canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

TDR Interview: Joelene Heathcote


Joelene Heathcote is the author of What's Between Us Can't Be Heard. She is a graduate from the University of British Columbia with a Masters degree in Fine Arts. Her poetry has been published internationally and is included in the anthologies Breaking the Surface and Mocambo Nights. She has received numerous literary awards for fiction, non-fiction, and poetry, including: Arc magazine's Poem of the Year, the Ray Burrell Award, This magazine's Great Canadian Literary Hunt and the Best New Writer Prize. More information:

Michael Bryson interviewed Joelene by email in August 2003.


TDR: Letís start with the poet. Who are you? Where did you come from? How did you get here? Give us some of the basic facts.

I come from a blue-collar background of coal miners and loggers. My father is a plumber and a businessman. Iím from Welsh and Irish decent. Itís a mystery as to why Iíve become a writer except that perhaps I felt this sense of my familyís struggle from early onóhad an understanding that most lives are about trying to survive in whatever way. I guess I felt those stories were interesting and very Canadian. That sense creeps into a few of the poems, especially in the last section of the book.

My undergraduate degree in English and Writing is from Malaspina University-College. I have an MFA in writing from the University of British Columbia. I teach writing at Malaspina University-College in Nanaimo, and in September/October I teach at the Victoria School of Writing.

TDR: The title of your book is "What's Between Us Can't Be Heard." This can be taken a number of ways: There's a silence between individuals or we're all hard of hearing. There's also the implied intimacy of the word "us" -- perhaps what can't be heard is the secret shared between intimates. The secret can't be shared with others, or maybe it can't be shared between the couple. How do you understand the title? Perhaps you could illustrate your answer by referring to some of your poems.

I hope the title of the book achieves several of the things youíve mentioned. Iím often more concerned with what is felt but not addressed between people. Iím interested in the feelings and anxieties we carry around but donít talk aboutÖ how that contributes to who we become and how our relationships play out. I think there is that silence between people. These feelings without discourse become secrets, additions to the mosaic of mythology we make of our lives.

Iím interested in how a countryís wars and political unrest effect the psyche of its generations, how this can change a cultureís perceptions of the world. The idea of a country as a mind was interesting to me, and I think there is a lot of that interplay in the bookÖ damaged countries/damaged minds. Itís hard to grow with those limitations. In each of these instances, the persona is only scratching the surface of the damage done. I was conscious of that, of wanting, as a poet to say, "Here. This is all I knowóthese are the facts Iíve gathered, the rest is interpretation, an attempt to shed light on this or these lives." Poems like "Small Deaths," "Kim Ill Sung," "Temporary Wives," "Boys in Pieces," and "Everybody was twenty-one" are a few, I think, that illustrate that.

TDR: If I described you as a Canadian poet -- how would you describe the influence of the adjective, and how would you describe the meaning of the noun?

A Canadian poet? Hmmm. Iím not sure Iím that loyal to either the adjective or the noun. Poets earn about as much respect as housewives in this country. I use the old term "house wife" to keep us on the same level. The title of poet has not changed over the years. Iím no "syntax technician" or whatever. Iím Canadian by geography and influenced by many of the old Canadian writers like: A.M. Klein, Cohen, Layton, and Bronwen Wallace, but there is a lot I like about many writers from other countries. Iím sad that Canadaís high schools and universities still lean so heavily on the old British Canon. There is a tradition and a voice in Canada that despite its relative youth is equally valid.

TDR: WHAT'S BETWEEN US is divided into three sections that on the surface seem diverse. The first section presents a narrator in South Korea and reflects on South Korea and a love affair the narrator has there. The second section centres on a dramatic act of violence against the narrator's brother. And the third section seems to be a general collection of miscellaneous poems about coming to grips with reality and "quest for meaning." After thinking about the book as a whole, it seemed to me that through all of the sections is a malaise. I'm not sure if that's the right word, but that's the word that came to mind. The love affair doesn't appear to have much love in it; Korea is a land of unresolved conflict disrupted by imperial ambitions; the violence against the brother is horrific and senseless, yet it seems to spring naturally from the senseless, post-high school world the brother has graduated into; and the poems in the final section have titles like "How weak love can be." In a word, these are post-Romantic poems (and in some ways they remind me of W.H. Auden); they do not promise transcendence. Now the question: You seem to be "speaking" from a place without hope -- pushing for words that will provide stability in a world without stability. Are you conscious of writing in this post-Romantic tradition? How would you describe the place where your voice comes from?

