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Poetry Prize

The Shortlist: Q&A with Emily McGiffin

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

Emily McGiffin's poem, "Stikine Country" is shortlisted for the 2011-2012 CBC Poetry Prize. We talk to this northern BC-based poet about geographical love affairs and the way wilderness thinks.

Emily McGiffin.jpg
1. Tell us about yourself.
I live in the town of Smithers, which lies beside Bulkley River about 80 kilometres upstream of its confluence with the Skeena. It’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been. Like many people who live here, I happened to pass through and the same day decided to move here. For the past few years, I’ve worked from home at a large desk that currently occupies the living room because I’m refinishing the floor upstairs. I do some freelance writing, but my bread and butter is the contract work I do for cooperatives, conservation groups, social service agencies and sometimes government. I feel quite grateful to be able to spend my time this way. 

2. What do you usually write?
I make my living writing, but not by writing poetry. Typically I write reports, articles, grant applications and web content about issues, ideas and projects. When I manage to carve out some purely creative time, I write plenty of notes that eventually work their way into poetry and essays.

3. Have you submitted to the competition before?
I’ve submitted to CBC writing competitions—both poetry and nonfiction—many times over the years and have been a finalist a couple of times in the past. I always enjoy reading the lists of finalists and the work they’ve submitted; they’re great snapshots of what’s going on in Canadian writing.

4. What themes did you choose to explore in your poetry entry?
This is a suite of wilderness poems that looks at my usual pattern of thoughts and the question of how to move beyond it. I’m interested in this because most of this chatter of thinking is a repeated string of everyday human problems and logical solutions. Wilderness thinks in a different way. Its meaning lies outside of the human systems we use to organize and understand things. These poems explore the notion that we must reorient our usual forms of thinking and perception to recognize its intrinsic value, and that the process is both uncomfortable and beautiful.

5. What inspired you to write these poems?
These are themes I’ve been mulling over for a long time and these poems are my most recent attempt to articulate them. I spent the first six months of this year volunteering in the Philippines and when I’m away I invariably think a lot about home. I also thought a lot about the nature of the work I was doing. A main goal of a lot of development work is to lift people out of material poverty and I found myself confronted by the question “then what?” Is it actually possible both to alleviate poverty and slow the industrial transformation of wilderness? How? We’ve constructed such vast and unwieldy supply chains and economic systems of procurement and disposal. The global nature of our activities means that the well-being of, say, Manila slum-dwellers and the northern BC wilderness are intimately connected. 

6. How long did you work on the poem? How many drafts did you write?
These poems percolated through my subconscious for a long time before they made their way into anything like their current form. They started as rough notes jotted down last summer and fall. By January they’d started to become a sketch of something that gradually took shape over the early spring. I can’t tell you how many drafts. Sometimes I just change a word and sit with it for a while. Is that a draft? I’m not sure.

7. Your poem, "Stikine Country," has so much natural imagery. Was any of this inspired by your surroundings in Smithers, BC?
This sequence was inspired by several trips into the Stikine watershed over the past several years. The region lies some 500 km north of here and is almost entirely uninhabited except for a couple of thousand people clustered along Highway 37 and the lower Stikine. It’s a rugged, difficult and poignantly beautiful landscape that is home to some of the densest populations of large mammals left on the continent. It also happens to be peppered with proposed industrial projects: coalbed methane, mountaintop removal coal mines, small-scale hydro and open-pit copper and gold mines. It troubles me that collectively we allow wilderness areas like this—our public lands—to be transformed and exploited with very little discussion of the long-term cultural and environmental effects—or of what sort of future we actually want.
8. When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
I guess you could say that I’ve always wanted to be a writer. But the same is true of being a biologist, a farmer and an international development worker—I’ve always wanted to be each of those things, too. How does one decide?

9. What other poets inspire you?
I keep returning to the work of Canada’s well-established environmental contemplative poets: Jan Zwicky, Don MacKay, Tim Lilburn. They are endlessly innovative and brilliant. More recently I’ve been delving into writing by a new generation of northern BC poets. Jamella Hagen, Gillian Wigmore and Sarah De Leuw have all released books within the past year and a half and their tough, passionate voices are a joy to read. 

10. How does it feel to be shortlisted for this prize?
Wonderful! These poems are important to me and this kind of recognition is an affirmation that they’re important to others, too. 

Emily McGiffin’s poetry has been widely published in literary magazines across Canada and was awarded the 2008 Bronwen Wallace Award for Emerging Writers. Her debut collection of poems, Between Dusk and Night, was published by Brick Books this spring. She skis and climbs mountains in Smithers BC and, when she’s lucky, in the Stikine. These poems are part of a manuscript in progress. 

Photo credit: Dany Couture

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