Exploring how poems mysteriously begin with Sheryda Warrener, CBC Poetry Prize Longlister

For Professor Sheryda Warrener, a lecturer in UBC’s creative writing program, poems form in a multitude of ways.

Sometimes her writing first comes to life while watching reality TV; other times its memories and images that spark ideas. In some cases, it’s a combination of words that create “a kind of sonic texture or … vibration.”

Warrener’s writing process connects to her daily rituals — waking up early, making tea, reading books — to find rhythms that resonate with her. While keeping rituals in mind, she also values “the moment of spontaneity” in which her ideas first surface.

In her poem, A Blue Filter, which was recently longlisted for the CBC Poetry Prize, Warrener reflects on this spontaneity of memory. The poem centres around the first time she saw irises blooming out the window of the morning train in Japan, where she taught English after graduating from the University of Victoria.

“When I graduated … I wanted to travel, but I had no money. I was totally broke … so I ended up applying to teach English in Japan,” she said.

The poem starts with Warrener on that train; she took the same train every morning and evening. Even now, 20 years later, the memory still surfaces. She recalls the precise time the train left each morning, “8:46 … or 8:42,” and the precise blue of the irises against the landscape of Japan’s rice-fields.

“In that moment of taking the train, I would look up from whatever I was reading at the time and see the rice fields … it's a very rural area that I was teaching in, and I thought that it was so beautiful, and it changed so much over the course of the year,” said Warrener

“And so I was looking out the window, suddenly there were these iris plants blooming, I didn’t even realize that there were iris plants there. They just… appeared one morning and I felt like I was the only one on the train who even noticed or cared,” she said.

Poetry in the Pandemic

The way people interpret the world is what makes them different and unique.

In the classroom, Warrener encourages her students to “curate poetic attention” to shape their writing processes. Like with her memory of the irises, poems can begin with how individuals see the world, finding meaning in a way that others may not see at first.

Warrener stresses that writing a poem, is like creating art; sometimes it’s “process over product.” It’s about asking questions to create meaning. Sometimes it’s not even finding a true answer, but rather searching for clarity and direction, she said.

With creative writing classes online due to the COVID-19 pandemic, poetry teaching methods have changed.

Warrener misses “the sound of the room,” the exchange of thoughts between students, and the space of in-person classrooms. However, she is grateful for her students during these unexpected times and is looking for new ways to be inspired.

With more time and space to reflect, the pandemic is a signal that poems are finding new ways to escape minds.