Aug. 27, 2018
Calgary Distinguished Writers Program welcomes Liz Howard
Liz Howard was about to take the next logical step in her career as she set out to apply for an MA program in clinical psychology. She was working as a research officer in an aging and cognition laboratory and she had a massive student loan to pay off. Moving ahead with her career in psychology seemed like the wise and necessary choice.
So why did she feel so trapped? Why, when she began preparing for the entrance exams did she feel, as she recalls, “like I was going to jump out of my skin?”
It’s because Howard had another powerful calling — as a poet.
Growing up in the isolated Northern Ontario Treaty 9 community of Chapleau, poetry had been Howard’s saving grace, but that was a part of her she had lost touch with while pursuing her Bachelor of Science degree. As she began to travel further still down that path she found herself at a crossroads, anguishing over her next move.
“I really wanted to apply for an MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Guelph, but, of course, it didn’t seem like the most practical plan,” she says. “Finally, I decided to take the risk. We only have one life to live.
"I feel like the risk paid off.”
Now, as she begins her new role as the University of Calgary’s 2018-19 Canadian Writer-in-Residence with the prestigious Calgary Distinguished Writers Program (CDWP), on its 25th anniversary year, it’s clear that Howard made the right life choice.
“I’m absolutely thrilled,” she says of her residency. “So many incredible authors have been through the program and I love the time it gives a writer to develop their own projects. It comes highly recommended.”
The same could be said for Howard herself.
Her first book of poetry, Infinite Citizen of the Shaking Tent, won the 2016 Griffin Poetry Prize. It was the first time the illustrious prize had been awarded to a debut collection. At 30, Howard was also the youngest writer to have ever won the prize.
“It changed my life radically, because it created so many opportunities,” she says. “I was invited to read at the Library of Congress in Washington and the Catalonian Cultural Centre in Barcelona. I never would have thought that writing a book of such strange mournful poems would lead me to such places!”
Howard is excited to immerse herself in the writing of her second collection of poems, entitled Letters In A Bruised Cosmos, during her residency. "It's sort of in its early life stage, right now, forming in the primordial pool," she says. "I have material — verses, poems, notes — but it's going to take a lot of work for me to really bring it into the world, to have it crawl out on four legs, as it were."
While at UCalgary Howard also plans to begin a work of prose which will be "an autobiographically influenced work of fiction."
Certainly, she has a story to tell from her childhood in Chapleau.
"It's difficult growing up in a place that's so isolated geographically and culturally," she says. "And I was also dealing with various family issues, living on social assistance. I was a different sort of child, intellectually curious, and I spent a lot of time alone, playing in the forest and around the lakes. I think I came across as very strange. I often felt very lonely."
Discovering poetry was a sort of lifeline for Howard and she began writing at an early age. "I was always reading a lot of Canadian poetry," she says. "An early influence was Susan Musgrave. Her poetry is dark and seductive, and she wrote about the West Coast in a way that was really compelling. She showed me how to interpret my own surroundings."
Howard hopes her work might influence others similarly and she's looking forward to her role as a mentor during her residency, as she does free consultations with budding writers in Calgary.
"I'm really looking forward to working with local writers and watching their work develop over the course of my time here," she says. "I imagine I will learn as much as they will."
Liz Howard will give a public reading at CDWP's annual Hello/Goodbye event at the Big Secret Theatre on Sept. 14.
Learn more about the Calgary Distinguished Writers Program.