Cobourg Poetry Workshop
feature poet

Karen Solie


........ .Geranium

......... It seemed endlesly cruel

..........that I couldn't coax even the hardiest,
..........homeliest, dullest of plants to grow the one west-facing window
..........of that place, with its air conditioner, sealed
..........with duct tape, that didn't work,
..........and its mouse-hole, stuffed with steel
..........wool, that did. And an equally
..........needless kindness even more
..........unbearable, that unexpected flowering
..........inside the cheap circumference
..........of the pot while I was nearly
..........bedridden, of seeds borne on a broad wind
..........that flew in, and volunteered,

..........From Pigeon. House of Anansi Press 2009

Karen Solie, winner of the 2010 Griffin Poetry Prize for her book, Pigeon, is no stranger to awards. Her first collection of poems, Short Haul Engine, won the Dorothy Livesay Poetry prize and was shortlisted for the Griffin Poetry prize, the ReLit Award, and the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award. Her second collection, Modern and Normal, was shortlisted for theTrillium Award for Poetry. A native of Saskatchewan and now living in Toronto, Solie is considered one of Canada's best poets. She recently read at the Cobourg Poetry Workshop.

On Line with Karen Solie

1) 2009/10 was a remarkable year for you, winning the Triple-Crown of Canadian poetry - the Griffin Prize, The Pat Lowther Award and the Trillium Book Award. What kind of pressure has this put on you and your approach to writing poetry? Is there, knowing the poetry world will be looking for your next book, a voice saying, "I'm a Griffin winner, I have to up my game." Does it change how you craft a poem now?

It was an unexpected and incredible year for me. It was encouraging, more than anything. That kind of recognition and affirmation of one's work doesn't happen very often. But I think the pressure writers put on themselves to write a book better than the last one, to make something beautiful and important, trumps any other kind. If you don't always feel that you have to up your game -- after every book, every poem -- you're in trouble. So nothing really has changed in that department, in the experience of sitting down to a new piece of writing. What those prizes have done is switched another kind of pressure off for a little while. If it turns out I need a root canal, for example, I can have it done. This might sound flippant, and it's the example I've been using a lot, but anyone who's ever needed one of those and couldn't afford it knows that the situation is demoralizing and stressful and makes it hard to work.

2) How do you craft a poem - from the original spark to its completion?

Generally a poem begins for me with notes in a notebook. The notes can be inspired by anything: an observation, an event, something overheard, the coincidence of two experiences that generates a new idea between them. I make some notes, and eventually begin to compose on the computer, where I can see the effects of different line breaks, forms, diction and syntax, their cadences and sounds, and try different techniques more easily. Eventually it will become apparent whether the thing, the idea, is worth working on or not. If it is, forty thousand revisions later, there might be a poem there.

3) What drew you to writing poetry?

I really don't know why I started writing poetry. Why would anyone in their right mind do that? Seriously, though, I read fiction pretty much exclusively until my third year of undergraduate work, when I was introduced to poets including Hopkins, Dickinson, Stevens, Auden, Larkin, Bishop, Moore, O'Hara, Ashbery, Hugo, Carson. I was fascinated by the enormity and relevance and thrilling effects of this work, by what the language can do, and began to wonder if I could do it too. I went on to expand my reading experience in order to make some attempts at it, and that fascination and process hasn't changed. But I never did choose to write poetry as opposed to working in other genres. It's just what's happened so far. In terms of effects and enormity and all that, I continue to be as inspired by fiction and non-fiction as by poetry.

4) One of the threads that runs through Pigeon, is your concern for the environment, the impact of big business on our lives, nicely juxtaposed with the day-to-day minutiae of the world around us.

Yes, I suppose so. Perhaps it comes from growing up on the farm. Which, although rural, is a very industrial place, what with its machinery and chemicals and dependence on corporate and government systems.

5) The quote on the back page of Pigeon from the Globe and Mail infers you are now an 'establishment' poet. How do you feel about that (assuming there really is such a thing as a Canadian poetry 'establishment').

I don't really feel anything about it. I'm not sure what there is to feel about it. It doesn't make the work any easier or more difficult, any more or less than what it is on the page. At the end of the day, you still have to try to write something you honestly believe is good, whatever you're called.

6) Your Wikipedia entry says you 'currently reside in Toronto', suggesting a restlessness. Your poems in Pigeon swing back an forth between eastern Canada and Saskatchewan ... is it a case of 'you can take the girl out of Saskatchewan but not Saskatchewan ....'

