Alberta poet Natalie Rice speaks to Emily Cann about her debut poetry collection.

Emily Cann (EC): You capture a strong sense of both beauty and destruction in this collection. The duality is perhaps captured most succinctly in the opening lines to “After the Forest Fire”: “The wild rose drops / its petals onto blackened / ground.” What was your process like for developing this tension? How do you balance these forces?

Natalie Rice (NR) Scorch operates within the narrative of ecological crisis during a particularly bad wildfire season in the Okanagan Valley. As a result, I am interested in how these poems can move into the realm of the unmeasurable—either in our ability or inability to find connection with the natural world and/or one another. The tension of beauty and destruction came from walking through this landscape, which is a fundamental aspect of my writing process. Okanagan forests are spacious and scattered by ponderosa pine, which are fire-red and charred by fire. In between the pines, are tall tufts of yellow. It is the land of grasses: bluebunch wheatgrass, giant wild rye, foxtail barley, timber oatgrass…

It is a forest that can be walked through easily, especially after a burn. My thinking was influenced by a line by Rebecca Solnit from Hope in the Dark, “Inside the word emergency is emerge; from an emergency new things come forth. The old certainties are crumbling fast, but danger and possibilities are sisters” (12). 

Solnit, Rebecca. Hope in the Dark Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities. Haymarket Books, 2016

When writing with a theme such as climate crisis, I am not interested in a didactic poetics. As a way of balancing the forces of destruction and beauty throughout the collection, I allow nature to be the active force which continuously transforms. 

EC: There are many striking references to colour in these poems. There is the “green tin” of a cabin and the “Milk-blue / rivers,” as well as “black horses,” “a red berry,” a “yellow-green / pond” and “purple-yellow skins” of lilies—the list goes on. What role does colour play in this collection and in your work more generally? 

NR: In this collection, patterns of colour are one way of drawing attention to the paradox of beauty and destruction. Walking a burnt landscape is one of contrasts: deadfall against new growth, a “half-lit bulb pushing through soot.” I am a poet of liminality, so my poems are ones of morning and twilight when light becomes strange and slant; the quality of being in between is not a new one for poets. I often use colour as a way of forming image systems throughout my work. For instance, in “Slit of Morning Light” I use flashes of red to flag the reader’s attention towards the red pine needles, which is the same as the pileated woodpeckers, which is the same as a heart murmur, which is the same as the final image of a red chokecherry in the back of the throat. 

EC: There are several unique structural elements in this book, from the collection’s division into six sections (each separated by the same mark, which might be taken for either a tuft of grass or a burst of flame) to the use of indentation and freedom from the margin to create shape across the page (as in “Murmuration”). Can you speak to your structural design for this work, at the level of individual poems and the collection as a whole?

NR: Andrew Steeves designed this book; it is such an aesthetically pleasing object to hold. Each section is divided by a tuft of grass, or a seed floating, or a burst of flame. For me, this design choice speaks directly to a line in the collection from the title poem Scorch, “grass is a fire before it knows it is a fire.” Even on the most minute, structural level, the poems hold what cannot be answered and allow this unanswerability to remain active, dynamic, and generative. The structures within the book are active forces that like fire, form and deform. For example, the collection moved between forms such as ghazals and sonnets as an attempt to hold or contain forces such as fire, wind, and water. Other poems push against and erupt out of traditional structures by following other sensibilities, such as cascading lines. 

EC: Did you have an intended audience for the book?

NR: While writing this collection I was grappling with what it means to connect with the Okanagan landscape, while understanding that my connection to it is through a colonial settler inheritance. My poetic process is rooted in understanding the specifics of my bioregion and maintaining an ethical, reciprocal relationship with the land, but I am challenged when trying to make my speaking start from “hereness.” As ecopoet and theorist Don McKay explains, the very material of our art troubles us: “the inadequacy lies not within the stanza and regular meter, but with language itself and the ontological assumptions embedded invisibly within it”

McKay, Don. The Speaker’s Chair: Field Notes on Betweenity. Running the Goat, 2013Miller

While the English language may operate more completely when located within its place of origin such as in a European context, I think English can sometimes be inadequate in its ability to address this Okanagan landscape. Poet and philosopher Jeannette Armstrong notes that the nsyilxcən language “is… language devised solely for use by the human voice and the human body” (188) and that speaking nsyilxcən “is to realize the potential for transformation of the world” (176).

Armstrong, Jeannette C. “Land Speaking.” Speaking for the Generations: Native    Writers on Writing. Ed. Simon J Ortiz. Tuscon: Arizona UP, 1998. 175-94.

It was with this tension, that I wanted to attempt to write towards a poetics that addresses a position of disconnection and inadequacy in my ability to know the unceded territory of the Syilx Nation.

EC: Are there any aspects of the book you would like to change /tinker with?

NR: Because this manuscript was my thesis for my MFA at UBC-Okanagan, the collection has seen many iterations. With previous publications, I have often penciled out a line here or there. Currently, there are no changes I want to make to Scorch because I have spent the last few years working so intensely on it, but after some distance from the manuscript this may change. Generally, I don’t keep previously published work in my writing space because it feels too intimidating to see my work in a printed form. There is a heft and finality to print which I usually don’t want to be reminded of when I am forming new work and tinkering around with poem edits. 

