Uncooperative with the Expected: An Interview with Dale Tracy

The following interview is part three of a seven-part series of conversations with BC poets which I released between January and April 2023. All seven interviews were originally posted at ReadLocalBC.caThis was the fourth year of my collaboration with Read Local BC (you can read all my Read Local BC interviews in one place here).


Learning to Feel Full

I pluck petals with a dirty garden glove.
That daisy’s stained like newsprint—
who reads daisies anymore?
Still, the mouth, yellow, opens, and not to say
“I love you.”

Still, when I drink my teeth get wet.
My eyes gape, and light gets in.
Don’t they get emptier when the pupils grow?
I’m full of resources, and places to put them.
That doesn’t mean I know when I feel full.

Reprinted with permission from 
(Anvil Press, 2022)



Rob Taylor: There are a lot of mouths and teeth in Derelict Bicycles: human and animal; open, devouring, singing, speaking, silent. What draws you to images and metaphors around the mouth? 

Dale Tracy: Mouths get my attention because they are inside/outside things. Mouths are the inside of us, but they open: we can look right into them. These are points of inordinate access, right on our faces. The fact of a mouth can become fascinatingly unreal, even unsettling, if I keep perversely pushing the thought. I surprise myself in poems frequently because I write something that upsets me—not because it threatens harm but because it opens up some strangeness of existence that I maybe am not really comfortable with. These mischievous thoughts are probably at the heart of my poetry. Well, maybe they are the mouths of my poems.

What we say comes out of the mouth, which is relevant for poetry. But teeth also bring the world into us, as we keep making ourselves. Having multi-purpose body parts is such a strange efficiency. Bringing in the material to keep building our bodies has nothing to do with communication, but they cross each other in the hallway all day long.

RT: In channeling “the strangeness of existence,” your poems often lean towards the surreal. I was happy to see you'd worked with Stuart Ross, who's kept the flame of surreal poetry going in this country at times when it otherwise might have been snuffed out. What draws you to this type of writing? Have you always written with a surreal bent? 

DT: Yes, thank goodness for Stuart Ross! My poems often start with something I think or say in the course of my everyday life: the surreal bent is how I think in general, so it is also how I think in poetry. The ways that my thinking is strange matches some of what readers expect from poetry, so poetry lets me explore and communicate my reactions, feelings, ideas, and values most clearly.

RT: I believe poetry is the closest mirror we have to how human beings actually think (not how we like to believe we think, which is far more orderly). I love your awareness, and embrace, of poetry as a path to clarity!

You mention in your acknowledgments that your time in Northwestern Ontario and Kingston informed the poems in Derelict Bicycles. How do you think the book would be different if you'd written it elsewhere? Now that you're here in BC, teaching at Kwantlen Polytechnic University, can you sense your poems changing in any way?

DT: It’s me who would be different: wherever I write now, I’ll always have come from those places. Not so many people are from Northwestern Ontario (it’s not a populous region), so I have a perspective shaped by that—the experiences I had there are not the experiences of most people I meet. Kingston is lively with poetry and arts, and I might not be publishing poetry now if I hadn’t had the opportunity to be connected in poetry community. When I moved to B.C., the trees changed my poems—right away the whole atmosphere of my life (the air’s smell and the whole mood) was different.

RT: One part of the Kingston poetry scene that made a mark in Derelict Bicycles was the m society, "a mysterious group of writers in Kingston," who provided writing prompts that inspired some of your poems. How have prompts helped you in your writing? 

DT: What’s better than something making an opening into the world to follow? I already know the things I know, so it’s boring to think those thoughts. A prompt makes me know again what I know, or reflect on it, or learn something new, or think differently. Whether formally or informally, I’m using prompts all the time—that is, I’m looking for something to prompt me. 

RT: I imagine it must be tricky to move between teaching and academic writing, and your own creative work—do prompts help you make that transition? 

DT: My teaching, academic writing, and creative writing all send prompts to each other, so I would probably find it trickier to write in only one way.

RT: In addition to their embrace of the surreal, the poems in Derelict Bicycles cut against popular trends by rarely being explicitly autobiographical: if we see the poet's life in these poems, it's indirectly. In one you write "Of my ornaments, I can only tell, now show... I'm all style where no one sees," and in another, "I won't look for your life / in your poems, / but can I look for mine?" 

In your monograph, With the Witnesses: Poetry, Compassion and Claimed Experience, you write "I am concerned that an understanding of a poet's corpus does not take the place of hearing what a particular poem has to say." Is there a connection here, between your concern for biography obscuring the poem, and what of you you choose to put on (or withhold from) the page? 

DT: I think “indirectly” is the key. These poems are my most intimate thoughts, the clearest expression of how my mind works. But I’m choosing to explore my thinking through poetry. In a poem, whatever else I’m doing, I’m also exploring how a poem in particular allows me to understand myself and my connections to the world. Each poem is about what that poem that I am thinking in is like. 

