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Creative Nonfiction Prize

The Shortlist: Q&A with Cornelia Hoogland

There are five names on the shortlist for this year’s CBC Creative Nonfiction Prize. But before we announce the winner, we want to let you know a little about the writers whose personal stories rose to the top. 

Cornelia Hoogland is a poet and playwright who has received five CBC Literary Prize nominations. Her story, “Sea Level”, is shortlisted for the 2011-2012 CBC Creative Nonfiction Prize. 

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1. Tell us about yourself.
With my husband, the stained glass artist Ted Goodden, I live on Hornby Island, B.C., where I’m learning to get along with crows and slugs and to swim in the ocean. Most recently I was a professor at the University of Western Ontario in London, Ontario, where I founded and directed Poetry London, an organization that brings local and nationally acclaimed poets together.  

Among my main interests are the ways in which literature addresses human relationships with the environment and with animals. I explore this topic in "Sea Level", but also in depth through the fairy tale, "Red Riding Hood", in my recent book (Woods Wolf Girl, Wolsak and Wynn, 2011) and through "Crow" in a book of that title (Crow, Black Moss Press, 2011).  

"Sea Level" is the story of looking for wolves. Wolves seem to be a main theme in my work this summer as I travel to Stockholm, Sweden, where my play, Hungry Wolf, was selected for inclusion at the International Women’s Playwright conference.

2. What do you usually write?
I have published 6 books of poetry, 2 chapbooks, and fiction, nonfiction, scholarly articles, as well as plays. I keep a journal and I write down what our granddaughters Maya and Avery say and do in an effort to understand how they see they world.  

3. Have you submitted to the competition before?
Yes, I have been shortlisted once in the (then) personal essay category and three times for poetry. 

4. What is your story about?
"Sea Level" is an exploration of urbanites experiencing the natural world. The setting, Bella Bella, in the kind of place where the proposed Enbridge pipeline will meet the sea. In "Sea Level" the natural world is the main character—a reversal of the usual formulation of nature as the backdrop for more pressing human concerns. In it the nameless human characters act like a Greek chorus, commenting on the main action.  

5. What compelled you to tell this story?
I didn’t set out to write this story. Travelling to Bella Bella was a research project for my 6th book of poetry, Woods Wolf Girl (Wolsak and Wynn, 2011). I wanted to hear wolves, or if possible, to see them. I did neither. My son Cameron accompanied me and took gorgeous photos of all that we did see. We met Howard Humchitt in Bella Bella and other people from whom I have much to learn about the ways humans might be in relationship with the natural world. This story was not the one I had intended to tell, nor was it set in a place that I can call my own. 

6. How long did you work on the story? How many drafts did you write?
Many drafts. After our trip in the fall of 2008 I had the good fortune to spend several weeks at the Leighton Colony at the Banff Centre. I wrote a first draft there. Ted Goodden is my first reader and my most consistent critic of my work, but Sheila Heti kindly commented on a draft and helped improve the story.  

7. Did you tell the people implicated in your story that you were writing/had written it? If so, how did they react?  
My son Cameron, who travelled with me to Bella Bella, laughed. He knew—from watching me scribble in my journal—what was up. I tagged (wrong word) Humchitt on Facebook.  
8. When did you know you wanted to be a writer?  
My mother saved my first diary (1 inch by 1.5 inches in size), begun when I was 6 or 7 years old. I have always tried to be observant and attentive to the world around me. But calling yourself a writer is primarily a question of self-definition. The moment of self-definition occurred for me at The Banff Centre. Adele Wiseman, beloved Canadian novelist and memoirist, wearing her peaked red felt hat, stood before a room full of young writers and told us that we were professional writers. How did she know this? We had all sacrificed to attend the writing program, she said, we had all sacrificed for our writing. That made us professional writers. Thank you, Adele. 

9. What other nonfiction writers inspire you?
The best writers on the subject of "Red Riding Hood" include Canadian Sandra Beckett, Americans Maria Warner and Catherine Orenstein. Favourite poets writing on their own subject matter (writing and metaphor) include Dean Young, Tony Hoagland, Don McKay and Robert Bringhurst. Those whose insight have helped reveal the natural world to me include David Abram, Theresa Kishkan, Bernd Heinrich and Paul Shepherd.  

10. How does it feel to be shortlisted for this prize?
Wonderful. It’s good and necessary to have an audience for one’s work. To share it. To get responses from my readers and listeners.   


Woods Wolf Girl (Wolsak and Wynn, 2011) is Cornelia Hoogland’s 5th book of poetry, and is based on the fairy tale, "Red Riding Hood"—which is also the source of her play, Hungry Wolf, chosen to premiere at the Women Playwrights International in Stockholm, Sweden, in August 2012. Fountainhead Theatre in London Ontario is producing Hungry Wolf’s Canadian premiere in May 2013. Her 6th book of poetry is Crow (Black Moss Press, 2011), and her newest chapbook is titled Gravelly Bay (Alfred Gustav Press, 2012). Hoogland’s recent awards include finalist placements for the 2012 Malahat Review Poetry Competition; Stephen Dunn Poetry Award, The Broome Review (USA); Descant’s Best Canadian Poem; the National Magazine Awards; and 5 CBC literary nominations. Hoogland founded Poetry London in 2004. 

Photo credit: Hennie Aikman

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