A spade in one hand and a pen in the other

How following our childhood dreams and digging into our anxieties can lead to meaningful, creative art.

Gavin Bradley

The Irish, from W.B. Yeats to modern greats like Sinéad Morrissey, are better known for their poetry than their palaeontology, though both fields aren’t as different as they might appear at first. Each requires patience, imagination and an acceptance of the fact you’re probably never going to be a millionaire. My interest in poetry came from my teenage years growing up in Belfast, thanks in no small amount to post-punk bands like The Libertines who drew lyrical influences from classical poetry and, like many other people, from some wonderful English teachers. I started writing somewhere in my late teens: song lyrics, short stories and poetry mostly—they weren’t very good, but they were a start. 

When I moved to Canada to study palaeontology with Phil Currie, writing became even more of a comfort to me. It was a time when I could express myself without worrying about assimilation, people understanding my accent (which was thicker than I realized), or taking me seriously. Exploring writing in Edmonton has felt a bit like doing grad school all over again; starting off playing catch-up, but slowly improving and becoming more confident in my work and my voice. 

Currently, I teach the introductory dinosaur palaeontology classes for the university and run the Faculty of Science massive open online courses (MOOCs) like Dino 101. Like many in academia who find themselves doing multiple roles, I’ve found the balancing act a difficult one to master. During the pandemic, I worked on MOOCs during the day, wrote lectures and answered emails in the evening and wrote for myself into the wee hours of the morning. 

In mid-March (just before St. Patrick’s Day, as fate would have it), my first book of poetry, Separation Anxiety, was published by University of Alberta Press. Separation Anxiety follows the deterioration of a long-term relationship, interweaving poems dealing with the loneliness of immigration and the anxiety of separation from home. The idea was to explore the emotional toll of different kinds of separation and loss, but to do so without losing a sense of hope that things can get better. I think it’s a book that a lot of people can relate to. Whether you’re part of an immigrant community or not, separation is something we all go through at different times in our lives. 

The book-writing process went slow, then quick. Initially I was writing poems with no real goal other than to get to manuscript length, and for the longest time I thought I was writing two books: one about a long-term relationship breaking down, and one about leaving home. At some point though, I realized that if these things happened simultaneously in life, why wouldn’t they also happen in the same book? I knew from experience that tough relationships only get tougher when you're far from home. Homesickness doesn’t wait in line while you sort out your love life. Anxiety, another theme in the book, doesn’t care if you’re going through other stuff; in fact, that’s what it thrives on. Once I realized that, I printed out every poem I had and spent a night physically rearranging them on my roommate's floor. Knowing what the narrative thread should look like made it easier to spot in the poems I had already written, and importantly, easier to see what poems were missing. Then I wrote those missing poems. 

While I still have a healthy dose of imposter syndrome, having never studied English literature or creative writing at university, the subject matter is something I very much feel like an expert in. And I am at least beginning to feel as if I know the bones of poetry. Or at least, of the poetry that I write.  

Irish Nobel Laureate and fellow northerner Seamus Heaney, in one of his more famous poems, “Digging,” talked of swapping the spade for the pen, in walking away from the Irish rural farming life of his ancestors for one of poetry. With both poetry and palaeontology still very much part of my life, I haven’t quite followed in his footsteps, but for the moment at least, I try to keep a spade in one hand and a pen in the other.

About Gavin

Gavin Bradley is the U of A Science MOOC Coordinator and Assistant Lecturer in the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences in the Faculty of Science. He is also a paleontologist, and award-winning writer from Belfast, Northern Ireland, currently living in Edmonton, on Treaty 6 territoryHis work has appeared in The Irish Times, The North, Best New British and Irish Poets, and Glass Buffalo. His debut poetry collection, Separation Anxiety, is available from your local independent bookstore as well as online.