An Interview with Cecily Nicholson

By Sadiqa de Meijer

What are your thoughts when you look at the results of the first annual CWILA count? 

The results of the CWILA count seem to exemplify conditions of what is dominantly represented as literary and public, including gender binaries and latent concern for how these qualities are racialized, classed and—normative. The discrepancies in terms of men and women are glaring. I think about the various positions therein. Talk of reviews strikes me as privileged terrain. What risks are there in talking about the topic and do we share that equally? When levelling systemic critiques, the ‘special interest’ may be derided as nitpicking or ungrateful, for example—very often without meaningful dialogue. I do not regularly read or contribute to any of the publications that were surveyed.

The writer Roxane Gay found that, in 2011, nearly 90% of the books reviewed by The New York Times were written by white writers (her study appeared on Much of your work as an organizer has been with and among women of colour—what is your perspective on the intersections and differences between oppressions based on gender and race? And what are the implications for resisting them?

As I witness oppressions and efforts of resistance, they are interconnected, inseparable and changing. Resisting constant and systemic censure, projections of inferiority, corrections, tokenizing, assimilation, appropriation, analysis, categorization, relentless defensiveness as well as violence, policing and material poverty through generations, is for some a matter of survival and resilience.  Not having to “resist” is a comment on privilege. “White supremacy” is barely uttered, relative to its systemic and pervasive effect.

You said in an interview that public readings, through “the relationship to the audience and people’s feedback,” become part of your writing process. Later in that interview, you also say that “writing poetry for me is something that is not consumed by processes of capital.” It struck me that, in a sense, reviews serve both of these purposes (as well as others): they may be part of the critical feedback that a writer receives and uses, while also furthering a book’s trajectory through the marketplace. What do you consider the main purpose(s) of reviews to be?

Reviews to me so far have been a quantifiable factor in grant applications, a question about my work that has come from senior writers (i.e. has your book been reviewed?), and, in recent memory, a more pronounced topic of public, published conversation considering, for example, the work of CWILA or Donato Mancini’s effort: You Must Work Harder To Write Poetry of Excellence (BookThug, 2012). Reviews facilitate critical feedback from individuals, and within an audience that reads them I suppose, but I am not entirely sure where all those conversations are taking place.

Reviews also impact publishers and could reflect a mainstream’s willingness to engage a book. They demonstrate that a “peer” or “colleague” is willing to spend time drafting a public response using this format.

Even if poetry for me is not consumed by processes of capital, my paid and volunteer labour limits my time and capacity to engage freely and creatively. Reviews have not furthered my book through the marketplace, but that’s not surprising.

I wonder: What is the purpose of a review like Mercedes Eng’s compass/check/pulse point, commensurate with “the steel” of Cynthia Dewi Oka’s poetry? It doesn’t appear in a literary context. It is brief and unabashedly written in solidarity with a sister poet who shares a writing community and formerly a writing collective. Our collective bodies also do not participate equally. Who else cares about this kind of exchange between women of colour?

Do you write reviews yourself?


Dionne Brand said last year in the Writers’ Trust’s Margaret Laurence Lecture: “Some say that poets should not attempt it,”—she was referring to writing about political subjects. I think about this statement regularly—it addresses such a complex and problematic taboo. The poems in your book Triage (Talonbooks) ‘attempt it,’ clearly, and that leads me to two questions: One, have you encountered the same sentiment? And two, what’s your take on the question of writing politically engaged work?

I have encountered this sentiment and am steady with the designation and reduction. It is a privilege to be of a mind, churned by the writing of racialized feminists in the academy, late eighties/early nineties, Chandra Mohanty say, then talking about research and making the claim: there is no apolitical position. I realize that I fit the picture of what is ‘political’ within a status quo and that this is signalled by certain content, discourse etc. that is understood to be politically engaged as it evokes the material and social. Unaware texts can nonetheless reinforce the status quo and bolster their own set of ideologies in ways that are also political. As I understand everyday life within communities, what is meaningfully political to me is not necessarily encompassed by dominant framing.

What kinds of strategies could create a more equitable literary culture?

Literary culture is implicated in a broader sense of culture. What could be shifted around cultural production, I think, are long discussions and I have a few ideas, but it is hard to talk strategy when the problems are deeply relational. I think it’s more a matter of will. Ideally, I would interact with people who engage equity with the complexity of analysis that stems from directly impacted communities—people who think regularly about how to enact solidarity and humility—people willing to do with less, willing to make space by giving up space—people willing and able to see the excess of their power and privilege and to work to dismantle it.

Do you have any favourite under-recognized books to recommend?

Proma Tagore’s language is not the only thing that breaks (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2011).


cecily nicholson - pic

Photo by Christine Lyons

Cecily Nicholson is the administrator of Gallery Gachet and has worked in the Downtown Eastside neighbourhood of Vancouver since 2000. She is part of the local No One Is Illegal collective and involved in broader struggles against displacement. This summer she is working in collaboration with artists at The Centre for Innovation in Culture and the Arts in Canada. Cecily is the author of Triage (Talonbooks, 2011) and a contributor to Anamnesia: Unforgetting (VIVO Media Arts, 2012).





Sadiqa de Meijer’s poetry, short stories and personal essays have appeared in a range of literary journals and magazines, as well as in the Best of Canadian Poetry in English series, and in the anthology Villanelles.

Spread the word:
This entry was posted in Interviews. Bookmark the permalink.