An Interview with Poet and Room Poetry Coordinator Chelene Knight

Interview by 
Bonnie Nish

Chelene Knight was born in Vancouver and is a graduate of The Writer’s Studio at SFU. She has been published in Sassafras Literary Magazine, Room, emerge 2013 and Raven Chronicles and is the Poetry Coordinator at Room. Braided Skin, her first book (Mother Tongue Publishing, March 2015), has given birth to numerous writing projects, including a work in progress, Dear Current Occupant. Her work is deeply rooted in her experiences of mixed ethnicity. Her mother is African-American, and her father and his family were victims of the Asian expulsion in Uganda during the 70s, when President Idi Amin led a campaign of "de-Indianization," resulting in the “ethnic cleansing” of the country’s Indian minority. Chelene is currently pursuing her BA in English at SFU.

Her first book Braided Skin is forthcoming with Mother Tongue Publishing in spring 2015. Her launch will take place Wednesday April 8th, 2015 from 7-9:30 pm as a part of Twisted Poets Literary Salon run by Pandora’s Collective.

ROOM: First of all Congratulations on your new book Braided Skin (Mother Tongue Publishing). Would you like to tell us something about your new book?

CK: Thank you! Braided Skin is a mix of many things. It’s rant, it’s story through narrative and fictional characters, it’s music and it’s race. Not all pieces in the book are my personal stories, but I think my own identity as a mixed race woman didn’t become clear until I started writing this book, and so the journey from first word to last line led to this incredible discovery of who I am. I thought of ‘braiding’ as a way of combining, putting together, but always with the chance of coming undone. A temporary blend. I think this is a new way to start looking at people. Nothing is forever, we change, we grow, and this is a good thing. 

ROOM: You have spoken about the fact that you wrote in secret for years. How did the writing help you to find your voice?

CK: When I was young, I would write in journals and hide them in my room. I always thought I was doing something wrong by writing because I was expressing all the things I’ve always been told I shouldn’t. I had a rough childhood and writing was my escape into all these different worlds. People could take whatever they chose to take from me, but no one could take my words. My voice was always there, but I kept it hidden. Now, I say all the things I used to push down because now I realize these things need to be said, and more importantly, need to be heard. 

ROOM: When did you realize that you were ready to make the leap from private to public and how does it feel to make the shift from the absolutely private to the very public?

CK: I knew it was time as soon as I starting work shopping my poems in class at SFU’s The Writer’s Studio. As an adult, this was the FIRST time I have shared any creative writing and it was terrifying. I remember my heart pounding and I was sweating just sitting in that room with all these amazing writers worrying about what they would think of my work. The feedback was so constructive, and it felt amazing to have somewhere to go with my work. There was always something to be worked on and I had a supportive place where I could bring things to life. It was a rebirth.

ROOM: Can you tell us something about your writing process and how it has changed over the years?

CK: My process has changed a lot. I learned about revision, and that when you write something, it’s nowhere near done. Revision is an art in itself, and one that I have a loving relationship with! I love the idea of putting some work away, tucking it into a drawer or at the bottom of the pile, and forgetting about it and then going back in with fresh eyes and ripping it to shreds and breathing new life into it. I crave this part of the process now. Before, I would simply write something and then assume it had to be perfect the first time. I am constantly learning, every day, and that is what I look forward to.

ROOM: Who were your influences as a writer?

CK: I didn’t read a lot of poetry when I was younger. I read novels about women as leaders, or in strong roles, I was drawn to that type of narrative. As I got older, this didn’t change but I branched out a bit. Some of my favourite writers to date are just that, strong women. I am always quoting Dionne Brand, Toni Morrison and Jamaica Kincaid.

ROOM: Anything you would like to share with emerging writers?

CK: Keep writing. If you love it and you can’t go a day without thinking about writing, then that’s a pretty good indication that you are where you are supposed to be. Rejections are tiny gifts. Rejection is a good thing, learn from it and continue.

ROOM: How excited is your daughter for the release of your new book?

CK: Desiraye is very proud. She is aware of how much hard work has gone into it because she’s been right there beside me the whole time. If it hadn’t been for her support, and independence, there’s no way I could have accomplished what I did so far. As a single working parent, I make sacrifices, and so does she, but I have always taught her to follow her dreams too no matter what, and she’s watched me follow mine, and that is a very special thing indeed.

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