The pandemic forced the literary community to find new ways of connecting with our communities and readers, and in the early days of the pandemic, Fiona Tinwei Lam helped develop what has becoming one of our most popular online programs: In/Verse. In the fall, Fiona passed the hosting duties over to Susan Alexander. The Federaiton of BC Writers invited Fiona to share some wisdom and reflections on poetry and her time hosting In/Verse.
Federation of BC Writers: What character from a book or movie do you most identify with?
What book has lingered with you the longest?
What was it about poetry that originally drew you in?
From when I first started reading poetry on my own in seventh grade, I loved poetry’s concision and its music, how it could convey so much depth and meaning in a few lyrical lines.
When poetry is read well, the music of the words (alliteration, assonance, consonance, rhyme, half-rhyme, etc.) paired with the use of silence, breath, subtle vocal dynamics and coloration, rhythm, pacing, and tone can amplify the imagery and structure of the poem, making it even more memorable. The background anecdotes that often precede the reading also add a lot of context to the poem.
How do poetry readings inspire your own work?
How did you approach curating the In/Verse events?
Jackie Carmichael, president of the BC Federation of Writers at the time, was keen on expanding the online presence of the federation during the pandemic. I was very impressed with her interview of marvelous local poet, Junie Desil, and so I offered to assist with an online poetry series. She showed me the ropes and encouraged me to take it on, which I did for 13 months from September 2020 to September 2021, bringing together poets of varying styles, approaches and backgrounds. I wanted to be as inclusive as possible and invited poets with debut books (e.g. Jillian Christmas, Francine Cunningham, Tolu Ọlọ́runtọ́ba, Daniel Cowper and Tara Borin), mid-career authors (e.g. Hasan Namir, Joanna Lilley, Renee Sarojini Saklikar and Kevin Spenst), as well as senior established poets (e.g. Patrick Friesen, Cecily Nicholson, Fred Wah, and Evelyn Lau).
During the height of the pandemic, I was very keen to showcase as many local poets as possible, to support their work and their books when live launches, readings and reading series were cancelled across the board. So I ambitiously tried to program four poets for each monthly reading. I learned after several months that the pacing was better with just three poets per reading. It gave the poets a bit more time to read a few more poems, and gave us all more time for conversation and discussion. I still had to keep very close watch on the clock, but alleviated some of the time pressure. I certainly learned to become more adept with using an online platform! I was so appreciative of the tech help provided at each reading either by BC Fed Executive Director Brian Mortenson or board member, Ian Cognito. They were indispensable in ensuring each event flowed smoothly.
What do you/will you miss about hosting In/Verse?
I loved supporting other poets in getting the word out about their work, and enjoyed meeting some of them for the first time to tell them about how much I admired their poetry. I enjoyed the rapport, and sharing insights about writing poetry.
My recent essay, “Giving Voice to Your Words” for Resonance: Essays on The Craft and Life of Writing (eds. Andrew Chesham & Laura Farina, Anvil Press, 2022) focused on three main points that I also teach in the course I co-teach at SFU Continuing Studies with Evelyn Lau: be aware, be gracious, be prepared. It’s essential to be punctual, to stay within your time limit, to be aware of your surroundings, to rehearse your poems multiple times in advance in order to fine-tune your phrasing and vocal dynamics, and most importantly to connect to your audience
What’s inspiring the work you’re doing these days?
The City Poems poetry video project has inspired me to want to do more poetry video collaborations of my own. I squeezed in two short collaborations this summer: “Merry,” a short animated poetry video with two student animators about plastic consumption and pollution, and “Neighbourhood,” a live action video with two US filmmakers about people’s disconnection, denial and obliviousness in face of the climate crisis. I’m currently working on another animated poetry video with a student filmmaker about redaction vs creation based on my poem, “Un/Write."
For more information about In/Verse click here.
