SFU English professor Governor General’s Literary Award finalist

November 18, 2021

Simon Fraser University English professor and acclaimed author Stephen Collis was recently nominated for the Governor General’s Literary Award for Poetry.

Two years ago, when Collis won the Latner Writers’ Trust Poetry Prize, he spoke about the book that would bring him his 2021 nomination.

“The poetry book I’m working on is about time and how we talk and think and feel about the future and how time is sort of a weird concept right now,” said Collis.

He called the book, A History of the Theories of Rain. Collis lifted the title from an old meteorological textbook he once saw in a secondhand bookstore. The poetry itself became about climate change, time, and his feelings of grief and loss.

“Poetry has a long tradition of being elegiac, of mourning things that are lost,” says Collis. “In the situation of climate change, there’s lots to mourn. So, I’m not entirely without hope, but I think you have to go through and engage with the grief.”

Collis has a long history of environmental activism. In his youth, he became concerned about protecting old growth forests and began hanging up posters of his poems to alert people to the problem. Over the years, his poetry has focused on various environmental issues. In 2014, it was even quoted in court against him when oil company Kinder Morgan sued him for obstructing work on the Trans Mountain pipeline.

At the recent United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26), a friend handed out Collis’ poetry to attendees like Al Gore and Greta Thunberg. He says it is young activists like Thunberg that give him hope, rather than the conference itself.

“Greta Thunberg is at COP26,” Collis says. “There are protests in the streets, and there are young people from all over the world who are super engaged and that’s hopeful. The convention looks like any convention where there are little booths everywhere with flashy signs with slogans all over them, but it doesn’t inspire hope that something’s actually being done.”

When asked about being a finalist for the Governor General’s award, Collis is happy that it brought attention to A History of the Theories of Rain and the issues it raises.

“I feel good for the book,” he says. “A lot more people are going to read it and that’s wonderful. You want to be in conversation. That’s why you make art.”

Collis’ next project is part prose, part non-fiction, and part-memoir, while still being poetic. He’s looking at the life of his grandfather, who fought in World War I, so that he can examine other compelling issues through the lens of his life.

“Here’s a moment of empire-building, of self-destruction seemingly built into the DNA of Europe, of modern nation-state capitalism turning on itself and the planet,” says Collis.

In spring 2022, he will also be teaching ENGL 851, Documentary Poetics, a graduate course which focuses on the kind of research he’s been doing on his grandfather.

“I’ve been thinking about what a document is and what it does when there’s a document in a book,” Collis says. “They bring an aura of reality or time travel. It’s a course that focuses on novels and poetry that include a lot of documents in them and work in conversation with those documents.”

The winner of the 2021 Governor General’s Literary Award for Poetry is Tolu Oloruntoba for his book, The Junta of Happenstance.