So, my poems are autobiographical, in my own way. The “I” is always a version of me. They are also always self-referential, about who the poem is. 

How the life connects to the poem constitutes a main interest for me. I teach life writing at KPU. I teach poems in this course, and I teach them the same way as I do in other courses. I want to see the sets of relationships a poem works through, using what I know about a life or the world, but not in such a way that I can only see what I already know.

RT: Connected to this, in With the Witnesses you write "Meeting a poem halfway means reading it as a poem (responding to its imaginative strategies) rather than as something else (a straightforward historical document)." Similarly, you critique readers who "position a poem as direct evidence of a trauma it holds and passes on," and encourage them to read "poem as poem rather than indexical sign of suffering." This problem is particularly prevalent in some English classrooms, where a poem's secret information must be unlocked by solving the puzzle of a poem. As an English professor, I'm curious how you get around this problem in your own classroom. How can you get students to think of a poem as a poem and not a vacuum-sealed set of facts?

DT: I follow what the poem does and show students how to do the same. I teach a first-year writing course that teaches students about how to communicate, and I think this helps me teach poems in my literature courses: understanding conventions—knowable moves that carry expectations—is helpful with poems to remind us that someone wrote them to communicate something, and wrote them as poems out of an interest in that particular set of available conventions.

RT: In considering "affective and attentive reading methods" for the poetry of others, I assume you must also think about how you'd like readers to approach your own poetry. Do you have an ideal way in which you'd like someone to read your poems? 

DT: Outside of poetry, I worry a lot about misunderstandings and about misrepresenting myself. But communicating with poetry circumvents those worries. There’s always more meaning in art than any one person can arrive at, so I have no impulse for readers that would get in their minds exactly what I have in mine. 

In general, I hope that readers will think with poems instead of using them to achieve or prove a predetermined result for themselves, but that’s more a sentiment about curiosity, openness, and learning than it is about poetry specifically. 

RT: Before we close, I’d like to talk about a favourite poem of mine from Derelict Bicycles,  "A Weird Part of Whatever." There are so many poems out there written about COVID-19, but few I enjoy. This is one I keep thinking about, especially that closing line, "A curtain has been pulled, but I can’t see the curtain." And its mode of composition is as interesting as the content! 

Could you talk a little about how you wrote this poem? Are there ways in which your approach to this poem was different from others in the book? Ways in which it was the same?

DT: It makes me happy for this poem to be most noticed—it’s so in line with my delight in a kind of uncooperativeness with the expected. Since I noted down verbatim what my grandma said to me on the phone about her experience of the pandemic in her retirement home, all I did was choose and order sentences and call it a poem.

And this poem is meaningful to me since it shares my grandma’s thoughts and records some of our conversation. Since it is consistent with the whole collection—in tone, mood, ideas, diction—it makes me think that I’ve inherited ways of thinking from my grandma. I want this poem to keep prompting me when I write poetry, but especially as I do academic writing, through which the inheritances I have are more difficult for me to access.

So my approach to this poem was unlike my usual approach except in a more foundational way: I heard the poem in a spontaneous grappling with living out a situation, the same as I hear the poem in my own thoughts sometimes. 


Dale Tracy is the author of the chapbooks The Mystery of Ornament (above/ground press, 2020) and Celebration Machine (Proper Tales Press, 2018), the chappoem What It Satisfies (Puddles of Sky Press, 2016), and the monograph With the Witnesses: Poetry, Compassion, and Claimed Experience (McGill-Queen’s, 2017). Her poetry has appeared in filling Station, Touch the Donkey, and The Goose: A Journal of Arts, Environment, and Culture in Canada, among others. She is a faculty member in the English Department at Kwantlen Polytechnic University and lives on unceded Coast Salish territory. Derelict Bicycles is her first full-length poetry collection.


The Poem's Hum: An Interview with Roger Farr

The following interview is part two of a seven-part series of conversations with BC poets which I released between January and April 2023. All seven interviews were originally posted at ReadLocalBC.caThis was the fourth year of my collaboration with Read Local BC (you can read all my Read Local BC interviews in one place here).


Ballad of the Pea and the Shell
Le Testament (67-69)

Once deceived, I came to see how one
object may be exchanged for another

a gong goozler for a digit
an email for a bum itch

a Kriegspiel for a sailor
a foot long for a banana stick

– & how cheats use slights & devices
to swap verse & vice versa

a shanker for a charnel house
a deck of cards for a dolly spot

a tavern for a Tappecoue
a sticky bag for a skeleton

– which is how Love deceives & leaves
us banging on the Prison House door.

