Learning a Second Language When It Should Be My First: An Interview with Wanda John-Kehewin

The following interview is part seven 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).


ᐁᒋᑫ ᐃᐧᔭᓯᐁᐧᐃᐧᐣ

ᓄᐦᑯᒼ went to residential school
ᒧᓲᒼ went to war
ᐊᐧᐦᑯᒪᑲᐣ hung himself
ᓂᑲᐃᐧᐢ shot herself
ᓂᑲᐃᐧᕀ drank herself gone
ᓅᐦᒑᐄᐧᐢ died with a bottle
ᓄᐦᑕᐃᐧᕀ didn’t want to die
ᓂᑐᑌᒼ lost to the streets
ᓂᑐᑌᒼ finally passed away
ᐊᐋᐧᓯᐢ lost to the system
ᓂᔭ witness and survivor


Reprinted with permission from 
(Talonbooks, 2023)



Rob Taylor: The title and section titles of your new book, Spells, Wishes, and the Talking Dead ᒪᒪᐦᑖᐃᐧᓯᐃᐧᐣ ᐸᑯᓭᔨᒧᐤ ᓂᑭᐦᒋ ᐋᓂᐢᑯᑖᐹᐣ mamahtâwisiwin, pakosêyimow, nikihci-âniskotâpân, are all presented in three ways: in English, in Cree syllabics (ᓀᐦᐃᔭᐍᐏᐣ), and in romanized Plains Cree (nêhiyawêwin). Though the majority of the words in these poems are in English, occasional words are presented in Cree instead of English, with a ᓀᐦᐃᔭᐍᐏᐣ nêhiyawêwin glossary at the back for English speakers. Why did you make that choice, and what effect do you hope for it to have on your readers? 

Wanda John-Kehewin:
I made this choice to sort of decolonize language and as a way to “take it back.” Since the very first book I wrote, In the Dog House (Talonbooks, 2013), I’ve had this unsettling feeling that’s sat with me throughout my time as a writer who publishes things. I’ve really tried to figure it out. I finally realized that the unsettled feeling I had was that I was a fraud as a Cree poet because I didn’t write or speak my own language which is, or I should say “was,” Cree.

I was writing in English using English tone, diction, sounds, rules of grammar and syntax, which is why I wanted to break the rules of syntax and grammar in a way that helped me to make sense of the emotions I felt. I wanted people to wonder and to feel the “foreignness” of another language, and yet still be curious about it.

RT: You do that so well, especially in poems like “ᐁᒋᑫ ᐃᐧᔭᓯᐁᐧᐃᐧᐣ.” I feel like I completely understand that poem, while also not being able to read a large portion of it. And I’m left curious for more.

In the book’s preface, you write of the guilt you feel “as I write in English and struggle to name emotions, places, and things in ᓀᐦᐃᔭᐍᐏᐣ nêhiyawêwin." Over the course of researching and writing this book, did you find it became easier to express yourself in ᓀᐦᐃᔭᐍᐏᐣ nêhiyawêwin? 

WJK: I think because life and time is so limited on this Earth we must choose what is important to us to learn, and learning Cree at this point would be a challenge between working to survive, writing to thrive, and parenting to transform the past (trying, always trying). I think writing this book, and doing the research, I learned to make peace with my past in order to make way for the future. Yes, I could grieve that I did not speak or write in my language, but I could honour it and perhaps learn Cree one word at a time. I still struggle pronouncing it, trying to sound it out as it is written and sometimes (most times) saying it in a way that fluent Cree speakers would not understand.
RT: Do you now feel, at least, a little less guilty about your struggle?

WJK: Yes, especially with the research. The book opens with a timeline in which I tried to make sense of my own “timeline” and how my family systems were affected by colonization, or should I say the ripple effects of contact. “Colonization” is such a blanket word but it’s definitely a term that encompasses everything that happened to Indigenous people: the ripple effect of circumstance leading to the near destruction and decimation of Indigenous cultures, traditions and languages.

RT: In the preface, you say something interesting about colonization in relation to your writing: "writing acts as a therapeutic medium for making sense of intergenerational trauma resulting from colonialism." You also write that you "use poetic elements" to try to "figure out what language means to poetry and what poetry means to language." 

Could you talk about these two goals of your writing? Are there ways in which they are distinct from one another, or do you think of them as a shared goal, united by the impacts of colonialism on both peoples and their languages?

WJK: I wanted to use poetic elements like tone, diction, syntax, meter, form etc. to weave my way through discovery and what it felt like to write in another language which wasn’t my own, but which was the only language I spoke. It felt foreign and still feels foreign to try to sound out Cree words, like I am trying to learn a second language when it should be my first. I have talked to many fluent Cree speakers, and they have all said that the Cree language is descriptive. For example, aski pwawa is Cree for potato but does not translate to just potato; it actually translates to “Earth’s Egg.” 

The Cree language is poetic and changes over time. For example, a table is not just a table. In English when we say table, we all see a table, we all know what a table is. But in the Cree language mîcisowinâhtik loosely translates to “something made out of wood that we eat on.” So the word “table” had to be descriptive to describe what it is used for. 

Imagine we all went around describing things without using the word; a table wouldn’t be a table but something made out of wood that we eat on. A potato wouldn’t be just a potato but an Earth egg; which conjures up more of an interesting image? Perhaps a broken heart would be something like grieving the loss of a loved one who still walks the Earth, or grieving the loss of a loved one who no longer walks the Earth. That is what poetry is, it is description, it is imagery, and it is relatable to the human experience.

RT: What a wonderful, and yes, poetic, way to think about the world around us. In addition to you your work between languages, you also show a broader interest in formal experimentation. In the Dog House featured a number of concrete poems (a spiral, a diamond, a wine bottle and glass...), and your interest in playing with shape seems to have only grown since then. 

In your new book, alongside more traditional free verse poems, we find list poems (like “ᐁᒋᑫ ᐃᐧᔭᓯᐁᐧᐃᐧᐣ”), prose poems, blackout poems, contrapuntal poems, a golden shovel, an eleven-page essay, poems with words replacing punctuation, poems with surprising use of slashes, etc. It feels like hardly any two poems are written in the same mode. 

WJK: Thanks for explaining to me what I did because I didn’t really think about the differences! I am giggling to think how different my writing is from my first book. The poem in a spiral, “Chai Tea Rant,” had such emotionally upsetting content for me to talk about, but I could express it better when it was hard to read. It was like being able to stand in my truth and to speak it. Those who took the time to read it were meant to read it, and those who skipped it because it was too hard weren’t meant to read it. I think concrete poems offer a container to speak and stand in one’s truth, and it’s up to the reader to decipher it or not to decipher it.

RT: I love that. In a sense you’re saying, “I had to live through this, but you’re welcome to hear my story if you’re willing to work for it.” What inspired you to range even more widely, formally, in this book? 

WJK: My first book was written in a depression, the second at the tail end of the depression and this third book was written in a time where I finally understood how all the negative things that happened in my life were bigger than me, even bigger than my family. It became more of a macro-problem and not just a “me” problem. For years I questioned myself, “Why can’t I just get over it? Why can’t I just forget about it? Am I crazy? Why is my life so horrible compared to others? Why? Why? Why?” I had so many unanswered questions and the only way I could process the past, present and even the future was to write about it. Writing has always given me a better understanding of any situation. Writing, for me, is truly a gift and has helped me come to terms with the past. (That and years of counselling!)

RT: That makes a lot of sense to me—each new question you unpacked required a new shape. Considering how formally diverse the resulting book is, did you always imagine it as a single collection, or did you bring the disparate parts together later in the process? Did you consider writing a more traditional prose memoir?

WJK: While doing my MFA at UBC, I wanted to create space to write about things that troubled me, or things that I wanted to figure out, or even things I wanted to imagine. This collection became the spells (things that mystified me), wishes and the talking dead where I imagined my ancestors could speak through me or where I could have the hindsight to feel the emotional pain and turmoil they must have gone through.

In my first book, I had a poem called “Colonial Pest-Aside.” That was such a hard poem to write, to re-read and to edit to get just right. I imagined what it was like to be “force fed words of righteousness,” to be called savages, and how much pain and suffering that would cause all the ancestors hearing it while still praying for future children to have a chance to fall in love with their culture and themselves as perfect creations just as they are. I guess this collection is an autobiographical book of poetry.

