Bombed out of his pram in Maidenhead, U.K. during the war, Roger Nash grew up in Singapore and Egypt before completing his B.A. at the University of Wales (Swansea), his M.A. at McMaster University, and then his Ph.D. at Exeter University. On top of being a prolific writer of award winning poetry, short fiction, journal articles, and essays, Nash has, throughout his life, been a staunch supporter of the literary arts in both small and extended communities; in 2000, as President of the League of Canadian Poets, Nash brought together prominent writers and politicians to establish the post of Canada’s Parliamentary Poet Laureate and, after being appointed Greater Sudbury’s first Poet Laureate in 2010, he proceeded to support local writers in developing their skills and confidence through monthly open mic nights and publication in the ezine he founded, Terra Nord / North. Currently, he does readings and fundraising for the Northern Ontario School of Medicine while writing poetry to honour medical research.
1. How did it feel when you received your very first award for your poem, “Night Flying”?
So long ago, I can’t remember the felt experience. Probably the words “happy” and “excited” fit. But that doesn’t tell you a hoot about that particular occasion, as these generic words of feeling are used of so many vastly different occasions: a first date, winning at bingo, [passing an exam. But I can remember what I thought, what I was happy about. I thought the award showed that my poetry communicated well with a Canadian audience. That was reassuring, as I was a recent immigrant, used to somewhat different dialects in English. It was reassuring, too, as the judge was Al Purdy, a master poet in an array of Canadian English dialects.
2. Looking back, do you believe this achievement, along with subsequent accomplishments, have had a significant influence on you as a writer?
I don’t write to win prizes (or to get rich!). Being quite a quiet person, I prefer to steer clear of the hoopla that can surround prizes. So prizes, as such, haven’t influenced me much. I write when I think I have something important to say, in poetry, about tragedies and joys in the world. But it’s important to say it to others, to have an audience who finds my poetry accessible. The awards have helped gather an audience, and reassure me that I go on being understandable. Audiences in small city libraries, hospital wards, retirement homes, all give me feedback and encouragement, with no hoopla around at all.
3. As president of the league of Canadian poets in 2000, you brought together prominent writers and politicians to establish the post of Canada’s Parliamentary Poet Laureate. What kind of effects have you seen in the community since the post’s establishment?
One main effect. On one take, a poem is an end in itself, valued for the word music and sense it shows within itself. On another and complimentary take, a poem can develop a new diction, a new way of speaking, that we can carry outside the poem, to shape our shared lives together, to move us towards more empathetic, inclusive and compassionate mind-sets, away from hierarchical and non-empathetic ones. The establishment of the Poet Laureate position has made Canadian poets, generally, more aware of how poetry provides a platform for doing that, and the Poet Laureate position is a high-profile platform. Poetry is a central part of society, not out in the wings, and can change it fundamentally.
4. Today, you actively support medical research and practices by fundraising for the Northern Ontario School of Medicine, doing readings in hospital wards, and writing poetry in honour of researchers. What kind of impact do you see literature having in the medical world now and in the future?
Poetry, comedy, pop-song performances, sometimes in wonderful combinations, can all draw in audiences. So they can be used to raise funds not only for the arts, which we need, but also for medical services – another basic human need along with the arts.
Another impact that poetry, song, and comedy can have in the medical world is by taking these into hospital wards, terminal ones included. Hospital patients are often thirsty for the arts, which can be an important part of their recovery or adjustment to their conditions. And why not celebrate outstanding figures in the field of medicine sometimes, as poetry once celebrated explorers and generals? This is all part of practicing poetry as central to society. If poets don’t do that, then poetry will be out on the wings – and hospital patients, as well as poets, will be the worse off.
5. What role do you believe poetry has in today’s Canadian community?
In a time of great change and multiculturalism, it can – to repeat a point – help us move towards inclusive and compassionate mind-sets, away from more exclusionary and hierarchical ones.
Interview performed by Malak El-Tahry. Filming done by Grace Howes.