Ten years ago I shared a poetry workshop with Emily McGiffin at the University of Victoria and immediately fell in love with her work. It was consistently clever and artful. The language was sharp, the observations and subject matter, fresh. She took us to places most of us had never been, yet we felt an immediate intimacy via her words.
So you can imagine my delight when I learned that she was a finalist for the CBC Poetry Prize not once, but three times, in 2004, 2005 and 2012, and then won the Bronwen Wallace Award for Emerging Writers in 2008.
Emily’s first collection, between dusk and night, was published by Brick Books in 2012. She studied biology, geography and writing at UVIC, then went on to get an MSc in rural development from the University of London. Currently, she is working on her PhD in environmental studies at York University in Toronto and has a second book of poetry, Subduction Zone, forthcoming from Pedlar Press.
I re-connected with Emily just before she was due to set off on a trip to South Africa.
You’ve said that after you won the Bronwen Wallace award in 2009, you decided to “pull up (your) socks and put together a book.” How many drafts did you write before your collection, between dusk and night was published?
It’s hard to say. The collection as a whole was written poem by poem over more than a decade and each of the poems might have gone through a handful of drafts, or dozens. The compilation that I first submitted to Brick Books is vastly different from the book that emerged. I have about ten drafts on my computer and twice that many files with versions of various poems. Then there are handwritten notes that preceded the typed versions, the notes on each copy that I printed, editor’s comments, proofs—it was a process.
between dusk and night has been described as a personal journey. Did you set out with that in mind as an organizing structure for the book?
No. Frankly, I had no idea what I was doing when it came structuring a book and deciding on a sequence for the poems. It takes both a knack and practice to do this well, and the book would not have been what it is without the talent of my amazing editor Elizabeth Philips. Originally I had arranged the poems more or less chronologically, which made sense to me, but Liz suggested that the sequence didn’t have quite the logic that I thought it did. Later my friend Tadzio Richards read a near-final draft of the manuscript and noticed that if I pulled “Wokkpash” out of the main sequence and put it at the front, it set up the atmosphere and tone I was looking for. It also resulted in the collection unfurling between the words “dusk” and “night”–a journey through the liminal dreamspace of the twilight hours. Brilliant, Tadzio. Thanks.
Much of your work centres around the human being moving through the world of nature, whether here in Canada or overseas. In most poems we have a very intimate sense of the natural world. What do you think first drew you to this subject matter? Did you have a close relationship with the outdoors growing up? Did you have exposure to poetry as well?
I did an important part of my growing up on a small acreage a few kilometers from Lake Cowichan, a small logging town on Vancouver Island. We were mostly surrounded by Crown land so there was plenty of bush to explore. As I remember it, I spent most of the time that I wasn’t in school reading books or playing outside. By the time I was eight or nine I was pretty much free to go where I wanted, though I had instructions to watch out for cougars and bears.
I started writing things at around the same time, but I came to poetry as a teenager via theatre. My interest in literature and then poetry grew out of the time I spent preparing for plays and performing arts festivals. At the time, it wasn’t poetry specifically that captured my interest but the arts in general. The high school I went to had outstanding visual arts and theatre programs. Eventually life became too full for it all—but writing stuck.
You’ve compared the themes of third world poverty with the decimation of wilderness areas in the developed world. I love how both ideas inhabit your work. Do you see a future where these issues will be resolved? Do you think you will continue to explore these themes or move on to something slightly different?
Poverty and environmental degradation are vast, complex and urgent challenges. They are some of the most important things that we can invest our time and attention in. I wouldn’t say that I compare them so much as I am occupied with both of them and they often go hand in hand. They co-habit the same spaces. This is part of the injustice of the world; environmental degradation disproportionately burdens the poor.
A future where these issues are resolved? As a Canadian, I find it hard to be optimistic these days. We’re harnessing ourselves politically and economically to devastating industries with no future. We’re allowing the public institutions and legislation that have helped maintain human equality and environmental health in this country to be systematically dismantled. But I recently had the good fortune of visiting old friends in Germany. One of them, an expert in renewable energy, had just returned from a conference where there was much discussion around planning a renewable energy future in Europe. Hearing that major political figures in the European Union fully support new technology and innovation in this direction made me more optimistic than I’d felt in a long time. Germany has committed to becoming 100% powered by renewable sources by 2035 and the move is revitalizing their economy. They appear to be on track to become a global energy superpower. Maybe we can follow their example.
The final four lines of your collection (in the poem, “Swadeshi”) really resonated with me: “you kissed the inside of each wrist. / There where the skin is thinnest. // You took your gift. / It held you all night.” I could’ve sworn I’d read about those wrists before! There was such a delicious strong poetic echo for me, a delight in the imagery and the power of sparse but delicately placed words. Are there lines of poems you’ve read that have especially resonated with you, that have remained with you for a long time?
I love reading the work of Chinese poets in the rivers and mountains tradition—Li Po, Tu Fu, Hsieh Ling Yun. They write of nature so clearly and joyously, with such careful and precise images. Mostly I read David Hinton’s translations. He has a simple, transparent style that lets their mastery shine through and draw you into their world. They always stay with me long after I’ve put down the book.
You’re living in Toronto now and working on a PhD in Environmental Studies. You’ve mentioned a current manuscript. Is that linked to your PhD or have you been working on an unrelated new writing project?
Nothing is unrelated. My writing and studies have always been closely linked and they feed into one another more and more as I go along. One reason for doing a PhD is the opportunity to bring together three strands of thinking that have been part of the furniture of my life over the past twenty years: environmental justice, rural culture and literature. In my current manuscript, Subduction Zone, which is coming out this October from Pedlar Press, I’ve begun thinking about these things in new ways, prying into different layers.
You’ve said in previous interviews that you admire the work of poets such as Jack Gilbert, Melanie Siebert, Warren Heiti, Jan Zwicky, Don McKay, Tim Lilburn, Jamella Hagen, Gillian Wigmore and Sarah De Leeuw. Who are you reading right now, whether poetry or otherwise?
Most of the names on that list are part of an incredible tribe of Canadian poets grappling for ways to express our experience of this country—its present, its histories, its land. Many of these writers are my contemporaries and many are writing about the northern BC landscapes that I love so much. I read their work whenever I can.
The current stack of poetry on my coffee table includes Maleea Acker’s Air Proof Green, Souvankham Thammavongsa’s Light, Dionne Brand’s Land to Light On, Tim Lilburn’s Assiniboia, Anne Carson’s Red. But these days I’ve mainly been reading authors from other countries. For the past few months I’ve been completely immersed in a list of postcolonial readings: Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Chinua Achebe, Edward Said, Bessie Head, Zakes Mda, Gcina Mhlophe, Aimé Césaire. The cumulative experiences of these writers spans poverty, violence, apartheid, decades in exile and the struggle for political freedom and human dignity. Reading their words has been revelatory, a necessary step in understanding a little better the world’s colonial heritage.
What advice would you give to poets just starting out?
What makes the best writing? Flood, fire, free fall. Let your heart go to these places and your words grow out of them.
Rhonda Collis is on the editorial board of PRISM international. She has an MFA in Creative Writing from UBC. Her short fiction and poetry have appeared or are forthcoming in Room, On Spec, The Antigonish Review, The Vancouver Review, The Bridport Anthology, Smartish Pace, ARC, Fiddlehead, subTerrain, and others. She lives on Vancouver Island with her husband and two daughters.