Evelyn Lau is the Vancouver author of fourteen books, including nine volumes of poetry. Her first book, Runaway: Diary of a Street Kid (HarperCollins, 1989) was published when she was 18; it was made into a CBC movie starring Sandra Oh in her first major role. Evelyn's short stories, essays and novel have been translated into a dozen languages. Her poetry has received the Milton Acorn Award, the Pat Lowther Award, a National Magazine Award and nominations for the BC Book Prize and the Governor-General's Award. Her poems in journals have been chosen numerous times for inclusion in the Best Canadian Poetry anthology series. Evelyn Lau's poetry is recognized for its emotional intensity and search for honesty; narrative and lyrical, her early work explored her difficult past, while later work has revolved around themes of relationships, urban life, cultural background, mortality and the natural world. From 2011-2014, she served as Poet Laureate for the City of Vancouver. Evelyn's most recent collection is Cactus Gardens (Anvil, 2022), which was included in CBC's Top 20 Poetry Books of 2022, and shortlisted for the City of Vancouver Book Award.
I left school in grade 10, but prior to that most of the poetry I was drawn to was outside of anything we were taught in the classroom. I remember loving the creativity and wordplay of ee cummings, and the angst and dark talent of Sylvia Plath. Perhaps most usefully, I devoured anthologies and literary journals, which introduced me to a wide range of voices, including those of contemporary poets some of whom were just starting to publish.
In terms of classroom poetry, I was fortunate to have an English teacher who loved literature. He would read poetry aloud with unabashed passion; his appreciation of language, image, metaphor was contagious.
I was one of those odd children who knew exactly what they wanted to be when they grew up: a writer, in my case, and nothing could budge me from this path. I began publishing poems in literary journals as a young teenager.
Do I call myself a poet, even now? When someone asks, "What do you do?" I've learned not to say, "I'm a poet" because of the strange looks and silences that follow. Instead, like most poets, I'll say I teach/edit/write, which is somehow more palatable. And yet, yes, in private I think of myself as a poet becaue it feels like the most important thing I do.
I strongly resist the idea that a poet must always engage with/respond to the times they live in, that they must be political in order to be relevant. I think a poet's job is to prioritize precision and emotional honesty, to reach for the most breathtaking and original metaphor or image, to pay attention to inner as well as outer landscapes.
For me, a "confessional" or purely personal poem is far more appealing than an angry rant about Trump, although the former can be derided as self-indulgent. I believe a poet's "job" is to take great care with language, to craft something meaningful — it can be devastating, or it can celebrate a small thing of beauty. In my own work I often try to capture a fleeting moment/experience, or plumb the depths of a difficult emotion.
All my adult life I have worshipped John Updike's writing. In many ways his work illustrated the world for me, showed me what it was possible to do with language, how it was necessary to be observant and not to self-censor. When he passed away, I felt completely stranded and bereft, like so many of his fans and fellow writers. I could hardly imagine a world without him in it, interpreting everything for me through his books.
I couldn't! I've never been able to memorize a poem, not even one of my own despite spending countless hours and drafts on its creation. This is why I'm in awe of the teenagers I've seen reciting on stage — not just their ability fo memorize, but to imbue their chosen poem with genuine depth and emotion.