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October 24, 2002 Aspiring poets get tips from award winners



by Susan Font

A reading by award-winning Canadian poets Don McKay and Jan Zwicky attracted an overflow crowd of rapt students on Oct. 7. McKay is a two-time winner of the Governor-General’s Award, for Another Gravity (2000) and Night Field (1991).

McKay started the evening with “Alibi.” The lines “swallows with knives of wings” and later, in Alias Rock Dove, “pigeons like empty gloves,” demonstrated McKay’s observant eye, and how he angles images for sharper significance or thematic resonance. There are a lot of birds and references to flight or ascension in his work.

“The Canoe People,” from his new book Vis à Vis, was a reference to a Haida story of spirit beings who were perpetual travellers but didn’t realize they were spirits. “They lived in a space that creative people know only too well,” McKay quipped before reading.

“They’re out there, the unformed ones,/shapes in sea-mist, half-/coagulated air, in their mossy/second-hand canoe maundering into English with its one-thing-then-/another traffic-signaled syntax.”

Zwicky, a winner of the Governor-General’s Award in 1999 for her poetry collection Songs for Relinquishing the Earth (1998), also teaches environmental philosophy at the University of Victoria. She is this year’s recipient of a teaching excellence award in her department.

“Border Station,” one of the poems from this book, evoked a vivid image of her home province, Alberta. “Raised on the prairies, I/could see it clearly/the beauty/of the storms that can form in the vast light above the plains.”

In answer to students’ questions, McKay described his poetic sense as a dog sniffing around potential versions of his poems. Zwicky characterized hers at its most obstinate as a sort of fish. “I know the damn thing’s out there, but I can’t haul it in, it won’t bite!”

She spoke of writing determinedly through writer’s block. “The damn poem’s dead on the table and you keep working.”

McKay had the last word for frustrated poets: “If it feels stale, step away from it. Just go to the pub and take some reading with you.”

This was one in a series of readings by invited authors, sponsored by the Canada Council for the Arts, among others, and the Department of English.

On Nov. 7, at 8:30 p.m. in H-420, there will be a reading by Caroline Adderson, author of Bad Imaginings and A History of Forgetting. Edmonton author Shawna Lemay (All the God-Sized Fruit, and Against Paradise) will read Nov. 18 in H-535-2.