Insomnia Bird

Alberta Views, September 2019

By Jannie Edwards

Mordecai Richler once joyfully pricked Edmonton’s civic pride in 1985 in the New York Times, when he called Edmonton the “boiler room” of Canada. In Kelly Shepherd’s latest poetry collection, Insomnia Bird: Edmonton Poems, winner of the 2019 Robert Kroetsch City of Edmonton Book Prize, the author’s vision resonates with Richler’s cynical take on this raw young settler city. In these poems, the poet’s avatar is Magpie, a “nest builder and robber of nests” re-envisioned as a sleep-deprived, bus-riding flâneur moving through a city steeped in the erasures of colonization and repetitive boom/bust cycles fuelled by oil and gas.

The poet’s complex love affair with his city balances wit, anger, irony and lyricism in a cacophony of juxtaposed voices speaking in their own argots: urban planners, truck drivers, bureaucrats, architects, corporate spin doctors, rig pigs, tourism marketers, historians, developers, labourers, myth-makers, ornithologists, poets—sources all documented in end notes. It’s a city of revving engines; a city where coyotes take university-level conflict resolution classes; where “tattoo parlours make more money than bookstores”; where shopping malls thrive or die, “one mall’s/ liquidation sale irrigating another mall’s dusty plastic flowers”; a city that walks alone in the dark, listening to ghosts” speaking English, French, Cree Michif,/ Blackfoot, Lakota, Tagalog, Ukrainian,/ Cantonese, Amharic, Punjabi, Spanish,/Arabic, German, feral rock dove, traffic light, pedway ...”

Shepherd’s Edmonton grows as an accretion of images: The city if “the haiku written by a dog and revised by a coyote in Mill Creek Ravine/ the “Oil Respect sticker with a hand-scrawled “S” in front of it.” Anger Flares in poems such as “the Gospel of Prosperity and There’s Another World Coming So Who Gives a Shit About This One,” and in the erasure of First Nations culture replaced by “white and beige neighbourhoods/ which photocopy themselves.” But then, when you least expect it, there are moments of stunning lyric beauty: “Blossoms so purple/ on my way home from work. last spring I stopped/ breathed them in/ then turned around/ walked back the way I came/ to buy a bottle of dark red wine—/ this is the tree.”

The book drew me back to Kroetch’s The Seed Catalogue, where he asks “How do you grow a poet?”—a question posed in the context of a very different Alberta, where inspiration came from the annual seed catalogue and “culture” came packaged from Europe. Two generations later Insomnia Bird reinvestigates Kroetsch’s challenge. It’s a ride on a rush-hour commuter bus—crowded, noisy, fetid. Still you can look out the bus windows to see “Rabbits browse among the constellations.”

—Jannie Edwards

Canadian Literature, July 12, 2019

Shifting Grounds

Sarah de Leeuw, Outside, America. Nightwood Editions 
Kim Fahner, These Wings. Pedlar Press 
Kelly Shepherd Insomnia Bird. Thistledown Press 

By Jenny Kerber

Kelly Shepherd’s Insomnia Bird adopts a narrower focus on the city of Edmonton, but echoes themes that arise in de Leeuw’s work, especially concerning life in resource-dependent communities. Shepherd’s poems portray a city wrestling with rapid growth through the 2000’s oil boom, and test fashionable vocabularies of the “green city” against the actual pressures of accommodating the flora and fauna that thrive and struggle there. The results are often bracing and sardonic, illuminating the risks of forgetting a city’s natural and cultural history amidst a rising tide of consumerism and suburban sprawl. Magpie appears as a wry observer throughout, playing the role of augur, disturber, and opportunist in ways that parallel the city’s human inhabitants and their pecking orders.

The poems quote liberally from urban heritage proposals, municipal ordinances, and PR communications, offering glimpses of how the urban actors they are designed to manage don’t necessarily conform to the best laid plans: caraganas crack sidewalks, coyotes snatch housecats, and jackrabbits nibble gardens. Shepherd’s magpie strategy of quoting from civic documents doesn’t work equally well in every poem, but in many moments this aesthetic throws into relief the devil’s bargain of building communities on fickle resource economies. Such fickleness emerges clearly in a poem like “#ALBERTASTRONG,” which illustrates how the tightening of the oil patch revives social resentments formerly buried under piles of money:

You’re either with us
or you’re against us
, say the people
who only a week earlier
hated the place they had to go to work.

