The art of writing #90 : Shelagh Rowan-Legg



How did you first come to poetry? What is it about the form that resonates?

My grandmother and mother both wrote poetry, so I guess you could say it’s in my blood. But there was always something about the form that felt comforting to me. I was always somewhat awkward as a child, never able to find the best way to express myself to the people around me, and somehow poetry became my best way to convert what I was thinking and feeling into words. It’s Emily Dickinson’s idea of telling the truth in a slant way – I find my thought process always tends towards metaphor, proverb, putting words into shapes and forms that don’t fit the more prosaic nature that the world is more comfortable with. Poetry lurks on the outside, yet to me it’s a form that is far more in tune with how our minds and souls operate.

How does a poem begin?

For me, it generally seems to be about finding two points of reference, two ideas that need to find each other. I’ll have an image or a phrase, something singular, but I haven’t figured out how it will manifest. I file it away – I devote the last pages of my current writing notebook to various phrases, quotes, ideas I have that are not quite ready to become poems, as well as a folder on my laptop with the same. Then there is some catalyst that fits with the phrase or image, that will present itself to me, and that’s the entry point. The catalyst could be another phrase or image, a place setting, a weather phenomenon, Often it comes from a biweekly writing workshop I attend with George Murray – he’ll give a series of prompts, and one of those prompts will fit one of the ideas I’ve kept filed away. For example, on a recent trip to the Laurentians, walking down a quiet highway at night, I had an idea of the old legend of burying something at the crossroads to summon the devil – but that wasn’t quite enough, I couldn’t find a way into that image to form a strong poem. Then George gave a writing prompt of having a conversation with whatever creature frightened you as a child. That prompt went well with the image of the crossroads and the devil, so that became the entry to the poem of this image I had in mind for a while. I do notice that if I try to force an image or idea too hard, the poem never comes out well. I’m trying to experiment more both with older forms of poetry – haikus, villanelles, and the like – as well as more visually experimental work. I want to know what form the poem needs to take, rather than forcing it into something that doesn’t fit with its ideas and images.

Do you see your writing as a single, extended project, or a series of threads that occasionally weave together to form something else?

I think that I see it as a series of threads – I don’t often think about how one of my poems might relate to others (though I occasionally find I’ve used the same or very similar metaphor in two different poems). But then someone else will point out the connections that I didn’t realize were there; for example, it was pointed out recently how several poems seemed to centre on the river close to where I live, and the idea of the world ending. In the long run, since all these poems are coming from ne, they are one single project – but they are different threads of thought that come from different parts of my mind and observations, so they will have connections that are not always evident. 

How do you see your poetry and filmmaking in conversation, if at all?

Now that is an interesting question, because there are some similarities, but I think more differences. With few exceptions, film is a collaborative art – you can’t really make a film (or most films) with just one person. And that’s a great thing about film, how collaborative the process is. Poetry is most often done by a single person; it can be shared in workshops to help develop, but it’s one person working alone. Both film and poetry can use editing in a similar way – cutting together ideas and images that you wouldn’t normally see side by side. There is a whole subset of poetry film, film poems, video poetry – and of course experimental films can feel and read like poems, since they often require a more ‘slant’ interpretation and understanding. In my recent film work, I find myself more drawn to the experimental, and also using older tools, such as Super 8 cameras, which feel like writing poems by hand. I think you can see more of my poetry side in my film curation – when I put together a program of short films, I want to make a kind of collage poem or an anthology as such, that will set a tone and pace for the audience. I suppose the more poetic a film is – the more is uses disparate images to tell a story, the more it engages with a deep level of soul interaction – the more interesting I find it. I think this is why I gravitate not only to experimental film, but to the fantastic genres of horror, sci fi, and fantasy. They are much more engaged with using indirect images to talk about our world and human culture.

Have you a daily schedule by which you work, or are you working to fit this in between other activities?

I generally like to get all my other work done first – the paying work – so I can focus on my personal projects later in the day without distractions or concern. For the most part, I leave my poetry writing either to the weekend, or to my poetry workshop nights, which happen biweekly. I find I’m often writing internally during the week – an idea or image will be floating in my head, sifting through various layers of thoughts and images. I’ll take notes as necessary, and then it comes out as a poem(s) when I can devote a few hours to it. Though is I have a full idea ready on a weekday, I’ll get to it, but I find I do my best work when I can write at least a first draft or two in full without distraction. Any ideas are kept in a notebook. And I still begin all my poems by handwriting them; though I wouldn’t mind finding an old working typewriter to use as well. 

What are your favourite print or online literary journals?

The Capilano Review offers a very affordable digital subscription, and that’s a favourite of mine, as they publish some really experimental work. Pinhole Poetry, for both the poetry and photography. I get the daily poem from, which offers a huge diversity of old and new writers, allowing me to make some interesting discoveries. I still go to the old classics such as Arc and Fiddlehead from time to time. Room Magazine also right now, for more marginalized voices especially, and featuring both more traditionally written poetry as well as veering into some experimental work. 

Who are some of the writers you are reading lately that most excite you?

For more recent publications, some favourites have been: Letters in a Bruised Cosmos by Liz Howard, Panic Response by John McCullough, The Dyzgraphxst by Canisia Lubrin, The Animal in the Room by Meghan Kemp Gee, The Day-Breakers by Michael Fraser, Phantompains by Therese Estacion, and Chores by Maggie Burton. I never tire of Anne Carson – I recently re-read her work FLOAT, a series of chapbooks, which just astonishes me in how she blurs the lines of prose, plays, and poetry. And I’m kicking myself for only recently discovering the work of Rita Dove, and I’m excited to dive into her poetry.


Shelagh Rowan-Legg (she/they) is a writer and filmmaker. Originally from Toronto, her poetry and short stories have been published in The Windsor Review, Taddle Creek, New Poetry, Carousel, and numerous other magazines. Her short films have screened at festivals around the world. She is a Contributing Editor to ScreenAnarchy, and has written on film for magazines such as Sight & Sound, Fangoria, Panorama-cinéma, and Clin d’oeil

A selection of her poems appeared in the tenth issue.