A short interview with Christine Leclerc

Christine Leclerc is a Vancouver-based author and activist. She is the author of Counterfeit (2008) and Oilywood (2013, winner of the 2014 bpNichol Chapbook Award) and an editor of portfolio milieu (2004) and The Enpipe Line: 70,000+ km of poetry written in resistance to the Northern Gateway pipeline proposal (2010). Leclerc is a University of British Columbia Creative Writing Program graduate whose poetry, fiction and essays have appeared internationally. She is a communications manager by day and has been known to lead community theatre at corporate headquarters and occupy oil rigs at sea.

Q: Tell me about Oilywood.

A: Oilywood is a community-based poem. It contains the work of a community members encountered on the beaches of Burrard Inlet in 2012. That year, I worked on a banner hang. The banner was massive and took a long time deploy. There was a brainstormed in case the banner didn’t actually work out. One idea was to put a giant Oilywood sign up on the North Shore mountains near Burrard Inlet. Soon after the brainstorm, the banner was unfurled over the shipping channel that runs under Lion’s Gate bridge. Tar sands product is shipped there. 

The banner was deployed to inform the public of Kinder Morgan’s plans to double their pipeline, but the idea of a sign on a mountain stayed with me. I explored the possibility of an installation, but consultation with First Nations and some math showed that an easier to situate and more affordable approach was needed.

Getting to know the Inlet and imagining its future in the context of climate change were the main appeals of the sign project for me. So, I undertook a research program of recording water, interviewing beach goers and creating poets maps with community members at free workshops that were open to the public.

Q: I’ve been discussing similar ideas recently with Fred Wah, about poets who live their politics in a very overt way, and directly connecting writing to action. It makes me curious if these projects are composed as direct responses to activism, as ‘calls to action,’ or even a combination of both? Yeats famously said that “Poetry makes nothing happen,” but what do you think poetry, through such means, can accomplish? Or possibly, is that missing the point entirely?

A: Poets living their politics in a very overt way. Writing as action. I came to immerse myself in certain struggles with a lot of frustration with language.

Although I do find myself deploying language and action in a range of scenario-dependent ways, I have different expectations of language now than when I first started working on campaigns. I want my favourite movements to win, but I appreciate the spontaneous quality shared by poetry and movements, regardless of whether we’re up or down in a particular moment.

To Yeats: Nothing makes poetry happen.

Poetry and movements can resist linear development.

“Political writing” can be part of a larger ecosystem of actions.

Writing can be activism and a call for culture change.

Writing can be a call for collaboration. It can be the building of a library of ideas for deployment in sharpest rain.

Writing can cause two people like you and I to get to know each other bit by bit over many years.

Writing can keep people connected, if only by the memory-ache that makes them strong.

Q: The idea of poetry-as-slogan is reminiscent of the work poets were doing years ago in advertising, such as Lew Welch, who was said to have come up with “Raid Kills Bugs Dead.” How has this exploration of writing and action made you view your own work? Is “political writing” an aspect of your poetry, or the other way around? Is all of your current writing tied to the possibility of action?

A: Gosh, it’s true that language is often packaged as slogan for political campaigning purposes, but what I appreciate about political poetry is that it can be an opportunity to apply language in quite sophisticated ways.

During a recent classroom visit, someone asked about why a documentary approach was taken throughout so much of Oilywood and whether I saw this as being related to the political nature of the poem. This seemed like an apt observation to me. I definitely see a connection between an idea of politics that includes how resources and freedoms are shared and enshrined and a documentary poetics that places statements from bodies with divergent agendas under one cover.

That said, I don’t see Oilywood as an entirely didactic poem, but one that aims to engage the reader with decision. Even as citizens experience a low level of access to influence on the direction of energy infrastructure development in Canada, there are still decisions for communities to reclaim and make. So in this sense, yes Oilywood is tied to possible action.

Q: How do you feel Oilywood connects to your previous collection, Counterfeit? Or does it at all? Oilywood is obviously a distinctly focused project, but was Counterfeit similarly composed as a book-length work, or as an accumulation of what you had written up to that point?

A: When I look through Counterfeit and Oilywood I see some similar linguistic strategies in play. But you’re right that the overall projects were conceived differently.

With Counterfeit, the poems were conceived with the idea of an eventual manuscript in mind, but Oilywood has had a number of forms as it’s emerged.

Strategies Oilywood borrows from the earlier work are polyphony and setting up poems as theatrical conceits or using space as an element of composition.

Q: What do you mean when you speak of the poems in Counterfeit and Oilywood “setting up poems as theatrical conceits”?

A: In Counterfeit, there are several poems with deliberately dramatic form. In Oilywood, we have references to film and numbered sections which cut to and from a number of perspectives. If I ask myself, ‘Why theatre?’ my strongest inclination is to answer, “Because as a metaphor it that holds the possibility of collaboration.’

Q: What is it about the collaboration that attracts, and what do you think it allows the scope of your writing to accomplish? Obviously, Oilywood is very much constructed as an open, collaborative project, but how might collaboration apply to some of your other writing, such as the poems in Counterfeit?

A: Some of the works in Counterfeit gesture strongly towards theatre. What jumps out to me about several of these poems now is that the characters negotiate and co-tell the world of the poem. It’s like this to a greater extent in the Enpipe Line also.

Other people are who attract me to collaboration. I want to be in community and one way I know is working to respect others, participate and attend to shared spaces.