News and Interviews

"There's a Moment When Everything's Heightened" Marlene Cookshaw on the Synchronicity and Bliss of Poetry

Marlene Cookshaw

Marlene Cookshaw's new poetry collection Mowing (Brick Books), her first in over ten years, was worth the wait. Focused on themes of harvest, both literal and figurative, it's a meditative, beautiful book, lovingly drawing on images like high grasses, soft chickens, and new potatoes to evoke a landscape that nurtures and demands but always abides. 

Working through themes of death and loss, community and labour, Cookshaw pays homage to where we come from, whether mourning parents or connecting with the workers who coax food and resources from the land.

We're excited to welcome Marlene to Open Book today as part of our Poets in Profile series, where we dig into poets' new works as well as the experiences that led them to poetry in the first place. She tells us about stencilling gravestones to pay for poetry books, the recent secondhand score that refreshed her as a reader, and the best and worst parts of being a poet. 

Also, until this Sunday (October 13, 2019), you have a chance to enter to win a prize pack of collections by Marlene and her fellow poet Maureen Hynes, courtesy of Brick Books! Click here for all the contest details. 

Open Book:

What is the first poem you remember being affected by?

Marlene Cookshaw:

Probably John Masefield's "Sea Fever" in an early English class; I think that was the first time I remember feeling something in response to the sound of words rather than, or in addition to, their meaning. Then, after high school, there was a fabulous small bookstore just down the street from where I worked at a monument shop stencilling gravestones, and I used to cash my cheque and treat myself every Friday. I remember picking up Michael Ondaatje's Collected Works of Billy the Kid and later Coming Through Slaughter.


What one poem—from any time period—do you wish you had been the one to write?


I don't think like that. There are poems that say clearly what I might have said or needed to hear (Louise Gluck's "Wild Iris," Mary Oliver's "Wild Geese") or that take me with startling immediacy and relevance to the voice and experience of another (Seamus Heaney's "Postscript," among many others). I'm truly grateful for the existence of these poems; my life is better for it. But it doesn't matter who wrote them.


Do you write poems individually and begin assembling collections from stand-alone pieces, or do you write with a view to putting together a collection from the beginning?


Always the individual poem comes first. Even with Lunar Drift, in which I allowed myself to follow a curiosity about our history of measuring time, what occurred was more the identification of a recurring theme rather than a prescription or guide. I've been lucky to have worked with astute editors who helped shape manuscripts. John Barton helped identify a narrative arc in Mowing. Years ago, Jay Ruzesky and John Harley fished Coupling, a collection of poetic prose, out of several bottom drawers.


What do you do with a poem that just isn't working?


I put it away, dig it out every few months, poke at it. If I still haven't figured out where it's going, or why, I might isolate pleasing lines or phrases to use as inspiration later. But sometimes figuring out why the subject has energy for me is reason enough to abandon the poem half-formed; it's served its purpose and there's nowhere else for it to go. I once wrote a dozen or so poems about the Perry Mason "family" before losing interest.


What's more important in your opinion: the way a poem opens or the way it ends?


Well, both, of course, and as a writer maybe there's nothing more pleasing than finding a dazzling conclusion, one that speaks to all the issues and images raised. But if the poet hasn't successfully invited a reader to take all the steps with her, if she hasn't kept the channel open, I think a poem, while it may be marvellous, is less alive. Billy Collins is enviably good at welcoming the reader, and so are Jane Kenyon and Jane Hirshfield in completely different ways. Maybe I'm talking about openness, generosity of spirit. And the opening poem in a collection can work the same way. I recently read Sue Gillis's Yellow Crane. The first poem, "Overture," is wonderful in itself. It is also essentially a lens through which the rest of the book can be read.


What was the last book of poetry you read that really knocked your socks off?


It was an anthology, and not new (1982), that I picked up secondhand in May. Editors Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes claim The Rattle Bag was not ordered so much as it "amassed itself like a cairn." It is full of oddities, some anonymous, alongside Blake and Dickinson and Frost and Ogden Nash, many of the lyrics addressing our relationships with animals, with work or mortality. More than anything, I felt refreshed reading it, lightened, accompanied.


What is the best thing about being a poet... and what is the worst?


When I'm working with words or phrases, or sometimes just walking down the road, there's a moment when everything's heightened, when I become aware that more is being said than I thought. Sometimes the words themselves, their sound or their history, compel my attention; sometimes the synchronicity of two 'unrelated' events or beings enacts a metaphor I'm carried by. The pleasure of that experience, and the engagement of shaping the piece thereafter, is bliss. The downside is the general inaccessibility of that state.


Born and raised in Lethbridge, Alberta, Marlene Cookshaw studied writing at the University of Victoria and later worked for several years as the editor of The Malahat Review. Her poems have won several awards, among them the Ralph Gustafson Poetry Prize and Robinson Jeffers Tor House Prize. She has published five collections with Brick Books, including Shameless (2002) and Lunar Drift (2005) and in 2008 was presented with the Victor Martyn Lynch-Staunton Award for outstanding achievement in mid-career. She lives on a small farm on Pender Island, one of B.C.’s southern Gulf Islands. Mowing is Marlene’s sixth poetry collection.

Buy the Book


An award-winning poet’s day-book of poems, where both bounty and loss are tenderly assigned value.

Marlene Cookshaw, in her first collection of poetry in more than a decade, invites her readers to partake in a long-anticipated harvest that comes in many forms. Whether she’s haying June-high grasses, relishing a neighbour’s gift of new potatoes with her husband, logging fragments of poetry she’s read in a notebook, or honouring the deaths of her parents, Cookshaw works an open field. Through this pastorale wander dogs, horses, chickens, and donkeys in counterpoint to farm labourers and long-time residents who share in her abiding connection to the land they mutually watch over and tend. The power grid may fail while every monthly expense is brought to account, but observation as careful and particular as Cookshaw’s more than weighs the seasons that it seeks to bring into balance.