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  • Tasnuva Hayden

An Interview with Stuart Ian McKay: Fiction Editor Tasnuva Hayden

Updated: Apr 11

Read poet Stuart Ian Mckay's full conversation with Tasnuva Hayden about

artistic inspiration, spirituality, and how the act of writing and reading

poetry makes us better human beings.

Find a copy of Stuart's latest poetry collection, the commune of our waking (AOS

Publishing, 2023) at your local bookstore or online at AOS Publishing.

Please note, this interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Tasnuva Hayden: Hi Stuart, it’s so lovely to be able to conduct this interview with you. Can you please start by introducing yourself?

Stuart Ian McKay: Hi, Tasnuva. Thank you for interviewing me. It's a pleasure to be here. I'm Stuart Ian McKay, a Calgary/Edmonton based poet. I've been writing poetry since I was eight years old. My fourth book of poetry, the commune of our waking, has just been published by AOS Publishing of Montreal. I write poetry full-time. As well, I am the regional representative for the Alberta/Northwest Territories Region of the League of Canadian Poets. I'm a full member of the League, as well as a member of the Writers Guild of Alberta. My friend and fellow Calgary poet/noise and sound artist Matt Smith and I are the poetry creation and performance team the thornlake endeavour.

Tasnuva Hayden: Before we delve deeper into the poetry, let’s talk a little bit about your time with filling Station Magazine. Can you tell us about your role with the magazine and how volunteering has impacted your creative life?

Stuart Ian McKay: So, I've been on the poetry editorial collective of filling Station since 2017. It's a fun position to have, and I do my best to help out. Volunteering is a big part of my writerly life, and I desire to give the best of what I can for the betterment of Calgary's literary community. I'm exploring other ways to contribute to the literary community in Alberta, and Canada, as well. I feel called to serve my fellow writers.

Tasnuva Hayden: As filling Station is known as “Canada’s experimental literary magazine”, would you consider your latest book to be experimental? If yes, can you elaborate on the elements that you believe makes it experimental? 

Stuart Ian McKay: the commune of our waking is experimental—at least, it is for me. I am obsessed with what poetry can do, and why it does certain things. My aesthetic is founded upon the idea that poetry is a form of memory. Poetry expresses time, and we use it to preserve and celebrate where we are, who we are, and why we are "there "(wherever "there "is). Our language, how we shape it on the page, and how we use it orally, affects not just us, but those who come after us, and gives us tools to interpret the past. I am always asking myself “how might I wonder about certain things, and carry that wonderment out to my readers?” The long poem satisfies me greatly, because it is a big space to ask big questions in a big manner.

Tasnuva Hayden: And what are some of the big questions, according to you?

Stuart Ian McKay: I’m completely obsessed with the question of how we can best live as human beings. How do we navigate through life in a dignified and beneficial manner to the benefit of those around us?

Tasnuva Hayden: Very pertinent and universal questions, indeed. Can you speak a little on what inspired you to write your latest poetry collection, the commune of our waking? 

Stuart Ian McKay:. the commune of our waking was a bit of a surprise to me, and its roots, curiously, go back to filling Station. We had put on an event at SAIT (Southern Alberta Institute of Technology) in December 2017. I was getting into a friend's car afterwards, and the first lines of the title poem in the book came to me unexpectedly. “What could it mean to have a woman say ‘wife’ in an evocative manner, and what might that act of saying have to do with the skills someone learned in Czarist Russia?” I thought, and then I thought again. Soon, I wrote the first poem, was pleased with it, went on to add another. Others followed, all asking certain questions, hoping my readers would share in the process of discovery, too. All the poems in my book are in the order I wrote them.

Tasnuva Hayden: As I understand it, the commune of our waking is your fourth book of poetry. Can you tell us a little about your earlier collections, and how this most recent collection differs from your earlier themes and forms? Do you feel as though you’ve evolved as a poet? If so, in what aspects?

Stuart Ian McKay:. My first two books, Stele of Several Ladies-a long poem and a cognate of prayer, are long poems. even the idea of maya is maya, my third book, is a series of long poems and a short poem. I tend to deliberate my ideas and aesthetic, my language, through the long poem. Everything I write has a lesson for me, because everything I write illustrates what I'm concerned about, even if I'm not conscious of it, and serves as a guide for what I could do with those concerns. Writing is an act of self discovery. So, I'm growing. I'm highly disciplined in my practice, but wild in my experimenting with form, language, and subject matter. I'm having a wonderful time!