In December, poet Susan Alexander handed hosting duties for our monthly In/Verse events over to Neil Surkan. Susan had taken over hosting duties from Fiona Tinwei Lam. We at the Federation of BC Writers wanted to take time to look back on all the hard work that both Susan and Fiona had done as hosts, and invited them to participate in a special online Q&A. Here are Susan's answers.
FBCW: What character from a book or movie do you most identify with?
Susan Alexander: One of our family games is: who would you be in a Jane Austen novel? I would (of course) most like to be Miss Elizabeth Bennett, for all her faults. But I think I may be more Emma Woodhouse – oh God, maybe I am Emma Woodhouse?
What book has lingered with you the longest?
I love reading novels to relax – a few that really got inside me were The Door by Magda Szabo, Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien, Drive your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk and pretty much anything by Kazuo Ishiguro.
What do you enjoy most about listening to poetry being read?
I love a human reading a poem. The poem lifts of the page and rolls around a mouth and opens itself in a very special way. One of my In/Verse readers, Seán Virgo, said that each poet writes for his, her or their own voice. I love hearing their timbre and rhythm, especially when I have read their poems already and “heard” them in my head. I always get something different when the poem is delivered to my ears.
Now I love a solitary read – just me and the book of poems and a cup of tea and a couch. But I feel like there is a soulful exchange that happens between the poet and the audience at a reading. Also, poetry readings get me in touch a beautiful community of poetry lovers who truly are special people.
I am a random and disorganized person and sadly I bring that with me to every task. Luckily my predecessor, Fiona Tin Wei Lam, who created In/Verse, offered me an elegant and efficient structure as well as great ideas for readers. I do like to be surprised so I often invited onto the programme someone whose work I didn’t know at all (but came recommended). I wanted to mix up ages and gender and location. Oftentimes that meant inviting a new poets who might just have a first chapbook out and balancing that with a more “senior” poet. I also tried to include poets from under-represented groups.
What were some of the biggest lessons you learned in hosting and curating the In/Verse readings?
It wasn’t so much a lesson but an opportunity to get familiar with the poets’ work ahead of the reading, especially their latest books. I wanted to have a real connection with the poet. I love to be well-prepared (as opposed to winging it) because truthfully I can’t think on my feet unless I’ve done the groundwork. I do not have the best sense of time in the sense of chronos, so I needed to write down time cues to keep the programme kept clipping along. The two rounds of readings format that Fiona created lends a sense of movement to the reading. Yet poetry needs silence around it, so it was always a balance of movement and stillness. All the work that I did ahead of time helped me to relax and be present for the reading.
What were some of the most memorable readings?
I will definitely miss the direct participation with poets and their poetry. But truly, I am also excited to tune in and sit back and watch and listen to Neil Surkan introduce me to poets whose work I don’t know. I am so happy the FBCW is continuing In/Verse and I like the idea of a rotation of hosts. Hosting is a privilege as well as is a service to the BC poetry community.
What advice would you give poets when it comes to doing readings?
My advice for poets is very practical – good lighting and sound for the Zoom room. Time yourself, including your preamble to the poems, so you don’t go overtime and don’t read too quickly. I like it when a poet offers a few words of context or detail before they read without giving away the poem. The best is when a poet makes a little space around their poem, a tiny pause before speaking or reading the next poem.
I wish I could say I am on a roll, but right now life is very challenging. What I am reading right is the work of the late Don Domanski. I adore a mystic. I am uplifted by his work – his ability with language to touch the ephemeral and his feeling for the non-human life of the planet. I don’t understand how he does it.
Writing prompts and exercises can be the perfect way to move your writing project forward. Some of our members have shared their favourite writing prompts to spark your creativity.
Take 8 1/2” x 11” sheet of unlined paper and draw an overhead diagram of how you typically occupy a room, or defined area in public where there is no pre-assigned seating. It could be a café, a bus, a theatre, a classroom, etc. Draw the location of doors, windows, furniture, and significant objects and mark where other people sit/stand, then where you prefer to sit /stand.
When done, go to betsywarland.com to find out what may have do with what you are currently writing.