I think my next book will be a memoir.

RT: Ah, I sensed that might be the case. I hope you write it. 

Some of your formal experimentations brought to mind other female Indigenous poets, notably Layli Long Soldier and Jónína Kirton. Could you talk a little about the role Indigenous women poets have played in helping you see what might be possible in your own work?

WJK: While doing my MFA, one of our assignments was to do a presentation about a poet we admired. My instructor, Bronwen Tate, suggested I look at Long Soldier’s work. I was fascinated by Long Soldier’s ability to write powerful, short-lined poetry and also to be able to talk about the harsh truths of history in a way where she did not care about the consequences of her words. This set my writing free. At the time I still wasn’t able to “blaspheme” the church or the government for fear of some sort of repercussion (I’m not sure what). I had the opportunity to both read Long Soldier’s work and interview her over Zoom. I was in awe of her and her work. I thanked her profusely for her time and probably asked all the wrong questions! I admired her ability to “stand in her truth” and to put it on paper in such a powerful way.

Jonina Kirton is another poet who has taught me to keep moving forward and to “stand in my truth” from her ability to be vulnerable in her work. She shares her vulnerabilities so others can feel comfortable in theirs.

RT: A recurring theme in your book’s first section, "ᒪᒪᐦᑖᐃᐧᓯᐃᐧᐣ mamahtâwisiwin Spells," is negative self-images. "I am fat / I am ugly / I am dumb / I am clingy / I am boring / I am worthless / I am a worthless Indian // I wear my trauma garlic / to the vampire party," you write in "Monkeys in the Brain." Did writing this book, or writing poetry in general, help you shape your own self-image in a more positive way? 

WJK: These are things I told myself for years. I think as human beings trying to be like the others in school, at work, at church, online, etc. leaves our state of humanness with “monkeys in the brain.” Growing up with dysfunction and trauma, I lost myself in books I could escape into and not once did I read about productive “Indians” or smart “Indians” or even beautiful “Indians.” I learned to see myself as not good enough. If only I was white or had blue eyes, or blonde hair, or was fatter (I was very skinny as a child) or skinnier (weight gain in my later years), or had whiter teeth, better teeth, better skin… the list went on. The monkeys in my brain partied a lot! Learning about the history of Kanata with Indigenous People, healing through reading, self-reflection and counselling, meeting the people I did, and allowing myself to be vulnerable has really helped. I’m now able to let that vulnerability show without judgment. When the monkeys in the brain are partying, I tell them we are ok, I got this, and that I can take care of them. Those monkeys in the brain are just fear, and have kept me alive.

RT: What effect do you hope this book will have on the self-image of young (or old!) Indigenous readers?

WJK: I think the idea of self-image is easier to digest when someone else shows you their vulnerabilities and you find out you still admire them, and even admire them more because they stand in their truth and make space for you to stand in yours (like Vera Manuel). When someone’s words resonate with you or bring up emotions which you forgot you had, or perhaps thought you’d figured out, you realise you are still hiding. It helps others to be brave and accept their humanness as well. We are all spiritual beings living the human experience and if we can navigate life knowing our humanness is flawed and that’s okay, we will be okay. 

RT: In the book's closing section, "ᓂᑭᐦᒋ ᐋᓂᐢᑯᑖᐹᐣ nikihci-âniskotâpân The Talking Dead," you write about your Great-Great-Great Grandfather Chief Kihiw. Could you tell us a little about him? 

My uncle Victor, who passed away, was a kind, generous and compassionate man who fully supported my educational pursuits. I was proud to share with him what I was doing because he would tell me he was proud. Uncle Victor loved to talk to me about oral history, which was not in books but had been passed down to him. Chief Kihiw was not in many historical records (I did find him in Census records, though). My Uncle Victor would tell me about the friendships between Chief Kihiw, Chief Big Bear and Chief Sweetgrass, and about who we were related to and where everyone came from because “back in the day” people were scattered. Uncle Victor told me of a time when the three chiefs would meet to discuss not signing the treaties, but they were starving. This relationship can be seen in my graphic novel series by Portage & Main Press, Visions of the Crow

RT: At one point you write that he is "alive in my daughter." How do you see Chief Kihiw in her? How do you see him in yourself?

WJK: When I say Chief Kihiw is alive in my daughter, I mean the blood memory. I think a part of culture is also the feeling we have with cultural objects as well as our relationship with place. I travel home once or twice a year to Kehewin reservation and it is home. It is a place that also holds so many past memories of suffering, but it is also a place of love. The love of the animals that live there, the family that is still struggling to survive (survival mode), the laughter that happens to alleviate the pain, and the want to ease the pain of another through small deeds. I see Chief Kihiw in myself as a word warrior who has an obligation to make things better for future generations and my gift is writing, so that is what I am trying to do. 

RT: On the subject of that gift, in "Dead Porcupines Aren't Just For Jewellery," you write "I don’t make jewellery. I don’t create art. / I don’t Powwow dance. / I write poems." Could you talk a little more about this—about how you feel your writing poetry fits within more externally-recognized Cree arts (beadwork, powwow dancing, etc.)? 

WJK: I think writing poetry has given me the ability to make sense of the world around me. Pre-contact, everyone would have had their “roles” that helped create a circle of life. I don’t mean roles in such a predetermined, forced position, but more in a communal context where each and every person who is part of a community has a responsibility to that community. We all do not have the same strengths or gifts. A baby is born, becomes a child, then and adult, then a knowledge carrier or, in contemporary terms, an Elder. In each of these stages of life, there would have been hunters, gatherers, drummers, storytellers, child minders, clothing makers and this list goes on. There would have been navigators as well. I think I would have been a storyteller. Poetry is an act of telling a story. A storyteller can hold an entire lifetime through their choice of poetic elements. A beginning, a middle and an end, that’s what life is.

RT: I admire your careful attention to the tools of a storyteller, especially the language they use. At the end of the book you write, "one day I hope to write a poetry book in nêhiyawêwin," and that the process of moving more and more towards writing in ᓀᐦᐃᔭᐍᐏᐣ nêhiyawêwin is like "decolonizing myself one word at a time." 

This reminded me of Kikuyu novelist Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o, who published the book Decolonising the Mind shortly after his decision, in the late 70s, to write his books in Gikuyu instead of English. On the subject, he wrote that switching to local languages would force "those who express themselves in African languages to strive for local relevance in their writing because no peasant or worker is going to buy novels, plays, or books of poetry that are totally irrelevant to his situation." 

If you one day write a book of poems entirely in ᓀᐦᐃᔭᐍᐏᐣ nêhiyawêwin, do you think it will change, in some way, the nature of what you write about, or how you write it? Will you strive more for "local relevance," and if so what do you think that would look like?

WJK: I have not heard of Decolonising the Mind, so thank you. I will add it to my list of things to read. The list keeps getting bigger and bigger. 

If one day I do write a book totally in nêhiyawêwin, I imagine it will be a short book, really thinking hard about the scope of this considering I do not speak it. Will it change the nature of what I write about? I do not have an answer but I do know coming out on the other side of trauma has already changed the way I write. Perhaps a lot of things will change the way I write, even the lack of time changes the way I write. So I think a book of Cree poems will be in all Cree reserve libraries and universities as one of those “oddities” or one-offs. Someone may write a paper on it trying to figure out why a poet would do the painstaking labor of writing a poetry entirely in Cree without being fluent in it. I think this could be done with a Cree translator translating it as best they could, because according to every fluent Cree speaker I have spoken with, the Cree language is so descriptive and sometimes so hard to describe in English. A joke in Cree can make a group of fluent speakers laugh but when they try to translate it in English it isn’t funny anymore and the person trying to translate it becomes flustered. The joke becomes lost—so would it be the same with poetry? 


Wanda John-Kehewin is a Cree writer who came to Vancouver, BC from the prairies on a Greyhound when she was nineteen and pregnant—carrying a bag of chips, thirty dollars, and a bit of hope. Wanda has been writing about the near decimation of Indigenous culture, language and tradition as a means to process history and trauma that allows her to stand in her truth and to share that truth openly. Wanda has published poetry, children’s books, graphic novels and a middle-grade reader with hopes of reaching others who are trying to make sense of the world around them. With many years of traveling (well mostly stumbling) the healing path, she brings personal experience of healing to share with others. Wanda is a mother of five children, two dogs, two cats, three tiger barb fish, and a hamster.


