Creating Beauty through Poetry: An Interview with Shirley Camia

Shirley Camia is a Filipina-Canadian poet. She is the author of four collections of poetry: the forthcoming Mercy (Turnstone Press, 2019); Children Shouldn’t Use Knives (At Bay Press, 2017), 2018 winner of The Manuela Dias Book Design and Illustration Award (Book Design) at the Manitoba Book Awards, and an Honourable Mention in Poetry at The Alcuin Society Awards for Excellence in Book Design in Canada; The Significance of Moths (Turnstone Press, 2015); and Calliope (Libros Libertad, 2011). 

Her work has been featured in North American publications such as The New Quarterly, CV2, TAYO, and the Winnipeg Free Press, as well as the anthology, My Lot is a Sky, from Math Paper Press in Singapore. 

Born in Winnipeg, Shirley has lived across Canada, the Philippines, Japan, and Kenya. She is currently based in Copenhagen, Denmark.


Why poetry? Why write primarily in this medium?  

I’ve always been drawn to poetry. I’m drawn to poetry, and particularly, a minimalist use of language, because I have always enjoyed the challenge of saying so much with so little. I was a journalist for over a decade, and the practice was honed from my days of writing news stories, when three sentences were enough to tell a story.

You have been living in Copenhagen for a year now. Has the physical move from one place (Toronto) to another affected your writing in any way (change in geography, language, people etc.)?

No. My work thus far has been deeply rooted in memories and recreations of the past, so the change in landscape has not affected my writing.

You seem to have a strong connection to the Filipino community in Canada (as evident from your last book’s launch in Toronto). How important is your connection to the Filipino community to your writing process? Are there any other communities that you consider yourself a part of?

I was born and raised in Winnipeg and at heart, and I feel a stronger connection to the Filipino community there, even though it has been several years since I have lived in that city and the community has grown and evolved in my absence. Having said that, I have also developed connections to many individuals in the Filipino community in Toronto. I don’t, however, think the connection to those communities is integral to my writing process. What I do think is important is the comfort and sense of belonging I feel in those spaces, with supportive people, which in turn makes me feel open enough to share my work.

Outside of these communities, and with eternal gratitude to Phoebe Wang, I have begun to meet and foster relationships with other writers of diverse backgrounds in Toronto. These ties have been so nourishing and have taught me so much; again, not necessarily about the writing process itself, but about writing in Canada from a marginalized viewpoint.

Currently however, I live in Copenhagen. Shortly after moving, I met Heather Spears, a fellow Canadian poet who has lived in Denmark for decades. Heather has introduced me to other expat writers, who have graciously invited me to their monthly meetings. They have given me constructive feedback from very different perspectives, which has been helpful to expanding my work.

Your day job with the UN Refugee Agency is completely different from the content of your writing. Do you ever see yourself bridging the two, or do you prefer to keep the two worlds (your day job and your writing) separate from each other?

I prefer to keep the two separate, but there is inevitable overlap. Experiences inform my writing; my day job gives me plenty of experiences to draw from. My work as a poet, with its concision and precision in language, makes its way into the work that I create daily, from videos to written stories. I feel fortunate to be able to create in both worlds, but it can be exhausting, which is why I try – albeit unsuccessfully – to keep them separate.

How do you locate yourself within CanLit?

I don’t, really. As I did not take the traditional route to publishing – completing an MFA / MA in creative writing, finding a network, publishing in literary magazines and journals, then publishing [my books] – I feel as though I am, and have been, largely absent in CanLit, and I’m only beginning to form connections and find my footing.

What’s urgent (for you) about writing poetry? What are your preoccupations as a poet?

What’s urgent is the story I need to tell, which has been different with each collection I’ve written.

What preoccupies me as a poet is fully encapsulating the emotions and experience I am trying to convey – with as sparse use of language as possible. The less words used, the more valuable each word becomes.

Can you comment a bit on the nature of the poetry book as a physical, aesthetically pleasing object to be owned? I am interested in the process you went through in relation to your most recent book.

With Children Shouldn’t Use Knives in particular, I obsessed with the minutiae – everything from where the words were laid out, the images, the order of the poems and the covers. Despite its subject matter, the book is playful, and I wanted the interplay between the text and the images to reflect that. Words echo their meanings, and are placed in such a way to mirror the illustrations they’re paired with.

I also obsessed with the book’s appearance for very personal reasons. I worked on that project mostly in Winnipeg, when my father, and then mother, made frequent and very serious trips to the hospital. I traveled to Winnipeg from Toronto every other month, spending my days at the hospital. At night, I looked at the work that was culled from my second collection, The Significance of Moths, and wondered what to do with it. All the poems were about childhood, which was timely given that, at that time, I so badly wished that I was a kid again, without the fears associated with having two parents on the verge of dying. One of the only things I could control was this project. I gave it everything I had. With Knives, I was trying to create something beautiful in the midst of ugliness. So despite, or perhaps because of, the circumstances surrounding the creation of the book, I wanted Knives to be a complete thing of beauty – light to balance out the darkness –, which is a major theme of this work.

Do you have a personal mantra as a writer?

As a former radio journalist who wrote very short stories under strict deadlines, I did not have the time to doubt myself or second-guess my work. All of the stories needed to be complete and ready for air by the top of the clock. So, I learned how to look at my work in a very factual way. This is still the mindset I have when I write poetry, which I can see now is akin to two mantras: 1) kill your darlings and 2) get it done.

This interview was conducted over email and Skype throughout September 2018.

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