About Betsy Warland:
Betsy Warland is the author of fourteen books of creative nonﬁction, memoir, and poetry.
A leading mixed-genre writer, teacher, and manuscript mentor/editor in Canada, her collection of essays on writing, Breathing the Page—Reading the Act of Writing, became a bestseller in 2010. A second edition, with new material, will be released in 2023. Warland’s most enduring book, Bloodroot—Tracing the Untelling of Motherloss (2000), was released in a second edition in 2021, with a foreword by Susan Olding, and a long essay reﬂecting on the book twenty years later by Warland.
Reviews out of the US, Germany, and Canada have called Warland’s memoir, Oscar of Between—A Memoir of Identity and Ideas (2016,) “an achievement,” “a roman a clef,” “truly luminous,” and a “tour de
force.” In 2022, composer Lloyd Burritt’s street opera, “Camouﬂage Complex,” will premier in Vancouver, BC. The libretto, written by Warland, is based on Oscar of Between.
How do we capture the experience of mystery, awe, wonder? They key is to avoid familiar tropes and worn clichés - to remain firmly in the physical world, the body, the senses. Writing that is personal and precise, described in your unique voice, will make your stories about the profound unlike any other seeker who has encountered the sublime.
Write in concrete detail about a moment of change associated with:
This prompt is from Nicole’s online program for memoir writers The Spark Your Story Lab. Join the waitlist at: https://nicolebreit.com/spark-your-story-lab-waitlist
About Nicole Breit
Nicole Breit is an award-winning essayist, poet, and writing instructor. Her work has been widely published in journals and anthologies including Brevity, The Fiddlehead, Room, Hippocampus, Pithead Chapel, Event, Swelling with Pride: Queer Conception and Adoption Stories and Getting to the Truth: The Craft and Practice of Creative Nonfiction. Nicole’s essay about first love and loss, “An Atmospheric Pressure”, was selected as a Notable by the editors of Best American Essays 2017. Learn more at nicolebreit.com.
Personal loss disrupts our lives, taking away what we hoped for ourselves and those we love. But what if, in the realm of story, we could give back what loss took from us? What would we recover by writing the true story of what never happened?
Give yourself permission to speculate then fully imagine a short scene that might have taken place if loss hadn’t occurred. Where are you in this moment? What would you say and do? Bring in precise details – what do you notice? What can you see, hear, smell, taste, touch? Bring in body language, the subtle gestures of whoever is in this scene with you. Breathe into how it feels to write. What is happening in your body? Bring your embodied experience into the story.
To learn more ways to write into difficult material, check out Nicole’s workshop on writing about trauma, grief + loss at: https://www.nicolebreit.com/grief-workshop/
I've been focusing on writing about place during my tenure as Vancouver's sixth poet laureate. I was startled when recently reviewing my own work to discover how much of my writing has involved rooms of my childhood home, the cemetery where my father is buried, medical environments (hospitals, examining room, nursing homes), and parks and playgrounds and other places I took my son when he was growing up.
Think about a specific place that is significant to you. It could be a particular room in a home, theatre, classroom, pub, park, stadium, store, lake, etc.--any place about which you have strong associations and sensory memories (smell, taste, touch, sounds, colours, lights, etc.). The place you write about could be a haven or oasis, or the opposite--a place of unease, sorrow or distress. It might be interesting to delve into the history of the place, as well as ponder its future prospects--what was it before, what is it becoming.
