How Matthew Hollett wrote the poem that won the 2020 CBC Poetry Prize
Hollett wrote Tickling the Scar during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. He had recently moved to Montreal from St. John's and would take regular walks along the Lachine Canal, which became a safe place for him to grapple with how quickly the world was changing.
The Montreal based writer spoke to CBC Books about how he wrote his winning poem.
Documenting the early days of the pandemic
"I wrote the poem at the end of May. It was around when the number of new coronavirus cases had begun to subside, and they had just reopened businesses here. It was somewhat of a relief but also felt ominous, as many public health professionals were warning about a second wave.
"The pandemic hit Montreal just as winter was ending, and the visible signs of spring, like the thawing of the canal, felt emblematic of how quickly the world was changing in other ways.
"I find Tickling the Scar difficult to read now, as the number of cases continues to climb. Most of my writing is not so grim, and I worry that it's a reminder of tragedy at a time when no one needs reminding. But those days back in the spring felt so strange, and it felt important to document them.
Those days back in the spring felt so strange, and it felt important to document them.
"I especially wanted to capture the deeply disconcerting abstraction of the pandemic in Montreal – walking along the canal, seeing downtown in the distance, and understanding the city as the epicentre of a kind of bomb detonating in slow motion."
Montreal's Lachine Canal
"I live in Côte-Saint-Paul, a neighbourhood southwest of downtown Montreal. It's outside the city centre, so I usually rely on the metro to get to Mount Royal Park or other places. When everything shut down, I avoided the metro for months, and began walking around my neighborhood more. The canal was close by, so I went there fairly often. It was pretty empty in the spring, and easy to keep a good distance from other walkers.
"I was also reading a lot about the history of the Lachine Canal – the way it links so many different parts of Montreal is fascinating. It's a cross-section of the city. At the same time, neighbourhoods like Saint-Henri and Pointe-Saint-Charles are bounded the way they are because the canal was built between them. So the canal is both a bridge and a barrier. Similarly, its rise and fall as an industrial corridor is closely tied to things like gentrification and the struggle for labour rights in Canada."
Intersection of poetry and photography
"I have a visual arts background, and for me both photography and poetry involve making a series of small observations. My creative practice often focuses on this intersection of image and language — I've created books of photos and handwriting, used found materials such as pine needles and seaweed to write poems outdoors, and developed visual essays such as Between Seasons on the North Head Trail.
I wanted to weave moments of levity from the canal with the relentless dire news from the phone in my pocket.
"Tickling the Scar feels like a new kind of poem for me. I wanted to weave moments of levity from the canal with the relentless dire news from the phone in my pocket. That's what those walks felt like — people talk about 'doomscrolling,' and maybe this was a kind of 'doomstrolling.' I wanted the poem to be lyrical, but in the way that a documentary film can be lyrical.
"I also have a poetry manuscript, Optic Nerve, which is a collection of poems about photography and seeing. It had been slated to be published in 2021, but my wonderful would-be publisher sadly closed up shop recently due to the impact of the pandemic. So I'm looking for a new publisher for that book."
Keeping a phone journal
"I try to write every day, and this often takes the form of brief notes on my phone. When I walk outdoors I usually have a camera with me, and I keep an eye out for anything that might make an interesting photo. So I often write about things I observe. Sometimes they're more like field notes, sometimes poem fragments. "Mollusced bikes hauled up from the muck." Things like that.
"I'm a very visual person. If I'm sitting in front of a computer trying to remember or imagine something, I find it really helpful to have some reference to work from. So I often refer back to journal writing or photos to fill in details that I might otherwise have forgotten. Those kind of sensory impressions and firsthand observations feel invaluable to me."
From St. John's to Montreal
"I was born in St. John's and grew up on the west coast of Newfoundland, near Corner Brook. I'd been living in St. John's for five years before coming to Montreal last August, and it's where I really began to focus on writing. The writing community in St. John's is marvellously welcoming and collaborative, and the creative writing program at Memorial University (where I've taken a few classes) is top notch. I miss my Newfoundland writing pals!
"I've lived in Montreal before, from 2004–2006, and so it's been interesting to see how it's changed over the past 15 years. Montreal is one of my favourite places in the world. The city is full of vibrant public spaces — the canal, Mount Royal Park, the markets, the metro system — and there's an energy and hopefulness here that feels rare and precious to me. It inspires walking, which in turn inspires writing."
Matthew Hollett's comments have been edited for length and clarity.