Heather Cadsby brings humour and honesty to poetry

On Tuesday, Jan. 25, York’s Canadian Writers in Person course and lecture series presented poet Heather Cadsby reading from her fourth book of poetry Could be (Brick Books, 2009). Special correspondent Chris Cornish (BA Hons. ’04, MA ’09) sent the following report to YFile.  

Praise be to the angels of morning breath.
A waft of nasty odour is a sign of life.

from the collection Could be
by Heather Cadsby

Heather Cadsby admits to being selfish. That sounded strange from this friendly woman who has given much of her time to encouraging other poets at the Art Bar, a poetry reading series she used to run (and which still happens every Wednesday at Clinton’s Tavern in downtown Toronto). She elaborated, “I feel the best about myself when I write a poem.” Regardless of her “selfish” motives, she recently shared her work with the Canadian Writers in Person reading series.

Left: Heather Cadsby

As she read from her collection Could be, it was clear that Cadsby is also a storyteller, generously offering little anecdotes to accompany each poem. “There are many ways to ruin a poem and I’ll tell you how I ruined this one,” she said. As her manuscript was going through the lengthy proofreading process, an editor called her with a seemingly innocuous question: “Would you agree that it’s more common to spell ‘yah’ with an e?” Cadsby agreed, only to discover upon publication that the poem in which “yah” appeared was a lipogram, a demanding form in which the letter “e” is not allowed. Though she had been meticulous in writing within this restriction, she suggested that writers are not infallible, lofty creatures, but indeed human.

Cadsby also shared thoughts on her writing process. Rather than writing from the bottom up, approaching a collection with an overarching theme, her ideas are sparked by the things that happen in her daily life. An outdoorsy person, she often uses concrete images of nature and local geography like Mimico Creek to draw her reader into the poem. She then starts writing “from the top down”, like exploring an iceberg from its tip to its expanding growth beneath the surface. Through this, the poem “meanders its way into meaning.” Though she considers herself to be a conceptual poet, she resists the avant-garde trend to be sometimes obtuse and “really boring, to be as uncreative as possible,” she said. “For me, I need to put soul into it, which means humour or anger.”

After what she calls the wonderful feeling of getting her first draft down, she leaves it and returns later to edit. At this stage, she might be tempted to say “maybe I shouldn’t have said this,” but Cadsby prefers honesty, believing it better to take risks. This is why she doesn’t second-guess her writing too much, because she said “you can end up with something really dry.” As she explained in one poem, she is not afraid of “Playwork. Go for it.”

The kind of honesty Cadsby strives for is not to be confused with factual autobiography. Though some draw heavily on her personal experience, such as a poem about her mother’s death, others are more fictional. She is both amused and concerned when readers assume that the “I” in a poem represents the author’s voice. 

At one reading, she offered a fictional poem about an adulterous affair in which a husband’s mistress arrives at the narrator’s doorstep. Afterwards, someone from the audience offered sympathy for the betrayal in her marriage. When Cadsby revealed the truth, “they felt a big let-down, like I had conned them!” 

The Canadian Writers in Person series of public readings at York, which are free and open to the public, are also part of an introductory course on Canadian literature. The series is sponsored in part by the Canada Council for the Arts. At 7pm on Feb. 8, in Room 206  in the Accolade West Building, Michael Crummey will read from his award-nominated novel Galore.

Chris Cornish, a former teaching assistant with the course, has since graduated but continues to attend the readings.