Stephen Collis teaches poetry, poetics, modernism and American literature at Simon Fraser University. His collection On the Material (2010) is described as a meditation on language, geography, socio-economics and the body. It received the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize in 2011.

As a descendant of Scottish coal miners who came to Vancouver Island in the late 1800s, poet Stephen Collis first wrote Mine (New Star, 2001), a reconstruction of the early history of the B.C. coal industry. It was followed by Anarchive (New Star, 2005), an investigation into the connection between anarchy and poetry, partially inspired by the Spanish Civil War.

Collis wandered backwards in time even further for The Commons (Talonbooks 2008), an anarchy-inspired exploration of how commonly-held lands were essentially privatized in the English countryside. Amid the peasant revolts that failed to prevent the enclosure of land in the name of private ownership, Collis includes cameo appearances from the mad poet John Clare and back-to-the-land philosopher Henry David Thoreau.

Collins has also edited Companions & Horizons (2005), an anthology including the work of 41 poets associated with the university, in conjunction with SFU's 40th birthday. "It's interesting to see the poetry unique to SFU," he said. "--a poetry that's distinctly intellectual, investigative, erotic, emotional and yet playful."

Collis' critical study, Phyllis Webb and the Common Good (Talonbooks, 2007), examines Webb's work in relation to 20th century poetics and social movements. More of an homage than an intimate investigation, Stephen Collis' Almost Islands: Phyllis Webb and the Pursuit of the Unwritten (Talon 2018) delivers as a collection of poetic, political and philosophical digressions for readers who are already familiar with one of Salt Spring Island's most venerable seniors. Collis' style is often like a personal journal, rather than a public one. "More than twenty-five years after the poetry-writing Phyllis Webb ceased," he writes, "the wordless poet Phyllis Webb carries on, seems-permanently indefinite." We learn more about Collis than about Webb. But the tribute is made. Respect one's elders.

To the Barricades (Talon 2013) looks at the shifting strategies of revolt and protest in contemporary social justice campaigns such as the Occupy movement and Idle No More. It is described as a collection of social lyrics and serial explorations "to drive apathy from the field" and recover forgotten radical ideas.

Described as fiction in the tradition of Borges, Nabokov, and Bolaáo, The Red Album (Book Thug 2013) in another work by Stephen Collis that examines historical authenticity and authority. "As the ghosts of social revolutions of the past are lifted from the soil in Catalonia, and a new revolution unfolds in South America," the story is complicated by a growing maze of author/characters.

At the end of 2014, Stephen Collis served as a spokesperson for land defenders who disrupted survey work to protect parts of Burnaby Mountain, on unceded Coast Salish territories, against the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline. After Kinder Morgan served the obstructionists with a $5.6 million dollar lawsuit, a legal defense fund was created to support the legal costs for Collis, Adam Gold, Mia Nissen and Lynne Quarmby, among others, who defended their rights to protest in hearings held November 5-7 at the Supreme Court of B.C.

Collis & Co. eventually "won" this environmental battle after it was discovered Kinder Morgan had given the RCMP incorrect GPS coordinates so that the invisible "line" that protesters were not supposed to cross was nowhere near where it was meant to be. The judge threw out all the charges and refused to give Kinder Morgan an extension for their drilling. The U.S.-based Kinder Morgan cut its losses and hurriedly helicoptered out all its exploratory drilling equipment. There is already one pipeline that brings tar-sands bitumen to the port of Vancouver. "Twinning" with a second tunnel could triple the amount of bitumen shipped through Vancouver by Kinder Morgan.

"We are at a point in history when people," said Collis, "have to stand up for what they believe, and stand up to defend their local environments, and the global environment too. I'm glad that is what we did in this case, but I also know we will have to do this again before long."

Once in Blockadia (Talonbooks 2016) is constructed of four sequences, two evolving from found texts that relate to the blockade of the flood of commodities into the Port of Vancouver, and the other blockade stopping the potential flow of oil out of Vancouver, both of which Collis was involved in. The other two sequences are two long poems that engage with the poet William Woodsworth and attempts to explain the barricades and the complexities of their purpose. This book was shortlisted for the 2017 George Ryga Award for Social Awareness.

Review of the author's work by BC Studies:
Dispatches From The Occupation: A History of Change

Almost Islands: Phyllis Webb and the Pursuit of the Unwritten by Stephen Collis (Talonbooks $24.95)

Review by Sharon Thesen, 2019

In the 1960s, Phyllis Webb chose to leave behind a promising and lucrative broadcasting career at the CBC in Toronto, where among other things she created and co-produced the weekly series, Ideas.

In the 1970s, Webb's interest in politics swerved toward west coast Indigenous art, including the ancient intertidal rock art found on Salt Spring Island, named "Wilson’s Bowl" after anthropologist Wilson Duff.

She chose to make her home on the south coast of British Columbia where she insisted on living and writing on her own terms, without aspiring to an admirable public voice. This has been one of the things I most cherish about her, along with the beautiful, sideways power of her work.

