EM: So Heather, the first thing I'd like to ask you about is your eclectic background. You've split your time between Charlottetown for school and summers writing in Montreal, and now you're living in Halifax. Are you from PEI originally?
HC: I am originally from Charlottetown, PEI. I started visiting Montreal with my family for Habs games, and now I go with my boyfriend because of our shared admiration of the culture. I’m fond of the cemetery where [Leonard] Cohen is buried. The last time I went was in February, and some wine and a rose was bundled into the snow at his grave. It’s exciting to share the same city as him, to drive around and be exposed to the same inspirations.
Halifax is equally as artistically inspiring, if not more. People cherish the Public Gardens like they do Central Park. I’m working on turning my apartment into a live-in greenhouse so I never have to part with the oasis green. The city did a great job of balancing heartland and hinterland here. There’re hundreds of thousands of trees in the municipality. It’s odd that their beauty is so preserved, as I recently read about an arborist who found a tree with bits of metal shards in its core — he suspects from the Halifax Explosion. History embeds.
PEI is picturesque in the spring and summer, but in the winter it can be isolating. Thankfully, as a poet, changes in scenery really aid the creative process. Atlantic Canada is great if you want to experience both the city and the dune, thanks to places like Halifax and PEI.
EM: It sounds like you're quite taken by Halifax. I've never heard it described in such terms, and never had a chance to admire it up close. You should see about getting with their tourism board because now I really want to plan a visit! If les Habs were what drew you to Montreal, what first brought you to Halifax?
HC: My boyfriend and I wanted a bigger piece of the world. We figured Halifax was the next step in our life and careers. We loosely plan on moving to Montreal next. I love the night life there, a two-story club with a gallery feels like an anomaly. There’s no clubs on PEI, just bars, so it didn’t take long for me to retire from that gritty circuit. In Montreal you can sit barelegged on the town house staircases after a night out, or buzz around the Metro to get to the next party. It’ll probably be winter but I’ll still be in lace-up heels if there’s something going on in the neighbourhood.
EM: You're definitely not the first Islander I've met who's told me about the bar scene there. Did you ever get a chance to see Cohen live?
HC: I’ve never seen Cohen, sadly. I feel fortunate enough to have seen some legends in New York though, at Crossroads in 2013. I saw the Allman Brothers two nights in a row at the Garden too. I don’t know why I haven’t written about those times yet. But seeing someone like Keith Richards come out as a surprise alongside Clapton is otherworldly. I’m just a little Islander — I’m not supposed to see these giants!
EM: A chance to see Clapton! I'm a little jealous. I had a whole phase of listening to him and his contemporaries. Those sound like some great shows.
HC: I’ve had one too many phases. Classic rock phase I do not regret.
EM: Since you've now relocated, and with future plans to relocate some more, does that mean you've finished your studies at UPEI?
HC: I’m still attending, just finishing off a few more electives. I’m taking online philosophy and religious studies courses over the summer and then fall will be my final semester. The best part of being an English major is that literature seems to encompass everything: psychology, philosophy, politics, religion, culture, nature, and so on. My academic career has been so fulfilling. I never want to stop learning.
EM: I agree, being an English major has been so helpful everywhere else. Are you part of a creative writing program of any kind, or has your writing developed separately from your English program?
HC: I have taken two creative writing courses at UPEI, one with David Hickey and one with Richard Lemm. Both professors have been extremely supportive and offered great advice. My writing needed a lot of work when I first took the course with David. I needed to learn the strength of concrete images. After I finished the semester with Lemm, I realized that creative writing courses are truly assets. The key is to accept other people’s opinions instead of taking them personally. You don’t necessarily have to follow everyone’s advice, but you do need to learn to sort through the good and bad reviews.
My issue is that nearly everything I write is confessional. Try taking a course with your ex, whilst writing about your ex and all your vulnerabilities. That was the most difficult course I’ve ever had to take. People in class are often rendered silent after I finish reading because my words hang heavy in the air. They feel the emotion behind each poem, but they can’t always understand what I’m saying. It’s a balance between giving what the reader needs and keeping what doesn’t need to be said. Throw the reader a line every now and then.
