News and Interviews

Brenda Leifso on the "Wonderful Odd Ordinariness" of Poetry & an Act of Kindness that Led Her to Writing

Brenda Leifso.2018

Brenda Leifso's lush new poetry collection Wild Madder (Brick Books) delves into the strange, long process of finding one's way. Leifso is unafraid to let the rawness of disorientation, loss of identity, and longing come through in these poems - they are, as the title promises, wild in their aching need. 

Frank and bracingly honest, the poems break open love, marriage, family, and motherhood, upending expectations and greeting card banalities to examine the truth of our most intimate relationships and how beauty and pain can often coexist in the same identity. Intense, brave, and unafraid, these are poems that speak to our deepest selves. 

We're thrilled to welcome Brenda to Open Book today to talk about the poems and how poetry came into her life as part of our Poets in Profile series. She tells us about a small act of kindness that changed her life as a writer, the process of assembling a collection (and the madness of grant writing!), and her favourite recent collections, including one by a past Open Book writer-in-residence!

Open Book:

Can you describe an experience that you believe contributed to your becoming a poet?

Brenda Leifso:

Perhaps unsurprisingly, two school-related memories rise in response. The first comes from grade three, when my teacher sent me to the special education classroom to learn how to write straightforward, scientific sentences without embellishment. (As a mother now with three kids, I do wonder what pedagogy was driving this choice and what I was writing that seemed to necessitate this). Probably equally unsurprisingly, as a teenager I did not possess easy social grace. I was smart, painfully sensitive and shy, lonely, and completely under-challenged (thus rather lost) in school. I didn’t have any clue what to do in the looming future. But, grade 12 English Literature was my favourite class because my teacher, Ms. Looije, clearly loved what she was teaching and who she was teaching it to – it’s hard not to be changed by this. I don’t quite know yet how she saw what she saw in me, but one day she suggested that whatever I did, it needed to involve reading and writing. It might not be a very interesting story, but I think it’s a true and important one: small acts of attention and kindness can very much change a person’s life.


What is the first poem you remember being affected by?


"Black Spruce" by Don McKay. I was flabbergasted that a poem could be funny, that something ordinary like a knee hurting on a hike could be given life: "whine, whine / whining like a crabby aunt... If Aunt Knee / goes wonky it will be the birth of melodrama on For Whom / the Bell Tolls Ridge, you folks go on, just // leave me where I see the sun set, scratch the last / essential lyric on a rock. Did Hemingway / eat prunes?"

The wonderful odd ordinariness of this poem somehow liberated poetry from capital S Sanctity for me.


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


Two, both from Mary Oliver: "The Journey" and "Wild Geese". The older I’ve grown, the more I value poetry’s ability to listen to the world, to speak to the human heart, to fold each of us into the what-is. I know there are many poets who disagree with this stance, but I’m ceasing to care; what else could we possibly be here for?


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?


I struggle with this question muchly. When writing grant applications, I often think I’m nailing a coffin around myself in terms of "theme" or "subject" or "relevant, timely, edgy things" that might curry the favour of the granting gods. If I do happen to get a (very small) grant, I feel itchy and constrained and asthmatic—tied to whatever I promised to deliver in the grant. But none of my books have actually come out that way; I honestly just have to sit down every day and pay attention. I have to read a lot. And somehow the poems weave themselves together.  


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


Again, two. Deanna Young’s spell-binding Reunion, which I did not put down until I finished, and Laura Ritland’s East and West, which has the lines “Sunrise, again, and I think I am done / fencing with the night octopi.” Enough said.


Wild Madder is Brenda Leifso’s third book of poetry, following Barren the Fury(Pedlar Press, 2015) and Daughters of Men (Brick Books, 2008), which was shortlisted for an Ottawa Book Award. Her poetry has been published in journals and anthologies across Canada, has won the Banff Centre Bliss Carman Poetry Award, and has been short- and long-listed for the CBC Literary prize. She is a freelance editor and occasional academic instructor, and also runs her own yoga business. She lives, gratefully, near the shores of Lake Ontario in Kingston, Ontario.

Buy the Book

Wild Madder

Poems that stride bravely into the day-to-day, recovering the misdirected intensity at its core.

Brenda Leifso’s Wild Madder is about way-finding—through those moments in which you no longer recognize where you are. It’s about not knowing—who you are anymore, how to be in the world, how to love. It’s about what’s unspoken and about what speaks—conversation with the wild and animate world. It’s about marriage, family, motherhood—the drudgery in them and the quiet beauty.

This is lyric poetry wracked with pain, rage, and longing. In the beginning, the collection may read as though it’s been steeped in bitterness. Family can ask everything of a partner and parent and then turn around and take even more; Wild Madder feels like a note in a bottle washed up on the shores of a rough sea. But Leifso is not one to stand still or cling to darkness; in fact, we end up so far into the darkness that when she breaks through into light, it’s a conflagration of all the things that make us human.

These frank, bracingly recognizable poems will be irresistible—and cathartic—for anyone who has ever felt their life chewing them into little pieces.