The Shelley A. Leedhal Interview

We spend a lifetime trying to find our place, to fit in, to belong, to understand the world around us. We spend a lifetime trying to find peace. We spend a lifetime trying to understand ourselves and the world as we and it continue to change in unpredictable ways. Thankfully, the ground under our feet is something (for now) we can still rely on to get us where we want to be – to get us out of our head – to get us to see something from a different perspective.

Go chronicles a journey that speaks of resilience, of joy experienced in simple things, and of the solace in discovering–finally, and late in life–exactly where one belongs. Leedahl’s fifth poetry collection lyrically documents major life transitions and reveals how loneliness–the other contemporary epidemic–compels one to keep moving.

Shelley A. Leedahl is the author of thirteen books, including the short story collection, Listen, Honey (DC Books), four previous poetry collections; an adult and a juvenile novel; creative nonfiction; and the illustrated children’s books The Bone Talker and The Moon Watched It All. She writes for commercial markets and has worked as a radio advertising copywriter in AB and SK. She lives in Ladysmith on Vancouver Island. Go (Radiant Press) is her latest poetry collection.

“Anyone who knows me knows that I’m “always on the go”. There’s very little downtime. It’s actually weird to have this much energy at the great old age of 59.”

What inspired your walking collection of poems.

Walking is what I do, daily, like minimum an hour, and mostly in the woods. Several of the poems in Go were inspired by walks, like the Ladysmith “Gratitude” poems. I’ve written an essay on the relationship between walking and writing, as well, and delivered it at the Banff Centre of the Arts when I was the Writer-in-Residence for the Writers Guild of Alberta. I walk, therefore I am.

Can you tell us about the title and its origin story? What was appealing to you about the title for this collection?

Most of my other books have long titles, ie: Orchestra of the Lost Steps, The House of the Easily Amused, A Few Words For January, I Wasn’t Always Like This, The Moon Watched It All. Go appealed to me in part because of its brevity, but also because it really underscores one of the main themes in the book: if you’re not happy with where you’re at, go. Keep searching. Keep trying. My partner also says it’s a very apropos title because anyone who knows me knows that I’m “always on the go”. There’s very little downtime. It’s actually weird to have this much energy at the great old age of 59.

Go also refers to the fact that there are a fair number of place-related and travel poems in the book. Finally, I went through some difficult years while I was writing this book, and keeping extremely busy was, perhaps, a kind of distraction therapy: if you don’t slow down, you don’t have time to think about how badly you’re feeling.

What advice would you give a young writer trying to get their first poems published?

Young writers need to be reading contemporary poetry to get some idea of what is being published today. Also, the old “show don’t tell” rule when writing about emotions is so important. And it’s important to include the stuff of life in your poems … the used tissues that look like roses on the carpet, the bruise-coloured clouds, the conversations between trees, the strawberry milkshakes, the hammers, the initials written on dusty windshields. Without concrete images, a poem doesn’t interest me much.

What is the approximate time span of these poems? Do you ever draft your poems in notebooks?

I sometimes write a first draft in longhand, but the magic happens later. When you add up all the editing, it amounts to years. The poems in this book easily cover a period of 15 years. The most recent poem in the book is the final piece, “Manitoulin Suite.” I wrote the first draft in a day. That was lightning fast for me.

Many reading this interview have never lived without the internet. They haven’t searched for a book without the internet. Or attended a book launch without the internet. Having published for a couple of decades now, do you have any entertaining anecdotes about strange readings, fun moments as a writer that may inspire or delight readers of this interview?

Where to begin! I once organized a workshop for a smalltown Saskatchewan audience and when I arrived I learned that the local paper had advertised my event as “Healing with Pastry” rather than “Healing with Poetry.” I’ve read in spots so small my knees were touching the knees of the few other participants. One of my publishers set up a reading for me at Extra Foods in Northern Saskatchewan. When I got there the employees were completely baffled: I wasn’t expected. I sat at the front entrance and thank god I’d brought my guitar with me … I ended up just playing and singing (like a busker, but without the money) beside a table with a few of the books I’d brought. Epic fail.

I read in Labrador schools during a nine-day festival and had my work translated into Inuktitut by an Elder as I read … every page took so long, I felt I was losing the kids, but at the end of the reading, one little girl said to me: “Could you be my Mommy?” That was heartbreaking. I’ve been presenting across Canada since my first book, A Few Words of January, was released in 1990. When I lived in Saskatchewan, I was often in schools across the province. There have been a lot of strange things happen at readings and workshops, but many more wonderful things.