For now, I would rather join a public writing group, something with less pressure and emphasis on grading. I never loved the vibes in the classroom. People are much friendlier at home when listening and giving advice. I was a part of a group before I left for Halifax! I miss them. Looking for my own community here.
EM: Were you writing much before university?
HC: I wrote my first poem in grade 11. It was like crossing the bridge to Terabithia every day after school: I would come home, put on The Tudors or Pirates of the Caribbean as background music and possible inspiration, and then I would scribble out all my angsty high school thoughts. I was elated that I had all these words at my fingertips, words I hadn’t used in this way before. I was inspired to write poetry from my friend Uma Doucette. She had a Tumblr writing blog at the time, and I was awe-struck at her imagery and turns of phrases. I distinctly remember thinking that I could write like that, like being a poet was instinctual. And I felt jealous I wasn’t a part of this very exclusive world! So I’ve never stopped writing since — though I am a fan of taking spiteful hiatuses after the pressures of creative writing courses suck out the life of being a poet. Writing on demand isn’t really my thing. I write best alone at night.
EM: How did you hear about the AAUEC?
HC: Richard Lemm invited me on behalf of the English Department to be the UPEI creative writing presenter alongside another student. I was hesitant to accept due to my anxiety and the busy semester I was in, but I’m so glad I did it in the end. Because it was my first undergrad conference, I’m thankful for the advice Richard gave me in regards to which poems I should select. He told me, first, choose poems you would like to read. Then, think about your audience. Finally, consider what poems might work better out loud. I kept all of these things in mind when I prepared. My boyfriend had to listen to my entire speech about six times.
EM: Your set was hung from a quote from Jenny Xie's poem "Inwardly" from her book Eye Level: "We have language for what is within reach / but not the mutable form behind it" (53). Were your poems already gathered in some way for you?
HC: Most were written in Richard’s class I believe, which was last fall. Some were started in the summer preceding it. I noticed looking over my course portfolio that loss is a common thread. I hope they don’t come across as “woe is me.” They’re just reflections.
EM: Oh no, not at all. I think anyone who's ever had to read that kind of self-importance can tell the difference between your work and "woe is me" writing. I'll freely admit to writing "woe is me" stories in the past; they aren't good, and they aren't speaking to anything beyond their immediate circumstance.
HC: That’s reassuring, thank you!
EM: How did you find Eye Level?
HC: I kept seeing Jenny Xie around Tumblr. It’s a great place to be if you’re looking for someone new to read. And I’m eager to support fellow writers, especially poets that are writing in the here and now. People like Rupi [Kaur] have played a substantial role in reviving the genre as well. I’m studying her business model. Needless to say my social media is in the works.
EM: What is the social media-based approach to poetry?
HC: At it’s core, an amalgamation of two communicative mediums, the artistic and digital. I realized that with the growing dependence of digital technology, platforms like Tumblr and Instagram are redefining publishing. Not everything must be published in print to gain an audience now. I see Instagram as a channel of organic publishing. You can build and maintain a following from the comfort of your living room. That’s not to say that basing your work on social media is easy. It’s a talent, a new rhetoric, checking analytics, making the explore page, staying current and original, posting regularly, remaining politically correct to avoid “cancel culture” — it’s living and breathing to curate.
EM: I'm afraid to say I don't know much about it, and I only kind of know Kaur by her reputation for using the internet to gather a following for her work. Entire movements and eras come and go on the internet and I'm oblivious to all of them. I'd say I'm an old soul but I'm only 26 and I'm not doing it on purpose.
HC: Sadly it’s not taken seriously by everyone in the literary world. And some say that it’s becoming — or already is — a saturated market. On her website, Rupi writes about how a creative writing professor once told her that it would be too difficult to get published. I’m 22, so social media is second nature. I’m not going to judge how other people choose to market their work. I’m branding myself and it’s not so soul-effacing as it seems! Poets need to make a living too.
