Off the Page, with Richard Kelly Kemick


Off the Page is a regular interview series featuring National Magazine Award winners. Recently we caught up with Richard Kelly Kemick, who was nominated for 2 National Magazine Awards in 2016–winning the Gold Medal in One of a Kind for his story “Playing God” (The Walrus), a reflection on his singular obsession with building Christmas villages. The story also won him a nomination for Canada’s Best New Magazine Writer.

NMAF: “Playing God,” your story that won Gold in the One of a Kind category at last year’s NMAs, was developed at the Banff Centre for Literary Journalism. Can you describe your experience there, and how this somewhat unconventional idea was developed into an award-winning magazine story. 

Richard: During my month at the Banff Centre––as every tagline on their website attests––I worked alongside some of the best editors and writers in the business (Ian Brown, Victor Dwyer, Charlotte Gill, to say nothing of the exceptional participants I was writing alongside). What I wasn’t expecting, however, was how affirming it would be for me as a writer. 

As I’m sure we all do, I wrestle a lot with insecurity and mediocrity. Banff’s LJ program placed me an environment where I had a month to only write, read, and sit in Michael Lista’s room to watch The Bachelor (he forced us to watch, like, every episode with him). It was an environment which told me––day after day for a month––that as long as I’m writing, I am a writer.

Anytime I get an opportunity to work with an editor, it’s an absolute privilege. The “Playing God” piece was edited, edited, kicked around, and edited again. And while I came to develop a profound hate for the Track Changes bubbles on a word document, my editor, Victor, took the piece from the ramblings of a limp-wristed despot into something with form, narrative, and an actual arc. 

NMAF: More recently, your debut collection of poetry, Caribou Run was included in this year’s CBC must-read poetry list. How is recognition — from the NMAF and other organizations — significant to you and your work? 

Richard: The CBC list was bizarre. I had no warning; I received an email from my publisher with the link and a note saying “this better translate into book sales” (just kidding, they’re incredibly supportive). It was a very rewarding surprise, just like the NMA. 

These types of recognition are indeed significant. So much of what we do as writers is sit at a desk and clack away in an isolation the rest of the world would refer to as cruel and unusual punishment. (If you’re lucky, you’ll have a dog to aid you through this.) Any recognition that someone has actually read your work and––god forbid––actually enjoyed it is inexpressibly quenching. 

On the other hand, however, I don’t want to think that recognition objectively signifies quality. There were poetry collections which were far stronger than mine but not included on the CBC list. Same goes for the NMA. A writer once told me that saying you “deserved” to win an award is like saying you “deserved” to win the lottery because you played the numbers well. (That writer was Michael Lista and it was on a commercial break of The Bachelor.)  

Rewards are fantastic; anybody who says otherwise is either lying or Buddha. But it’s boom/bust. I was on the boom for a bit. Now is the bust. And I’m finding it hard not to become petty, jealous, and focused on recognition instead of the writing. But I’m trying to work against that, work through it. Because I think there is a name for writers, and the writing they produce, who are like that: fucked.  

NMAF: Robert Moore, English professor at the University of New Brunswick, recently wrote a piece for The Walrus questioning the future of poetry as an art form. In Adam Kirsch’s review of The Hatred of Poetry by Ben Lerner, he claims poetry is “the site and source of disappointed hope.” He adds acclaimed poet Marianne Moore’s famous line “I, too, dislike it,” in reference to the craft. You’ve just published your first collection. What inspires you to write poetry? 

Richard: As a poet, the perpetual death of poetry is my favourite topic. Yes, poetry now panhandles in the literary ghetto––neighbouring junk mail and the academic essay. Yes, poems gather more dust than acclaim. Yes, when I write “Poet” on credit card applications I all but assure rejection. 

I think, however, that this apocalyptic setting is what enables Canadian poetry to be so exciting right now. We have an environment which produces writing, not writers. The pinnacle of this is when writers have brilliant collections (Michael Prior’s Model Disciple, anyone?) without floating off into the ether of poisonous pomp. Because the stakes are hedged, there is a democratizing force in contemporary Canadian poetry, a force which I’m not sure exists in any other commercial genre, a force in which free-verse upstarts and seasoned sonneteers are working within the same circles. Yes, there are politics within the CanPoetry community––just like anywhere. But at least we have the decency to wage our wars in divisive Facebook threads, rather than at the Giller’s or, for example, in a wildly offensive open letter. 

I started writing poetry (and still do) because I wanted to be a better writer. Poetry––for my money––is the genre that best develops your craft. The attention to language is merciless, and if you can make fourteen lines of ten syllables each tell a story, think of what you can do with some elbow room!

Richard Kelly Kemick accepts the award for One of a Kind at the 2016 National Magazine Awards gala.
Richard Kelly Kemick accepts the award for One of a Kind at the 2016 National Magazine Awards gala.