For more about writing about place, watch this session that Fiona did with Vancouver Public Library: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=dY9wxc5mPTY&list=PLp9Du1me5InL27RCU9C80r5ZuPYn5uJHA&index=2
About Fiona Tinwei Lam:
Fiona Tinwei Lam is the author of Intimate Distances (finalist for the City of Vancouver Book Prize), Enter the Chrysanthemum, and Odes & Laments. She also authored the illustrated children’s book, The Rainbow Rocket. Her poetry and prose have been published in over forty anthologies (Canada, Hong Kong, and the US), including The Best Canadian Poetry in English (2010, 10th anniversary Best of the Best edition 2017, and 2020). Three of her poems have been featured on BC’s Poetry in Transit. She is a co-editor of and contributor to the creative nonfiction anthology, Double Lives: Writing and Motherhood published by McGill-Queen’s University Press with Cathy Stonehouse and Shannon Cowan, and also the editor of The Bright Well, a collection of contemporary Canadian poetry about facing cancer. She and Jane Silcott co-edited the creative 2018 nonfiction and poetry anthology, Love Me True: Writers Reflect on the Ins, Outs, Ups & Downs of Marriage. From September 2020-21, she curated and hosted the online monthly poetry series In/Verse for the Federation of BC Writers to showcase local published poets. Her award-winning poetry videos, made in collaboration with local animators and filmmakers, have been screened at festivals locally and internationally since 2009. She has recently been appointed Vancouver’s Poet Laureate for 2022-2024.
Born in Scotland, she emigrated to Canada at a young age with her family. She has a B.A. in political science (UBC), an LL.B. (Queen’s University) and an LL.M. (University of Toronto). She articled and worked as an associate in a Vancouver law firm, and later as a staff lawyer at the Law Society of British Columbia. She also has an M.F.A. in creative writing (UBC). Over the years, she has facilitated writing workshops for people of diverse ages, backgrounds and circumstances (including adult students at UBC Continuing Studies and Langara Continuing Studies, immigrants and low income adults and single parents in various community settings, and elementary and high school students). She teaches creative writing at Simon Fraser University’s Continuing Studies.
List 6 monsters that you associate, in some way, with Halloween. Set aside.
Now, think back to a time in your life when you experienced fear, dread, or even intense nervous anticipation of “something”. The “something” may have been known or unknown (the reality may have been scary or not, it doesn’t matter.)
Write the scene as it happened, to the best of your memory, in first or third person. Focus on describing the emotional experience without ever naming the emotions involved. Also, do not name the “something”. Include specific details, such as setting, time, weather, people, animals, smells, other sensory details etc. Set aside.
Consider your list of monsters. Does one call to you? Alternatively, roll a die to randomly choose.
Rewrite the scene, but now the “something” is your chosen monster, the main character is not you, and the story is fiction. Feel free to change details, though it can be very effective to leave most of them.
This scene is your spooky, speculative, story seed. It can occur in the beginning, middle or end. Write around it, toward it or from it.
About KT Wagner:
KT organizes writer events, works to create literary community and is frequently spotted with knitting needles and yarn, muttering about the state of the world. KT graduated from Simon Fraser University’s Writers Studio in 2015 (Southbank 2013). A number of her short stories are published in magazines and anthologies. She’s currently working on a scifi-horror novel. Find more about KT here: https://northernlightsgothic.com/
Sometimes the hardest thing is to start. The late, great BC poet Patrick Lane talked about doing “finger exercises” every morning. Just like with my back, my poems get stiff when I don’t warm up. A few of my favourite strategies: Write: “The first time I …”and then ten more lines. Or steal a line or vocabulary from your poetry feed and go from there. My current favourite is: Anaphora! Start every line with “Because” or “I remember.” Put the timer on for 10 minutes and scribble.
About Susan Alexander:
Susan Alexander is the author of two collections of poems, The Dance Floor Tilts and Nothing You Can Carry and a former journalist. Her work has won multiple awards, including the Mitchell Prize for Faith and Poetry in 2019. Susan’s poems appear in anthologies and literary magazines in Canada, the U.K. and the U.S., have ridden Vancouver buses as part of Poetry in Transit and even shown up in the woods around Whistler. She lives on Nexwlélexm/Bowen Island, the traditional territory of the Squamish people.
At UVIC, in 1985, after reading some of my writing, fiction instructor, Leon Rooke, told me to “go crazy." By this he meant: use my imagination, avoid self-editing, and “just get it down." I took his advice to heart; it was such an affirmation and so liberating. Ever since, I have followed my nose, that is, pursued what interested me in both subject matter and reading.
