by Ursula Vaira
I’ve always written in fragments: small bits I could hold in my head. As mother, homemaker, paddler, publisher, I’ve never given myself the luxury of prolonged retreat. It has become habit—writing in the moment and hoping to keep that freshness for the page.
My three long travel poems published in And See What Happens (Caitlin Press, 2011) were gathered in this way. While paddling you often cannot stop to write things down! “The wind still howls down Quatsino Sound. In an instant we are flung apart, scattered wide.” “Too late—just distant spouts and the faint stink of fish.”
On a hiking trip, while staying in an isolated trappers cabin deep in the northern Rockies, my unexpected homesickness for my boyfriend caused me to write him tiny notes on strips torn from empty toilet paper rolls, bean can labels, ancient sports fishing magazines: “Who can sleep in such darkness? I close my eyes, no difference.” “Your hand on my breast, even here.” I mailed these notes to him from Fort Nelson. Later we sat together at the dining room table at home, moving them around, finding a narrative that leapt from one idea to another—like the poet crossing the creek on stepping stones, never sure whether the next step will result in an icy dunking.
I’m working on a salmon poem now. I have pen and paper at hand… reading Terry Glavin and Alexandra Morton. Fragments crowd the margins of my research notes:
so tender how the bear
carries the dying salmon into the forest
completing the journey
rings on salmon scales
record how long spent in sweet/brackish/salt water
how difficult the journey
back to the trees they will fertilize
thirty-four million sockeye
swam through Vancouver (twice)
while people clicked keyboards,
soars past the bear’s open mouth
the bear delicately guides the salmon from the falls
with the tip of his claw
salmon spent the ice age in Mexico
it took them only 1000 years to return to Alaska
rebuilding the rainforest
with their spent bodies
And lately, as I tramp through the forest with the Nanoose Bay Streamkeepers, such a pleasure to hold words in my body again: “I inhale / breath of tree / creek / fish.”
Ursula Vaira grew up in northern British Columbia. After studying Education at UBC, she taught school on the northern coast and in the Arctic, then moved to Vancouver Island in the early eighties. Ursula loves wilderness camping and kayaking, and has a passion for the west coast. In the summer of 2005, she kayaked with a group from Port Hardy to Zeballos, around Cape Scott and Cape Cook. In 1997, she paddled by Coast Salish canoe from Hazelton to Victoria as part of Roy Henry Vickers’s Vision Quest to raise addictions awareness and funds to build an all-nations recovery centre on Vancouver Island. Her poems have appeared in literary journals and chapbooks, and in anthologies published by Hawthorne Society, Outlaw Editions, Anvil Press, Quills, and the B.C. Federation of Writers. In 2011 Caitlin Press published her poetry collection And See What Happens. Ursula is the founder and publisher of Leaf Press, publishing “poetry only” since 2001.