Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Poets in Profile: Ann Shin

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Ann Shin

National Poetry Month may be over for another year, but we still can't get enough of Canadian poetry. Join us in finding out what inspires, confounds and delights today's Canadian poets by following our Poets in Profile series.

Today we speak with Ann Shin, an award-winning filmmaker and the author of The Family China (Brick Books). Ann has also put together a series of striking photos, some of which are on display here, related to the book's themes of family, domestic life and destruction.

In our interview, Ann speaks to us about a miniature forest, the loneliness of a falling leaf and the common response to meeting a poet.

You can see Ann reading in person at the launch of The Family China on May 29, 2013, and even have a chance to bring and smash a piece of china yourself. Click here for event details — please note the venue for this event requires an RSVP.

Open Book:

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

Ann Shin:

From the age of five to fifteen, my crucial childhood years, my family owned a 5-acre farm in Langley, B.C. It was fertile land with hazelnut groves, apple orchards, and in one uncleared area there was a small forest — a stand of poplars, alder and maple trees — our country home’s equivalent of a ‘back yard.’ I used to run into that small forest when I was upset. There was a tree that had been felled in the middle of the woods, and its crumbling, decomposing trunk was the perfect bench height for little girls running away from the world. I’d sit on the trunk and stare up at the poplars. I loved listening to the wind rustling through the papery round leaves, it filled me with reverence and a sense of greatness of the world that stretched beyond. I felt this sharply, combined with a kind of clarity that was very similar to what Joyce called an epiphany. I was inspired and wanted to channel this feeling in some way. I found I could channel it when playing the piano sometimes, but really I wanted to describe it too, and that’s what led me to writing.

OB:

What is the first poem you remember being affected by?

AS:

When I was nine years old, my mother had a severe accident and ended up in a coma. She was in the hospital for months and it was unclear whether she would fully recover or not. Around that I took out a book from the library, a collection of poetry edited for children. I flipped through it and was surprised to see my first concrete poem. The layout of the poem is what caught my eye first, and then I read it, and re-read it, one letter at a time. I was completely gutted. The poem was "l(a" by E. E. Cummings and the way he combined the image of the falling leaf with the word loneliness spoke to me very deeply in that moment. It quietly expressed the fullness of all the sorrow and longing I had kept bottled inside me for months. I could not tell my mother I missed her and needed her, so I went through most of my days not feeling anything at all. When I read "l(a", it was as if someone had opened me and gently spilled me out onto the page. To this day, reading this poem takes me back to that time in my life.

l(a
le
af
fa
ll
s)
one
l
iness

OB:

What has been your most unlikely source of inspiration?

AS:

A carnation. If I could hate a type of flower, I’d probably hate the carnation. It seems wrong to say you hate a flower. It’s like saying you hate sunny days or you hate ice cream. Still, I find I have an innate reaction against carnations. I’m not sure why I dislike carnations so much, I mean I like dandelions, stinky lilies, weird spiky birds of paradise — I’m good with all those, but the thought of carnations makes me go ‘ick.’ At any rate, I was surprised to find a carnation spring up in one of my poems. They refuse to die in my short poem, which is just the sort of irritating thing a carnation would do.

OB:

What do you do when a poem is not working?

AS:

Shelve it… I leave it in a file, sometimes I print it and leave it aside, and find it again years later. I’ll reread it and salvage a couple lines, the nugget of the poem I can rework, and I might write that into a new poem.

OB:

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

AS:

Jeramy Dodd’s Crabwise to the Hound. I really want to get Julie Bruck’s Monkey Ranch though!

OB:

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

AS:

Hmm… Well I’m not sure what the best thing is, aside from the joy of having some lines flow through you onto the page, pulling everything together as they do, in that magical way that say one of Bach’s fugues will ‘reset’ your mind and body.

The commonest thing about being a poet is getting that slightly condescending, slightly dismissive nod of approbation that means basically: ‘Oh, you do that — write poetry. How admirable, and irrelevant.’

The worst thing about being a poet, is not being a musician.


Raised on a farm in BC’s Fraser Valley, Ann Shin now lives in Toronto with her husband and two daughters. An award-winning filmmaker, new media producer, and former radio producer, Ann recently directed and produced the documentary Defector: Escape from North Korea.

For more information about The Family China please visit the Brick Books website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Brick Books.

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

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