Reprinted with permission from 
(New Star Books, 2022)



Rob Taylor: François Villon was, to say the least, a character. A criminal and cheat, both his poems and life story are filled with misdirection, subterfuge and gaps. In the acknowledgments to After Villon, you write that you began translating Villon shortly after first encountering his work in 2009. What was it about Villon that drew you in so quickly and so fully?

Roger Farr: It was precisely those things you mention. That and the fact that Villon, a medieval poet, was the first to erase the separation between his art and his life, which arguably makes him the first avant-garde writer. But for some time before I read Villon, I had been interested in political and aesthetic discussions about visibility, readability, and clandestinity, topics I wrote about for anarchist publications. When I was working on a piece for Fifth Estate about the work of the Situationist Alice Becker-Ho, who introduced me to Villon, I learned about his poetic use of coded language, deceit, and slang, and I became deeply intrigued. 

RT: Villon’s influence on After Villon is obvious, but as I read your book I started to think of the title as being composed of two parts, with the "After" actually pointing to Jack Spicer, whose After Lorca—with its loose translations and "correspondences" from Spicer to Lorca—served as a template of sorts for your book. Did you ever feel tension in trying to honour all three "contributors" (Villon, Spicer, you) in one book? If so, how did you manage that?

RF: As soon as I started to see my accumulating translations as a book, I knew I would use After Lorca as a template. I have always found Spicer’s poetics difficult to comprehend, which is no doubt part of my attraction to his work. But I thought the correspondences he writes to Lorca were a brilliant way to elaborate a poetics of translation without resorting to overly expository prose. So he was mostly a formal influence, at the level of the book. Ultimately, my eyes and ears were always attuned to Villon.

RT: In your first “correspondence” with Villon, you note that you "cheat" in your translations, in part in honour of Villon's own manipulations of the truth. One such "cheat" involves frequently zipping Villon from the French middle ages to 21st century coastal British Columbia (one poem opens with biographical details of Villon's life and closes with mentions of "homeslices," "toonies," and Abbostford's Matsqui prison). 

The book opens with an epigraph from After Lorca, "Objects, words must be led across time not preserved against it," which seems to be speaking, at least in part, to this maneuvering. Could you talk about the Spicer quote and your choice to lead Villon “across time”? 

RF: Spicer’s idea of words as objects points to the materiality of language. When I was translating Villon, I experienced this materiality as a profound opacity and “thickness.” Villon was, of course, writing in Middle French, which, like Middle English, I have no grasp of whatsoever. To make matters worse, it’s not always clear when he is using a coded language designed specifically to shut out police and other “hostile informants.” For example, every word attached to the concept of “marriage” potentially refers to being executed: a “bridegroom” is someone who is going to be hanged (this particular example resonated for me on a number of levels). So when I was “leading the words across time,” I was in many cases trying to translate the opacity, rather than the denotative or even connotative meanings of words as such. An indirect or possible reference to prison, then, might turn up in my poem as “Matsqui.” Instead of trying to “preserve” a literal meaning, I would activate a more recognizable “object”.

RT: Your book's jacket copy notes that your translation "refuses the heteronormative assumptions all too often applied to the "gaps" in meaning of the original texts." Would you consider this another of your "cheats," or a correction of an inaccurate record? Was it something you planned on doing from the beginning of the project, or did it happen more gradually as you worked through the poems line by line? 

RF: I would say “correction of an inaccurate record,” and yes, something that happened gradually. The more deeply I read Le Testament, the more the ambiguities around Villon’s sexuality stared back at me. This was undoubtedly linked to my own life and experiences during the period I was working on the book.

But there is also some textual evidence that Villon was queer, or at least “not straight.” Villon’s insinuations that certain police were soliciting young male sex workers, along with his intimate knowledge of where to find them, seemed worth pausing on. There is also what has been called his “trans ventriloquism,” which refers to the manner in which he suddenly speaks as a woman. In one of his most famous Ballads, which I translate—and am quite proud of—he writes from the perspective of an aging female sex worker recalling a bad trick. 

This fluidity in his work was emphasized by Thierry Martin, who published a remarkable and controversial translation of Villon from Middle to Modern French, called Ballades en Argot Homosexuel (“Ballads in Homosexual Slang”). Martin was working with the three-part “queer code” identified by linguist Pierre Guiraud, which holds that every line in the Ballads in Jargon can be read three ways at once: as a warning not to get caught cheating at cards, as a warning not to get busted by the authorities, and as a warning not be outed as queer. I found this fascinating, and it strongly influenced how I read the poems.

RT: How did your choice embrace the fluidity in his work change the way you thought about Villon's poetry?