I have led a fairly restless life, have lived in a few places. It seems to be continuing that way, though I don't know whether it's out of inclination or necessity. Both, I guess. My husband and I rent a small apartment in Toronto, and though it certainly has its drawbacks, it allows a certain amount of freedom to accept travel opportunities and temporary jobs elsewhere. I do try to get back to Saskatchewan at least twice a year for a few weeks at a time. I have family there, but it also remains an inspiring place for me in terms of the writing. The landscape resists nostalgia. My personal history, the weather, the history of the place resists nostalgia. I find this at once an open and a challenging environment to write in. There's nothing easy or convenient about it. Its beauty is more along the lines of the sublime than the pretty. But also there's the fact of the peace and quiet I can find out there. And simply the change of scenery that allows a person to place images and ideas in relief against another context and become reacquainted with their strangeness.

7) Images of wildlife, especially birds of prey, and snow, flow through your work.

I guess they do. I hadn't really thought about it. Probably everyone has their recurring images.

8) How did you come up with the title, Pigeon for such a varied collection?

I like the sound of the word, and its many connotations. On a literal level, I was thinking about how a non-human animal is categorized as a pest by virtue of its numbers. A pigeon is quite a beautiful bird, but its ubiquity has rendered it somewhat invisible; or made it visible in the way that garbage is. It's in the air and on the ground, a "flying rat." Also, they are everywhere, the city and the country, and are tremendously adaptable. They exist because of and in spite of us, the way beauty does. "Pigeon" also has several vernacular applications I like. It's a term of endearment and an insult to a goof or an easy mark, someone who's been set up. A stool pigeon is a snitch, and deplorable. Its homonym indicates a mash-up dialect of languages and slang, as in "pidgin english."

9) Your thoughts on prose as 'poetry' ... at what point does prose become poetry?

I don't know that there's a line, or point, when prose becomes poetry. Or if there is, I don't know where it is. In my view there are things published called poetry that aren't. Breaking something into lines doesn't make it a poem. There's a lot more at stake. Sometimes a piece is good outside of -- or inclusive of, perhaps -- categories of poetry or prose fiction or the essay or whatever. Sometimes a piece isn't any good no matter what it is called, or calls itself.

10) So, what is poetry in 2011?

Poetry in 2011 is what poetry has been since the beginnings of poetry. It is a particular discipline of paying attention. It is, when it's good, a beautiful mode of thinking. It reminds us that beauty is not always easy, pretty, sweet, nor does it confirm what we think we know and the ways we think we know it. And in this, it promotes communication and empathy that are complex, and richer. Like all art, poetry reminds us of the importance of being challenged, unhoused, and that pleasure does not always take the form of a pat on the head. Like all art, it is one of the reasons to live. In order for one to act, one must first take notice, and think, and this is what good poetry enacts.

11) Who are your favourite poets?

This changes depending on who I'm reading at a particular time. And the trouble with writing these little lists is that they can easily get very long as a person remembers writers they don't want to leave out. Just a few of my constants -- in addition to those first inspirations listed above -- are Tomas Transtromer, Tim Lilburn, Michael Hofmann, Czeslaw Milosz, Louise Gluck, Don Paterson, Dean Young, Ken Babstock, Robert Hass, Don McKay . . . . impossible. I'm going to stop now. I'm going to read this later and see a lot of omissions.

12) Given all the travel you've experienced recently, what books do you take with you - and what are you reading now?

The opportunity for another list! In addition to the above, I'm reading poems by Timothy Donnelly, Henri Cole, Alice Oswald, and revisiting the Faber and Faber Book of 20th-Century German Poems that Hofmann edited. I'm also reading essays by Eliot Weinberger, short fiction by James Salter and Deborah Eisenberg, and Leonard Gardner's novel Fat City. I'm preparing now to take up a four-month residency in Scotland, and will, in addition to any number of writers from the lists above, probably pack more novels, books of essays, poems, and research texts than I should, in addition to all the teaching materials I have to take for work.

13) How did you enjoy reading at the Cobourg Poetry Workshop?

I enjoyed reading at the Cobourg Poetry Workshop very much. Public readings are always nerve-wracking, but the community in Cobourg is very generous and made it a real pleasure. My favourite part, I have to say, was hearing David and Linda read!

14) Is there a new book in the works?

I am working on the manuscripts for a new book of poems and a novel.


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