Poets in Profile: Anita Lahey

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Anita Lahey

Anita Lahey is the author of Spinning Side Kick (Vehicule Press). The former editor of Arc Poetry Magazine and a Trillium Prize-nominated writer, she talks with Open Book today as part of our Poets in Profile series. Read on to hear from Anita about her unexpected source of inspiration (hint: it works up a sweat) and the beloved Dennis Lee poem that first stirred her love of the genre.

Find out what inspires, confounds and delights today's Canadian poets by checking out our Poets in Profile series.

Open Book:

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

Anita Lahey:

I read Dennis Lee’s Alligator Pie over and over as a kid, incessantly. For my OAC year in high school, my English independent study was an investigation of nonsense verse, including “The Owl and the Pussycat” and other works by Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll. For the class presentation portion of the project, I made my classmates all write a new verse for the title poem in Alligator Pie. (I had thought it would be fun, but I believe they all despised me afterward!)

I will slip in another experience from the same era. My best friend in high school and I used to write poems for fun, usually about relationships or crushes gone wrong. Not, I don’t think, an entirely unusual pursuit for a couple of teenage girls. However, she was an ambitious type whose ambition extended to her friends. She felt my “work” showed promise and began showing it around to our other friends, who started requesting that I write poems about their own disasters in love. So I kind of became an unofficial heartbreak chronicler for a brief period of my life. Maybe that made me feel, somewhere deep down, that poetry was important, and could even be useful to the average person. Little did I know!

OB:

What is the first poem you remember being affected by?

AL:

I cannot name it or its author, but it’s a poem I must have read in school, about getting new glasses. It spoke of the newness of the world when you put the new glasses on and all the details come startlingly clear, which is the moment at which you realize that you hadn’t even known the world was blurry until it was put into focus. I was deeply affected by this poem because I had felt all this myself but never tried to express it: this strange and wonderful moment that never gets old, for each new pair of glasses delivers the same thrilling awakening. The poem articulated what was largely a subconscious experience so well that it took my breath away — it was as if I could see a piece of my own mind, my own life, there on the page. If I saw that poem now, who knows? It might be of the Hallmark variety. But that doesn’t matter anymore, for its impact has remained.

OB:

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

AL:

W.H. Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts.” I love this poem more every time I read it, and something new comes to into focus each time (as with the new glasses, above!). I picked it up before answering this question, and realized for the first time that the first line, “About suffering they were never wrong,” actually implies that the “Old Masters” did indeed get things wrong, perhaps many things, with which Auden himself would take issue. Yet he feels compelled to defend them regarding this one accomplishment, which is so crucial it cannot be denied and perhaps even erases some of those wrongs: they are not, to borrow Auden’s own phrasing from deeper in the poem “important failures.” I’m reading a great deal into that one line, but Auden’s wording invites it, here and throughout the poem, which is why the reading of it is always such a rich experience.

See line three’s placing of suffering in “Its human position.” See the skating children who did not “specially” want the miraculous birth to happen. The “untidy spot” where martyrdom runs its course. The dogs’ “doggy life” and the “torturer’s horse” scratching its “innocent” behind, the “expensive delicate ship.” About phrasing and cadence, imagery and structure, narrative and rhetoric, word selection and tone, at least definitely in this poem, Auden was never wrong.

OB:

What has been your most unlikely source of inspiration?

AL:

Kickboxing.

OB:

What do you do when a poem is not working?

AL:

Give up on it.

OB:

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

AL:

Bruce Taylor’s No End in Strangeness (Cormorant Books, 2011). His long poem “Little Animals” (which we published in the Quarc, the 2010 dual science issue of Arc and The New Quarterly, back when I was editor of Arc) rivals Auden’s poem above as one of my all-time favourites. It is a cornucopia of marvels, as indeed is the water droplet into which the narrator endlessly peers, as well as the book about the Dutch cloth merchant and first “Microscopist,” to which (and whom) the poem is also an ode.

OB:

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

AL:

The best thing is that you can (when lucky) actually do something with all those moments of wonder, horror, excitement, agitation, confusion, frustration, sorrow, disappointment, puzzlement, curiosity, desire that track us through life. They come to mean more than just their fleeting (or too persistent) feeling, for it is your job to transform them into poems. The worst is that most of the time this effort simply doesn’t work. But most of the time, the joy is in the trying.


Anita Lahey’s second collection of poems, Spinning Side Kick, was released by Véhicule Press in 2011. Her first book, Out to Dry in Cape Breton (2006), was nominated for the Trillium Book Award for Poetry and the Ottawa Book Award, and she is a past winner of the Great Blue Heron Poetry Prize and the Ralph Gustafson Prize for Best Poem, among others. Her work has been shortlisted several times for the CBC Literary Award for Poetry. She served as editor of Arc Poetry Magazine from 2004 to 2011, and is also a journalist who has written on a wide range of topics for Canadian publications such as The Walrus, Cottage Life, Maisonneuve, Toronto Life, Reader’s Digest, Canadian Geographic, Quill & Quire and several others. A former resident of Ottawa, Montreal and Fredericton, she lives in Toronto.

For more information about Spinning Side Kick please visit the Vehicule website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

Check out all the Poets in Profile interviews in our archives.

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