RF: There was a distinct shift in my “orientation,” in terms of both language and identity. As Foucault has taught us, the categories of “heterosexual” and “homosexual” didn’t exist in the Middle Ages. Villon’s sexuality was therefore a cipher to me, as opaque as his language. In fact, the entire notion of orientation—especially the idea of a stable identity induced from a sexual inclination defined by the gender of one’s partner(s)—seemed increasingly odd, in literature and in everyday life. Eventually I came to experience poetry and desire on a more somatic level, as forces that work to unbind (to use a term from Freud) identity, language, and “orientation.”

RT: How did that shift in orientation shift the translations themselves?

RF: While I didn’t follow Guiraud’s and Martin’s approach exactly, my project shared their desire to “make Villon queer again,” if I can put it that way. To accomplish this, I was guided by Marc Démont’s thesis, in his essay “Three Modes of Translating Queer Literary Texts,” that queer translation “focuses on acknowledging [the original’s] disruptive force and re-creating it in the target language.” This is accomplished by critiquing existing translations, and then developing new linguistic techniques designed “to re-create in the target language the queerness of a text.” The queer translation subverts gender stability and maintains the source text’s “thickness” and opacity, rather than domesticating or normalizing it. That’s what I was after.

RT: Translating poetry from another language is challenging enough, but Villon's work adds the aforementioned challenges of his various “opacities,” most notably his use of thieves' jargon and words of his own devising. Did you find that complicated your work as translator, or did it in some way liberate you, knowing that an "accurate" translation was likely impossible?

RF: Yes and yes! At times I imagined what I was doing as a kind of psychoanalysis—deciphering exquisitely complicated “defense mechanisms” designed to throw me off the case. But the realization that I would never “get it right” was very liberating. I let go of any desire to “master” poetic language a long time ago, and instead learned to enjoy the free play and signification of words. It’s something I notice a lot of my writing students struggle with. For me, difficulty and complexity are an invitation into collaboration and creative problem solving. As a writer I thrive there.

RT: Whenever I read a book in translation, I want to place it beside other translations of the same text to get a sense of this particular translator's style. This was perhaps doubly true of Villon, as the “creative problem solving” involved could take various translators in very different directions.

You've generously provided readers with just such a comparison: in "Compario" you present nine translations of a Villon quatrain (including a "Dictation" version, which delightfully translates "Dont maintz marchans furent attains" as "Don't mate Marshawn's friend okay"). Why was it important to you to include that sampling from other translators? 

RF: In “Compario” I wanted to make my methodology visible. This always involved flipping between the original, several dictionaries, and multiple translations into both English and Modern French. When I was really stumped and felt like I was going to fold, I would use dictation software to kind of “blast” something new out of the source text, and then work with that. I refer to this as “bluffing.” It was a lot of fun. I am aware this would be regarded as complete and utter blasphemy for many translators, but I agree with Nathan Brown, who in his introduction to his masterful new translation of Baudelaire’s Fleur de Mal, suggests that a translator may take creative liberties when confronted with impossibility. Granted, I take more than a few such liberties, which is an index to the degrees of impossibility I encountered. In some cases, I had no choice but to insert poems Villon hadn’t actually written. Lorca accused Spicer of this, too.

RT: Speaking of Spicer, in one of his letters to Lorca he writes that "The perfect poem has an infinitely small vocabulary." What would you say to that? 

RF: That’s one of those provocatively cryptic utterances Spicer is so good at. I think he is referring to the poetics of les mots justes, which requires precision and economy in language, plain speech, and a generally minimalist formal aesthetic. I am slanted more towards poetic maximalism these days – excess, clutter, chaos, colour, noise, etc. 

RT: What do you think Villon would have said to Spicer? 

RF: Interesting. I’m not sure Villon’s work is compatible with the idea of the “infinitely small.” He wrote in popular forms and was very much a poet of the streets and the taverns, albeit a highly educated one. His language is full of excess: carnivalesque, ironic, idiomatic, mocking, oscillating between high and low genre, etc. It was also, for tactical reasons, lexically dense and expansive. 

RT: Let’s add a couple more poets into the discussion: in an essay on his loose translations of Rilke, Don Paterson said, “If we are not prepared to make a choice between honouring the word or the spirit, we are likely to come away with nothing.” 

RF: I’m not sure I understand what is meant by “spirit” in Paterson’s statement. Is he referring to the aporia between signifier/sound and signified/sense, perhaps? 

RT: Yes, I think so. At the level of the word, and also the poem—the spirit of the whole piece.

RF: It’s a constant question for a translator. In my case, I was confronted with signs (sounds) that had no “sense” or “spirit” or “signification”; or if they did, they were literally being deployed as screens to lead interpreters (translators!) away from their referents.

RT: When I offered the Paterson quote to Steven Heighton, who called his own translations "versions," he replied in a way that suggested a choice between word and spirit might be impossible:

“In poetry there’s no Cartesian separation of mind and body or content and form... The poem is its music. Poetry is a form of song in which the words are obliged to create their own rhythmic and musical accompaniment. So, as a translator, you have to try to approximate the poem’s rhythms and, if I can put it this way, melodies. And, if the original is rhymed, well, that’s part of its essence and you need to try to reenact it somehow in your translation.”

