Checking In: With Kevin Spenst

Kevin Spenst taught ESL, like I and many Canadian poets do or did. I first saw him read at AB Series at a Somerset St. cafe that has changed ownership at least 3 times since. He gave a dynamic performance and passed out poems made on coasters on his flight, if I recall correctly.

In 2011 he was in Air In/Air Out chapbook to benefit the Guatemala Stove Project. Since then he’s been on fire, creating works, full-length poetry books : Hearts Amok: a Memoir in Verse (Anvil Press, 2020), Ignite (Anvil Press, 2015), Jabbering with Bing Bong (Anvil Press, 2014). Also chapbooks of poetry: Upend (Frog Hollow Press, 2018), Ward Notes (the serif of nottingham, 2016), Flip-flops Faces and Unexpurgated Lives! (Jackpine Press, 2016)(collaboratively made with Owen Plumber), Pocket Museum (collaboratively written with Raoul Fernandes/self-published, 2015), Surrey Sonnets (Jackpine Press, 2014), snap (Pooka Press, 2013), Retractable (the serif of nottingham, 2013), What the Frag Meant (100 tetes press, 2013) and Pray Goodbye (Alfred Gustav Press, 2013), Happy Hollow and the Surrey Suite (self-published, 2012). He teaches creative writing at Vancouver Community College and Simon Fraser University and he lives in Vancouver on unceded xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish) and səl̓ilw̓ətaʔɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) territory.

PP: Hi Kevin. What have you read lately that lit you up? Why or how? 
KS: I’m waist deep in piles of books in my apartment. I’m most excited about some titles I’ll be reviewing for subTerrain, Malahat and Canadian Notes and Queries. I love writing reviews because they involve reading, rereading and thinking about a text in a way that’s beyond a casual read. Reviews provoke an explicit response on the part of the reviewer. Simultaneously, when I’m reading at this level of attention, I can keep a look out for examples of line endings, titles, similes, etc for Creative Writing courses that I’m teaching. To be honest, I’ve been lit up most by reading my students’ work. 

Last year, Joanne Arnott asked me to fill in for her as poetry mentor at SFU’s The Writer’s Studio for 2022. It’s been one of the most exciting and rewarding roles I’ve ever undertaken. I’ve been working with an exaltation of poets since January. We meet every two weeks to workshop their poems and discuss various aspects of craft. It’s exciting to now see, midway through the year, their styles gel, glisten and glint in some stellar ways. I won’t name names, but in 2023 onwards, I know their poetry will be circulating in print and, knowing how much the process of becoming a poet has meant to me, I’m excited for them and their future readers. From a bigger context, my group of poets are part of a larger cohort of writers who are in other genres, but they all meet every other weekend for various talks given by such notables as Jónína Kirton, Elee Kraljii Gardiner and my fellow mentors. Finally, I’ve received so much support from Laura Farina and Andrew Chesham, the administrators behind The Writers Studio. They are both caring, thoughtful and FUN! (and talented authors in their own right.)

I’m also teaching another poetry class online under the auspices of The Writer’s Studio which is called Poetry 2. It’s a ten-week intensive and once again I’m reading students’ poetry, discussions and thoughts on various aspects of craft. It’s a 40,000 word course that I wrote in 2020 and is designed around Adam Sol’s How a Poem Moves and Best Canadian Poetry 2019. This is the third time through the course and as testament to the staying powers of poetry, I still find the material engaging (to mention some poems from BCP2019: Yusuf Saadi’s “Taxi Drivers’ Therapy,” Kayla “Czaga’s Under Construction,” Ali Blythe’s “Transition,” and on and on.) It’s as if the poems want to be reread or have their own unique gravity that keeps pulling me back.

PP: That sounds super-energizing! It’s so exciting to see poets begin to develop and give them imagination’s fodder. What else is life’s focus today, literary or otherwise? 

KS: One of the poets in my group at TWS asked me about palindromes two months ago and it became a bit of an obsession. I’ve since co-written 40 pages of palindromic poems with my nephew in Montreal. The poems range from lyric to experimental (concrete, translational, IPA-rendered, etc.) We just sent it off yesterday for possible publication! 

PP: Ooh, like Anthony Etherin. Fun.

KS: Today, (yes, I’m taking this question very literally) I’m going to start working on an audio version of my last book of poetry Hearts Amok: a Memoir in Verse. It will hopefully be up on bandcamp in July or August. Right now, there’s only one poem available: but soon the whole book should be up along with additional musical treatments of some of the tracks. (My niece Lana Pitre, who records under the name Synthcake, has contributed one.)

My reading focus for this afternoon is Neil Surkan’s Unbecoming.

The broader focus involves personal growth and political change and how those two things overlap. I was listening to an On Being podcast yesterday afternoon while going out to get some groceries. It was brilliant and I’m sure I was beaming over the produce (for no good reason to any onlooker), but then the poet started talking about his work with corporations and I felt a cloud cross my face. It seemed disingenuous for the poet to be talking about helping corporations find language to articulate their needs without once mentioning the problematic dimensions of these large corporations. Yet, his poetry about the self seemed to speak some truth, but there was no truth to power at the larger level. Needless to say, I won’t be reading or recommending his work. 

PP: Hm, quite a departure from GE Clarke wiring against the sugar plantations for his commission by Redpath. What is underway or forthcoming there? 

KS: I’m very excited to have a holm (a small chapbook) coming out through Alfred Gustav Press either at the end of this year or June 2023. (Information about ordering it will be on David Zieroth’s website: Sand in the Bed is the title of the collection and there are nine love poems for my sweetheart. 

PP: Lovely!

KS: I was a runner-up for the Magpie Poetry awards this year and so I will have a poem in issue 36 (Autumn 2022) of Pulp Literature: I usually don’t submit to contests, but I’ve been immersed in teaching poetry this year and so what I’ve written feels like it’s emerged from a pressure-cooker of poetics and I’ve been extra keen to send this poetry out into the world.

In a month’s time all my teaching will be wrapped for the summer and I will focus on resting, reading (and doing readings), and doing a little travelling.

I’ll be reading in Montreal at the Accent Reading Series July 3rd (La Marche à Côté, au 5043, rue Saint-Denis).

I’m performing a poetic response to a Sex Pistols’ song for Mashed Poetics (Vancouver, July 21st at Lanalou’s).

On August 24th, I’ll be reading in New Westminster (just outside of Vancouver) as part of Poetry in the Park.,stories%2C%20and%2For%20music. 

PP: Anything else to plug?

KS: My most recent writing has appeared in the anthologies Event 50: Collected Notes on Writing and Resonance: Essays on the Craft and Life of Writing. My book launch during the pandemic was featured in a book about creative practices: The Creative Instigator’s Handbook. You can find out more at

photo of Kevin Spenst by Clint Burnham at a backyard pandemic reading.