If Alice Major is the laureate of the city’s office towers, Shepherd asserts a strong claim in this collection to writing its blue-collar experiences from the ground up.

— Jenny Kerber

CROWGIRL11, Februrary 13, 2019

Kelly Shepherd’s Insomnia Bird (subtitled, perhaps unnecessarily, “Edmonton poems”) is a city in a book, rich with polyphony, cacophony, intersecting texts, facts, quotes, a bric-a-brac of exhaust and feathers. Full of Marianne Moore-style leapings (if not soundings) in which the information, the research is foregrounded, lying on the surface, detrital, truthful, redolent, Shepherd’s collection of collage poems mashes together the quotidian and demotic with the intellectual and the poetic in a feat the mind squirms essentially to take in.

I was drawn into the book most deeply from the anaphoric poem “Purple City: AfterImages” onwards (“You are regret . . . and graffiti showing a bird with one word — “Listen” — and / the sweat of the labourers who build the long ritual River / Valley Stairs, and the funicular, and the sweat of the believers / who run them . . .”).
Some of the prior pieces fall into a few distracting clichés such as the “heart of the city” or “thunder of hooves,” trees with fingers and the like but also, I think it took a few poems for my mind to click into the particular cadences of the text, which never rest in the pure lyric or a po-mo disjointedness but aim to blur the boundaries between such generic modes.

The descriptor-based poems like “Edmonton! Deadmonton! Edmonchuck! Redmonton!” (“your mountain ash trees full of red berries / and the watery music of waxwings . . . Your drifting snow and your Office Tower Tales . . . and the Wee Book Inn and the Sugarbowl”), “Don’t Let MacDonald’s into Heritage Days” (“I walked home blinking blood . . . poplar and chokecherry now meringued with frost”) and the ones about magpies and coyotes in which such insights inhere as “Resentful of our own receding hairlines, / we clearcut the hills,” are the most potent pieces for this reader.

But the rest have their place in the symphony of things. Indeed, I want to hear this book performed in all its loco layers, à la Robert Bringhurst or the Four Horsemen. It might be, at times, too much textuality for the eye to want take in (especially in combination with all the end notes and epigraphs and blurbs — though I DID appreciate how many women eco-poets are quoted!) but the ear aches to hear the blatting crash of bird and truck, of hammer and train, the poetry cracking through the surfaces more clearly in this fashion, like a yapping dandelion through scrawled-all-over cement. A transplanted BC-er to L’Edmonton myself, I thoroughly relished this raucous homage / lament to a city buzzy with contradictions and yet still humming with beauty.

— Catherine Owen

See an interview with Debbie Okun Hill and Kelly Shepherd at


Kelly Shepherd constructs a magpie nest of a text about Edmonton

With Insomnia Bird, Kelly Shepherd establishes himself as Edmonton’s chief bricoleur, honouring & copying the bird of the title, the magpie Edmontonians know so well, with its huge nests built out of the detritus it finds everywhere in the city. As his epigraph to the whole book (stolen in magpie fashion) puts it: “And of these one and all, I weave the song of myself. / – Magpie, on nest-building.”

With its many epigraphs, quotations & found materials both acknowledged & not (quite), Insomnia Bird builds its own nest of observations, insights, memories bad & good, & old-fashioned boosterism turned awry. Shepherd, something of a recent immigrant to the city, is a keen observer, seeing in the ordinary around him much that long-time citizens like me tend to miss or ignore. What he sees, & catches widdershins in these pieces is a whole that is both more & less than most of us acknowledge or comprehend. And it’s also what his magpie oversees, so to speak, as well as helps to construct. Not just the legendary Greek Pierides, “the magpies of the legend are // symbols of envy, / presumption, idle / gossip and snobbery.” Fitting, perhaps, for the upstart, most northern large city in Canada; or perhaps just a description of some who live here, under Magpie’s eye (not to mention Crow’s, & Coyote’s, also featured figures in this far-reaching book.