I managed to stave off websites like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram for several years now. You won’t find me anywhere because it’s better for my mental health that way. When my Insta-poet status is engaged it might be hard to avoid getting sucked back into the abyss, into negative self-critical thinking. But it’s worth the shot. I still see print publishing as the goal, but that doesn’t mean that Instagram is an unworthy comparison.
EM: Does this choice of platform alter or shape the content of your poetry?
HC: So far, not at all. I’m currently curating poems that I wrote before I started Instagram. I make digital graphics out of my work. Often I will take two or three lines from my longer poems so that it’s quicker to read. The length of my poems are too long for Instagram dimensions anyways. To counter this I include a link in my captions to the full version.
I’m confident this platform won’t alter the way I write. I’ll be striving for interesting phrases, vivid imagery, and new manners of expressing thoughts with or without Instagram. If anything, it’ll make me write more, which can only improve my poetry.
EM: Something that struck me while reading your work is that you seem to reconcile the personal with the observational. I'm thinking particularly of "For Palestine," but more generally each poem really draws out a different kind of nature — more like a normal, if that makes any sense. I get the sense of each person's life as part of something greater, from direct imagery of the heart rising in place of the sun in "Polished Silver" to the subtext-made-text of societal pressure in "Lacuna." Am I getting close to that "mutable form behind" you're speaking to?
HC: That's a neat way to think about it. When I reference "Inwardly," I take it as Jenny's way of communicating the incommunicable. Think about what is given to the mind directly by experience, like hearing water drip from the faucet, feeling the hairs on your arm shift when there's a slight breeze, or loving the emollient qualities of a new night cream. Some of these experiences may not be transferred fluidly from the initial impression to the communicated idea. I believe that poets try to defy the notion that sometimes there are no words. When I try to pen loss, there are so many inexpressible feelings. That's what writing is for me these days, more inexpression than expression.
EM: Heather it's been so thrilling to have this opportunity to speak with you. Part of what I loved most about doing my undergrad was getting to read books I'd never otherwise touch. So if you had to recommend something to me right now, what would it be?
HC: It’s been a pleasure. The first thing that came to my mind was Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red. I give so many copies away I never have one for myself.
Xie, Jenny. Eye Level. Graywolf Press, 2018, p. 53.
and for Afifi, my friend
Some are quietly devastated,
voices once melodic now low and impersonal.
Our people ask where to draw the border
and how to kernal resistance
heedless of firing squads.
the woman is homeland, ever-green.
Ephemeral are storms and ousted sons.
She was Palestinian,
and she is still so.
She is certain, though youth blinks in a dark cell,
that her memory may be carved
on the unblasted olive tree.
She names it the poetry of testimony
and begins to wholly reflect:
once there was a time beyond erasure from a map,
beyond the recess of laughter
and the last prison-visit by a returning cloud,
the wind beckoning to desert her as well.
Her land was put to music
with hope not yet hectored from the cheeks of children.
A time before exilic cries fattened the night,
mellowing into persecuted canticles at dawn.
In time, liberty will sail with the silver-bladed sun
and rise from the mudflats of rivers,
stamping the region of dispossession and defeat,
shaking shame, quieting crow-pecked eyes
returning God and gardenia,
Used with permission of the author.
Good evening, everyone
Starting this week, I'll be posting new interviews with the poets who came to Fredericton last March to present their poetry for the Annual Atlantic Undergraduate English Conference. Keep an eye on this blog every Friday for the next few weeks.
Something that I loved about doing this is getting to know not just more about the people and their work, but also what they're reading and what inspired them. What I've loved about this job and my broader experience in university is getting to read things I would never have touched otherwise, and I really wanted to share that experience with you. So as my library grows, maybe yours will, too.