I felt in reading your translations, and your correspondences about them to Villon, that you might both agree and disagree with both Heighton and Paterson…

RF: Yes. I might disagree with Heighton’s idea of rhyme as an “essence.” I think demands of syntax and tone, rhetorical and literary devices, etc. can and should sometimes trump the element of rhyme. We’ve all read translations where fidelity to rhyme leads to some pretty clunky language. But I like what he says about trying to “reenact” it, which perhaps points to some other possibility for how we conceive of rhyme. For me, rhyme is simply the patterns of repetition that hold a poem together; they establish its rhythm. This includes repeated vowel/consonant combinations like “home” and “tome,” of course, but also repeated syntactical constructions: for example, ending each stanza with a question, or uttering a warning every few lines. These are also repeated elements and should “count” as rhyme. 

In After Villon, I sometimes tried to keep conventional rhyme operating (both end-stopped and internal), and in some places I maintain a “fidelity” to the original poems (despite the consistent mocking of marriage and monogamy). But I was generally more interested in translating things like addressivity, the conspiratorial tone, the pleading for mercy, the warnings, etc. Even where sound and sense are separated, those rhetorical features and the poem’s overall “hum” remain intact. At least that is my hope.

RT: I love that idea of a poem’s “hum.” I think Heighton and Paterson would like it, too.

In After Lorca, Spicer writes "Loneliness is necessary for pure poetry," and it strikes me that exile is a part of both Villon's story (banished from Paris in 1462) and your own, far more voluntary, "exile" from Vancouver to Gabriola Island. 

Of the bar-hopping social life common to both Spicer and Villon, you write "I am far away from that now & have been for many years." Did you sense a parallel between the change in Villon's life and your own? 

RF: I was part of a rigorous literary bar scene in Vancouver for some time. And I’m not entirely sure if my departing flight from the city in 2004 was with Exile or Banishment. As with Villon’s exit from Paris, I am certain a few people were relieved to see me go. The feeling is mutual. There are some remarkably petty people in the writing scene I once belonged to. I address them in a few places in the book. They seem to find their agency in gossip and rumour. They can be hard to spot, because they only emerge from their holes when there is a little piece of cheese waiting for them. But they know who they are.

RT: Ha! While we know your post-banishment fate, no one knows what happened to Villon—he simply disappeared from history. Were you in some way translating Villon from a place beyond his known history; from that next, quieter, space his life may have entered had he lived long enough?

RF: Rabelais suggests, in an obscure passage in Gargantua and Pantagruel, that a few years after his banishment, Villon emerged in a theatre troupe in a remote village, and lived out his life there quietly and happily. I think that is unlikely, given Villon’s temperament and criminal associations and Rabelais’ tendency to satire and invention. I suspect Villon met his end on the gibbet, in a dungeon, or in a brawl. I hope my fate is more along the lines of what Rabelais imagined.

RT: Yes, sign up for that theatre troupe, already! On the subject of endings, near the close of the book you write of being done with Villon ("For me you are an ancient city bombed..."). This mirror's Spicer's eventual shrugging off of Lorca. Did you really feel done with him? And did that tiring of him go deeper than normal end-of-book fatigue? 

RF: Mostly that was in keeping with the trajectory of Spicer’s “break up” with Lorca. When the book finally went into production, though, I carefully removed all the translations and dictionaries and critical studies from my desk and put them on a shelf in a bookcase in my bedroom, then replaced them with the books I will be using for my next writing project (a collection of essays and translations on anarchism and sexuality). I worked on my slim book of Villon translations on and off for ten years, so I was glad to move on to something else. That said, Villon haunts everything I write now, and remains my poetic Master.


Roger Farr is the author of five books of poetry: Surplus (2006), Means (2012), IKMQ (2012), a finalist for the BC Book Prize in Poetry in 2013, I Am a City Still But Soon I Shan't Be (2019), and most recently, After Villon (2002). The Amorous Comrade, a collection of essays on anarchism and sexual politics, is forthcoming in 2024.


Listening For My Breath: An Interview with Délani Valin

The following interview is part one of a seven-part series of conversations with BC poets which I released between January and April 2023. All seven interviews were originally posted at ReadLocalBC.caThis was the fourth year of my collaboration with Read Local BC (you can read all my Read Local BC interviews in one place here).


Mrs. Clean

Yes, he cooks! He cleans!
He writes grocery lists!
But oh, how low
the bar is set.
I should be lucky,
after all most men
aren’t used
to scrubbing a toilet.