From the very start, Insomnia Bird wanders far, rambles around both city & texts, & city-as-texts, telling us that this “twilight bird  two-lighted bird – / feathered yin-yang” pulls behind it “invisible threads, / you stitch stories together, / you needle through the sky!” As the self-conscious poet figure needles & stitches all the seen & found aspects of the material city into a substantial & ironic bricolage that celebrates this city even as it undermines so much of what it tries to say about itself. Some of the stories (& many of these pieces/poems are fiercely narrative) are apparently personal, about the working people who build & fix the city’s infrastructure, while others are taken from histories, news stories, advertisements for the city. Shepherd’s reach is wide; he seeks & finds material for his textual magpie nest across this ever-expanding cityscape. For him, “The city hunkers down on the riverbank / under stands of aspen / with saskatoon fingertips.” Not just “late sunset and brushfire,” etc, it is also “[p]arking lots, flowerbeds, shopping carts / full of empty beer cans. Porcupines / and crows and coyotes / and chickadees.” Not to mention the people on the sidewalks, &, oh yes, “whole herds of bison / that move in and out / of extension cords and blood vessels / and diesel generators / and wait in the dry pages of books.”

But this is just a touch of the massively accumulated materials that make up Insomnia Bird. Set usually in a piece whose title both directs & misdirects (say “Spring: the tension between the enjoyment of patios and the enjoyment of motorcycle” the first part of which is titled “1: On Dropping Your First Twigs into Traffic”), we might find a lyric perception like “Streetlights cast tangled orange / shadows of branches” quickly overtaken by “This strategy was developed / in the context of a renewed / Corporate Land Management Policy.” Stark connections as contrasts rule throughout.

Insomnia Bird is a profoundly “thick” text, with its mixture of personal perceptions (a lengthy bus ride “read” as a long & confusing book, tales from the workplace) & such a variety of found materials ranging from the lowest administrative gobbledygook to admirable poetry. I have barely touched upon all it has to offer. But let’s say that though Insomnia Bird tells Edmonton specifically & therefore should be especially interesting to Edmonton readers, it also tells a story about the contemporary city everywhere (at least in North America), & thus has something to offer readers everywhere. It’s a keeper.

—Douglas Barbour

A bird’s-eye view of Edmonton’s character and quirks
Muse or menace, magpie plays central role in NAIT instructor’s poetry collection, 
Insomnia Bird

Kelly Shepherd didn’t set out to write a book of poems all about Edmonton. But when the NAIT English instructor gave his editor an early version of his collection—the follow-up to 2016’s Shift, which was longlisted for the Alberta Readers’ Choice Award—he realized the common thread was already there.

There were poems about riding the bus in Edmonton. There were poems about working construction in Edmonton. Poems about the river valley, the city’s connection to the energy industry, and even playful references to specific civic arguments of the day (see the poem, “Don’t Let McDonald’s Into Heritage Days”).

Another poem, “Purple City: Afterimages,” contains so much local imagery and folklore—from Accidental Beach to the Flaman treadmill guy by the international airport, “who runs, runs, runs but never makes it out” —that it feels like a key that might unlock the entire city. Just like that, Insomnia Bird: Edmonton Poems was born.

“Purple City: Afterimages” contains so much local imagery and folklore that it feels like a key that might unlock the entire city.

But the collection, released on October 1 by Thistledown Press, goes well past mere boosterism. On the contrary, Shepherd’s poems are a mixture of first-person reflections, kinetic portraits of the city in motion, and collages of found text from street signs and obtuse government documents alike. At the same time, he reminds us of all that the city’s growth has covered up: the longstanding Indigenous history in the area, for instance, as well as features of the natural landscape.

Shepherd was inspired by a concept called “shadow geography,” which is concerned with all of the things that a given place hides or draws your attention away from. But those repressed features don’t actually disappear, he says. They just come out in other, unexpected ways. That's something Insomnia Bird brings to light for Edmonton.

“What do you not want people to see about your city?” Shepherd asks. “What is not going to appear in the official tourist literature?”

“Unofficial mascot” of Edmonton?

At the heart of the collection is the figure of the magpie, which has become an iconic symbol of the city even as it divides residents into two camps: those who love it, and those who can’t stand it.
To Shepherd, the magpie is the “unofficial mascot” of Edmonton, as well as its muse—not despite that divisiveness, but because of it. He likes that it contains both black and white, like a yin-yang, made whole by combining opposing forces.

“There’s a tension built right into this bird,” Shepherd says.