Pictured below is last year's haul: Al Cusack's Rising (zine), Curtis LeBlanc's Little Wild (poetry), Nathaniel G. Moore's Goodbye Horses (poetry), Jasmina Odor's You Can't Stay Here (short fiction), Mallory Tater's This Will Be Good (poetry), and R.M. Vaughan's One Year After (play).
I'm so looking forward to sharing my conversations with you.
See you soon,
This is Evan Mersereau again. I'm happy to be back for my third appointment as managing editor of the ACPA. I've got big plans for this website coming this summer, and I thought I would share some of them with you. Of course I'll still be updating our existing entries and processing some new ones, but there's more than maintenance planned.
You may have noticed a new addition to the header of this website: Poetic Places Fredericton. A couple years ago we started an app of the same name. The app is shutting down at the end of this month, but we've preserved its contents on a new website. You can find out more about the old project and the new site through that header link.
Back in March of this year, St. Thomas University hosted this year's Annual Atlantic Undergraduate English Conference. I was volunteering at the conference and lucked out with a couple of my assignments; timekeeping for the Original Poetry and Original Writing sessions. I caught up with the poets at these panels and asked them to sit down with me for a series of interviews this summer. We're still sorting out the scheduling for these, but you'll get to hear from some of Atlantic Canada's best up-and-coming student-poets.
And, perhaps this is a little early to mention, but we're exploring the idea of an ACPA book. We're not sure what form it would take, who would publish it, who would write it, or if it even needs to be written - but it's definitely my primary research focus for the summer.
As a project based out of St. Thomas University, we're also considering new ways to showcase our own student-writers. The podcast episodes I produced last summer were a neat experiment, but I'm wondering if there are other ways we can accomplish the goal I set out to do with that series. I think a multi-genre chapbook would be cool.
Anyway, I'd better get back to research. I'm in the middle of reading Anna Sewell's Black Beauty and Jenny Xie's Eye Level as interview prep. Plus I'm going through several anthologies like Anne Compton's Meetings with Maritime Poets for ACPA book ideas. It's a lot.
It's been a few months since we last spoke. I'm Evan, in case you forgot, and I'm very pleased to be back as managing editor for the Atlantic Canadian Poets' Archive.
I've spoken before about the field aspect of this job; sometimes I have to get up from my desk, unplug my laptop, and venture out into Fredericton. I've taken pictures, tested the Poetic Places Fredericton app, and occasionally sat in on readings. About three weeks ago I was given the opportunity to watch another performance. I didn't have to travel far this time, either -- just across the courtyard from James Dunn Hall to Edmund Casey Hall at St. Thomas University. My last assignment was the Wolastoqiyik Sisters in Spirit Poetry Slam.
Don't let the name fool you, this wasn't just a poetry reading. This slam, the third annual, was a multi-genre primer in grief. It was an evening packed with music, ranging from traditional to contemporary; short films spanning from spiritual-metaphorical, to revenge, to hope for the future; and of course, poetry at its most. In full, about four hours of soul.
From long-time writers and first time readers, every poet poured truth into power that night. Some spoke to loved ones who've been absent for a while. Others weaved a thread between the brink and back again from addiction to violence and other traumas. Some lingered on not what had happened, but what could happen -- what they might suffer some day. They called on the divine and the government and the men who hold places to start helping them. After all, this was a declaration against the forces which enabled the disappearance and murder of thousands of Indigenous women, girls, and two-spirited people.
But as much as this was a night for grieving, it was also a night for hope. The show was book-ended with selections from the documentary The Spirit of Annie Mae, piecing together a particularly brutal killing in the 1970s. Its producer, Catherine Anne Martin, provided a brief epilogue detailing recent developments in that case. She used her time on stage to thank the poets and performers who gave voice to the missing and murdered: "I heard their voices in all of your work."
I come from the middle of the woods, which is not an overstatement. I grew up in very very very rural New Brunswick down a basically dirt road. I lived a very sheltered-from-humans childhood, I would say, Until very recently I had never lever left New Brunswick. I think my roots in this province and my absorption into always being here affects a lot of my feelings when I write about locations and the outside love.
