Towards Elucidation: Lauren DeGaine in Conversation with Nancy Holmes

Nancy Holmes

Malahat volunteer Lauren DeGaine talks with 2017 Constance Rooke Creative Nonfiction Prize winner Nancy Holmes about her winning essay, "Flaubert's Hummingbirds."



Nancy Holmes has published five collections of poetry, most recently The Flicker Tree: Okanagan Poems. She is the editor of Open Wide a Wilderness: Canadian Nature Poems.  She is Associate Professor in Creative Writing at The University of British Columbia in Kelowna, British Columbia. With a colleague, she has established the Eco Art Incubator ( ) which supports ecological art in the Okanagan Valley.  She also collaborates on an eco art project about native pollinators called Border Free Bees . Nancy won the 2015 Robert Kroetsch National Teaching Award in Creative Writing for her innovative student project, Dig Your Neighbourhood and she is working on a new book of poetry. 

Congratulations on winning the Constance Rooke CNF prize! As someone who works in both creative and critical modes, what are your thoughts on the role of poetic or lyrical language in nonfiction writing?

(I am honoured to win this prize.  What good work the Malahat does in promoting forms that have few first level publication platforms—the literary essay being one of them, along with the long poem and the novella.)

Lyrical language is one of the important tools in the essay writer’s toolbox, along with narrative and exposition, but the deeper intersections between the lyric and the personal essay may be structural and rhetorical.  When I write a poem, I am working towards a structure that spirals into or spins something new.  I like essays that do something similar, that spiral from one place or position into another place or position. I find myself using words like “shift” and “spiral” in both forms.  I love poems that take me towards a mystery whereas I like essays that take me towards elucidation—though any time I set up dichotomies or taxonomies, I realize they are inadequate.  Reading Joan Didion’s essay on the Hoover dam takes you to the edge of a cosmic precipice where you feel the mystery of time. And is Didion on that edge with us or is she recollecting from a moment of tranquility? The lyric “I” and the essayist “I” share qualities, with the exception of the memoirist where the “I” is a different beast, more self-consciously shaped by the author.  The poet and the essayist “I” is some lurking being, an immanent personality, that feels different from the teller of a story.  The lyric and the essay attempt to cut through performance, through the padding of ideologies and blinkers of conventional thought to speak.  Speak to what or whom of course is a question!  Maybe this is where lyric language comes in—lyric language is a way to bypass performance or trick us out of our dependence on assumptions and cultural norms.  It is a language that speaks to gods and mysteries and rattles the carapace of our cultural and linguistic limitations.  So when that needs to happen, lyric language is the essayist’s friend.

Alternately, what functions can research serve when writing poetry?

In my experience, research and poetry are inextricably linked, if you define research in a broad sense.  I read mostly novels, poetry and essays so this is my artistic research, what I “research” to learn about the craft but also the world. In a more conventional sense, if the foundation of research is curiosity and questions, a state of inquiry is a great plough to open up poems and essays.  Unlike a scientific or analytical critic, I don’t start with a question though when I begin to write.  I usually start with an image or a shock or a necklace of words, but once I begin to play with that originating material, questions begin to pop up and they force me to research or read further afield. Research that insists on more knowing in the heat of creation is the kind of research I love best.  I also work and teach in the academy so at times I have to grapple with questions around how academic research and the fine arts connect.  Henk Borgdorff distinguishes artistic research as discovery-focussed not hypothesis-led.  Borgdorff says that the artist undertakes a search on the basis of intuition, guesses and hunches and that this form of inquiry can lead to unique or surprising paths into and out of problems.  I like this metaphor of artistic research as “following or forging paths” rather than “analyzing and solving problems.” When bringing critical studies researchers or scientists together with artists, this difference in method makes for potential richness but also difficulty because the critical and analytical methods usually start from problems and want to solve or unpack them.  For artists, unless there is an aesthetic question (can I write a story in the second person using the character of an abused artificial intelligence sex machine…?), research carves paths and spins process threads and follows veins as it moves in and out of problems, sewing them into new shapes, framing them, finding them interesting in themselves.  Often, the end of artistic research is not the right idea or the right solution.  In fact, I doubt it ever is.

In “Flaubert’s Hummingbirds,” you argue that there is something important to be gained by being “more specific, more curious, and more discerning.” Do you have any tips for how writers can practice this in their work?

