Jan Zwicky on patiently waiting for a signal

When award-winning Canadian poet Jan Zwicky is struck with inspiration, she doesn't always sit down and work away at it immediately. Instead, she lets the feeling settle in for minutes, hours or days until the first words or lines of a poem emerge on their own. Below, Zwicky describes the creation of The Long Walk, her latest environmentally conscious - and decidedly unselfconscious - collection.


Finding her rhythm
I love walking. I like that pace of movement. I often put a notebook and pencil in my back pocket when I'm walking. It gives me lots of time to see things and smell things and touch things. It gives me the opportunity to stop. I love the rhythm of walking. Of course, walking as the "journey of life" is a really old metaphor, one whose bells I don't want to be ringing. I just mean that I like moving through landscapes at a pace that allows meditation, contemplation and reflection.

There are great walkers in literature. Charles Dickens is rumoured to have walked 20 miles a day. I live on the back of a ridge of 140 acres of Crown land on Quadra Island, B.C., and there are fantastic opportunities to walk around. The same path will be different every single time you walk it because the light's different, the weather is different and it's a different season. Even if you walk it on September 15 every year for 10 years, it will be different each September 15. Those marvellous subtle - sometimes not so subtle - differences that texture the walk, this moves me, compels me, attracts my attention.


Finding a signal
When you're writing an essay, you put your butt in a chair and you get it done. With poetry, you're dealing with a kind of intelligence that is itself a gathering intelligence. It's not an intelligence that wants to form or shape the world or impress people with an opinion, but an intelligence that is essentially a kind of listening. You turn yourself into antennae; you are trying to receive a signal. But there can be static or the signal can be intermittent and so you must wait for it clearly to declare itself.

There'll be an intensity of being that really attracts my attention. I'll feel that I wish to pay a kind of homage to that. The poem springs from a wish to respond, to say thanks, to this intensity that is declaring itself. Often that feeling does not happen at the right time; I'll be doing dishes or I'll be needing to talk with somebody, or I won't be able to deal with it right then for some reason or other.


From light to language
I wrote the poem called "Intelligence" in the middle of a drought a couple of years ago. We'd been having hard heat for a long time. The light was very strong and there were fires burning, so there was a kind of haze in the light. Every day dawn came earlier. It wasn't a soft dawn; it was just another day of this hard, pounding light. I didn't have the words yet, I just had the sense of the light.

So I walked around holding that image of the light and its arrival and then I did get the first line: "Earlier each day comes the light." But then I second-guessed it. I mean that's a little torqued in the English language. It sounds more like German. I wrote it down and fooled around with it. I tried to make it easier on the ear but I wasn't getting anywhere, so I let it be. Quite suddenly, the next lines came. That told me that for whatever reason, the first line had to be in that slightly torqued grammatical form. Then more fragments came to me... and then those parts started to organize themselves. That often happens at that stage in composition. The pieces started to fit. As you crawl into that space, you get the lines that ought to be there. They allow you to complete the poem and to make it a whole thing.

Jan Zwicky's comments have been edited and condensed.

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