Over its two year history, Lunch Poems at SFU has provided a venue for many of Canada’s finest poets to present and reflect upon their poetry. This collection of musings on the writing process captures poetic insights from the audience talk-back segments of many Lunch Poems readings1, and provides an enlightening and educational reference for the writing community.
on poetry as a means to synthesize new ideas and experiences.
What motivates me writing? I wouldn't say specifically poetry, but writing in general is a desire to understand and also to raise energy and to settle it or synthesize it. So if there's something in the world that I find very upsetting, then I'm likely to sit with the idea for a long period of time and write about it. And also, some of the poems are to celebrate. It's a form of play. I'm a news junkie. I watch the news a lot. I have a wide network of pen pals in different parts of the world and we talk about what it's like to be a writer or what are the literary traditions that we are working from. And then I have 6 kids. I've gotten some great poems out of interesting bits of trivia that people have brought to my attention just through the course of their days. One is the birth of a "Halfling Bear." One of my sons had come home and said, "Hey Mom." There had been something in the news about a half-breed polar bear / grizzly bear, and so I said "a-ha."
on how editing affects her experience as a writer.
How does editing affect your life as a writer? I think the most notable effect that my work as an editor has on my writing is that it takes up a lot of time! It's just so much time to edit a magazine, right? So between teaching and editing that's really why you get months and months with no tweets. But I think it's all very helpful. I love looking at what people are up to. I love reading it, [and] I'm always honored to publish people's work. I think it keeps you sharp and it keeps you connected with communities. It is really important for me.
Juliane Okot Bitek
on communicating tragedy to people who are distant from what occurred.
I’ve spent a lot of time trying to belong, and trying to fit in, and trying to be like everybody else, and it often hasn’t worked very well. So I guess part of speaking communally is a real attempt to be like other people and so even in things like “Stuff to do when your Hometown is Burning,” I purposely pick the word “stuff” because everyone can relate to stuff. And I locate stuff inside the poem that everybody has in their home, except maybe for the dirty dishes, which is just my house. But then I still make it a very individual—in my case—situation because it’s a specific town in a specific part of the world that is burning. But even as I write that, knowing that it’s an individual town for me, I imagine that there are other people who come from Gulu who might be sensing that helplessness: what to do when your hometown is burning. It’s kind of like, your friend is dying: do you still go to work? And then it won’t become just about a hometown burning, it becomes about all those other things that are happening out there that everyone can relate to and maybe get a sense of solidarity when they hear a piece about a hometown burning.
Dennis E. Bolen
on the benefits of poetry over prose to express memories.
I'm drawing from remembered experience, and because I put poetry aside for quite a long time in my career and concentrated on prose. But I did not cover as much ground with prose, so I found poetry to be a far more an efficient form to gather up my memories and things that I've got to say about what I can remember.
on how life experience informs the writing and interpretation of poetry.
I’m glad you said "place." It reminded me, that’s what we talked about all the time when we were young poets in our twenties because we hadn’t found any poetry—any Canadian poetry—or any poetry at all that said anything about the place that we recognized. What a thrill it was to read a book that had a poem or a piece of prose about the place that you were actually moving air around with your body, how exciting that was. And I think I too have always wanted to remember that, to keep that at the core of any reference that I’m making. But then, on the other hand, there’s the newspaper, and there’s the comics, and there’s the movies, and there’s the history book you read, there’s the political tract that you’ve read earlier that day. And the one constant among those things is that you’ve got eyes and hearts that are surrounded by those things, and you’re looking at those things, and so they become part of your poem. I don’t believe that anybody is going to get all the references that I make in a poem, or in a piece of fiction. If I’m writing an essay I want them to do that, but if I’m writing a poem, I’m not the origin of the poem. The poem came from somewhere else into me, and it could very well be that I have a wonky take on what that reference is. I think that being adept enough and not interruptive enough to get that poem down is more important than being sure that Person A and Person B are going to try to make the same kind of reference to that. No two people have the same meaning for the word mother, for heaven sake!
on the power of poetry to explore ideas collectively.
I'm not under the illusion that by writing poems I'm gonna reach "the masses" and convince them all because poetry doesn't reach the masses. At least not directly, not in this kind of format anyhow, right? It does another ways, perhaps. But I think what poetry is good [at], the good social work it can do, is in developing ideas and thought around where we are?, how we got here?, what does this mean?, how we feel about it? It's good at exercising that muscle that's really atrophied for us, that is, the muscle of collectivity. Of being able to think and say "we". And "we" is a very problematic to say, obviously, and to think through but I think there's a real value and need in thinking through "we".
on the creative process for poetry and prose.
For prose, both fiction and non-fiction I find I can just sit down and start writing about something and fold something out. Poetry, for me is more spookier process...and more mysterious.
on poetry as a political act of self-discovery.