Love poetry, I also write prose. When I write prose it's usually short stories. I don't think I've ever finished a long piece. But I'd also like to get into writing children's books. I also draw, I watercolor, I sketch. and I do online drawing with a tablet. I think something that would be really nice someday would be to combine a cute poem for kids and draw illustrations for it. That's one of my dreams, one of my goals in life.
I think the fact that I currently work at a bookstore in the kids' section has reignited the want for writing a kids' book. Children's books coming out now are so beautiful — not just aesthetically pleasing but, a lot of them are so heartfelt — I read them in the kids' section and I'm like, wow.
I am going into my fourth year. Sociology is my passion. I'm honouring in sociology and I'm also majoring in English with a Concentration in Creative Writing. Not everyone would be proud of this but I'm very proud of this because Creative Writing/English and Sociology are so important to me. After first year I have only taken Sociology and English courses.
I only have a year left so I should probably get on figuring out what I want to do with my life. I'm trying to choose between becoming an elementary school teacher or I'm going to continue on and get a Master's in Sociology. I have no idea where I'll be next year and it's terrifying.
The first draft of "hiraeth" was for Advanced Poetry Workshop here at STU with Kathleen McConnell. The theme of the week was to write a glossa. Stanzas are supposed to be 10 lines long — mine are nine lines long but I changed it up a little bit. I found "Ghazal For Her Voice" by J.P. Howard quite coincidentally.
Even now it's hard to describe how I was feeling when I created the poem. I know what I wanted to try and convey, but I'm a person who has a hard time conveying my feelings anyway. I have a really fractured relationship with memories of my childhood — the younger the worse. Not necessarily because of offense, but for some strange reason I have a really hard time knowing what's real and what's false. Because of how easily memories decay and how often we can create false memories within ourselves, I struggle sometimes with things that I'm sure happened, but I'm also quite certain I just thought they happened. And now my memories of home I mixed into my brain and it's really hard for my to pinpoint ones that really affect me that I'm certain are real. When you think of that, and you combine that with the concept of home, like warmth and what you picture of a home a child grows up in, it's hard.
I drew on my grandmother and my mother. This "she" in the poem is like an entity that is both my mum and my grandmother. We're addresssing a single person throughout the poem, a metaphorical version. That was largely because growing up my mother was a stay-at-home mom and my grandmother lived with us. And even when she moved out she lived next door, basically. I was very close to them both but I also had very tenuous relationships with them, especially the older I got and the more I learned about the world and about their place in the world. Combining that with memories I'm not sure I can formally address to them makes for a confusing relationship with one's past.
Both my nanny and my mum were green thumbs, loved the outdoors and adored birds. Not necessarily bird-watching, but making bird feeders, carving little wooden steps for birds. They would buy bird feed with every grocery order. Think of a mother figure standing at the kitchen window right above the sink looking to a bunch of bird feeders, and she's talking to the birds while she washes dishes. I knew one thing that I could use to ground the poem are birds. I tried to include a form of birds in every stanza whether that was as simple as mentioning a type of bird as ambiguous as mentioning feathers. That's real, that's something that is tangible. I remember birds like I remember my mum and my nanny. I wasn't trying to focus on specific events and ideas. I was more trying to put down feelings and emotions, especially what I felt with this ambiguous problem. I wanted to impression the reader to feel certain emotions that I feel when I look back on memories of home.
Something that definitely soaked into there was this melancholy which you get at the end of almost every stanza. It's in part due to the fact that I have a problem writing happy poems. Not in a my-life-is-sad-and-this-is-awful sort of way — which is valid; if you want write poems about how the world is awful, power to you — but just this feeling of a slow creep of dread and sadness and regret that you can't wash away. It soaks you and it comes out in everything you write, and that's what happens with my poems. But I've learned to embrace it, and now I'm just working with what I have.