A Little Clearer and Cleaner: An Interview with David Zieroth

 The following interview is part six 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).


Devín Castle 

a ruin above the confluence of
the clear Morava with the deeper
darker Danube it fails to influence
and where men watched from heights
while water flowed past and past
endless in the possibilities of seasons
and terrors but also hours when
a guardsman’s attention drifted toward
his night meal of meat, nuts or soup
while the wind blew his way,
the smells of mud and freshets spilling
near fresh burial mounds

and as he fingered his iron weapons
one slipped from his animal belt 
to appear much later among amber
in an exhibit around which students
cluster, perhaps one of them aware
how time has thrown him up here
among his smoking, joking peers
to speak Slovak, to wear jeans
to find his body a mystery he worries 
may never be easily understood 

under my hand the cold rock that forms
this wall is solid, but I know better:
Miro takes my photo, which becomes
a memento mori when days from now
I discover it has remained unchanged
in my camera – still the same squint 
the grey sky behind showing no sign
of Perun, god of lightning and thunder –
whereas this very hand is less 

the sure thing, and yet it serves still 
to crumble more stone
into the river below as I reach out
to my friend’s hand and climb down from 
the bastion – and so we return to our own 
sensibilities, heartened here among
scrambling teens ablaze, the beauty of
a summer evening before them 
sunlight slanting into warm gold 
just at that moment when it sinks –
which I might notice more than they

Reprinted with permission from 
(Harbour Publishing, 2023)



Rob Taylor: The "trick" in your new collection, the trick of staying and leaving, is performed by the Danube river, which stays fixed in one place while also flowing constantly away. You've gone and published two books in six months: Fall 2022’s watching for life, set on a balcony in North Vancouver, and this new book, set in Slovakia. Despite taking place half a world apart, the two feel, in many ways, like the same river. Both combine a still observer and their ever-moving observations (in the first of the Slovakia poems you position the speaker "at a second-floor window seat," mirroring the balcony in watching for life). Do you think of these books a shared gesture set in two different places, or is there some change in the spirit of the writing from place to place? Perhaps a change in the spirit of the author?

David Zieroth: In both books I think of the speaker as a careful observer, sometimes distanced; and yet the spirit of the two books feels quite different to me. While the trick of staying and leaving comprises all pre-Covid poems except for one ("driving country roads in Slovakia"), the poems in watching for life were written during and after (can I say after?) the pandemic. The Slovak poems would have been published earlier except for the arrival of the uncertainties spawned by Covid, so the autobiographical order is not the same as the publishing one. For me the Slovak book feels more open because I'm out in the world exploring and experiencing with people I admire and love. The balcony book feels a lot lonelier. It's just me looking out and intuiting connections with others. 

RT: Ah, I hadn’t made the Covid connection. The tonal differences between the two books make a lot more sense to me. Still, I feel they hold a great deal in common.

DZ: I remember reading a quip from Michael Ondaatje who, when asked about something in his poem, said something to the effect that if one little nuance shifted it was all different. I admit to not having a larger view of how these two books might be similar, but I can easily see them as different. Then again doesn't every poet feel that the last thing he wrote is the masterpiece that practically annuls all previous work? Perspective on my past work is not one of my strengths. I have a handful of readers (some poets, others poetry lovers) who read my poems in manuscript, and they are renowned for their truth telling. Sometimes what I thought to be pure genius is greeted with cool respect but little warmth or pleasure, whereas a poem I hardly noticed is applauded generously. Which just goes to show you what I know about such things, eh?

Ha, I think that’s true for all of us. It’s much easier for me to ask you questions about changes in your writing style than to answer those same questions myself. So let’s stick with you! Over the years you've developed a distinct style, used in both these books: one or one-and-a-half page poems composed of 6-10 syllable lines, without capitalization or periods. Commas, too, are used sparingly at the end of lines—only seven total across both books (~2,000 lines)! 

Many elements of this style are present in your poetry all the way back to 2006's The Village of Sliding Time, and perhaps further, but it didn't seem to become your exclusive mode until 2014's Albrecht Dürer and me. Could you talk a little about the evolution of this style? 

DZ: Oh, punctuation, my former lovely chains! I like your comment about my "evolution of style," which I think is accurate. I don't recall making a deliberate decision to drop punctuation in the way I have. What seems to have happened is that the intensity of the incoming poem requires so much attention that I'm in a rush to get it down before it passes off into the ether, and so it's all about the exact words and rhythms in the words themselves. The effect may be what Miranda Pearson calls "mesmerizing" on the back of the trick of staying and leaving. I'm less concerned about how the reader will manage stepping through the words, and while I do make an effort to smooth their journey through to that moment at the end when all is revealed, so to speak, the lack of normal punctuation can make that experience sometimes just a little tricky. That's not my intention, but the reader must pay close attention, especially when the language appears so everyday at times. 

RT: What does having one consistent approach to a poem's form free up for you in your writing? 

DZ: Leaving capitals and periods and sometimes other bits behind is freeing. I have felt closer than ever to that ineffable thing that happens when the words arrive, and I want no shackles near. 

RT: What has writing without periods, capitalization and end-of-line commas taught you about rhythm and pacing in poetry?

DZ: Perhaps it's like this: when I went to a naturist beach in Croatia with my Slovak friends for the first time I was a tad shy and concerned, and then when my clothes were off and so were everyone else's I never felt so free and so relaxed.

RT: Ha! Yes, that sounds right. Though I don’t think I agree with you that your style makes it tricky for readers—I think the reader is equally unshackled (regardless of their opinions on nude beaches). This connects to what is, to me, the defining trait of a David Zieroth poem: motion. Even if the scene described is seemingly mundane, we are always moving seamlessly through it: the camera-work of the poem captivates us as much as what that camera is pointing at. 

In "Devín Castle," for instance, we move so effortlessly from the past to the present, and from crumbling stone to crumbling hand. (If your poems were films, I sense they would be filmed in one unending shot—panning, sweeping, rising—like Birdman or 1917). I suspect that, in part, this has to do with the punctuation choices discussed above, but also goes beyond that. Perhaps there's a chicken and an egg here—the fluidity of form and content. Could you talk about motion in your poems? Does how a poem moves matter more to you, in some ways, than what the poem says?

DZ: Motion, eh? Or is it ease of movement? 

RT: Yes, steady internal movement from image to image, thought to thought (even if the speaker is utterly still on a balcony). And with no periods anywhere to slow that flow.

DZ: I have not thought of my poems in this way, but it's true my concern is to keep the poem moving, to present visuals and thoughts and feelings all together so the reader has no desire to pause and put the poem down and reach for a cheezie. It's also true that my poems often start in circumstances that are generally easily recognizable and then they veer elsewhere, taking us into something equally recognizable but not expected, something revealed in the speaker that perhaps he himself is startled to discover right there before him. That following the golden thread in blind faith and always with the hope (and even the expectation, which is not the same) that ahead lies the understanding and experience which until that very moment did not exist anywhere at all. 

Perhaps I might put it this way: I write to find what the initial idea or inspiration wants me to find, and I feel this process not only creates action on the page but also is the most exhilarating and exciting in my life, and also the healthiest. I recall often how my family back in the busy days when we were all younger would kindly hope that I might take my grumpy self away for an hour to write in order that I may return to them as my more genial self, a little clearer and cleaner having dipped my soul into the river that flows through me when the writing is good.

RT: Wonderfully put. I'd be remiss to conduct an interview with you without asking about The Alfred Gustav Press, your subscription-based chapbook press which I've long believed to be Canadian literature's best kept secret. Publishing 6-8 chapbooks each year since 2008, you recently surpassed 100 in total! I want to express my gratitude for all that work. What has editing and publishing all those manuscripts taught you about compiling your own?

DZ: I've written about The Alfred Gustav Press elsewhere, so I won't comment about the press itself here except to say it's a labour of love that five people (not counting the poets) are happy to continue. What have I learned? I like it best when a poet sends us a large handful of poems in a submission out of which we can then find the chapbook. I already knew and have learned again that it's so difficult to see one's own work. When I am the poet gathering together poems into a manuscript, I look first at the concentrated moment in each of the poems and not so much on how they may link with others in image or action. It's then that I call on my friends to tell me how they see the arrangement and the order, and it's their understanding and wisdom I rely on for the final presentation before sending it off to a publisher (where again further shape changes can occur). 

