25th Trillium Award

A profile of Karen Solie (with a few questions)

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Karen Solie

By rob mclennan

Toronto poet and editor Karen Solie was born in Moose Jaw, and grew up in southwest Saskatchewan. She is the author of the poetry collections Short Haul Engine, Modern and Normal and Pigeon, which won the Pat Lowther Award, the Trillium Poetry Prize and the Griffin Prize. The Living Option, a volume of selected and new poems, was published in the U.K. by Bloodaxe Books in 2013. Curiously, her author bio on the Bloodaxe Books webpage includes ?She initially wanted a career as a vet but dropped that plan to pursue her writing.? Solie has been writer-in-residence in Canada and England, and is an associate director for the Banff Centre Writing Studio. Named one of the best poetry books of that year in The Independent, The Living Option included not only healthy selections from her three trade poetry collections, some one hundred and twenty pages of such, but forty further pages of previously uncollected work under the section title ?The Living Option: New Poems,? the bulk of which will appear in her fourth collection, The Road In Is Not the Same Road Out, due this spring in Canada by House of Anansi Press, and in the U.S. by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. As the House of Anansi press release includes:

In her fourth collection, and the first since the Griffin Poetry Prize?winning Pigeon, Karen Solie advances her extraordinary poetics of impetus and second thoughts. Ferrying the intimate self through the public realm, these poems meditate on the tensile strength of our most elemental bonds and beliefs.

Consistently attuned to the demotic and the enigmatic, she returns our language to us as if new again, in a style somehow both nomadic and steady, both unpredictable and meticulously crafted.

Intelligent, witty, tough-minded, and perceptive, The Road In Is Not the Same Road Out offers Solie's most exciting and captivating work to date, in poems of natural contemplation and uncertainty ranging under the aegis of lyric grace.

Solie?s poems have long existed as even uncomfortably-sharp meditations on violence, bad luck, back and lost roads, love, desire and mistakes of perception, all presented with a remarkable clarity, even from the perspective of voices trapped in the midst of any or all of the above. What I?ve always appreciated is how precisely she locates her poems, providing a wealth of incredible detail in very few words, writing on Lake Erie, Lethbridge, the Kananaskis Valley, rural Saskatchewan, Victoria?s English Bay, suburban Toronto, highway travel on the 400-series out of Mississauga, Greyhound buses (?Medicine Hat Calgary One-Way?), and more than once on driving and car rental. Any regular reader of her work might notice that John Deere tractors, also, are discussed regularly. Whenever she does place a poem so specifically, she does so with insight and the attention of a local, articulating not a postcard poem about any arbitrary geography, but composing a piece with a suggestion of intimate knowledge, especially of the darker elements of what it means to exist in that place. In the poem ?Rental Car,? from The Living Option, she writes: ?Eastbound, westbound, exodus via / the 400-series highways. Personal reasons / I will not get into. The 427 Interchange / is a long note in space, a flightpath of materials / the grace of which is a reason to live.? Her poems attest to and articulate a restlessness and an ability, one might suspect, to remain still or static, or in the same place for too long, and often end up being short narrative pieces on experience, attention and consequence. ?Anything / going has far to go.? she writes, near the end of the poem ?Lift Up Your Eyes.? Or the poem ?Sault Ste. Marie,? that includes: ?Each day a new threshold / to break upon. The fires mean for now there?s work. The drugstore // clerk plans to stop in to the casino / for a couple of hours after shift and what so-and-so // goddamn doesn?t know won?t hurt him. She?s not talking to me / so I?m inclined to believe her. How difficult could it be // to stay here??

rob mclennan:

Your first volume of selected poems, the UK-published The Living Option: Selected Poems (Bloodaxe Books, 2013), appeared two years ago. How did the Bloodaxe title come about, and what was the process of selection?

Karen Solie:

Bloodaxe's publisher, Neil Astley, came to a reading I gave during the Poetry Parnassus festival in London in 2012. He approached me after the reading and asked if I'd be interested in publishing a volume of selected poems with Bloodaxe. I was thrilled, of course, and said yes immediately. I selected the poems myself, with input from Neil, who gave me an idea of how many he would like from each book, and how many poems in total. The process of selection was fraught. I found it very difficult to choose, and not because I was reluctant to leave poems out. I was uncomfortable with the thought of some of them representing what I think of as my work now. But this approached the process inappropriately, and inaccurately, and rather foolishly. A selected poems documents what persists and what changes. The better outcomes, of course, one hopes. But I was not considering the poems on their own terms, nor the book on its terms. I saw things I would do differently now, but who doesn't see that in past work, whether it's an equation, a table, a painting, or a poem? The older poems are not about what I would do now. No one wants to do the same thing over and over. Eventually I had to get over myself and meet the deadline. Ken Babstock gave me valuable notes on the new ones I wanted to include, and advised on which were best left out. Thank god.


