Karen Solie was born in Moose Jaw and grew up in southwest Saskatchewan. Her first collection of poems, Short Haul Engine, won the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize and was shortlisted for the Gerald Lampert Award and the Griffin Poetry Prize. Her second, Modern and Normal, was shortlisted for a Trillium Award for Poetry. Her third, Pigeon, won the Pat Lowther Award, the Trillium, and the Griffin Poetry Prize. She lives in Toronto.
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 didn't read poetry in high school. In fact, I didn't have a clear sense of its existence. We might have perfunctorily covered a Wordsworth poem in class, and we watched Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet, but that was pretty much all that was on offer. I went to high school in a remote rural place, and it didn't have much of a library. I read a lot growing up, though. Novels, mostly, and short stories. My parents are readers, and there were great books at home. It's fantastic when poetry is taught in high schools as a living art.
When did you first start writing poetry? And then when did you start thinking of yourself as a poet?
I started writing relatively late, when I was nearly 30. I attended community college and worked for several years after high school, and didn't read much poetry until the third year of my university undergraduate degree, when I took a modern poetry class and encountered Bishop, Eliot, Larkin, Auden, Plath et. al. I was astounded, and intrigued, and began to try to work out how they achieved the effects they did. And I expanded my reading to older as well as more contemporary writing, from elsewhere in the English speaking world, and work in translation. Not just poetry, but fiction and non-fiction as well.
Thinking of myself as a poet is not something I've done, or do, really. I don't find it particularly helpful, or even interesting. What matters is reading to be educated and inspired and trying to write something good, not what I call myself.
What do you think a poet’s “job” is?
People from different communities, who are writing from different contexts, may see this variously. But I think artists need to pay attention, and not only to their own feelings, ideas, and experiences. We need to create work from an awareness of context — cultural, historical, political. This does not mean we need to feel pressure to write “political” poems. Nor does it mean we can’t write personal poems, nature poems, surreal funny poems, avant garde procedural poems. But we do need to be aware of the ways our experience, and how we think about it, are shaped by our circumstances. And that our interpretations of experience and ideas are likely not universal. This is a responsibility, but it isn’t a restriction. It doesn’t make beauty secondary. It’s an opportunity, a challenge, a throwing open of doors, a source of inspiration and complication.
What inspired you to write “Tractor”?
I grew up on a farm in southwest Saskatchewan, and my inspiration for “Tractor” was my complicated relationship to that place. The farm is still very much the livelihood and heart of my family. I respect the work. I love the landscape. And I also really like machines. The tractor of the poem is a remarkable feat of engineering and also really fun to drive. It also, however, represents some of the bad things about dryland prairie farming practices and the systems it’s tied to. Participating in the economies of the big oil and chemical companies is necessary to make a living. No one likes it. But unless you’re independently wealthy, there’s no way around it. The poem doesn’t come down on a side — either I have to love it all or hate it all. It doesn’t seek to resolve anything or make some final pronouncement. I was interested in writing about the complications of identifying with a place, with a job, with a culture, with a class.
If you had to choose one poem to memorize from our anthology, which one would it be?
That’s a tough one. It’s a great anthology. But right now I think I’ll choose C.D. Wright’s “Re: Happiness, in pursuit thereof.” Wright’s work has been an inspiration and guide for me for many years, and her recent death is heartbreaking. Her poems are visceral, intellectual, emotional, political. They are life in all of its joy, mess, hope, and despair. And they are beautiful.