Adèle Barclay

Photo credit: Michael Stevens.

Interviewed by Kyla Jamieson

Adèle Barclay published her début collection of poetry, If I Were in a Cage I’d Reach Out for You, to widespread acclaim in the fall of 2016. A poem from this collection, written—like many of Barclay’s poems—for one of her close friends, won the 2016 Walrus Reader’s Choice Award for poetry. Accepting the award, Barclay wrote, “That a poem predicated on friendship and survival managed to charm enough people to win the Readers’ Choice Award is inspiring to me—it feels right considering the nature of our love and politics.”

An early version of the manuscript that became If I Were in a Cage I’d Reach Out for You was shortlisted for the Robert Kroetsch Award for Innovative Poetry in 2015; this recognition helped Barclay land a contract with her collection’s publisher, Nightwood Editions. In 2016, Barclay won the Lit POP Award for Poetry—her prize included publication and a trip to Montreal for the POP Montreal International Music Festival because, as Barclay put it, “they know if they give writers money they’ll just spend it on rent.” Not long after our interview, it was announced that If I Were in a Cage I’d Reach Out for You was a finalist for the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize, a BC Book Prize that acknowledges the author of the year’s best poetry collection.

We spoke in Barclay’s kitchen, where she’d generously assembled a spread of cheeses, crackers, and nougat sourced from shops in her Commercial Drive neighbourhood. We discussed her education and influences, the ambient intimacy of texting, and not being an asshole. After our conversation, Barclay offered to read my tarot from a nautically themed deck, with her laptop open to assist. I emerged from the experience and into Vancouver’s uncharacteristic snow feeling much as I do when I surface from reading Barclay’s poems—hopeful and affirmed, a little less alone amidst the complexities and contradictions of contemporary existence.

Let’s start with your education. Having recently received your PhD in English, you’ve reached the height of academic achievement. It seems like the MFA is a more common route for poets to take, at least in Canada. Why did you choose the path you pursued?

It’s sort of just how it worked out. I actually started in Science at Queen’s then migrated to English. I did my Master’s at McGill, where I was definitely more on the periphery of the creative writing scene but went to a lot of events, took in a lot, and made friends with people like my friend Klara Du Plessis—we were both Master’s students and now we’re poets in the world. Then for some reason I decided to do a PhD. I graduated during the recession, so at the time academia was the most lucrative direction to go in. I took a chance on BC—I came out here to study at UVic and during the beginning of my PhD my writing took a huge dip. I was deeply uninspired. Everything I wrote, I was like, “This is awful.”

Moving to BC didn’t inspire you with it’s natural beauty?

I thought it would. I was so sad, I was deeply mistaken. Victoria’s a very sleepy, introverted town. It was not a good spot for me, socially. I did make some good friendships but I wasn’t super stimulated, creatively.

Then I went to the Summer Literary Seminar in Lithuania and took a workshop with Ariana Reines and was really inspired by her witchy academic magic. She’s brainy, she’s read everything. Even though there’s this mystical quality to her she’s a very sharp intellectual. Eileen Myles was there too. I met a bunch of Americans who turned me onto Dorothea Lasky, Maggie Nelson—they shared their reading lists with me. I think I was trying to do the Canadian thing—

What’s the Canadian thing?

Like, narrative? I shouldn’t get too catty. I wasn’t trying to do narrative but I think there’s this idea of taking one metaphor or conceit and running with it—or at least that’s my interpretation of what we were supposed to do.  I don’t do that well, I like to move around, so it was good for me to encounter American poetry, work where I had no idea what was coming next.

It sounds like Victoria kind of broke you down and Lithuania cracked you open.

Lithuania cracked me open and then Brenda Shaughnessy built me back up. During my PhD I got a sweet research travel grant that took me to New York, where I got to reunite with a lot of the Americans I’d met in Lithuania and take a workshop with Brenda. I was writing new stuff and she had a lot of faith in me—she saw my new poems as a collection before I did. She said not to worry about trying to fit in because in a few years poets are going to want to fit in with me. That blew my mind. 

Brenda told me I should write epistolary poems, because I was writing a lot of emails to friends I was apart from at that time. And she was like, “You’re in love, where are your love poems?” She’s so wise, she has tremendous energy, she can look at a poem and know what it needs. She’s also very vulnerable, she’ll talk about times in her life when she hasn’t been writing.

What does it feel like to be in that prolific, inspired place with your writing?

It’s emotional and spiritual. It sort of enriches reality. There’s something about poetry that charges the mundane with these kind of mythical qualities. I find something very soothing about the connections between a weird object, a mythological story, and an abject emotion. Once I can pin down the connections between things it’s very relieving. I have weird, overwhelming feelings, but when I can make art out of them, it kind of justifies them. Or I’ll look at something tiny and see huge implications—it can be a relief to express that instead of just holding it in.

It sounds like, with a poem or a metaphor, you’re bringing all the different levels that your perception is functioning on into something concrete.

So much of language is about efficiency and trying to communicate in clear terms but so much of experience isn’t efficient, isn’t clear, right? Poetry can be about giving space to those things that normal language doesn’t accommodate, irrational stuff that capitalism doesn’t really want you to indulge in or that’s just hard to share.

