. Evidence in star systems 
we pretend are fixed. His belt, her chair.
Try to slake my thirst with what, I believe,
is a firm grip on the ladle’s hilt.


"Last year declines to cohere." Goodness, yes. This poem backs up the book's jacket copy (a rarity!), which says the book "turns inward and outward at the same time, telling our multifarious collective human story so that it feels like our own intimate family history."

When someone puts out so many books, so quickly, it can seem like a sign of a sudden outburst of productivity, but is more likely the result of the slow accumulation of high quality work, which, for whatever reason, finally arrives in the hands of enthusiastic publishers. Frances suggests as much on her website: "I've been making stories since before I could hold a pen. I've written most of my life, with pauses or minimal output during years of raising a family and working in the legal field. Since being able to devote more time to my craft, my short stories and poems have been published..."

One downside to having so many books published quickly, and having them come out in and around a pandemic, is that - like, I assume, giving birth to quadruplets - it's hard to give each individual the attention it deserves.

The busyness that kept Frances from publishing most of her books until recent years was also likely tied to being steadily on the move: raised in the Prairies, she went to school in Regina, then had stops in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver before settling in Ottawa. (Sorry Maritimes, no Frances for you!) 

We're lucky to have Frances finally making a trip back to Vancouver, to celebrate not one, but two of her books (COVID having prevented her from traveling to promote Seeking Shade). She'll be joined by special guests Steffi Tad-y and Ellen McGinn for a free reading at People's Co-op Bookstore next Tuesday, October 18th at 7 PM.

Steffi Tad-y will be celebrating her own debut collection, From the Shoreline (Gordon Hill Press, 2022), and Roll of Nickels favourite Mariner Janes will be there hosting (you can read my interview with Mariner here).

Here's the poster:

I really encourage you to take in the event (a Writer's Fest worthy lineup without the $25 ticket price!), and if you can't make it, to pick up Frances' and Steffi's books.


Frances Boyle’s previous books include the poetry collection This White Nest (Quattro Books 2019), Tower, a novella (Fish Gotta Swim Editions 2018), and Seeking Shade (The Porcupine’s Quill 2020), a short story collection which won first place for short fiction in the Miramichi Reader’s Very Best! Awards and was a finalist for the Danuta Gleed Award and a ReLit Award. Her writing has been published throughout North America and internationally. Born and raised on the prairies, Frances lives in the historic Lindenlea area of Ottawa, with her partner Tim and a large and slightly eccentric standard poodle. Openwork and Limestone is her third poetry collection.


Rolling Down a Hill With Your Brain on Fire: An Interview with Andrew Chesham and Laura Farina (feat. a poem by Krys Yuan!)

The following interview is part seven 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).


my father is dying – Krys Yuan 
my father is dying and i’m still going to the beach 
lying my back across the grassy sand
resting my eyes against the glare of the sun
pulling my feet towards the ocean between us
imagining that pain irradiating one half of my dna

my father is dying and i’m still going to the grocery store
i line my grocery cart with knowledge of produce that he’s
given me:
extra fish eyes means bright eyes
black rice vinegar eases any stomach
rock sugar lilts our mother tongues

my father is dying and i’m still going to be writing
how ridiculous is it that his body eats his dreams
shrinking the edges of his world
composting his future
while my body eats away, ballooning,

Reprinted with permission from 
(SFU Publications, 2021)



Rob Taylor: Normally in this series I interview a poet about their new poetry collection. In this case I’m interviewing two writers about two anthologies, all at once. Could you tell us briefly about your roles at SFU’s Writer’s Studio program, and the two TWS-affiliated books you’ve put out, emerge 21 and Resonance: Essays on the Craft and Life of Writing?

Laura Farina
Laura Farina: We’re the administrators behind The Writer’s Studio, SFU’s year-long creative writing certificate program. In our day jobs this can mean anything from planning programs, courses and community activities, to helping individual students and instructors with specific problems.

Every year, the students in The Writer’s Studio collaborate on publishing an anthology called emerge. In that process, I act as publisher, and we bring back alumni from the program to act as editors. Students submit their work for publication, and also volunteer as members of the production and editorial team.

