A Different Rhythm
Editing against the clock
I finished the final draft of my introduction to Best Canadian Poetry 2019 and my daughter was born. In that order, barely. Two days prior, as I was fumbling to summarize a year’s worth of poetry in 1,500 words, my wife’s Braxton Hicks contractions had us packing for the hospital. I clacked keys to near breaking. A similar fervour had fallen over me four years earlier, when our first child was born. I had been writing a poem a week throughout my wife’s pregnancy — those poems were later collected as The News — and as my wife’s due date loomed, I realized that I had no way of knowing which poem would be the last. Maybe it would be “39 Weeks,” or “40.” Or perhaps the baby would linger, and I’d have to add another — the book, like the baby inside, inconveniently plumping. Each word I wrote just might have been my last.
I was childless when I wrote The News. I composed that book in silent parks on sunny afternoons, or in bed after sleeping in on yet another sprawling weekend morning. I worked slowly, determinedly. I took days off to read or simply gaze out the window and wait for the words to come. The editing of Best Canadian Poetry was, by comparison, bedlam. My son siphoned my attention like a (brilliant, buoyant, beloved) leech. I had three months, give or take, to read 2,133 poems (yes, I counted), spread across eighty-one different publications and their hundreds of issues. Boxes of magazines kept arriving. My mail carrier, whose name I quickly learned, devised a spot behind a fern where he could stash them if I was out (“Not that anyone would be able to pick them up”). In the spirit of the American conceptual poet Kenneth Goldsmith, I printed the internet, whole reams pouring out on the floor.
If I wasn’t eating, sleeping, working, or racing the boy to soccer or hip-hop dance class, I was reading. I read poems in elevators, in waiting rooms, at red lights, in the bath. I read poems while pushing shopping carts and brushing my teeth. I stacked journals beside the toilet, read them, and replenished. For the first time in our twenty-plus years together, my wife learned to sleep while I read beside her in bed. I would slip on a headlamp, pull the duvet over my head and read through my sweat. Only occasionally would my wife kick me and mutter a reminder of when we’d have to get up the next day. On the rare sunny Vancouver winter day, I would drop my son off at his daycare and spend the subsequent eight hours wandering the adjacent park, reading. At some point I would eat a granola bar. So my body wouldn’t atrophy, I developed leg, arm, and — trickiest of all — ab exercises I could perform while reading. Joggers rubbernecked. My son’s class would often go for walks, and one teacher always knew to zip ahead and tip me off so my son wouldn’t latch onto my ankles for the rest of the afternoon. While he played with his classmates, I hid in the bushes, reading.
Eventually this stirred in me (and my wife, and the passing joggers) the question you must now be asking yourself: Why would anyone do this? And more to the point: Why would anyone do this while rapidly approaching the mental oblivion that is infant care? If you’d asked me at the time, I would have fabricated some practical answer. Truthfully, though, I had no idea. Anita Lahey, the Best Canadian series editor, asked me, and my gut immediately answered yes. But as I shrouded myself in ivy beside my son’s daycare, reading Ali Blythe’s “Transition” (“It’s this not knowing / when the guest will leave / and you are the guest”), or wandered a winter beach, sand filling my shoes, reading Yusuf Saadi’s “Taxi Drivers’ Therapy” (“In the alley, people / are moving through each other, not ghosts, / but so alive their skin’s a porous border”), or lay in my poetry cave beside my sleeping, pregnant wife, reading Ellie Sawatzky’s “Crystals” (“What bits of / my mother // insist in me? To what do I affix our distance?”), the real answer became apparent.
I spent the months leading up to the birth of my first child adding words to the world. I spent the months leading up to the birth of my second creating room for the words of others. Brilliant, buoyant, beloved words. That’s the equilibrium my gut knew I needed. And the panic of those last few days? That was no different. Just clearing a space for the beauty to come.