Cecily Nicholson is staking her place among the best poets in Canada.
The Burnaby resident has just been named a finalist for the Governor General’s Literary Award in poetry, and she admits seeing her name on that shortlist is a slightly overwhelming feeling.
“It includes people like Dionne Brand, who I’ve been reading since I was a teenager. I feel a bit emotional saying that,” Nicholson says, catching up with the NOW by phone on Thursday, the day after the finalists were announced.
Nicholson is nominated for her book Wayside Sang, alongside Brand’s The Blue Clerk, Billy-Ray Belcourt’s This Wound is a World, Jason Stefanik’s Night Became Years and Joshua Mensch’s Because: A Lyric Memoir.
“It was quite a surprise. What a delight,” Nicholson says, noting the recognition wasn’t something she ever expected. “Oh my goodness, no no. I think it’s probably good not to expect awards.”
What she’s most proud of with the Governor General’s Literary Award (now known as GGBooks) nomination is that the Canada Council for the Arts uses a peer-based selection process.
“The first thing that strikes me is it’s a real honour to be recognized by your peers – other writers in a community that I respect,” Nicholson says.
Wayside Sang, published by Talonbooks in November 2017, is a project that Nicholson describes as a “layering of things.”
“I set out to try to understand a little more about my birth father’s history, somebody I never knew,” she explains, “and in doing so to understand the black diasporic history in a Canadian context. … It’s a very emotionally laden experience to try to explore that.”
With little to look into in terms of archives or documents around her father’s life, which centred on the Windsor-Detroit border, Nicholson took a step back and explored other aspects of life along the border and the Great Lakes region – the automobile industries, the roadways, road travel.
“The broader metaphor, I guess, for the book is that notion of being on the road: What does it mean to be someone who travels?” Nicholson says.
To explore those ideas through poetry comes naturally to Nicholson, who’s been writing poetry since she learned how to write in childhood and used to make up songs with her younger brother.
“I’ve always been compelled to write,” she says. “It’s my way of helping filter and respond to the world. That can be for challenging things; it can also be in a joyful way.”
Poetry, for Nicholson, has a particular draw as a vehicle for storytelling.
“The thing about poetry that really does draw me in is a sense of freedom, about what potential there is with words on a page,” she says. “Poetry can work with or beyond structures. There’s a lot of opportunity to consider language in very deep and meaningful ways, and in doing so growing one’s understanding of the language, how we use it, what it means to us, how it shapes us. I feel it’s a very active thing. I suppose it’s a way of theorizing and of observing the world.
“At the end of the day I also love language. I love words.”
Nicholson grew up in awe of the power of language, idolizing such writers as Toni Morrison and Gloria Naylor.
“Their works are incredible masterpieces, really, in terms of poetics,” she says.
Over the decades, Nicholson says she’s seen a growth in appreciation for poetry.
“I think that poetry does have an incredible resonance, maybe even a stronger resonance than it has in the past,” she says, noting many young people are coming in to the world of poetry through spoken word events. “I feel like there is a stronger body of readers and listeners and practitioners these days.”
Nicholson still has a “day job” – she’s the outgoing administrator of the Gallery Gachet in the Downtown Eastside and starting work as an interpretive programmer at Surrey Art Gallery – but never gives up her daily practice of writing.
Whether she’s jotting ideas into a journal or dictating them into a voice recorder, she spends much of her time observing and gathering information for creative endeavours.
She’s currently beginning work on a new project, a work of fiction about which she’ll say little, other than to ask her again in a year or two.
Having just come off a busy year of touring with Wayside Sang, including a variety of speaking engagements and literary festivals across the continent, she’s not certain what new opportunities the GGBooks nomination may bring her way.
“What I’m most happy about for this moment is that this does raise the profile of this book, and the other books maybe that I have written,” she says.
The winners will be announced Oct. 30 – but whatever happens, Nicholson is thrilled with this moment.
“I have no expectations,” she says. “I’m already totally delighted. What an honour. Whatever comes next is fine.”