RT: Let’s talk a little about the particular nature of each of these books. In its cover, jacket copy, blurbs, etc. the trick of staying and leaving is pitched as a book about Slovakia, but more fundamentally it feels like a book about friendship. I could imagine the book existing without traveling to Slovakia, but I couldn't imagine it without Miro and his family, and the ways you were able to see yourself anew through their eyes. Could you tell us a bit about Miro?

DZ: I met Miro ten years ago in a coffee shop in North Van. We hit it off right away and soon were friends. He was here from Slovakia for a few months to help his daughter adjust to attending school where she was learning English and our Canadian ways. Miro and I spent time together walking around the city learning English and Slovak words. He has returned here a few times since that autumn of 2013, and I have visited his home several times as well. Covid-19 made a huge difference to his life (more than to mine, I think), and in spite of travel restrictions and upheavals, etc., we have stayed connected. Now the English he learned here is slowly disappearing (just as the few Slovak words I learned then are slipping away). Today he's the entrepreneurial energy behind a thriving physiotherapy clinic in Bratislava. I will be seeing him and his family and friends again this coming summer. We often take a road trip to different parts of Slovakia, and he's been a wonderful guide to places tourists would not likely see.

RT: How did Miro help guide you to this book? 

DZ: Because of his friendship, I have learned to see worlds new to me and to question old, even unconscious, assumptions in new ways. I am also among the greatly fortunate because my daughter and her family live in Vienna, and Bratislava is only an hour away by bus, Vienna and Bratislava being the two closest national capitals in the world. the trick of staying and leaving is about both family and friends and about the kind of understanding that comes with new experiences in new territories/countries.

RT: In the book you write, of learning Slovak, "even the most polite / cannot always keep mirth / from erupting / when I speak, my mouth / filled with too much or not enough." Language being "too much or not enough" feels like the poet's perpetual challenge: we are always trying to get the world down in words, but we're never quite able. Did you feel a poetic familiarity in being lost in a language? What did starting over in another language teach you about writing in English?

DZ: I am always lost in Slovak. Like any language it's very complex: masculine, feminine, gender and nuances well beyond me. I really only have a handful of words I can say with any tonal accuracy. I love the music of the language and enjoy hearing my friends talk (the younger generation are willing and apt translators). Perhaps more importantly, I never understand English so well as when I see others struggling with its pronunciation and many idioms. In some perhaps forgivable way I didn't grasp the challenge of English. I was raised with relatives who spoke German to each other, and I now have grandchildren who speak German, and yet I seem to have little capacity for other languages. I was often told that, because I heard another language as a child and because I was a wordsmith, surely I would be able to pick up another language easily. Such are the myths my experiences have dispelled. I now have a greater respect for those of us writing in English with all its snaky “s” sounds, and there's no doubt I have much greater appreciation of the efforts of Canadians who are learning English as their second language. And any experience of the nuance of language gives a heightened awareness of the word.

RT: In writing about a foreign place, an author must feel conflicting pressures: to be both highly present in that place and record it accurately, and also to consider their "home" readership, for whom some level of explanation/translation will be necessary. The author has to think here and there at once. How did you balance the two in writing the trick of staying and leaving? Did you strike your particular balance in the initial composition, or did you grapple with the issue of audience only during the editing process? 

DZ: I'm operating intuitively when it comes to the audience. In the time of writing the poem, the initial inspiration can mean minutes (with revision lasting hours or indeed much longer), and the urgency and energy of the poem doesn't allow me to think much about who will be reading the poem, if and when it reaches the public. In general, I try not to think of audience when first writing a poem as awareness of audience as a presence over one's shoulder impedes the flow of feelings into words. What I wanted to do in the trick of staying and leaving was convey the joy and bewilderment that can be experienced by any traveler in a foreign land. Perhaps I am somewhat equipped for this process by a love of these people and places and by a long-ago undergraduate degree in history that enables me to have a perspective with a longer than usual time frame. Perhaps there is another trick in this staying and leaving: being in the here and now and also back there at home intuitively with that audience.

watching for life is a book set entirely “back home” in North Vancouver. Its poems teem with rain, fog, gulls, crows...  In this, and also in their meditative movement, they often reminded me of Russell Thornton's poetry (perhaps especially his book Birds, Metals, Stones and Rain). Thornton is thanked—along with five others, that “handful of readers” you mentioned earlier—in the acknowledgments of both books, and blurbs them both. How have his poetry, and his poetic eye on your work, shaped your writing? Your thinking about North Vancouver?

DZ: It's not surprising that Russell's poems come to mind when you read watching for life. We share the same climate, and while I've lived in North Vancouver longer than anywhere else on earth, I did not have the blessing of being born here as Russell did, and the rain in his poems speaks in its mother tongue. Russell is a friend and a neighbour and one of the smartest people I know, as well as a poet whose awareness of poetic traditions I admire and envy. He has been a very helpful reader of my poems. But he writes in a way that is very different from me, much more in the ecstatic vein of poetry than I do. His instincts and methods are not mine or vice versa. I don't think he's been much of a poetic influence at all, even as I love his poetry. I've long ago given up trying to do what I admire in other poets; I have plenty simply trying to do what I do. But Russell has certainly helped me to see my poems more clearly than I might otherwise have had I not had his counsel at times.  

RT: In watching for life, while dreaming of Paris from North Vancouver, you write "sometimes I... think / hard about how I came here and not / to some other, more beautiful, famous / place." Yet in your travels you chose to devote such time not to France or Italy or Greece, but famous-adjacent Slovakia (the North Vancouver of Europe?). What do you think it is that compels you, despite competing urges, to these edges instead of the centres? Do you have a similar instinct in your poetry, in what you write about or how you write it?

DZ: I was raised on a farm in Manitoba, far from any centre and yet central to everything I was for years and which in some ways is still active in me. Slovakia initially attracted me because of the friends I made who were from there. No one in Bratislava is very far from the countryside. It's the central European capital most likely to be overlooked. I find a molecular comfort in places less touted, where I might rediscover a bit of that person I once was in the way he looks at what hasn't suffered too much from touristic photo-erosion.  Perhaps the real connection is between Manitoba and Slovakia, and perhaps it is possible that similarities between backgrounds drew me unconsciously to Miro. Certainly I enjoy the rural world there and feel resonances of farm life not far from the city. I laughed and enjoyed the time we were stuck driving on a country road behind a load of manure that after the first few minutes caused us to roll up our car windows that until then had been offering pure summer air on the road to Orava.

RT: Images of falling or flying off precipices recur in both of your new books. In a poem in watching for life, you write "I'm learning to die by seeking always to live," and that duality seems ever-present in both books: the fall and the flight. Could you talk a little about the role death (and its accompaniments fear, clarity, etc.) played in writing these books? Was its influence the same in each?

DZ: Perhaps because I was born in November I was aware early on of the dying of light. Perhaps because I was raised on a farm with the natural birth and death of animals, I grew wary of living as if death didn't exist. And that flying, that jumping off precipices in the poems, creates what surely everyone feels: something of that pull, that attraction to lift off from our heavy-footed pedestrian selves and to fly, even if only for a few minutes, the waiting death be damned. Like other writers I believe we are given only a few themes that we must work through over and over again, and awareness of death in life is one of them for me. That theme in watching for life is, I think, more sharply expressed than in the trick of staying and leaving because in the former book I was more isolated during its writing. Of course one doesn't want to be morbid because such a state would annul the joy of living, of which there is plenty: think of the friendships I have experienced, the new places I've seen, the pleasure I've relished in travel, the love received and given. But there is always death to return to, like a comfortable bed at the end of the day's journey. One might as well grow accustomed to what's waiting, and what better way to do that than to turn one's thoughts in that direction now and then as one often does before sleep.

RT: Your first book came out in 1973, making 2023 your fiftieth year publishing poetry books. Despite all those years, it feels like you're speeding up your rate of production—three poetry books in the past five years! To what do you attribute this acceleration? 

