Spotlight series #66 : Stephen Collis

rob mclennan
3 min readOct 4, 2021

Curated by Canadian writer, editor and publisher rob mclennan, the “spotlight” series appears the first Monday of every month.


Poetry involves so much waiting. We all know this: waiting for that door somewhere to open and the poem to walk out — not knowing where the door is or how to find it or when it will open but knowing it will appear somewhere swinging out unexpectedly. You have to be attentive at all times but you can (again, we all know this) prime the pump — usually this is called “reading.” I find poetry along two tracks — the one I’ve just described (little doors swinging open upon my waiting), and the one you can call “reading” or “research.”

Either way, what I’ve come to see I’m after is perhaps what I would call the Unwritten. I try to write the unwritten — the thing that is writing by way of its not being written (because — impossible, because — not ready yet and maybe never ready, because — what I don’t know is always more interesting than what I do know but maybe I never really do know anything after all). I’ve been led here by the pursuit of a “project,” over decades, I’ve at times called “The Barricades Project,” which is maybe a long poem that refuses to be a long poem, which is maybe a sort of history in verse of the urge — the felt and somatic and affective pulse — of radical social change and revolutionary passion, past and present. The horizon was and is utopian. But utopia remains utopia — remains the lure of an elsewhere and otherwise — by being unwritten. Now: keep trying to write that unwriting. Demand the impossible. Even amidst this endless catastrophe.

The thing is, those two tracks — the one the ephemeral swinging open of the occasionally encountered door to an elsewhere I call poetry, the other the long slow “project” — so often converge. The door swings open, and what you see is some part of the landscape of the “project,” the fields sweeping along the margins of utopia, whispers from the unwritten, in a language you can almost, but not quite, understand. Right now, writing somewhere between books, I’m an attendant at the door, hoping something vast might still reveal itself — before secreting itself once again. I don’t know what it’s this way — it just is, the little I’ve learned to do.



Just when I begin
to understand some
basic premise and
purpose to the
distribution of let’s
call it the sensible,
my vision begins
to fail and that
other voice humming
from the fabric of
let’s call it being
begins to pick up
the bodily tempo and
command the song


Sky is emotional
light and the sea
emotional an old
photograph or even
utopia emotional
I am linked to things
I barely know
a grandfather I may
not have met in the
four months we both lived
the planet turning quickly
from winter to spring
that weight inside
remnant of another planet
this one swallowed so long ago
not even the moon remembers
its origin story

This Distance

for Hubert Moore

How to measure the distance
not of the walk
but between walks?
I strike out to calculate
no mythic bull to meet
on mountaintop
no company of pilgrims
to story the way
just the inner chatter of mind
a black cap chickadee
a flicker or if I’m lucky
a goldfinch or a hummingbird
rufous and ready to rumble
its colour displayed only
when met head-on
these migrant companions
holding swift court
until my wider fraternity returns
this distance the homesickness
the poet feels between poems

Stephen Collis is the author of a dozen books of poetry and prose, including The Commons (2008), the BC Book Prize winning On the Material (2010), Once in Blockadia (2016), Almost Islands: Phyllis Webb and the Pursuit of the Unwritten (2018), and A History of the Theories of Rain (2021) — all published by Talonbooks. In 2015 he was awarded the Nora and Ted Sterling Prize in Support of Controversy, and in 2019 he was the recipient of the Latner Writers’ Trust of Canada Poetry Prize. He lives near Vancouver, on unceded Coast Salish Territory, and teaches poetry and poetics at Simon Fraser University.