English, Undergraduate, Achievements

Undergraduate student Natalie Lim earns top honour with CBC Poetry Prize

December 05, 2018

By Christine Lyons, FASS

SFU undergraduate student Natalie Lim’s “Arrhythmia” is a poignant, loving, and complex poem. Exploring feelings of loss, love, and gratitude, Lim’s poem illuminates the beautiful but challenging relationship between a granddaughter and grandmother who do not share the same mother tongue alongside the histories and experiences of Chinese labourers on the Canadian Pacific Railway.

Over 2500 poems were submitted to CBC for the literary prize and Lim’s was one of just 31 poems to make it on a long-list. It’s easy to see why it earned top prize. Jurors Jordan Abel, Kai Cheng Thom and Ruth B. describe the poem as a “haunting lyric tribute to the love that endures across borders, time, and loss of language” and one that is “both grand and intimate in scope.”

As she explains in an interview with CBC, Lim wrote the poem as a way of working through her feelings of alienation and loss in relation to the “Chinese” part of her identity. “I was born and raised in Canada, just like my parents. I barely speak Chinese, and I know almost nothing about Chinese culture. I wrote Arrhythmia as a way of working through what it means to lose a part of yourself — or to never have known that part in the first place.”

At SFU, Lim is studying communications and English. She says learning to look critically and analyze the world around her are important skills she’s developed while studying both disciplines. “Doing all this critical analysis has caused me to be much more curious about the world. It’s taught me that there are layers of meaning to everything we encounter, and those deeper layers are usually the most interesting to think and write about.” 

Both in her academic and creative work, Lim says the support and encouragement she’s received from members of the English department has been particularly meaningful. Upon learning she was preparing a poem for submission to the CBC Poetry Prize, associate professor Michael Everton encouraged her to take her writing to fellow faculty member and acclaimed BC poet Stephen Collis for feedback. Lim says Collis’ response was invaluable. “Because he’s a published poet, I was initially a little intimidated to approach him, especially with such a personal poem. But I didn’t need to be – Steve is incredibly kind and encouraging, and his feedback on my work was fundamental to the creation of 'Arrhythmia' as it exists today.”

Collis praises the culture of support for poetry and creative writing in the English department and speaks highly of Lim’s poem.

“When Natalie Lim came to see me to talk about her poem, we were engaging in what is to me a familiar relationship. SFU’s English department has long been a place where you can find poets teaching poetry—that’s what it was when I first came here as a student in the 1990s (and it’s the reason why I came). Now that I have been teaching for almost twenty years, it’s fairly standard for a student poet—whether they are my student or not—to drop by to discuss poetry. Some have gone on to publish books and win awards. And they keep coming, despite the waywardness and seeming absurdity of writing poetry in today’s world.”

Of Lim’s poem, Collis says, “[Arrhythmia] has such a fluid wondering-aloud quality, making statements and then correcting them as the ideas still hang in the air.” He adds that the poem is “thinking through and with the poet’s feelings, and that’s usually a good space to be in. And it reaches after big questions of identity and culture and change, while keeping an eye firmly on the particular and concrete detail. It also does wonderful things with the extended metaphor of broken glass. I’m pretty sure we will hear more from Natalie Lim.”

Lim is still reeling from earning top place in the CBC Poetry Prize. While she is intrigued by the idea of writing poetry as a viable career path, there are other creative avenues she’d like to explore. “One of the things I would love to try is narrative design and writing for video games, because I’m a giant nerd and I think the medium has such potential to tell rich, moving stories. Would I be any good at that job? No idea! My current plan, if you can call it that, is to try on a bunch of different hats, see which one I like the best, and go from there.”

To read more of Natalie Lim’s creative and professional writing or to connect: