Poet Betsy Warland contemplates colour at York

On Oct. 19, York’s Canadian Writers in Person course and reading series presented poet Betsy Warland. York teaching assistant Chris Cornish sent the following report to YFile.

Contemplation of cold buds
poised through winter
seeds bulbs roots wrapped in
endless earth night

i have taken to wearing


my hairless head a shy
perseverant shoot

-from Only This Blue
by Betsy Warland


Betsy Warland warned the audience members at the back of the hall that she reads her poetry softly. What she didn’t tell them is how many shades of colour would be in her powerful reading. Her subtle tones, expressions, and gestures conveyed the power of every word, her silences evoking even more.

Right: Betsy Warland

Only This Blue, Warland’s most recent poetry collection, is about facing a life-threatening experience and how it alters one’s perception. For the poet, this experience was her encounter with breast cancer and eventual surgery. She was surprised to find that the biggest impact wasn’t necessarily the prospect of death itself, but rather the smaller changes to her daily life. Colour became very important to the poet and the theme of her exploration. In her work, green becomes a language, red a decision to cut, yellow a transition, and blue a calm observer of all colours.

While colour is a more immediate presence, absences are just as meaningful, says Warland.  “Blank space on the page is not empty.” She feels that silence is a big part of a disease like cancer, saying that “we’re not always aware of how afraid we are.” While she did not acknowledge this directly, there is also an implied absence in the surgical removal of a piece of oneself. When one notices that every left page of her book is blank, the impact of this loss is felt. As she recovered from chemotherapy, she avoided the “spectral chill” of shadows (the absence of light and colour) and the way they penetrated the “bone-thinness” of her body.

Another way of interpreting Warland’s silence is through the breath, an important consideration in her approach to poetry overall saying: “The body breathes the poem breathes the page.” As she was reading, one could hear the breath in her pauses, the way each one had different weights and textures just as they do visually on the page. Almost more musician than poet, it’s the musical notes found in these variations that define her work, saying  “Poetry is a riptide where language and silence negotiate each other’s equally powerful currents.”

The visual and tactile properties of the book itself were also important to Warland. She wanted it to be “intimate like your hands” and the cover needed to be “the colour of an azure sky in Montreal on an early November evening”, or in other words “only this blue.” She wanted the book to be as close to lived experience as possible and thus evokes a strong memory of the author at that particular time in her life.

While acknowledging the biographical elements of the book, Warland doesn’t want her work to be limited by that. She also doesn’t want her life and work to now be defined by cancer and death, saying “don’t give that ball to me”. It is the process of writing itself that means the most to her, though “as writers we’re given our material and sometimes it’s material we’d rather not have.”

The Canadian Writers in Person series of public readings at York, which is free and open to the public, is also part of an introductory course on Canadian literature. The series is sponsored in part by the Canada Council for the Arts. John Unrau, York professor and poet, will read from his collection Iced Water on Nov. 2.