BWS 04.03.15: Karen Connelly

Karen Connelly

Karen (Kaz) Connelly is the author of ten books of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. She is a polyglot, rabble rouser, and voracious reader who was born in Calgary and has lived in Thailand, Spain, France and Greece. PEN Canada and Amnesty International are two of her favourite human rights organizations. Kaz is presently writing a new novel called The Change Room. She took time out to write us a letter last week from the artist’s residency at UBC Okanagan.

February 19, 2015

Woodhaven Eco-Cultural Centre

Kelowna, B.C.

Dearest you,

I am so happy to be here, and sorry to hear of the deep-freeze in eastern Canada just after I’ve spent an hour outside in short sleeves, reading the wonderful anthology Open Wide a Wilderness. I sat on one of the little benches on the patio behind the garage with my tea and toast, looking up every once in a while to listen to the insistent stream (what? what exactly do you mean?) and to check to see if the cougar was watching me. Of course, if I had seen the cougar, I might have had a heart attack; it’s just as well that he remains invisible. But have you ever noticed how, outside, in nature, it’s easy to feel as though you’re being watched? I think that I am being watched, somehow; observed, or at least sensed by a multiplicity of life forms around me. Yesterday I meditated by the stream; I swear that the rocks, boulder-like, big, were watching me.

So my morning reading, the Open Wide book, is an amazing anthology of Canadian nature poetry. (My admiration to my friend and colleague, Nancy Holmes, for the labour and dedication it took, over years, to create this amazing work.) This morning, I simply marvelled at Earle Birney’s poem “David.” Pshaw to Christian Bök for lecturing me last year for half an hour about the lack of Canadian epics set in deep space (what human lives in deep space?). “David” is SUCH a good poem, a kind of nature epic, notwithstanding all the Jesus stuff. (Birney wrote it in 1942, after all–Jesus was still big.) It’s one of the first Canadian poems I remember reading and identifying with as a teenager; I knew those mountains. But beyond that: it’s so GOOD. It’s such a powerful narrative poem. And I found it timely right now, as Canada debates the ethics and dangers of assisted suicide.

As expected in a book of Canadian nature poetry, there are so many landscapes and voices! Fred Cogswell and Al Purdy’s humour (“I have been stupid in a poem / I will not alter the poem”) thumps up against the majesty of that grand Robert Bringhurst poem, “Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, et Oreamnos Deorum.” Knowing, not owning . . . And Don McKay, naming his world. (Inside the Woodhaven house where I’m staying, in the guest book, are two pages of lists of Don’s bird-sightings while he stayed here. I think I’ve seen a . . .chickadee?)

After I had reread dozens of these poems, I started laughing as I realized how many of the writers I’ve met over the last thirty years. I started going to readings when I was about fourteen. I met Birney and DG Jones and sweet and kind Fred; Crispin Elsted, who was like a cross between Blake and Whitman; the gorgeous, witchy Susan Musgrave, and the imperious P.K. Page (who I never really liked though I like her work—she told me when I was in my early twenties that I was too young to be applying for grants! Thank God I didn’t listen to her). Anne Szumagalski, too, who was such a mean old bat to me–sorry: after reading nature poetry, I ought to say mean old lady; bats must not be insulted. And so many of the younger ones, like the amazing Kevin Paul, of the Saanich Nation, and Barbara Klar and her beautiful grasses! Patrick Lane and Lorna Crozier and David Zieroth and Jan Zwicky. Chris Dewdney, Brian Bartlett. Sharon Thesen. Laura Lush. Karen Solie. Open Wide a Wilderness is like a Canadian poetry bible—everyone should have a copy of it and read a poem a day, to lift the spirit and praise the actual, living, crackling, rushing, animalful, treeful, riverful world. And of course, there were all the poems I love whose poets I’ve never met—like Tim Lilburn, whose “Contemplation is Mourning” is for me one of the most dazzling.

In brief, I feel like I’ve been to a morning poetry festival of two hundred colleagues here at the stream’s boisterous edge.You must come here! I am already thinking that the next time you go to Vancouver, you could spend a week here first.

Alone, working in the little house near the uproarious stream, I’m getting so much done, though I am dismayed by the book I’ve written and all the work I still need to do. Thank you for the generous compliments on my last book, because here all I can do is curse the one in progress. Or laugh with disgust. Why did I ever want to write a novel about sex and domesticity? Why didn’t you stop me? Why didn’t Robert stop me? (My husband, who a couple days ago, said in response to my disgust: Well, you know, every real artist creates at least one piece that is real shit–so just write it as quickly as possible and get back to your other work. Thanks, darling.)

Shit work or not, I’m relishing my time alone just reading and thinking. It’s such a luxury to take a break from domestic life. I love this place. And I feel so at home in the west. I lived briefly in the Okanagan when I first returned to Canada in 2000, and I’ve visited Nancy here for twenty years (more, but who’s counting). It just feels so much like home physically . . . Sigh. You know me, I’m always nostalgic for one place or another, but the truth is that I am more at home in western landscapes. They are wilder, I realize; even the cities are much closer to and fuller of wild spaces. That has a lot to do with it.

Must go. But I’ll finish with a short poem I’ve just written, just now, on a scrap outside while my poetry festival was going on.

Beyond the house, the stream

cannot stop talking, rushes through

endless words, trees, rocks.

The doe leaps startled

from her bed

but does not bound away.

She halts you

with black eyes

two arrowheads that split

the narrow target

of your mind



Much love,


Karen Connelly visits the Brockton Writers Series Wednesday, March 4, 2015—full of beans Coffee House & Roastery, 1348 Dundas St. W., Toronto (6:30pm, PWYC)—along with Hoa Nguyen, Waubgeshig Rice and Joyce Wayne. The event begins with a special guest talk, “Go Social: Using crowds, comments and community to gain influence online,” by Zoe Di Novi of Wattpad.


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