Andrew Chesham: The idea for Resonance came as we were approaching the 20th cohort of The Writer’s Studio and were looking for ways to celebrate. We kept coming back to this idea of all the conversations that have happened in and around the program over those twenty years. It’s our favourite part of our jobs, getting to talk about writing with other practicing writers. We wanted to capture that in some way, to invite anyone who was interested into our writing community. I think as writers, it’s really comforting to know that we all struggle with the same things. We’re all trying to solve the same kinds of problems.

RT: I love the choice to widen the circle of those conversations to include aspiring writers outside your program. In addition to pulling the book together, you both wrote essays for Resonance: Andrew’s is about how maintaining a pre-writing journal can help you write productively every day, while Laura writes in her opening paragraph, “There are no techniques I use all the time. I don’t write every day. I use a notebook, but only sometimes.”

I cracked up reading that — it felt like the anthology was being edited by The Odd Couple (perhaps all co-productions between a poet and a novelist feel that way!). Did you find your predilections clashed or complimented each other in bringing Resonance together?

AC: Yes to both. I think the most valuable thing about editing this anthology together was having each other as a sounding board as we were working through the essays.

LF: We work in different genres (I write most poetry, and Andrew writes mostly fiction) and come at writing in such different ways, so if an essay felt like it was offering a valuable perspective to both of us, it was probably really onto something.

AC: It was illuminating in terms of process, too. I think we learned a lot about each other and the ways we both work. I tend to approach writing in terms of “Let’s bang it out and then do it again, bang it out and do it again.”

LF: Andrew’s favourite phrase is “Big picture…” and I tend to revise more as I go. My approach is, if you can get a key sentence perfect, you can build out from there. So Andrew’s edits would be like, ”I think we should ask for the following sweeping changes, and I’d be like…yes, and also, can you ask them about what’s up with the comma in the first sentence of the last paragraph?” I may be exaggerating a little bit, but that’s how it felt, anyway.

RT: Poets, am I right? What was the hardest part of the collaboration?

AC: Writing the introduction.

LF: And I think that was the most fascinating, too. Because Andrew’s goal when he’s in the thick of a project is to write every day, which means he writes through tough days, and the thing he wants most from a book like ours is the feeling that he isn’t alone in the struggle, that others have tackled what he’s tackling and come through the other side. I’m maybe more of a fair weather writer, and when things get too tough, I tend to go watch TV. This means it takes me a hundred years to finish anything, but also I’m always looking for ways to shake up my writing process and make it fun and enticing. Trying to cram both of those positions into one introduction required some serious negotiation.

RT: This sounds a bit like what former TWS director Wayde Compton would call a “rupture”: in his essay in Resonance, Compton writes about that moment in a writing project where the author’s initial plans fall apart and they have to re-envision their book. He writes that this rupture can be difficult to accept, but that “what feels like the failure of a project is, in disguise, the chance to make it better, if you’re willing to adapt and listen.”

This seems like a valuable lesson for both writers and anthologists, perhaps especially anthologists, who in many ways have less control over the final product. Introduction aside, I’m curious if, in pulling together Resonance, you experienced a rupture which required you to adapt and listen? How does the finished book differ from your initial vision?

AC: When we first conceived of Resonance, we thought it would be an anthology of short essays on craft. We thought each essay would be something along the lines of “This is a problem I’ve encountered and this is how I solved it.” In this way, I think we were anticipating essays that all had a similar approach and tone.

LF: One of the first essays we received was by Andrew Steeves. It’s called “Notes on Publishing Literary Books” and it’s a list of all his thoughts and feelings about why he publishes in the first place and why he publishes what he publishes, so not at all what we were picturing. And it was good. So, so good. We had two choices. We could either send back an awesome essay and ask for extensive revisions or we could expand our idea of the anthology to let in more perspectives. Did we even talk about it? I can’t remember.

AC: I don’t think we did. The essay was that good.

LF: As the essays came in we found more and more people were writing about their lives as writers, trying to weave together all these disparate threads to explain how they create what they create.

