What if the dotted line/of the Arctic Circle just above me//on the map is a perforation?/What if the piece of the world/I’m on tears off? – Joanna Lilley*
In a quiet space called imagination, a magical trail of ink flows from Joanna Lilley’s words and seeps inside my head. It swirls and stirs like eddies in a remote stream and my admiration deepens for the lyrical work of this award-winning Yukon-based and UK-born poet.
Not all poetry books speak to me, but Lilley’s debut collection, The Fleece Era, ranks high with my favourites: North End Love Songs (J. Gordon Shillingford Publishing, 2012) by Katherena Vermette and The Shunning (Turnstone Press, 1980) by Patrick Friesen.
Published by Brick Books in 2014, her 96-page book has garnered many positive reviews including one by the current Canadian Parliamentary Poet Laureate, George Elliott Clarke who wrote in The Chronicle Herald: “I’m reminded of Emily Dickinson’s semi-mystical, epigrammatic lyrics, but also Elizabeth Bishop’s pointillist portraiture—the exquisite image and restrained emotion.”
For me, it’s Lilley’s gripping first line: “They could look down/on me from Google Earth” that draws me into her narrative plus the way she describes the northern community of Whitehorse where “aspen shadows dress/the snow in long blue ribbons” that gently nets me like an Arctic Grayling.
I’m on the edge of her poetic wilderness, turning each page, discovering new (and sometimes surreal) ways of looking at everyday living. For example, she writes: “I’m climbing the clay/looking for the steel/that holds up the clouds”. I applaud her dry wit where “cows/are the shape of the United States”.
Divided into four sections (A Riddle, Emotional Expenditure, At Each Exhale, and Nobody Else Dies), this book of 64 poems explores such common themes as familial relationships, (“you were a white-bread brother/in a brown bread house”) childlessness, the breaking away, the wanderer, environmental concerns (“my brain was a net/of dripping dead fish”), regrets, grief, and her move to the Yukon where “A mezzanine of mountains/surround this basement town”. However, what makes the book outstanding and worthy of a five-star rating on Goodreads is the simple yet beautiful language she uses and the way these themes are infused with original and enthralling metaphors.
In her favourite poem “Earth Twin”, she writes: “If anyone asks whether I believe/in life on other planets, I say yes/right away.”
I love how she stretches the boundaries of her imagination and leaves the reader holding another strong and magical image.
In anticipation of her new book to be released by Winnipeg’s Turnstone Press in the spring 2017, I asked Lilley about her writing process. Below is her response:
Congratulations Joanna on your first poetry book The Fleece Era published by Brick Books. Please describe your book in a few sentences.
The Fleece Era is my first collection of poems and so I think it has its origins in many different stages of my life. The common theme for me is the awkwardness and difficulty of everyday living. The poems are very personal, though not to say autobiographical. They wrestle with the guilt that so many of us feel, from the detrimental impact we’re having on the planet to the pain we cause our families and others we love. I’ve been told the theme of childlessness is rather strong too which for me is very much connected to environmental worries.
What is your favourite poem in the collection and why do you like it so much?
That’s a difficult question! It varies, I think, depending on what’s going on in the world and in my current writing. I seem to like including “Earth Twin” when I give readings. It’s the last poem in the book and I like sharing it because it came out of such an ordinary, everyday activity, namely doing the dishes and listening to the radio. I love how we can find poetry in absolutely everything. That’s why poetry is magical for me. I love how everything from doing the dusting to, say, designing a space ship is all part of the human experience.
How does your work differ from others in the same genre?
I don’t think my writing achieves anything special in terms of form or subject matter. I think it’s more about content. My poems emerge entirely out of my individual experience. I’m the only person who has led my life just as you’re the only person who has led yours. Each of our lives is a unique configuration of possibilities, probabilities and inevitabilities. Only I could have written the poems I write, just as other poets could only have written theirs.
I have introduced you as a Yukon-based poet but you were actually born in Newmarket, Suffolk [in England] and according to your bio, you lived in England, Wales and Scotland before you moved to Whitehorse, Yukon about ten years ago. How important is travelling and living in different cities and countries to a writer? Where do your loyalties live? Would you consider yourself a Canadian or European writer? Or does it matter whether you are associated with a certain locale?
I think for me personally, travelling and moving has been very important for my writing but that’s not to say it’s important for every writer. I think you could live in one place all your life as a writer and perhaps even be a better writer because of it, as you’re delving deeper and deeper into your subject matter and paying more and more attention to the same, familiar surroundings.
For me, moving to Canada helped my writing a great deal as it enabled me to step out from under at least some of the weight of being brought up in a country with a very glorious and yet intimidating literary history. Canada has a rich literary history too, of course, but it wasn’t telling me from my childhood onwards that it was ridiculous and presumptuous for me to even imagine I could be part of the literary world.
I find that geography inspires me, which is why moving around and living in different places has always been important to me. I find it easier to be an observer when I’m in a new setting and I admit I enjoy that role, although I also use the same observer device when I’m in a place that’s very familiar to me as it helps me be mindful and present.