NMAF: Much of your work centres around animals. How does your love for animals influence your writing, and what inspired the theme of caribou migration in your latest collection? 

Richard: I write about animals because I’m unable to convey actual human emotion. Animals provide a healthy alternative. Like, if you’ve got a character that is unlovable but you want to make him lovable but you don’t know how–give him a dog. Then name that dog Maisy. Then let Maisy fool a woman, preferably a public school teacher because of the job security, into a long-term relationship. Then feel safe and loved and statistically unlikely to now die alone as you work on your poems all day, drinking coffee from small cups as your wife toils in a grade one classroom, with Maisy curled at your feet.

The caribou idea was just that I thought the migration was pretty rad and already had poetic elements within it. Four years later (which is about a third of a male caribou’s life), a book! Aim for the stars, kids. 

NMAF: Your writing ranges from fiction to nonfiction, poetry to prose — do you have a favourite form? And, if you can tell us, what can we expect to see from you next?

Richard: I don’t have a favourite form. I consider forms like my children: they all disappoint me for different reasons. 

I’ve currently got a collection of non-fiction essays (one of which is the piece that won the NMA) under consideration. I’ve also got a collection of short stories that was turned down for publication, but I’ve since been working on it and hope to submit again soon. 

I’m trying to view rejection as an opportunity for me to make the work better. In five, twenty, or a hundred years (I plan to live forever), I know I won’t mind having been delayed in publishing a collection of short stories, but I will mind if those stories are shitty. I’m not saying that every rejection a publisher makes is sound; but in this individual case, the rejection has given me the clarity to realize that I can make the stories stronger and (after I’d cried myself dry and drank myself wet) I’m trying to do that. 


Richard Kelly Kemick is a National Magazine Award-winning writer whose work has been published in The Walrus, The Fiddlehead, Maisonneuve and Tin House. His debut collection of poetry, Caribou Run, (2016, Goose Lane Editions) follows the Porcupine caribou herd through their annual migration, the largest overland migration in the world. Caribou Run was included as a one of CBC’s fifteen must-read poetry collections. Follow him on Twitter @RichardKemick.

Special thanks to Krista Robinson for her reporting on this interview with Richard.

Check out more Off the Page interviews with National Magazine Award-winning writers like Emily Urquhart, J.B. MacKinnon, Heather O’Neill and more.


The 40th anniversary National Magazine Awards are now accepting submissions for the best work in 2016. Deadline for entries: January 20. Submit now.

Portrait Series: National Magazine Awards Storytellers – Behind the Scenes Edition


The National Magazine Awards Foundation is all about celebrating Canadian creators and storytellers. Our mission is to recognize excellence in magazine writing and art production.
At the NMAF we tip our hats to the storytellers who skilfully fill the pages of Canadian magazines and to do this there’s a lot of hard work that happens behind the scenes. This year 232 judges volunteered their time and expertise in evaluating submissions from across the country for our 39th annual National Magazine Awards program.
In addition, our Board of Directors and staff members dedicate themselves year-round to the recognition of Canadian magazine creators. In this second instalment of our Portrait Series: National Magazine Awards Storytellers – Behind the Scenes Edition, we’re featuring the people who make the NMAs possible. They’ve also told us why they’re proud to be a part of our awards program and what our judges are looking for in an NMA-award-winning piece.


 
To learn more about the award winners and nominees from the 2016 awards program, please visit magazine-awards.com. You can read the biographies of this year’s awards program judges here and can view a list of our Board of Directors and Staff here.  To follow this photo series on social media, you can find the NMAF on Instagram (nationalmagazineawards) or on Twitter@MagAwards.
Credit: photos taken by Steve Goetz; interviews conducted by Melissa Myers.
Full Coverage of the 39th National Magazine Awards
Complete articles of all nominees and winners
Complete list [pdf] of all nominees and winners
Full text of Kim Pittaway’s speech
Smash Reel
Thank You to our Sponsors & Partners
The Judges
Award Seals

Best Practices: How to leverage your National Magazine Award

NMA_BestPractivesGuide_FINAL
Did you win a National Magazine Award at this year’s gala? Were you a nominee? If so, we’ve created a guide just for you.
The NMAF is pleased to introduce the first volume of our Best Practices Guide. This guide is an extensive resource for how National Magazine Award winners and nominees can best leverage their recognition of magazine excellence.
The guide provides detailed promotional strategies, insightful personal testimony and plenty of other useful resources to help award winners and nominees best leverage and optimize their National Magazine Awards.
Click here to download the full PDF version.
Winners’ Circle Webinar
On November 25, 2015, the National Magazine Awards Foundation presented Winners’ Circle, an exclusive learning and networking event. More than 70 NMA winners and nominees gathered at The Spoke Club in Toronto’s King West district to meet, mingle, network and learn about how a National Magazine Award can be a boost to your career.
In addition to our Best Practices Guide, the NMAF has created this webinar to uncover other effective ways to leverage and optimize your National Magazine Award win. In a discussion led by D.B. Scott, three NMA winners–Penny Caldwell of Cottage Life, Matthew Blackett of Spacing and Katherine Laidlaw of The Walrus–share their best practices on how they leveraged their recognition of winning a National Magazine Award.