My nanny actually passed away last month. She was very old and it was something we were preparing for, but it was still very sad, obviously. It seemed addedly sad that it happened around the same time I found out about the award. I actually read a bit of the poem at the funeral. Kathy Mac talked a few times in out class about how it's very strange that in times of grief even people who don't like poetry or don't think that they like poetry, or think they know nothing about it or have never written are almost drawn to it. It's a way to express a lot of feelings you can't express in any other medium.
Life is a circle, weaved
around fragments of her voice.
I keep entering an empty room;
drawn to the memory of her voice.
“Ghazal For Her Voice,” JP Howard
i hear her voice in just echos now,
tiny taps on a birdfeeder reverberations –
or in coughs late at night. except when i find crows
looming on the couch dancing in dew,
no shoes, never crochet or prick blood
thin thread cleaved, from flowers in bloom.
just two rods; dirt sticks between
two snakes. her craters in my fingers,
life is a circle, weaved. i keep entering an empty room.
cooking in vanilla- the still air tastes
splattered apron, no sash. of gingersnap cookies:
whistling with chickadees, burnt.
careful of barefeet i grasp at crumbs,
on sawdust floor. follow the oblivion path.
no choice ears filled with feathers,
to mid-morning movement. steps tilted downward –
the squirrels scatter shaking, shivering,
around fragments of her voice. drawn to the memory of her voice.
Used with permission of the author.
Part of this editing gig is taking pictures. While I could grab something from the internet, we don't need to ask permission to use our own photos. This gives me an excuse to get up from my computer and go for a walk -- and man, it's a hot one, a good time to be walking. There's only one problem: I'm not a photographer. All I have is my phone, the three-by-three grid on the camera display, and a vague understanding of something called the rule of thirds. Oh yeah, and my music. Can't go for a walk without a soundtrack.
One of the things I've been working on is the Poetic Places Fredericton app. A poem by Kathy Mac about the Bill Thorpe Bridge is going live soon, so we needed pictures of the bridge. The photos needed to be a wide shot and two close-ups, but those were the only directions I had. I might not know much about photography, but I think I know a little about writing.
So I get down there, find a good spot on the walking trail, and take this picture:
Alright, good start, a nice wide boy of a long boy. Now the obvious close-up is this next one:
So what we have here is probably the right answer: wide shot of the bridge, close-up of the memorial. Seems like an open-and-shut case.
Well, yeah, but it's boring, and obvious, and a little too much like what the tourism board would want. And we're not Fredericton Tourism, we're a Poets' Archive, man! That's a story for Heritage Minutes!
So I keep walking, looking for basically anything that isn't this plaque, and I notice for the first time that the trail doesn't just go up onto the bridge access, but downwards. I find this:
This homely nook under the bridge is exactly what I'm looking for. In that little ridge between the bridge and the support is an abandoned red gym bag. There's a trash can for cigarettes on the ground from the city. The view is much less romantic from behind those trees. It's moist. It's a mess. It's perfect.
I have a tendency to ignore good advice. Or rather, I don't like the obvious answers. I've done the creative writing program here at STU, and I've gotten a lot of good advice, but I've also ignored a lot of it. Not because my peers are wrong, but I already thought of a lot of their feedback. I don't think I'm better than that advice, especially since that stuff would probably make my writing better. But I don't know, man, wouldn't you rather be Ed Wood than Paul Greengrass? Wouldn't you rather make Plan 9 from Outer Space than Captain Phillips? I'd rather do something nobody else thought to do or actively chose not to do rather than just make something correctly.
I'd rather everybody see this monument:
Now that's ambition!
Evan James Kitts Mersereau
(P.S., the soundtrack to this excursion was Secret of Mana: Resonance of the Pure Land, a free triple-album from OverClocked ReMix. Dad wouldn't have much to say about that.)
As the ACPA Editors, we wish to keep you up to date with new entries and exciting poetry news.