Poet Elizabeth Bachinsky was born in Regina, Saskatchewan, and raised in Prince George and Maple Ridge, British Columbia. Her second book, Home of Sudden Service, was nominated for a Governor General’s Award for Poetry. Bachinsky, who holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia, lives in Vancouver, where she teaches at Douglas College.
Did you read poetry when you were in high school? Is there a particular poem that you loved when you were a teenager that you remember well?
I did read poetry in high school. I remember finding books by Canadian poets Lorna Crozier and bill bissett at the library when I was about 16. Those books changed the way I thought about poetry. Up until then I didn’t realize that “Poet” was a thing you could be. All the poets I knew of were dead. And white. And British. That said, I was dearly in love with T.S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men,” which I found in an anthology of poetry my mother studied at school in the prairies. That anthology was called A Book of Good Poems, edited by C.T. Fyfe, who was (apparently) a high-school English teacher at Central Collegiate in Regina in the 1950s.
When did you first start writing poetry? And then when did you start thinking of yourself as a poet?
I started writing poetry when I was in high school, probably in grade nine. Before then I’d only written stories. I did my first solo poetry reading at the local Art Gallery when I was 15. There was a little write-up in the paper and everything. I read for an hour from a chapbook I copied on the photocopier at my dad’s work. I think I already thought I was a poet then — I was very serious about it — and later, when I went to university, I realized that you could actually study poetry as your life’s work and I knew that was what I wanted to do. That’s when I realized I wasn’t a poet. Because I got to meet so many people who were, and I could see they had spent years, decades, studying the craft, and there I was with my little portfolio. Sometimes, now, when I think about the life I’ve been given as a poet, I still can’t believe it. Now it’s me who’s spent decades reading and writing. Now it’s me who’s the poet, still, after twenty-five years, writing these poems. I guess there’s a day when you look up and you say: I guess I’m a poet. All the evidence points to this. Still, it doesn’t feel right to say it. I think that maybe in the end it’s other people who get to make that judgement. Yes, they’ll say. That Liz Bachinsky. She sure wrote poems.
What do you think a poet’s “job” is?
Writing and reading poetry isn’t a job. It’s not a business! It’s a vocation. It goes on and on, this thing you are called to do. By what or from whom or where I can’t tell you. All I know is, eventually, you get called back to the table and when that invitation comes, I think it is wise to accept. In fact, if a poet has a “job” it is to listen for that call — is that inspiration? — and follow it with courage and an open mind when it comes.
What inspired you to write “Wolf Lake”?
My friend Matt Rader wrote a poem by the same name in his first book of poetry, Miraculous Hours. Rader’s “Wolf Lake” is about a couple of young men who are out one day driving through the woods and come across another man carrying a woman’s limp body into the forest. The poem stayed with me so much, I was inspired to write the story from the woman’s point of view. I wanted to give the sense of the stories running side by side, so the form of the poem is borrowed directly from Rader and some of the lines run parallel to his piece, echoing his text. In fact, we often used to read the poems together, either taking turns or reading them at the same time as a sort of cacophony. I always really enjoyed doing that. Matt’s poem is so chilling. It seemed to invoke the landscape where I grew up so well, and all the worst fears I had about that place and time.
If you had to choose one poem to memorize from our anthology, which one would it be?
Not fair! There are so many great poems. I’m partial to the Canadians! And I’m partial to poems that lend themselves to performance, whether through strong narrative, musicality or sense of voice. There are poems I love: Karen Solie’s “Tractor” would be terrific to know by heart; and “Sometimes a Voice (1)” by Don McKay is a showstopper; Erin Mouré’s “Homage to the Mineral of the Onion (I)” is so beautiful; David McGimpsey’s “71. Song for a Silent Treatment” would be difficult to pull off (but so satisfying if it went well!); “Breathe dust...” by Fred Wah is terrific; Marylin Dumont’s “Let The Ponies Out” is wow and Lorna Crozier’s “Fear of Snakes” is a winner. “From thirsty” by Dionne Brand would be impressive to perform, as would be Robert Bringhurst’s poem “These Poems, She Said” and George Bowering’s “Pale Blue Cover.” So there. I can’t choose just one.