Please stay tuned for when we announce our next Winners’ Circle event.

Download this year’s National Magazine Awards Winners’ Seals here.

Watch other videos on our YouTube channel here.

Portrait Series: National Magazine Awards Storytellers


The National Magazine Awards Foundation is all about celebrating Canadian creators and storytellers. Our mission is to recognize excellence in magazine writing and art production.
At the NMAF we tip our hats to the storytellers who skilfully fill the pages of Canadian magazines. To highlight the hard work and meticulous crafting that goes into creating an NMA-winning piece we’ve produced a portrait series of this year’s winners and nominees, discussing what makes for great storytelling.


 
To learn more about the award winners and nominees from the 2016 awards program, please visit magazine-awards.com. You can also follow this photo series on Instagram (nationalmagazineawards) or by following us on Twitter @MagAwards.
Credit: photos taken by Steve Goetz; interviews conducted by Melissa Myers.
Full Coverage of the 39th National Magazine Awards
Complete articles of all nominees and winners
Complete list [pdf] of all nominees and winners
Full text of Kim Pittaway’s speech
Smash Reel
Thank You to our Sponsors & Partners
The Judges
Award Seals

Thank You! From the 39th annual National Magazine Awards

The National Magazine Awards Foundation wishes to thank Gilbert Li, Vicki Lam and their team at The Office of Gilbert Li for creating and executing the look and feel of this year’s National Magazine Awards–including the gala program (right), tickets, stage design, and our social media design.
Thank you to our presenting sponsor, CDS Global, for their support of the National Magazine Awards gala. CDS Global has been a proud sponsor of the National Magazine Awards since 1989.
Thank you to our special guests at the 39th National Magazine Awards gala and those who sent special video messages to our nominees and winners:

  • Hon. Mélanie Joly, Minister of Canadian Heritage
  • Hon. Adam Vaughan, MP, Spadina-Fort York
  • Hon. Elizabeth May, MP, Saanich-Gulf Islands
  • Naheed Nenshi, Mayor of Calgary
  • Carolyn Vesely, Director of Granting, Ontario Arts Council
  • Matt Hilliard-Forde, Program Consultant, Ontario Media Development Corporation
  • Gillian Deacon, CBC Radio
  • Natalie Turvey, Executive Director, Canadian Journalism Foundation
  • Karen Luttrell, President, Professional Writers Association of Canada (Toronto)
  • Derek Finkle, Founder, Canadian Writers Group

 
Thank you to all our sponsors and partners for their enthusiastic support of the NMAs and Canadian magazine creators.

Thank you to the team at Very Good Studios for their production of the gala including the multimedia show and the popular Smash Reel of nominated Canadian magazines, which you can view on our YouTube channel.

 
Thank you to the National Magazine Awards judges, our peers in Canadian magazines and media, more than 230 who volunteered their time and expertise to evaluate the submissions this year.

 
Thank you to our incredible Master of Ceremonies–Chris Turner–for an entertaining evening and a masterful performance on stage.


 
Thank you to our wonderful staff and our Board of Directors for their hard work and guidance.
Thank you to Steven Goetz, our event photographer for this year’s National Magazine Awards. Check out the 2016 NMA photo gallery on our Facebook Page.

Thank you to all who supported the 39th National Magazine Awards:
Program Editor: Richard A. Johnson
Campaign Art Direction & Design: The Office of Gilbert Li
Campaign Photography & Styling: Vicki Lam
Printing: Transcontinental Printing
Paper: Rolland Enterprises
Translation: Émilie Pontbriand
Copy Editing: Leah Edwards, Kira Wronska Dorward, Éloïse Pontbriand
Multimedia Production: YellowHouse Events
Volunteer Coordination: Leah Jensen
Audiovisual Production: CCR Solutions
Smash Reel Montage: Very Good Studios
Multimedia Assistants: Eny Kuen, Olesya Zimina
Outstanding Achievement Award Photography: Aaron McKenzie Fraser
President Photography: Jared Sych
Master of Ceremonies Photography: Ashley Bristowe
Event Photography: Steven Goetz
News Release Distribution: CNW Group
Chartered Accountants: Beckett Lowden Read, LLP
Caterer: Oliver & Bonacini
Venue: The Arcadian Court, Toronto
Special thanks to our hardworking event volunteers.
Congratulations to the participants, nominees and winners of the 39th National Magazine Awards. We look forward to seeing you next year.  
Check out the 2016 NMA photo gallery