5 Questions with Poet Patrick Friesen

Patrick Friesen, a former resident of the original lands of Anishinaabeg, Cree, Oji-Cree, Dakota, and Dene peoples, and on the homeland of the Métis Nation (Steinbach and Winnipeg) now lives on the unceded territory of the Lekwungen people (Victoria, B.C.). He has published numerous books of poetry and has written several stage and radio plays. Friesen has also collaborated with choreographers, dancers, musicians and composers. He tours on a regular basis, giving readings and workshops all over the country. His book, Blasphemer’s Wheel, was awarded Manitoba Book of the Year Prize in 1996; A Broken Bowl, was a finalist for the 1997 Governor-General’s Award; and Patrick was awarded the ReLit Award for Poetry in 2012 for jumping in the asylum.


1) I could be wrong, but I imagine when you were growing up in Steinbach, being a poet was not on the list of acceptable vocations alongside farmer, pastor, and teacher. What first sparked your interest in poetry?

 I loved words very early. I would hear a word, or perhaps read one, and it would be on my tongue all day.  The sound of words, but also how they looked on the page.  Just a wonder about language.  My mother was a big influence.  She taught me to read before I went to Kindergarten.  She read to me, or read with me, and we discussed the books.  She wrote poems, though I didn’t know it then.  I still have one of them; it’s good.

2) What is your favourite memory of growing up in southern Manitoba?

My favorite memories have to do with the terrain and birds. Marshes with their red-winged blackbirds.  Fields with killdeers pretending to have broken wings if you got too close to their nests.  Memories of specific locations; an abandoned gravel pit with gnarled oaks nearby; the trees looked African to me; I could imagine being there.

3) What was the first poem you ever wrote?

I have no idea what my first poem was, or when I wrote it. I do know that my grade 5/6 teacher, Mel Toews, kept some of them.  Years later when I was at university I ran into him on campus.  He told me he had them.  Whether those are the first I wrote, no idea.

4) Of all your poems, plays, and collections, which one are you the most proud of?

I can be happy, satisfied, about a specific book or play, but I don’t know if pride comes into it. Things come and go, time passes, books appear and disappear, but I have always been happy with seeing the first productions of any of my plays.  It is satisfying to experience other artists take your words and use their talents and visions to make something of those words.  I have great admiration for actors, dancers and singers.  Maggie Nagle was in The Shunning at PTE.  The character of Helen in that play didn’t become complete until I saw Maggie.  Kim McCaw pointed to her and said, “that’s Helen.”  I turned to look and knew he was right.  I adore her work, a brilliant actor.  Joy Coghill was fantastic in The Raft at PTE, Tracey Nepinak in A Short History of Crazy Bone with TPM in Winnipeg.  I am happy with a song I wrote with Big Dave McLean, and I love collaborating with my son Niko, a composer.  I also loved writing the text for a dance production called Anna, with Margie Gillis and Stephanie Ballard back in 1987.  Dance and poetry work together really well; one uses coded gestures and movements to suggest something, and the other uses words, which is code, isn’t it?  When it comes to books I probably always love the most recent one best.  But I have felt especially happy with Flicker and Hawk and The Breath You Take From the Lord.

5) A few years ago I did a walking tour of Leonard Cohen’s favourite locales in Montreal. If I were to do a similar Patrick Friesen walking tour of Victoria, what spots should be on my tour?

First off, I’d take you on one of the walks Eve and I enjoy. Along the E&N Trail one passes long walls of industrial buildings with beautiful murals and graffiti on them.  The other walk is along the harbour and ends up at some steep stairs going up a hill.  The field beside often has deer in it.  The top of the stairs offers a great view of the harbor.  I’d take you on a car ride outside Victoria to buy veggies at Sun Wing, a fantastic family-run market, and nearby I’d take you to Rock Coast, a small local chocolatier, to buy some of my favorite chocolates.  I would also have to take you to Finest at Sea, to sample their halibut fish cakes, though my fish of choice is still pickerel from my life in Manitoba.

(questions by Andrew Unger)