Ruth Daniell is a speech arts teacher, editor, award-winning writer, and the author of The Brightest Thing (Caitlin Press, 2019). Her work engages with fairy tales, feminism, the lived experience of the body, and the complexities of co-existing on a planet with other living beings. Recent work has appeared in Watch Your Head: Writers and Artists Respond to the Climate Crisis (Coach House Press, 2020), Resistance: Righteous Rage in the Age of #MeToo (University of Regina Press, 2021) and on BC’s city buses as part of Poetry in Transit. She holds a Bachelor of Arts (honours) in English literature and writing from the University of Victoria and a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing from the University of British Columbia. She lives with her family in Kelowna, BC, where she is at work on a new collection of poems about birds, climate change, parenthood, fear, and joy.
Yes, I read poetry when I was in high school. I’ve read poetry since I was a young child and I’ve never stopped! One of my favourite poems when I was a teenager was “Days of the Unicorns” by Phyllis Webb. I still love it: I’m attracted to its dream-like quality, its sense of nostalgia and sadness and fear and tenderness, the way it balances its gritty, dark, real-word fears (“our cells destroy each other/performing music and extinction”) with the remembrance of some golden, impossible time when unicorns “roved in herds through the meadow behind the cabin.” I think one of the reasons I first loved it is because it’s so clearly an emotionally mature poem — and yet its metaphorical force comes from the image of unicorns. I was a young woman who was trying to take herself and her poetry seriously and who still loved fairy tales and unicorns; it was reassuring to know that adulthood and magic weren’t necessarily incompatible. I still think this is important and true.
I didn’t just read poetry, either—I performed it! Although Poetry In Voice didn’t exist while I was in school, I was a speech arts student and I participated in my local Speech Arts & Drama festivals. Before I graduated high school, I performed “Days of the Unicorns” in festivals, but by that time I had been performing for years. One of my very first performances in front of an audience happened to be another unicorn poem (“Unicorn, Unicorn” by Anne Corkett, in case you’re curious) when I was only in grade one or two. The constancy of poetry and its performance through my childhood and adolescence has shaped the poet I am today. I performed prose and did some scene work, but my favourite pieces to perform were always poems: narrative poems, lyric poems, dramatic poems, formal poetry, and free verse, everything from Shakespeare and contemporary authors. That performance experience is one of the things that made me understand most vividly that literature is something with a history, a present, and a future, and that I can be a part of it. And that I want to be.
The first poem I remember writing was called “Little Sammy Bat.” I was in the third grade, and the poem made heavy use of rhyme to explain about how badly a bat wanted to wear a hat. I started thinking of myself as a poet when I was grade eight, I think; by then I was not only continuing to perform poetry in speech arts festivals but I was entering school district-wide writing contests as well. Writing was something I was doing often and with increasing joy (and, arguably, skill). I really started taking it seriously as a future career at the end of high school (and right before I went and got my first degree in creative writing) when a mentor jokingly told me he would throw me into the Nechako River if I said I wasn’t planning to continue writing. When he said that, something in me clicked and I knew that to stop writing was, to me, unthinkable. Poetry is one way with which I navigate the world, one way that I believe I can make a positive difference, that my hopes — not just for myself, of course, but for the world — can be heard.
To be honest, maybe. To tell stories that are both untrue and true, as needed or wanted. To help make the strange seem familiar, the familiar seem strange. I also think the poet’s job is to say things that are worth saying and for me that really comes down to singing the praises of love. Can we stumble on new, exciting ways that will make people understand the importance of empathy? Notice the particular, fleeting, fragile beauties of sharing a world with other beings, both human and not? How can we make people pay attention, be kind, share each other’s pain and joy? I think the poet’s work can help to make communities, to help buffer us against loneliness, and to give opporuntites to listen to the voices of those alike and unlike us.
"Poem for my Body" is a love poem for myself. It’s a poem from my book The Brightest Thing, a book that has other kinds of love poems in it, a book that also uses old fairy tales as a way to examine and explore our desire for happily ever after. In fairy tales, and in our contemporary society, we tend to privilege love between romantic partners above all else, when of course there are many kinds of love relationships that can be just as wonderful and nourishing and necessary and magical. I’m talking about love between parents, children, siblings, and friends, but perhaps one of the most challenging kinds of love to nurture is self-love. I was inspired to write this poem by my own strength and vulnerability and fear and the reality that, sometimes in life, there is no one else to rescue us — sometimes there is no knight in shining armour coming to save you, sometimes the prince isn’t charming or kind, sometimes the other queens or princesses or kings or princes have their own stuff going on, and you’re on your own. I wanted to show an accurate depiction of real-life trauma but also show a way through that trauma — in an ordinary way, in a way that isn’t relying on any magic or anybody else.
Oh dear. It’s so hard to choose! I’d love to perform something with strong metre and rhyme, and there’s something so delicious about a sonnet… Elizabeth Barrett Browning or Edna St. Vincent Millay, or — although it’s cliché to love this poem — Shakespeare’s “Sonnet CXVI” comes to mind: “Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments…” But I think I might have had that poem memorized at some point in my life already, so that feels a little like cheating. I love the performance potential of “A Stone Diary” by Pat Lowther. And “How to Triumph Like a Girl” by Ada Limón is a poem I’ve returned to multiple times since I first read it; I think I’d enjoy the sustained attention that the memorization and performance of it would bring me.