“The Space to Put It Down”: An Interview with Nanci Lee

by Annick MacAskill

Annick MacAskill’s poetry has appeared in journals across Canada and abroad, and in the Best Canadian Poetry anthology series. She is the author of No Meeting Without Body (Gaspereau Press, 2018), nominated for the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award and shortlisted for the J.M. Abraham Award, and Murmurations (Gaspereau Press, 2020). Her third book will be published by Gaspereau Press in the spring of 2022. Currently serving as Poet-in-Residence with Ottawa’s Arc Poetry Magazine, she is also a member of Room’s editorial collective. A settler of French and Scottish ancestry, she lives in Kjipuktuk (Halifax) on the traditional and unceded territory of the Mi’kmaq.

I met Nanci Lee in March 2018 through our mutual friend and fellow poet Samantha Sternberg. It was a damp Friday night in Halifax, and the three of us got together at Saint Mary’s University to hear Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, a bilingual Irish poet who had flown across the Atlantic to deliver the 2018 Cyril Byrne Lecture. Since then, I have attended many poetry readings with Nanci, including a few where I’ve had the chance to hear her read from her own writing. At once naturally poised and quick to laughter, Nanci is an engaging, careful reader, whose delivery allows the audience to hear her attention to sound and the space she allows herself on the page.  

Nanci will publish her full-length debut, Hsin, with Brick Books in April 2022. In what follows, Nanci speaks with me about this book, the ancient Chinese philosophy and poet behind the title, poetic form, community, and ceremony. 


Annick MacAskill: The first few pages of your debut full-length poetry collection Hsin trace an adoption narrative. In this opening sequence, there’s a tension that emerges in the way the adoption is cast; the voice seems to remain the same, but the perspective shifts, reconsidering the adoption as loss, as trauma, and as blessing. This sequence is also composed in poetic fragments, and I’m wondering, is there something about this form that allowed for this complexity?

Nanci Lee: Yes, I love the implied narrative of the fragment. The contingencies. The space. 

Being fostered and adopted at a very young age, there is always more that you don’t know than you do. And I like playing with different perspectives, truths.

I had learned hard aspects of my origins including that I was born of rape. So, part of my play and healing practice was holding many possibilities of what happened around my birth, my adoption, and the relationship of my birth parents. The intention was that, instead of my story of adoption, it was stories of play and birth and loss and lineage—slant enough to mine, to open rather than corner memoir and identity. 

AM: The complexity suggested by this opening section spills through the rest of the collection, which dwells in the space of questioning. Your book’s attention to questioning is immediately implied by the title you’ve chosen, Hsin, an ancient Chinese philosophy. I wonder if you can tell me more about hsin, and how this concept informed your work? 

NL: I first discovered the concept through Su Hui, fourth century palindromist, the first some say. I became a bit obsessed with her and the palindrome she wrote for her husband when he took up with a concubine. It’s a complex piece of art, protest, and poetry that can be read in many directions forming over 2,000 poems. Such an accomplished piece. Hsin sits in the centre. 

When I explored “hsin,” I realized that it was a philosophy, originally Confucian but touched by Taoism and Buddhism, too. It guides an ethic, not in a narrow, moral sense, but related to self-actualization, will, the practices that allow us to nourish, or not lose ourselves. I love how the meaning has been contested over time—oneness, nothingness, heart-mind. Some [definitions] include body. Some psychology. I love that any practice of this sort isn’t easily nailed. It leaves us with more questions, less sure of who we are but more grounded in that uncertainty.

AM: I love this interaction of yours with Su Hui—and I hadn’t realized her poetry originated after her husband started a relationship with another woman. It opens up another dimension to her work. 

The form of the palindrome, then, is echoed by your own work’s expansiveness and willingness to question and reconsider. I’m wondering if any other poetic forms or traditions provide a similar model for you, in this book or in other projects? 

NL: Yes, I think of her as a Chinese Scheherazade, how she challenged an entrenched patriarchal system with cunning and enchantment. Brilliant and almost erased by history. 

