Home > Interviews > Get to Know: Jan Zwicky

Interview by Claudia Wilde

Our next Get to Know (with a few bonus added questions!) features Jan Zwicky, a poet, philosopher, essayist, and musician who will be appearing at this year’s Writers Fest in Vancouver. In 1981, Zwicky earned her PhD at the University of Toronto specializing in Philosophy of Logic and Science. Jan Zwicky has published over a dozen books of poetry, and was the recipient of the Dorothy Livesay Prize and the Governor General’s Award for poetry. After teaching for a number of years, she has finally settled on Quadra Island. Last year she came out with a collection of poetry called The Long Walk.

1. What’s happening around you—either right around you or outside of where you are?

There’s a very light shower falling and I can see alders that have started to turn. They’ve also dropped a significant number of leaves, but the big Pacific maple outside my studio window is more or less completely green, which is unusual for this time of year. I can see across the pond to fir trees and Doug fir trees. I don’t see birds right now but that’s because they’re on the south side of the house at the feeder. It’s nice and warm because I’ve got the fire going.

2. Why do you live where you live?

Because I need daily contact with the natural world, which is larger than I am, much larger than I am, to be healthy. When I’ve tried to live in cities I’ve struggled with physical ill health and the root of it is being disconnected from the natural world. I know that there are folks who manage really well in cities and who experience nature in parks but for some reason I need more. Where I live there is a road, of course, and there are a couple of houses on the other side of the road. But back of them there’s a hundred and forty acres of crown land and I get out on that as often as possible. I garden seriously and that’s possible here, too, in a way that it wouldn’t be in a city: I couldn’t afford enough land. I’m also a member of the community garden and this matters to me a lot, to be able to feel the pressure of producing my own food. We heat with wood and we do that work as well: cutting the wood and stacking it. Of course, I’m still a member of technocratic North American society. I’ve got lights that turn on, hot water, I have a (tiny, hybrid) car – but there are at least some ways in which, living here, I feel the immediacy of my dependency on the natural world. That keeps me honest, and when I’m being kept honest, I feel better.

3. What are you looking forward to this week?

Next week I’m facilitating a poetry workshop at Hollyhock on Cortes Island. I’ve done this several years running and the folks who have come in the past have always been remarkable. It’s a workshop that attracts a certain kind of poet because, apart from the workshops themselves, we’re in meditative silence. It’s a contemplative situation and I find that people who are willing to experiment with that – to come into that kind of environment to think about poetry and to work on poetry – usually have an active interest in the natural world and in the way in which poetry itself can be a means of accessing contemplation. I learn a lot from the participants.

4. What advice would you give an aspiring or emerging writer?

It would depend so much on the writer! It would depend on how old they were, their educational background, what they were interested in. Can you narrow that down a little?

Let’s say a young poet with many interests.

Are they white, of post-colonial heritage?

No, they aren’t.

Well, the first thing I would want to find out is how they are relating to their heritage. Is it a source of support for them? Do they feel they’ve been cut off from it? Do they need to do something about connecting with their heritage first before they do anything else, or are they on that path already, are they doing okay? Then I would ask them to try to bring to consciousness what it is that’s pushing them to write, and then to talk about how they understand the challenges of nurturing that desire. For example, is it a desire to engage in the world meditatively? Is it a desire to change things politically? Those are two things that spring immediately to my mind as possibilities for a person not of white post-colonial heritage. I’d ask what in their environment can facilitate that project and what the obstacles are and I’d try to listen to their thoughts about how to deal with the obstacles. I would need to be led by them. I think I could act mostly as an interlocutor, listening and seeing if that activity helped them articulate what they needed most.

5. What’s your morning routine?

Green tea! And, if it’s possible, some slow time looking out the window. If it’s summer I usually need to start working in the gardens right away, especially if it’s going to be hot. Tea sometimes while I begin watering. In the winter: stir up the fire, have a cup of tea, look out the window. It’s usually the best time for me, now that I’m older, to see if there’s anything that’s bubbled up from deeper in my consciousness towards the surface. When I was young I preferred to work very late. I’m still a night owl, but I’m old, so I get tired! I usually don’t try to pursue compositional work late at night anymore.

6. What’s the first story or poem you remember writing, and how does it relate to your current work?

The first poem I remember writing was a poem about a man and a woman I saw skating at separate ends of an outdoor rink. One was doing circles or figure eights at one end and the other was practicing something else at the other. It was at night in Alberta, pools of light falling on the ice, and I was struck by something about their connection in isolation. I remember trying to write about it without falling into an abstract characterization of what I understood about their relationship. I had the intuition that it would work better if I could somehow simply describe what I saw in a way that would allow a reader to experience the frisson I had experienced seeing them. That’s what I was trying to do with that poem. And I realize, yes, that that’s something I now value in a great deal of poetry, and that I certainly aim for often in my own: an attempt simply to describe, carefully and accurately, something extraordinary, something unusual. That’s what I want to convey, that extraordinariness, a magic that’s outside language. How do you do that? I think you often do it with very accurate description of what’s in front of you. I guess that early poem taught me something about poetry in general.

7. Which is the importance of accuracy?

In part. And that we get to the things that really matter, which I think are outside language, by paying very close, careful, and respectful attention to what we actually do experience. It’s not accuracy for accuracy’s sake, it’s accuracy for the sake of what can’t be put into language. We get to that by being accurate about what we do see.

8. What’s one risk you’re glad you took?

Leaving the university. I taught fairly steadily between 1980 and 1996 as a sessional. Then I got a regular job and I stuck with that regular job for 10 years. But then I realized I couldn’t do it anymore. So I quit my job teaching at the university and moved outside the city. It was a big financial risk. I don’t make a lot of money any more. But I’m really glad I did it.

9. Is there any advice you like ignoring?

You bet! I enjoy ignoring advice to join up with social media or to get a webpage or to get a cellphone or any of that stuff. I have more breathing space than a lot of people and I put it down to not being tied into social media and not being constantly at the beck and call of a phone.

10. Is there a public space you’re fond of? Describe it.

I’m not much for public spaces to be honest, except for the outdoors. Except, well, I really do like Carnegie Hall. The acoustic there is stunning. I have greatly enjoyed attending concerts in that building because of its acoustic.

Jan Zwicky will be reading at the “Poetry Bash” event on Saturday, October 21, as well as the “Dennis Lee and House of Anansi: A Celebration” panel on Sunday, October 22. Tickets are still available for $20, or $15 for youth under 30 years old. Get more information here