“We dream when we sleep; Magpies dream/when they fly in the rain. We might not always remember, /but every one of our dreams is about either leaves or feathers.” – Kelly Shepherd*
A few days ago, I posted a review of Kelly Shepherd’s Insomnia Bird: Edmonton Poems (Thistledown Press, 2018). The author impressed me with his “mind-warping, playful, and clever” work but who was this western Canadian poet with such layered words woven with humour and twigs? I decided to find out. Below is our conversation (edited slightly for length, order, and flow).
Hi Kelly! Before I received your book Insomnia Bird for review, I wasn’t familiar with your work. I had never seen a magpie, one of the star attractions in your second collection of poetry. Even my first-hand knowledge of Edmonton was limited despite short visits over the years. Initially, I wondered whether your book would speak to me, the outsider looking in. As it turned out, it held me captive.
At what point in your writing process did you decide to set the poems in Edmonton versus somewhere more generic? What local insights would the book offer to the residents versus the universal themes that would appeal to readers living outside the area, province, or even another country?
This was a concern when I was starting to compile these poems: how accessible is this book going to be, to people who aren’t familiar with Edmonton? Will it even make sense?
Because Insomnia Bird is all about Edmonton-specific places, happenings, and landmarks. Some of the references are quite obscure, but they’re not inaccessible. I’ve had several people comment on the pleasant surprise of finding one of these details that they recognize from their own experience of Edmonton.
But hopefully, in spite of this ‘specificity’, there’s still enough of the familiar in the descriptions of public transit, for example, or urban wildlife, that people who don’t know Edmonton will still recognize these things. On one level, Edmonton is very uniquely Edmonton in this book; on another level Edmonton can stand in for almost any city. It becomes ‘everycity’.
Some of these poems celebrate Edmonton, but others are quite critical of the city and its culture, for example our destructive addictions to fossil fuels and big trucks, and our tendency toward urban sprawl, and the thinly-veiled colonialism inherent in many institutions. And so on. Insomnia Bird is a study in shadow geography, which means it looks at those aspects of a place which are hidden, or repressed. It looks for the details a city wouldn’t include in its tourist brochures.
When I first heard about Insomnia Bird, I was preparing to read the book Magpie Days (Turnstone Press, 2014) by Manitoba poet Brenda Sciberras. The day I finished reading your book, I noticed an announcement that Pedlar Press will be launching These Wings, the fifth poetry collection by Kim Fahner. The front cover includes an image of a magpie. One of your mentors Cornelia Hoogland also wrote about ravens and crows in her book Crow (Black Moss Press, 2011). Suddenly the magpie was invading my space. When did the magpie first enter your work and how has it influenced you to date?
It’s true, they’re everywhere! Edmonton poet Alice Major has a book, Office Tower Tales, which also features a magpie on the cover.
Some people don’t like magpies for the reason you suggest: they invade your space. They’re loud. They build these sometimes huge, messy nests in people’s trees, which aren’t just little modest robin’s nests. Magpies are flashy birds, with distinctive long tails and glossy feathers, and they come across as arrogant. Especially compared to the unassuming little chickadees and the nondescript brown sparrows we often see. It’s almost as if people resent magpies, because they’re not very Canadian! Not self-deprecating enough. But then again, people also admire magpies for the same reasons. Likewise with ravens, crows, and jays (they’re all related) — they’re charismatic and clever, they’re very vocal, and they’re interesting to watch.
Insomnia Bird‘s first poem, “Twilight Bird Hymn,” includes a variety of magpie-related mythology and folklore; these references are also scattered throughout the book. Magpies have been capturing the human imagination, all over the world, for a very long time. It’s also fascinating to me that here in the Prairies, magpies used to live in a probably somewhat symbiotic relationship with herds of bison. When the bison were nearly killed off by settlers, magpies became more closely associated with humans — and gradually became the expert urban dwellers we see today. So there is historical significance to them as well. And Edmonton currently has a huge magpie population! (I saw magpies a lot when I was living in South Korea too. It was interesting to note that they looked and behaved exactly the same, but sounded a little different.)
My first chapbook of poems, called Circumambulations (with Publishing Beyond Borders, an Icelandic press, in 2003 I believe) included some magpie poems. I had recently moved to the Okanagan, and was intrigued by the magpies I saw there. So I guess that’s when it started! My second chapbook, the bony world (The Rasp and the Wine, Edmonton, 2010) is entirely about wildlife, including magpies, and the cover also depicts two magpies in flight (cover image by Erin Candela). Shift, my first full-length collection (Thistledown Press, 2016) has a bird on the cover as well, so there’s definitely a pattern. But Shift is not “about” birds, specifically, and certainly doesn’t focus on one particular bird the way Insomnia Bird does.
