We asked the poets shortlisted for our 2019 Book Awards some questions about their writing lives, inspirations and –of course– poetry. Join us for our weekly series Ask a Shortlister until the winners are announced on June 8, 2019.
Have you had the chance to meet your literary icon(s)? What was that experience like?
Tanis Franco: There are many writers I admire but at separate readings I asked both Lisa Robertson and Claudia Rankine questions and they signed my books. It was nice to speak to them personally and thank them for creating their books.
Jenny Haysom: I’d have to time travel to meet many of my literary icons (Dickinson, Bishop, Larkin) so instead, I read their poems and visit their stomping grounds, hoping that something will rub off.
Several years ago, I had the pleasure of meeting one of my favourite living poets, Bruce Taylor, at a Tree Reading Series workshop here in Ottawa. The subject was “Didactic Poetry”––and I was intrigued. Was this a lecture on the dangers of instructing and informing in verse? Were we all going to sit in a circle and throw tomatoes at Hesiod? To the contrary… I discovered that Taylor was quite happy to go against the grain, against all recent thinking on what poetry should be. He delved into many historic precedents of didactic poetry, but we never really managed to discuss contemporary practices.
All this to say, I was quite thrilled to meet Bruce, and wanted to discuss things further. We exchanged a few emails, but things fizzled out. I suspect he is happiest keeping to himself, building stringed instruments and studying microbes scooped from ponds and puddles. No time for a fangirl––even one who concedes that poems can be informative.
Jim Nason: I must have read and reread John Ashbery’s Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror at least ten times so I was very happy to have been able to workshop some of my poems from The Fist of Remembering with him before he died. Initially, I was disappointed. I thought I was about to meet god but, Ashbery was as human as human gets. He was shy and vulnerable and, like many creative people, his poetic methodology wasn’t something he wasn’t able to convey to his students. However, he did offer tons of validation and fun tools for getting poems started that included various cut-up methods. He encouraged lots of play throughout the writing journey which I appreciated very much. In Chinese astrology I am born in Year of the Rooster – as you now know, Rooster often shows up in my poetry as a coy and mischievous character. It was Ashbery who encouraged me to have fun with Chinese astrology.
Jennifer Zilm: In 2013 I was writing and reading all the time. At the beginning of the year I read Jan Zwicky’s collection Forge which really resonated with me particularly the poem “Practising Bach” (“the substance of the world/ is light and blindness and the measure/of our wisdom is our love. Our diligence: ten fingers and/ a healthy set of lungs. Practise/ceaselessly: there is/ one art: wind/ in the open spaces/ grieving, laughing/ with us, saying/ improvise.”) This inspired me to call my father– who is a classical guitarist– to ask him to “explain” Bach to me. Almost immediately after I read the book I had the chance to hear Jan Zwicky read at Green College on the UBC campus. As she was reading I made notes that later became the poem “Daughter Cells” in my first collection Waiting Room. I also used a line from Forge in a cento I wrote in the same book. At the reading (and in the book) she was so luminous and sincere and I often feel I am the least serious person in the world. At the reading, I wanted to have her sign my copy of Forge but I was too shy to go and ask her. Then in the spring of 2016 I did a reading from Waiting Room at Rusell Books in Victoria and she was also a reader. I was very nervous that my poem might appear flakey and unserious but after the reading she turned around and wordlesslessly shook my hand and she had this wise warm smile and I felt like she was some of saint who had blessed me.
When I was fourteen I had a dream I met Leonard Cohen. In the dream he didn’t like me and was paying a lot of attention to my half sister. That was disappointing.
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