Books·How I Wrote It

Governor General's Literary Award winner Cecily Nicholson writes poetry with purpose

Cecily Nicholson describes how she wrote her award-winning poetry collection Wayside Sang.
Cecily Nicholson is the author of the poetry collection Wayside Sang. (Liam Britten/CBC/Talonbooks)

Cecily Nicholson won the 2018 Governor General's Literary Award for poetry for Wayside Sangan exploration of displacement, identity and North American roadways through the lens of Black diaspora communities. The "hypnotic suite" of poems won the jury over for its "catalogue of impressions, collage of the ephemeral" that "stays with you long after the journey's over."

Below, the Ontario-raised, B.C.-based poet describes how she wrote her collection.

Jumping off point

"I was setting out to accomplish a couple of things. One was a personal journey or consideration of my ancestry. I was thinking through the particular history of my birth father, who I never knew, but had some sense of where he was from and how he moved about the Great Lakes. I paralleled this with broader narratives on the displacement and movement of diaspora Black communities relative to the Windsor-Detroit border. This led me to focus more on the automobile and the roadway, as well as to related industries, such as hospitality or entertainment.

"I was also thinking about climate and the broader geological time of the land and of the water. There's a paradox or disjuncture between being deeply concerned about our dependency on fossil fuels and tropes around liberation and the freedom of the open road. I was trying to bring those two ideas together in some kind of self-critical way."

Connection to the natural world

"Even in the midst of a crisis and conflict, I've always felt a capacity to connect to the world and the ecology around me. I've learned many valuable lessons in my life about respecting land, water and non-human species. When we look to those examples, we can learn much more about ways of being ourselves as as a species. I find a lot of peace in that landscape. I also find a lot of humility in thinking through a geological time, like the ways in which the seasons shift the composition of the soil or how water carries nutrients and creatures from vast incredible distances. These kinds of masses and phenomenal aspects of ecology are so humbling because they happen all the time, every day and they sustain us. Being able to sense, to look and to feel the beauty that's around me — what a gift."

Childhood memories

"One of the things that is overt about the text is an engagement with a youthful memory around car culture. I grew up around brothers who were always working on cars, who understood the mechanics of things and how things worked. I had an older brother who raced cars and we all had some basic knowledge of what was a good car. Driving a car was was a rite of passage that happened at a young age because of the rural remote context we were in. That was a joyful thing, to think through these broader narratives and remembering and reconnecting to this childhood experience I had."

Writing deliberately

"I make a point to not write from a point of anxiety. I have, in my younger years, struggled with it — and that was about confidence and working through my own stuff. But at this late stage, I'm very deliberately not going to be writing from a place of anxiety. When entering into that kind of practice — which is extraneous to my everyday life, is a volunteered thing, something that I take up leisure time to do — I'm going to do it with purpose, in a way that's generative. Anxiety — we all got enough of that."

Cecily Nicholson's comments have been edited for length and clarity.


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