What do you find appealing about the Magpie/bird/animal motif?
While Insomnia Bird looks closely at black-billed magpies, I think birds in general are a very potent and important symbol. They can represent flight, lightness, or freedom. The sky, just like the undersea world, is a place that people can’t entirely comprehend. So there’s a sense of the unknown, and the humility that comes along with that, when we look at birds. We’ve innovated this incredible technology that allows us to fly across oceans like migratory birds — that’s one more aspect of nature we’ve “conquered” — but it requires enormous expenditures of labour and energy. It’s very expensive. Whereas birds can just do it.
“I think birds in general are a very potent and important symbol.”
But long before airplanes, all the depictions of supernatural beings (like angels) in various religions must have been at least partly inspired by birdwatching! And birds are prominent in myths and creation stories all over the world. The Raven, for example, makes appearances everywhere from the Hebrew Bible, to Norse mythology, to the West Coast of British Columbia.
Birds aren’t alone in this; similar cases could be made of course for bears, salmon, foxes, snakes, rabbits, and so on. Animals have always been regarded as potent symbols, and as messengers. One of my chapbooks is titled The First Metaphor, and that’s what it’s referring to: animals, other-than-human beings, as an important symbolic and linguistic element in prehistoric human thinking.
Earlier, you mentioned your first poetry collection Shift. Unlike the full-feathered image of a magpie on the front cover of Insomniac Bird, its cover depicts the carcass of what appears to be a crow. (I may be wrong on the bird identification). What are the other main differences between your two full collections?
I don’t know the bird species on the Shift cover exactly, but I think it’s a songbird. Maybe a sparrow? Anyway, aside from their covers, the two books are really quite different. Shift is more lyric poetry, and I wouldn’t call it experimental by any means; some of the nature writers it refers to (like Annie Dillard and Aldo Leopold) are downright old-fashioned! Shift was an attempt to connect nature poetry, and ecopoetry, with work poetry. Insomnia Bird covers those topics too, but in very different ways. And of course it’s set in the city of Edmonton, and it’s all about Edmonton, which is unique. It’s doing something entirely different formally as well: the poems and the physical pages in the two books look very different.
Going back to Insomnia Bird, I noticed that the word ‘magpie’ always began with a capital ‘M’. I have several theories: 1) the Magpie represented a ‘God’ or “’Goddess’ 2) you wanted the bird personified so you gave it a proper name, 3) you just wanted to mess with my head, 4) all of the above, 5) none of the above or 5) the Magpie insisted? What were you thinking?
I might not go as far as “God” or “Goddess” (but maybe I would?) — but the Magpie might be considered a Trickster figure, and is definitely a person in some sense. Is this anthropomorphic? Metaphorical? Spiritual? I won’t try to define it too precisely, but one of the underlying themes of the book is that I see Magpie as the Muse, or the genius loci — the spirit of the place — of Edmonton.
Here’s another puzzle that kept me awake at night. The Magpie in your collection is heard counting, once in Hangul (Korean language) and once in Cree. Several of your longer poems are also numbered. Explain 1, 2, or 3 reasons for that.
Magpies also count in English in one or two poems. The association of magpies with numbers is a reference to the old rhyme, “One for sorrow, two for joy…” whereby the number of magpies you see will determine some aspect of your fortune — playfully at least, although at one time it was probably taken more seriously. There are also mathematical references to magpies, as expert nest architects. (That’s two reasons, I think?)
In addition to using epigraphs to set the tone for your poems, you have lifted (with credit) and scattered lines from birding books, planning manuals, and other government documents into the body of the work. Some of the lines were terribly dry especially in contrast to some of your more poetic and beautifully-written phrases. I gathered this mimicked the Magpie’s personality for collecting scraps of items for its nest. In a sense, you were creating partial found poems which I found effective for your message. What inspired you to use this technique for your book?
I initially worked with Harold Rhenisch on the Insomnia Bird manuscript. It was quite a process! But the collection really came together with the deliberate introduction of randomness, and play. I had already been collecting bits and pieces of found poetry, wording from Edmonton street signs and advertising, and from websites, public transit documents, and so on. Then we put all of it — the found texts, the randomly generated lines, and quotations and epigraphs from all different sources, with the poems I had already written — into a blender.
“The trick with the blender is, the poems can’t stay in there for too long.”
