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Common House Magazine

Interview with Jennifer Baker

Grace Wildman

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Grace: You’ve worked as a part-time professor of creative writing and English at uOttawa for many years. How would you say your teaching affects your work as a poet?


Jenn: I just started teaching creative writing two years ago, so that aspect of what I teach is quite new. I think my research in literature impacted my way of teaching creative writing because I developed a real appreciation for sound in poetry, and when you write poetry, it’s always good to learn how to read poetry.


Grace: Does teaching inspire you creatively or benefit your life as a writer?


Jenn: It definitely inspires me creatively! I think I learn more teaching than I did during my PhD. I get to revisit authors closely that I wouldn’t otherwise read in my research areas—American poetry, for example, or British poetry. Encountering new things, like the creative writing from my courses or even Canadian poets I wouldn’t normally teach in a survey course, is always creatively inspiring. But I’m also always talking to other instructors, and I learn a lot from them.


Grace: Your most recent work, Memento Mishka, was a collaboration with your partner, Dave Currie. [The book reflects on the death of Jennifer and Dave’s dog, Mishka.] What was that experience like?


Jenn: It was done the day after she died, so it was painful, but it was also—I don’t know how he would think of it; we sat side by side and each wrote our own suite of poems, and they were written quickly, so it was an interesting exercise in raw emotion. I tend to process my feelings intellectually—through poetry, a lot of the time—and I wanted so badly to capture everything she was—her dog-ness—as a being in those poems. Rereading them, I’m still affected by the emotions in there, but I’m glad we did it, because she was such a good dog! She was a big, Samoyed-Husky mix with one eye, and she had a huge personality, so I’m glad if those poems resonate with other people who have good dogs.


Grace: Do you do a lot of collaborations, or was that a new experience?


Jenn: That was my first collaboration where we both produced half of a book. I haven’t done that many; I’ve always wanted to. A collaboration, I think, always springs organically from the way people work, so with that one, we wrote our own suite of poems; I’ve never tried writing a suite where our voices are intermingled, or my voice and another poet’s are intermingled, but I would like to do more. It’s an interesting practice, and you get to see how everybody’s poetic voice is different. My partner and I are different kinds of poets, especially in that moment. I have done collaborative, creative interviews with other poets, and I don’t know if you’d count working for a magazine as a collaboration, but I suppose that is very collaborative. As far as producing poems goes, I’ve had mentors and editors, but I haven’t produced anything else collaboratively. Well, I guess, in a way, my second chapbook, Groundling, is also a collaboration with perhaps unknowing participants.


Grace: What kinds of topics have you been writing about lately, and what forms have those projects been taking?


Jenn: Lately, I’ve been really drawn to ecopoetics. I went through a period where I was struggling to figure out how to express the relationship between people and plants and animals—Memento Mishka is part of this arc I’m in—but I’ve done a lot of work on climate grief, and the more I try to lean into those feelings and ideas, the less solely text-based my work has become. Right now, I’m working on a project where I’m making biomaterials and then writing poems that reflect the history of those biomaterials. I have, for example, used mussel shell to create a composite concrete. There are these little samples that are maybe bookmark-sized, and I have written poems about the history of how mussel shells interact with our environment and with people to engrave in them.


My first poem in that series is about an artist in Toronto [Gillian Genser] who worked with mussel shells for twenty-five years. She was building a statue called Adam, the first man, and she found out that when she ground the mussel shells up, she was breathing in dust full of lead, which had made her terminally ill. She still finished the statue, and she wrote a beautiful essay about that process of dying. The essay talked about how mussels are filter-feeders, so they absorb all the toxins in the water around them, and they were probably grown—at least the ones that she was getting—in toxic waste.


I think a lot about these unseen impacts of industry on animals, but also about how they reverberate through the chain and affect us in ways we aren’t anticipating. It’s a real downer! So that’s one of the suites of poems, and I’m etching them in these little concrete composite objects. The objects can act as fertilizer, so you can plant them in your garden, and when you water them, they will dissolve and put phosphorus back into the soil.


Grace: Wow!


Jenn: Yeah! I’m thinking more about how materials signify and resonate against the poems. Another one that’s less depressing is that I’m currently making coffee leather. I’ve saved and dried all the coffee grounds from the many, many, many espressos I have every morning, and they’re being made into a material that you can sew with. I’m going to be writing poems about coffee, and I have an old typewriter that I’m going to use to imprint them with poems. I also have eggshells to use as composites, too, so I’m doing all these scientific experiments and trying to figure out how to pack a lot of feelings into a material object. That’s basically my current work—fewer books, more objects.


