Jenny Boychuk is a poet based in New Westminster, BC She won the 2019 CBC Nonfiction Prize for her story Slow Violence.
She holds an MFA from the University of Michigan’s Helen Zell Writers’ Program. Her poems and essays of her have appeared in the Walrus, Best New Poets 2016the Malahat Review, the Fiddlehead, Grain, the New Quarterly and PRISM international. In 2018, she won the Copper Nickel Editors’ Prize in Poetry.
The 2022 CBC Poetry Prize is open for submissions until May 31, 2022 at 11:59 pm ET. The finalists will be announced in fall 2022.
The CBC Poetry Prize recognizes works of original, unpublished poetry, up to 600 words in length. The winner will receive $6,000 from the Canada Council for the Arts, have the opportunity to attend a two-week writing residency at the Banff Center for Arts and Creativity and have their work published on CBC Books.
Antonyms for Daughter addresses a harrowing subject: the loss of the poet’s mother to addiction. Boychuk creates unsparing scenes of their complicated life together and attempts to wring clarity from memories ripe with trauma and love. She questions whether it is possible for a child to ever extricate herself from an abusive parent — to become, as it were, a living “antonym” of a painful family legacy. Antonyms for Daughter is a singular example of transformed grief into art.
Boychuk spoke to CBC Books about writing Antonyms for Daughter.
Antonyms for Daughter was inspired in part by your mother’s death. How did the strained relationship you had with her also factor into these poems?
It’s a lifelong story in some sense. But essentially, my mom was a registered nurse and she went through a lot of trauma as a kid, and a lot of trauma in her job de ella as well. She had always struggled with various mental illnesses. After some more traumatic events and also some physical injuries, she essentially spiraled into substance use. So that was something my family and I wrestled with for many, many years.
This book is about this duality of this person who is my mother and who could be incredibly kind and loving. She was a nurse and she loved taking care of people, but she could also be incredibly hurtful and damaging and abusive.
This book is about this duality of this person who could be incredibly kind and loving… but also incredibly hurtful and damaging and abusive.
When someone so close to you is going through that, it sort of becomes the lens through which you see everything as well. So then after that person passes away, it’s really hard to detach yourself from them. It’s really hard to know how to go forward.
The book wrestles with that duality of her as a complex human and also with the grief and trying to figure out how to move forward as a singular person in the world.
In Antonyms for Daughter, there are a few poems from when you were a child where your mom wasn’t the kindest to you about your body and seemed generally unsupportive. Why did you want to write poems from that perspective?
Many of those poems actually came earlier, and those are some of the first ones that I wrote. It was when I was starting to explore writing about some of the trauma that I had been through. Those kinds of comments happened as long as she was alive. But that was before I knew very much about her mental illness. And it was also before things intensified with her substance use of her. So those were some of the first traumatic kinds of memories that I have.
When you’re dealing with parents who have narcissistic tendencies, they can’t see you as a separate person and they can only see you as an extension of themselves.
Where and how did you write the majority of this book?
My process is generally to read first. So I’ll pick up whatever collection of poetry I’m reading at the time and grab my notebook. Usually once I start reading, lines will come to me, or sometimes maybe a whole poem. So I sort of do a first draft in a notebook and then I sit down at my computer and try to put the pieces together. Sometimes I’ll even write on sticky notes and then try to make sense of them as well.
Is it weird to write in your home when you’re writing about your mom?
I was writing the poems in the book over about eight years. So for some of that time I was living in my parents’ house, and some of it I wasn’t. For some of it, I was as far away as Michigan, going to grad school. I did a ton of writing at my parents’ house, especially in the summers when I was off from school. I don’t want to say it felt secretive, but I always feel strange to know that I was writing about my mom de ella and to also hear her walking around upstairs above me. I had to look at my bedroom as my own space and set that boundary.
What does the title of your book mean?
I think “daughter” can have a couple of antonyms. Some people would argue that it could be a son, or it could be a parent or a child.
