How I Wrote It

Emily Nilsen on how a longing for the B.C. coast inspired her new collection

Emily Nilsen takes us behind the scenes of her new poetry book, Otolith.
Emily Nilsen is the author of the poetry collection Otolith. (Kari Medig/Goose Lane Editions)

Otolith, the debut poetry collection from Emily Nilsen, takes readers through the lush B.C. wilderness and peers in on small, intensified moments of human life in nature. In her own words, Nilsen tells us the story of writing her first book.

Nilsen was a finalist for the CBC Poetry Prize in 2015 for her poem "Meanwhile," which is featured in the book. 

Nature's call

"I think this book was kind of building for a long time. I feel I had to do a lot of writing to get to what I wanted to write about. I think the core inspiration probably came from living in the interior and longing for the coast. I actually got to spend some dedicated time being on the B.C. coast at the Salmon Coast Field Station in Echo Bay. This was where I spent a bulk of time writing, thinking and collecting sound.

"A lot of ecology research is done at the Salmon Coast Field Station, particularly on the impacts of fish farming in the area. There was acoustic ecologist called Jenni Schine who was spending some time there recording stories. She gave me the inspiration to to focus on sound because there's so much sound in poetry. So as part of my field research, I would go out rowing and take an H4 Zoom recorder and just listen. I wasn't recording the sounds to document or capture them; I just put on the headphones and floated. It was a heightened way to listen to the place, as opposed to just looking at it, which is what I tend to do. Using the audio as a soundscape helped me to try and get deeper into the place."

Anxiety, take the wheel

"Writing this entire manuscript was driven by a slight anxiety for where I see the world being at and where I see it heading. In some way, writing Otolith was a way of ordering things in situations that feel like they might have no order. I think at the time of writing it does [help ease anxiety]. But then after going through the process of creating a book, it kind of starts to rear up again. You've put all of this thought and work into an entity, which feels like it's no longer yours anymore."

Horizonless writing

"Jan Zwicky was the instructor at the Banff Centre for one of the first writing courses that I took there. One thing she talked about was called horizonless writing. That stuck with me because it's definitely the space I have to get into in order to start writing.

"In poetry, there's a lot of layers that you have to dive through. I find that the outer layers are often mucky and I need a substantial amount of time in order to get into the core. The writing ends up feeling a little bit flat if I feel like I have time constraints.

"I don't want to misrepresent what Jan meant by horizonless writing, but to me it means being able to write without knowing there's like an absolute end to it. You don't have a deadline, so the arc of your writing isn't leading towards it being complete. It can just kind of spread off into the horizon."

Emily Nilsen's comments have been edited and condensed.

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