The trick with the blender is, the poems can’t stay in there for too long. Timing is everything! Not enough time in the blender, and the poems aren’t mixed up enough. You just get a list of stuff, or a page from a boring textbook. Too much time in there, on the other hand, and the poems become surreal, Dadaist, and that wasn’t my intention either. The desired blender setting is “Juxtaposition.” The dry ingredients (the city planning texts, for example) are meant to contrast with the other registers of speech, like humour, lyric poetry, and so on.
And you’re right, all this is indeed meant to mimic the magpie, as it gathers building materials. The idea is that the poems themselves are magpie nests, but made out of gathered words and sentences instead of sticks and branches.
You also incorporate humour in your work. What role does humour play in educating the public about our changing environment?
To quote the poet and novelist Gary Barwin: “There’s a wisecrack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”
I did try to incorporate a lot of humour into this book. There were definitely elements of play in the writing. And birds like magpies, of course, are smart and often amusing to watch. They have a wicked sense of humour.
And of course humour is just one part of Insomnia Bird. These poems are also about history, and the ways in which we forget history — for example by building parking lots and subdivisions over top of it. We can talk about the good old days, when South Edmonton Commons was all farmers’ fields, as far as the eye could see, but that betrays a very short memory of this part of the continent. There’s also the image of the Prairies being full of bones.
But to answer your question about communicating environmental concerns using humour, I think humour enables us to let down our guards and truly listen, and truly communicate with one another, in ways that political slogans and statistics never could. And that element of surprise, that intuitive leap that takes place when we hear something funny, can be a powerful thing. Humour can be jarring, in the sense that it makes us look at familiar things in new ways (I’m thinking of writers like Thomas King and Kurt Vonnegut).
Insomnia Bird has already received strong endorsements from such heavy-weight Canadian poets as Sharon Thesen, Erin Mouré, Nancy Holmes, and Dennis Cooley as well as a recent and positive review from Edmonton’s former poet laureate Alice Major. When did you first decide you wanted to be a poet? Was there an incident that led you in that direction? How difficult or easy was it for you?
First of all, and as a partial answer to your question, I’d like to acknowledge some of the teachers and mentors who have been so important and influential to me along the way, and so generous. John Lent, Nathan Kowalsky, Nancy Holmes, Sharon Thesen, Harold Rhenisch, Cornelia Hoogland. I feel very lucky.
When did I first decide I wanted to be a poet? I don’t remember it being a specific moment or decision! I always wanted to be a writer, although I had no idea what that might mean: journalism? Novels? Children’s books? I’ve always loved reading and writing, and when I was little I published my own hand-bound books of stories and cartoons.
I had quite a few wonderful teachers growing up, all through school. Curt Gesch, my high school English teacher, was a huge influence, and very encouraging.
But long before all that, when my parents read stories to me and my brothers from a young age — some very early memories are of the Smithers Public Library — that was probably what really started it. That love for story, and storytelling, and the voice.
A famous figure in my family was Christie Harris, who was a prominent and popular children’s writer in British Columbia from the 1960s to the 90s. Her best-known title is probably Raven’s Cry (published 1966). And The Christie Harris Illustrated Children’s Literature Prize, awarded annually in BC, was named after her. She was my great great aunt (my great grandmother’s sister). I was too young to know her well, but I grew up reading her books and to my younger self there was something magical about her, both her West Coast stories and simply the fact that she was a writer! This has always been present for me as well, as a sort of backdrop to everything else.
Fascinating! Is there anything else you would like to share with the readers?
A new poetry chapbook is forthcoming in summer 2019, called In the Space Between, with the Alfred Gustav Press.
I’m very grateful for the vibrant and supportive reading, writing, and publishing culture that exists in Western Canada. This hasn’t always been the case, and so I’m also grateful to the people (including Al Forrie and Jackie Forrie, of Thistledown Press!) who worked so hard in previous decades to make this culture possible.
Thanks Kelly for taking time from your busy schedule to chat. Best wishes for your future projects.
Thank you! I appreciate the opportunity to talk about my new book.
Meet Shepherd in person. He recently returned from readings in Fanny Bay and Victoria, B.C. However, in mid-February he will be participating in a Mary Oliver tribute event with a number of other Edmonton writers. In late March, he’ll be in Kelowna for the UBC Okanagan’s Visiting Authors series. And in late April, he’ll be doing a couple of readings as part of the Edmonton Poetry Festival.
*from the poem “Listen, Says the Sea Within You” printed in Insomniac Bird: Edmonton Poems (Thistledown Press 2018) by Kelly Shepherd. Reprinted with the author’s permission Copyright © Kelly Shepherd, 2018 (p.51)
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