I was first drawn very strongly to Phyllis Webb's Wilson’s Bowl in the early 1980s. It inspired me to contact Webb and visit her at her home on Salt Spring Island -- the beginning of a decades-long and continuing friendship.

At that time, I hadn't so far encountered a Canadian female poet whose work had such an impact on me, that lit so brightly my own path as a writer.

Now Stephen Collis' ekphrastic project, Almost Islands, arises from a similar respect. One poet's immersion in the art of another, it spins out a web of connections from Collis' 2007 study of Webb's poetics, Phyllis Webb and the Common Good (Talon, 2007), taking great care to blend politics and poetry.

Collis' ongoing attraction to Webb's poetics and her presence is the fundamental image of this book: his trips on the ferry to Salt Spring Island, her greeting him in her home, and their settling in to exchange news, talk, and compare notes within the so-called "silence" of Webb's art.

What keeps drawing Collis back to Webb, he says, is "her strength to remain alone …. her resolute withdrawal, her ability to dwell in the glare of her fragments and failures. It is a form of resistance that continues. Islanded. Bulwarked, But open, curious."

Both Phyllis Webb and Stephen Collis were born in Victoria (she in 1927, he in 1965); both enjoyed relatively privileged upbringings and private schools; both were imprinted by the coastal landscape of southwest B.C.

The forty-year age difference between them is another way they are "almost islands," but this distance dissolves in the matrix of mutual attraction and curiosity. They are West Coast poets engaged with West Coast realities -- geographical, political, ecological, and aesthetic -- except Webb appears to have lost or forsaken her voice.

Webb continued to publish essays -- Talking (Quadrant Editions, 1982) and Nothing But Brush Strokes (NeWest Press 1995) -- and a book of "ghazals and anti-ghazals," Water and Light (Coach House 1984) into the mid-1990s, but she stopped writing poetry as such. It was noted that she had stopped writing poetry, and began painting, after the death of her mother. At this point, Webb felt that words, that poetry, had "abandoned her."

The question of silence, of the content of the unwritten, of the failure to write one's "good masterpiece of work" (Webb quoting the unfortunate anarchist activist Nikola Sacco), and the questions that arise from such a decision, or gift, or catastrophe, is what Collis attempts to unpack, in a number of directions and dimensions, in this book.

In its Montaigne-like spirit of essay-ing forth, Collis explores the "silence" that both threatens and educates the writer. A prolific writer himself, and a serious political activist, Collis is appalled by the prospect of silence -- of being silenced or of self-silencing.

Collis had earlier confided this fear to his sister Gail, whose death in 2002 is present in this book's often-elegiac tone. It was Gail who, during a walk with Collis in Vancouver, had given him the advice that set his compass westward, toward Phyllis Webb and Salt Spring Island: "Poetry is your way of writing all ways at once. It is your revolutionary path."

Collis' lavish, loquacious, zigzag essaying-forth across the "peninsula" of Collis' own literary and political geography for Almost Islands enables Collis to raise urgent questions about writing, ecological devastation and colonial violence. It also includes some advice -- including to not write at all, for a while at least -- from other poets and friends.

"I exist to tend the flow of language," he says.

"The terror of Webb's 'No,'" for Collis, is that "it is not spoken by her, but to her."

The meditations on mortality and silence that conclude the book I found deeply affecting. Collis describes the difficulties of transferring the body of his sister to her pine coffin. "The coffin could not be got through. So we carried her out. Like furniture. Such beloved furniture. Such precious wood for the fire."

Collis writes, "In each and every poem I write, I pick my sister up, carry her across a page or two, and lay her down again. It is method and ritual and the very practice of everyday life." This final section of the book is where I feel Collis is converting silence and failure to hiddenness and immanence.

The felicity of Phyllis' surname imbues Almost Islands -- a web of connections fleshed out by the "beyondery" of imagination. 9781772012071

Sharon Thesen has written eleven books and chapbooks. She is professor emeritus of creative writing at UBC's Okanagan Campus. She edited the Governor-General's award-winning The Vision Tree: Selected Poems by Phyllis Webb.



The Birth of Blue (Chapbook 1997)
Anima/lung (Chapbook 1998)
Mine (New Star 2001)
Anarchive (New Star 2005)
Companions & Horizons (2005). Editor.
Blackberries (Chapbook 2005)
Through the Words of Others: Susan Howe and Anarcho-Scholasticism (ELS Editions 2006)
Phyllis Webb and the Common Good (Talonbooks 2007) 978-0-88922-559-6 $24.95
The Commons (Talonbooks 2008) 978-0-88922-580-0 $16.95
On the Material (Talonbooks 2010) 0889226326 $17.95
To the Barricades (Talonbooks 2013) 978-0-88922-747-7 $16.95
The Red Album (Book Thug 2013) 9781927040652 $24
Once in Blockadia (Talonbooks 2016) ISBN 978-1-77201-015-2, $18.95
Almost Islands: Phyllis Webb and the Pursuit of the Unwritten (Talon 2018) $24.95
A History of the Theories of Rain (Talon, 2021) $16.95 9781772012880


On the Material - Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize 2011

[BCBW 2021]