Palindrome is the main form I played with in this book. I had also included sonnets written for the Chinese dynasties at one point. And a ballad fairy tale version of my birth parents’ union, loosely based on a story I told myself when I was young. The ballad didn’t work and the sonnets didn’t seem comfortable in the book.  

I’m working on a verse novel that plays again with fragments. Different voices take different forms expanding both the jazz and the psychoanalysis I had fun playing with in this book.  

AM: Also on the topic of expansiveness/suggestiveness, I wonder if you could comment on your approach to the use of white space in your book? In the first and third sections of your book, you make liberal use of blank space. 

Similarly, space here is more than a long pause or giving someone a place to land for a while between words. There are openings we can’t predict when we foreground silence. 

NL: I think of music. Silence has as many interesting layers as words. Silent retreat is a practice that’s become important to me. It’s more than meditating or not talking. It’s its own ecosystem, set of energies. Similarly, space here is more than a long pause or giving someone a place to land for a while between words. There are openings we can’t predict when we foreground silence. 

A long fractured poem? A string of fragments? Fascinated with endings and beginnings. Being left out or overstating ourselves. If I am, as Heidegger says, always already embedded, where do I end? And why the need to pin? Hsin. 

Adam Philips, British psychoanalyst, really excited me with his idea of the contingent self. That psychoanalysis should help us do two things: know ourselves less and recover appetite. Because the two are linked.

AM: On a similar note, I am curious to know how you approach line breaks, as the lineation varies a fair bit throughout your work. I asked you about this recently at a reading (the online launch of John Wall Barger’s Resurrection Fail), but I wonder if you’d speak about the topic a bit here, too? 

There are openings we can’t predict when we foreground silence. 

NL: That was a fun launch and conversation. 

I think of line breaks as another place to play with space and silence, different registers. I’m interested in line breaks for what they propel and what they leave behind. 

Because of the space and fragments, lines, I found the copyediting part of this process quite fascinating. I have long lines in sections and coming into book form with smaller margins made me look hard at choices and intention. Where to suspend. Speed up. Fall apart. 

Philips asks a psychoanalytical question I love: how bearable is it? I think there’s an interesting edge, beyond which things don’t hold. Again, I’m interested in integrity, not in the moral sense, but in playing with what you can push without losing what it is. 

AM: This notion of integrity is intriguing. When you talk about the sonnets or ballad you’d composed not fitting or working, does that imply, for example, a concern for a kind of formal integrity of those pieces? Was there anything about these forms that didn’t work for you anymore? And did anything from those poems remain in your collection, perhaps in a different form? 

NL: Not really concerned with formal integrity, no. I was playing with them and just don’t think they worked, or I was able to hone the craft enough to colour outside the formal lines. Parts of them did, yes, on their own. What does it mean for a thing to hold to itself and/or fit in? Fascinated and have some angst around these questions, aesthetically and existentially. One publisher liked my work but told me the book lacked coherence, which didn’t surprise me. I don’t get wholeness. When I’m struggling, things feel really fragmented, including my sense of self. But, in my poetry, there’s a freedom, I don’t know that that’s okay. The fractures, the underlying frustration or yearning there. 

AM: As some of your answers have already suggested, this book is a long time coming for you. Some of the poems included were first published in literary journals fifteen years ago. Parts of this book were also previously published as two chapbooks, Preparation (FreeFall, 2016), shortlisted for the bpNichol Chapbook Award, and another chapbook, also titled Hsin (Thee Hellbox Press, 2017). What has the journey to publication been like? 

NL: I’m slow to process and write, slower to share. The manuscript was rejected and shortlisted so many times in earlier forms. In a way, I think it was helpful to have the time to find a way through and learn to trust my own voice. I’m also grateful for people who really encouraged me like River and, well, you. It’s hard without some sign from the universe that what you’re doing matters. 

AM: You’ve just mentioned River Halen Guri, who is part of the editorial board at Brick Books, your publisher. How did you get to know River? And how was it working with John Barton, also of Brick Books, who was the editor for Hsin

NL: River was one of the judges for the bpNichol Chapbook Award. I met them personally through a mutual friend here in Halifax. I was also shortlisted earlier by Brick and didn’t get published but they encouraged me not to give up on the book. It takes that extra nudge and deliberate coaching, for some of us. Made all the difference to me. I would very likely have stopped trying.