DZ: When something huge is bearing down on you, your instinct is to step out of the way. When that option isn't available, then you speed up and hope to avoid a little longer that cataclysmic meeting. Perhaps that explains my acceleration. That and the fact that I am retired from outside work and hence I'm able to devote my time to the great loves of my life: reading and writing. I don't have a television, I rarely watch movies, and so I find myself in the enviable state of being free to read and write. I think I have at least one more book in me, perhaps two, and I am sifting through my previous publications as well in attempting to compile a Selected. This I am doing with the help again of friends who have alerted me to look again at poems from the past that I might very well have dismissed or overlooked, my eye somehow always needing to be elsewhere. 

RT: A Selected—I can’t wait to read it! Have you sensed, in your sifting, that what you want from a poem, or a book of poems, has changed? 

DZ: At the moment my poems are getting shorter, as if a new kind of lyricism has emerged as part of my late style. But of course one little shift and everything changes…


David Zieroth’s The Fly in Autumn (Harbour, 2009) won the Governor General’s Literary Award and was nominated for the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize and the Acorn-Plantos Award for People’s Poetry in 2010. Zieroth also won The Dorothy Livesay Poetry Award for How I Joined Humanity at Last (Harbour, 1998). He watches urban life from his third-floor balcony in North Vancouver, BC, where he runs The Alfred Gustav Press and produces handmade poetry chapbooks twice per year.


Close to the Barbed Wire: An Interview with Tāriq Malik

The following interview is part five 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).


The City Lights of Sialkot

When it is dark enough
our whole family climbs to the rooftop
to witness the unaccustomed glow
                creeping across the southern hemisphere
marking the miracle of electricity
                inching towards our home
                                to forever blot out our familiar
                                                and created stars

Abaji waves at it
                and says one word
he holds my hand tight
                                soon soon

That is the moment
ammiji knows that her other child
                will be a girl
and that she will name her

Somewhere in the distance
a steam locomotive sounds its whistle
                the wave travelling ten miles
                over unharvested fields
before striking our home

Reprinted with permission from 
(Caitlin Press, 2022)



Rob Taylor: Poems in Exit Wounds document your eviction from your house in Kuwait during the first Gulf War, and all you had to leave behind as you fled as a refugee (family videos, precious mementos, and, I assume, many a book). Could you talk a little about that experience? 

Tāriq Malik: When I look back at the plight of South Asian immigrants who were, and still are, working in the Middle East, all I can recall is the bruised and precariat state we were all in and the daily professional and social humiliations that we endured. We were living in an apartheid state that categorizes its citizens according to their bloodlines and clan history (e.g., the existence of the Bedouins, who were the original inhabitants of the region, is only partially acknowledged). And, as non-Kuwaitis, as South Asians, we were at the penultimate bottom of the list. That final spot was occupied by people who had no country to return to and still do not, namely the Palestinians.

For us, the war further disrupted our already precarious lives, so we had to abandon all we had so diligently accumulated during our years in Kuwait. It also abruptly made all of us refugees. 
As non-Kuwaitis, we were not permitted to own property, and our residences were always rented properties. Hence, I write in my poem “The Home Invaded”:

Though lived in for two decades 
my rented Kuwaiti home I never dreamt you 
even when locked out and distant to me 
only desiccated houseplants beckoned 

RT: Christopher Levenson, who wrote the introduction to Exit Wounds, positions your books as a rarity: a Canadian poetry collection by a male South Asian poet (and, even rarer, one which focuses on South Asian history and literature). Was this something you were conscious of when writing the poems in Exit Wounds?

TM: My conscious struggle as a writer has always been for an original voice that would illuminate a lived experience in a personal and relatable manner. From my close readings of paleo-anthropologist Loren Eiseley's work, I have learned that to communicate a compelling experience or a resonant historical event, you must first relate it to your own lived history and experience; subsequently, I am always searching for that social or historical simulacrum that runs parallel to my life and which I can harness for my expression. 

At later stages of the manuscript I even abandoned punctuation and grammar, a technique that I find fellow poet Tolu Oloruntoba has mastered by exhorting writers to “risk clarity.”

I characterized this process in a poem that tentatively begins:  “all writers are flat-earthers in racing to the end of the line, and then reluctant to leap off the page, turn back to the safety of the next line—until they encounter the bottom of the page—and here they must take a leap of faith that a fresh page will allow them a landing...’
I write about borders, alienation, and expulsion, and all these states are realized as the domain of barbed wires and no-man lands where, as in my poem “Raising Nineveh,”

The wells are poisoned
The fields salted

You cannot stay here

You are not the first
to pass this way

Nor the last

RT: 2022 marked the 75th anniversary of the Indian Partition, and your book, in many ways, exists as a response to that event and its ramifications. How do you think the effects of the partition changed the course of your life? What do you think you'd be writing about if it hadn't happened, if you were writing at all?

TM: Growing up in a border town, the impact of the British Partition of India in 1947 was impossible to ignore. The spillover from that brutality was all around us, in the traumas of our neighbors, in the defaced buildings of our neighborhoods, including our own street where I stumbled on a painted over pre-Partition mural. This early exposure to the brutalities of recent times past, and then the personal trauma of leaving Kotli for an English boarding school, were the best education I could have had. So, even if the Partition hadn't happened, I would still be engaged with similar landscapes of human experience and historical trauma.

RT: Yes, I’d love to talk about that mural. In your poem "1954," a boy repeatedly throwing a ball against a wall reveals a pre-partition mural of Krishna that had been whitewashed over. When he tells adults about it, he is rebuked and the mural is quickly covered over. In writing frankly about difficult events—the partition, the Komagata Maru incident, 9/11, Indigenous residential schools, the killing of Robert Dziekański, etc.—do you sometimes feel like that boy, your words pushed aside and covered over? Or have people been more respectful and open in response to your poems?

TM: I am glad my work is finding a home with its intended listeners and readers. And their emotional response and intellectual engagement show that I have conveyed something ineffable and essential with which they could identify. One of my roles as a writer/artist/curator is publicizing social and historical injustices. Fortunately, having lived so close to the barbed wire of police states for so long, I can continue to openly bring forth these topics in compelling ways.

RT: The second section of poems in Exit Wounds, entitled "The Lives of the Poets," includes tributes to many historical South Asian poets, including Rabindranath Tagore, Waris Shah, Mirza Ghalib and Faiz Ahmad Faiz. These poems are also larger celebrations of poetry, and especially the role poetry can play in South Asian communities. How would you describe the role of poetry in South Asia? How does it differ from its role here in Canada?

TM: When I speak of these South Asian poets, I refer to them as emotional touchstones that continue to inspire me. The emotional resonance of their work draws you in and leads you to engage with their work more intellectually. Faiz's creative expression continues to astound when he begins with lyrical romanticism, and then the closer you read his work, the more you realize the subliminal intellectual level layered beneath it. I am increasingly frustrated by how few western readers are aware of the caliber of his oeuvre. However, his energized and devastating use of the words azadi (freedom) and bol (speak) are now gathering resonance and traction internationally.

My choice of these poets was also based on the tangential relevance of their work to the struggle for independence from colonization in general and to the Partition in particular.

RT: In addition to considering historical South Asian poets, in your acknowledgements you also recognize modern Canadian poets of South Asian origin, including Kuldip Gill, Sadhu Binning and Ajmer Rodhe. Could you talk a little about all of these influences - historical and modern - and how they've worked together to shape your writing?

TM: The influence of Sadhu Binning and Ajmer Rodhe has been critical to my creative output. Through reading their work, and my subsequent discussions with them, I re-imagined the local historical events of 1908-1914, especially the circumstances surrounding the Komagata Maru and its impact on the South Asian community in Canada. I have credited them both as my teachers in my last two books. And Kuldip Gill's poetry is an endless wellspring of inspiration for me.

RT: In Levenson's introduction, he writes that "one senses a strong oral tradition" in your poems. You close your own forward to the book with an encouragement for the reader to "stand up and speak these words aloud—poetry must not be read in the dark or silently." Do you write your poems for public performance, and as such do you think of them as performance poems or "page" poems? Or is that distinction even relevant to you? Was it a struggle pinning your poems down to the page?

TM: I create work that is meant to be performed and not merely read. For instance, when I wrote the very brief poem "EntryExit Wounds," I imagined the reader standing before an audience and hurling each insult (eight pejoratives for "immigrant," taken from eight different cultures) as stones. In fact, when I read it aloud, I hurl each term at the audience physically like a stone. Once in a while, someone in the audience will flinch reflexively. At the conclusion, I flip the common insult "go home" and toss it back at the attackers. 