In March, I published my first full length collection. I do think it has changed me. Because unless you get changed by the work you’re doing, you’re not going to influence anyone or seduce them into it. So this particular book was an interesting experiment in philosophising poetically and poeticizing philosophy. Which I found that the university had to keep separate: my poetry and my philosophy. And I realized that my brain didn’t want to do that anymore, so I just put them both together and I let them flow into each other. So that's one answer, I hope, but it does change you, because the act of writing a poem is already a political act. It’s a practice of your own freedom and a lot of what happens is finding about yourself things that you may want to know, or not.
on poetry as a way to work through trauma.
I like to joke and say my poetry is so good it makes even me cry. But yeah, I just use it as a way to work through trauma from my childhood, [while] at the same time trying to relate that to wider systemic issues. So I think I cry a lot while writing it, I cry a lot while researching it, I cry a lot while reading it because it’s so traumatic. Right now I'm doing research on this consulting firm that the Canadian government has hired to audit Attawapiskat, that they're hiring to consult on privatizing prisons in Canada, so right now I'm trying to work that into my project but I can't do it because the research is so heavy I need some time to recover. Yeah, so a lot of crying all the way through.
on how everyday life inspires his writing.
What really keeps me going in creative writing? I think the thing that gets me going in creative writing is everything other than creative writing. I remember Chuck Palahniuk who wrote "Fight Club". He said one of the most valuable things you can do as a writer is to have a day job, because he said "what else are you going to write about, if you're basically applying for grants all the time as a writer." You're constantly just being a writer. So I feel as if the thing that inspires me in terms of creative writing is everything other than creative writing but that's my home base. That's where I bring everything back to. The place where I can bring a lot of my creativity happens to be in rooms like this one where we all gather under the title of poetry. If I were doing this in any other context, I'm not sure would be received this way.
on identifying with the pain of people far away.
Whenever some crisis arises I like to write about it, because I think pain is the same, it’s just on different levels. So somebody who grows up on the reservation, you know, impoverished, different kinds of abuses, will still feel the same pain that somebody else in the Gaza Strip feels when they watch their loved ones die or they have to bury their loved ones. And I was thinking to put myself in other people’s shoes as well. So this is how “The Gaza Stripped” came about.
Fiona Tinwei Lam
on deadlines as a motivator.
One thing that works is if you have a deadline for a publisher or some kind of commitment and then you do work. That's what motivates me. As a former lawyer, where you're always working to a deadline because the deadline is the real thing. If you're doing it, it might not happen, the case might not go to court, so why bother doing it until you're actually going to be in court for sure in 2 days? So, with me, if there's a contest deadline or a publisher's deadline then I will work 'till the late hours. Or even if there's almost a self-determined deadline--I'll give this to you next week Monday for it to appear on Wednesday--then I'll end up spending a couple of nights working until 2, or 3, or 4.
on the value of sharing poetry in public spaces.
I love the fact that when I’m talking to poets, regardless of what they’ve accomplished—and these are poets who’ve won awards, who’ve been published in the New Yorker—all of them say to me the highlight of their career was seeing their poem on the bus. And I think the reason why that is, is that it’s not just preaching to the converted. It’s not just other poets coming to the reading, or buying their book. It’s always the same faces—which is fantastic, but it’s still…it’s a passionate audience, but it’s a small audience. And the fact that here they have an opportunity to have their work read by people who normally would never think to pick up a book of poetry, and yet are affected by what they see. And I know the people who run it, the associations of book publishers, say they are getting emails from people who say “That was just the thing that I needed to read at that time in my life, at that moment," coming home from work, tired, whatever. "I saw this and this was just, just right."
Garry Thomas Morse
on dictated poetry and the source of his ideas.
Many poets have this idea that words and the language come from somewhere else and sometimes this is more of a sacred idea and sometimes it is more of a satirized idea in terms of the external or "Where did all these words come from?" Is it our consciousness that behaves in such a neurotic way?
on the ethics of writing about communities other than our own.
First of all is to say that I don’t write about things I’m not involved in, straight up. Just don’t. I don’t write about communities that I don’t know or have relations in. It’s just disrespectful…It’s not disrespectful, sorry that’s a broad, sweeping…I don’t want to comment about what other people do. But for myself, it’s not a grounded thing. So I only want to move forward in relations that are sincere and actually exist in the world for me. So there’s that. And the other thing is that there are certain struggles that I will never—I’m always privileged and outside of—even if they are a part of my history, they are not part of my present. So there is a constant tension about ethics in that process, and about how we approach, and those of you who are involved in academia or thinking through research, for example, or thinking through the subject. Like you’ll have some analysis about that, and all of that has been helpful to me in thinking theoretically, but then at the end of the day, it really does come down to relations. And there are a very select audience that I’ll never lose sight about what they may think about my work, and they’re individuals and it’s a group of people that I can think of off the top of my head. But at the moment I alienate them the moment that they stop finding my work legible or identifiable, then there’s a problem for me, and I always have that ear. I hope I always have that ear.
on how poetry can be an outlet to express everyday life.
