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Longing for places: Joanna Lilley’s new poetry collection explores the nostagliga of landscapes

Nostalgia — for places, for people, for things loved — is at the heart of Whitehorse-based poet Joanna Lilley’s latest book If There Were Roads.

Nostalgia — for places, for people, for things loved — is at the heart of Whitehorse-based poet Joanna Lilley’s latest book If There Were Roads.

The book was released April 20 by Turnstone Press.

“These poems are about places I’ve loved, the longing of being in between places,” Lilley said.

Lilley has lived in the Yukon for the last 11 years — the anniversary of her drive with her husband up the Alaska Highway was actually April 24, she said — but is originally from Britain.

“I was writing poems which were very much about place … I immigrated to Canada but I still have a strong sense of pull to the places I lived back in Britain. I’m always kind of living half way, you know what I mean?” she said. “I get homesick for the landscape (of Britain) … things like beech trees … I miss the sea … living in the UK you’re never far from the the sea.”

This sense of nostalgia, this sort of “melancholy,” is at the root of many of the poems in If There Were Roads, she said.

“I think I’m kind of attached to feeling that way,” Lilley said. “All my poems come from some sort of a feeling … but by the end the whole thing takes on its own identity.”

Lilley’s first book of poetry, The Fleece Era, published by Brick Books in 2014, was nominated for the 2015 Fred Cogswell Award for Excellence in Poetry. Lilley said she felt more pressure for her second book because of the expectation to do well and to continue the success of her first book.

“Having had a book published gave me confidence … but it makes it easier (to write the second book) and then it doesn’t at the same time,” she said. “In a way, I was worried that the first book was part of a fluke.”

Lilley said she thought having one published collection under her belt might make it easier to get her book published, but that wasn’t the case — she had about eight rejection letters for If There Were Roads before Turnstone Press picked it up, she said.

“Rejections are still really hard,” she said. “They’re a little less devastating now, but still really hard.”

Compared to The Fleece Era, the poems in If There Were Roads have a much more refined, polished feel, and are somehow more elegant than the work in Lilley’s first collection.

“I think that’s just a natural evolution that happens when you write,” she said.

Lilley received two advanced artist awards from the Yukon government to complete this collection. She used the grants to attend the Seattle Cascadia Poetry Festival in 2012 and Sage Hill, a writer’s workshopping retreat near Regina, in 2013. Attending these two workshops allowed Lilley to refine her poetry in a way she hadn’t been able to do with her first book, she said.

“That was really helpful,” she said. “It just pushes you, pushes the poem.”

She also hired two editors, both of whom she said were “amazing” to work with.

“I had a lot of help with this book,” she said.

Lilley also has a collection of short stories published, The Birthday Books, printed by Hagios Books in 2015. A lot of her poems come from stories, she said.

“I actually started out trying to write fiction, to write a novel,” Lilley said. “Then I pushed the novel aside for a while to focus on poetry, because I find writing poetry so joyful.”

Many of the poems in this collection seem very personal, but that isn’t necessarily the case, said Lilley. Many people, even other poets, tend to think all poetry is autobiographical, she said. Her poems might start out as something that happened to her, but it “might just be a feeling I’m giving to a character (in the poem) to explore.”

“In every poem there is something real and true,” she said. “It might be me in the beginning and then it’s not necessarily me at the end … you kind of worry sometimes (after you publish) what (the poem) is doing without you.”

“A poem is a creation, an identity, a voice that isn’t necessarily mine,” she said.

Lilley is already working on her third book of poetry, which will be about extinct animals, she said. Lilley is a vegetarian and describes herself as a “not-very-active animal activist.”

“It’s hard to keep animals out of my work…. It’s part of my connection to place,” she said.

If There Were Roads is currently available to purchase online. Mac’s Fireweed will also be stocking the books, Lilley said, which are currently “on their way up the Alaska Highway.”

Lilley is giving a reading in Dawson City at the Westminster Hotel on April 29. The official book launch for If There Were Roads will take place May 11 at Baked Cafe in Whitehorse.

Contact Lori Garrison at