Grace: That’s some very experimental poetry! Do you usually work in unconventional ways? What impact does that process have on the topics of your poetry?


Jenn: My first chapbook was pretty traditionally lyric, I would say—imagist lyric. But my second chapbook was unconventional: I used real apology letters from my life and erased them to make new poems. I’ve always been interested in experimental work and what it does to the conventions of poetry, and in exploring the lyric self. The lyric “I,” for example, is difficult to trace through Groundling; it kind of dissolves in these poems that are loaded with meditations on the nature of abusive relationships.


Memento Mishka isn’t very experimental except for the way it was put together by Cameron Antsee’s Apt. 9—he called it the “dos-à-dos,” so you could turn it upside down and read Dave’s, or you could turn it the other way and read mine. So it’s visually experimental, and it also resonates in different ways through those different perspectives. We decided on that format because it was hard to intermingle our poems; we each wrote what was basically a self-contained suite with its own narrative arc. We didn’t do it on purpose, but that just ended up being the way we captured our lives with the dog.


But I’m going more and more experimental, and I think that’s because some of the things that we feel—if we’re thinking about the climate crisis, for example, or our relationship with nonhuman beings—they extend beyond language. We can’t capture them in traditional forms. If you think about a nature poem, like Wordsworth’s “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud”—I’m always taking a shot at Wordsworth, but he’s a good example—a lot of that Romantic poetry projects our inner psyche onto the landscape, where we’re not actually engaging with the landscape as it exists. To do that, we must take in, first of all, what it is, so you have to learn about plants and animals specifically, learn their names.


That, I think, is the power of ecopoetics: it forces people to engage with the environment on an individual level, but also to take in their relationships with each other. Experimental ecopoetics tries more and more to take in all those relations. I move towards those objects because they can include my relationship with them as art objects, but also, with the coffee one, my relationship with espresso, which is a daily ritual that I have to have—if my espresso machine breaks, I’m really upset, and maybe it’s an addiction, but I think it’s more about the ritual. It’s that moment in the morning when I sense the world for the first time and wake up.


And I’m just really interested in coffee as a thing. With this coffee leather, one of the poems is maybe going to have an excerpt from Susanna Moodie’s Roughing it in the Bush, where she runs out of coffee, and she has this strong reaction and tries to use dandelion root instead, which is a poor substitute for coffee. I’m thinking about the whole history of how we engage with coffee, but also about how it’s always wrapped up in colonialism, global capitalism, and exploitation, so it gives us a chance to engage with the material history of the things that sustain us and sustain our culture.


Grace: You’re currently the poetry editor for Arc, and you’ve also published chapbooks with Ottawa-based small presses like Apt. 9 Press and above/ground press. Why work with a small press as opposed to a larger publishing house—what do you like about it?


Jenn: Small presses are nice for trying out ideas that might not fit in at larger presses. Groundling, for example, was a project that will go into a manuscript, but it also stands alone as its own little thing. It’s about thirty pages long, so it was too small for a traditional press, but if you were to join it with something else—at least, at the time I wrote it—it wouldn’t resonate the same way, so I wanted to release it by itself. I released it in 2021, first with Trainwreck Press, and then with above/ground last year. Because it’s so self-contained, it works well as a tiny book; chapbook presses are good for these little book projects that are not quite big enough for a big press.


I also like the gift economy of small presses. It’s a good way for people to explore experimental work, but also, because you can trade chapbooks, it’s community based. above/ground is a powerful community-building project; rob [mclennan] does a lot of publishing, and he launches a lot of careers—he gets to know people, and then you get to network and meet other people through that readership.


Little magazine culture in Canada sustains poetry. It’s also where new ideas get hashed out in poems, and I like being able to see what’s going on. It’s interesting to see trends in Canadian poetry before they become academic; sometimes it helps you to hone your sense of what a good poem is because you know when it’s good, and you know when it’s not good, and you know when it’s almost there. You also get to see all the stages of poets’ careers: when they’re just starting, you get to see their early work and drafts, and if you stick around long enough, you get to see them grow as poets. That’s fun to see because the journey from draft to finished poem often surprises you.


Grace: Have you come across any limitations or difficulties in small-press publishing?


Jenn: Well, one of the limitations is that it’s very small. Sometimes presses close, and the work is gone with them. There’s also digital publishing, which sometimes feels more permanent than it actually is; I have had some poems just disappear—you can’t find them anymore because the digital file is nonexistent, or it’s been taken down, or the URL has changed and the links are all broken. So that’s a limitation: if you’re publishing digitally, it’s harder to archive.


