Cecily Nicholson is the author of four books, and past recipient of the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize and the Governor General’s Literary Award for poetry. She has held the Ellen and Warren Tallman Writer in Residence at Simon Fraser University, and Writer in Residence at the University of Windsor.
HARROWINGS takes place in the rural and reconnects with Black intellectual and artistic history in relation to agriculture. Considering movements organizing for food security and resurgent practices, HARROWINGS addresses cultivation. The poems refuse the romance of husbandry and predictive customs and advance through practical tasks, sowing toward abolitionist futures.
Interview with Heike Lettrari
Heike Lettrari (HG): I’d like to start by asking you about the title of the collection. I could see at least three ways that the content and themes spoke to various aspects of the title:
- harrowing – the most straightforward definition speaks to acute distress; a state of being
- the harrow – as a farm implement, is suited to place on a farm
- the theme of the harrow and how it functions – it is used for surface tillage – breaking up soil, roots and weeds
Titling the collection “Harrowings” suggested to me themes of intellectual and emotional hardship as much as they did the most straightforward (though not uncomplicated) themes of the farm and rural (albeit colonial) agricultural life. In the title, we encounter “harrowings” in the plural, presented in the naked gerund form, which suggested to me events, ideas or happenings that needed to be returned to and explored further, which these poems do. How did you choose the title? Did it come to you early, informing the poems you developed for the collection, or did it come to you later, on the reflection of what the set of poems you had and that together, they spoke to?
Cecily Nicholson (CN): I appreciate you thinking this through. I’ve been seeing the title as HARROWINGS to level the letters in their all caps. It came to me part way through writing the poems for this book. Initially it was “Harrows” as a working title, but that seemed to anchor me too rigidly to the farm implement. I guess I love a well-deployed “naked gerund” as you describe, and plural to boot! The eventual “HARROWINGS” is not a commonly used word, I felt it could become more than what was literal. Harrowing experiences occur in this book for sure, and in regard to the history of people of African descent, in relation to seasonal, indentured, and slave labours, and on occupied land. This has had a profound impact on the establishment of nation states in the Americas for example. I descend in part from that history and wish to honour that genealogy, labour, and intelligence, particularly in relation to fugitivity and futurity. The title also allowed me to access parts and connotations of harrowings—therein harro[wings], harr[owings], h[arrow]ings and so on. I also think of “heroines” and yes, “happenings.”
HG: Building on the harrow, it struck me that while the harrow as a farm implement focuses on the soil (the top where things grow), what we get with this collection of poems is a much deeper perspective about Black identity, culture, history, and engagement with the landscape and who has been on the land. You bring a specifically Black lens and culture view to engage with themes of the farm together with the recognition of the hard work that farming demands, the trials of things like finding water, getting injured, making it through, season over season. That approach feels both important and necessary for today. And further, there is resilience in the poems of “Harrowings”, and honesty, history and reflection that felt deep and personal. Can I invite you to respond?
CN: Harrowing is a tilling effect on the surface of soil to ready an area for seeding. Seeding is one of the ways to propagate plants and is perhaps an indeterminant or annual process as compared to caring for what is perennial and Indigenous. To me these processes say something about displacement and the experience of being “on land” but not of it. Yet, to propagate seeds and thrive year after year within the mechanized, commercialized industries of farming also requires a fixity, a resilience.
I consider and study the habitual conflation of “soil” and “land” while trying to respect, and practice what it means to engage an ecosystem—the deep characteristics of soil which cannot be separated out from a matrix of organic matter. I was not connected to a Black lens in a community sense, growing up in rural southwestern Ontario, and mainly experienced “blackness” as projections of inferiority that were sometimes associated with violence, as a child. Now I am able to retrace some rural lineages. They defy borders, stereotypes, and cultural assumptions, about who is a farmer and how. In following some of those threads I’m able to move more collectively, communally, and anti-colonially which I think are urgent approaches for today.
HG: Speaking of form – there’s also a great variety in this collection. Short, pithy poems that engage with white space and line breaks; narrow, dense prose poems, ekphrastic poems (responding to/engaging with the collages – works of visual art), and engagement with historical texts, your earlier work and the works of others. These poems sing to each other, they reflect, they share observations, they share memories. There’s such a variety in here, I found myself looking forward to what was coming on the next page. I felt the notion introduced early in the collection “This makes for complicated dreams” was one that really stayed with me as I read through the collection and reflected on what I held. You acknowledge with the “this” of that sentence that you were reflecting further on Frederick Douglass’s insights from his 1854 journey to Canada and the complicatedness of the early days of Canada, the language and logic of farming, settler colonialism, and emancipation. Is the variety of the poems of “Harrowings” one way you sought to respond to those “complicated dreams”?
CN: Perhaps, but I’m not sure how intentional that was. I tend to write in what ways feel necessary for the content. The “short, pithy poems” for example, were often linked to what I describe as “pulses” of memory. I couldn’t really hold too much of that on one page. I’m not sure, perhaps it’s just me that would be overwhelmed by a denser prose picture on these topics. Either way, it is a joy of poetry, to be able to breathe spaciousness, rest, and time into the text. The “complicated dreams” include my own dreams. And I have been dreamed by others, I am sure. I know I will never own farm/property, but I do hope to be out in a good way on land, growing, caring, and supporting relationships to food for as long as I can.
HG: These poems are a mastery of contrast – both in their forms (as described in the previous question), their language (the concreteness of a “pepper”, “barrel” or “crow” vs “infrastructure”, “after-carceral”, and “abolition”), and the emotions they evoke, as in the (relative) peace of a close examination/observation of a tomato plant (a quiet moment) versus the anxiety/distress (and cost!) of finding a new source of water on the farm. Did you write intentionally into these contrasts, or was this something that you weren’t so aware of as you were working on the collection?
CN: Thank you. I write as intentionally as I can, however I know there’s no handle on the work once it’s published. I’m not sure though—what is a contrast for me, may not register as such for a reader.
I was determined in this book, even more so than in previous work, to connect to deep tap, and rhizomatic roots of what is both grand and peaceful from my earlier life. And to surface those memories of a “typography [that] was gorgeous” to borrow a phrase from Billy-Ray Belcourt, because that is inseparable from a sense of joy and community to me now. The anxiety and distress caused by harrowing experiences is survived by attention to contrasting and nurturing elements. And I give those poems up as best I can, to those surviving in conditions of confinement and subject to violence.
HG: I’ve been skimming along the edge of questions about your process – it’s something students and life-long learners are always interested in. This isn’t your first book of poetry, and you have experience with other media as well. Both in the references for this collection and the explicit form of several of the poems (including the four correspondences), is it accurate to say that working in multiple areas and engaging with these different sources, historic and more contemporary, provides avenues to start poems from? What else can you say about how/where the seeds of poems start to germinate for you?
CN: We read. I study, and I try to connect my work always to the social. Poems most often germinate for me in the everyday, and I weave them back through research and other forms of knowledge. I cannot keep up with my notes and ideas, but I try to keep those handy every day too.
HG: A final question: You’ll be taking part in a panel for the Victoria Festival of Authors titled “A Corrective Lens”, alongside two other poets who engage with broad themes of people and the environment. What is one thing you hope readers and listeners of the panel will take notice of from “Harrowings”?
CN: I would be delighted if readers and listeners glean relevant information regarding food security that contributes to, or is a component of, our anti-colonial and anti-racist practices. Come for the tomato plant poems, stay for the community relations!