Iím flattered to be mentioned in the same sentence as W.H. Auden. I suppose my work has a no nonsense tone as Audenís work does, but Iím not sure Iím capable of the emotional restraint that much of his work has. I have been accused of sentimentality.

Lives are full of dénouements and little losses of innocence. Theyíre everywhere if we are listening, some more and less obvious. In this book, I was subconsciously working toward the notion that fate is a larger part of our experience than we sometimes care to recognize, that even given our superior brains and technologies we are still, at the core, dumb animals functioning at basic levels of lust, rage, sorrow. As far as we know, only the human species is capable of judgment, reflection, and rationalization, yet these poems show how it is sometimes difficult to separate the two. The poems perhaps donít offer transcendence at first because transcendence is an individual experience. There are really only two choices here: transcendence or departure. "The Marvelous Thing is Itís Painless" is a poem that were it not for itís lack of musicality, would have been the title of the book. The last lines of the poem said in a way what I felt the mood of the book was: "Your Papaís life and yours/ how they hung like smoke,/ how fast they burned/ like they donít want to leave/ anything behind."

TDR: Currently I'm reading an anthology edited by Primo Levi which includes passages from 30 works that shaped his life. If you were going to put together such an anthology, what are some of the passages and writers you would include?

An anthology of works that have shaped my lifeÖ good question. Youíre really making me work for this arenít you? Leonard Cohen and Steven King were probably my earliest influences. Are you laughing at me yet?

Iíd include the last lines of "A Kite is a Victim": "then you pray the whole cold night before,/ under the travelling cordless moon,/ to make you worthy and lyric and pure."

Something from The Favourite Game. Iíve been influenced by Philip Levine. Iíd probably include his poem Getting There. Recent poems by Bob Hicock, stories by Lori Moore and Rick Moody, Diane Ackerman, Jared Diamond, Lee Berger, Adrienne Rich, Amiri Baraka, Ira B. Nadel, Raymond Carver, Pablo Neruda, Jim Smithís Add Language, many of the contemporary Canadian poets, J.M. Coetzee, Chekhov, Guy Vanderhaeghe, Greg Hollingshead, David Malouf. The list is kind of endless. Some of these people are writers of fiction, non-fiction, or poetry. Some have influenced me with their theories, others, structure, tone, or content. Itís all good grist.

TDR: What are you working on now? What do you feel are you next steps in developing as a writer?

Iím working on another collection of poetry primarily. Although I have several other projects on the go as wellÖ a radio piece, a novel, and a collection of short stories. Itís difficult to juggle everything, each require a different kind of thinking. I teach a lot too which takes time and thatís really important to me. My new collection of poetry is half finished so Iím reluctant to really talk about it yet. Itís still in its early stages of evolution.


TDR: In your answer to the first question, you say ďthose stories were very interesting and very Canadian.Ē Why did the Canadianness of the stories interest you?

The struggle was what I was interested in, the stories of struggle. I think it's part of a mythology about what it is to be Canadian. As with all mythologies, there is some truth there, but these are perceptions of what we go through. I don't want to take away from those very real experiences, I just want to suggest that perhaps an individual's view of experience can be exaggerated.

TDR: In Q#3, you seem to suggest that Canadianness is kind of accidental. In your answer to the first question, are you saying you respond to your sense of place? (The Korea poems in your bookís first section might be another example of this.)

It's not accidental for everyone. I'm saying I'm ambivalent about Canada in a many ways. In the Korea part, I was responding to a sense of place in those poems, but that is not to suggest I felt Korea was a better place or my home.

TDR: I donít think a discerning reader would accuse you of sentimentality, especially when you say things like ďwe are still, at the core, dumb animals functioning at basic levels of lust, rage, sorrow.Ē However, you say youíve been accused of it. Is this something you struggle with?

In my personal life probably.

TDR: Is sentimentality something youíre aware of editing out of your work as you progress? Iíve spoken with writers who refuse to believe that sentimentality is a bad thing. What do you think?

Well, I don't want to edit it out necessarily. I think there is too much modern writing lacks feeling... becomes too clever, too academic. But I think sentimentality in work is a bit of a high-wire act. You have to think about balance. That's the real key.

TDR: Could you expand on your answer in Q#4, where you say: ďThere are really only two choices here: transcendence or departure.Ē What does this mean exactly? 

I mean that we either get through things or we give up. Isn't life about transcending things or losing faith?

Michael Bryson is the publisher/editor of The Danforth Review.







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