Tasnuva Hayden: After having the pleasure of reading the commune of our waking, I can say that I found it quite cerebral at times, though these moments were tied down by concrete images that just felt so ordinary and natural. I enjoyed this juxtaposition quite a bit. I also enjoyed the de-contextualized nature of the content. Who are poets that inspire your aesthetics? What about their work inspires you?

Stuart Ian McKay: Thanks for your kind thoughts and these great questions! The Classical Chinese poets, particularly Du Fu, have always meant much to me, and have influenced not simply how I approach my art, but how I live as a human being. Through them, I began to see how the most ordinary of moments and experiences are imbued with awe and wonderment. Robert Kroetsch, Ferlinghetti, Whitman, the modern Greek poets, especially Cavafy, Milton, Tagore, Shakespeare, Hopkins, Dylan Thomas, and many Canadian poets all have influenced me. The Bible is always with me. I'm always reading someone new.

Tasnuva Hayden: I particularly enjoyed the prose-like and conversational elements of your collection. Can you elaborate on the different speakers in this text? For example, there is a strong feminine presence that the poet/narrator keeps referencing—who seems almost like a muse of sorts?

Stuart Ian McKay: Of course, I dedicate the commune of our waking to my wife, Sharla. She is in the book, in many places, in ways even I don't recognise. The idea of the double, or the twin, is a common feature in much of my work. The back and forth between equal opposites, whether it is with contrasting images or words, or sounds, or spaces on the page, and that life-giving exchange between a man and a woman, fascinates me. I want my poetry to exist as a place of tremendous, perhaps terrifying, vulnerability (for myself with myself, as a poet encountering the awesome task of creating; for my readers, of encountering what they may need to face within themselves because of exposure to my work). I cannot imagine a better model for this understanding of vulnerability than that of a man and woman meeting, perhaps, for the first time.

Tasnuva Hayden: You mention in the book blurb that poetry can make us better human beings. Can you explain what you mean by that? How has poetry made you a better person? 

Stuart Ian McKay: I need to write poetry. I must be a poet. I have no choice. Poetry has never been for me a place of mere self expression; instead, it is a means of liberation, of joy, of obedience. In the act of writing, I know I am close to knowing God. God called me to this life when I was a child, and it is a pleasure to obey His calling upon me. Everything I write is an expression of faith. My writing life, too, is an expression of faith. Both are a vocation, and, by obedience, I pray my spirit stays open to the potent truth and beauty of every single moment offered to me.

Tasnuva Hayden: The poems in your book follow quite a few different forms and sometimes even formal constraints. As far as current trends go, a lot of poetry has been focused on the lyrical/personal vs. experimentation/form. How do you think your work fits with the current trends in poetry? Can you talk a little about the formal aspects of your work?

Stuart Ian McKay: In my life, and in my work, I have always sought to do my own thing; following trends of any kind has never been my priority. My aesthetic approach to how and why I write has been informed by a long and sustained interest not just in poetry, but in other art forms, especially music and visual art. Glenn Gould is one of my guides along the way, and from his work, I gain insight into how I can build contrapuntalism (i.e., the interpretation of different perspectives simultaneously, and seeing how the text interacts with itself, as well as other historical or biographical contexts) into my poetry. I live inside Arvo Part's music. Godfrey Regio's Qatsi trilogy of films has clarified for me how to construct my long poems, particularly how I might pace them out for affect, and taught me how to be reflective in my calling. I prefer to think of my work as a place where people may encounter their own humanity, where they may find the freedom to explore the questions they face. I, a fragile human being, reach out to other fragile human beings; they, I hope, reach back, perhaps not to me alone, but, I pray, to themselves and to those nearby. I pray I create a good stage for them.

Tasnuva Hayden: To me, the commune of our waking felt like a meditated love letter to the poet/poetry itself, which ultimately feels like a letter to the ordinary self who has to navigate the beauty and pain of life, who has to find a way to sift out the meaning from the chaos. Why do you feel that poetry is the best form for exploring such a topic? What do you think your life would look like without poetry? 

Stuart Ian McKay: Poetry operates by ambiguity. An atmosphere of continual questioning, of remaining unsatisfied with pat answers to complexity, makes poetry worth occupying. I am in a state of perpetual awe of how a good poem, one I have read, say, since I was 17, can stay with me over the decades, and speak to me in new and astonishing ways. Just when I think I've got it all figured out, I see a new light in a line, a word, an image I have read hundreds of times before. Poetry structures my days, gives them rhythm, beauty, a place to rest, to breathe, to love. Poetry is my country, and I would die in exile away from it.

Tasnuva Hayden: Poetry, as I understand it, is essential for understanding the human—our emotions, our stories, our thoughts. What do you think poetry might look like in an increasingly technological world? Do you think machines can write poetry? What do you think that will look like?

