Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

An Interview with Joanna Lilley

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An Interview with Joanna Lilley

In August 2013, Joanna Lilley, a poet living in the Yukon, talked about the motivation and influences that inform her poetry with writer and editor Lily Gontard. Joanna’s first poetry collection The Fleece Era was published by Brick Books in February 2014.

Lily Gontard:

During some of the conversations we’ve had about the creative process, you’ve said that writing was a need — compulsive or fundamental in nature. Can you explain that?

Joanna Lilley:

There are different elements to it. It’s partly the pure joy of writing — just the process. It’s only by physically writing, holding the pen, that these things actually happen. It does feel magical and makes me feel more balanced, as well. I can explore and work through things that are causing me anxiety, or intrigue, or frustration, or lots of different emotional conditions. I operate in a very intuitive way and rationalizing my life only takes me so far.

LG:

Would you say your poems are reactions to things that are happening around you?

JL:

lot of the time. The poems all come from a personal experience, but not necessarily autobiographical. I tend to have to connect with something for a poem to just start happening — it could be an actual emotion or an experience.

LG:

When you talk about connecting emotionally, it makes me think of something I heard Lorna Crozier say in a class at UVic, Poetry has to elicit an emotional reaction from the reader. Would you agree?

JL:

I don’t know if that’s true for all poetry, but the emotional connection on both sides is important to me: writing and reading poetry.

LG:

Do you know what your Myers-Briggs personality type is?

JL:

INFJ. Introversion, intuition, feeling, judging. My F is quite high — judging in the sense of planning, and I do a lot of that.

LG:

How does a poem start for you?

JL:

It’s usually an experience that has had a big impact on me. Or it’s a condition I’ve been experiencing for a long time. It all comes back to feeling, experience and an emotional connection. Unless I have plenty of reflective time, the poetry doesn’t come so much.

LG:

What would be the ideal place and/or time for you to be able to have that period of reflection? Do you have a routine?

JL:

I try to write every day. For poetry I need absolute silence. My perfect writing time is to just wake up and start writing, and it only happens at weekends. My husband gets up and walks the dog, while I stay in bed to write. It’s not even for that long. I work full-time and try to write each evening during the week. There are activities I just don’t participate in because writing is a priority.

LG:

When did you start working on the poems included in The Fleece Era?

JL:

Some of the poems I would’ve written first drafts maybe six years ago. Then the momentum kind of built up over time and I made a conscious decision to focus on poetry because I found it so joyful.

LG:

How would describe the collection?

JL:

It’s about the dilemmas of everyday living and the decisions we have to make — the impact of those decisions and the impact we have on each other. I’m walking the dog, doing all these ordinary things, but to me all of those things are complex. Everything we do has an impact, on the human race and the planet. The guilt and the weight of that.

LG:

Some of your poems have a strong animal-rights theme. With those poems are you addressing the ethics of an ordinary life and having beliefs, such as animal rights?

JL:

It’s the emotional experience behind it all. Relationships with animals, family, environment and all those complications. It’s about values and compromises.

LG:

Hunting is an integral part of First Nations and non-First Nations culture in the North of Canada. What is your experience of this cultural activity?

JL:

Living in the North is a continual challenge. Whenever I see people wearing furs and animal skins around town, or at work, or wherever I am, I take a moment to acknowledge the animal that unwittingly made that sacrifice.

LG:

Does being an animal-rights activist living in a hunting culture influence what you write poems about?

JL:

I think I would still write as much about animals wherever I lived. Wherever I go, I tune in to how the animals are being treated in that culture, and am compelled to write about it.

LG:

You are originally from the south of England, what brought you to the North of Canada?

JL:

I’ve always wanted to go north. It’s hard to rationalize or intellectualize though I’m sure there are theories. It’s something about the sense of the extreme. It’s the snow, the cold temperatures, something about the North for me signifying space and stillness and absence of the urban. Oh, and mountains, it was also always about mountains. From the south of England I moved north to Wales and then later on to Scotland. Then eventually in my late thirties I moved to Canada with my husband. We chose Whitehorse and moved straight here. My husband hadn’t even set foot in the Yukon before.

LG:

Was this move in any way related to your writing?

JL:

I’d say there is a connection because if you are at home geographically then you are also at home creatively.

LG:

Why is place important to you as a poet?

JL:

For myself, place is very important. I tend to get obsessed with places and work through this in my writing. My new poetry manuscript particularly shows this — there are sections about living in England, Wales, Scotland and Canada. It’s wonderful to be able to revisit these places mentally and create them in a new dimension. Place is past, present and future for me but sometimes I get tugged too much into the past.

LG:

Tying back to writing poetry being joyful and satisfying. What does Joanna do if she comes across an injured bird when she’s walking the dog?

JL:

Well, she cries and she takes it home, tries to make sure the cat doesn’t get it. I would really struggle to kill it to give it mercy. I’ve never had to do it. But I couldn’t have done that, and that is another dilemma.

LG:

Does poetry allow you to resolve a hypothetical situation like that?

JL:

I don’t know if there is any resolving going on. It’s more just acknowledging it, and acknowledging it and expressing it. It’s a very strange process that I find hard to articulate, but then I start thinking, “Oh, great, write a poem, how’s that going to help?” Like with the animal poems*, I feel so helpless. I’m not campaigning. I write emails — it’s so easy these days, you don’t even have to go to the postbox. I thought if I could raise some money by writing/publishing some poems then at least that’s something I can do.

*Joanna is donating the profits from sales of her self-published chapbook They Bring it on Themselves to various animal-rights organizations.


Since emigrating from the UK in 2006, Joanna Lilley has lived in Whitehorse, Yukon. Her poems and stories have been published in Canada and the UK in journals including The Malahat Review, Grain and The Fiddlehead. The Fleece Era is her first collection of poetry.


Lily Gontard is a writer and editor living in Whitehorse, Yukon. Her writing has appeared in a number of literary magazines, and she has worked in print and online magazine publishing in the Yukon and British Columbia. She is a regular contributor to the "Endnotes" section of Geist magazine.

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