Debbie Okun Hill is a Canadian poet, blogger and freelance writer. She is a past president of The Ontario Poetry Society, a member of both the League of Canadian Poets and the Writers Union of Canada and a new member of the Canadian Authors Association. Her work has appeared in over 115 different publications and websites including Descant, Existere, Other Voices, The Literary Review of Canada, Vallum, and The Windsor Review in Canada plus The Binnacle, LUMMOX, MOBIUS, Phati’tude and Thema in the United States.
She is the recipient of two Writers’ Reserve grants from The Ontario Arts Council and her poems have won several awards over the years. She has read her work in various Canadian locations including the Fringe Stage of the Eden Mills Writers Festival, the Niagara Literary Arts Festival, the Edmonton Poetry Festival, the first PoeTrain Express to Cobalt and the 2015 Great Canadian PoeTrain Tour.
She loves to promote the work of other writers and was a co-host of a monthly Spoken Word event for eight years and a former member of Sarnia’s Bluewater Reading Series Committee. Born and raised on the prairies, she now gardens words full-time in rural southwestern Ontario.
1. How has your background in journalism and communications affected your poetry production and presentation?
Great question! Journalism taught me to seek out newsworthy stories, to locate the best two sources to present both views, to pay attention to details, and to be as precise with the facts as possible. Communication, more specifically public relations, forced me to multi-task, work with deadlines and put a positive and yet honest spin on most of the material that I wrote. When I started writing poetry, I felt liberated. I threw out all the rules and tried to release the artist in me. I grabbed onto my muse and wrote whatever I wanted without worrying too much about the facts, the target audiences and readership. Of course, I soon discovered, if I wanted to sell books, I had to once again consider the audience and pull together all my knowledge to present the material in a way that people would understand and enjoy it. It’s quite the journey. Everything we learn becomes part of the larger picture.
2. In 2014, Black Moss Press published Tarnished Trophies–your first book of poetry. How was this experience different from your numerous publications in anthologies and chapbook releases?
From a business and creative point of view, submitting to anthologies and producing self-published chapbooks is like being an entrepreneur. You work on your own, make your own decisions and set your own pace and schedule. Having my book published by Black Moss Press meant joining a professional team and being adopted into a prestigious family of writers. Yikes. It’s intimidating, especially when I was the new kid. My knees shook and many days I asked, “what have I got myself into?”. In the end, I treasured the editing process. Vanessa Shields was more friend than editor. I travelled and read in places I never expected. My books became available on-line and in bookstores in Canada, the United States and U.K. I was welcomed as a full member of the League of Canadian Poets, The Writers Union of Canada and a professional member of the Canadian Authors Association. In one way I feel I have graduated from a 10 year apprenticeship and yet I have so much to learn. Having a trade book changed my life. The pay is better than publishing work individually, well slightly. Each new experience has been enlightening.
3. After co-hosting a Spoken Word event for eight years, how has your “ear” for poetry been affected?
Attending open mic events taught me that poetry is more than just words on paper, it is rhythm and rhyme and tone and in some cases performance and entertainment. Because the literary spoken word event I co-hosted was more of an open mic versus performance poetry, I was exposed to a variety of different styles and voices. Some writers read new work they have written, some people read work from their favourite authors and others just came to watch. Sometimes musicians or theatre students or comedians attended. Some presenters are professionals, others are reading for the first time. The age group ranges from teens to those over 90 years old. So, the experience also taught me to pay attention to the audience, to mix the humourous with the dark, to speak clearly and to practise reading aloud at home prior to attending the event. I also learned that visuals and props and movement help to keep the audience engaged. Of course, I still feel, even after all these years, that I have so much to learn.
4. You mentioned to me that you’re near finalisations for your new collected work of poetry, about Lambton County’s ash trees and the invasive emerald ash borer. What intrigued you most about these particular subjects?
Some people must be thinking, “oh, no, not more poems about trees and who wants to read about insects?” I had similar views but when the tree service workers entered my backyard in May 2011 and removed four large dying ash trees, I felt compelled to write. History was unfolding and I wanted to not only record this loss but the reactions of the people around me. The more research I did, the more I realized how little I knew. Eventually, I realized that the trees were metaphors for people I had lost and if I could remain quiet long enough, they would share insights into more larger issues such as invasive species, global warning, illness, adoption, abortion, euthanasia, evolution, the importance of trees, and the miraculous and interconnected roles of nature and human beings. What a journey of discovery that will continue long after my manuscript is published. I already have too many poems for the book and it will be difficult to leave some of them out.
5. Where do you draw the line between visual art and poetry?
When it comes to creativity, I cannot draw lines because my brain is wired to look outside the box and at all angles. Even when I attempt to look at two different sides, I always see shades of grey. The lines are blurred. It drives people crazy my indecisiveness, but to me no issue is ever black and white. For example, in poetry, I enjoy painting word images (have experimented with concrete poetry). In visual paintings, I love to see poetic movement in form and colour. A few years ago, I created three poetry postcards for a group display. Last month, I teamed up with Sarnia photographer Melissa Upfold who create two poetry videos from my work. It was a great experience and it’s another way to hold the audience’s attention. I’d also like to continue to work with local artists or use my own photographs to combine visuals with words.
6. What about between performance art and athletics?
All of your questions have challenged me. Both performance art and athletics are high energy activities. Both require talent and highly-developed skills. Both are usually competitive in nature. If there is a line, performance art would focus more on the mind, athletics the body. However, a performer would benefit from some athletic energy in his/her presentation. An athlete could use his mind to strategize his movements. Ha ha See I’m blurring the lines again. To complicate matters, each person is unique and what works for one person may not work for someone else. Everyone’s journey is different.
Interview courtesy of Coryl o’Reilly. Filming done by Grace Howes.