Nelson poet Jane Byers has always been fascinated by the theme of resilience. It’s a topic she continually returns to in her work, whether she plans to or not.
“I had a very traumatic birth,” Byers told the Star. “I was born almost two months premature and the doctors told my parents not to expect much from their child, because I’d gone so long without oxygen. They thought I would be institutionalized.”
But somehow she survived that experience, and then a series of other traumatic events. And now that she’s reached adulthood and has a family and a successful career as a poet, she’s stopping to question how exactly it all happened.
“You can’t compare people’s pain, but I always wonder why some of us bounce back after adverse things come our way, and others don’t. Why am I all right? Why am I functional? I think that strength comes not so much from hardening, but from being more flexible, pliable, able to adapt.”
This is the theme she explored in her first book, Steeling Effects, and now it informs much of the work in her current manuscript, tentatively titled Acquired Community. On April 21 Byers will be reading from both books at the Nelson Public Library as part of National Poetry Month.
Byers said her second manuscript has moved away from her own personal experiences and explores historical figures and events.
“It’s a relief to me that these poems are not personal,” she said. “What compelled me was there’s this whole history that hasn’t been written about. I certainly didn’t learn it in school. I’m going through seminal moments in gay history and trying to capture each one in a poem.”
And though the project is significantly different than her earlier work, it still shares an overarching theme of resilience.
“That’s what came to me about two-thirds of the way through writing this book, is I’ve gone from writing about individual resilience to a community’s resilience,” she said.
Byers said when she was younger she was too self-absorbed to realize the significance of the AIDS epidemic going around her.
“My experience at that point is I was realizing I was a lesbian and all that goes with that, and it was fairly self-consuming. What will people think? Will I be tossed out of my family? I was writing some personal poems about that time, and this project grew from there.”
It now features such historical figures as outspoken homosexuality opponent Anita Bryant at one end of the spectrum, and gay academic Michael Lynch (who died of AIDS in 1992) on the other.
“He had an enormous influence. He started the AIDS community in Toronto and we started three or four of the main organizations doing that sort of work. It’s amazing how people did amazing things in such super short lives, because many were dying in their early 30s.”
Another major theme for Byers is the work place.
In Effects she included a number of poems related to her experiences at work. While in Toronto she worked as an ergonomist, evaluating safety procedures and analyzing the physical and cognitive demands of different careers.
She said interacting with workers was an illuminating experience.
“I’ve crossed paths with a lot of people who are excited to tell their story about work. Most people take real pride in what they do. I like to get to the real essence of what they’re doing and the meaning they take from their work.”
This is a theme she’s discussed with Winlaw poet Tom Wayman, who also focuses on the workplace in his poetry. She agrees with him that it’s a topic that’s been overlooked traditionally.
“It’s probably a class issue, why work is not well talked about in poetry. We’re starting to see it a little more. Tom’s been a big champion of that, and he’s encouraged me to put my work out there for that reason.”
But she believes we still have a long way to go.
“We don’t have a Studs Terkel of poetry here in Canada yet,” she said, referring to the late Pulitzer Prize winning American poet best known for his oral histories of regular citizens. She said engaging with his work inspired her.
“It gave me an opening to realize it’s worthy of writing about,” she said.
The library reading will also feature Ontario poet Ellen Jaffe, who will share work from her new book Skinny Dipping with the Muse. She and Byers will read for half an hour, while poetry slam regular Damion John will kick off the evening with a spoken word performance piece.
The reading begins at 7 p.m.