Writer and professor Doug Sikkema on learning new skills and gaining courage

Poetry is a way to slow down and pay attention. For a while, it was the way I read the Psalms. I would go out on a lunch break and transpose a psalm into my own verse, sometimes just attending closely to wordplay, rhythm, recurring images, and patterns. When I get to my backyard (especially out in the bush) or in a church service, I like to process the images and ideas I have by constraining them into lines. And once I get started, more often than not, I’m surprised by the connections and ideas, the words and symbols, that start to appear on the page. 

John Terpstra, a local poet, read some of my early poems and said, “These sound like someone trying to write a poem.” It was good advice (even if it stung a bit). His point, I think, was that the best poetry feels natural, and it does because the work is hidden. Like Michelangelo erasing the drawings and sketches, a great poet’s final product requires time, patience, and sweating over the words. When you don’t put in the time, oddly, you put the effort onto your reader.  

I’m currently working on a small chapbook of poems about Niagara. The impetus for the project was a collection of Niagara-based poems edited by Deborah Bowen, a professor at Redeemer University. I was fascinated by her project, and it led me to try my hand at writing about my place.

“Home in the Fall’ became my first attempt, and it explored the idea of what it means to be native to your place and the ways in which we often get this wrong and live poorly in our place. I’m excited to explore this project in poetry because I have spent much of my academic life writing about poets and poetry. I am learning it’s a very different set of skills and faculties to write poetry well. I am also working on a book project looking at the ways in which art connects us to our place and why, in the Anthropocene, we need such arts now more than ever.

I wish someone told me as a younger poet not to be afraid of what people think. We live in a culture that thinks writing a few lines of poetry that very likely few will read is a useless way to spend time. It’s hard to fight those voices (especially when they also come from your head). I wish I had been freed to keep chasing the joy of writing one good line or making one unique connection, and that I had made poetic writing more of a regular habit instead of an escape valve from other writing! I’m still learning. 

Doug Sikkema lives on the outskirts of Hamilton with his wife Vanessa and their four children. He is a full-time assistant professor of the core program and English at Redeemer University. He is a rookie beekeeper and loves to garden and get on his bike whenever he can. As an academic and an editor, his work is primarily criticism and essays, but lately he’s been trying his hand at poetry. He has published with Ekstasis and has had a piece accepted into an anthology of place poems for the Niagara region. His poetry explores themes of place, faith, ecology, and God.