Books·CBC Literary Prizes

How Natalie Lim wrote the poem that won the 2018 CBC Poetry Prize

The winner of the 2018 CBC Poetry Prize discusses the creative process behind Arrhythmia.
Natalie Lim is a Vancouver-based poet and musician. (Amanda Lim)

Natalie Lim is the winner of the 2018 CBC Poetry Prize for Arrhythmia. As the winner, Lim will receive $6,000 from the Canada Council for the Arts and a writing residency at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity. Her poem was published on CBC Booksyou can read it here.

In her own words, the Vancouver, B.C.-based poet discusses how she wrote her winning poem.

Reading (and listening) to poetry

"I know that when I read poetry that I become a better poet. I pick up things in the language and I get inspired. Spoken word poetry was my 'gateway drug' into the world of poetry. I was watching the video of someone performing their poem and was like, 'Oh, these don't have to rhyme!' Which is great because I suck at rhyming poems! This whole world opened up for me. I watched hours and hours of people performing their poetry on YouTube. I know that it has informed my style and the way that I write."

Turning sadness into gratitude

"The first two drafts of this poem were really sad. The ending was very sad because this topic makes me sad. When I got to the third draft, I realized that I didn't want to leave it there. Even though I'm not fluent in the language, I know these phrases. I can still turn that into something. I can still make that mean something, to myself and to the people I love. Even if I can't have a full conversation with them, I can say, 'Thank you.' That helped me work through those feelings.

"Doh je and ho bao are the two phrases I use the most at dinner because [my grandma] is always offering me food! I'm always saying, 'Thank you, but I'm full!' I took that 'Thank you, I'm full' — which is a rejection in a way — and tried to turn that into a sincere, 'Thank you for what you have given me, I'm full because of what you've given me.' I tried to turn it into gratitude."

Arrhythmia as experience

"Heart arrhythmia is a medical condition of having an irregular heartbeat. It can be harmless or it can be fatal, depending on the specific case. Either way, it's this thing that's physically off about you. You look and act fine outwardly, but something is wrong on the inside. As I was writing this poem, there were a lot of irregular heartbeats or stuttering hearts that punctuated the writing. Building on that, there's the heartbeat of... a person of colour in this country. You go about your business, everything looks fine on the outside and then someone will say something or you'll hear something or you'll see something on the Internet. It's this little jolt and you realize, 'Oh, something about me is different. I don't belong as much as I thought I did.' Those jolts happen much more frequently to my grandparents than they do for me."

Arrhythmia as conversation

"Then there's the stilted nature of the conversations I have with my grandparents. It's irregular, there are awkward pauses, we're switching between languages, they're talking to me in Chinese and I'm nodding and smiling and they realize that I'm nodding and smiling and have no clue what they're saying. They try to switch to English, but I still don't know what they're saying! I wondered when my grandparents are talking to me if they have those little jolts where they're like, 'Oh, you still don't belong here, you've been here for decades, but here's your granddaughter and she's fluent in English. She belongs here more than you do, even though you've been here longer than her.'

"It's this feeling of never not being the outsider. I haven't talked to my grandparents about this, I don't know if that's how they actually feel. But in imagining how these conversations must make them feel, that's where I went with it." 

Natalie Lim's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

Listen to Natalie read Arrhythmia:

The 2018 CBC Poetry Prize was awarded to Natalie Lim for her poem inspired by the lives of her grandparents. 2:39

Watch Natalie be interviewed on CBC News:

Natalie Lim, winner of the 2018 CBC Poetry Prize joins CBC Vancouver News host Dan Burritt to read some of her award winning poem Arrhythmia and to talk about its significance to her. 2:50

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