CBC Literary Prizes

Naming her stillborn child inspired Lise Gaston to write the poem that won the 2021 CBC Poetry Prize

She wrote James in hopes that her poem could speak to other parents who have also endured the loss of a child. 

She wrote James in hopes that her poem could speak to other parents who have also endured the loss of a child

Lise Gaston is a writer from Vancouver. (Submitted by Lise Gaston)

This conversation contains details of pregnancy and child loss that some readers may find distressing.

Lise Gaston has won the 2021 CBC Poetry Prize for James

She will receive $6,000 from the Canada Council for the Arts and attend a two-week writing residency at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity.

Gaston was born in Toronto and raised in Fredericton and Victoria. She received a BA from the University of Victoria and a MA from Concordia University in Montreal. Before moving to Vancouver, she lived in Edmonton for three years. Gaston taught English at the University of British Columbia for two years. 

She wrote James in hopes that her poem could speak to other parents who have also endured the loss of a child. 

She spoke to CBC Books about how she wrote her winning entry.

This conversation contains details of pregnancy and child loss.

Writing in fragments

"Right after James, my son, died, I didn't write for six months. I couldn't. I was just in survival mode. It was enough to get out of bed and go to work and be myself. When I did start writing again, this was one of the first poems I wrote. 

"I wrote [this poem] in fragments. It was one of the first things that I wrote. I then wrote other components over the course of about a month and ended up putting them together as they seemed to speak to each other. 

"It came to be over the course of many months of adding and taking away other components that was about loss. We lost my daughter as a second trimester last spring, so there's part of that loss in the editing stage as well, even though this poem is about losing James. 

It was a way for me to get back into writing. A way for me to explore what this loss could look like in writing.

"It was a way for me to get back into writing. A way for me to explore what this loss could look like in writing."

Focus on naming

"I focus on [naming] because I think it was something concrete, both in terms of a specific action, but also a specific word. The experience of stillbirth is so overwhelming for so many reasons, and it seemed impossible to write about.

"I was still grappling with this idea that he was not going to make it. Everything seemed lost. All the imagined futures were gone. I never thought at the time about the fact that his name would actually carry on. But I will always have a son named James. I was coming to terms with that element of permanence amidst all of the loss. 

I will always have a son named James. I was coming to terms with that element of permanence amidst all of the loss.

"I was trying to put these feelings into language — and to have this piece of language that I can engage with seemed like a way into writing about such an overwhelming experience."

An emotional experience

"It's an incredibly emotional experience working on this poem in contrast to a lot of my previous poetry. I would have to take [writing this poem] in increments. I would do a round of edits on it, then I'd have to step away because it'd be too emotionally draining.

"Even revisiting it now, I have to take a breath and give myself space. There are a lot of difficult emotions wrapped up in this poem, more so than anything else I have ever written."

Recognizing and honouring grief

"Talking about loss honours us parents who don't have living children. Talking about it helps to recognize us as parents, not just that we're recognized by others, but that we can recognize ourselves and honour our grief around it.

"I think not speaking about it suggests that the grief is not valid. That, because this child never lived outside of my body, they're not worth grieving for. I think that's really painful. Everyone who experiences pregnancy or infant loss has different levels of comfort of talking about it. When I started speaking about it and I was very vocal — not just in poetry, but also socially — it surprised me how many people then shared their own stories of loss.

I think not speaking about it suggests that the grief is not valid. That because this child never lived outside of my body, they're not worth grieving for. I think that's really painful.

"In that way, we can help honour each other. The biggest thing that has helped get me through this is a support group of mothers who have lost pregnancies and infants and they have helped me recognize myself as a mother."

Lise Gaston's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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