Kerosene Lights a Path

Jamella Hagen likes to play with fire – at least in her poetry.

“There is something very attractive but also troubling about fuels,” Hagen says of the concept behind the inflammable title of her new book, published by Nightwood Editions. “They have tremendous energy but also, of course, very high costs over the long run.”

The 31 year-old poet launches Kerosene, her first book of poetry, on October 14 at the Old Fire Hall in Whitehorse.

Growing up in the small town of Hazelton, B.C., Hagen remembers using kerosene lamps as a primary light source.

“My mother, as a single parent with two small children, was able to buy a small cabin beside the Bulkley River when I was very young. It had a terrible driveway and no electricity,” she recalls.

These experiences built a foundation for the writer’s future fuel and energy contemplation. Not that she thinks poetry needs to exclusively tackle weighty issues such as global warming, energy conservation, or the meaning of life in order to ignite a connection between reader and author.

“We don’t put the same pressure on song lyrics, for example, to understand every line the first time we hear them – we just listen and appreciate the pieces we connect with most strongly.”

Hagen bristles at the thought of poetry being considered an inaccessible art and prefers to view it as an act that welcomes participation instead of just consumption. She hopes her work might also inspire others to listen more closely or to tell their own stories.

“There was a time when I was trying to write about things that were far outside my own experience,” the Whitehorse resident admits.

“But then [I would write] a poem about goats that chewed the living room walls or fish guides in northern B.C.”

Hagen’s sense of place has constantly shifted beneath her. Leaving home for the big city of Vancouver at age 18 was her first leap of tectonic proportions.

“I remember having a huge city map that I would have to awkwardly unfold each time I got lost,” she says. “Which… was quite often.”

Since then, she’s often had a map in hand. In fact, she’s crossed the International Date Line a few times – she lived in both Brazil and South Korea. Now back within Canada’s wide embrace, she calls the “Land of the Midnight Sun” home.

Hagen considers herself fortunate to have both big city and small town experiences at her disposal. They serve as a place of trajectory for her work and personal life.

“Canadian literature has had a strong connection to landscape, which I definitely see in my work.”

She recalls one particular place that still pulls at her with nostalgia: the modest Bulkley River running through the north, a 257-kilometre stretch of current, parallel to Highway 16.

“I miss watching the river ice over, break up in spring, flood and recede,” she admits.

Even though she may miss where she’s been, Hagen says she has felt welcomed by the community in Whitehorse. And it doesn’t hurt that there’s a close proximity to another river artery and the Alaskan coastline is only a day trip away.

The Kerosene launch, a free event starting at 7 pm, will add another voice to the northern poetry chorus.

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