Mini-interview: Kim Fahner

Kim Fahner came across my radar thanks to VERSeFest’s readings by poet laureates, held at the NAC in 2017. I went to everything at the fest, and was taken by her happy glow.

I have since read her first book, got her second book, and follow her social media. You can see her past readings.

She’s the Ontario rep for The Writers Union of Canada and the former poet laureate of Sudbury as well as a mentor and teacher of young poets.

Emptying the Ocean by Kim Fahner

PP:Your book, Emptying the Ocean sounds like a rich exploration of myth and personal coming to the age of self-sureness. The cover suggests a deep dive to swim through history, personal and international. How was the making?

KF: To be honest, I learned the most from shaping and re-shaping the manuscript, trying to sequence the poems in a certain way. In the beginning, with its first incarnation, the collection felt like a ‘waterworld,’ whereas the previous one (These Wings) was about air and birds. When we began meeting on Zoom to speak about the poems, and the sequencing, Micheline Maylor-Kovitz and I spoke about the natural elements (water, earth, fire, air) that were quite obviously present in my poems. It’s strange, how you can be too close to your work, to not be able to see something clearly. In her role as a poetry editor, Micheline was very good about asking me, as a poet, to think critically about my work, and she was instrumental in suggesting the architectural structure of the collection, as it exists now.  

PP: Yes, I have worked with Micheline too. She has a wonderfully sharp clear eye for patterns and details.

Your twitter handle ModernIrish indicates your relationship with Ireland.

KF: I have always been drawn to stories of ancient Irish and druidic beliefs, so Micheline and I began to speak about the Irish spirit wheel—the Celtic wheel of the year, as it’s also called—and I began to explore the notion of an immram as a framework in building the architecture of this collection. The immrama were a body of journeying stories wherein a hero made a journey to the Otherworld by stopping at various islands along the way.

The earliest immram stories can be traced back to the 7th and 8th centuries in Ireland. The ‘islands’ encountered throughout a ancient sea journey off the coast of Ireland or Scotland can be seen as metaphors for various life events and experiences in a person’s life. Once I could sense and see the shape of the manuscript, things began to solidify. The idea of evolution of self, too, and of the powerful female figures in Irish lore who shapeshift in magical ways, felt like a good metaphor for me, as a woman at just-past-mid-life. 

PP: Wow, fascinating. I haven’t heard of any of that. What was your most satisfying part of making the book?

What’s most satisfying, with this book, is that I know how much work and care has gone into it, especially this year, which has been challenging for me in terms of my health. It is the collection that best reflects me as a woman and a poet. To me, it feels brave, sensual, liminal, mythopoetic, and intimate. It’s my heart, mind, and soul, turned inside out in words.  

PP: Wow. Fabulous. I’m curious, when did you first feel your essential self connected to Ireland and its story? I grew up identifying as Irish but after visiting Ireland in my twenties, I somehow lost that, but then I don’t read Irish writers as you do. 

KF: Growing up, my mother’s family gathered me in. My grandmother and her sisters were excellent storytellers. Two of my great-aunts, Norah and Maureen Kelly, were both teachers, so I recall some of my earliest times were spent sitting snuggled next to them while they read to us as children. They taught me about William Butler Yeats’ poems, but also about the stories of Irish legend, folklore, and history. I still have a number of  very old books that they gave me as a girl, including Sinead De Valera’s Fairy Tales of Ireland, Yeats’ Irish Folk Stories and Fairy Tales, and Mary McGarry’s Great Folk Tales of Old Ireland. Other children might’ve been reading traditional European faery tales, but I was learning about the Children of Lir, selkies, Cuchulain, the Kildare Pooka, Fionn Mac Cumhaill, Brigid, Oisin, Tir na Nog, and the Sidhe. I started reading beyond the stories that my great-aunts gave me, researching the folklore.

Norah and Maureen, along with my other great-aunt, Clare Kelly, drew me in with their family stories and Irish songs. My grandmother, Alice Ennis, was the one who gave me my first lined notebook to write poems in, way back when I was in high school. Sometimes, other people can see your gifts more clearly than you can, and those four women encouraged me in my earliest writings.

At university, at undergrad, my thesis was on Yeats and his mystic poetry. I followed the faeries that wove themselves through his work, but then explored his love of mysticism and then researched his work in the Irish Renaissance. He went back in time, pulling up symbols that would encourage the Irish rebels in their struggles. It was, I found, a fascinating time in Irish history, that time just before, during, and after the Easter Rising of 1916, especially in terms of a resurgence in traditional music, language, literature, and the gathering of folklore by people like Yeats and Lady Gregory.  

At Carleton, my Master’s thesis was focused on the politics of Seamus Heaney’s bog poetry. At the same time, I began to read more and more modern Irish writers, including more of Yeats, Joyce, Kavanagh, Muldoon, Behan, Wilde, Synge, Boland, and then I threw in some Roddy Doyle, as well, for good contemporary measure. A classmate nicknamed me “Modern Irish” and that kind of stuck for a long time. 

PP: You recently read in Sudbury and are touring. What marks the most pleasurable ways a reading can go?

