Home > Interviews > Poetry Lodged in the Physicality of Archaeology: An Interview with Owain Nicholson

Interview by Nathaniel G. Moore

Digsite, Owain Nicholson’s debut collection of poetry was recently published by Nightwood Editions. A longtime BC resident, Nicholson recently moved to Toronto to complete his MFA and is working on new writing projects as we speak. Nicholson grew up in Winnipeg and studied both creative writing and archaeology at the University of Victoria. In 2014, he was presented with the Bliss Carman ring at the Poetry Bash of Thin Air.

A working archaeologist, Nicholson sees history, ancestry, nature and people at the centre of both practices, and his poems often use the digsite as a source of image and metaphor. I conducted this interview in early autumn 2016 over email with Owain in preparation for a launch we were doing together in Toronto for our new books, mine with Anvil Press, his with Nightwood Editions.

While anyone can read the copy of your book’s back cover, it’s always enjoyable to hear the author speak about their book. Can you describe the concept of Digsite?

These poems are the written experience of working in the Alberta oil sands, in Fort Mac, in the boreal forest. It documents the view of this kind of work through an archaeological lens, not only an artistic one. In this way, a time-depth is created that allows the poems to draw upon not just a few decades or centuries of history, but literally tens of thousands of years of human existence.

While the poems may have begun as a writing exercise while living in boredom in camp (made largely of moveable trailers) and hotels, the poems began to grow from a schism between the current place of living and the ones in which we, as people, are drawn back to no matter if they are no long our places or our lives to live. There is a weirdness there, being in a place you know, intimately, and which you know is no longer one you can share.

In the poems is a spattering of archaeological and fieldwork jargon, our vehicles, the places we were lost and found, and the places where we dug—and found the remains of older societies. Environmental concerns are present, however they are not the primary mode and so remain, if not hidden, at least made aware.

The poems are strongly flavoured with loss, both in the sense of emotional hurt and that of being physically lost. The two things coincide and respond to each other by creating a discussion of abandonment and leaving, of loss and acceptance, and the deeper questing that we, people, are never able to answer: not just what are we, but why are we who we are and how did we become this way?

Who are some of your influences? (Poets, artists, etc.)

I would say that I try and learn from everything (whether or not I succeed at this). The writers I discuss here are all influences, and their work resonates with me. Others would be Lorna Crozier and Patrick Lane, Steven Price, Carla Funk, Yvonne Blomer, Wendy Morton, Karen Solie, and others from Ursula le Guin to the Beowulf poet. Film and television have also resonated, though more so in prose and that’s a huge list too. I think the heaviest influences have always been friendships.

How does this book differ from others on the same subject?

Other books that I would claim Digsite has kinship too are Garth Marten’s Prologue for the Age of Consequence and Melanie Siebert’s Deepwater Vee. Both of these books deal with a sort of solitude, one in which the writer is both participant and observer, while also capable of external analysis through the speaker in each poem. Prologue for the Age of Consequence examines the world of trades through the eyes of tradespeople, but it runs deeper than that surface. And Deepwater Vee examines much of the speaker(s) through the landscape of Northern Saskatchewan, the experience of traversing such a world. Digsite is a sort of amalgam, it blends the work with the natural—digging itself physically into the earth, not unlike Tim Lilburn’s Killsite (which the title alludes to). The poems also dig into emotion and metaphor, the speaker and experience of being alone and abandoned (being both the one who abandons and the one who is abandoned). Where Digsite differs significantly is that the aesthetic is a poetry lodged in the physicality of archaeology, in the language and jargon of the science, in the applied science, and the fallout that exists by participating in the work. The poems are a glimpse into the lives of archaeologists (but by-no-means a universal experience), and also of people strained by hard labour, people alone and, even, segregated by the nature of setting, the nature of their choice to work in such a realm. Equally, the poems are a look into what remains of people, where they walked and how, if at all, one might learn to understand people by looking into the lives that have existed before our own. Lastly, I think, Digsite finds similarity with Steven Erikson’s long poem Tall Boy. Strangely, I read Tall Boy later but before the publishing of Digsite. There is a sort of unintentional paralleling between the two poems. Archaeology as the poetic landscape.

I believe it’s safe to say that archaeology poetry collections are far and few between. Can you discuss some of your fears or pride heading into its completion.

