How did you begin writing, and what keeps you going?
I started writing as a kid, long, rambling fantasy stories somewhere around grade five. Fantasy was my first great love as a reader. My elementary school library had the Shannara and Earthsea books, along with authors like Robert Asprin, Mercedes Lackey, Anne McCaffrey, and others. I remember typing up stories in WordPerfect and saving them on 5.25” floppies. My mother would print these out at her office, bring them home, and I’d read them and edit them on paper. Writing was always around my house, growing up. My mother is a poet, and I remember stumbling upon and reading some of her earliest poems on the old family computer when we lived in Vancouver, when I was maybe seven or eight. I remember thinking they couldn’t be poems – they didn’t rhyme! And we always had stacks of lit mags kicking around. I can remember NeWest Review, CV2, Dandelion, Descant, Rattle. Naturally, I didn’t read any of these because I was too busy playing video games.
Somewhere around grade nine, I started writing poetry, though I can’t remember what actually kickstarted that. But I remember submitting a terrible poem to my high school lit mag, having it rejected, and being crushed. Good practice for the rest of my writing life, I guess. I was lucky to go to a high school that had a great creative writing program. I took both the offered courses, and my writing improved tremendously. It was still pretty bad, and I still didn’t read nearly as much as I needed to, but that would come later. Some people find their voice right away; others, like me, are plodders, and need lots of time and space to figure things out.
I’ve stopped and started with my writing many times in the last twenty-five years, and I’m hopeful that’s behind me now. My longest stretch of non-writing was a span of about seven years after university. But in January of 2015 I knew I needed to start writing again and decided to start the new year by writing a poem a day through January. And I did. Most of these were nothing-poems meant to get me to the required one-a-day, but one of them made it into my chapbook, which I’m very proud of. Since then, I’ve tried to make the writing happen by writing. Waiting for that out-of-nowhere inspiration, or setting aside a few dedicated weeks once a year, seems far too dangerous. Too easy to get caught and have nothing to show. It works for some people, but not for me. For me, the biggest thing that keeps me writing is to keep writing.
What poets have influenced the ways in which you write?
I’ll take this question in a couple of different ways. The poet who’s had the most influence on how I write, by way of emails, of books for my birthday and Christmas, and generally gently guiding my tastes, is my mother. Around the end of high school, she gave me a copy of Seamus Heaney’s Electric Light, which I read over and over and over. When I studied computer science, she had an open offer that whenever I took an English class for an elective, she’d buy my books (after my intro course, I ended up taking creative writing, Norse sagas, and a year of Old English). And when I lived in Ottawa and brought very little with me from Saskatoon, I had a handful of the books she gave me: Heaney, of course, but also Anne Szumigalski, Tim Lilburn, Don McKay, Carmine Starnino’s The New Canon, as well as a couple of others.
One of the first poets I read a lot was Shelley Leedahl, because my high school writing teacher liked her work, and so did I; Lorna Crozier was another of these poets. I learned a lot about the structure of a tight poem by reading them. Then in university, my infrequent reading time tended towards Sue Wheeler, who I’d gone to see with my undergraduate creative writing class at Amigo’s (of all places!) in Saskatoon. Her second collection, Slow Moving Target, was one of those books I read over and over when I’d packed up my life and moved to Ottawa. I’ve always loved her work, her ability to tell a complete story in the space of a short poem.
Since then: John Burnside, Sue Sinclair, Robin Robertson, Kiki Petrosino, Mathew Henderson, and others.
Have you noticed a difference in the ways in which you approach the individual poem, now that you’ve a chapbook forthcoming?
Not yet. Some poets are more naturally inclined to keep in mind the book or the project, but I still work mostly in the individual, potentially disconnected poem. This has some natural disadvantages, in that I’m not constantly working along a particular trajectory, but it does allow me to wander around a lot. I end up with lots of poems that feel complete, but don’t seem to fit well with the others.
You’ve published poetry as well as poetry reviews. What is the difference between working on poems to critical prose? Do the two sides of your writing interact at all?
When I’m writing poetry, the purpose varies – sometimes I’m actively trying to write about something, and sometimes it’s more about writing through something and seeing where the process leads me. Poetry has a strangeness that constantly manages to surprise me. At some base level there’s a compulsion, and after that, there’s the layers of intentionality and craft that I’m constantly working to improve. Often, the final poem ends up wildly different from what I’d set out to write at the start, and I love that.
When I’m working on reviews, it’s partly to highlight work I think is excellent – because there is so much good work out there and not enough reviewers, I feel reviewing is important work. I don’t think I have it in me to do a particularly negative review or a takedown. Some reviewers do, but there is so much good work that’s under- or just non-reviewed that I can’t justify it for myself. Why write something negative when I could use my energy to highlight work that needs it? Maybe it’ll make a difference, maybe not, but good work should be celebrated.
At the heart of it, writing reviews also helps me understand better why I loved a particular piece of writing. I always have some kind of idea after I’m done reading. But it’s that process of going through, poem by poem, taking notes with pen and paper, mapping things out, re-reading many times, slowly and carefully, that really helps me solidify my understanding of what it was that worked well, or really spoke to me.
Doing this helps me build my knowledge of what makes great writing work. It helps me advocate for work I think is particularly good, or under-read, or important, and I really believe that every poet should also be a reviewer or otherwise publicly advocate for other poets’ work.
How important has mentorship been to your work? Is there anyone who specifically assisted your development as a writer?
I’ve been fortunate to have had my mother support my writing from the beginning, giving me books and pointing me towards writers she thinks I’d enjoy, as well as prodding me about submitting to various contests and journals. I also had great teachers early on: Paula Patola in high school, Bill Robertson as an undergrad. Ariel Gordon was the first editor to accept my work, and made me feel so welcome. After that publication, it was like a weight was lifted, and the amount I was writing, and its quality, increased dramatically. rob mclennan has always been available for my questions and is incredibly giving with his time.
Can you name a poet you think should be receiving more attention?
Tiffany Morris immediately comes to mind. She writes SFF/horror poetry, among other things, and I first read her work I think in Prairie Fire a couple of years ago. Her work is gorgeous, everything I love in the poets I listed earlier. She also does excellent work as an editor: she was the editor of Terese Mason Pierre’s Manifest, one of my favourite chapbooks from the last year. She’s published a couple of chapbooks, but I’d love to read a full collection.
There’s also Brendan Joyce and Kevin Latimer in Cleveland, who run the publisher Grieveland and whose work should get much more attention. em kneifel. Sneha Subramanian Kanta. Robin Sinclair.
And every year I hope that Sue Wheeler publishes another
collection. It’s been sixteen years since Habitat.