Andrew Chesham
AC: I think the finished anthology is a lot more honest about all of the different elements that go into writing a piece. When we conceived of this anthology we were thinking about the writing process in a simplistic way. No challenge that exists in a piece of writing exists on its own. For example, you might identify that the dialogue in something you’ve written feels stilted. Okay, but why is that? Maybe you don’t know your characters well enough. Maybe you haven’t compressed time effectively. Maybe this section of your writing project is just kind of boring for you. Most likely it’s a little bit of all three.

RT: Oh good, I was hoping we could talk about Steeves’ essay, which is one of my favourites in the book. I especially appreciated your including it as it’s critical of Creative Writing programs, and it’s not the only one in the book (George Bowering: “When we were published tyros, / those professors and old anthologized poets // said we had to work long / to become masters. // The first / intelligent thing we said back / was that poetry / didn’t want masters”).

In his essay, Steeves’ writes that “the Creative Writing Industrial Complex appears to dull many more blades than it sharpens” and that, instead of promoting originality, writing programs “seem more successful at fostering uniformity.” The idea that creative writing programs risk dulling originality is a fairly common one — do you think there’s some truth to it? In your program, how do you work to avoid “fostering uniformity”?

LF: I think the first thing anyone who wants to write knows how to do is to mimic the writing they admire. And you know, we’re all human, we all like praise. So you get a room full of people who want praise and are good mimics, and if you’re not careful, new writers start to write specifically to impress the people in the room. And this, I think, is what Andrew Steeves is talking about when he refers to uniformity. I think the main thing we do in The Writer’s Studio to avoid this is that our mentors select their workshop groups from all the applications that we get. This means that mentors are genuinely excited by the writing their workshop students are engaged in. So hopefully that means they want to encourage that writing to be more itself, rather than squishing it into some kind of “good writing” mould.

AC: One of the things we’re always trying to do is meet our student where they’re at. Writers come to our program from such different places and spaces, it would be hard, I think, to get them to all sound alike.

RT: Steeves’ essay comes at the end of the book, where it’s joined by three others written by Canadian small press publishers. I love that you included publishers’ voices in there! Some writing classes/programs seem to believe the business side of the industry is outside the scope of their purview, while TWS always seems to have one eye firmly on the end-goal of publication. But the risk in emphasizing publication is that it can lead to writers truncating their creative exploration in their rush to the finish line. How do you balance the need for play and experimentation in a writing program with the desire to create a finished product?

LF: First of all, there’s nothing wrong with never publishing what you write. If there’s one thing that I want people to take away from this book, it’s that writing is enjoyable in and of itself. It’s a good way to pass an afternoon. The problem, I think, is that sometimes not wanting to publish is a knee-jerk reaction to not wanting to be rejected. Which is valid, because the only way to not have your writing rejected is to never attempt to get it published (I may have just talked myself out of all my future publishing dreams here).

Publishing is a tool, and just like understanding story structure, or being able to use setting in interesting ways, when you understand the tool you can use it. Having publishing as an end goal can help you finish work. It can also help you feel like your work has a larger purpose in that others might read and connect with it. In both our book and our program, we talk about publishing because then it’s out there as a possibility, and it stops being this big moment of like, when this happens for you, you will officially be A Writer. Which, you know… just isn’t true. You don’t need to use the tool the moment you learn about it. You can put it away until it makes sense for you. One of the beautiful messages that comes out of the essays by publishers in Resonance is something along the lines of “Write the thing you want to write, the thing that only you can write. Make it as good as you can. There are people who are going to want to read that. We’re here when you’re ready.”

AC: We wanted to include publishers in Resonance to humanize them. People often put publishers on a pedestal, but they’re just people with their own interests and tastes. We wanted to add their voices so that writers could get a sense of how a publisher selects and makes their books.

Krys Yuan
RT: emerge seems like a part of this demystification process, too, giving new writers like Krys Yuan (whose poem opened this interview) an in-program glimpse into the world of publishing.

LF: The first time you publish your work is going to be messy — full of hand-holding, freaking out, and being weirdly paralyzed about writing your own bio. emerge gives writers a chance to get that out of the way in the company of friends and mentors.

RT: In her foreword to emerge 21, Renee Sarojini Saklikar writes that one of the great benefits of the program is coming “to know thyself as a writer,” which involves “knowing what supports your “habit” of writing and knowing what can erode that daily commitment.” I like the balance Saklikar presents here between cosmic concerns about one’s life as a writer, and micro-concerns around the day-to-day realities of the “habit.”