Grace: You’ve talked about your climate emotion work, and you offer a number of workshops about that, including a workshop on the relationship between climate emotions and poetry. What role do you see poetry playing in our ability to think about and cope with the climate crisis?


Jenn: I used to work in climate activism, and I found more and more that a lot of people treat poetry and literature as kind of an escape, but I think poetry, if it’s really good, makes you face and work through realizations, ideas, or situations that are painful, or difficult, or that you otherwise don’t want to face. It’s a good way to work through and face difficult, complicated emotions.


One of the things that I talk about in my workshops is that it’s important to name our emotions. You can’t deal with emotions if you don’t know what they’re called or how to express them. I find that with something as big and unprecedented as climate change, a lot of the time there are emotions that we don’t really have names for, and poetry is built for that, right? It’s a way to name things that we don’t have names for, and you can feel when you’ve done that. It’s an internal feeling—if you write a poem and you’re like, “yes, that is what I’m feeling,” it usually comes with a big emotional release, at least for me.


Naming is the first step in making real all those emotions. I think that dealing with those emotions is important for working on what we might think of as more practical action. You can’t work well with people if you have strong feelings about their approaches and don’t deal with your feelings. But poetry is also a way of managing your feelings about your place in climate activism. It’s a big tent, and we need a lot of people with a lot of diverse expertise, and I think poetry helps us find our place among people with different expertise and different perspectives than our own, and maybe different backgrounds. It helps us to ground ourselves in the work rather than get caught up in our feelings about where we are in that work.


Grace: What prompted you to start offering workshops—where did that interest stem from?


Jenn: I was working for the Sierra Club Canada Foundation—I started off working as their administrator, and then I ended up being their vice president—and with that semi-visible position, I ended up getting some requests for speaking. It was that and my dissertation work. I started as a speaker at the Sustainable Events Forum, which is a group of people in event planning that have a big conference, and I got invited to speak there. There, people were surprisingly receptive to thinking about the way we talk about the environment and the way we approach the nature/culture binary, and also about the situations we accept as natural progressions of human nature that are in reality deliberately constructed—capitalism, for example, is only roughly four hundred years old. People tend to accept it as having been an inevitable evolution of human “progress,” but it didn’t just grow out of being human; it’s a system that was developed and sustained by multiple people reimagining it.


That was my first talk, a surprising encounter with a lot of business people who agreed with me, and then I realized that a lot of people don’t know how to name what they’re feeling—they don’t know how to think about where we are historically, they don’t know how to talk about what they’re experiencing, and there are a lot of people also doing the work of change that also don’t know how to talk about their feelings and don’t have a space to do that.


I’ve done a few talks now—some for youth activists in Switzerland, and some for the Wilder Institute in Calgary at the Calgary Zoo; they take in and rehabilitate injured animals in Alberta that are members of a threatened species, and I found that work powerfully affecting. My interest in the climate workshops stems from this realization that a lot of people don’t have the tools that we learn in the humanities for expressing and naming complex emotions and contexts, which doesn’t make their work less important, of course, but I think having that language empowers people. Even if it seems like a small thing, it helps them to understand sort of where they are and what they want.


Grace: Where can we find the ecopoetics project once it’s done, and are there any new projects on the horizon?


Jenn: I’m working on putting some of the ecopoetics stuff up on my website, and that’s probably going to occupy me for a while. The combination of a rigorous teaching schedule and the massive learning curve involved with trying to figure out how to make biomaterials is going to take a while, so that’s probably what I’ll be putting out for at least a year, I imagine. But once they’re done, they’ll be up on my website at

Jennifer Baker is a poet, environmental activist, and Professor (LTA) in the Department of English at the University of Ottawa, where she teaches creative and professional writing and literary studies. She is the author of three chapbooks: Abject Lessons (above/ground press, 2014), Groundling (Trainwreck Press, 2021), and Memento Mishka (Apt. 9 Press, 2023). Her poetry, interviews, and reviews can be found in several Canadian publications, including Canadian Literature, Canthius, and Arc Poetry Magazine, where she was also recently awarded Honourable Mention for the Diana Brebner Poetry Prize in 2022 for her poems “Companion Species” and “A Different Kind of Person.”

Grace Wildman is a second-year English, creative writing, and professional editing student at uOttawa and junior editor at Common House. She wants to edit novels and publish a book of poetry after she graduates. In her spare time, she likes to listen to music, work on art, read, and write.

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