“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.