Digsite is the only book I have experienced which uses archaeology so heavily. There are a few poems by Heaney, the bogbody poems especially, and a few such as Robert Kroetsch’s Stone Hammer Poem. Kroetsch uses the stone hammer as a metaphor for the writing of poetry, but not a means for poetry—the archaeology that the hammer embodies—only as a vehicle. Steven Erikson’s poem Tall Boy uses archaeology in such a way as to inure the archaeological world in poetic format, approach and imagery, like this collection of poems, but it contrasts a single Paleolithic individual in order to realize the modern world through what has been lost (essential archaeology: the finding of what was left behind; and, how much has not been retained in the record).

Perhaps the most direct approach would be to say that: Digsite searches for a way to align who and what we were with who we are, who we will become. The archaeology of Digsite is the vehicle: yes; the method: sure; and, the landscape: of course. But it is only a portion of the driver and the passengers.

In this way, the differences and similarities between authors and their works are not the point, and neither are our disappointments and achievements. I guess what I find both fulfilling and horrifying by the need and act of creating “art” is that we offer a sort of doorway, we create a kinship with everyone and anyone who walks through it; and, in the act of experiencing art, both artist and audience engage in the privilege of experiencing each other and we experience the risky (though intentional) abstraction that would be the term I shall use: “people”.

How does geography affect you creatively? Or does it?

Geography, as a science, does little for me creatively. In fact, it is a science I know little about except for what jangles around from the papers I should have paid more attention to reading during my undergraduate years. Sciences are all a shared set of disciplines, as are arts (and I would go so far to drop those notions and stick simply with “disciplines”), so there is no archaeology without geography, no geography without something else. I think we tend to lose ourselves in what we love, and forget that what another loves is just as relevant, and so we bias our disciplines with utmost importance but it is a reflection of what we hope others will see in us.

That’s a bigger statement than I intended, actually.

How did your studies in anthropology influence your writing?

A lot. Art is about people and anthropology is the study of people. I actually call myself a bad archaeologist (and if that is true, than I’m probably a bad writer too!) I get it and I don’t get it and that has been largely, funnily enough, been my experience with people, I get them and really don’t. At one time I thought you could be a writer and only that, all you needed was imagination. Now, I cannot conceive of myself without archaeology. I don’t think it’s simple, but it really is that simple.

How important were flashes of recognition for your work over the last few years?

Hm…You know, when you’re unpublished and putting stuff together and finding a line here or the sketch of an image there, and you’re doing your research, and you’re doing your homework; and you’re working too much to give people who matter as much time as you should and want to give them (sometimes people, you only learn later, who were devastatingly, hearbreakingly important); and you’re caught up in all the exigencies of what it is to be a 20-something, student or not, loaded with debt or not, and whatever it means to be another artist in this society, let alone also a member of the very same society…there’s really no reason but dogged self-belief that allows you to keep going.

There are times I go to bed and wonder what my first choice towards writing was, and whether or not it was a mistake. Or I wake up and just don’t know if I should keep listing images and metaphor ideas or the briefest ideas for a story, if I should resist the impulse to jot something down and intentionally allow myself to forget it. And it’s not depression, that is there too, but there’s a sort of delineation between the two for me.

And there’s your make-a-living-wage, and the people who treat you like shit for whatever reason it is at the time that they do so.

And then someone offers you a place at retreat, or the chance to get a piece in a magazine, or an award, or a show…What that person does is tell you in irrefutable terms that something you are doing does have meaning beyond the scope in which you see yourself.

And so it becomes theirs too. Without those people I think my craft would be less than it is. I could not be whatever it is that I am without friends, family, the people I have experienced, without the host at the open mic where you learn to read or the director of your first writer’s fest or the first time you talk with a publisher…these people all add influence, and it is beautiful and humbling.

Perhaps the end game is still a career change. But, somehow, what you do is suddenly integral to your society and culture, even if some will never agree with that statement, but some give you that flash of recognition. So you do it for whatever reason you use to coerce yourself during those bad days, and you do it for them, because they are absolutely necessary.

What are you going to work on next?

I work on a number of projects simultaneously. I’ve just started an MFA, so my focus for the next few years will return to fiction, novels. I have another book of poems I want to pursue, and a small host of poems, which didn’t make it in to Digsite which I want to return to and see if they might find a place to belong. And I have long-sighted thoughts for screenplays…but we’ll see about that one.

Nathaniel G. Moore is the author of Savage 1986-2011, winner of the 2014 ReLit Award for best novel. His latest book Jettison is his first collection of short stories. He lives on the Sunshine Coast in British Columbia.