25th Trillium Award

Poets in Profile: Debbie Okun Hill

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Debbie Okun Hill (photo credit: B. Hill)

Celebrate National Poetry Month and find out what inspires, confounds and delights today's Canadian poets by following our Poets in Profile series. Today, Sarnia poet Debbie Okun Hill tells us how she fell unexpectedly (but wholeheartedly) into poetry and why her athletic husband and daughter think poets are like rock stars.

Join Debbie in Sarnia on Sunday, April 14th for the launch of the anthology EnCompass 1 (Beret Days Press) at a special Books and Biscotti event in celebration of National Poetry Month. Debbie's poetry appears in EnCompass 1 alongside the work of Bernice Lever, Lynn Tait, Josie Di Sciascio-Andrews and Jan Wood. Visit our Events page for more details.

Open Book:

Can you describe an experience that you believe contributed to your becoming a poet?

Debbie Okun Hill:

Believe it or not, I never dreamed of becoming a poet. I wanted to be a teacher or an artist: balancing my childhood between reading books and drawing images from a variety of sources. I ended up working in public relations at an art gallery and later at two educational institutions. It wasn?t until I joined a local writers group in 2002 that I was told I wrote like a poet. I rejected the label. I wanted to write fiction but in the end the poems dominated as more and more editors preferred them over my storytelling.


What is the first poem you remember being affected by?


I don?t recall a poem but I clearly remember a novel: The Edible Woman by Margaret Atwood. The book was part of my high school curriculum. I identified with the main character and admired how Atwood used the food/eating metaphor to describe this woman?s emotional state. Years later, through her novel Surfacing, I became even more attracted to symbolism and how it enriched a poem or story. That year, I purchased A Dictionary of Symbols for my library.


What one poem — from any time period — do you wish you had been the one to write?


None! The moment we try to imitate another person?s work we are not being true to our own voice. American author/professor Leo Buscaglia once wrote: ?You are the only you ... You are the best you. You will always be the second best anyone else.? Of course, the creative side of me enjoys experimenting with different voices and points of views, including the thoughts of inanimate objects and those I don?t agree with. There is both truth and fiction in my work. Perhaps that is part of my style, warping life and looking at it from different perspectives.


What has been your most unlikely source of inspiration?


My husband and daughter! Both of them are athletes. They cannot sit still so they often nag me to get off the computer and exercise! At the same time, they are supportive and tolerant of my writing so I try to embrace their hobbies and interests as well. This Fall 2013, my first full collection of poems is expected to be released by Black Moss Press. It will include several poems from the viewpoint of a nerdy bookworm in an athletic world: washing jock socks, noticing tarnished trophies at a second hand store, even mocking aborted motorcycle trailers.


What do you do with a poem that just isn't working?


I strangle it! Just teasing here! I have files of poems (even full manuscripts) that don?t work. I never worry about perfection in the first, second, third or fourth drafts. I love to write free fall, allowing the muse to take over usually after midnight when I?m half asleep. My husband says I live a rock star?s life: staying up late to write beneath the moonlight and then sleeping in each morning. He is so supportive of what I do. I can spend hours reworking one poem but when a line or two troubles me, I eventually put the work back in the file and start revising another one until it?s polished. Some poems will never be ready for publication. Life goes on. Sometimes having input from a fellow poet will help too!


What was the last book of poetry you read that really knocked your socks off?


This isn?t fair because I have stacks of poetry books on my shelves waiting to be reviewed. However, I remember reading one of Patrick Friesen?s earliest books, The Shunning, and thinking how the thread of each poem was woven together so well that it created a riveting narrative. Poetry is art but it can also be story, even a play, a radio adaptation or dance. It should entertain! The idea of writing lyrics or creating a poetry video appeal to me.


What is the best thing about being a poet?and what is the worst?


I love the freedom of expression, the way words and language sprout from arid places. Call it magical, spiritual, or living in another dimension. I also love the journey into unfamiliar places, like attending readings on a PoeTrain to Cobalt, reading on the Fringe Stage of the Eden Mills Writers Festival or sharing work at Al Purdy?s grave and sneaking off to his A-Frame home. Who does this with a normal job? Because poets are trained to look at details, we obtain a different perspective of the world, capturing both the cosmic beauty and inner scars that influence our thinking.

Perhaps the worst part about being a poet is the inevitable financial sacrifices associated with being an emerging artist and the puzzled look strangers leave when they ask what you do. For me, poetry is the marriage of art and language. It is a love of words, for richer or poorer, till the muse departs.

Debbie Okun Hill is President of The Ontario Poetry Society and a 2012-2013 OAC Writers Reserve grant recipient. To date, over 220 of her poems have been published in over 95 different publications/websites including Descant, Existere, Vallum, The Windsor Review and Other Voices in Canada plus Mobius, Still Point Arts Quarterly and The Binnacle in the US. She is one of five Canadian poets featured in the anthology EnCompass I (Beret Days Press). Her first collection of poetry is forthcoming from Black Moss Press in Fall 2013.

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