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Q&A: Evelyn Lau shows off previously unseen wit in her new collection

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Tumour, Evelyn Lau’s seventh volume of verse, reflects on life’s chapters and the consequences of time. Introduced here is a wry wit that distinguishes it from her other works, which include the 1989 bestselling memoir Runaway: Diary of a Street Kid, and Living Under Plastic, the 2010 poetry collection that received the Pat Lowther Memorial Award.

Q&Q spoke to Lau about her new release from Oolichan Books and her remarkable career.

Lapsed chances and physical decline are primary motifs in Tumour. What else are you considering in these pieces? I thought of how the past can be like a tumour and about how sometimes in midlife, certain scenes from childhood become amplified and extremely detailed. You would think the closer you are to an event that’s happened, the more clearly you would be able to see it, but in fact that’s not true – it’s so muddled by your emotions around it. Sometimes it’s not until decades later that you see it with that kind of sharpness. That’s what I was discovering. Very slight scenes from childhood took on a photographic clarity and I wanted to explore that.

How did you compress a lifelong relationship into the title poem? I’d written individual, shorter poems about my aunt who had brain cancer, but I wanted to do something more ambitious. I set out to write a lengthy essay, which I wrestled with for many months, and I was never happy with it. I had 30 pages sitting on my desk, which I would periodically peek at and feel really disappointed by. Eventually what I ended up doing was taking some of the better lines from that essay and thinking about it as a poem.

Was writing Tumour different than your previous poetry collections? I had more fun with it in some ways, because of the poems that were about the body. I hope there are little glints of humour there, too. I don’t normally have fun with poems [laughs]. That was an exception.

You’ve also published fiction and non-fiction. Do you prefer writing poetry to prose? I think poetry suits me best in terms of the sparseness, the distillation of experience, the amount of time spent thinking and obsessing over every word, comma, line break. A lot of people would not have the patience for that or it doesn’t appeal to them, but that I find extraordinary appealing.

I think too you can go deeper in poetry and take more risks in terms of writing honestly about an experience, in part because there are so few readers. You’re putting yourself out there a lot more in prose, say, in memoir, and getting a lot of sometimes quite cruel responses from people just because you’re in the public eye. There are pros and cons for both.

A Governor General’s Literary Award nomination, a screen adaptation of your autobiography, and a post as Vancouver’s poet laureate are among your many successes. Has the writing life fulfilled your expectations? I’ve been lucky. To be nominated for awards or to win some as a poet is enormously gratifying. To know that your peers have read your work and thought about it seriously and consider it worthy, that’s really important to me. … I know how hard it is to even be published. And I know you can never take that for granted. At the same time, to make it your life never stops being challenging.

But it also never stops being the most amazing thing that you can do with your time. There’s nothing else I’ve done or given or created or anything that has remotely given me the same kind of joy as finishing a poem, or even finding an image that is as close to perfection as I can make it. There’s nothing like that.

This interview has been edited and condensed.