Finding community and quiet

“It’s really important to work together. It goes back to community. it’s important for womxn to support one another”

Photo of Debbie Okun Hill courtesy Melissa Upfold for the Calculated Colour Company

For my next interview in the occasional series on womxn writers, I was fortunate to be able to speak at length with the accomplished poet, Debbie Okun Hill. A member of the League of Canadian Poets, the Writers’ Union of Canada, and a past president of The Ontario Poetry Society, Ms. Okun Hill continues to write poetry and blogs on her website, Kites Without Strings, and recently judged the Golden Grassroots Chapbook contest for The Ontario Poetry Society, which you can read about on her website. This interview was conducted on August 14, 2019, and has been edited for length.

RS: One of the questions I’m interested in is about poets and their engagement with the community. You’ve been past president of The Ontario Poetry Society, and former co-host of Sarnia’s Spoken Word event. Are there any other community groups that you help to organize, and more importantly, why do you think it’s important for poets to engage with their community? How does your contribution to the community affect your work as a writer?

DOH: I believe as a writer it’s important to find a caring community; it’s just so nice to have that support. Many writers tend to be introverts — they’re used to being on their own. They enjoy solitary activities like reading and writing but at some point, they have to go out and meet other people for encouragement, support, and the generation of new ideas — it’s all part of the learning process. You learn by going out into the community, you learn about what readers may like to read, and you can test your ideas with different people.

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For example, when I returned to creative writing after a long hiatus, I joined a local group called Writers in Transition, which was based in the Sarnia area. It was a great group with established and emerging writers who met weekly to workshop new work. Because the membership included an eclectic mix (poets, short story writers, novelists, columnists, and people writing non-fiction) the variety of genres enriched me and fed my love for writing. Sometimes you feel that it’s such a drain to be a writer, but when you’re with other people who love writing, and who share the same dream, you support each other.

So even though I started with writing short stories, I feel that this community helped me in my journey to become a poet.

Sometime later, I stumbled upon The Ontario Poetry Society (I don’t even remember how!), but this provincial organization was also supportive and warm and welcoming at a time when I was just learning about this genre.  When they asked me to be part of the executive, initially I said no, but I soon reconsidered. I’ve always believed that being part of a community makes the experience richer, and TOPS gave so much to me that I wanted to give back and thank them.

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I discovered that being part of the executive, being part of that community was so helpful, because it helped me with my confidence. For example, when my writing wasn’t going well, I could fall back upon something really positive such as my work with the organization.

As a writer, it’s so easy to get down, to fall into a negative space when the writing isn’t going well, or to feel down when you’ve sent something out, and you don’t receive any feedback. But once you work behind the scenes, and you get involved, perhaps help to edit an anthology, or judge a contest, all of a sudden you realize that sometimes things are rejected only because they may not fit that particular publication, or maybe everyone’s written about apples and so the person who writes about a peach gets published just because it’s a little bit different. So, it’s another part of the learning process.

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As for participating in and co-hosting Sarnia’s Spoken Word event for eight years, I discovered the tremendous value in sharing work in front of an audience. You know, poetry is meant to be heard and shared. It was gratifying to watch writers grow in such a warm and caring environment. For me, the participants were like family and each month we gathered together to applaud and celebrate how unique everyone was.

Today, there are so many literary communities that one can join or participate in. Not every group will be a good fit but each one has the potential to make our work stronger. Sometimes the time commitment interferes with the writing but overall, it’s worth it.

RS: I’d like to ask about your trajectory as a writer, and how important you think it is for writers to take themselves out of their comfort zones.

DOH: I believe any kind of writing is helpful, because it helps you understand the world a little bit more. Diversification is a really good thing. So is moving outside one’s comfort zone. And sure, it’s nice to be an expert specializing in a particular area but there needs to be a balance.

For instance, I worked at Lakehead University earlier in my career, and I was exposed to so many different people. I realized after a time working with the professors that, because of their careers, they had to specialize and dedicate themselves to such a small part of the world, even though they were doing important work. But I just feel that the more you know about many things, you become richer as a person, especially if you step into different genres. I believe it enriches what you’re doing, especially when you’re just starting out as a writer, you don’t always know the direction you want to go in.

As I’ve mentioned already, I started out writing short stories and then people suggested I write poetry, and now I’ve been writing poetry for over fourteen years. So sometimes you don’t know what genre you want to write in until you start experimenting and trying different things. And for the past few years I’ve been slowly moving away from poetry, and I’m really enjoying blogging, but blogging reminds me of going back in time to when I was a journalist, and the enjoyment I received from interviewing people. Moving towards blogging is a bit of a break for me – a break from the poetry.

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And then there’s art. I’ve always loved art. So it doesn’t surprise me that art started to creep into my poetry, first as a subject matter, and more recently in writing ekphrastic poems. So maybe eventually I will go beyond poetry and move into another genre like the fine arts, photography or something like that. I know there are people who are inspired by music, and I think that all the arts (dance, theatre, music, writing) they all feed each other. And you’ll notice that poetry is changing, you’ve got the Instagram poets, for example. People just need to have those spaces for creative expression. Most human beings want to be creative.

RS: This blog and these interviews are meant primarily to focus on the spaces for womxn writers. What is your perspective on the importance of supporting and encouraging womxn writers? Have there been moments in your own life when you’ve felt the need to encourage and support womxn writers?

DOH: I’ve been fortunate in my life that I grew up with a mother who never hindered my childhood dreams but encouraged me to do whatever I wanted. The way I see people helping each other is like the interaction between trees in the forest. I’ve done a fair bit of work on the emerald ash borer, so I also studied a lot about trees. As a result of that work, I’m starting to learn that it’s important to be diverse and to support people as they are. It’s important to support womxn, but also immigrants, people from all cultures, and I feel it’s really important to work together. It goes back to community. It’s important for womxn to support one another, and for men to support womxn, we need to support trans folk, and it’s important for all of us to support all genders. Similar to the trees, we’re all adapting, but in the end, everyone needs to support each other.

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It’s like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. If we’re all still at the lower level trying to get shelter, or food, or love, it’s challenging to be creative because we’re still trying to get those other needs met. But when we support each other, and provide those spaces where we can move up the hierarchy, then we find that space to become creative, and we find the voices that we can share with other people.

My involvement with the Sarnia writer’s group, now that I think about it, was mostly composed of strong womxn, and because many were older and started to pass away, it was a really difficult period because I felt I was losing my mentors. Just imagine! They had all been writing together for a long time, and they were friends, and had been together for thirty or forty years. They were very good writers and when I met them, they were very very supportive of each other, which I thought was so nice to witness. They shared ideas. For instance, if someone heard there was a contest, or someone heard there was a submission call, they would share that information. They wouldn’t hide it from everyone else; they would openly share it. And then when someone had a poem published or a short story published, they would all celebrate and embrace that. They made people feel good. If someone received a rejection, they would say, ok, well, just keep going.

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They also mentioned that the writing industry had changed a lot. Back in the 70s and 80s there weren’t that many writers, so it was fairly easy to get published in Chatelaine or CBC. They acknowledged that in the early 2000s that things had changed. But yes, the older womxn were writing at a time when it was difficult for womxn to be writing, but they were quite successful in what they were doing, so they were quite inspiring. One of the womxn was I think a journalist back in the 1940s, so she was one of the first womxn in the newsroom, and she had to fight to write hard news, because they wanted her to write for the women’s pages. A couple of these womxn are (or were) well into their 90s, and so it’s encouraging to see older womxn who are still writing.

It was a wonderful experience to be part of that group. I hope I too can be so supportive to other womxn and writers.

RS: Whose work (which writers) inspire/s you the most? Or more generally, what inspires you?

DOH: In response to the second question: quiet. The stillness that we no longer have in the world. Because I’m an introvert, I need quiet time to think and reflect. If I don’t have it, then my mind starts racing too much and the creative side doesn’t emerge.

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Art has always inspired me. Many years ago, I worked at the Winnipeg Art Gallery, and I found that most inspiring because I could write about art and interview artists. That was the best of both worlds for me, because my love for art and writing were combined.

I also find nature inspiring. I live in the country, well sort of on the edge of the urban and the rural, and I just love the quiet and the outdoors, and being with nature. We have rabbits in our backyard, and milkweed, so I see monarch butterflies in the summer, and it’s always a lovely surprise when I open my curtains. It’s just fascinating to spend time with nature. So I find when I’m stuck and cannot write, I just go outside and get in touch with nature. It’s important to be away from people just to recharge my batteries.

So nature, art, and just having that quiet time and that space and time to think. And it is worth the sacrifice living outside the cityscape in order to have that.

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In response to the first question: I absolutely have to say Margaret Atwood. I have to admit I haven’t read all her books, but when I was in high school, we read and studied The Edible Woman, and somehow it just stuck with me. For whatever reason, it spoke to me and it introduced me to metaphors and symbols which are literary devices that still appeal to me. Surfacing was also really significant for me. Atwood’s work just inspired me because of its symbols and deeper layers of meaning. I believe the strongest writers are the ones who, perhaps they don’t always consciously do it, but they make magical things happen.

Toni Morrison’s work also inspired me. Her work was so poetic, and different, and powerful, and it really affected me. When I first picked up Beloved, I couldn’t read it. I was a new mother and the subject matter was too disturbing.  However, eventually I went back to it, and read it, and even though it was a painful book, it was well-written and left the reader with a powerful message. In hindsight, she needed to tell that story and to make the reader angry. Morrison took that anger, gave it a voice to educate people, and hopefully it makes people think twice.

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And oddly enough, Agatha Christie, which is totally different because her mystery novels are light but clever with her twisted puzzles, the working with the reader’s mind and just her brilliance in trying to solve the mystery. And maybe that’s the kind of writing I like, where you have to analyze it and try to figure it out. And maybe that’s where the poetry comes in, where you have different layers.

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