Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

A Profile of N.W. Lea

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A Profile of N.W. Lea

Ottawa poet N.W. Lea (formerly known as Nicholas Lea) was born in Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, and grew up, in part, on his grandparent’s farm in northern Stormont County, Ontario, mere miles away from the McLennan family homestead. Given the decade between us, I was long gone before his teen years, and we didn’t actually meet for another full decade or more, around the time of his participation in Seymour Mayne’s poetry workshop at the University of Ottawa (other participants in the workshop included Fredericton poet and musician Jesse Patrick Ferguson and Montreal poet and Lemonhound editor Wanda O’Connor). He quickly gained attention in the workshop, as well as through the open sets of The TREE Reading Series and other venues, for his short, sharp, meditative poems. The end-of-year workshop chapbook that year was not only named after the Eastern Ontario dirt road of his grandparent’s farm, but included a cover image of the road sign. Lea earned his BA from the University of Ottawa, and he joined the editorial board of Bywords Quarterly Journal. Not long after that, he moved to Fredericton, New Brunswick, where he briefly worked alongside Ferguson (another Stormont County native) on the editorial board of The Fiddlehead before returning to Ottawa. His poetry has appeared in such journals as dANDelion, Qwerty, The Puritan, Byword.ca, The Peter F. Yacht Club and ottawater and it has been featured in the Globe and Mail’s online books blog, In Other Words. As Toronto poet Marcus McCann (a former Ottawa poet who was briefly in a writing group alongside Lea) wrote of Lea’s work on the Globe and Mail’s online book blog, In Other Words (posted April 8, 2010):

Ironic distance. For Nicholas Lea – born a year or two before the first of the millennial generation - irony is a dominating, sometimes paralyzing concern. Lea’s first book obsessively ruminates on the tendency of his peers to hide behind hipster poses. And like the very best poets, Lea echoes content in form, breaking up even the hint of an affirmation with questions, equivocations, and slant-rhymes of the truth. Taking the piss is a heady business, but Lea is playful rather than didactic, and he loads his work with gorgeously consonant lines (“somewhere / where dummies wonder, rummage / for rumoured streams”) and surprising humour.

His debut collection of poetry, Everything is Movies (Chaudiere Books, 2007) was launched at the Ottawa International Writers Festival to some acclaim and a flurry of reviews, as well as being nominated for Ottawa’s Lampman-Scott Award. In a review of Everything is Movies in the Ottawa X-Press (May 23, 2007), Jeremy Mesiano-Crookston wrote that Lea writes “with a verve and an ability that set him slightly apart.”

His skill with language is noteworthy and he is at his best when writing barriers of words that merely hem in an idea, leaving you to bounce around inside its field of effect to no particular purpose […].

Over the years, Lea has made reference to a variety of influences on his work, including Dylan Thomas, David O’Meara, Karen Solie, Kevin Connolly, Phyllis Webb, John Ashbery and The Tragically Hip front-man, Gord Downie. In an interview with American poet Kate Greenstreet on her blog (posted August 26, 2007), he says: “I think a major function of (good) poetry is to use language in ways that change perception, that makes people see in different and strange ways, ways that generate meaning beyond the common discourse. Kind of akin to epiphany, but not simply in religious terms; the moment when a good line hits you like bricks... that feeling. I don’t know if poetry can or will change the world, but I’m not interested in doing that.” Lea is also the author of the poetry chapbooks light years (above/ground press, 2006) and Actual Girl (The Emergency Response Unit, 2011). In his lengthy “HOW TO SURVIVE LIFE’S INANE GAUNTLET: A Review of Nicholas Lea’s Actual Girl” posted online in issue #16 of The Puritan, Ferguson writes of how the work “picks up where Lea’s first trade-length collection, Everything Is Movies (Chaudiere Books, 2007), leaves off,” writing that:

In these explorations, Actual Girl thematizes the need to maintain a vital intellectual and spiritual/artistic experience in the face of a dehumanizing materialist culture. Namely, Lea questions whether one can maintain faith in art, spirituality, and personal relationships when, as the poem “Life’s Inane Gauntlet” puts it,

It’s not so much a leap of faith
as it is an automatic walk
thru the new-smelling aisles,
getting pummelled
by novelty.

After a near-complete silence of three years, Lea re-emerges with the newly-released Present! (above/ground press, 2014), which is also the first publication to bear the name-change from “Nicholas Lea” to “N.W. Lea.”

rm: After two chapbooks and a trade book, what prompted the name change from Nicholas Lea to N.W. Lea?

NWL: I’ve decided to use a nom de plume because I like the way it rolls off the tongue. And the way it looks on the page. There’s a kind of thrill in rebranding yourself. I’m not in any way trying to distance myself from my earlier work, I’m still very proud of it.

rm: Your new work feels far more polished and meditative than your previous publications. Given that seven years have passed since the publication of your trade book everything is movies, how do you feel your writing has evolved over that time? What do you think you are attempting or working towards now that you weren’t prior?

NWL: Thank you for noticing that my work has become more meditative. I think it has. I’m just spending more time with the poems now, developing tone. My approach to composition is still very much the same, very automatic, very associative. I used to be terrified of over-revising, how it can kind of bleed the poem of its original spirit. I’m still scared of that, but I’ve taken to letting poems just sit in a drawer for a couple weeks before retuning to them. You really get some perspective on what “original spirit” actually means.

rm: You’ve long struck me as a writer who isn’t in any kind of hurry, preferring to spend long stretches out of the spotlight quietly getting the work done. What do you think the long stretches of radio silence have allowed you that you might otherwise have missed?

NWL: Well...prolonged periods of depression can really throw a wrench into the works...uh, yeah...I’ve been struggling with that. To be honest there were a few years there where I hadn’t written so much as a passable haiku. Always reading, always thinking about poems, but there were some pretty unproductive stretches there. Creativity is anathema to depression. I will say that when I was able to dig myself out of it (with help), I began to explore the experience (at least the tone of the experience) in my writing, hence the more meditative trajectory of my work.

rm: How does the composition of a poem occur, and how long might that process take? Are you reworking drafts or accumulating notes?

NWL: If the mood strikes I’ll get one the page in one shot, usually after a long session of reading. Other times I’ll use the furtive notes or lines I’ve jotted down to piece a draft together. The most satisfying compositions for me, though, are the former — the Muse-induced ones — especially when they feel immediately complete. I employ all kinds of compositional strategies, however, like the Surrealist cut-and-paste, or dream logging, or starting with a conceit or list or certain musical quality in the language. I feel like all bets are off when it comes to composition. The major difference now is that I’m spending more time developing tone or, for lack of a better word, the emotional impact of the poem. But not in a stagy lyrical way. I’ve always responded to poems that don’t just describe a scene or perspective, but create a kind of enigmatic whole-world, a tiny little wordy universe. The ones where there’s this visceral push-pull effect of directness and abstraction. That’s the effect I strive for in my own work.


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 the forthcoming notes and dispatches: essays (Insomniac press, 2014) and The Uncertainty Principle: stories, (Chaudiere Books, 2014), as well as the poetry collection Songs for little sleep (Obvious Epiphanies, 2012) and a second novel, missing persons (2009). 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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