Doyali Islam: Hello. You’re attending to the Arc Poetry Podcast. I’m Doyali Islam, Poetry Editor of Arc Poetry Magazine. On this program, we invite one poet from the latest issue of the magazine to read their published poem on-air, and to engage in a conversation about how their poem came to be in the world: the impulses or creative processes behind it. Despite the fact that a poem’s origins can sometimes, in some ways, be mysterious to its maker or makers, we will attempt this discussion.
Today my guest is Kevin Irie. Kevin’s poem, “Hierarchies, The Northern Harrier Hawk,” was published in Arc 86, the Summer 2018 issue of the magazine. Kevin Irie has published poetry in Canada, The States, Australia, and England. His poems have been broadcast on CBC Radio and have been translated into Spanish, French, and Japanese. He has also been long-listed for the 2017 CBC Poetry Prize, nominated for the ReLit Award, and shortlisted for Arc‘s 2009 Poem of the Year contest. His book, Viewing Tom Tomson: A Minority Report (Frontenac House, 2012), was a finalist for the Acorn-Plantos People’s Poetry Award, as well as the Toronto Book Award. He lives in Toronto.
Kevin Irie: Hi.
DI: It’s nice to have you here.
KI: Thank you for inviting me.
DI: You’re welcome. So, I’m wondering if we could jump in and hear your beautiful poem.
KI: With pleasure.
[link to “Hierarchies, The Northern Harrier Hawk”]
LR: Sure. So this is “Feeding Iris Strawberries”:
DI: Thank you! It’s such a wonderful poem.
DI: Thank you so much.
KI: You’re welcome.
DI: I’m wondering if we could talk about how this poem arose.
KI: I think this poem, for me, rose out of three things, three links: one was literature; one was life; and the third element was luck – sheer luck.
In terms of literature, I’ve always read poems about hawks by other poets, and I’ve always wanted to write a poem about the hawk the way that those poets have written a poem. I’m thinking of the British poet Ted Hughes: he wrote a famous poem called “Hawk Roosting,” which is a dramatic monologue of a hawk. He also wrote a poem called “The Sparrow Hawk.” Closer to home in Canada, I loved the title poem of Randy Lundy’s book, The Gift of the Hawk, and also Karen Solie, in her latest chapbook, she has a poem called “Miscalculation,” and the first stanza is about the hawk, and very much power structures. And so, inspired by that, I wanted to write a poem.
But of course the second link, life, is because I live in Toronto, and Toronto has so many ravines, and it’s a paradoxical thing that you can ride the subway and step outside, and then five minutes later you’re in woods with foxes, coyotes, and rabbits. And hawks are always circling above fields by the lake or even in downtown Toronto. And I still have the vivid memory of watching hawks slowly circle above me – whether it’s in a ravine or along Bloor Street. And so, with that memory in mind of my own life, I wanted to write a poem about a hawk, and this is what happened.
DI: Did it take you a number of months or attempts to come up with the poem?
KI: Well, I guess I would say it took me years, since it was years ago since I first saw Ted Hughes’s poem. But when I actually tried it, it came relatively easy. And I was quite surprised, and the element of luck for me entered in the line, “When the hawk slowly / circles above us, it flies the way / we walk after dinner” – and that was the line that personally took me by surprise. And it came without any forethought or any preparation. And then when I read it, I was very pleased, sort of standing back, because there’s a connection between the hawk and human, which was not made until that point. And that gave me the impetus just to finish it, and it came very much on its own.
DI: Yusef Komunyakaa talks about that element of surprise – that, for him, he loves it when he writes something, and he’s like, “Whoa, where did that come from?”
KI: It’s exactly that same sensation, sort of like the magic, and that’s one reason I like to write poems, because you never know where it’s going to lead you, where it’s going to go. For this one, I really like the form of the couplets, and the enjambment, which sort of gave me control and also a channel just to keep moving forward. And so, for me, it was the lucky effect of finding the right form, and the right subject, and the right time, and the right memory, and they all converged together to write this poem.
I did fool around with it, thinking, should it be a hawk? Should it be an eagle? Because I thought there are political overtones between hawkish and hawks and the eagle. But when I replaced hawk with eagle, the political tones were a bit too overt, and having never yet seen an eagle in Toronto, even though I know they are around, it was a leap of imagination I couldn’t quite make yet.
DI: So, you live in Toronto; I’m wondering what your life is like here aside from writing. What’s your life like these days?
KI: These days, because it is summer, I love to explore the ravines and ponds. Toronto is like a secret treasure trove of natural places that, even though it’s in the midst of the city, you can find quiet and tranquillity, and sort of unexpected surprises every day if you look carefully.
DI: That’s, I guess, the poet’s mindset or approach.
KI: Yes, because you never know what’s going to happen to you, or what you’re going to see, and what sparks another impression, another memory.
DI: Do you go walking and exploring at a certain time every day?
KI: I find that in the afternoons it’s always a good time to explore, for practical reasons. At nighttime there’s too many mosquitoes and bugs. In the afternoon there’s so much clarity, there’s so much light; you can see things. And I like to walk through places, like the Rosedale Ravine, or The Brickworks, because you never know what you’re going to see, and it’s unexpected: suddenly a fox might come out of nowhere, or a deer might come out of nowhere. And so it’s never the same routine twice.
DI: That’s great. I’m wondering if we could turn now to the landscape of poetry, and I’m wondering if there’s a particular poet or poem that really inspires you, excites you, or interests you in some particular way, and if you could explain why.
KI: Well, that’s like asking to pick favourites!
Recently, a book that really excited me was Calling a Wolf a Wolf by Kaveh Akbar, which has been published in The States by Alice James Books, and also been published in Britain by Penguin. And I love the insight and the wit and the intelligence of his poetry. I see he’s been published literally everywhere, it seems. He’s quite celebrated now, but that was his first volume. He’s also a great person for interviewing poets themselves. He has his Dive Dapper site where he interviews other poets. So he’s a fan of poetry himself, and that’s one poet that really excites me now with that one book.
DI: Great! Well, I’m here with Kevin Irie. Again, his poem is from the Summer 2018 issue of Arc Poetry Magazine, and it’s called “Hierarchies, The Northern Harrier Hawk.”
KI: Thank you!