Yukoner's poems about extinct species win national book award

·3 min read
Joanna Lilley, a poet living in Whitehorse, has won the 2021 Canadian Authors Association Fred Kerner Book Award for her recent collection, 'Endlings.' (Turnstone Press, Michael Edwards - image credit)
Joanna Lilley, a poet living in Whitehorse, has won the 2021 Canadian Authors Association Fred Kerner Book Award for her recent collection, 'Endlings.' (Turnstone Press, Michael Edwards - image credit)

March 2020 wasn't the greatest time to publish and promote a new book.

"Well, I had it in my hands two days after the pandemic was declared," recalled Whitehorse writer Joanna Lilley, about her poetry collection, Endlings.

"So of course I had to cancel all my events and so on. So I have a lot of books sitting in my closet, in the dark."

That stock may start to move a bit faster now that Endlings has won a prestigious literary award. This past weekend, Lilley was named the winner of the Canadian Authors Association Fred Kerner Book Award.

The award is given annually to an association member who "has the best overall book published in the previous calendar year, including fiction, nonfiction, and poetry," according to a news release.

Endlings was the only poetry collection on the shortlist this year, and the only work by a Northern writer.

The award judges called it a "rich collection of lyrical and devastating poems," and a "remarkable yet sad tribute to all the species and sub-species we have lost."

Lilley, whose poetry has been published in literary journals and two other collections, says the idea for Endlings just came to her one day. She's been an animal-lover all her life, and started thinking about extinct species.

"The idea was just to sort of learn about them, and also just to kind of connect with them and sort of mourn them in a way," she said.

That meant spending a lot of time researching, being outdoors, and visiting natural history museums. She had some financial help from the Yukon government.

Photo by Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Photo by Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The research provided her with a lot of "dry facts," she recalled — and her goal was to go deeper. Some poems are informative, and some tell a story. Some take the point of view of the animal.

Another of Lilley's goals was to go beyond the real feelings of sadness and loss.

"I would read or watch or observe until I found some kind of emotional connection or an idea of a story ... And then the poem would kind of start from there," she recalled.

"I felt almost a privilege, being able to spend time with these species and learn about them. So, yeah, it was really difficult, but it felt like I was at least doing something about it, you know, creating something new, I suppose, out of that sadness and grief."

There are poems about the zebra-horse quagga, the Great Auk, the wooly mammoth and the Javan tiger. Many poems explore how humans have caused extinctions, while others imagine the planet before humans evolved.

"I wanted to kind of not just make it about humans," she said.

Lilley says she knows poetry is not for everyone, so she tried hard to make Endlings accessible, with good story-telling.

"I suppose it would just be really magical if someone could just read one poem and feel that maybe they'd made a connection with that animal in some way," she said.

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