The Chat with Governor General's Award Winner Cecily Nicholson


Cecily Nicholson’s collection Wayside Sang is winner of the 2018 Governor General’s Award for English-language poetry. We caught up with Cecily this month as part of our ongoing coverage of this year’s Governor General’s Award winners.

The jury said of the collection, “In this hypnotic suite of long poems, Cecily Nicholson makes room, offering glimpses and echoes of the Canadian landscape as she explores ideas of borders, identity, industry and travel. She offers a catalogue of impressions, a collage of the ephemeral, held together by image and the pulsing phrase that stays with you long after the journey is over."

Cecily Nicholson, from small-town Ontario via Toronto and South Bend, relocated to the Pacific Coast almost two decades ago. On Musqueam-, Squamish-, and Tsleil-Waututh-land known as Vancouver, she has worked in the Downtown Eastside neighbourhood for the last 18 years—most recently as administrator of the artist-run centre and mental health resource, Gallery Gachet. A part of the Joint Effort prison abolitionist group and a member of the Research Ethics Board for Emily Carr University of Art and Design, Cecily is the newly appointed Interpretive Programmer at the Surrey Art Gallery. She is the author of Triage and From the Poplars, winner of the 2015 Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize.



Trevor Corkum: What moves or inspires you as a poet?

Cecily Nicholson: What moves or inspires me most as a poet does so in general. I am drawn in to the movement and ecology that manifests in my everyday. I enjoy the quiet and the subtle and how what is marginal when viewed in the aggregate, becomes significant.

In poetry I love being able to move between and to intersect with scales—to consider how political economy meets human dialogue or a pipeline parallels a migration route, for example. The City is inanimate, yet its infrastructure bursts skeletal rebar. The frost-heaved concrete flows with material and people. My commutes are always somehow affective.

As I have experienced, and continue at times to be situated amid, violent (interpersonal and systemic) conditions there is a peace that grows on the page for me. It is a place of rest–a place of enduring and constructive response that connects me to wider-reaching discourse and community.

TC: Are there poets or artists with whom you feel a particular kinship or allegiance?  

CN: I admire and will always return to the work of M. NourbeSe Philip and Marie Annharte and Dionne Brand. I could immerse myself in the paintings of Alex Janvier and David Garneau. I study the work of Tau Lewis and Cheryl L’Hirondelle and Tanya Lukin Linklater and am called to expand and to ground. Brilliant convenors and conjurors in art abound–Deanna Bowen, Nasrin Himada, Yaniya Lee, Carmen Papalia, Tania Willard, it is an inspiring time.

By the way, I am never not reading science fiction, and the legacy of black women’s writing therein is surely kindred. The poets I listen to are many! These days I would not want to be without the contemporary voices of Hari Alluri, Billy Ray Belcourt, Tongo Eisen-Martin, Mercedes Eng, Junie Désil, Jasmine Gibson, Aja Monet, Julie Okot Bitek, Jordan Scott, Rita Wong… of course, too short a list.

By the way, I am never not reading science fiction, and the legacy of black women’s writing therein is surely kindred.

TC: What does winning a Governor General’s Award mean at this point in your career?

CN: Winning the Governor General’s Award is recognition from my peers and that is invaluable. It situates me among greats who have received this award previously. For decades I have admired the work of Roy Miki, to note just one shining example.

My career includes, but is not centred on the literary. I am excited in recent years to transition from social services work, bridging with artist-run culture, to organize and program within museum and art education. This award frees me from debt. I was a poet long before my three books and I hope this methodology stays with me.

The practice now, I can see, is free of barriers that were once impossible to imagine the other side of. That is to say, I can share work publicly, make new books, try new forms and enjoy the privilege of both being published, and of having an audience.

I advance only within communities, what a joy to be able to do that.

I advance only within communities, what a joy to be able to do that.

TC: 49th Shelf is built around a large community of readers and fans of Canadian literature. What Canadian authors are you reading these days?

CN: So much to read and recommend! In addition to those I have mentioned above, I will just point to the stack of books I plan to draw from next: The Tiger Flu, a new novel from Larissa Lai; We All Need to Eat, a collection of short stories from Alex Leslie; a debut collection from New Westminster teacher and writer, Aidan Chafe: Short Histories of Light, a debut chapbook from Estlin McPhee: Shapeshifters, as well as the work of fellow GG nominees, Jason Stefnik and Joshua Mensch.


Excerpt from Wayside Sang

power lines held by birds
of prey the hostile expanse above

ditches teeming floral invasive
wayside fleurs

late summer the shoulder sang

holds breeze by
the course of the drive

ravelling winds furl sparse treetops

semi-trailers startle traffic to attention
righted to the middle steady

a point of calm

a sense of pedal to headrest
never lost hope of going somewhere

a waiting trench the front across the dash
deep open road through the window

on the glass
bokeh crystals of settlement

streaming past mirror side appears larger

after all the lakes hold ashes and fur

long route tapers to a blue-strip august

the walk along here I was a daughter then
along a highway

on the route she shines on
leaning into the path as nettle heavy with rain

This excerpt is taken from the poetry collection, Wayside Sang, by Cecily Nicholson and published by Talonbooks, Vancouver. Copyright © 2017 Cecily Nicholson. Used with the permission of the publisher.

November 21, 2018
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