Similarly, Resonance is subtitled “Essays On the Life and Craft of Writing,” with essays whose subject matter runs the gamut from grammar and revision; to public speaking and breath; to race, counseling and even baseball (that last one’s George Bowering’s, of course). Could you talk about this balance you’re aiming for, both at TWS and in the books you publish, between lessons on life and craft?

LF: I think the main thing I learned in editing this book is that the “life” of writing and the “craft” of writing are profoundly interconnected in a way that is at once cosmic and intensely practical. For a long time, I’ve felt that I’m in this whole writing business for the days when writing comes easily and it feels like you’re rolling down a hill and also your brain is on fire. Do you know the feeling I’m talking about? All of a sudden you’re finding all these connections and you have a moment of “OH! That’ what I’ve thought about this thing the whole time!”

Editing this book made me think more about the ways that you can lay the groundwork for cosmic moments by asking yourself questions about point-of-view, or proximity, or associations, for example. It made me understand that being able to recognize when there’s something profound happening within your piece, and being able to write your way deeper into it, is really all we mean by craft. Also, by taking a walk you can make sure you’re not feeling listless when cosmic inspiration strikes. That’s super practical advice.

RT: You may have just answered this with the walking tip, Laura, but I’m curious if there’s one lesson from an essay in Resonance that you think about now in your own writing practice?

AC: There are lots of pieces in Resonance I take comfort in. You’ve already mentioned Wayde’s piece about the rupture—that’s definitely one of them. Going into a project knowing that at some point it’s going to fail makes me worry about failure a lot less. Similarly, Reg Johanson’s essay about grammar, and the power dynamics inherent in standard grammar, felt very freeing to me.

LF: I keep coming back to Raoul Fernandes’ essay “Birds Outside the Boardroom Windows.” It captures my own poem-making so accurately that it gives me goosebumps.

RT: Most of the essays in Resonance are followed by a writing exercise. Why was this important to you in thinking about the book and how you hope for it to be used by readers?

LF: In the end, you’re going to have to write.

AC: Despite the fact that there are a number of essays in this book that touch on the idea that you can be “writing” when you aren’t physically at your desk writing, I do think there can be a tendency to use these sorts of books as a way to avoid the hard work of actually writing. We wanted the essays to be relatively short, with each ending with an invitation to sit down and write, in the hopes that people would use this book as a way into writing, rather than as a way to procrastinate away from it.

LF: For a while, above my desk I had a note to myself that just read “Whatever you’re doing with those Post-It Notes is not writing”. There are so many delightful ways to procrastinate.

RT: Ahaha! I love that. Have you tried out any of the exercises? Does one stick out to you as your favourite?

AC: We’ve been working on this book for a while, so I’ve had the pleasure of using a number of them as I work my way through my writing project. Given where I’m at now, I’ve been using Claudia Casper’s exercise for mapping the chronological order of a story versus the narrative order of the story.

LF: I am really obsessed with Joanne Arnott’s “freewrite, choose words, arrange words, add bridging words” prompt. I’ve done it so many times since reading it in Resonance. It’s also a really wonderful way to collaborate with other writers. This weekend, I tried to do it with my 4-year-old. It’s possible that we wrote the world’s first poem that uses the words “poo poo butt” more than once.

RT: My son would respectfully challenge you on that point.


Andrew Chesham is the director of the Writer’s Studio at Simon Fraser University. He has worked in the literary arts since 2006, as a writer, editor, publisher, and educator in Canada and Australia. He has also edited the anthologies: From the Earth to the Table and Stories for a Long Summer (Catchfire Press).

Laura Farina is the author of two collections of poetry and a picture book. She has facilitated writing workshops in schools and community settings across Canada and the United States. She is currently the coordinator of The Writer’s Studio at Simon Fraser University.

Krys Yuan is an emerging theatre artist and writer, and a recent graduate of SFU’s Writer’s Studio. Born and raised in Singapore, she dances between her work as an actor, playwright, poet, writer, producer, among many things. Her writing practice is invested in alternate realities, speculative fiction, and investigating Asian diaspora alongside colonialism. In her free time, she dreams of being a cat parent.