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
Line with Karen Solie
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?
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.
How do you craft a poem - from the original spark to its
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.
What drew you to writing poetry?
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.
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.
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.
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').
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.
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 ....'
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.
Images of wildlife, especially birds of prey, and snow,
flow through your work.
guess they do. I hadn't really thought about it. Probably
everyone has their recurring images.
How did you come up with the title, Pigeon for such a
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."
Your thoughts on prose as 'poetry' ... at what point does
prose become poetry?
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
So, what is poetry in 2011?
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.
Who are your favourite poets?
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.
Given all the travel you've experienced recently, what
books do you take with you - and what are you reading
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
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?
am working on the manuscripts for a new book of poems
and a novel.