ASK A SHORTLISTER: How did poetry become a part of your life?

We asked the poets shortlisted for our 2018 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 16, 2018.


Lesley Belleau:  Poetry became a part of my life as a young child.  Growing up on the reserve, I didn’t have access to a t.v. outside of Saturday mornings, and one Christmas when I was six years old, my mother bought an enormous box of books at a garage sale which was one of my gifts.  Inside this box was magic to me.  I put the books all over my bedroom floor and I was amazed because I never saw anything like them before.  I remember looking at them sprawled everywhere and thinking that I will read every one of them and thinking that I have never seen anything so beautiful before with all of the pictures on the covers, and all of the words so straight and even on the smooth and white pages.  I touched every one of them a hundred times before I opened the covers.  I remember never being so excited in my life.  I was so honoured that they were mine and I don’t remember any other gift I got that year except for these beautiful books and I hugged my mother so hard because she knew I wanted to read something just for myself.

Each day, I would look at these words, and I would sit on my bed, ingesting, reading, reading, reading.  It was so hard for me to do anything else.  In these books, I became so in love with the way stories and words strung together.  In some way, I learned a new way of communicating and understanding because we were so isolated and this box of books opened a new world to me.  It was as though I was able to escape into all these words and I began to consider the importance of these writers, because, to me they had the ability to ignite a new vision in a world that to me, did not offer this.  This big box of books became half of my world, and I knew that if I ever wanted to anything in this world, I wanted to tell my stories so strongly somehow that it was almost painful.  I had to.  One day, a couple of years later, I began to put my own words on lined paper that was supposed to be for schoolwork.

I remember watching these words take shape together and I was sitting against the pillow on my bed, looking out my window, and feeling like this is the most important thing I have ever done.  Every dream I have ever had, every intuitive thought, every time I sat in the bush and the whole world seemed peaceful found me when I wrote it down.  I knew I needed these words.  I have never felt so understood and like I was able speak for the first time until I wrote and wrote and wrote.  I ran down the back of my house toward the river and animals, breathing and breathing and feeling like I found something more special than anything I have ever known. This was my language somehow, and I slept with that page under my pillow for so long.  When words and poetry came to me, it became my hope and journey.


Jack Davis: I was an omnivorous reader from an early age, but I think my introduction to poetry came through the music I listened to in my early teens. I can remember seeking out the poems of  Arthur Rimbaud in my school library inspired by references to him in the music by Bob Dylan and The Clash. I was fortunate that the North Bay Public Library, at the time, had a diverse selection of Canadian poetry for me cut my teeth on. Later, in university, I spent more time prowling the poetry stacks in the library than I did in my classes, making discoveries and connections by pulling out books that appealed. That’s when my horizons really broadened and I began to accumulate the idiosyncratic influences out of which my own writing eventually grew.

Wendy Donawa:  We weren’t a particularly bookish family, but I was regularly read to from the standards of the time: the Christopher Robin books, the Beatrix Potter books, Robert Louis Stevenson’s nursery rhymes, Alice in Wonderland. It must have given me a sense of language, of cadence, because I still know those verses off by heart. When I was old enough to take the bus, there was the public library, which my child-memory sees as an huge imposing stone building with vast staircases, but which I now see was a modest single story with six front steps.

Skip to high school, where I was lucky to have a couple of teachers who genuinely loved literature and read poetry aloud. And we had old-fashioned survey courses, Beowulf to T.S. Eliot, so we had a sense of the shift and flow of language, how it shapes and is shaped by history. It gave me an inner map. By then I was writing overwrought adolescent poetry, which I kept a deep secret.

Later, for much of the three decades of my adult life spent in Barbados I taught literature at the college, where we still taught to the Oxford and Cambridge exams. But this also coincided with the marvellous explosion of Caribbean literature: Derek Walcott, Vidia Naipaul, Kamau Braithwaite and the vindication of dialect, “nation language”.  What a feast that was! And I was still writing poetry, part of my life, but a private pleasure. The appropriation debates were not then in full spate, but I sensed my input would have seemed another colonizing gesture.  In the late 90s I returned to my West coast birthplace, settled here and found there was actually a poetry community!


Karen Enns:  My childhood was filled with songs and children’s verses, and, since I was raised in a Mennonite community, passages recited from the King James version of the bible. Words came with a lot of meaning and were often set to music; the traditional hymns we sang were slow, four-part chorales. You could easily dwell on a word, on a sound, or a harmony. Somehow, poetry was always there.


Beth Goobie: In 1983, I was left legally blind in my left eye due to an encounter with the toxo-plasmosis virus. My immune system was also deeply affected, and so I spent a lot of time alone and recovering for the next several years. A friend gave me his guitar, and I started writing songs. After around 30 of these lonely laments, I realized my lyrics were too difficult to set music to, and that I had shifted into stand-alone poetry. It went from there.


Cornelia Hoogland:  I suspect that like most people, I learned the musical patterns of my mother tongue (Dutch) before birth. Before language carries meaning, it exists as a sensory bath, musical and embracing. Research tells us that babies prefer the songs and rhymes their mothers sang to them in the last stages of pregnancy, in their own languages. I remember as a child the giddy pleasure in rhyming, in jokes, bathroom language and in saying things out loud. And still now, a word, a single word can be as unfamiliar and strange as the wild flowers that grow out of rock at the beach. In my first “diary,” just a bit larger than a toonie, (which my mother saved for me,) I wrote “My Dad bought me a comic.” ‘Comic’ is a great word and must have been a pleasure to learn to write. While listening to seniors read their poems recently, one woman used the word “nettle”––I swear it changed the quality of the room. But I don’t really know how poetry became a part of my life. I was drawn to it. It called to me. It was there to be found in the same way the intensely yellow and pink flowers, tiny, tiny, that grow on the rock bluffs at Helliwell on Hornby Island. Who can ignore colour springing out of rock?


Catherine Owen: Always has been. I started reading poetry at 3 and writing it by 5. Somehow the music of it all entered me at a very young age and has never let go.