EntryExit Wounds
(In memoriam – Chin Banerjee 1940-2020)
¬Jis tara bund darvazoN pe gir-e bearish-e-sung¬—Faiz


It is midnight already
tell those
who hurl stones at my windowpanes
heed your words

Go home

RT: The poems in Exit Wounds flow very naturally despite a lack of punctuation (so naturally that I didn't notice this fact until near the end of my first reading). Could you talk about your approach to line breaks and spacing, and how they recreate the pauses in natural speech?

TM: It was a struggle pinning the words to the pages. Often, all I wanted to do was violently break open the language to express my own rage. Hence, each poem follows a different flight to its volta. Imagine a work that has no capitalized letters. Then you encounter the tyranny of a capital "I." Besides, the small "i" conveys volumes. This technique is further illustrated in my poem "Midnight on Turtle Island," where beyond the issues of capitalized words, the narrative that takes place during the night is set in a black background, and with the end of the "Century of the Night" reverts back to black text on white. Incidentally, here all pronouns are now capitalized. "Midnight on Turtle Island" also raises several challenges for the physical reading of the poem as it presents three different narratives in three distinct voices without any assignment of speakers.

RT: We first met at an event hosted by the New Westminster (now Vancouver) reading series, Poet's Corner. That series means enough to you that you mention it in your author bio. Could you talk about the importance of Poet's Corner in your development as a poet, and your sense of belonging within a poetry community?

TM: Poet's Corner performs a vital role in the development of poetry locally by offering up fresh voices monthly and allowing developing poets valuable exposure and a receptive audience. 

I would like to offer parts of this poem in concluding my take on the role of the Poet's Corner:

This is what I know of safe haven
this is what I believe
this is how I celebrate
here and now
Hammering out stars 
into the smithies of the night
Each oscillating shining orb
held up before your eyes
tilted just so 
Where confident as dancers leaning into curves
we skate unabashedly into our swagger 
so close to the edge
immaculate in our poise


Tāriq Malik works across poetry, fiction, and art to distill immersive, compelling, and original narratives. His working English is a borrowed tongue inflected with his inherited Punjabi, Urdu, and Hindi languages. He writes intensely in response to the world in flux around him and from his place in its shadows. He came reluctantly late to these shores, having had to first survive three wars, two migrations, and two decades of slaving in the Kuwaiti desert. Tāriq Malik is the author of a short story collection, Rainsongs of Kotli, and a novel, Chanting Denied Shores. His debut poetry collection, Exit Wounds, was published by Caitlin Press in 2022.


Choosing Not To Cry: An Interview with Jane Munro

The following interview is part four 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).


MacKay Creek

I cleared a shelf close to its flow
left hemlock cones, smoothed stones

heard the water’s poem
without knowing
as water knows

swayed on vine maple trunks 
arched over pools and rapids

felt safe in a place where I had nothing 
to achieve, no one to please
the creek withheld nothing from me

Reprinted with permission from 
(Harbour Publishing, 2022)



Rob Taylor: I wanted to open this interview with your poem "MacKay Creek” because to me it stands in stark contrast with the titular creek in your new poetry collection, False Creek. Unlike North Vancouver’s MacKay Creek, downtown Vancouver’s False Creek doesn't flow like a creek at all, and its history—especially its pre-colonial history—was withheld from you. Could you talk a little about False Creek? How did you come to see it as a focal point for the various concerns you explore in the book?

Jane Munro: False Creek came first. I walked around this strange but fascinating element of the city I’d come back to, my home city. Like so much in my relationship with this place, False Creek epitomized contradictions. 

As a child I’d followed MacKay Creek as far up and down its flow as I could go. That creek was a real creek—one with fresh water (though maybe not potable) and traversed by bears. I played there, felt safe there, prayed there: left gifts, arranged offerings. I didn’t have the same reverence for False Creek. I studied what I could learn about its life and history trying to understand what had happened to this inlet to the heart and values of Vancouver. The city exploits land and water ways, corrupts, and reduces the natural environment.
For me, False Creek was a naked image, something odd and plain—a kind of haiku of Vancouver. My home.

In your 2021 memoir Open Every Window, which describes your struggle with your husband's Alzheimer's, you write "We live in a time of dementia: its tsunami hitting persons we know, society's forgetfulness, even the earth losing mind with the extinction of species." In many ways, False Creek feels like an attempt to directly address "society's forgetfulness"—a repudiation of dementia and unlearning in all their forms. Would you say that's true? 

JM: I am part of society; I am forgetful and ignorant. Going through Bob’s battle with dementia was anguishing. I project my “keel of grief” onto Vancouver by saying False Creek is Vancouver’s keel of grief. But a keel keeps a vessel upright. A keel allows one to steer – stay on course. 

RT: Did experiencing Bob’s Alzheimer's make you hungry for new learning?

JM: I’ve always been curious about life, our co-species, our relationships—the vastness of everything I do not know. So, yes, new learning feels urgently necessary as we face the increasingly cataclysmic impacts of our ignorance and forgetfulness. My years face-to-face with Alzheimer’s sharpened my craving, but it wasn’t a new hunger.

RT: You take on those cataclysmic impacts directly in False Creek, which feels like your most bluntly political book to date. It's notable, then, that it comes on the heels of a book called Open Every Window, which itself felt like a straight-forward response to your more delicate approach to Bob's Alzheimers in Blue Sonoma (described on the back of that book as "render[ing] difficult conditions with the lightest of touches"). Do you feel that "opening every window" in your memoir opened you up to new ways of writing the poems in False Creek?

JM: That’s an astute question. Yes, it probably did. I’ve always felt compelled to be as honest and accurate as possible in my writing. The tricky part is not knowing how someone else will take what I say. It took time to work through my delicacy about things I say in Open Every Window. I wanted to make the best art I could make. I wanted to write a book only I could write. I wanted to give others a clear sense of my experiences as a particular person living in a particular place and time.

For at least the past fifty years I’ve felt we, as adults, need to change—we are in crisis. It’s too late to educate children and trust that coming generations will remedy the past. That need was my motivation for doing a doctorate in Adult Education. I wanted to learn how to facilitate transformative learning—in myself, for starters. Art was crucial—a gateway to heart and imagination—essential for transformative learning. So was story. How to change the story in our minds, in our hearts. How to open us to new ways of thinking /feeling/relating/acting. So, yes, Open Every Window laid the groundwork for False Creek though I hadn’t thought of it in those terms before. I had changed. My story had changed. The times had changed. Our crises are extreme. What I had to write had changed. 

RT: What you had to write didn’t just change, it seems to me it expanded. For a book titled after a single location, False Creek ranges widely. This is attested to in the "Notes" section of the book, where facts on black holes press up against information about Aboriginal art, the Great Pyramid of Giza, the Squamish and Hebrew languages, and more. The book's opening poem, similarly, begins in Pompeii and Herculaneum before ending in Vancouver. To what extent was this wide lens a choice you made, as opposed to simply what happens when you sit down to write, the whole world rushing in behind the single image?

JM: It’s hard to imagine any one location without including its relationships with other places and times. False Creek (as we name it now) calls up a range of other places and times—geologically and historically. The poems in the book range widely but when I was writing these poems, I did too. As the embedded point of view, I felt it only fair to sketch my own changes of location—where I go to, come from, bring to mind—in relationship with False Creek today. 

The title, False Creek, appeals to me for its irony and contradictions. “False” is a loaded word these days. We have “false news,” the politics of what is “true” to one person may not be “true” to another. I feel irony and contradiction are part of the book even when the content is not focused tightly on the inlet in the heart of Vancouver. 

RT: False Creek is full of information about Vancouver and its history, both the kind of knowledge we learn from books and the kind we gather through experience (in your case, often from walking through the city). Could you talk a little about how those two types of learning informed or fueled one another? Does one usually come first (a fact altering how you navigate the world; a lived experience motivating research)?

