Poets on Campus

January 8, 2018 - 6:15pm

By Jenn McGarrigle

The pen is definitely mightier than the sword, especially when it’s in the hands of students in VIU’s Creative Writing and Journalism program! Students captured a number of prestigious awards this year that are putting them – and the whole program – on the literary map.

VIU Magazine had the chance to catch up with two aspiring poets in the program: Délani Valin and Kailey DeFehr, who shared a bit about themselves – and a poem – with us. Valin won The Malahat Review’s prestigious Long Poem Prize this year – an honour that’s sought after by well-established poets across the world. And DeFehr is the City of Nanaimo’s inaugural Youth Poet Laureate, which means she’s participating in many of the City’s poetry initiatives and helping to raise awareness amongst youth of the positive impact literature and poetry can have on community life. 


For the Love of Language: Délani Valin
A dictionary and thesaurus helped Délani Valin get serious about writing when she was just 10 years old. “I would find interesting words in the thesaurus and write poems about the words or insert them in a poem,” she remembers. “It didn’t always make sense, but it was fun to play
with sounds and rhythms.”

Valin’s parents encouraged her to keep writing, and when she was 12 one of her poems was published in an anthology highlighting young poets. The writing bug blossomed further when she took a creative writing class at Nanaimo District Secondary School in her senior year. 

After graduating from high school, Valin took a year off before enrolling in communications courses at Simon Fraser University, but it wasn’t where her heart was, so after a year, she transferred into VIU’s Creative Writing and Journalism program.

“I wanted to honour that 10-year-old who was having fun with words,” Valin recalls. “I wanted to write creatively, and the calibre of the faculty at VIU and what was offered in terms of different genres appealed to me. I knew I would be getting a quality education.”

Valin, who is Métis, likes to explore certain themes in her work.

“I write a lot about identity, mental illness, feminism, nature and climate change,” she says. “I also tend to gravitate towards political issues and a lot of marginalized voices. I think there’s a great opportunity for people to understand and experience certain conditions, feelings and perspectives better by inhabiting a poem for a while. It’s almost a kind of magic.”

Her poetry has appeared in a number of different magazines and an anthology, including subTerrain, through which she won the 2016 Lush Triumphant Literary Award; the Canadian anthology Those Who Make Us; Adbusters; Portal; Beautiful Minds Magazine; and The Malahat Review, which then awarded her one of two 2017 Long Poem Prizes. 

“It’s still kind of surreal,” she says. “It took three months to write and it was difficult the entire time; I was navigating all these tensions in my life like being Indigenous, and having depression and other mental illnesses.”

Jay Ruzesky, a VIU English and Creative Writing professor who has taught Valin, is “over the moon proud” of her accomplishment. Past winners of the Long Poem Prize include Esta Spalding, Elizabeth Harvor and Shane Book. That list also includes current VIU Creative Writing and English Professor Sonnet L’Abbé and former faculty member Marilyn Bowering.

“It’s a huge honour to win — usually, big names in the poetry world win this prize, people with established, significant careers,” says Ruzesky. “It just draws attention to the quality of the work that some of our students are doing.”

Valin is also working on her first book of poetry, and plans to work in publishing or the video game industry once she finishes a master’s degree.

“There’s so many things you can do with a writing degree,” says Valin. 


Poet for the People: Kailey DeFehr

Kailey DeFehr lives a double life. By day, she’s a dental assistant with Lakeside Dental Clinic; by night, she’s the City of Nanaimo’s Inaugural Youth Poet Laureate, spreading the word, so to speak, far and wide about the valuable role poetry plays in society. 

The Dover Bay Secondary School graduate decided to enter VIU’s Dental Hygiene Diploma program right out of high school. After working full-time as a dental assistant for a couple of years, DeFehr wanted to scratch the itch to write creatively a bit more so she returned to VIU to take one creative writing class per semester. 

“I wrote my first short story when I was six years old,” she remembers. “It was about the Grinch stealing the light from Rudolph’s nose. During a parent-teacher interview, my teacher told my parents it was the best story she’d ever read by a six-year-old and that I should be a writer someday.”

By the time she entered high school, DeFehr’s favourite form of writing was poetry. 

“I like that it’s raw and rhyming always came naturally to me,” she explains. “Throughout high school, I suffered from depression and anxiety and poetry became my escape. I started a blog that I put my poems on and when I started getting responses, I realized I was making an impact. My poems are really blunt for the most part – I don’t use a lot of heavy metaphors and a lot of my friends really connected with that.”

Naturally, the first class DeFehr took at VIU was Introduction to Poetry, during which she met Nanaimo’s first Poet Laureate, Naomi Beth Wakan, who came as a guest speaker. DeFehr was inspired to submit poems to Waken’s Poetry in Transit and Nanaimo Poetry Map projects and several were published through those initiatives. 

When the City of Nanaimo decided to expand its Poet Laureate program to include a Youth Poet Laureate this year, Wakan nominated DeFehr. “I’m honoured and flattered – it was unexpected,” says DeFehr. “I remember when I put my credit card into the machine to pay for that first class, I was terrified. And now it’s turned into this huge thing that’s unrolled in my life.”

As Nanaimo’s Youth Poet Laureate, DeFehr reads at different poetry events on the Island, occasionally opens Nanaimo City Council meetings with a reading and she’s done a poetry workshop with students at The High School at VIU. She is currently working on a poetry project in conjunction with the city and Vancouver Island Regional Library that aims to engage youth on the theme of invisible illnesses.


The Survivor by Délani Valin

No Botox, no facelifts, 

no wrinkle creams. Please, 

let me trust I am bound

to be elderly. I have no guiding 

North Star, just a dim wish of crooked 

fingers, crow’s feet. If I gain deep 

creases it is proof that I’ve withstood

constantly craving my own disappearance:

those recurring self-destructive urges,

cut, burn, swallow, sleep. 


If I am eighty, it means I’ve called the crisis line

at twenty-five, been hospitalized at thirty,

talked to therapists at fifty-three. I will have 

earned every sequin of my solar lentigines.


As long as I believe in that old woman 

version of me, I can take care. Do the practical 

things: get up, do my taxes, eat celery.


Coming Home by Kailey DeFehr

I kissed him first 

in the full moonlight 

under a canopy of evergreens, 

dusted with stars and crystalized 

raindrops. He was leaning against 

the mud-splattered tire of his 

faded red quad in dirty work boots,

ankles crossed, those deep

amber truck lights casting long 

shadows of our bodies

out toward the still water’s edge

of Barsby Lake.  


He tasted of Lucky and cherry 

Blackstones, his rough, tan hands

coming to rest on my too-wide hips,

pulling himself into the warmth beneath

his own green and black plaid jacket, 

draped like a blanket over my 

now unwinding shoulders.  


We were practically kids, 

new-found freedom hanging over 

our heads like a ball of yarn for a kitten; 

not a clue what to do with a happy ending 

if we ever did manage to snag one.  


And yet I knew even then 

what coming home was supposed 

to feel like. And he was all wind chimes 

on the front porch, steak, potatoes, 

and a pair of old, paint-splattered,

faded blue jeans.

*This article originally appeared in the Winter 2017/18 edition of VIU Magazine. Check out more stories on the VIU Magazine webpage.

Tags: Arts & Humanities | VIU Magazine