Monday, May 1, 2023

Julia Polyck-O’Neill : Banff, was and is.





The only time my mother went away, I was eight or nine years old. Mum was accepted to a three-week residency for arts administrators at the Banff Centre. We stayed at home in Whitehorse. This time became an important flashpoint within family lore – this was when my stay-at-home mother, with a background in art history, would begin her return to her professional life. Banff, a place we had spent time visiting as a family, now had a different meaning to us. It became the locus of a secret sliver of mum’s life – a happy fragment that always provokes smiles and joyful recollections, but also the source of burning, youthful curiosity. The photos of her smiling, solo against the backdrop of the Rockies are inflected with a sense of possibility, of a person in transition. A person who is a self. Banff was a site for renewal and the making of decisions.

My partner, decades ahead of me in his writing career, attended a Leighton residency at Banff in 2019. The Leighton Artist Studios are intended for independent, self-directed work, and this suited him well. Aaron wrote most of a novel there. He sent me photos from the little boat in the forest that was his writing space for the duration of his stay. Although he shared aspects of his time at the centre, much of his daily life at Banff remained a mystery because I was not there. I couldn’t picture his days. I could sense that, much like my mum’s time in the mountains, he too was solidifying his commitments to his work by making the time to be there. Banff needs time and space, but also lends it.

A few years later, I had come around to the idea that I was enough of who I wanted to be to take on a Banff experience of my own. I wanted to at least try on the idea. Then came word that one of my very favourite writers (Lisa Robertson, whose work is one of my academic preoccupations) was going to be faculty for the 2023 Winter Writer’s Retreat and I couldn’t resist applying. I felt compelled to submit despite my perpetual imposter syndrome and the notion that at this time in my life I was focusing only on my academic career – I remained uncertain of how poetry fit with my academic research even though they had always seemed like strange bedfellows. Poetry is a space for processing thinking and had largely felt ancillary to other forms of writing, but at the same time I have an innate sense that this kind of processing has value as a method. As more and more friends urged me to apply, I decided, why not? Why not embark on this journey (now well-trodden) to see if a life of creative production might fit? It seemed like a logical step in my trajectory. But I kept my expectations low, especially when I learned that Banff had received a record number of applications for this session. I could barely process my elation when I was accepted.

I applied in October and received word in November; the residency would begin in January. Below are some notes I made during the first days of my stay.


Officially day one of my retreat. We had a workshop led by our faculty mentors, Lisa and Nasser Hussain, and it was quite productive. I shared a little bit about process and talked about subjectivity and materiality, my other themes. Others in the room talked about such things as what they carry, illness, and what it does to the way you feel about time, memory, and its fleetingness, and motherhood, electricity, and circuity. I am not used to this environment, where I am surrounded by my peers. I am not accustomed to caring this much (although perhaps I always care), caring in that I love each of them, and I want them to love me. I want to love this time. I want to look back on this as a life-changing moment that is entirely positive.

To shake off the intensity, I decide to walk down the mountain into town for the first time. I’m wearing my winter things, my city coat, my (relative) finery. Perhaps a bad decision when I have more practical down activewear at my disposal. But I’m at Banff! I want to feel the most like myself that I have ever felt. I want to wear my new coat and I want to feel chic. I want to feel very good at all times. So I’m wearing my coat, trying to negotiate the icy pathway, and I see Lisa. We waved to each other, we are friends – or it feels that way, a few days in. I’m still feeling a bit like an interloper. I am feeling like I’m here because I am the recipient of a favor. Someone has done me a solid. I do not yet see exactly how I fit within this group in terms of my achievements, writing, and persona. I feel like persona plays a big role in the ways that people have been curated in this group. We all fit together like the cast of a complicated Hollywood drama. So many in my group possess a mature kind of talent that I aspire to in my own work. Others ooze with promise and can articulate exactly why. This is part of why I am loving every moment. I get to be surrounded by people I would dream to spend time with. I have two weeks with a well curated group of dream people.

I’m wearing my wool. I am negotiating the ice. I am not exactly sure where the trail is (the maps seem vague; everything is blanketed by snow) but I have a sense that it is in the far corner of campus and I turned out to be correct. And then once I find the correct path I realize that there are two beautiful deer, munching placidly and watching me with giant, watery eyes, black pools of intensity. I speak to them softly, hello deer. Hello beautiful watery eyes. Hello eyelashes. I will not harm you. I love you. The trail is much icier than I anticipated so not only am I walking like a penguin I’m also sliding the way that we did in the hallways as children in our socked feet. I have a relatively good centre of gravity. I feel oddly proud at how well I am negotiating this ice on the trail. there is no one to see me being extremely talented at negotiating this ice. I bask in the feeling of demonstrating a sort of elegance in a strange situation and being by myself. I’m also enjoying the beautiful trees. I’m enjoying the music in my headphones. I feel so embodied as I glide down the mountain. It is a nice time. At the same time, I don’t feel like walking, and it strikes me that I may become accustomed to unusual comforts in the past few days. I have adjusted to the good life that this residency affords. In my Toronto life I usually walk a lot more than I have been, but everything at Banff is so close. My accommodations are all in one place. My food is down the hall. The gym is beside the dining area. The library is across the street from my room – I can see it from my window. In all of this, this surreal landscape and break from my home routines, I again feel like I’m in a dream.

