As part of the Red Alder Review Open Mic series – Q&A and poem from Nancy Holmes.
RA: How, since the pandemic began, have you been able to connect or stay connected with the literary and writing communities?
NH: The first few months, I took a lovely pause and disconnected. I did a lot of writing, thinking, mulling and musing, and finished my new book of poetry. However, after awhile, I missed going to readings, talks, and seeing people in person. Fortunately, I teach at the University of British Columbia so I get a lot of contact with young and emerging writers which is always stimulating and in September 2021 we were back in the classroom in real life. A wonderful legacy of the pandemic was introducing us to new tools like Zoom so we could “bring” writers into our classes and communities easily. I was teaching a course on the Power of Metaphor and writer and therapist Karen Connelly “came” to the class to talk about metaphor and psychology.
Her talk was beautiful, moving and poetic, an experience the students wouldn’t have had otherwise—nor me! Lastly, I was reminded how valuable the public library is. It’s one of the greatest feature of our civilization! I ordered and read so many books while I stayed home. For after all, reading is the best connection one can have with the literary world.
Where do your writing ideas come from? What role do imagination and memory play in your writing? Is there some interaction between the two or does one take precedence over the other?
My poetry often comes from being out in the world, especially nature. I walk, observe and experience and then language seems to want to attach itself to these experiences. For example, who hasn’t seen the moon or a gorgeous flower and been delighted or astonished? These objects or topics may be among the most cliché ones of poetry. Your individual personal experience as you encounter these wonders, though, isn’t cliché. Astonishment and delight always feel new and it’s the feeling of newness that language attaches to, or attempts to. Also every time anyone sees a moon or flower that person is going through something specific in their life, a whole tangle of memory, life events, feelings, thoughts. So the encounter becomes something truly new and unfelt and unseen before in exactly that way. The poet’s challenge is to make the reader feel the uniqueness of that moment. It’s the job of imagination—that great power—to align itself with language in order to generate and activate that once-in-the-universe experience in other people. And possibly refreshing and renewing the reader’s memory or past experience of moon or flower, grief, loss, joy or whatever has been spun out of the poem.
As you think about your current work, are you able to reflect on how your writing practice has evolved over time? How do you generally
think about your approach to process?
I have a long laborious process. It takes me forever to write a poem, often months or years. What I’ve learned over time is to just accept that, to realize the first couple of drafts are never, hardly, ever going to be the final poem. I usually jot lines in a journal or a first draft in long hand, and often do a few drafts of a poem in handwriting, sort of feeling my way into the poem.
It’s like grasping so you need a hand! Anna Quindlen says, “Something written by hand brings a singular human presence that the typewriter or the computer cannot confer.” In this specific quote, she’s talking about reading handwriting, but I think this is true of writing by hand too. In the gestation of a poem—maybe because of that essential individual uniqueness I talked about above, the hand can imprint the individual consciousness into the language. Only when I’m feeling there’s nothing more I can get, I’ll type the poem into the computer. Then I spend more time on it. It’s a long loving process of getting to know my own poem and finding my voice in it.
What happens when words fail?
You try to find a poem. Or you just laugh or cry.
What are you reading currently? Are there any recent or forthcoming titles that you’re excited about?
I have been spending a lot of time reading the new book by my colleague Matt Rader. It’s called Ghosthawk. A wonderful book of poetry. I just finished another book called Essential Tremour by Canadian writer Barbara Nickel who wrote a series of poems about an anchoress. This intrigued me as my new book has a sequence about the medieval anchoress, Julian of Norwich.
Those are the most recent books of poetry on my bedside table. In my car I’m listening to one of the “Great Courses” on Dante’s Divine Comedy which I’ve always found fascinating though I’ve never read any of it except the Inferno in translation. This course is convincing me I need to read the whole thing. I also read a lot of murder mysteries. This fall I started reading my way through the Sue Grafton “Alphabet” mysteries—I’m up to “I”! I also have been immersed in some speculative fiction, Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro and a new book by a Nigerian writer, Umar Turaki, who is living in Canada now, Such a Beautiful Thing to Behold.
Do you have any new work forthcoming in books, journals, chapbooks, anthologies, etc.?
I have a new book, out just last month—Arborophobia published by The University of Alberta Press. I’m doing a few readings to introduce it to the world and that’s my focus these days!
(who carries her eyes in a dish)
May I offer you an eye?
A young woman’s orb
The lens a clear lozenge
not yellowed with age.
Inside, a layer
of chocolatey retina
and a filling of gel,
not even a lump
or a floater.
A ball uncataracted,
cleansed of lid and lash.
Its blue iris
to accompany the gush
of ocular salt
on the tongue.
(From Arborophobia by Nancy Holmes, University of Alberta Press, 2022.)
Nancy Holmes has published six collections of poetry, mostly recently Arborophobia (University of Alberta Press, 2022). Nancy’s poems and short stories have been published in Canada, the UK, and Ireland. She is the editor of Open Wide a Wilderness: Canadian Nature Poems and she teaches Creative Writing at The University of British Columbia in Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada where she lives. She also collaborates with communities and other artists on eco art projects both locally and internationally. Nancy won the 2017 Malahat Review’s Creative Non-Fiction award. https://www.nancyholmes.ca/