My husband’s muscles
bulge against the cotton
of his skin-tight bleached
t-shirt. I’m told he’s ideal
in every way. He won’t touch me
without wearing his yellow rubber
gloves. Yet he plucks hairballs
with bare hands from the neighbour’s
drain. I’ll spike his club soda
with lemon and Clorox. Watch
his bald ass Magic Erase that.

Reprinted with permission from 
(Nightwood Editions, 2022)



Rob Taylor: The first third of Shapeshifters is devoted to persona poems, such as “Mrs. Clean.” It’s not until page 32 that we encounter a speaker who resembles some approximation of “Délani Valin.” In your acknowledgments, you thank poet Marilyn Bowering for “suggest[ing], during a time of deep struggle, that I play with different personas as a way to access different experiences.” How did persona poems help you better access the experiences you were struggling with?

Délani Valin: When I came to my writing instructor, Marilyn Bowering, I was in my early twenties and had been writing since I was a child. My problem was that over time, I felt my poetry had become one-dimensional. I was writing the same poem over and over, if I could write at all. In retrospect, I see that I had cornered myself into the narrow identity of Sad Person. I think this was protective: a Sad Person isn’t caught off guard by suffering—she suffers preemptively by numbing out all the time. Yet seeing this numbness reflected back to me again and again in my work didn’t provide me catharsis. I felt alienated from my work and from my body, like I was existing at arm’s length from my own life.

Marilyn assured me that my creativity hadn’t dried up, but that perhaps I needed another point of entry. She suggested writing from different perspectives and personas to avoid the trap of circling around the same poem (and pain) over and over. She gifted me Carol Ann Duffy’s The World’s Wife, which was really helpful. Duffy is so witty and I was enamored with the vibrancy in her work.

RT: Why did you choose to focus on corporate mascots?

DV: I grew up with corporate mascots invading everywhere from my school to my pantry and living room. They’re ubiquitous, and many a marketer has hijacked humanity’s gift for stories and fascination with archetypal characters in order to sell yet another variety of cereal. These corporate archetypes are Heroes and Maidens and Mothers. Yet, they’re devoid of agency. My experiment with them was an empathetic effort to imagine their inner lives distinct from the marketers who breathed them into being. But of course, I only substituted my own breath.

Marilyn’s advice about exploring topics through personas brought me closer to myself by opening up a wider breadth of possible expression. After trying on a multitude of masks, I was able to glimpse the grounded wearer at the centre of them all.

RT: In a sense, you pass that journey on to your readers: we access the biographical details of the “grounded wearer at the centre” by traveling first through the persona poems. Was it always important for you to put the persona poems at the beginning? What effect do you hope for that to have on your readers?

DV: This was an area in which Silas White and Emma Skagen at Nightwood Editions were indispensable. When I put together the manuscript, I was unsure about its shape. I thought about putting all of the poems in the exact order I wrote them so that maybe some progression would unfold, but they rattled against each other. I think that it was a case of me being too close to the material to pull back and make sense of it. Once I read it in the order Silas and Emma suggested, it clicked. The shape of the book mirrors the process I had undergone to access my own experiences. It’s like a map.

RT: The poem “Telogen Effluvium” sits, quite literally, at the centre of your book. Named after a hair-loss condition that can sometimes be triggered by psychological or emotional stress, the poem pushes close to discussing a traumatic event, but stops short. On exactly page 48 of a 96 page book, you write, “We just need to know the whole story. Ok, here it is,” but then the next section of the poem is a recipe for a hair mask, and we never fully circle back (though a poem later in the book fills in some details). The result gives a well-like shape to the book: poems stacked carefully around the edges of a dark centre.

I’m always interested in poems where the author is actively wrestling with something on the page (I think of Elizabeth Bishop’s “Write it!” in “One Art“). On the one hand these moments feel emotionally raw and honest, and on the other of course there is always some level of artifice: the poem, even if written in a moment of intensity, was edited and prepared for publication slowly over many months. Could you talk about “Telogen Effluvium,” both how it came to you and how you positioned it within the book?

DV: I wrote “Telogen Effluvium” six months after a traumatic event involving a sexual assault while I was visiting Cotonou, Benin in 2018. What’s interesting is that the other poem that deals more directly with the assault, “Magic Lessons,” was actually written while the event was unfolding and in the immediate aftermath.

They both deal with the circumstances differently. With “Magic Lessons,” my intention had been to write an extended letter to my partner in the form of a travelogue. (As an aside, Benin is an incredible country to visit.) But hell broke loose for me while I was there, and my poem necessarily took a turn.

When I got back from Benin, I was in a bit of a trance and related my story to others many times. I felt this urgency to be seen, to be witnessed. I wanted confirmation that I was still alive and still me. But this also led to me sharing more than was safe for me to do in some cases. Not everyone believed me about what happened, and nor did everyone have the space for my difficult story.

