Joanna Lilley chats writing in a northern climate in her Quatrain Questions interview.
Writing in a Northern Climate
You are originally from the United Kingdom and now reside in the Yukon. Your collection, If There Were Roads, touches on the notion of immigration and movement between the various geographies of these two places as well as your extensive travels. How has travel informed your poetics?
Like many people I think, I grew up yearning to travel. I also grew up yearning to write and sometimes those two urges were indivisible. At one stage, I even thought I wanted to be a travel writer but I realized it was more that travel was a means to finding my way into a life of writing. I knew that writing was my dominant passion and what I really needed to do was find a way to make it a part of my everyday life.
Nevertheless, travelling is a perfect way to tune into one's writing self. It's often easier when you're in an unfamiliar place to be an observer and to be full of wonder at what is going on around you. Writing, after all, is all about taking notice and, for me anyway, actually taking notes. Like sketching but with words rather than lines. Quite a few of the poems in If There Were Roads emerged from that process. It's the practice of paying attention that, for me, is the basis of writing poetry. Poetry helps me delve into what I experience of the world and create something from it. I don't mean that my poetry is constrained to being autobiographical but that it originates in my perceptions and emotions.
I think it's place rather than travel in itself that has preoccupied me so much. Now that I live in Canada and have managed to make writing my main focus, I don't feel a perpetual urge to travel, although I still love to explore new lands, including, being an immigrant, within Canada itself. I’m thankful that I don't feel as unsettled as I used to. Perhaps because I moved often as a child, I found that as an adult I was measuring my progress by the moves I made, as if changing my geography was an accomplishment in itself. This peculiarity, along with wistfulness for places I once lived in and my relationship with the Yukon, where I have chosen to live, was what led to the poems in If There Were Roads.
Poetry helps me bring together all my personal geographies and it helps me connect my past to my present. It's as if there are paths all over my memory, like the trails I wander on every day in the forest behind my house, and I can only find them if I sit down and open myself up to writing poetry.
Let’s face it, the Canadian North can get a bit chilly from time to time. Especially during the winter months. How do cold temperatures and long nights aid or hamper your creativity?
I'm afraid I'm a little bit strange as I really love our long winters here in the Yukon. I love the cosiness of being indoors when it's dark outside and piling on the layers and going outside in cold temperatures. I've been in the Yukon, and in Canada, for 12 years now and the novelty of snowy winters still hasn't worn off. I find the shock and the beauty of Yukon winters help me retain a sense of joy and wonder at the world and that certainly nurtures my writing. Perhaps because I’m from the UK and lived in Scotland for many years where it’s so often cloudy and rainy, the days don’t feel that short to me as the skies here are often blue and the snow sparkles in the bright sunlight. So I think the winters aid my creativity. I'm very happy to stay indoors for hours on end and then go out now and again with the dog, regardless of how cold it is.
Some people who live in the Yukon and I imagine across the north have trouble staying indoors and sitting down during the long summer days and short, almost non-existent, nights. However, I don't seem to have this difficulty. I think I'm fundamentally rather lazy. Although at least in the summer I sit down and write outside on the back porch! I probably write almost as much in the summer months as in the winter, even though I'm out hiking and camping more. I'm rather obsessive about writing. Whatever time of year, I try my best to write every day. I get rather irritable if I miss even a couple of days.
We're very fortunate in the Yukon because even though the population is very small, there are many artists here of all ilks - writers, musicians, visual artists, photographers, filmmakers. The north is the sort of place that seems to attract artists or indeed perhaps it’s more that it’s sort of place where people feel able to explore their creativity.
When I arrived in Whitehorse and was looking for work, I asked the editor of the community newspaper, What's Up Yukon, if I could write a regular feature about the Yukon writing world. I did that for a year and a half or so and it was a wonderful way to meet other writers and find out what was going on. I’m an introvert and don’t have much confidence so it gave me an excuse to meet the people I wanted to, as well as help spread the word about what they were up to.
Also, soon after I moved here, I responded to a call for volunteers for the Whitehorse Poetry Festival and remained involved in that for several years until we ran out of volunteer steam. I was lucky enough that way to get to know other Whitehorse poets – kjmunro, Jamella Hagen and Michael Reynolds and the festival founder, Clea Roberts. A few of us then transformed what had been the Whitehorse Poetry Society into a broader, informal writers' group called Yukon Writers' Collective Ink. That now gives us an umbrella organization for any writing-related events or projects anyone in the Yukon wants to work on. I'm also blessed to be in an amazing writing group with the fabulous Whitehorse authors Ellen Bielawski, Patti Flather and Lily Gontard. I don’t know what I’d do without them.
So, that’s a long way of saying that there’s a strong writing community in the Yukon and I’m grateful to be part of it!
I’m also thankful that I’ve been able to build connections with writers – and readers – in other areas of Canada, by taking part in writing workshops and giving readings, as well as through the internet. I value these associations and friendships greatly, as an immigrant living in a small town a long way from other towns of any considerable size. I think living in Whitehorse would be a vastly difference experience without the internet to help us all keep connected and form new ties and I’m not sure if I could live here without it. As a writer and a reader, I also really appreciate it when writers make the journey north to share their work with us.
I feel so lucky to be part of a vibrant, flourishing writing community that stretches across the country. While the writing life is hard work and full of rejection and self-doubt, I’m also aware what a privilege it is to be able to put my energy into writing and find so much joy there, when so many people around the world are struggling simply to survive.
What do you see as the next step for your poetry?
I’m hoping I can keep developing as a poet, improving my skills and my understanding of the miracle of words by reading other poets’ work and working with mentors. I’m currently writing poems about extinct animals, which is something I felt I had to do, even though plenty of other poets have written magnificently on the same theme. In the poems, I’ve been exploring to what extent I can remove myself when I write about animals and instead pay attention to their discrete existence. We seem to struggle to perceive this world from anything other than our homo sapien point of view. I’m definitely failing in my attempts but the effort feels right!
I also want to read more poetry from other cultures and lands and spend more time on the other side of my Canadian and British cultural borders. And I want to help spread the word about how wonderful poetry is and that it isn’t intimidating, inaccessible or exclusive, as I fear many people believe it is. Poetry is about our experiences of everyday life and it helps us live every day. Poetry is for everyone.