JM: An interesting question. Walking around what we now call False Creek led to studying old maps, reading books and online articles, going to the Beattie Biodiversity Museum, other museums, libraries, galleries. I awakened, through these experiences, to the fact that I’d grown up here not knowing, grasping, or taking to heart the ongoing violence of colonial abuse. This led me to the Decolonial Aesthetics course at ECUA+D. It was mind-opening. Reading and listening and thinking about all this happened as slowly and incrementally as walking around False Creek and composing the poems. Book learning and walking the seawall and the poems inhabited me and informed one another.
This kind of information has helped to ground me, to stand me on something closer to a more accurate understanding of what I’m doing, where I am, what I’m part of, and how I might improve the situation. Learning what I can with the resources I can access and am capable of using—curiosity and my love of learning—continue to activate me.

I learned on my last trip to India that this is a privilege. Even in my financially difficult years, I was the lucky woman: happy and safe enough to be curious about things not related to securing my basic needs. Highly intelligent people who lack food, water, shelter, or safety, focus their attention on survival. My curiosity is a luxury. 

RT: That’s an important point—how fortunate we are when we have the time and ability to indulge our curiosity. In Open Every Window, you write about an earthquake in 1946, when you were three-and-a-half, which spurred your interest in the earth and stars: "My father moved an orange around a grapefruit on the table to explain how the earth circled the sun. My mother got a book from the library with pictures of volcanoes." Bless your parents! In some ways it feels like they planted the seeds of this new book that day in 1946. Do you see a straight, or crooked, path between that event and this book? 

JM: It’s a continuous path, but wending. A climb. Switchbacks. Tricky rock ledges. Long days wandering in forests, trudging beaches.

RT: When did poetry become a part of that wending?

JM: It’s hard to say. I loved and memorized nursery rhymes. My mother read my brother and me poems from an anthology called Silver Pennies. I remember her reading one of my favourite poems from it (“The Moon’s the North Wind’s Cookie”) at lunch while we were sucking up canned spaghetti, both of us taking turns choosing poems to hear and urging her to read more. By the time I was six, the children’s librarian told my mother I’d checked out (and read) more books than any other child user of the Vancouver Public Library. That was the old Carnegie library downtown at Main and Hastings.
My first memory: waking up from a nap in my cot with sun baking my belly and hearing my mother talking with a friend around the corner in the living room. I realized that I was awake and my mother did not know. I understood then that we were not the same person, and that I had to cry if I wanted her to know I was awake. I remember choosing to not cry. Lying there, magnificently bathed in warm late afternoon sunlight coming in through the kitchen windows. It had to be winter in my first year of life because we moved out of that house before I turned one. I think it was before I could sit up or roll over because I wasn’t thinking about moving myself.
Talking, and then writing, were ways I could attempt to give my experiences to someone else. Words were more effective than crying, and they interested me. Plus, poems were words that could dance. I liked to dance. My mother saved a poem I composed and printed out in a little notebook when I was five. She carried it around in her purse. I think of it as my first poem.

RT: In your memoir you describe how in your childhood you were allowed to "disappear" for the day to "explore the North Shore from ski cabins to the ocean." In some ways, False Creek's poems drawn from your walks around the city feel like a return to your roots. Though there are of course major differences between 1950s North Shore and 2020s downtown, do you see parallels between these two places? Between the two people who explored them?

JM: I still love to “disappear” and “explore” the world around me, off on my own without an agenda, free to attend to whatever interests me for as long or as short a time as feels right to me for that exploration. My parents assumed – early on – that I could look after myself wherever I might be. My father gave me instructions in bushcraft: choose your way down when you’re going up; if you’re lost, follow water. My mother made sure I knew which buses to take and where they stopped. 

My wandering and exploring as a child in North Vancouver was in places where I would rarely meet other people. Walking in the city, I’m almost always around people, watching and listening to them, learning in that way more about where I live and with whom I share life. That child had an innate sense of being able to cope—of trusting herself wherever she was. I think I still do trust that I can cope.

RT: In False Creek you write of breaking your foot and despite this still walking around False Creek in a walking boot (through Leg-in-Boot Square, no less!). Did that shift in your walking rhythm affect the nature or volume of your writing?

JM: My writing mind dwells in my body and arises as surprises from an unconscious—often actually dreaming—mind. The words come through me. The gestation period of revising and finishing writing is held in me but it starts as a mysterious gift.

Walking daily refreshes my mind, stocks my body with details and experiences, feeds my creativity. I give myself over to whatever is there. I’m curious, relaxed, active, trusting. Walking in a boot was sometimes clumsier than walking without a boot, but I adapted. It gave different imagery, new happenstance, more learning. How slowly, incrementally, bone heals and we repair our bodies. So, you can’t rush it. You can’t rush reconciliation. Step by step, day by day, a little by a little, we can heal. That’s what bodies can do. 

RT: Vancouver's neighbourhoods have been the subject of a surprising number of poetry books: George Bowering's Kerrisdale Elegies, Daphne Marlatt's Steveston, Michael Turner's Kingsway, and Bren Simmers' Hastings-Sunrise all spring to mind (and those are just books which, like yours, have neighbourhoods in their titles!). Did particular books on the city inspire or inform you in writing your own?

JM: I’ve loved Daphne Marlatt’s Steveston ever since she wrote it and, yes, it no doubt influenced False Creek, at least obliquely. Her poems flow across the page, influenced more than mine by the poetics of field composition articulated and practiced by Black Mountain poets such as Charles Olson and Robert Duncan. The deep, wide flow of her poems embodies the Fraser River at its mouth, meeting ocean and its tides—a confluence shaping Steveston. False Creek is not a river – not even a creek – it’s an inlet of ocean in the heart of Vancouver. It’s tidal. My poems, like Daphne’s, are shaped by breath, but my lines are shorter. The music is different. 

In Open Every Window, and also in your 2020 collection Glass Float, you write extensively about the vital role yoga has played in your life, providing a place of centering, rest and rejuvenation. By comparison, the importance of writing and reading in your life is less emphasised. Did you make a conscious choice to downplay the role of writing in the memoir? 

JM: It felt self-conscious to address, when writing, how central writing is to me, and how my practice as a writer has evolved. Perhaps I have a similar reticence about yoga; I’ve never wanted to become a yoga teacher. But I have written about yoga.

RT: Do the two practices—yoga and writing—affect your life in similar ways, or do you find they work quite differently?

JM: BKS Iyengar said he wanted to bring intelligence to every cell of his body in his yoga practice. This parallels my writing practice where I want to bring intelligence to each element of my writing: each word, phrase, punctuation, space, each image, each thought. I want to unite them (another yoga principle) and make them intelligible. I think of Patanjali’s yoga sutra 2:46 sthira sukham asanam (“Asana is perfect firmness of body, steadiness of intelligence and benevolence of spirit”) and want my writing to be like that: the flow of it as keenly surprising and engaging as the flow of a good yoga practice. 

I might not do a daily yoga practice if I didn’t need it to keep me pain-free and calm enough to do the writing. Writing takes me a long time so I need stamina and patience. Both writing and yoga build on layers of insights and clarities from the unconscious as well as the conscious mind. They both engage my whole body—my full self. 

RT: You've been a member of the writing collective Yoko's Dogs for many years, writing the Japanese collaborative poetic form renga with poets Jan Conn, Mary di Michele and Susan Gillis. Often enough in reading False Creek, poems opened in a way that felt similar to the hokku opening of a renga (the "hokku," separated from its longer poem, being what we now call a haiku). One such example, the poem "Moving Water Does Not Hold," opens "the leaf it carries / moon / now gibbous." How has your work with Yoko's Dogs and renga shaped how you think about a poem, both its nature and the nature of its composition?

JM: One of the first and fiercest things working with Yoko’s Dogs taught me is that just because something seems clear to me does not mean it’s clear to another reader. Our collaborative practice has motivated me to strive for clarity. Yoko’s Dogs has led me to appreciate what I think of as “the naked image.” Renga and haiku do not employ metaphor or narrative and use few modifiers. Matsuo Bashō said the bones of haiku are plainness and oddness. At least, that’s the usual translation of what he said. I’ve learned how incredibly challenging it is to create poems that are plain (clear to the reader) and odd (memorable, resonant, fresh).

I’ve come to see poetry as architecture for the imagination. My job as poet is to create space for the reader’s imagination—a habitable apartment they can furnish with memories, thoughts, and feelings. Ideally, my poem will invite them to refresh their habitual relationships to stuff they carry around. And hopefully it will stay standing long enough to serve other readers as well.