It is tough to balance being wide open and being skeptical, and I usually fail by slumping over on one side or the other. Isn’t this tricky balancing act what writers have been talking about as the sweet spot for creation since Keats coined the term “negative capability?”   I don’t have any useful advice as each of us has our own tendencies to fail to be specific, to be truly curious and to be devoted to the truth of what is really in front of us.  So much interferes—expectations of others, judgement, fear, language limitations, personal weaknesses,  ideologies, trends, careerism and other isms, ignorance, entrenchment etc, etc.  For me, trying to be true to my own experience, my own embodied experience of being alive and being in place are my lessons, my constant lesson.  And doing this without stopping reading and being curious about others and other places and perspectives.  Zadie Smith has a great essay called “Fail Better” which talks about all the ways writers fail and why they do and how failing artistically can be a question of the writer’s character and personality.  She says, “writers have only one duty, as I see it: the duty to express accurately their way of being in the world.”  And the whole essay is about how hard that is.

Haughtiness and self-righteousness show up in Flaubert’s letters, and—in the essay—you recognize those qualities in yourself as well. However, writing often requires the author to make a statement or claim. I am thinking, for example, of your poem, “The Last Ice Age,” which describes behaviors of mammoth hunters. I am also thinking of how this happens in my own work. Is there something necessarily authoritarian about the activity of writing, or is there a way to avoid those qualities completely?  

It would be sad to think that making a statement is an authoritarian act.  Insisting that the statement is the only truth or that no one can question it or that the statement explains everything and everything should be measured against it:  that would be authoritarian.  But making a claim or statement would not necessarily be.  Self-righteousness is rife these days and probably always has been!  Human beings tend to think that what they know or believe or what the group they belong to knows or believes is what everyone should know or believe.  I suspect this tendency is exacerbated into pathology by various belief systems and in many cultures.  You mentioned a poem from my book Mandorla where I am making a statement that my immigrant ancestors to the Canadian prairies tore up and destroyed the grassland.  I think this is a fact, but I am trying to state this fact without necessarily being self-righteously condemnatory (maybe I failed!) and to acknowledge the complexity of this fact.  My ancestors participated in the destruction because economic and colonial interests had already destroyed the vast buffalo herds that had maintained the grasslands. I tried to hint at this mass slaughter by using the image of the slaying of a mammoth. The mammoth was also meant to be a reminder of the extinctions that have happened before—most of the megafauna of the globe disappeared after the last ice age.  Would the mammoth hunters have been aware that hunting rare and declining mammoths might have been a problem?  They must have been aware of this decline. Maybe many human groups did stop hunting them, maybe not.  We don’t know.  But history shows we’re not a species that tends to stop behavior we know is wrong if it provides us with gratifications. So in that poem I am trying to raise complications around a fact, to try to undermine a simple condemnation of one group of people while at the same time not closing my eyes to hard truths.  I suspect I rarely achieve such complexity.  Part of it might be my own haughtiness. It’s hard to not feel anger or a sense of moral superiority when you think about the massive destruction of the vast ecosystem of the North American prairie: people at the time, and not just indigenous people, knew what was happening but no one listened if land-grabbing political agendas and resource extraction lusts were on the table.  It’s a familiar situation today—here in BC we’re feeling pretty raw about the go-ahead to build the Site C dam. So I think I’ll avoid writing a poem or essay about the Site C dam.  How could I avoid toppling right over into screaming self-righteousness? It is so clearly the wrong decision for human right relations with the natural world, so obviously the elevation of human greed and need over any other possible consideration.

The essay demonstrates a strong awareness of the consequences of colonization, indoctrination, and patriarchy—particularly in relation to humanity’s knowledge of the natural world. As a poet yourself, can you talk about the potential of poetry—or literature in general—to deepen and repair humanity’s connection to nature?

I might avoid writing about the Site C dam itself but maybe I could write about the love of a place or a river and that poem or essay might spiral into awareness of the natural place’s razing or its doom.  Such a literary work could tend towards elegy, with the elegy’s reaching for consolation without getting stuck in the damaging emotions of rage, despair and blame.  In a sense, an elegy for the natural world has built-in hope, for nature will go on without us. The damage to ourselves is more permanent and possibly unhopeful. Maybe the potential of poetry and essays to deepen and repair our connection to nature comes back to the “I” of the lyric and the essay—by having the human at the heart of speaking and thinking about the natural world, you enact what connects people to the world.  In “Flaubert’s Hummingbirds” I report on the incredible loss of names of plants in European culture and wonder if we can chart a concomitant loss of responsible relations with nature.  An Okanagan elder, Eric Mitchell, told a workshop he was leading this fall that with every name comes responsibility.  Knowing the names of the animals and plants and landforms puts onto you a responsibility for those beings or places.  One of the great qualities of literature is that it stories and names the world and thus knits webs of responsibility. Maybe this quality of literature gestures towards an  important “use” of literature in our time of ecological crisis. We name.  We try to find out what we know (Montaigne’s directive for the essay).  And when we find something we don’t know, a poem or an essay holds the unknown up for naming or at least creates a state of attentiveness that is needed to find that name that will bind us to something we have neglected or not seen.


Lauren DeGaine

Lauren DeGaine

* * * * * * * *