What was it like working with Radiant Press?

It’s been lovely, beginning with their quick response to my submission. I’ll never forget that Debra Bell’s acceptance e-mail arrived on Dec. 31st, 2020. Champagne! I’m old school and wanted to meet Debra Bell and John Kennedy in person. I happened to be in Regina in the summer of 2021 and was able to meet them – on the hottest day of the year – at the 13th Avenue Food and Coffee House. I liked them both immediately.
I also greatly appreciate that they let me select my own editor, and I chose BC poet Donna Kane, who was nominated for the 2020 Governor General’s Award for Poetry for her book Orrery. I’d reviewed a few of Donna’s earlier books – I review approximately 35 – 40 books a year for SK Books, and have for decades – and knew Donna and I would be a good match.

‘Our Therapists Agrees’ is a complex, humorous and dark poem. Do you know (perhaps you don’t) that this poem is the only poem that contains the word therapist in it? (Therapy doesn’t appear either). There is almost too much emotion in this poem – it gushes, like the teary-eyed climax of an emotional resolution. Even though the poem connects to its intended subject, the ‘you’, there is such a distant feeling between these two poetry characters in their life that I can’t help but feel sorry for them both. I guess the question is – what is happening in this poem and are these poetry ghosts going to be OK?

Thank you for the generous comments, and I can only speak for one of those poetry ghosts. It took her many, many years, but she’s thriving now on Canada’s west coast.

While reading the poem ‘What I Left in that City’ I felt nostalgia and a strange slow look into the cosmos thinking about how we have a legacy, however, we choose to interpret it, that we leave, perhaps not physically, but within our own idea of a city we have left. This is a perfect poem to listen to while riding a bus. It’s a great poem to use as a voice-over for a packing scene in a movie – if movies used poems during transitional scenes that require little to no dialogue. Do you have anything you can tell us about this poem?

The city was Edmonton – I spent four years there working as a radio advertising copywriter – and further to my comment to beginning poets above, this poem is full of the concrete bits of life, from Christmas decorations to dead running shoes, a stone birdbath to plum trees. And winter, of course. The winters were dreadful. Naturally, it’s also about leaving more than physical items and people behind.

You write titles like some people name children. Well-named children that is! What goes into your mind whilst finalizing a poem title, and how many poems in this book got name changes from start to finish.

Thanks for the generous comment! Titles aren’t something I muck with much; I generally keep the first one I come up with. That said, I’d say that perhaps 15% of the poems in this book got a title reboot. Sometimes that’s because I merged two earlier poems and a new title was necessary. Titles are fun. Naming kids is fun too!

You have done the Sunshine Coast in B.C. a favour, should there be a copy of your book on the BC Ferries this summer. Sunshine Coast Series would be a great poem printed on a menu at a seafood restaurant. It’s a playful poem. How do you balance poetic credibility with what feels like genre crime – humour in the Canadian poem?

Well, thank you! And here’s the thing: I write to communicate, to connect. I write poems that are, I hope, accessible to anyone … and I’m especially interested in drawing those who don’t ordinarily read poetry to my work. Poetry, at least as I write it, is a realistic reflection of a life … there are shadows, there is light. It would be far too heavy a book, in my opinion, if all the poems were dark. We could all use a little light, a little humour, these days.

‘I Can’t Write Today’ is like a pitch meeting for life slogans – think distraction, think exhaustion, think humanity and the whole room starts shouting out ideas, except that it’s a powerful poem and not a pitch meeting. Can you talk about how much editing went into this piece, did those reasons come to you naturally?

I remember when I started writing this poem. I’d just spent a wonderful solo afternoon at a contemporary art museum in Prague. I was so inspired by the disparate pieces I’d viewed and/or experienced, it was like my head was exploding. I left feeling completely
in love with contemporary art, and half wishing I’d gone to art school. This is a list poem, and a procrastination poem, and it was at least ten lines longer at one point. Much trimming went into the poem. The hardest part was finding a conclusive-sounding final line.

Nathaniel G. Moore is a writer, artist and publishing consultant grateful to be living on the unceded territory of the Wolastoqiyik (Maliseet) and Mi'kmaq peoples.