Being in Banff (the town) feels so familiar. I have been told that the city can never expand. There is no building that happens in the city because there are parameters to the national park. It makes sense, but that means that everything remains quite familiar. I reach for memories of travelling to Banff with my family. I try to remember grandparents, childhood, nostalgia. It feels rather like putting on an old coat. It fits, but I’m different now. I’m the adult now, a writer.

I don’t know what I expected of Banff. I don’t know if I hoped it would be different. It has been over 20 years since our last family visit. In some ways, I wish that there was a way to cleanse a place of memories that tend to haunt it. Maybe that’s part of what I am doing well, I am here. in a lot of ways, I feel I’m celebrating mum’s life in a most decadent way, her residency and her renewal, all of those things that happen in a mother’s life, when they are granted space to rediscover who they are. There are a number of mothers in my group, in my writing retreat. I can see that, for some, this is perhaps the first space they’ve been granted (or have taken, claimed) to re-explore their writing practices, and it makes me think of how things must’ve been for my mother though with arts administration, her profession. Maybe I’m comparing apples to oranges, because professional and creative practice can be such different animals, but I think the space in an adult woman’s life is often so limited, particularly for rediscovering parts that are less domestic, or that inhabit a space outside the designated routine, the relational spaces we inherit from our mothers. I’m not a mother but I can’t help but try to see my own mum in the mothers around me. Even though I’m not a mother, these thoughts, reflections on my mum’s life, allow me to relish the space this experience is affording me too. My beautiful hotel room and spacious office are Woolfian rooms of my own. While I’m here, the mountains out my window are mine, too.

Our time is structured, but my time is my own. It’s incredibly quiet. January in the mountains. Much of the centre is glass, windows. Many of us are enraptured by the changing views of the Rockies. The light bounces off the snow. Sometimes the views are bright white with blue skies. Sometimes everything is pink or lavender. I take so many photos but none really do the space justice. The air is thin and crisp, clean as though filtered, conditioned. Despite the altitude or because of it, I inhale the air like it’s a rare nutritional supplement, expensive. All of this feels like it’s good for me. All of this feel special. I take a yoga class and stare at the giant white mountains as I box breathe. Inhale, hold, exhale, hold. Everything holds the potential to be a poem.

And I do write. I’m restless so I write between moments. I eat at the ridiculously luxurious buffet with new friends most days, but the odd morning, I choose to sit alone as a poem trickles out. There is an understanding within the group that sometimes this might happen; we wordlessly agree to honour it. This is as close to communal living as I dare to get. We explore each other with so much care and respect. Again, as if in a dream.

How am I going to clear a new path? How am I going to cleanse Banff of ghosts? Can I? Do I need to in order to make this time at Banff my own? In a lot of ways, I feel like this is my second or third lifetime, as I have given myself the opportunity to start over before. This moment seems to be deeply connected to an iteration of my life that is ongoing. Banff can be both a new start as well as a continuation of a long process of moving forward. New friendships, new approaches to creative work, every negotiation of the self.


Now I sit at my desk, months later, still processing. I left my two weeks at Banff with a full draft of my debut poetry manuscript, just like I wanted, and with the kind of energy that comes from internal, significant transformation. I wrote enough but focused more on forging connections, including within myself. Banff gave me the space to inhabit the life I have created. I am an academic and a poet. I’ve tried on Mum’s secrets and made them my own. Banff is a site for metamorphosis, (self-)preservation, and coalescence.






Julia Polyck-O’Neill (she/they) is an artist, curator, critic, poet, and writer. She is currently a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) Postdoctoral Fellow in the department of Visual Art and Art History and the Sensorium Centre for Digital Arts and Technology at York University (Toronto) where she studies digital, feminist approaches to interdisciplinary artists’ archives, and is the incoming 2023-25 Michael Ridley Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Guelph. She is a postdoctoral affiliate of the Archive/Counter-Archive Project, a member of the Feminist Media Studio, and a Research Associate with the Robarts Centre for Canadian Studies at York. Her writing has been published in Zeitschrift für Ästhetik und Allgemeine Kunstwissenschaft (The Journal for Aesthetics and General Art History), English Studies in Canada, DeGruyter Open Cultural Studies, BC Studies, Canadian Literature, and other places. Her four chapbooks include Material (Model Press), and Everything will be taken away (above/ground press).

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