Q&A with incoming writer-in-residence Emily Pohl-Weary

Acclaimed Canadian author will mentor aspiring student writers at Queen’s

Emily Pohl-Weary, an acclaimed Canadian writer and literary figure, is coming to Queen’s this September to help aspiring student writers improve their work.

Weary is the incoming writer-in-residence at the Department of English Literature and Language, where she’ll stay for the fall term. She has written seven novels and books, spanning an array of genres from graphic novel to non-fiction to young adult.

The Hugo-award winning author, Toronto Book Award finalist and former editor of Broken Pencil literary magazine sat down with The Journal to chat about her new role at Queen’s.

Let’s start off with your incoming role as writer-in-residence at Queen’s in the fall. What exactly does that mean?

I’ll be the writer-in-residence at Queen’s, working in the Creative Writing program of the English Department. My role is essentially to work with students who are interested in one-on-one feedback for their creative writing.

I’ll be making presentations to classes, most of them within the English department, and making public appearances on and off campus.

Alongside the writer-in-residence job, I’ll also be running workshops for people whose family members have been incarcerated.

Our generation is famous and infamous for many things. What place do you feel poetry and creative writing has in a community of this generation’s youth?

Well, first of all, writing is invaluable. Learning to communicate clearly, effectively and evocatively is a tool for survival. But it’s also a tool to share experiences, to see outside the box, to look through the window of another person’s life.

Writing as an art form is incredibly cathartic. It plays this particular role of being an opportunity for people to express themselves and the way they want to be identified, as opposed to the way other people want them to be identified.

Also, what we see in the literary canon, too often, is the same kinds of voices represented. This kind of role, where I can hopefully provide ongoing support to a new generation of diverse writers, is a great way to widen what we define as the literary canon.

Tell me a little about your feelings about entering this new role? How did it happen and what are you looking forward to most about it?

I love working with young people! It’s a wonderful way to stay inspired. It’s so easy to lose sight of the energy of life, especially when I’m sitting in an office writing for so long at a time. Being around young people and their creativity is such a wonderful reminder of that energy. I’m excited.

I will be working quite closely with Carolyn Smart, a creative writing professor at Queen’s. She and I worked quite closely together on my recent book of poetry entitled “Ghost Sick”.

I guess she felt that I would be a great asset to the Queen’s community! I’m really excited to be coming to campus. Kingston isn’t a city that I know too well, so it’s a new place for me. I get to experience it not as a tourist but as someone who can interact and get to know people quite intimately.

If I were a young person wondering why creative writing is so important, if at all, what would you tell me?

I think students are at an age where they’re defining who they are for the first time. When you create through writing, poetry or otherwise, you’re framing your life, your experiences, and you’re the one in control.

It’s not someone else telling you how to feel. You’re sharing your own voice. For students who are outside of the family home for the first time, which so many university students are, it’s such a great way to essentially think about who you want to be and what your unique voice is.

Your book of poetry “Ghost Sick”, which was published earlier this year, is largely a reflection of your time growing up in the Parkdale neighborhood of Toronto. What are the central themes of the poetry included in the book?

“Ghost Sick” is, in a way, an ode to Parkdale. But it’s also a very personal look on the impact of violence and grief, and how we as human beings are resilient and certain communities are forced to be and seem resilient.

It’s also a look at boys growing up in Toronto and the ones who get left behind. That book took 10 years to write and it was my process of coming to terms with where I grew up.

Many of the poems come back to the Christmas Eve shooting that happened in my community in 2006, and the impact it had on my neighborhood and my family is essentially the reason I want to facilitate programs like this one at Queen’s and create workshops for families of the incarcerated. 

There’s a pattern in your past work of using creative writing as a means of offering support and literary programming to marginalized communities. You mentioned that this coming year, you will be leading workshops for family members of those who are incarcerated. Tell me about this desire to use writing in this way. 

What I like to do is bring in a range of different styles and get people to write, but always on themes that are directly relevant to their lives.

So, we’ll focus on validating personal experiences, processing trauma, building confidence. Or simply focus on gaining writing skills, which everybody needs and should have access to, regardless of background or experience. 

I think to see a different side of it of any community. I always have been curious about what it’s like to live in Kingston, which has such a diverse community that is built around a few prominent institutions, the penitentiary being one of them.

I think it will be a richer experience to work with people from different parts of that community, especially one that isn’t always recognized.

Emily Pohl-Weary will have office hours in Watson Hall starting in September, which houses the Department of English Language and Literature. 

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