I like what Meredith was just saying about having the voices inside you that you have let in at some point in your life and I was lucky to be brought up in a home where there was a lot of poetry and a lot of books, and I must have absorbed some of it. I don’t know how anyone gets through life without writing or drawing or dancing or making music. I can’t imagine how difficult that must be: not to be able to turn it over, like you turn over the earth .
on keeping an authentic voice after being published.
I recently had a bit of an “aha moment” with writing and I thought: I just want to come at the next one and forget everything I’ve learnt. Completely start afresh, and try and get to the source of why I loved it in the first place, and not worry about who's reading it or what people are going to think--if it’s gonna win a prize or anything like that. And try and really get back to some authentic passion for it, which I think can be lost over time, once you’ve published a few books and you’re in the community. And I really need to step back from that and start again.
on the act of imagination in a materialistic world.
So much of our time, our culture, demands of us that we not reflect upon ourselves and that we pay attention constantly to how much we’re earning, and how much we’re consuming, and all that materialism. It just completely distracts you. So, of course, if you lift the rug and you look underneath that, you can go on a most fantastic journey. But it’s an imaginary journey—it’s into your imagination, your own reflectiveness. That’s I think where that feeling comes from. That’s what it is for me anyway.
on how the writing community influences her work.
One doesn’t write alone, really. You write in a community of voices that you have heard. So those voices are actually coming through you as a writer. You’re going to start writing poetry like what you’ve been listening to. And so for me, I’ve always worked in pretty much an avant-garde, experimental community of writers. I’m willing to push the limits of language, I move outside of conventional language as much as possible. So that’s how I think the community has influenced me. Also, I think a sense of politics--a welding of politics with the lyric. I’ve been around a lot of writers who do that and it’s come into my work as well. But apart from that, I’m just haunted by these various voices, and they come out. I don’t know, they just come out. I know that I took them in somewhere. There they are, their rhythms appear on the page.
on communicating political messages across party lines.
To be honest, when I was engaged in the revolutionary activity the only thing I could write was political Kant. And I actually did try to write while I was political, but none of it came out right, and all of it was too partisan, if you want to put it that way. In a certain kind of way you have to break out of the partisanship in order to speak to the other side, as it were, when you’re writing poetry. There is a kind of poetry that is partisan, and is required to be partisan, and that’s written in the midst of actual armed struggle to inspire the troops, as it were. I didn't know anything about politics when I was young, and I wanted a solution to the question of "what is the cause of wars." The only discourse that provided me with an answer to that is the anti-imperialist discourse, and I still don't believe that you can answer the cause of wars in this century or the past or the future that is coming without paying attention to the cause of anti-imperialism. That was the main thing that I learned from political activity and that still continues with me.
on poetry as a call to action.
My poetry has a didactic urge in making people confront difference and injustice and looking at things that they would often prefer to keep covered up or to look away from—historically, and contemporary issues as well. And so there’s that kind of urgency and I sense that strongly in Stephen’s writing as well. And I think, of course, it brings history in because my writing has a purpose to makes us live better and to make us see our connections and to try to change the way that human beings relate to one another in this world. So I’ll use anything I can get, including history, anything I can get to make people see those connections and those things they would prefer to look away from.
on poetry, politics and race.
As a writer, as a poet, most of us are confronted with a public discourse. For example, I wrote for 20 years not paying much attention to the whole question of race, although I grew up in a small town in the interior of BC where race was--at least deep down inside--a problem. But in the 70's in Canada, we all of a sudden had this opening of a public discourse around ethnicity and race. It wasn't created by the poets, it was created as a kind of collective shift. Certainly there were politicians like Trudeau who had a lot to do with the move towards multiculturalism that became so important to people like Joy Kogawa's novel "Obasan" in the 70's, which was a major breakthrough for ethnic and racialized writing. Japanese redress started in the late 70's-early 80's, so all through the 80's we had that. The Writer's Union finally in the early 90's was able to address the whole question of writing through race. So, race was there. As Wayde talked about and testified, the language was once again a public language and I think my own feeling is similarly for Christine or Rita Wong and many, many others whose attention is towards the so called eco-poetic or the ecological, environmental. I don't think that's any different from a kind of racialized discourse. It's full of angst about how to work with the world we live in. So, I don't think these trenches are necessarily chosen, and I don't know if they are trenches, but they're [a] kind of public discourse that we're confronted with.
on the use of silence and pauses in poetry.
If you think of a sound—say like a bell ringing, a beautiful bell ringing—it needs to vibrate out, and it needs to go out into the space to really be felt and heard […] there are certain passages, certain words, certain images—they need that space. I saw a documentary on John Cage, an American composer, recently, and at one point they were saying, "so are you really a composer"? Because he was such an unusual…he reinvented composing music, really. And he said: "Well, to be honest, I’m probably more of a listener." And I was thinking, "that’s how I feel." Probably if I had to choose between saying I’m a writer or I’m a listener I’d say I’m a listener. That’s more an interest to me. So I try to build that in.
1The Lunch Poems team has tried to include as many poets in this collection as possible. In some cases, poor audio recording quality and/or a lack of sufficient context in poet responses did not allow for the inclusion of some poets.