“Everything” worth writing about, poet says

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October 17, 2013

By Liz Snell

Emily McGiffin’s bright-eyed, earnest face contained no pretension. She spoke her poems with confident resonance, but also vulnerability, as if they were letters written to a close friend, not intended for everyone else in the room. She seems like the kind of person you’d meet in a small town or on a farm; when she speaks, you feel she’s not just wasting words to impress you, but is sharing a homespun and heartfelt wisdom.

Her poetry is full of solitude’s topography: one person leading the blind speaker through a fog, someone living in a car and playing solitaire. Wild mountain landscapes butt against domestic acts like woodcutting and carding wool. Her writing, both on the page and spoken aloud, conveys a tension between closeness and distance.

Victoria poet Carla Funk, who conducted the evening’s Q & A at the Open Space event, asked McGiffin which three dead poets she’d invite to dinner. McGiffin bowed out of the question, saying she knows little of classic poetry, and instead cited her favourite “dead poet” poems: “Dover Beach” by Matthew Arnold, “Ode to Autumn” by John Keats, and “Fern Hill” by Dylan Thomas. These poems encapsulate both the joy in and loss of an Eden-like, harmonious world, a theme close to McGiffin’s own writing. One gets the sense that she’s attempting to write her way into the feeling of home, struggling to trust in a tenuous place: “And when, walking through the enormous and solitary land,/you grow hungry for company, you will find it underfoot…”

McGiffin began “fiddling with lines” of poetry in high school. She took writing courses at UVic as a side to her focus on geography and biology. Of studying writing she says, “It might have had an impact in that I never really did anything with my biology degree.”

Now pursuing a PhD in environmental studies at York University, McGiffin seems to still be searching for ways to explore the relationship between her scientific studies and her poetry. “I’d like to find a way that they can talk to each other a bit more.”

McGiffin initially struggled to see her creative writing as a worthwhile pursuit: “Poetry’s kind of a marginalized art form… It took a long time to feel it wasn’t something I was just doing on the side.”

To an audience member who asked, “How do you know what’s worth writing about?” McGiffin replied,  “Once I decided anything was worth writing about, it became less of a question of what was worth writing about – everything is.”

McGiffin recently moved to Toronto from Smithers, B.C., where her writing was often influenced by the Skeena River, which has been threatened by coal mining. She spoke of her concerns about conservation, and how we view the world in terms of “resource management.” In response to such environmental destruction, does McGiffin’s writing take a stance of hope, or despair? She’s not sure. “The question is, is there hope for humans? I don’t know.”

Liz Snell is a Victoria writer

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