Therefore, when I wrote “Telogen Effluvium,” I was curious about how I could share my story while still protecting myself. I had already absorbed most of the truth of my situation, so I wanted to create a controlled experience where I could anticipate judgement, deflect, and pull back. If I circled around the truth enough, would it come through? Would it be more palatable?

RT: That’s so interesting, that you wrote more directly about the assault initially, but then circled back to a more cautious approach in “Telogen Effluvium.” And then made the choice to present them in the opposite order in the book, like something is being drawn out from you, when really you were reeling it back in. Could you talk a little about the form of “Magic Lessons,” with its six sections, each containing seven tercets, and its many repetitions?

DV: Because I was writing without the benefit of any temporal distance, I knew it was important that I ground the poem in form so that it wouldn’t spiral into a journal entry. The repeating lines served as an anchor, and finding some kind of “lesson” for each section of the poem was actually a helpful tool for meaning-making when the ground beneath me was crumbling at the time of the writing.

RT: It’s fascinating how form can drive meaning-making, pushing you to new and necessary places. “Magic Lessons” isn’t alone in doing this: poems in Shapeshifters are striking in their formal rigour. In addition to more traditional forms, such as glosas, haibun, prose poems, and set stanzaic forms, the book includes forms of your own invention.

One poem, “The Geologist,” is a formal tour de force: it features italicized lines which both can be read as part of the rest of the poem and as its own standalone poem. And if you pluck out the italicized lines, the remaining poem still works! I’ve never read anything quite like it. Could you talk about your interest in form? Does it function for you in some way like the persona poems, a path to access experiences that otherwise prove elusive?

DV: I think that’s right—form serves a similar function to the persona poems, in that forms give me a framework that I can explore and subvert. It also helps the writing stay playful for me. If I’m exploring a difficult personal topic, the form becomes a sort of puzzle. I know I have to hit certain lines or conclude a stanza in a specific way, so in a sense there is a right answer to my “poetry riddle.” It creates a bit of safe distance for me while making sure the writing process is fun.

I also do this in an attempt to care for the reader. It’s a deeply humbling experience when a reader says they connect with what I’ve written. But if what they’re relating to is a difficult experience or emotion, I want to do my best not to leave us both in that space. Pain is inevitable in life, but as someone who has complex trauma or Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (C-PTSD), I feel like it’s my responsibility to be mindful about transferring my particular trauma onto anyone else.

Some of the ways I try to do this are through form, narrative, strategic avoidance, being disciplined about which details I share, and, in some poems, through directly naming this intention. It’s an aspect of my writing that I want to keep developing.

RT: What a generous way to consider your readers, and an interesting way to think about form. One formal element you play with a lot, both in “Magic Lessons” and elsewhere, is long lines—so long they spill over to a second line when squeezed onto the printed page. In this they are reminiscent of poets such as Walt Whitman, Jorie Graham, and C. K. Williams. What inspired you to take on the writing of such long lines? How did long lines affect your sense of what you could say in your poems?

DV: I think the long lines come up for a few reasons. Sometimes it’s to try to capture the way I would tell a story orally—I’m listening for my breaths as I’m writing. Another reason is to give myself space. In conversation with others, it’s often when we stay on one subject just a beat too long that a surprising twist happens. Perhaps we’re discussing something political on a fairly surface level and someone starts to say, “Well, anyway…” but if we stay on the subject just a touch longer, we might discover that they were pivoting because things were actually getting real. It happens to me all the time in conversation, and I try to give a little space for these sorts of insights when I write.

In other places, such as “Magic Lessons,” the long lines were an attempt to instill a frantic undercurrent to the poem—though the form is tight, it was a stressful time, so something should reflect that! Beyond that, because the poem deals with magic, the lines are written as a sort of incantation or spell. Ultimately, it’s a spell of self-protection and survival.

RT: The closing poem in Shapeshifters is a similar type of spell. In it, you have Cinderella write in her diary, “I killed / my first stepmom but you all // have me clap with songbirds / and cry.” To what extent do you see Shapeshifters as a response to the popular narratives around women’s trauma? In what ways were you trying to tell that story differently here?

DV: The thing about Cinderella is that in some versions of the archetypal story, she does kill her stepmother or even her mother. In others, she flees from advances from her father. Cinderella is afforded more agency in these tales than in most modern retellings.

In the same way that I was sick of my repeating Sad Person poems, I think I was tired of a lifetime of hearing sanitized frail damsel stories. I grew up with Disney and the Bible as a kid, and then I came of age during a time when the damsel was replaced by a stoic “tough chick” trope—a plucky girl who could punch her way through any foe. Essentially, both of these tropes can be summed up as Victims or Survivors. But in either case, these identities comprise ways in which we are totally defined by what happened to us. I don’t think either label suits me. I don’t see myself as a victim or as a survivor. A traumatic event that happened to me is just a thread in a much larger tapestry. I’m not that thread, and nor am I the tapestry. I’m the weaver. I think I wanted to speak to different possibilities.

