Emily Nilsen

Interviewed by Jordan Ewart

Em+Bio-8414_finalEmily Nilsen is about as “British Columbia” as a poet can come. Born and raised in Vancouver, Nilsen released her poetry collection Otolith in the spring of 2017. The following year, Otolith would be the winner of the 2018 Gerald Lampert Memorial Reward for poetry. Now residing in Nelson, BC, she has maintained roots in the lands that helped to form her unique perspectives and forge her inviting, yet striking pieces. Combining her observations on the natural world and worlds we create as individuals, Nilsen’s work is felt both in the head and heart of humanity. She’s had work feature in PRISM International, Lake, and the Goose, as well as the chapbook entitled Place, No Manual. Nilsen was a finalist for the CBC Poetry Prize in 2015, after having been longlisted for the prize on three separate occasions. Her work has also been longlisted for the UK National Poetry Prize.

Emily, how did you first start writing? What drew you, specifically, to poetry?

I started writing stories on a clunkety-clunkety typewriter my family inherited. I wanted to write about aliens and adventures in space, which seems strange now. Poetry, as in poetry as I know it now, didn’t come until much later. What drew me? The words of others, how their words opened kaleidoscopes in me.

Do you remember the first piece of which you felt particularly proud? Why is it so memorable?

Grade 6. I wrote a poem about Earth. It was published in the school newsletter with an accompanying drawing of a planet, shaped as an apple, with a bite out of it.

What do you consider your first “success” regarding your work?

Learning that a stack of my poems was found in my great aunt’s apartment after she passed away. There they were, after all these years, dozens of poems she’d held onto.

Has the process of writing changed for you over time? Do you need designated time to write or are you able to work on projects in the moment?

Yes, it has. As my life changes (shape) so does (the shape of) everything in it. For me, parts of writing get done fleetingly: jotting down notes, sending texts to myself to remember something that’s come into my head. But, to actually get down to it, I need relatively open-ended space — at least that’s what I tell myself.

What would you consider your ideal writing space?

I’m picturing a little cabin, a good table, a pile of books and a window over the kitchen sink that looks out to clouds or water.

How much influence has growing up in British Columbia had on your work? What makes it unique from other places you’ve either lived or visited?

Landscape definitely makes a mark. The ocean has always felt like a kind of eye I could spend hours, years, lives looking into.

Congratulations on winning the 2018 League of Canadian Poets Gerald Lampert Memorial Award for your first book Otolith. Could you explain where the title of the book comes from?

Thanks! An otolith. Oto, ear. Lith, stone. A tiny structure found within the inner ears of vertebrates. When a fish’s otolith is spliced, it’s possible to age it by counting annual growth rings — as you would the rings of a tree. This shape, the image of rings inside rings inside rings, stuck with me. It became an everything pattern. Islands inside islands. A ripple. Interconnections. The nothing-but-beauty of the fish’s environment physically imprinting. Every poem, a type of ring.

What influences do you find in science that differ from nature? How are they similar?

Science is the study of XYZ and nature is XYZ — both have their own languages. The limitations of science, that’s an interest. How can we / do we measure the spaces between quantifiable data? What are its parameters, and what falls outside of these parameters, and who is there to pick it up?

Has publishing Otolith and other works allowed for any opportunities you didn’t foresee?

It’s opened new conversations, reopened old conversations.

Were there any difficulties with publishing that you didn’t expect?

It’s out there and you can’t take it back. That line break. That image. That word choice. That poem you weren’t sure about, that you decided to include at the last minute.

If any, what sort of research and outside work goes into a collection like this outside of personal experience?

Many many hours of reading. I also spent weeks with an H4Zoom rowing around on the ocean, listening, sometimes recording, but mostly listening to the intertidal zone.

Have you worked in genres outside of poetry? Are there any that intrigue you?

As part of my MFA I wrote a series of non-fiction essays — having the space to stretch out and write in a longer form felt luxuriously good. Actually, every form intrigues me when it’s done right.

What drives you creatively?

Being human but not wanting to be the kind of human we’ve made ourselves to be.

Have there been times where you’ve felt creatively drained or worn out? If so, how do you cope with that feeling?

First, I go through a long drawn-out stage of bad behaviours and then slowly coax myself back. Reading helps. So does jumping into water.

Outside of writing, what are some of your interests and goals?

Being outside in a forest in winter: always good. Next year I’d like to grow an artichoke.

If you could offer a younger version of yourself any sort of words of wisdom, what would they be?

Be fierce.

What sort of advice would you offer to aspiring poets?

Turn off the computer or phone and go be in the world.

What are you working on next?

Right now I’m writing an essay about extinction, but once that’s finished: more poems.

Jordan Ewart is currently working on his BFA in Creative Writing at the University of British Columbia. He enjoys working on pieces for both stage and screen, but is happy to fly blindly into any genre. He once wrote a pilot script about a centaur working in an office. It wasn’t very good.

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