Writing with/against/as Extraction in So-Called Canada: Poets on Poetics — Through Extraction

like a tonne per operated hour operating / the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing


Thank you for this invitation. I begin by reading the piece that opens my first book, Triage, published in 2011. I don’t return to this book often save for the sequence called “Service,” parts of which seem like prayer to me, and help me remember people and experiences from that time. Triage warranted a second printing recently, so I’ve had occasion to return to the work a decade after its first printing. It seemed a good place to start addressing the question of extraction.


The opening poem draws in part from notes I wrote furiously after visiting a copper and molybdenum mine. (This was not my first time in a mine, but I had not experienced anything of this scale before.) I wrote (I thought) practically, recalling signage, transcribing pamphlets, sifting through, and looking up vocabulary, recollecting snippets of dialogue.


Standing on the edge and staring into the maw of one of the largest open-pit copper mines on this continent, a mine noted for having the largest copper reserves in the United States, and for being the site of the world’s first commercial scale concentrate leach facility, I learned about “heap leaching.”


I learn about its origins in the sixteenth century, when it was developed to use chemical processes more efficient and affordable than conventional processing methods such as flotation, agitation, and vat leaching. Standing with my friend—a worker there, who lived in the company town nearby—looking out over the face onto epic benches that descended from the ground surface into a pit so large as to fit the entire company town. The entire small town, and its limestone quarries I grew up on a farm near, could fit in this pit. I am astonished to realize what human beings can do, and what we choose to do with that capacity. I had never seen so deeply into the ground.


As I stood with my friend and their expectant wife, my eyes followed the pipes. They heaved an unexpected colour of sludge into what was once a valley. I could not come to terms with the former valley that now was a flat plane of tailings. Not a tailings pond, a tailings valley. I was taken aback thinking about what people were able to engineer, manufacture, and operate to extract resources to support dominant ways of consuming and living.


These kinds of thoughts have struck me at points throughout my life. Recognizing the height of industry, the dominance of machinery and its terrifying capacity to suck, reap, leach, and extract, I think of the first time I drove into the south end of Chicago one very hot summer. I remember once seeing a muster of tall ships anchor at Goderich. I recall a tugboat turning around a tanker in an inlet. As a small child, I experienced the horror of a combine, drill rig, and wood splitter. During that visit to that copper mine, not far from where the Sonoran and Mojave Deserts meet, poetry was necessary for me to grasp at the meaning of the place and my efficacy. I processed my notes about volume and extraction, considering how technology and social engineering were scaled in Peru, the Democratic Republic of Congo, China, and Chile.


I worked on the poem I began with one evening break, back in the basement of the Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre where I worked in the problematic “social service” industry. Upstairs was an intensive hub of evening programs: “Grief and Loss,” “Power of Women,” and community sharing a hot meal at suppertime, with participants from the prairies, from the south, and from “strategic gateways” like Kitimat and Fort St. John. At the time, the heart of the city was bracing for the impact of an Olympics, which turned out to be brutal.


Situated within histories of racialized and gendered labour, like Triage (2011), a new book is an opportunity to study and to regenerate memory, relations, care, and even soil, for example, in my recent work. In From the Poplars (2014), an undercurrent to the study was my effort to situate on land and to learn especially from land dominated by industry since colonial invasion. It considers archives of industry, logging, deforestation, and shipbuilding in the name of coal or war. From the Poplars fixes on the genocidal foundation of government in this province. It tries to witness the (literal) decimation of Indigenous people who habited the area where I temporarily reside, as well as those who were shipped here, who were tried and hung here, as plunder dispersed up the watershed in the 1800s.


I situate myself within a history of racialized labour in Wayside Sang (2017), as I acknowledge patrilineage and deepen my contemplation of African ancestry as it traversed the Great Lakes. Common cargoes on the Great Lakes include taconite, limestone, grain, salt, coal, cement, gypsum, sand, slag, and potash. Much of the cargo supplies the steel mills of the auto industry, centred around the Lakes because of the ease of transport. It was more accessible for me to study and speak through analogies of roadways and concordant industry than it was to speak to the lack of family and archive in the context of nation-states occupying the americas.


In the context of Canadian literature, I am wary of reductive thought that may be brought with queries of identity. Sharing experiences of trauma, survival, and the projection of being from elsewhere could drive the consumption of my work. I struggle with notions of “literary citizenship” that contrast with other community-based practices of mutual aid, education, and sharing material in modes that are lateral, reparatory, conciliatory, and humble. Rich in writing community undetermined by an ownership class and institutions, as I participate in Canadian literature, it is helpful to study and dismantle extractive discourse while resisting the reproduction of its tendencies. Once again, I appreciate this invitation.


Works Cited

Nicholson, Cecily. Triage. Talonbooks, 2011.
—. From the Poplars. Talonbooks, 2014.
—. Wayside Sang. Talonbooks, 2017.


Cecily Nicholson is the author of four books and past recipient of the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize, and the Governor General’s Literary Award for poetry. She has been the Ellen and Warren Tallman Writer-in-Residence at Simon Fraser University, and was Writer-in-Residence at the University of Windsor. She teaches at Emily Carr University of Art and Design and collaborates with community impacted by carcerality and food insecurity.

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