Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

A Profile of Nina Berkhout

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A Profile of Nina Berkhout

Originally from Calgary, poet Nina Berkhout has lived in Ottawa for more than a decade, and is the author of five poetry collections: >Letters from Deadman’s Cay (NeWest Press, 2003), This Way the Road (NeWest Press, 2005), Pas de Deux (Turnstone Press, 2006), Arrivals and Departures (BuschekBooks, 2010) and Elseworlds (Seraphim Editions, 2012), the most recent of which received the 2013 Archibald Lampman Award for the best poetry collection by a writer living in the National Capital Region. As well as appearing on a prior Archibald Lampman Award shortlist, her work has been shortlisted for THIS magazine’s Great Canadian Literary Hunt and the John Hirsch Award for most promising Manitoba writer. She holds a degree in Classical Studies from the University of Calgary and a Master’s Degree in Museum Studies from the University of Toronto. Her debut novel, The Gallery of Lost Species, is due out in January 2015 with House of Anansi Press.

Over the course of her five published poetry titles, her work has been strewn with narratives, composing each book as a self-contained work with strong poetic and storytelling elements, often working through an extended narrative of love, heartbreak and tragedy in a book-length arc that lends itself very much to long-form prose. In her review of This Way the Road posted at PoetryReviews.ca, Jenna Butler wrote: “Focusing specifically on the worlds of art and museums, the collection explores one couple’s love relationship and the ways in which the past may continue to be an occupied space long after actual historical events are over.” In his review of Arrivals and Departures online at PRISM International, Kevin Spenst wrote that it “displays a masterful framing narrative excavated from the emotions and moments at the end of a relationship. In a strikingly minimal approach, Berkhout’s poems range from a single quatrain to no more than four stanzas, with the white silence of the page highlighting the loneliness and fragility of the speaker’s heartbreak.” Given her strong impulse toward story, the appearance of her first novel is worth noting, and her shift between the forms might be easier and more natural for her than for most. In a review of Arrivals and Departures in Canadian Literature, Susie DeCoste writes a description that, for the most part, could describe a novel just as much as a collection of poetry:

Berkhout’s Arrivals and Departures is a charming, compelling poetic journey that depicts a relationship as it transitions toward its end. The book is a poetic sequence broken into three parts: the first is concerned with the speaker alone in her home, constantly reminded of her lost love; the second recalls the trip to Prague that culminated in the break up; and the third sees the speaker back home, transitioning toward acceptance.

rm: In the interview we did for the fifth issue of ottawater, you talked of how your three books (at that point) all had “a narrative thread.” How difficult was the idea of extending that narrative thread to consider writing a novel? Or perhaps: why didn’t this shift occur sooner?

NB: Oddly enough, my last collection of poetry, titled Elseworlds, contained stand-alone poems, so I broke away from the extended narrative thread before trying to write fiction. After that, I didn’t actually set out on my next project thinking, “now I want to write a novel.” With whatever I write the idea and the voice come first, followed by the form. Often I’ll experiment with a few forms before figuring out which one works. For The Gallery of Lost Species (the forthcoming novel), I had a character in my mind, and the novel form ended up being the only way I could get her particular narrative down, in a way that felt natural and right. So the shift wasn’t daunting, probably because I didn’t overthink it at the time. Maybe subconsciously I stuck with poetry for so long, to gain an understanding of language and the line, before attempting a novel.

rm: Your writing has been driven by narrative. What is it about “story” you find so compelling?

NB: CS Lewis said, “We read to know we are not alone.” When I’m in the middle of a good book, drawn in by the characters and their story — their lives and landscapes and experiences — I feel the opposite of alone. I love leaving my life and entering another world for an extended period of time, and I reread books a lot, just to be with those characters again. Like many readers, I become attached to the people in a good novel, because it’s an extremely personal and intimate experience. Of course the same can be said for a good poem, only the experience is shorter-lived and more intense.

rm: Given you are publishing a novel after five poetry collections, what do you see the poem being able to accomplish that fiction can’t, and vice versa?

NB: Poetry is more immediate, precise and concentrated than fiction. Every word counts. With fiction, you can get away with more description and meanderings. While poetry is often autobiographical, being overly biographical in fiction can be disastrous. And of course, with poetry it’s all about the language and the imagery. You can write a poem without having a plot or a character. Maybe it’s not so much about what one can accomplish that the other can’t, but more what they should both be able to achieve: with poetry as with fiction, the writer hopes their reader will connect and feel a range of emotions long after they’ve closed the book. Personally, I want there to be a story in each poem I write, that the reader can take away and remember. And I would hope that there is poetry in my fiction line, at least some of the time.

rm: Your novel, The Gallery of Lost Species, tells “the story of a family fractured by addiction, told through the lens of Edith, the younger sister of a childhood beauty pageant queen, tormented with the conflict of wanting to stave off and save her addicted sibling. It is also the story about finding solace in unexpected places — in works of art, in people and in animals that the world has forgotten.” Without giving too much away, what books and writers influenced the form of your first novel?

NB: I read up a lot on cryptozoology — which is the study of hidden / endangered animals which may or may not exist — while writing the book, so those works definitely influenced me to the point where I was dreaming of cryptids (extinct or endangered animals, or animals not scientifically proven to exist) on a regular basis. Cryptozoology is a marginalized practice so sometimes it was pretty challenging to find these out of print books. Otherwise, two of the more commonly known publications that I read and reread would be Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn and Jorge Luis Borges’s Book of Imaginary Beings — both of these being extremely poetic works which I would highly recommend! As for writers of fiction who influenced the actual form of the novel, there are far too many authors I admire and read regularly, to include by name here. I’m sure they all influenced and inspired my writing in some way!


Born in Ottawa, Canada’s glorious capital city, rob mclennan currently lives in Ottawa. The author of more than twenty trade books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction, he won the John Newlove Poetry Award in 2010, and was longlisted for the CBC Poetry Prize in 2012. His most recent titles include notes and dispatches: essays (Insomniac press, 2014) and The Uncertainty Principle: stories, (Chaudiere Books, 2014), as well as the forthcoming poetry collection If suppose we are a fragment (BuschekBooks, 2014). An editor and publisher, he runs above/ground press, Chaudiere Books, The Garneau Review (ottawater.com/garneaureview), seventeen seconds: a journal of poetry and poetics (ottawater.com/seventeenseconds) and the Ottawa poetry pdf annual ottawater (ottawater.com). He spent the 2007-8 academic year in Edmonton as writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta, and regularly posts reviews, essays, interviews and other notices at http://robmclennan.blogspot.ca/.

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