Vancouver’s poet laureate Evelyn Lau finds inspiration in solitude
A recent visit to Santa Monica was bittersweet for Evelyn Lau. At one time, the lifelong Vancouverite imagined settling in the beachfront city but the intervening years modified her perspective. “There are all these beautiful young people—you know, it’s California—and you realize, ‘Oh, my God, I’m middle-aged,’ ” she says. “And the life that you envisioned for yourself when you were younger, you realize now is not what your life has become.”
Seated in the living room of her Yaletown residence, Vancouver’s poet laureate is talking to the Straight about hindsight, the prism filtering much of her newest collection, A Grain of Rice (Oolichan). Following 2010’s Pat Lowther Award–winning Living Under Plastic, Lau’s current volume continues to explore loss, and serves as a memorial to the late John Updike.
Divided into four sections—“Fortune”, “Dear Updike”, “Lost and Found”, and “Fear of Falling”—the pieces examine the consequences of age and experience, as well as the lasting impressions of heritage and idolatry. “He’s not just my favourite writer,” she says, regarding the lion of American letters. “He’s shaped the way that I live my life in a lot of ways and how I see the world.”
On this winter afternoon, the Governor General Award–nominated poet alternates between contemplation and mirth as she discusses what influences her artistry.
A writer of dazzling elegance and emotional power, Lau, who is 41, first entered the public consciousness in 1989 with the release of her bestselling memoir, Runaway: Diary of a Street Kid. Signing the contract before she was 18 “was really a moment. Of course, it all went downhill from there,” she says, laughing.
Since then, the author has produced 10 books—six of verse, two of vignettes, one of essays, a novel—and, over her career, has noticed a shift in the local literary landscape. “It’s gotten far more diverse and more fertile,” she says, remarking that her position as poet laureate, which she’ll hold until 2014, multiplies her own awareness of the community.
Promoting the form, she has collaborated with the City of Vancouver and the Association of Book Publishers of B.C. to expand the Poetry in Transit program. Designated bus shelters presently display poems they’ve selected, and soon posters bearing these works will be distributed to schools and appropriate businesses.
Despite the previous wish to live amid the sun-kissed citizens and glossy façades of California’s coast, Lau expresses gratitude for the city she calls home. Praising her personal proximity to the water, “an endless source of inspiration”, the author emphasizes the increasing satisfaction she feels upon returning here from travelling.
Partially because she occupies a downtown address, where walking allows a closer view of civic metamorphosis, locale emerges as a prominent factor in her material. Throughout A Grain of Rice, like familiar faces in a crowd, are numerous references to Vancouver’s idiosyncrasies and scenic vistas—to “Red freighters and the grey Onley mist of the islands./The seashell gleam of sun on water, herringbone sky,” as she writes in “English Bay”.
Though desire and domestic discord are the author’s recognized motifs, her contemporary titles evaluate the passing seasons. “I think aging—the physical body, mortality, decrepitude—has always interested me. Even when I was young,” she says. “And now that I’m getting older, it’s interesting me in a different way—to see those physical changes and also to move into different phases of life.”
Asked if distilling despair into words provides catharsis, she replies that doing so can have the opposite effect, similar to reopening a wound.
Among these sorrows is Updike’s death; Lau was mesmerized as a teenager by his use of language, and then, in her early 20s, by his observational clarity. Alice Munro, the eminent short-story writer, is another stylist she deeply admires.
While always favouring a smaller scale (“I couldn’t imagine writing one of these 600-page doorstoppers”), Lau now concentrates on poetry, which requires a different kind of meticulousness. “Prose seemed to be fuelled by going out and observing people and being socially active. Whereas poetry, for me, is much more fuelled by solitude and contemplation.”
This need for isolation is integral to her process, and the author speaks contentedly about solo treks, steeped in thought, and “periods of being totally left alone” that contribute to her creative output. Echoing this sentiment is “Midlife”, which concludes A Grain of Rice: “Now the long tracts of silence./But who knows, a silence/perhaps as worthy as noisy labour,/the way the contemplation of a simple object—/bruised pear in the bowl,/lump of sea glass on the sill—/might squeeze more meaning out of the moment/than all this frantic busyness we’re praised for.”
“One of the most difficult things is trusting that something is happening during that time of just thinking,” Lau says. “And that’s really hard to do.”
The joy delivered when each element is keyed into place, however, is unrivalled, and as the days draw on, one discovers “capabilities, in terms of what you’re able to do as a writer, that you didn’t think were in you. That’s a gift.”