As for loyalties, well, they’re certainly split. I feel very privileged that I can consider myself a citizen of two countries. I’ll always be English but I hope I’m considered as a Canadian writer too, especially as my books have been published by Canadian presses. I’ve never really felt European because growing up in Britain, Europe was across the sea. Europe was Abroad. However, I was very saddened by the Brexit decision when Britain voted to leave the European Union. That‘s a mistake as far as I’m concerned.
I also feel lucky that within Canada I’m considered a Yukon writer. The Whitehorse community has been very welcoming to me and I’m grateful for that. I’m always happy to chat to people who want to know more about life in the north.
I understand Brick Books encouraged and supported you on your first book tour. Can you provide some details in a couple of lines? What did you like best about the experience? What did you like the least?
Kitty Lewis at Brick Books had the amazing idea of four of their poets, including me, doing a trans-Canada reading tour. The four of us – me with Karen Enns, Jane Munro and Arleen Pare – read all across the country coast to coast from Victoria to Fredericton. Brick Books provided some of the funding and so did the Government of Yukon’s Touring Artist Fund and the League of Canadian Poets.
It was the most amazing experience. I’d been trying to get a book published for so long, it was a dream come true. What I enjoyed most was reading with such amazing authors in such a variety of cities. What did I like the least? Well, at the very first reading, in Victoria, where the four of us had only just met a few minutes earlier, I, as the rookie poet with just one book, had to stand up and read first. So I had to read in front of a hundred people without having heard any of the others read which was terrifying. Thankfully everyone was very supportive and kind and I got through it and even had fun.
Brick Books published your poetry collection in 2014 and in 2015, your short story collection The Birthday Books was published by Hagios Press in their Strike Fire New Authors Collection. That’s quite an accomplishment to be proficient in two different literary disciplines. How do you juggle your writing schedule to accommodate the two different writing disciplines?
I’ve been writing for a long, long time and so I suppose over the years you build up quite a bit of work even if you’re writing in different disciplines. And then, if you’re lucky and a miracle happens, you get published. I’ve always worked full-time and fitted my writing around that in the evenings and weekends. I’m usually either focusing on poetry or fiction at any one time. It’s hard to do both on the same day because I seem to go to a different part of my brain for each one. I see poetry and fiction though as part of the same rainbow, as it were; they might be at different ends or they might be different colours, but they’re all the same thing really.
Describe your writing process.
When I write I need silence and I need to be relaxed. Writing when I first wake up is lovely if I can manage it because I’m in a dreamy state and my editing hat is hopefully where I left it in another room. I need to know I have time to write slotted into my schedule or I get jittery. I can’t just write for five minutes, although if that was all I had then I would because not writing at all wouldn’t be an option. I aim to write every day and I admit I get rather grumpy if I have to go more than a day without writing.
What inspires you? Who are your mentors?
As someone who didn’t have a book published until later in life, I’m always inspired by hearing about writers who persevere and write what’s true to their heart. My most recent mentor was Gail Anderson-Dargatz. I did a novel mentorship program with her earlier this year which was an enormous help. She asks such powerful, probing questions and is so encouraging and inspiring.
I’m also part of a small writing group in Whitehorse which really helps me keep going. The other writers in the group are incredibly inspiring and we support each other through the inevitable ups and downs.
Every time I read a novel or a poem that I love I feel inspired – and envious of course! It was because I loved reading so much that I dreamed of being a writer. I remember a time when I didn’t really know any writers and now I feel so fortunate that I have friendships and connections with quite a few. It’s not easy being a writer and dealing with the frustrations of the writing process and all the rejections but I also feel blessed that I love writing so much and that I’m in that world.
What are you currently working on?
I’m working on a collection, hopefully, of poems about extinct animals. I’m also working on a novel.
What are your future plans?
I’m keen to keep working on the animal poems and the novel. My second poetry collection is coming out with Turnstone Press in spring 2017 so I’m absolutely delighted about that.
Do you have any special events this month where readers may hear your work?
As it happens I’m reading at The Word on the Street in Saskatoon on 18 September. I’m reading and talking about short stories with Donna Besel. There are some details here. I also put details of my upcoming readings on my website so that’s a good place to check for future events.
Is there anything else you would like to share with the readers?
I’ve mentioned it already but I’m so grateful that I have writing in my life. It’s helped me so much through life’s difficulties. Just as there’s magic in reading, there’s magic in the process of writing itself and it brings me so much joy.
Thanks Joanna for the interview. I can’t wait to read your next book. Please keep in touch.
Find out more about Joanna at www.joannalilley.com
Information about The Fleece Era can be found on the Brick Books website.
Information about The Birthday Books can be found on the Hagios Press website.
*from the poem “Earth Crack” published in the book The Fleece Era (Brick Books, 2014) page 87. Reprinted with the author’s permission: Copyright ©2014 Joanna Lilley
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