I love reading at home because it’s a nice way to thank people for their support over the years. Sudburians—and folks across Northern Ontario–have been very supportive of my work as a poet and writer over the years, and I’m so very grateful for that kindness. Touring is always lovely because you get to see poet friends in other cities, and sometimes reconnect with readers who have purchased previous books. That’s a bit surreal, but really flattering, when they mention specific poems that they love. 

The most pleasurable thing about doing readings, whether at home or away, is looking up from the page to see people falling into the magic of the poem being read aloud. Sometimes, I’ll see someone nod, or smile, or hear an ‘mmmm’ and that is—to be honest—the loveliest, most genuine response. I want people to hear poems and feel the poems resonate in their bodies. That, for me, is how poetry works: it’s embodied voice and story. 

PP: That is a sweet energy and something zoom readings can’t match. You do a lot of focus on books on your instagram. What have you read lately that lit you up?

KF: I read a lot. If I’m not writing, I’m reading and listening to music. I review a lot of poetry books, so I’m always reading new poetry from across Canada. This year, though, beyond my reviewing work, I fell in love with Doireann Ni Ghriofa’s A Ghost in the Throat. I can’t even explain how powerful I found it to be for me, as a woman and a writer. From the very first line—“This is a female text”—I was drawn in by the honesty and intensity of her voice. 

I also came to three books courtesy of my friend Yvonne Blomer, a Victoria poet, who suggested them in one of her poetry courses. Betsy Warland’s Breathing the Page: Reading the Act of Writing should be required reading for any creative writer. Another is John Koenig’s The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows. In his preface, he writes about the book being “a compendium of new words for emotions. Its mission is to shine a light on the fundamental strangeness of being a human being—all the aches, demons, vibes, joys, and urges that are humming in the background of everyday life.” I just love it to pieces. It’s so beautifully made, is lovely to hold in your hands, and also it’s exciting to find new words and ideas that can serve as writing prompts for my work. The last book is In Fine Form: A Contemporary Look at Canadian Form Poetry, which was edited by Kate Braid and Sandy Shreve. I’ve learned so much about poetic forms I hadn’t studied before this year, and I’ve begun writing form poems with greater certainty and confidence.

PP: What is life’s focus there these days, literary or otherwise?

My focus these days is mostly on getting well. This year, Long Covid has been a harsh reality.

People would rather pretend the pandemic is over, but there are so many of us who now struggle to live a different life, to make our lives vibrant in new ways. I’m hopeful that maybe, in a year or two, I’ll be stronger and will be able to return to doing the things I love most. It’s been a very hard year for me, very solitary because of health issues, and so this book is a bright light for me. 

PP: You have poems in the latest HaL. What other work can people read online

KF: I was so pleased to have those two poems published in the latest issue of HaL. It’s such a great group of writers in that issue, and I’m so honoured to be included. 

This year, I’ve had two poems, “Tiny Things” and “In Your Bones,” published in The Pi Review.

I’ve also had a hybrid piece called “torn” published via Carin Makuz’s The Litter I See project.

I was lucky to have a poem, “Seeking Refuge,” published in the anthology Poems in Response to Peril: An Anthology in Response to Ukraine. Again, I felt lucky to be with other poets whose work I admire.

I had a poem about faeries, “Passing Fancies,” that did well in a contest and was published in the American journal, Mythos Magazine, at “Passing Fancies”.

I’ve also had two pieces of flash fiction published this year: “Underwater,” in Dark Winter Literary Magazine at Underwater and “Portal,” in Talking About Strawberries All of the Time.

Beyond all of this, I keep reviewing poetry books. A couple were published in Herizons and Arc Poetry Magazine, but I’m also regularly reviewing for periodicities: a journal of poetry and poetics. I love reviewing because I love taking the time and care to read poetry closely. I really believe that reviewing is an important part of creating a literary community across (and within) Canada. As writers, we need to honour and support one another’s work. I think reviewing helps to do that. I also learn how to be a better poet by reading other poets’ excellent work. They teach me, as I read their poetry, and I’m grateful for that. 

PP: I agree. If people do not talk about what they read, and invite dialogue, what we write collectively falls into a void. I’ve enjoyed reading your reviews.

Any author site, social media urls or upcoming events you’d like to plug?

KF: Yes, In a review at Freefall.

There are events at

Thursday, November 17 Wanted on the Voyage Reading Series (virtual) 

4pm (PST)/6pm (MT)/8pm (EST)/9pm (AST) Featuring readings by Yvonne Blomer, Kim Fahner, Rachel Lebowitz, and Tanis MacDonald 

Tuesday, November 22 Frontenac House Quartet launch (virtual. register for zoom link) 

6pm (MST), 8pm (EST/Ontario), 9pm (AST) – featuring the work of the four poets published by Frontenac this fall—Frances Boyle, Kim Fahner, Ben Gallagher, and Anvesh Jain.

Thursday, November 24 – Sudbury book launch of Emptying the Ocean  (in person and livestreamed) 

6:30pm Doors open for book sales, 7pm reading. Books are $20 (cash only). Music by Patrick McGuire. Place Des Arts, 27 Larch Street, Sudbury. (This event will also be livestreamed.)