RT: Speaking of Bashō, in the very moving closing poem of Blue Sonoma you draw a comparison between your parting from your husband Bob and Bashō's parting from his traveling companion, Sora, on his famous journey in Narrow Road to the Interior. Sora was forced to abandon the trip due to illness. Of their parting, Bashō wrote, "He carries his pain as he goes, leaving me empty. Like paired geese parting in the clouds." 

Bob wasn't only your life partner, but also your writing companion (you thank his "fine editorial eye and faith in my writing" in the acknowledgments of Point No Point). The effect of losing Bob from your life is well documented in Open Every Window, but how did losing that editorial eye, and that faith, affect your writing? 

JM: Thank you for that quote from Bashō. I’m missing Bob’s editorial eye now since I am wrestling with a novel. He edited and published many novels. He read. And read. With intelligence, passion, compassion. I might ask him for feedback on something I was struggling with or discuss what I was dithering over, but mostly he read what got published. I rarely shared drafts with him, at least not until I was ready to send it out.

As Alzheimer’s destroyed Bob’s capacities, more and more of the tasks of domestic life fell to me as well as earning income, commuting, and caregiving for him as his health declined. He wanted me to be around more, had difficulty understanding, and hated being dependent. 

There is a draining of the body when a lover goes and will not be replaced. I am hugely grateful for the fullness of life I have been given. But now solitude is to my soul what food is to my body. I feel a profound need, and gratitude, for the solitude that has come lately into my life, giving me time and space to write. 

RT: Two writers who played prominent roles in helping you develop this book—one as an early reader, the other as your editor—are Roo Borson and Jan Zwicky. If only every poet could be so lucky! Could you talk a little about how each of these poets has influenced your writing life over the years? 

JM: Impossible to count the ways! I feel extremely lucky. 

Roo and I met in George McWhirter’s graduate student poetry workshop at UBC fifty years ago. That’s where Roo and Kim Maltman met, too. I had three small children, mothering full-tilt—faculty wife with a home in West Van. I wanted to write and was juggling it all. I liked Roo immediately, but I wasn’t sure how she felt about older-and-more-tied-down me. One afternoon, I summoned my courage and asked her formally if she would be my friend. Annie, my then two-year old youngest child was with us. To my delight, Roo said yes and we’ve been close ever since. 

Jan arrived in my life as the editor, at Brick Books, for Grief Notes & Animal Dreams. Doing that editing involved considerable back and forth, mostly by email. Then Jan and Don McKay moved to Victoria and they both became my close friends. I wanted Jan to edit False Creek when Harbour accepted it because I knew she would rigorously challenge my thinking and be acutely sensitive to the political aspects of those poems. 

I trust both Roo and Jan to be honest and straight-forward with me. They take my concerns seriously, respect my feelings, and trust me to do the same for them. They’re both highly intelligent, wonderful poets, and long-time close friends. We’ve seen one another through thick and thin over many years. I am enormously grateful for the gift of these friendships.

RT: People might wonder how you wrote so much during the difficult years of your husband's Alzheimer’s. My sense is part of the answer might lie in the consistency of some elements of your writing practice: your regular return to a writing retreat at St. Peter's Abbey, your long-term writing and editorial relationships with Yoko's Dogs, Borson, Zwicky, etc. All these things feel like steadying forces in a turbulent time in your life. Do you see them as such? What has that consistency allowed you to do that might not have otherwise been possible?

JM: You are right. There has been consistency: Yoko’s Dogs, close friendships with other writers, twenty-five years of writing retreats at St. Peter’s Abbey, other writing or yoga retreats, supportive friends and family, a daily yoga practice. But I think the unspoken and essential thing is that I feel most fully myself when writing. I desperately needed to write in those difficult years. 

I went out of my way to look after myself. I can’t sing worth beans, but I took singing lessons and maintained a daily singing practice through some of the hardest years. It opened my chest, freed my voice, lifted my spirits. Served as a kind of meditation. I found an Alexander Technique practitioner and went to her for weekly massage treatments. I needed hands-on touch for stress relief. My “old ladies” group met once a month in one another’s homes to discuss a chosen topic. We spoke freely about things not talked about in most polite conversations. I was a subject in a study of Alzheimer’s spousal caregivers done by a psychologist at UVic. She was very worried about my level of acute grief but said I could give classes on how to look after yourself when caregiving. 

My hard-won, hard-built, yoga practice taught me to value and work with a practice. That has allowed me to make routine my crutch. I keep daily to-do lists, record how I spend my time, am obsessive about getting steps, tracking dreams, drafting proto-poems, working on whatever writing projects I have going, keeping up with yoga, correspondence, deskwork, chores, and whatever else needs doing. 

RT: In False Creek you avoid using both punctuation and capitalization, which well-compliments the poems' unvarnished nature. Your previous books have also channeled particular forms, such as Glass Float's prose poems or Active Pass’ sonnets—forms you've rarely used outside those books. At what point in the creative process do you consider the form of your poems in a given book? Is the form part of the initial creative impulse, or do you find your way to it later, when you have a better sense of the nature of the content?

JM: I listen. As the words come, their music is shapely. Olson’s dictum, Form = Content, makes total sense to me. The sonnets in Active Pass respond to Mary Pratt’s formal paintings. And to the inner arguments of their content. The presence of conflict in its apparent absence. There’s a contradiction in a sonnet—it shows you its other side. The prose poems in Glass Float are little poetic narratives. And False Creek’s tidal music ebbs and flows. It’s changing. I listen to each poem and it tells me how to punctuate and shape it: where the breaks come, what its pattern is.  This does evolve. As the poem comes clear, I’ll get a stronger feel for what it’s saying, what it is—its form and its content. 

That said, sometimes I’ve gotten interested in a form for how it shapes content. Renga do that. So do ghazals and sonnets. Working within limits hones imagination. A fabric artist I knew who made monumental sculptures told me he had a rule that he could never sew anything together. All his work, which had intersecting panels angled out, had to be something he could weave on a loom. He said, he needed that limitation to spur his imagination.

RT: As mentioned, Glass Float is composed almost entirely of prose poems, but the final ten poems are written in the style you employ in False Creek: short-lined, multi-stanza poems without capitalization or punctuation. I find there's often a poem or two in one book of mine, written near the end of its composition, which hint at what's to come: a testing out of a form before I fully dive in. Is that the case here? In that sense, do you think of your books as discrete entities, or as a long overlapping sequence?

JM: Both. I deliberately shape a book, not only for links in content and between adjacent poems, but also for the overall shape and dramatic arc of the book. I think of the book as a poem. But I’m also thinking about the sequence. 

Grief Notes and Animal Dreams has a lot of poems about my mother whose death in a house fire was central to that book. Point No Point focuses on my father, who, as it happened, died seven years to the day and hour after the house fire. Active Pass is more about my life, work, commuting, menopause, meditation—a lot of stuff but not specifically about my parents. Then Blue Sonoma returns to the theme of grief—in this case, caregiving for Bob as his Alzheimer’s Disease and other health problems relentlessly erased his well-being and memory. After his death and the Griffin Prize win for Blue Sonoma, I found it difficult to write poetry and turned to prose. 

Open Every Window took many years to complete, but it was in that period after I’d left Point No Point and moved back to Vancouver that it became my top writing priority. Glass Float’s prose poems, which I was also working on in those years, may be partly reflective of my immersion in the rhythms of prose. But Glass Float’s focus on yoga, retreats in India and in other parts of the world—which had been consistent parts of my life and of significance to my writing—makes it another discrete work that is part of the continuum. 

RT: Is there a hint, then, hidden away in the poems in False Creek, of what might come next? 

JM: Yes, funny you should ask. The poem “The Tongue, the Penis, the Brain” in False Creek is an unintentional direct hint at the novel I’m working on. Whether or not it comes next is an open question. I must finish it for starters, and then it has to find a publisher, and become a book. The whole poem could be seen as a hint but the ending is most directly: 

in your hands, the weight of bone

what is left of a father
when you wash his armature 

where to inter love


Jane Munro is a Canadian poet, writer and educator. Blue Sonoma (Brick Books, 2014) won the 2015 Griffin Poetry Prize. Munro’s recent books include Open Every Window: A Memoir (Douglas & McIntyre, 2021) and the poetry collection Glass Float (Brick Books, 2020). She has taught creative writing at universities across BC, led writing workshops, and has given readings around the world. She lives in Vancouver, BC.