RT: Beautifully put. Another major part of your “tapestry” is your Métis identity. In “No Buffalos,” you write about your mother, who only at age 40 rediscovered your family’s ancestry (her great-uncle Donald Ross was a member of Louis Riel’s Exovedate and was killed on the final day of fighting at Batoche). You note that despite her lineage and commitment to teaching Métis culture and history, she was still questioned for not having “lived Métis experience.” “Who counts and who decides?” you ask near the end of the poem, “We all have stories, we’re all legitimate.” Can you talk a little about your journey to that last statement?

DV: Being Métis is wonderful. Because of the work my mom does, I’ve been able to embody this truth earlier in life than she had a chance to. She got me involved in jigging when I was a child, and because she became a cultural presenter, I grew up with access to a lot of artifacts and stories.

Still, I have struggled with feelings of displacement. My grandmother was born in Meadow Lake, Saskatchewan, but my mom was born in Hay River, Northwest Territories. My parents met in Edmonton and then moved to my dad’s birthplace, Québec City, which is where I was born. We moved to B.C. when I was nine. There’s been a pervasive feeling of rootlessness threaded through my life, and part of that had contributed to a sense that perhaps I didn’t belong anywhere or to anyone. My family is scattered, and I will always be a guest on Snuneymuxw territory, where I currently reside.

I’ve long had the sense that being Métis isn’t a checkbox we tick off, nor does it end with the knowledge of Métis ancestry. Being Métis is an ongoing process: a way of seeing, being, knowing and connecting. Being in relation with other Métis people helped me see this, and made me realize the validity of my own experience. It echoed the experiences of others, and was in some places distinct.

When I started to live that from my heart, I stopped wondering whether I was Métis “enough.” I work with what I have, I create and maintain relationships wherever I can, and I endeavour to know more, but not because I’m striving to be anyone’s ideal Métis—whatever that is—but because my heart is calling out for it.

RT: While you were rooting yourself in your family’s Métis heritage, did a similar process play out for you in literature? While reading Shapeshifters, two other Métis poets kept coming to mind: in your mix of formal considerations and Métis history, your poems reminded me of Marilyn Dumont‘s work (especially poems like her sestina “Fiddle Bids Us”), and in your humour and efforts to reconnect to a broken chain of ancestry, they reminded me of Molly Cross-Blanchard‘s poems, such as “First-Time Smudge.”

Those are quite likely just my readerly associations, of course, and you have entirely different ones! “I am also in the broth,” you write in one poem about Métis belonging. Could you talk about the literary broth you see yourself a part of?

DV: Those are great picks. While writing “No Buffalos,” I still mired in self-doubt and was constantly afraid to offend or to get things wrong. I worried that I had no right to speak on any form of Métis experiences, even though I was exploring my own stories. It helped immeasurably to read Indigenous writers like Marilyn Dumont, Louise Bernice Halfe – Skydancer, Daniel David Moses, Gregory Scofield and Lee Maracle for questions of perspective, form, and language.

Writers like Molly Cross-Blanchard, Jónína Kirton, Selina Boan, Jordan Abel and Joshua Whitehead have helped orient me whenever I’ve felt isolated in my explorations. I’m grateful to be able to read so many funny, brilliant, generous, and surprising Indigenous writers. It’s a great time to be reading and writing.

RT: Keeping with Dumont for a minute, like you she had the experience of discovering in her youth that she was related to a prominent Métis leader (in her case, Gabriel Dumont). She waited until her fourth book, The Pemmican Eaters, published twenty years after her debut, to write in detail about that connection. Of this delay, she wrote that her journey to understanding her family’s past “was a lengthy process of historical enquiry and gradual acceptance,” and that perhaps “loyalty to my mother was part of the reason for not writing about Gabriel Dumont before now.” To what extent does Dumont’s slow journey through divided loyalties resonate with your own experience?

DV: I actually see this articulation as a kind of foreshadowing for myself. There are bits and pieces of my personal experience and of my family’s histories (on both sides) that I haven’t explored. I feel the histories still unfolding within me in my day-to-day life, and I’m trusting their timing to float up and be written. I think stories have a say in when they want to be told.


Délani Valin is neurodivergent and Métis with Nehiyaw, Saulteaux, French-Canadian, and Czech ancestry. She studies for her master’s in professional communications at Royal Roads University, and has a Bachelor of Arts in Creative Writing from Vancouver Island University. Her poetry has been awarded The Malahat Review’s Long Poem Prize and subTerrain’s Lush Triumphant Award. She is on the editorial board of Room and The Malahat Review, and lives on traditional and unceded Snuneymuxw territory (Nanaimo, BC).