I enjoyed working with John. I think we gravitate naturally to different things so that’s always helpful in an editor. I loved that he got the koan-like quality in my work, the heart of it. In practice, he read very closely, pulling out the most astute observations in grammar, syntax, words. I also appreciated the generosity. Felt less like a cold blue eye and more like an invitation to look differently at the poems.

AM: And, if I’ve encouraged you, it’s only because I have so much respect for your poetry. You are a wonderful reader of your own work, too, and it was at readings that I was able to encounter your writing for the first time. Now that I’m talking about this, I want to ask—how do you feel about readings? Are they an important part of your writing practice? 

NL: Appreciate those kind words. I read my poems aloud to myself—for the sound. Public readings and speaking don’t come very easily to me. But the feeling of exposure is more than made up for by being with a bunch of friends and peers talking about commas and line breaks. I enjoy the community of it and hearing what resonates with people. Sometimes it is quite surprising. One of the poems people liked most in my last reading was not in my book. I asked my editor and they decided to include it.

AM: Coming back to the idea of the gift (as suggested in your treatment of your own birth and adoption story in the first section), I noticed in the book’s “Notes and Acknowledgements” that many of these poems are intended “for” someone, for different people in your life. What leads you to write poems for other people? 

NL: It’s being in it together. Poetry is often how I ground and metabolize, fantasize. Bringing in people I care about feels like the community part of it, almost being in dialogue with them or sharing something.

AM: Oh, I just love that. I also find there’s something almost ceremonial about the act of writing for someone else, in the way the poem moves in the world (in different directions, but also in different ways) when transformed into a gift. Does that have any resonance for you? And do you have any writing rituals? Or a dedicated writing space? 

NL: Yes, your capture of the ceremony involved resonates. Like the love and care making a mixed tape used to hold.

Before I took a full-time position, I worked about half-time. Tried to do my own writing first thing in the morning before some of the task brain took hold. This last while has been brutal—reckonings around race, climate, health; it’s been a hard period. I’ve just been trying to stay buoyant. But all of this is writing, really. It’s just a matter of when you have the space to put it down.

AM: That’s a beautiful way of putting it. And I find some hope in it, too, though often these days hope feels almost trivializing. 

But there’s certainly some solace in the gifts we can make for each other. And I like this comparison of the mixtape. On the topic of music, I often ask other poets if they feel like they’re more guided by image or sound. Do you feel like one pulls you more than the other?

NL: I think if I had to pick a crush it would be sound. It carries its own atmosphere and is somehow more intimate. Back to music.


Nanci Lee (she/her) is a Chinese-Syrian poet and facilitator. When not writing or playing outdoors, Nanci works for Tatamagouche Centre, a spiritual and justice-oriented learning and retreat centre. Nanci’s work has appeared in Contemporary Verse 2, The Malahat Review, Matrix Magazine, The Antigonish Review, The Literary Review of Canada, The Fiddlehead, Rattle Magazine, This Magazine, and various anthologies. Hsin is her first trade-length book (Brick Books, April 2022). Chapbooks Preparation (Free Fall, 2016) (short-listed for the bpNichol Chapbook Award) and Hsin (Thee Hellbox Press, 2016) are contained in this book. A racialized settler, Nanci is based in Mi’kmaki (Nova Scotia), unceded, unsurrendered Mi’kmaw territory.


Annick MacAskill’s poetry has appeared in journals across Canada and abroad, and in the Best Canadian Poetry anthology series. She is the author of No Meeting Without Body (Gaspereau Press, 2018), nominated for the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award and shortlisted for the J.M. Abraham Award, and Murmurations (Gaspereau Press, 2020). Her third book will be published by Gaspereau Press in the spring of 2022. Currently serving as Poet-in-Residence with Ottawa’s Arc Poetry Magazine, she is also a member of Room’s editorial collective. A settler of French and Scottish ancestry, she lives in Kjipuktuk (Halifax) on the traditional and unceded territory of the Mi’kmaq.

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