Her first book Out to Dry in Cape Breton (2006) was nominated for the Trillium Award for Poetry. Lahey is editor of Arc: Canada's Poetry Magazine and lives in Montreal.
The following interview was conducted by e-mail.
Carmine Starnino: When reading Out to Dry in Cape Breton, I was struck by the fact that I'd seen clotheslines cited in poems, but rarely read poems ABOUT clotheslines. Do you think, even after the recent flood of confessional/domestic verse, there still exist everyday subjects waiting to be discovered by poets?
Anita Lahey: Of course there are. I don't mean poems that rehash the same old territory in the same old way. But any object looked upon with absolute honesty, and perhaps with some measure of creative abandon, can be reinvented or turned inside out, or simply used as a worthy vehicle for an idea that needs to be shared. By which I mean, a good poet working in top form can both transform a dish rack and use that dish rack to convey something necessary, memorable or refreshing—hopefully all three.
CS: What aspect of Maritime life are you most happy you captured in the final poem that ends the book,"Cape Breton Relative."
AL: If I've captured anything at all in this poem, it has to do with the alluring, varied geography of the island. It is a combination of, on the one hand, the rough and the jagged (read: coastal cliffs, unforgiving tides, lots of swamp and forest untraversed by roads), and on the other, the gentle and welcoming (read: spongy mosses, windswept grasses, quiet rivers). This contrast emerges in some sense in the people as well. It's something I see in my own father, a Cape Bretoner, and in friends and relatives there. Like the rocks and the weather, these people won't let you get away with anything, they keep you on your toes. Like the softer elements of the landscape, they can be shockingly kind, but often in a shy and reserved way.
CS: As someone who wears three different hats, tell me: which "Anita" does the greedy poet resent most, the freelance writer or the editor?
AL: The editor generally has too many emails to respond to, and I would propose that, in our age, email—this habit we have of miraculously keeping conversations going with dozens of people at a time—is the scourge of the poet. It kills the quiet mind. The editor also has way too much poetry to read—not all of which is exciting or well-developed. But the poet in me probably competes with the freelance writer even more, because they are sharing brain space, fighting for the same kind of mental energy. They also both require generous helpings of uninterrupted time. That said, eventually, some aspect of all this other work feeds the poetry. It steals, but it gives back. I don't believe in the idea of the poet who hides away and doesn't engage with society. My work is one of the ways in which I do this. If I wasn't writing and editing for a living, maybe I would teach, or drive a bus, or learn to be a carpenter... I would find something to wield against the poet in me.
CS: Please give me a staple dish (with recipe ) that struggling poets need to know in order to stay healthy and hale during these recessionary times.
AL: I offer a dahl that will yield several meals, or feed several friends. It's nutritious, tasty and filling. It works for vegans, the lactose-intolerant, and people allergic to tomatoes—I have made it situations where all these factors simultaneously applied. Finally, it's easy and cheap to make. I have other dahl recipes that I like, but this is the one I use most often. (Apparently it's very easy to suddenly sound like a cookbook author.)
500g dried red lentils
2 medium onions, finely chopped
6-7 cloves garlic, crushed
ginger (half the size of a golf ball), finely chopped
cumin, coriander and black mustard seeds (slightly crushed)
fresh coriander, chopped
salt & pepper
Lightly fry the garlic and ginger in a small amount of oil. Add one teaspoon each of the crushed seeds. Once the mustard seeds start to pop, add the onion and soften slowly (don't caramelize them).
Once the onions are cooked, add the lentils, cover with water, and add the star anise as well as a generous amount of salt and pepper. (Add some or sauce if you wish.) Cook slowly, adding water when required. It's worth keeping a kettle full of boiled water for this purpose. Allow to cook for about 20 min.
Once lentils have begun to soften, remove star anise, and either mash or blend the mixture until it has a creamy consistency. Add fresh coriander and cook for a few more minutes.
Enjoy! (Preferably with a basmati rice and a beer.) Share or freeze extra! Return to your unfinished poem rejuvenated!