I see Twitter, Facebook feeds, social media—this quality of having a multiplicity of voices and ideas closely juxtaposed—reflected in the leaps American poets make in their work.

You do see it in American poetry, the Metatron crew also really work with that, it’s kind of amazing—people are super invested in text and different performances of the self. I think there will be a lot of great poems and literature that come out our contemporary practice of communicating constantly through text, in this ambient intimacy where you’re sitting there but also tethered to other people.

You make me feel like texting is ok. I love texting.

It’s part of our atmosphere so how could that not be part of my poetry, or people’s poetry? When we talk about it, it’s often in a negative way, which I think is ridiculous and very reactionary, it’s like when the printing press was invented and people had their weird conservative anxieties about making text too readily available for the masses.

Sometimes this response, this pushback against what’s seen as millennial, is disguised as a patronizing concern.

Yeah, “Young people don’t know how to talk to each other.” It’s often just ageism. All these concerns surface whenever we get any new form of technology. The telephone, the telegram. I understand those feelings but cell phones are also super addictive. Like, I’m not stronger than that. No, I am super addicted to my phone. When I first got it I was like, if this is going to happen, what beautiful things can come out of it?

With the internet, in Canada, you’re not stuck with your regionalist coterie. You can go on Twitter and find poets around the world, connect with them, collaborate with them. I think the poems that come out of this age will be amazing because there’s this awareness of performing multiple selves. It’s not some awful, insincere thing. There’s some self-reflexivity in this poetry generation that I think people are afraid of, as if there is a pure self.

There’s a capacity for people to turn that into good poetry but an equal pressure from those who are afraid to let that touch our poetry. There seems to be an expectation for our poetry to be separate from our reality and I think one of the amazing things your work does is break all of that down.

You were just talking about the ability to connect with poets elsewhere in the world and this relates to how I see you, as a community builder. You’re very much a part of the Vancouver literary community—running the Tonic reading series with Kayla Czaga, for example—but also really connected to so many other writing communities. How important is it for you to be connected to those other communities?

I just like people. I like bringing people together and having those connections, I find them very nourishing, spiritually, emotionally, intellectually. I think it’s just a desire, a drive that I have, it’s not super calculated. Maybe it goes back to growing up in a shitty small town and wanting to connect with people and not having that available.

I think you have a very special understanding of the poignant power that a personal interaction can have to break open worlds in writing, or the way a poem can break open a world between people. I don’t know how to articulate that opening, I think it’s something that we’re not really calibrated to be attuned to.

Good poetry and good community don’t have to be distinct. How can I phrase this diplomatically? I don’t see this as much in Vancouver, but you don’t have to cultivate this sour attitude, that doesn’t elevate you. We’re stronger together. You don’t have to shit on other people to be good.

When I see Eileen Myles or Dorothea Lasky read it’s mind-blowing and I just go away and write poems. I understand that energy and it’s really beautiful. We’ve inherited the romantic notion of the writer as this very isolated figure and all this stuff just comes from your own isolated thoughts and maybe that’s not actually the case and we are more beholden to each other than we like to admit.

Maybe there are way more communal strains to our writing, maybe our genius is not individual but collective, but then that detracts from the idea that we do everything ourselves.

This concept of the individual artist seems destructive. Having deconstructed that, what’s the process for you to create a poem?

Reading other people, witnessing other people’s readings, building friendships with writers, artists, people I find interesting in general and being super engaged with people is really, really inspiring to me. Even basic things like learning new words from people. From that level to people sharing their worldview with you. I believe in language as a bridge and not this thing that isolates us from each other. I think we build worlds with each other through friendship and language.

I was hoping you’d literally tell me how you make a poem.

I rock back and forth and have a lot of weird energy and then I just—

Are you typing, writing by hand?

Usually I’m typing. Once in awhile I will write by hand. Some of the poems are written by hand.

I’ll write something, usually fairly quickly, and then maybe go back to it and edit it—maybe things need to be cut or need more pressure or to be expanded but I feel like the skeleton of the poem is usually there right away and the heart of it does happen very quickly.

Thank you for indulging me. How would you describe the impulse towards a poem as opposed to the impulse towards a paragraph, or an email?

It’s a feeling, like there’s something inexpressible that needs to be expressed—not that I need to resolve it but that I need to put it in some other form. It could be a feeling or a thought or an idea but there’s something thorny that I want to have this other life outside of me.

So all the things other people try to bury inside themselves you just turn into beautiful art? It seems daunting to take what you’re potentially most afraid of or most ashamed of or least sure of how to handle and be like, “Do you feel this way too?” But I think it’s your willingness to go there that can be really galvanizing and affirming for readers.

I think things feel less shameful once you share them. You’re going to have the bad feelings anyways, so why hide them from the world. Or it could just be that I’m bad at talking about them in plain terms so I need this other realm. There are certain relationships or experiences that I will never solve and poetry holds space for that irresolution. When I can’t tell the narrative of my experience and it feels very complicated and weird and idiosyncratic, poetry’s like, “Oh, we’re good at those things. We got you.”

Kyla Jamieson lives and relies on the unceded traditional territories of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations. She writes poetry and non-fiction and edits for SAD Mag and Prism International. Some of her work is accessible at

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