Well versed

Halifax poet laureate Lorri Neilsen Glenn represents at the Writers’ Fest. Carsten Knox talks to her about telling stories.

Poet of the people Halifax poet laureate Lorri Neilsen Glenn.
photo Rob Fournier

"We tell ourselves stories in order to live," says Lorri Neilsen Glenn.

The Halifax poet laureate is quoting Joan Didion in the midst of a discussion about her own writing. She punctuates the words with her hands as if conducting an orchestra.

Glenn is an astonishing listener, incisive in her comments. Her eyes don't waver, bracketed by cascading silver-white locks, underlined with a broad, quick smile. She's interested in the use of the second-person perspective and though she's the subject of the interview, she asks about you and your writing.

"Once your kids start growing up, there seems to be a little more room to look on the horizon," she says, when the subject returns to her own work. She recalls the breakthrough of discovering Kingston poet Bronwen Wallace. "I thought, this is it: You can tell your stories this way. And like Margaret Laurence says, once you find your tribe, your community, everything else falls into place." She pauses and thinks again. "That's sort of the, oh, easy answer. A different answer, maybe a better answer...it's the quickest route to philosophy that I know. Writing is a good way to figure out where we are in the world, and why we are."

At Mount Saint Vincent University, she's Lorri Neilsen, the Prairie-born professor of writing and ethnography, a 25-year resident of Halifax, former art teacher, freelance journalist, and student of literacy and communication.

She added Glenn as a nom de plume to honour her maternal grandmother. She didn't decide to put her poetry out in the world until she was in her 50s, but in a relatively short time she's become well-known, with published collections including All the Perfect Disguises, Saving String and Combustion.

Kathleen McConnell is a professor of creative writing and poetry at St. Thomas University in Fredericton, who met Glenn in a poetry workshop in Halifax years ago: They still read and edit each other's work. "Her work is accessible," says McConnell. "You can get it if you're not into poetry and you can really get it if you're into poetry."

The sense of location in Glenn's work is profound. It's the wide-open Canadiana she also recognizes in the work of other Canadian writers: "Blue, blue windows" and "the urge for going," quotes from Neil Young and Joni Mitchell respectively, and a Tomson highway reference pepper a draft of an unpublished piece called "Tell Me What You Want."

"I think we tend to want to capture those emotional or physical places," she says. "It's about identity. Definitely the prairie landscape and the maritime landscape, they're very, very compelling...it's the expanse of the horizon, the sea being just the same as the prairie. Also, it throws you back into your own insignificance. It makes you realize you're very tiny and you're not around for very long, which is a good reminder."

Glenn is marking the midpoint of her four-year term as the HRM poet laureate. She receives a modest annual stipend, a portion of the Culture and Heritage website and is required to attend certain public functions. In addition, opportunities for community service present themselves, which Glenn embraces, as well as the possibility of a "unique legacy project." Sue MacLeod, Glenn's predecessor, created an anthology of poetry and photography called To Find Us.

"One of the things I've got on the go is creating a website-slash-blog where young people can post their work and get feedback," says Glenn. "The other thing I've got underway is something with the Halifax Public Library system for new Canadians, who often don't get a chance around here to read their poetry in their first language."

The conversation returns to why people put their thoughts and feelings into verse. "You have to conflate emotion and cognition, because I think they're together," she says, carefully. "There's always a gap between that and words you have available. And that's a struggle. And that's what keeps you going."

Lorri Neilsen Glenn w/Tanya Davis, Stephanie Domet and Agnes Walsh at the Halifax International Writers’ Festival, March 30 at the Lord Nelson, 1515 South Park, 7:30pm, $8.

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