The Emerging Writer Award is open to anyone published in a given year in Room, who has not already had a book published. The award comes with a cash prize of $500.
Selina Boan is a poet living on the traditional, ancestral, and unceded territory of the Musqueam, Sḵwxwú7mesh, and Tsleil-Waututh peoples. She has been published extensively in literary magazines across Canada, won the Gold National Magazine Award for poetry in 2017, and was shortlisted for the 2016 CBC Poetry Prize. She is currently working on a collection of poems exploring her Cree and European heritage. “Here we go” and “the plot so far” are poems included in this collection and appear in Room’s “Let’s Make Contact” issue 40.4. The love and genuine care that is so evident in Selina’s poems she also puts into the work of the people around her. She champions emerging writers and her friends, and she attends to strengthening community building at every opportunity. Her work is powerful, necessary, and utterly brilliant, and she is very much deserving of Room’s Emerging Writer Award.
Room’s Jessica Johns spoke with Selina about questions in writing, the misconceptions and truths surrounding poets, and attending to a poetic that moves beyond words.
JJ: Selina, it’s almost a month into the New Year. What New Year’s resolutions are you excited to break?
SB: Getting up early. I am a notorious snoozer. I’m convinced one of these years that this resolution will stick and it will transform my life. I make that resolution every year. I tend to do my writing in the evenings because I like the quiet that night offers. I have daydreams of getting up early enough to change my routine and write early in the morning, before everyone wakes up. As for now, I’m afraid the snooze button still has my name on it.
JJ: What do you think is the biggest misconception about poetry and/or poets?
SB: I’m not sure if this is one of the biggest misconceptions, but I’ve certainty encountered the idea that the making of poetry isn’t work, that it is this magical, unexplained thing that happens to you. I wish that were true. There are, of course, certainly moments during the writing process that are mysterious and exciting but those moments are more than often earned. They are the results of deep attention, of questions, of reading, of editing again and again and again. There are a lot of different facets and moving parts involved in the work of being a poet besides writing. The writers and poets I know are incredibly hard working. They inspire me every day to keep at it.
JJ: What is the biggest stereotype about poets that is actually true?
SB: Haha. That poets don’t make very much money. Poetry is definitely a labour of love. Most poets I know piece together a living doing a variety of different jobs.
JJ: What is the hardest thing, for you, about writing?
SB: Banishing the self-doubt that bubbles up before a blank screen. For me, this makes actually sitting down to do the work of writing hard. There are some days when I will avoid it at all costs (I’ll go to the grocery store, clean my apartment, go for a run). Some days the vulnerability required to write a particular poem can feel like too much. Some days I just need more time to think, to move through the world. It can sometimes feel as if I’m carrying a little ghost or a sense of unease around with me if I haven’t written in a day, a week, or a month.
JJ: How do you overcome that?
SB: I tend to be a slow writer and it’s only recently that I’ve begun to accept that, to find the motions and rituals and practices that work for me. The notes and observations I make on my phone are essential. They make the blank screen less scary. They give me something to cling to as I begin the work of piecing things together. Ritual. Making tea. Listening to music or a podcast. Community. Friends. Reading. I love falling into the work of others; it reminds of what is possible.
JJ: I love all of that. In addition to music inspiring you to begin to write, I know you also listen to music while you’re writing. What is your favourite music to listen to?
SB: You know the kind of song you put on and it makes you feel like anything is possible? A song that blurs out fear, that inhabits the body, that draws you into a particular mood and lets you melt away? That’s the kind of music I try to put on while I’m writing a first draft. For me, that usually means something with a strong beat. Whenever I come across a song I love, I put it on my writing playlist. This isn’t to say I don’t write in silence, sometimes that quiet is necessary, but I love the sense of momentum the right song or album can give. It can bring me into my body and helps me get out my own way.
JJ: Let’s talk about the voices around you right now. Who are you reading? What’s inspiring you?