“There’s a tension built right into this bird.”

Insomnia Bird also draws on the magpie’s surprisingly large role in global folklore. “They’re thieves, or gossips, or a symbol of good luck, or a symbol of bad luck, depending on where you are,” Shepherd says. “I really like them, in case that didn’t come through,” he adds with a laugh. “I’m a big fan.”

Embracing a place

Writing about one specific place can be a scary proposition. Sure, the locals may appreciate it, but will anyone outside of that place care? What if they don’t get the references?

Shepherd knows that this question is even more pronounced when you’re writing about a city like Edmonton, which is still a minor player in the media landscape. “Much of our culture is imported, right?” he says. “We’re more familiar, in a way, with New York City and London and Paris. It’s always elsewhere. It’s usually not Canadian, and certainly not in our own neighbourhoods.”

But even if writing about Edmonton wasn’t always the plan, as soon as Shepherd decided he was going down that path for Insomnia Bird, he embraced it.

“I thought it would compromise it if I tried to make Edmonton abstracted, and somehow representative of every city,” he says. “I thought that would ruin it, almost. So I went the other way.”

Birds of a feather, sleepless together

The collection’s title, Insomnia Bird, has multiple meanings for Shepherd.

He has insomnia himself and often writes at odd hours. But it’s also based on a series of studies on birds that live in urban centres. Researchers, he says, have found that some urban birds are actually kept up at night because of the light pollution generated by cities.

—Michael Hingston


In two recent collections, urban wildlife becomes a context for poets exploring the relationship of human and animal—a relationship that stretches back into myth-making and tale-telling, sideways into contemporary biology, and forward into a future of changing climate and anthropocentric landscapes. Each poet uses a different lens and tools to produce different but complementary books.

The “insomnia bird” of Kelly Shepherd’s collection is the magpie, the totem animal presiding over his city of Edmonton: northerly, edging the boreal forest, inhabited by magpie and coyote, but also by people making a living from the oilsands, transit riders and construction workers in a city under rapid construction. He cobbles together a fabulous pastiche of text from corporate brochures and websites; allusions to literary works modern and ancient; bafflegab from civic planning documents; and pieties from public consultation documents; all held together with patches of his own illuminating lyricism.

A magpie spreads his wings, lifts off
throws elm trees aside
flings houses and lamp posts left and right
hunches its shoulders, dives
and moves the entire sky.

“Reading (on) the bus, where the Great Plains begin” is one of the poems that exemplifies Shepherd’s magpie approach. The narrative of a bus ride on a dark winter morning—irritable bus driver, passengers getting on and off or breaking into argument, the road traffic and slammed brakes—is interleaved with quotes from the book the poet is reading about Brutalist architecture. The style that formed many of the city’s buildings during its rapid post-war boom becomes a metaphor for the interactions of its people; the bus’s sudden lurches echo economic and environmental ones:

We are starting to slide out of control.
Many of the passengers
are not yet aware of this. . .

Yet in the morning dark, Shepherd’s poem touches one final grace note, a reminder of the city’s other inhabitants: “Rabbits browse among the constellations.”

Wildlife constantly interrupts and comments on the city. “Coyote comes to town (To Take a Class in Public Participation and Conflict Resolution at the University of Alberta)” is one of the quirky titles. His magpie is not the creature of old tales that collects shiny objects – it is itself the shiny thing, something to be observed, admired, considered. It offers “a charm of picomancy,” a gesture to the future.

Occasionally the pastiche technique gets strained. One beautiful poem pictures a woman who, seen at a distance “on the smoky sidewalk downtown appears / to be wearing a luxurious, if dusty, feather shawl.” This figure becomes a kind of bird spirit, “a pillar of pigeons.” But the title, “A Neotony of Smartphones,” feels like something chosen simply to be smart. It makes some sort of connection in the poet’s mind, but the reader wonders ‘what the heck?’ and feels that the mental energy expended on making any connection has been wasted. Parataxis can be taxing at times, especially after a long day.

Nevertheless, for the most part, Shepherd’s technique works to create a sense of independent streams of existence that must coexist somehow: human and animal; the language of poet and planner; myths and jobs. As a whole, Insomnia Bird, keeps us awake for all the right reasons, including its sly humour and sharp critique of the environment humans are manufacturing.

— Alice Major