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Yukon poet explores legacy and connection

Joanna Lilley sometimes imagines written language hadn't been invented. She wonders how she would she express herself. "I'm just more comfortable writing than talking," she says.

Joanna Lilley sometimes imagines written language hadn’t been invented. She wonders how she would she express herself. “I’m just more comfortable writing than talking,” she says.

Lilley works as a senior communications advisor for the Yukon Government, and she’s a habitual writer. Her poems have been collected into a book, The Fleece Era - it’s her first one, published by Brick House.

“Poetry isn’t exactly a big money-maker,” Lilley says. She says her full-time job allows her to focus fully on creative writing in her spare time, and she doesn’t have to worry about making money from it.

Theoretically, Lilley writes every day, in the evening. Although in her day job she works with words, she says it’s difficult to switch her brain to poetry after a day of office work. The shortest poem in the collection, “Work-life Balance” talks about the burden of bureaucracy:

Of course

I spend more hours away from the office

than there.

I don’t sleep under my desk

but balance it on my head,

carry it home,

lie in bed with it on top of me,

its feet on the floor like in old films.

Lilley acknowledges that writing poetry seems like a self-indulgent pursuit, but the potential judgment doesn’t stop her, she says.

She has to write: “It makes me happy, it makes me feel sane, it helps me work out how to live, even though I live a comfortable life.”

Although she writes for herself, Lilley says she wants her writing to be accessible to others, too.

Her poems read like prose; she says she’s always written fiction, but her novel manuscript was “becoming a burden.”

“I find writing poetry very joyful and liberating,” Lilley says, “partly because you can finish a poem.”

To her, poetry can be compared to visual art; there are many different styles of painting, as there are different styles of poetry. Like painting, some poems are abstract, formulaic, and filled with metaphors and symbols, while others are simple and clear with less layers of meaning.

Lilley says she writes from a personal, emotional place: “If I’ve lived with something for a long time, it inevitability just comes out.”

And it’s easy to tell what Lilley’s been living with. Her decision to not have children is “something I think about quite a lot,” and the theme runs strong in the beginning of the book.

In ‘If I had Children’ Lilley alludes to her thoughts on bringing more humans into the world:

As I was dying, all I would have

to bequeath would be a million pounds

of greenhouse gas emissions

To have children is an innate desire, Lilley says. She explores where that comes from, whether a person is born with it, or if it’s how or where or when she’s raised.

“I tend to over think things. It’s probably why I write poetry.”

The poems toward the end of the book are meditations on place and connection. Lilley moved to the Yukon eight years ago from Britain with her husband. She says, “I came here because I wanted to, and because I was drawn to the space and the climate.”

By ‘space’, Lilley isn’t referring just to the vastness of the North. She says in Britain, generally, there’s a lot more judgment. There’s an attitude of “nothing is possible” as opposed to the feeling she gets here, where she finds people more open and accepting to other people’s pursuits.

Lilley was also daunted by “hundreds of years of English literature. Who am I to add to that?” In the Yukon, she found the freedom to write with less inhibition.

A clear sense of place comes through her writing, almost as if it’s unintentional. In “Ugly”, Lilley writes how she should be getting her log house ready for “winter’s steel wool scrub” instead of thinking about her black chin hairs.

In the poem “Fish Lake Ridge” Lilley compares her connection to where she’s from to the First Nation identity she notices in the Yukon:

Water is thick where

the Yukon River starts

surging to the Bering Sea,

rising with the blood

of ancestors whose descendants

watch over them as they stalk

each fall, letting the bellied

cow moose scratch through willow

while they pierce and fell the bull.


No ancestors watch over me.

I have no descendants to guard.

My native land is a high street

of Ford Fiestas parked

outside a Tudor-fronted Tesco

Metro selling tuna sandwiches.

My territory is bounded by

a fence my father creosotes

every second summer.”

“I’m English,” she says. “I’ve never felt that’s terribly interesting. The place my parents are from is nice, but I’ve never felt a spiritual connection to it.”

Lilley hopes to challenge herself as she continues to write. She wants to be able to know what her poems will be before she finishes them. Now, she says, she never knows where they will end up as she starts writing. She wants to have more control over them. She also wants to write about topics she doesn’t have experience with. She’s been thinking about writing a series on extinct animal species.

Lilley’s book will be launched on March 21st at the Old Fire Hall.

Meagan Deuling is a Whitehorse freelance writer.