“On Not Being Lorna Crozier”

What follows are my remarks delivered at the Edmonton Poetry Festival, as part of their “Lunch with the GGs” event. I spoke alongside the always-charming Benjamin Hertwig, Governor General’s Literary Award nominee for his beautiful book Slow War (McGill-Queen’s, 2017). Lorna Crozier had been scheduled to speak, but needed to return home for family reasons, and I was asked to fill in.

I’ve titled my remarks for today “On Not Being Lorna Crozier.”

So I am clearly not Lorna Crozier, and I am sure many of you are disappointed not to get to meet her today. I know I have been really looking forward to hearing her speak tonight. I know many of us are sending her good thoughts right now. But I am *very* honoured to have been asked to speak in her place today. I’ve been asked to talk a little bit about my own experience of being a finalist this year for both the Writers Guild of Alberta’s Stephan G. Stephansson Award for Poetry and the Robert Kroetsch City of Edmonton Book Prize, for my new collection, Believing is not the same as Being Saved, and I’m going to talk about that in a moment, and then I’m going to read a poem from that collection, but first I just want to take this opportunity to say a few brief things about not being Lorna Crozier.

When I was first getting serious about writing, about trying to turn myself into not just someone who wrote–I had been writing poems since I was 14–but into someone whose poems someone else—who was a stranger–might conceivably want to read, Lorna Crozier was one of the absolute giants in my world. I loved her work. I admired it profoundly–and I still do. The compression and economy of her lines and her imagery. When I was first sending out my own poems for publication, Lorna Crozier and Patrick Lane put out a call for submissions for an anthology of work by young poets, which they were calling Breathing Fire. This was 15 years ago this summer. I breathed some of the best fire I could manage onto the page and sent my poems to them. I sent them 15 pages of work, and I thought the work was pretty strong, and then since I didn’t have a lot of experience at that time with the publication process, I sat back and prepared to be discovered.

I wasn’t. They didn’t take my work. I didn’t appear in Breathing Fire. I think the point of the story is that I could have. The work, even at this distance, I can say was good work. Many of the poems ended up appearing in my first collection, One crow sorrow, which won the Writer’s Guild of Alberta Stephan G. Stephansson Award for Poetry in 2009. But this was not 2009. It was 2003. I had 6 years to go before those same poems, that fire that I had breathed onto the page, would become part of a book that would end up on a list and win a prize.

So that is what I want to take this opportunity to talk to you about, just briefly. Not being there yet. Not being Lorna Crozier. I want to talk about the ways that we have to author-ize ourselves as writers. That word authorize has “author” at its root. At the most basic level, to sit down to write at all, we have to authorize ourselves to do that, instead of doing any of the other myriad things that constantly compete for our attention. So I think it’s worth asking: how do we do that? How do we give ourselves permission to believe our work is good before anyone else confirms that–sometimes long before? And maybe even more importantly, how do we authorize ourselves to continue, to devote the time and resources to continuing to make our work, and to continuing to make it better, to making it the best that it can be on its own terms?

If there’s anything that’s true of the writing life, it’s that you win some and you lose some. So a few months after I got my rejection letter from Lorna Crozier and Patrick Lane for their Breathing Fire anthology, I was accepted to the Banff Centre’s Writing Studio program to go and live in Banff for 5 weeks with other writers and write some grief poems. My mom had just died. And I took this little book of Lorna Crozier’s with me to Banff. It had just come out. Inside the front cover, I wrote my name and the date I bought the book. So it says “April 2004.” 14 years ago. I hadn’t published a thing. I had no idea I would one day appear at the Edmonton Poetry Festival as Lorna Crozier’s stunt double.

So I went to Banff, and I wrote the poems that would lead me here.

When I got the rejection letter from Lorna Crozier and Patrick Lane, this was in the days of paper submissions, and they sent back my pages, my poems, 15 pages of my work, with a letter saying thank you for letting us read these, and we’ve decided not to include them. I think it was a form letter. I can’t remember for sure. But what I DO remember, is holding those pages, and knowing that Lorna Crozier and Patrick Lane had read my work. They had read it. They had held those pages in their hands and considered what I had written. And that was enough. Somehow that was enough to allow me for me to keep going.

And when I got to the Banff Centre, and I had the privilege to work with Don McKay, and Greg Hollingshead was there as the Director of Writing Programs at the time—some of you know Greg—and I was watching Don and Greg at one of the social events in the writers’ lounge.

And I was watching these two well established writers who I admired, and they had both won Governor General’s Awards, and I thought how amazing it must be to have that confirmation of the worth of your work, that confidence to do your work, to follow and fulfill your own artistic impetus. And suddenly I realized that it might be possible to just adopt that attitude prematurely—to just do the work already as IF someone else had already recognized its worth.

And I’ve tried to do that ever since, to authorize myself. This little book of mine missed a lot of lists this year, it wasn’t on the GG list, it wasn’t on the League of Canadian Poets lists. And then it was on a list, the WGA Stephan G. Stephansson Award for Poetry, and then all of a sudden it was on two lists–it showed up on the Robert Kroetsch City of Edmonton Book Prize List, too. And I think the point is recognition matters, and we need it, and it allows us to thrive, but it isn’t always coming, or not soon enough, and if we really want to keep going, we need to figure out how to make it, how to generate it, how to apply it to ourselves and to those around us who are also labouring to make what they make in the world, and to do it well.

So I’m going to end by reading a poem that’s about sitting in an audience listening to music. So it’s a poem about art, and it’s a poem about listening, and it’s a poem about how much both of those things matter.


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