Instructor's poems long listed for Alberta literary award

Kelly Shepherd's "Shift" unique among 2017 Alberta Readers' Choice Awards nominations

After many summers spent working in construction, Kelly Shepherd realized he was a living contradiction. He grew up on an acreage, almost off the grid, where he spent much of his time outdoors playing and developing a love of nature. Later in life, however, he found himself replacing natural environments with built ones.

“How do you put those two together?” asks the NAIT English instructor and poet. “It’s too easy to say, ‘I love nature.’ You have to turn a blind eye to a bunch of other things to be able to say that.”

“It’s too easy to say, ‘I love nature.’"

That conundrum is one of the subjects of Shift, his fifth book of poetry. The 85-page collection was recently long listed for the 2017 Alberta Readers’ Choice Award. “It was a big honour, especially because it’s the only poetry book on the list. Poetry doesn’t usually make the list.”

Shift by Kelly Shepherd, a book of poetry published by Thistledown Press in 2016Published by Thistledown Press in 2016, the book focuses on a few interpretations of the word shift – including the changing of perspective often needed to attempt to truly understand the natural world.

Shepherd’s poem Storm Birds, for example, is based on an experience he had while walking in Old Strathcona, on Edmonton’s south side.

“There was this huge tree, and a raven [was] methodically picking apart a magpie nest to get at the young inside,” he says. “I thought, that’s horrible. But I couldn’t stop watching. They’re all the same family of birds, they’re all related.”

A subject often overlooked

Drawing from pre-NAIT work history, Shepherd also explores another aspect of a shift, looking at it as the unit of time that a person works. It’s a concept he feels goes too often overlooked.

“We should have stories about what people do for a living,” he says. “Most people spend most of their time and energy at work, and that’s been ignored by the arts.”

Shepherd refers to 12-hour shifts he spent at a weather station in the Northwest Territories in Mothballing Mould Bay, NWT, and in his poem Honing he writes about working in a cement plant.

“You’re wearing an apron that reaches your ankles, / boots that reach your knees, / gloves that begin at your shoulders, as well as / eye, ear, and head protection: / peripheral vision and bodily sensations are limited, / fingers and body and senses are numb.”

Coming to terms with contradiction

It wasn’t until recently that he realized his fascination with the idea of shifting was taking him into at times dark territory, particularly when dealing with nature.

“I did a reading and realized a lot of these are kind of gory or bloody. I felt like I had to say on the microphone, 'I’m not a terrible person, I don’t like blood.'”

“With all literature, the idea is to create some kind of a shift.”

But trying to come to terms with certain contradictions is rarely tidy work. Shepherd hopes his efforts in Shift might inspire changes in perspectives in his readers as well. “With all literature, the idea is to create some kind of a shift,” he says. “We shouldn’t just be reading and writing about fantasy and escapism. I want to connect with people that way.”

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