Given that it was your first title published in the UK, what was the response to the book? How was the process of touring the collection to an audience you was most likely completely unaware of your work?


The response to the book has been encouraging and surprising, more than I ever hoped for. It received a Poetry Book Society Recommendation, and some positive reviews have appeared in the U.K. I read from it for England's Aldeburgh Poetry Festival in 2013, and Neil arranged dates in Newcastle and Hull with Nikola Madzirov and Robert Wrigley, who also published with Bloodaxe that year. It was a great pleasure to hear Nicola and Robert read from their wonderful books, and to get to know them a bit. It's always more fun to read with other writers. We had great audiences, the organizers of the festival and readings were lovely and I got to ride the train around northern England and see places I'd never been. I know people in Sheffield and Glasgow, so did readings there as well. One of my favourite moments was in Hull, where a fellow came up to me with a copy of Short Haul Engine to sign and wanted to talk sturgeon. Not the poem, the fish. Thankfully, because it's way more interesting. I've read a few times over the years in the U.K., and was writer-in-residence at St. Andrews, Scotland, in 2011, so once in a while I'd run into someone I know, or who'd read me.


Forty pages of your new collection, The Road In Is Not the Same Road Out (Anansi, 2015), appeared in the The Living Option: Selected Poems as ?The Living Option: New Poems.? Forty pages of new material is a lot for any poet, especially from what appears to be a third of the new collection. Were you worried about including that much material from a forthcoming title?


I wasn't worried about the new work appearing. At the time of selecting the poems, I didn't yet have what I could think of as a book, was still just trying to write new poems. I'm grateful to have had new work appear in the U.K. in a volume I'm very happy with, to have worked with Neil, and Bloodaxe, to be part of that community.


At one point you were working on short fiction, with stories appearing in the occasional journal. Is fiction still something you?re working on, or might return to? What has fiction allowed you to explore that poetry, so far, hasn?t?


I haven't written any short fiction in a while, but started a novel a few years ago. I didn't so much set it aside as drift away from it when paying work heated up, and then I started to write poems again. I still think about the story, which is a sign I'll probably go back to it. I don't feel there's anything poetry hasn't allowed me to explore, though I may not have explored it. And it's not really what fiction allows me to explore, but how. If that's vague enough for you. Anyway, I would like to see the story through, and in doing so also find out if I can write a novel. A good one, I mean, obviously. Maybe I can't. But I won't know until I try and I'd like to try.


One element I?ve long admired in your work is the intimate knowledge and details you explore in meditations set in various settings across Canada, from Lake Erie, Lethbridge, the Kananaskis Valley, rural Saskatchewan, Victoria?s English Bay, suburban Toronto, highway travel on the 400-series out of Mississauga, Greyhound buses (?Medicine Hat Calgary One-Way?), and more than once on driving and car rentals. Is geography something you deliberately explore, or something that occurs naturally as part of your thinking?


Thanks, rob. It's both. It occurs naturally and deliberately. I began to write here that I grew up in a place where it takes a long time to get anywhere, but that's basically Canada, right? It's many places in the world. And being compelled by details of landscape and geography can apply equally to those on the road a lot and those who rarely leave their urban neighbourhoods or farms. Maybe I've always been better with things than with people, with details than concepts. In terms of approaching ideas through them, that is. In terms of discerning significance and relationships and consequence. It's natural and deliberate in that it's the way I think, and I pay attention to the way I think and how to articulate it. I'm also suspicious of these statements ? it would take a long time to try to unpack them. I guess that's in part what I'm attempting when I write.

Born in Ottawa, Canada?s glorious capital city, rob mclennan currently lives in Ottawa with his brilliantly talented wife, the poet, editor and bookbinder Christine McNair, and their daughter, Rose. The author of nearly thirty trade books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction, he won the John Newlove Poetry Award in 2010, the Council for the Arts in Ottawa Mid-Career Award in 2014, and was longlisted for the CBC Poetry Prize in 2012. His most recent titles include notes and dispatches: essays (Insomniac press, 2014), The Uncertainty Principle: stories, (Chaudiere Books, 2014) and the poetry collection If suppose we are a fragment (BuschekBooks, 2014). An editor and publisher, he runs above/ground press, Chaudiere Books (with Christine McNair), seventeen seconds: a journal of poetry and poetics (ottawater.com/seventeenseconds), Touch the Donkey (touchthedonkey.blogspot.com) and the Ottawa poetry pdf annual ottawater (ottawater.com). He also curates the weekly ?Tuesday poem? series at the dusie blog, and the ?On Writing? series at the ottawa poetry newsletter. He spent the 2007-8 academic year in Edmonton as writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta, and regularly posts reviews, essays, interviews and other notices at robmclennan.blogspot.com. He currently spends his days full-time with toddler Rose, writing entirely at the whims of her nap-schedule.

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