2020 Poetry Awards: Interview with Heather Birrell

Heather Birrell is the author of Float and Scurry (Anvil Press/A Feed Dog Book), and the winner of the 2020 Gerald Lampert Memorial Award from the League of Canadian Poets.

Find out more about Heather’s poetry and process below.

LCP: Tell the story of how your collection came to be.

HB: This is a collection that I really didn’t mean to write (although I’m glad I did). I hadn’t written poetry for ages when I started taking part in long-time poet and provocateur Stuart Ross’s poetry boot camps. Stuart (who later became my editor for the book) has a way of sidestepping any form of earnest strain or sense of writerly obligation in his courses – they freed me to play with language again and not worry so much about what a poem should be. I was drawn also to Stuart’s use of the surreal; I think that the idea of approaching the really heavy stuff that was going on in my heart through a lighter sense of the absurd was appealing. It gave me the Dickinsonian slant (“Tell all the truth but tell it slant”) I was looking for.

At the same time, as part of my day job as a high school teacher, I was witnessing spoken word poet Andrea Thompson work wonders with my teenaged students through her guest writer workshops in my classes. Andrea has a way of coaxing the most reluctant (even obnoxious) teens into using their true voices. She has mad skills; I am in awe of her. Watching this process helped coax my own poet self to the fore.

A lot of the poems in the collection are ‘dream invitation’ poems; in them I invite a person, place, or thing/concept into my dreams. This premise (which was sparked by a poem by Grace Paley called “I Invited” in which she invites her mother and father into her dream) allowed for scenes ruled only by dream logic in which I get to dialogue with Mr. T, Joni Mitchell, Hades, my mother, racism, and the colour teal (among others).

The book itself came together in a pretty organic way – I won’t say effortless, because no writing ever manifests without effort. Also, I am wary of presenting any art-making process as hitchless; many of these poems grew out of a fallow creative period that was the result of a very sad and difficult time in my life. However, I will say it felt like a bit of a dream working with Stuart’s Feed Dog imprint and Anvil Press.

 

LCP: How do you write your first drafts?

HB: I am an old school, pen and notebook writer. First drafts emerge there; I edit and mess around with line breaks and formatting on screen. In the before-time I would write in coffee shops and libraries. Now that I am home with my partner, mother, two kids, and our dog, I have to create space under our shared roof. Usually that space is in bed, with the bedroom door closed. Sometimes I sit on our front porch. How do I handle distractions? I tell them to go away – this sometimes works for people and dog, less so with my own doubts and susceptibility to diversion. Setting a timer helps; staying far away from my phone and the fridge also helps. Breathing is good too – paying attention to my aliveness in this world.

 

LCP: What does poetry mean to you?

HB: Oof. What a tricky question! I think more than anything it means permission. Permission to speak from a still and loving place, or a raw place, or an indignant place. Permission to mess with language so that it matches up with all the weird tides and tendernesses and terrors we experience as humans.

 

LCP: How are you handling pandemic and your poetry work?

HB: Like everyone else, my sense of my place in the world has been shaken by this crisis. I find the idea of simply “pivoting” into this new reality laughable. In my house it looks more like mad pirouetting followed by exhausted collapse. (And we are fortunate in that we have not lost livelihoods; although we have had some close and scary brushes with the virus.)

Having said that, I do think this unhooking from our previous way of being has its advantages. My friend Julia Zarankin recently published an essay in the Globe and Mail about how the pandemic has made birders of us all. She talks about how, in forcing us to slow down and pay attention to our own little patches of the world and their feathered visitors, the lockdown has also obliged us to be less frantic, more present with the earth’s rhythms. This reckoning and its attendant humility is, in many ways, also the poet’s duty. Not that I have been living an ascetic life – besides trying to be present I’m also watching TV, doing dishes, listening to ABBA (recommended on days that refuse to start), building domino towers, eating chocolate biscuits, operating on either end of this new experiment in remote learning, and staring into the dog’s eyes. But I’ll take a bit of slowing down and opening up where I can find it!

 

LCP: Who has had a major impact on your poetry career?

HB: My family. They have sustained and bolstered me through the rough times so that the poetry-making can happen in the calm moments.

Who is an up-and-coming poet that you are excited about?

I am perpetually excited by the voices I hear in my high school classes. So many young people today – besides having an ability to see past so many of our society’s smokescreens – have access to an incredible emotional intelligence. It’s really heartening to witness them speaking their truths. The kids are all right.

 

LCP: Share one of your favourite lines or stanzas from your work.

HB: It depends on the day or the hour. Here’s a couple of short stanzas from “You Are Not Obliged” that are resonating for me right now:

Cargo clanks, crows caw. Other, smaller

birds tell secrets in the brush. What do they

know?

You are not obliged to answer.

 

LCP: What are your next steps?

HB: In terms of poems, I don’t think I really have any. I’m just so glad the form is available to me again. I don’t want it to lose its sense of both refuge and freedom. I’m loathe to saddle the impulse to write poetry with the drive of ambition or somehow girdle it with the idea of a “book”. (This is not to say I don’t recognize the craft and labour that goes into creating and publishing poems, just that I want the process to remain un-fraught with capitalist notions of “product”.)

I am also working on a novel and short stories. And there’s always an essay kicking around in my head – usually at 3 am or when I should be making a snack for my kids…