SB: Just recently, I’ve fallen in love with novels again. It’s been making me so happy. I just finished Octavia Butler’s novel Dawn (her work is making me want to try and write some sci-fi poetry) and am currently halfway through Katherena Vermette’s novel The Break.
For the past few years, I’ve been primarily reading poetry and shorter prose. There are so many writers whose work inspires me, moves me, teaches me: Natalie Diaz, Samantha Nock, Billy-Ray Belcourt, Jónína Kirton, Eve L. Ewing, Joshua Whitehead, Arielle Twist, Louise Bernice Halfe, to name only a few! I’m excited and inspired by the potential of poetry to imagine new futures. I feel so lucky to be surrounded by an engaged, thoughtful community. I draw inspiration from their work, activism, and dedication daily.
JJ: I feel like emerging writers are in such a great position to give other emerging writers advice, because the position is still so very real. What have you learned so far that you think is most valuable for you as a writer?
SB. I was recently listening to an interview with the poet Natalie Diaz on the podcast VS and she said something that really stuck with me. She posed the question, “How can I be more possible?” It was one of those moments when you hear something, and you just think, yes, those are words to live and work by. I wrote that quote on a piece of paper and put it on the corner of my bedroom mirror. There is such wonder, power and potential inside a question like that. I think asking yourself questions is a very powerful tool as a writer.
I’m slowly learning to trust what you are excited about in your own writing (those small moments, observations and experiences that compel you to write something down), and trust that someone else in the world will hopefully be excited too. I was very lucky this summer to interview one of my poetry heroes, Jordan Abel for The Rusty Toque. He spoke about the importance of trusting yourself and the work you are doing. I found that really encouraging. Advice can get thrown out from all corners, and it’s important to find what works for you. To trust yourself.
JJ: I feel like the explorative nature of your poems act like a tool for questioning; they’re small disruptions that gently prod the reader into deeper considerations. Your use of strikethroughs of colonial place names, for example, asks the reader to question society’s everyday complicity in erasure. What lead you to pay attention to these kinds of questions?
SB: Asking questions can be vulnerable, humbling. For me it is critical and necessary to the process of writing poetry. Questions like what position am I writing from and what are my responsibilities and relationships to the Nations whose lands I live and work on? How do I respectfully negotiate being a person of settler and Cree heritage? How do I explore and challenge the impact and legacy of assimilation policies on my own being and the landscapes I inhabit?
I am interested in the way language and naming informs identity, yields power, memory, and cultural knowledge. It can erase, it can empower. It impacts the way we view and construct the world around us. I really admire the work of the artist Joi T. Arcand and her exploration of language revitalization and de-colonial futures. She’s another big inspiration for me.
JJ: The reason why I love your poetry so much is because it does this cool thing where it leads readers through images and sounds to a feeling, instead of a narrative. Sometimes, that feeling makes me want to curl into a ball and cry. Sometimes, that feeling makes me want to dance around in my living room. Is it intentional for you that your attention to the poetic moves beyond words?
SB: Thank you for that beautiful question. Funny enough, sometimes I dance around my room when I feel stuck on something I’m writing or editing! It gets me out of my own head, it re-invigorates me. I think I’ve always been drawn to the oral nature of poetry, the sounds and rhythms of words when they are spoken out loud. In that way, story and feeling are connected for me. I would say I hope that a poem will elicit a feeling, a response in some way. In the editing process, I might ask myself, what does this particular poem need? How might I help it do what it wants to do? I’m still learning every day, still experimenting. I feel very lucky to be able to do that.
Jessica Johns is a writer of Cree ancestry and a member of Sucker Creek First Nation. She is the Executive Editor of Promotions for PRISM international, living and working on the unceded territories of the Musqueam, Sḵwxwú7mesh, and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations. She placed second for the 2017 Glass Buffalo Poetry Contest, and was the winner of Saltern’s 2017 Short Forms contest.
Previous Emerging Writer Award Winners