For the Record

Power to the poet

Fiona Tinwei Lam standing in from of apartment buildings in Vancouver.

Photograph by Jennifer Gauthier

Dubbed by many “the people’s poet,” Lam is responsible for raising poetry’s visibility and recognition within the city through community programming and outreach. Ms. Lam’s poetry and prose have been published in more than 40 anthologies (in Canada, Hong Kong, and the U.S.), including The Best Canadian Poetry in English, and she has authored three poetry collections and a children’s book. She also edited The Bright Well: Contemporary Canadian Poems About Facing Cancer, and is  the co-editor of and a contributor to the creative non-fiction anthology Double Lives: Writing and Motherhood published by McGill-Queen’s University Press, and Love Me True: Writers Reflect on the Ins, Outs, Ups and Downs of Marriage, in addition to many other ventures, including working as a creative writing instructor in the Continuing Studies Department at Simon Fraser University.

Her previous honours include being selected for B.C.’s Poetry in Transit initiative three times and shortlisted for the City of Vancouver Book Award. Five of the poetry videos that she has produced, directed, or collaborated on based on her own or another’s poems have won awards in international poetry film festivals over the past decade. 

Ms. Lam took time out of her busy schedule to answer questions about why she accepted the poet laureate role for the city of Vancouver, how her law background at Queen’s translates to her work today, and what her goals are for her term.

Tell us about your career path. How do you go from being a law student at Queen’s 30 years ago to Vancouver’s poet laureate? I’d been writing poetry since I was in grade school, but the flow of poems slowed down once I started university. When I entered law school, the muse simply stopped calling. I articled, worked briefly in a large law firm in Vancouver, did a master’s in law, worked at the Law Society of B.C., and even tried teaching a law course at Carleton University. Eventually, I decided to follow my gut and leave behind the legal profession, taking non-credit night-school courses at a local college to build up a portfolio of creative writing in three genres in order to apply for admission at UBC’s MFA program in creative writing. There I generated enough poems for my first book of poetry. During that time, I also became a mom. It was a very creative time! Since then, I’ve continued to publish poetry and non-fiction, edit anthologies, mentor writers, and teach creative writing in community settings and for continuing studies programs. Over the past decade, I’ve also explored collaborating with animators and filmmakers to produce and co-direct a number of poetry videos that have been selected for screening at poetry film festivals around the world, including the wonderful Zebra International Poetry Film Festival, the Berlin Interfilm Short Film Festival, Copenhagen’s Nature & Culture Poetry Film Festival, among others.

What does it mean to be Vancouver’s poet laureate? The Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer wrote, “Each person is a door to a room for everyone,” and that is how I see my new role, to foster those sparks of poetic potential in people of all backgrounds and from all communities throughout Vancouver, a city in which I’ve lived for over 50 years.

What do you hope to accomplish during your term? My two-stage Legacy Project involves a poetry contest in 2022 for youth, emerging authors, and established authors about specific historical, cultural, and ecological sites that will provide a greater understanding of the origins and multilayered history of the place we now know as Vancouver. In 2023, there’ll be a contest for film students to make poetry videos and films based on the award-winning poems, possibly augmented by existing published poems about Vancouver sites. I’m hoping to stoke the generation of more poetry films in Vancouver and beyond. A magical synergy can arise when poetry and film are brought together. It would be wonderful if this interdisciplinary form would take hold in Canada in the way it has in Germany, the U.K., and the U.S.

“Poetry can name the unnameable and render visible the invisible interconnections between us all, retrieving our humanity and compassion.”

Why is poetry visibility and recognition important? These are challenging times, given the uncertainties and restrictions of the pandemic. There are even greater difficulties ahead with the climate crisis and growing social inequality. Poetry can name the unnameable and render visible the invisible interconnections between us all, retrieving our humanity and compassion. We need to move away from words that destroy and divide, and find words that inspire and connect.

What makes poetry so powerful for you? Since I was an 11-year-old struggling with my father’s death from cancer, poetry has allowed me to express myself in a profoundly satisfying way. Many others from all walks of life and cultures have discovered self-expression and communal expression through the arts, whether through literature, music, dance, theatre, visual art, film, etc.

Poetry can communicate meaning through metaphor, image, sound and rhythm, and can distil the essence of experience and offer solace, laughter, delight, insight, truth, and more. The best poetry provides a lens – a microscope and telescope – to help us see, understand, and know on a deeper level. It’s why we turn to poetry at graduations, weddings, and funerals or at times of great crisis and uncertainty.

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