Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Poets in Profile: Alex Leslie

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Alex Leslie

In Alex Leslie's The Things I Heard About You (Habour Publishing), poems transform before the reader's eyes. Sometimes starting out teasing the line between poem and short story, the pieces then evolve into shorter and shorter versions of themselves, sometimes ending up as only a few powerful words. This innovative approach has earned Alex widespread praise. Fellow poet Jen Currin described The Things I Heard About You as an examination in "the ways in which language makes and unmakes us".

We're speaking to Alex today as part of our Poets in Profile series, where we talk to Canadian poets about their craft, their reading and how poetry first came into their lives.

Alex tells us about how family caricatures and "Mrs. Hairdo" contributed to cultivating a writer's outlook, a surprising choice by an 11-year old poetry fan and life as a "proet".

Open Book:

Can you describe an experience that you believe contributed to your becoming a poet?

Alex Leslie:

I have always been interested in the ways that people speak. I'm not sure where that comes from, although I do have a parent who tends to caricature people and makes up funny names to describe them. For example, a woman on the block where I grew up was always referred to as "Mrs. Hairdo" inside the family because of her wigs. So, I think the experience of always listening to the way people talk, walk and behave has been very formative in my writing. I have had the habit of writing down scraps of overheard conversation for years. Mostly in public — not personal conversations. Often a phrase or the way a person says a certain thing will set things off. I save up comments and phrases for years. I have things from four, five years ago that I still plan to use. Things completely change context and morph along the way though; the person who said the original thing would likely not recognize the final product. And by that point, let's be honest, nobody cares but me. I write both fiction and poetry and the line between them is very blurry for me. The same material contributes to my poetry as contributes to my prose.

OB:

What is the first poem you remember being affected by?

AL:

I can't think back to a first poem. I read fiction as a kid, not poetry. I do remember that when I was in Grade 6 we each had to memorize a poem to recite in front of the class. People chose mostly lyrical, nice poems. I chose that intense Gehazi poem by Rudyard Kipling about leprosy and injustice. I liked that it was a very serious, stately poem and I liked that I thought that I sounded very serious and stately when I recited it. "Stand up, stand up, Gehazi!/Draw close thy robe and go!/Gehazi, Judge in Israel/A leper white as snow!" I was eleven. This was serious business.

After that, I was seriously affected by the poetry of Seamus Heaney and Anne Michaels in high school. I was also a big reader of Michael Ondaatje, in terms of prose. He was one of the only contemporary lyric prose writers around in the public school system curriculum, so I sort of clung to his work like a raft. I didn't find a lot of contemporary writing to connect with until undergrad.

OB:

What one poem — from any time period — do you wish you had been the one to write?

AL:

Yehuda Amichai's 'Psalm' from 'Love Songs for Jerusalem.'

I adore Yehuda Amichai's work.

OB:

What has been your most unlikely source of inspiration?

AL:

Weightlifting.

OB:

What do you do when a poem is not working?

AL:

I yell at it. Then I take it apart. Then I harvest its organs. It becomes part of something else or I get bored and forget about it. You can never tell what is going to work out.

OB:

What was the last book of poetry that really knocked your socks off?

AL:

Star Waka by Robert Sullivan. He's a Maori writer and this book is about canoeing. 'Waka' is the word for canoe in his language. It's gorgeous and a long poem more than a collection of poems, cycling through different stories and meanings of the Waka. I love the long poem and forms in general that combine huge and small. It's an amazing
book that kind of takes one central thing from a culture and goes very deeply into it, and shows so much about the culture that's bound into this one thing, canoeing, and canoe journeys. I love the voice all the way through.

Also Leanne Simpson's book Islands of Decolonial Love, which is subtitled 'stories and songs.' It's a really incredible book, one of my favourites from the past year. I had previously read her non-fiction and political work, but was completely blown away by this book.

OB:

What is the best thing about being a poet….and what is the worst?

AL:

I would like to credit artist/curator Amy Fung with giving me the technical title "Proet."

So, as a proet...who writes proems...

I would say the best thing is reading the work of other proets. Poets are OK too, but proets are my people.

The worst thing is balancing writing with everything else in my life.

Unless you are independently wealthy, writing will always be something you need to learn to balance with all the other things. This is very hard but I am learning more about this as I go along. One reason to keep writing is because you can't stop.


Alex Leslie has published a collection of stories, People Who Disappear (Freehand, 2012), shortlisted for a 2013 Lambda Award and a 2013 Relit Award, and a chapbook of microfictions, 20 Objects for the New World (Freehand, 2011). Alex's writing has won a Gold National Magazine Award for personal journalism and a CBC Literary Award for fiction and was shortlisted for the 2014 Robert Kroetsch Award for innovative poetry. Alex's work is included in Best Canadian Poetry In English 2014 (Tightrope Books) and is forthcoming in the Lemon Hound New Vancouver Poets folio. Alex edited the Queer issue of Poetry Is Dead magazine and is currently working on a collection of linked stories entitled We All Have To Eat. Info on upcoming readings can be found at http://www.alexleslie.wordpress.com.

Check out all the Poets in Profile interviews in our archives.

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