Stuart Ian McKay: No machine could ever write poetry. Poetry is in the soul. I love what Ferlinghetti writes in his long poem, Poetry As Insurgent Art: “Poetry is the shortest distance between two humans”. When I attend a poetry reading, and see a poet read from his or her phone, I flinch. When I talk with other poets who write only on their computer, I feel disappointment. Poetry is a human activity, an organic process. To sequester this vital action of our soul, mind, and body in the host of the computer is to deny its long, warm, fleshy heritage.

Tasnuva Hayden: As a fellow writer and poet, I am always interested in hearing about other people’s writing processes. Can you tell us about how you go about crafting a poem? How is a poem born for you? Do you utilize any formal methods for generating content?

Stuart Ian McKay: Because of my visual and learning disability, I write my poems longhand, on paper. Someone types them out for me later on. I write one page at a time, editing, re-editing, re-editing again until the thing is ready. A typical page of poetry can go through 80 to 100 edits. As I mentioned earlier, I use other art forms to help me structure my work. Nature also has a powerful place in my artistic process. I love writing in my garden or in any natural setting. I need to go on a writing retreat at least once a year. Last year, I was the Writer in Residence at the Penny Lou Cottage on Bowen Island. The Leighton Studios at the Banff Centre call to me all the time. I need sustained periods of solitude and frequent baths of silence to go into that place within me, where my creative centre is.

Tasnuva Hayden: I’m also someone who loves to hear about writing routines. What does a typical day look like for you as a poet?

Stuart Ian McKay: It took me decades to establish a good writing practice. I must start early. I'm always up at 7. I pray, read my Bible, have my coffee. Sharla and I visit, pray together, then I get in the shower. My dogs need a walk after that. From 9 to 11 is the foundational time, where I set down the big work of the day. Once the foundation is in place, I can write well for the rest of the day. I read, watch a film or documentary, look at some art, as needed. Also, I usually have music playing whilst writing. Mostly, I listen to classical music, but I'm always exploring new influences. My writing music must be instrumental, though if it does have lyrics, they must be in a language I do not know. Words in the background can interfere with my own voice. I often rest in periods of committed silence, as a means of calming myself. Solitude is my preferred state, and I hate being interrupted, especially when I am deep into my work. I write slowly, deliberately. My day ends with writing in my journal. I have kept a daily journal since September 1988.

Tasnuva Hayden: Lastly, can you tell us about your current work-in-progress? What themes and elements are you excited about exploring in your latest body of work?

Stuart Ian McKay: I'm at the beginning stages of bohemia, with a twist of lemon, please, my long poem/memoir. In this book, I explore how my lived experiences as a Christian, a poet, and a person with a disability have met, intermingled, and influenced one another. What has come out of this particular meeting? What could that meeting reveal about the nature of creativity, of faith, of being disabled? Think of it this way: I am a poet because I am a Christian; I am a better poet and Christian because of my disability. My faith and my poetic calling have made my life as a disabled person meaningful. I have a great deal of research to do for this book, but the first few sections are ready to go. Also, I'm working on a new long poem, tender yet the euphrates, about the relationship between language and the environment. It's an exciting project, and I am experimenting with, learning about, some new ways to express complex ideas. There are several other books lingering in my head that I hope to get to soon. One is a series of long poems about geology, the other is a series of long poems concerned with the physical experience of being human.

Stuart Ian McKay is a Calgary/Edmonton based poet. His poetry and nonfiction have been published in many Canadian journals and anthologies. Stele of Several Ladies-a long poem and a cognate of prayer, his first two books of poetry, were published in 2005 and 2013 by

Passwords Enterprises. even the idea of maya is maya, a poetry chapbook, was published by Frog Hollow Press in Victoria as part of its Dis/Ability Series in 2019. AOS Publishing in Montreal published his new book of poetry the commune of our waking in 2023. Stuart is the editor of the poetry chapbook anthology the way out is the way in, published by the League of Canadian Poets in 2022. He and fellow Calgary poet/noise and sound artist Matt Smith comprise the poetry creation and performance team “the thornlake endeavour”. Stuart serves as a member of the filling Station poetry collective. He is the Alberta/Northwest Territories Representative for the League of Canadian Poets, and also serves on the League’s board of directors. In January 2022, he was the writer in residence at the Wallace Stegner House in Eastend, Saskatchewan. In September 2023, Stuart was the Writer in Residence at the Penny Lou Cottage at the Rivendell Retreat Centre on Bowen Island, British Columbia.

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