But essentially, it’s me asking the question: “If I’m not a daughter, what am I?” If my mother has passed away, does that still make me a daughter? If my mother was not always kind to me, does that still make me a daughter? How do I move forward and start to define myself as something other than her daughter de ella? How do I make a place for myself and the world after everything that’s happened?
If I’m not a daughter, what am I? If my mother has passed away, does that still make me a daughter? If my mother was not always kind to me, does that still make me a daughter?
Did you end up telling your parents about your book before your mom died?
No, I didn’t. When I was in grad school, I was writing a book about being afraid. It was essentially about being afraid that she would pass away because of everything that she was going through. And then right when I was at the tail end of the book while I was on a fellowship, that was when she did pass away. And so the book shifted then to become more about her de ella, her death de ella and the grief process de ella.
At that time, I was writing a thesis — a collection of poems, which was this book. My mom had really wanted to read the thesis and I just kept putting it off. I kept saying, “Oh, yeah — I’ll send it to you.” But I didn’t. I think my dad knew that I was working on a collection of poems and I think he knew what it was about as well, especially after [I won] the CBC Nonfiction Prize.
What is something about your writing process that readers might be surprised to learn?
I think what they would be most surprised to learn is that there used to be a lot more Antonym poems. When I first started writing Antonym poems, it was about somebody else — a childhood friend who passed away [when I was] in my early 20s. Over time, those poems shifted to become more about my mother, and there are fewer of them. But that’s in some ways what started this whole project, but it took a 180-degree turn and it evolved a lot over the course of eight years.
Since winning the 2019 CBC Nonfiction Prize, how has life changed for you?
At that time, my first poetry collection was still a manuscript and hadn’t been picked up yet. I was working on the final drafts and final edits and getting ready to send that out. In the two and a half years since I won that prize, the book has come out. So that’s definitely changed my life in some ways. At that time, I had just moved back to Victoria and I’ve gone through a career change in that time as well. I was able to teach some writing courses.
It’s pointed me in the right direction, in terms of realizing what was important to me and what was important to my work. It gave my work a direction and there’s a larger project that I am always working on to some degree.
Winning the CBC Nonfiction Prize pointed me in the right direction, in terms of realizing what was important to me and what was important to my work.
When you entered the CBC Nonfiction Prize, were you hoping to make writing your career? Or did you enter the prize just because you had written you wanted to share?
The way that I’ve always viewed prizes and contests is that they create a deadline for you. It provides a little bit of motivation that way. And there have been a few other writing-related things in my life where the odds hadn’t been very good, but they had worked out. But I never expected to win. I had been longlisted once before, and I would have loved to have even been shortlisted this time.
What advice would you give to writers who need that extra push to enter their work to the CBC Literary Prizes?
I think you just have to do it and not really worry about what the outcome is going to be or who’s going to read it. I think if you do have a little bit of time left to give yourself some space from it, it’s always super helpful to put it away and go for a walk or leave it for a day and then come back. And ideally you’ve given yourself enough time so that you reach the point where you know you’ve done everything you can with the piece and you feel happy.
It’s not always the case, but I know for me, part of my process includes getting a draft done and then leaving it — sometimes for a week or two, which is what I did with my CBC story — and then going through that revision process . For me, that’s really where the joy is, the revision process.
Do people need to enter their work into writing contests to be good writers?
You don’t have to send your work in to a contest or engage in similar opportunities to be a writer by any means, and you don’t have to do it to be a good writer. But I think it opens doors that honestly you can’t imagine would open for you otherwise.
Every contest you enter, every time you send your work out into the world, you’re planting a seed—and you just don’t know what’s going to come from that.
Every answer you enter, every time you send your work out into the world, you’re planting a seed — and you just don’t know what’s going to come from that. So I highly encourage writers who are ready to share their work to do so, because I think it can really change the direction of your writing career.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.