As a beginning writer, I had a quote by Gertrude Stein taped to my desk. It was a great motivator: No one cares if you don’t write.
About M.A.C. Farrant:
M.A.C. Farrant is the author of seventeen books: thirteen collections of satirical and philosophical short fiction; one novel, The Strange Truth About Us; a novel-length memoir, My Turquoise Years; a book of humorous essays, The Secret Lives of Litterbugs; and the stage adaptation of My Turquoise Years, which premiered at Vancouver’s Arts Club Theatre in 2013. The most recent is One Good Thing.
Currently residing in North Saanich, British Columbia, Farrant has been nominated for many awards, including the Commonwealth Writers Prize, the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize, The Van City Book Prize, the National Magazine Awards, the Gemini Award (for the Bravo short-film adaptation of her story “Rob’s Guns & Ammo”), the Victoria Book Prize, and two Jessie Richardson Theatre Awards for her play My Turquoise Years, among others.
Farrant has taught writing at the University of Victoria, the Victoria School of Writing, the Banff Centre for the Arts, and was Writer-in-Residence at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia.
The Globe and Mail has written that “Farrant’s work is infused with iconoclastic innovation.” The Ottawa Citizen has called Farrant “One of the best humourists in the land.” BC Bookworld has called her “Canada’s most acerbic and intelligent humourist.” She has been described in print on numerous occasions as “the bizarro Alice Munro.”
Photo credit: Rachel Lenkowsky
Extending the Tradition (to FBCW)
One of the more reliable ways I have of writing a new poem is to lean on an older one, what some call, “extending the tradition.” I choose a poem I like and write it out, double spaced. Writing by hand works best.
Then between each line, I write in a new line based on, or suggested by, or that echoes the rhythms of, the given line. If my lines take off, so much the better. This can be fun – and always surprising in terms of how different the “new” poem is from the given one. (And when published, I credit the original!)
About Kate Braid:
Kate Braid worked as a receptionist, secretary, teacher’s aide, lumber piler, construction labourer, apprentice and journey-carpenter before finally “settling down” as a teacher. She has taught construction and creative writing, the latter in workshops and also at SFU, UBC and for ten years at Vancouver Island University (previously Malaspina University-College).
Braid has written several books of creative non-fiction, Red Bait! Stories of a Mine-Mill Local (1993), Emily Carr: Rebel Artist (2000), The Fish Come In Dancing: Stories from the West-Coast Fishery (2002), Looking Ahead: Profiles of Two Canadian Women in Trades (1990), and Building the Future: Profiles of Canadian Women in Trades (1989). She is the author of the poetry books, A Well-Mannered Storm: The Glenn Gould Poems (2008), Covering Rough Ground (1991), To This Cedar Fountain (1995), and Inward to the Bones: Georgia O’Keeffe’s Journey with Emily Carr (1998).
In 2005 Braid co-edited, with Sandy Shreve, In Fine Form: The Canadian Book of Form Poetry. It was re-released with a second edition in 2016 as In Fine Form: A Contemporary Look at Canadian Form Poetry. Her 2012 memoir, Journeywoman: Swinging a Hammer in a Man’s World, tells the story of how she became a carpenter in the face of skepticism and discouragement. A revised edition of her award-winning poetry book Covering Rough Ground, Rough Ground Revisited, was published by Caitlin Press in 2015. In 2018, Braid released her latest poetry collection, Elemental, with Caitlin Press.
In 2012 Kate Braid was declared one of Vancouver’s Remarkable Women of the Arts. In 2015 she was awarded the Mayor of Vancouver’s Award for the Literary Arts for showing leadership and support for Vancouver’s cultural community, and in 2016 she received the Pandora’s Collective BC Writers Mentor Award.
She lives in Victoria and on Pender Island with her partner. See www.katebraid.com for further information.
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