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National Poetry Month

Poetry Month Q&A: Evelyn Lau

Vancouver's Poet Laureate on her mission to validate emerging writers, and the five Canadian poets who inspire her right now.

Editor's note: This interview was conducted by phone; it has been edited and condensed.

What does your job entail as Poet Laureate?
I think it's quite flexible. I think the intention of the position is that it would change with whoever is in office. Each Poet Laureate would bring their own personal stamp to it. The bulk of what I've chosen to do is to offer free one-on-one consultations with emerging poets. I remember when I started out, how desperately I tried to corner every professional writer who came within spitting distance of me to try to get them to read a bit of my work and give me some advice in terms of direction. And I see that hunger all the time out there in the community among emerging writers. They so want validation and guidance, and aren't always able to take a course or do something more involved. This is sort of a structured way in which to do that. 

What is it about poetry that compels you as a writer?
I love the idea of working within a small space, a page or two in which every word has to account for itself. That appeals to my aesthetic sense. Perhaps more than that, though, is that I see poetry as a way in which I can be emotionally honest in a way that doesn't always seem possible for me in prose. Poetry has always been my first love. I go back to poems again and again, other people's poems, and they can distil a moment or capture an emotion or experience in a way that, for me, prose doesn't do in the same way. A good poem goes right to the heart of something, and I'm drawn to that both as a reader and a writer.

Where do you draw your inspiration from?
Partly from life, of course. None of us lives in a vacuum, and the stories and experiences in the world around us—even those small, insignificant-seeming moments—those are often the ones that trigger a line or an image in a way that a profound experience doesn't. And I'm also inspired by reading, as much as from life experience. 

Who are some of your favourite Canadian poets working today and why?
I know I'm going to miss somebody crucial, but I'd love to put some names out there nonetheless: 
1. Sharon Thesen—I think she's been an inspiration for a lot of people and she has such a distinctive dry, witty voice. 
2. Susan Musgrave, of course, and particularly her more recent works about grief. She just captured it in a way that no one else has. 
3. John Pass. I think he's quite underappreciated and I was fortunate to be on the jury that gave him the Governor General's Award for Stumbling in the Bloom a few years back. His work isn't always easy; you have to pay attention and reread, but it rewards you in the end. There's such depth of thinking in his work. 
4. Don Domanski: I was blown away by his work. Meditative, so aware of the natural world, so present to its beauty.
5. Dionne Brand. I love the lyricism in her work. 

What are you reading right now?
I'm in a jury, so my head is filled with reading that I can't talk about! But I always read a lot of literary magazines. I'm catching up on The New Yorker. I've had a subscription to it since my late teens, and as somebody who wasn't academically trained, to me, reading The New Yorker is going to school. I read it almost cover to cover.The most recent book I was really affected by was Tiger, Tiger—Margaux Fragoso's memoir of her relationship with a pedophile as a child. It's a morally difficult book, and it virtually gave me nightmares. 

What are the biggest challenges that poets in Canada face today?
The biggest challenge is the same one poets have always faced, which is, nobody cares! [Laughing] If I say I'm a writer to a stranger on a plane or somewhere, they're interested and they'll often be quite happy to be in my company, because they esteem writers. But God forbid you say you're a poet—people start edging away from you like you've just come out of the psych ward. People just have no idea what to say to that, because for so many, poetry is something they don't understand, even if they're avid readers. 

How do you plan to encourage and promote the importance of poetry in Canadian society?
Something else I'm planning to do as Poet Laureate is to take inspiration from the Poetry in Transit initiative. I've been involved with that for a few years. I hope to bring poetry out into public spaces with bus shelters, or video screens. What poets love about Poetry in Transit is that it's reaching an audience that would never think of picking up a book of poetry. And I think that's what a lot of us Poet Laureates are trying to do—it's about bringing poetry out of that niche sensibility. Tne other aspect of being a Poet Laureate that I love is being able to recommend other poets for readings or panels. That's been really fun to be able to do. 

Evelyn Wau is currently holding the position of the city of Vancouver's third poet laureate. She published her first memoir, Runaway: Diary of a Street Kid at the age of 18—the book went on to become a Canadian bestseller. She is the author of five collections of poetry, the most recent of which is Living Under Plastic, which won the Pat Lowther Memorial Award. She is currently working on a sixth collection of poetry. 

Photo credit: John Patterson

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