EC: How long did the first draft take for you to write? What was the core of the developmental process between drafts, were you working on the structure or the story world or aspects of style and language or something else? In terms of sheer length what did the book look like after the first draft? Did the length change?

NR: The first draft took ten years. It’s not that I was working on these specific poems for ten years, rather it took me ten years of learning craft before I arrived at the place where I was able to write these poems. Between the drafts, I rigorously cut out any poem or line or word that is flat. I do this by reading the entire collection aloud, recording it, and then playing it back to listen for any place that lacks tension. My manuscripts usually never exceed seventy to eighty pages set on an A5 word document. A poetry mentor, Matt Rader has likened this process to pruning back a tree. After cutting down my manuscript, I find the places it wants to reach outwards again. 

After the manuscript was accepted for publication by Gaspereau Press, it went through several more drafts. The collection has seen twelve to fifteen versions of itself. Last spring, I moved to a small cabin under Protection Mountain in Banff National Park, which is where I currently live and work. Here, I cut ten to fifteen of the weakest poems and either re-worked them or wrote into the new gaps of the manuscript. Through this process, I wrote some of my favourite poems in the collection such as Summer Mountain and Orchid Meadow.

EC: Are any aspects of the book that is autobiographical? How did you consciously deal with your intimate material (i.e., experiences – emotional and physical) in a way that avoids the dangers of straight autobiography?

NR: There are aspects of the book that are autobiographical. However, in a poem I often say an untrue thing as a way of making it true. This collection was written during the pandemic, wildfire season, and during a time in my life when I was going through a lot of change. I think that a function of poetry is to move alongside knowing or unknowing and allow for what is unanswerable to remain active and generative. My understanding of a poem is that it is a state of being, not a story; therefore, it is a ghost or a spirit of the lived world. It is not actually the creek or the cottonwood, rather it is a malleable counter-reality that may point towards an insight about the lived world. As soon as an experience is reshaped into a poem, it is no longer the lived experience and instead, becomes something new and partially unfamiliar. Language can never carry the whole experience. 

EC: What emotions do you associate with writing? Or, differently put, how does writing impact your emotional state?

NR: I don’t think I have a specific set of emotions associated with writing, but I do experience a shift in awareness. Poems often arrive first as a felt-sense or a heard-sense, which is a shape or a rhythm or perhaps what Dennis Lee might describe as cadence: “a teeming process which overflows every prior canon of form (or is prepared to, and can when it chooses) …. Its form is not to obey form, but to include and carry beyond it” (5).

Lee, Denis. Body Music. Toronto Ontario, Anansi Press, 1998. 3-25.

When I am in a poem, everything appears brighter, interconnected, frantic. I usually lose track of time, forget to eat, and have vivid dreams. I go for long walks in the forest. Sometimes, the writing process feels like I am swinging a big net around about my head or looking through a window sideways. It can be dizzying, euphoric, and it’s when I feel the happiest. 

EC: Was there a specific incident or experience or series of events that inspired this work? What was the development process for the inspiration to become this newest collection?

NR: At the beginning of my MFA, I moved into a tiny blue house from the 1930s. One night a windstorm blew through and ripped a window out of its sockets and onto my bed. I had a sense that everything was about to transform and change, and it did. The pandemic had begun, wildfire season was violent, and my life as I knew it began to unravel. In Brenda Miller’s essay, “A Braided Heart” she writes: 

This is what I love about all braided things: bread, hair, essays, rivers, our own circulatory systems pumping blood to our brains and our hearts. I love the fact of their separate parts intersecting, creating the illusion of wholeness, but with the oh-so-pleasurable texture of separation. It is not the same as a purely disjunctive form…. Rather, the strands are sepa­rate, but together, creating a pattern that is lovely to the touch…. Poets, of course, have known this all along. They blow the world apart and put it back together again (22). 

Miller, Brenda.  “A Braided Heart: Shaping the Lyric Essay.” Writing Creative Nonfiction. Ed. Philip Gerard. AWP, 2001. 14-24.

The poetics I am interested in is one that re-shapes the world with a new awareness and understanding. The symbols that were appearing as forces of change in my personal life, also became the symbols of transformation in the collection of poems. Wind and fire became active elemental forces that threaten to overtake the poems with their destructive, disjunctive energy while also acting as an invisible force that binds and repairs what has been lost or changed. 

EC: What was the most satisfying aspect of your recently completed work?

NR: The most satisfying aspect of this collection is that it has been made into a Gaspereau Press book. The odd thing about poetry is that while it comes from an embodied experience and process, it is not shaped by my hands in the same way a pottered bowl or a painting is. I can print a poem and leave it on my desk, but it is not a book. The printing process is one that exists outside the realm of the poet on their own, usually. For the collection to be contained in a process that is imbued with so much attention and craft, is what makes the manuscript feel like it has found its final form. The dusty warm jacket, Centaur typeface, and the scorched ponderosa by Joanne Price at Starpoint Studio are all elements of the book that hold the poems with such fullness.

Natalie Rice is the author of Scorch (2023, Gaspereau Press) and the chapbook 26 Visions of Light (2020, Gaspereau Press). Her poems have also appeared in journals such as The TrumpeterEvent MagazineThe Dalhousie ReviewThe Malahat Review and Contemporary Verse 2. She currently lives in the Bow Valley, Alberta.