How to Be a River

How to Be a River

written by Brenda Niskala
edited by Bruce Rice
softcover ~ 64 pages ~ 6" x 8" ~ $15.00
ISBN 978-0-9881229-2-5
2nd edition, released spring 2013


Brenda Niskala’s How to Be a River (2nd edition) is an intimate tour through the tough territory of bars and courtrooms, the angst and glory of sex, and, yes, of romance. Niskala's poetry celebrates wise and accepting love for family, for flawed yet wondrous people, and, with a detour across the Atlantic, for this place of grass. Powerful and vivid, How To Be A River evokes the currents, the riptides and the flow of life.

Comments | History Excerpt | Conversation points 
Meet the author | Photo gallery | Buying notes


  • Kim Morrissey (author)
    Niskala's poetry is as open and generous, and sometimes as raw and as heart-breaking, as the Saskatchewan prairie she calls home
  • Judith Krause (Poet Laureate of Saskatchewan, 2014-2015)
    In How to Be a River, Brenda Niskala skillfully negotiates the ‘muddy jubilant waters’ of love, a journey that takes us through an interior landscape every bit as varied and compelling as the lands in which these renderings of desire and passion and our deep need for each other transpire. Niskala’s voice is honest, generous and spirited. Her poems are tough and sensual—they demonstrate “…sex/ [proves] its mettle/ in the volcano of survival.” This collection pulses with the urgencies and riskiness of life as it unfolds, for each of us, in unequal measures of longing, sorrow and joy.
  • Devin Pacholik - Read the full review...
    Brenda Niskala’s How to Be a River shows us love is a wild and raw experience. No grey tones here...
  • Justin Dittrick - Read the full review... 
    Brenda Niskala’s How to Be a River offers to readers a set of poems as diverse as they are nuanced, as piercing as they are enigmatic. Niskala’s writing is crisp and tight, unburdened by sentimentality, and the poems glimmer with an immediate and luminous arousal of recognition, of the sense of truly “being here.” The poems capture surprising crossways of feeling and consciousness...Niskala is a poet with exquisite taste in subject matter and a native ability to capture forms and expressions of human connectedness.



The first edition of How to Be a River was published in a handbound limited numbered edition (100 copies) and launched in October, 2012. By January 2013, it was sold out. 




cover of first edition




You climb a rock pile, your child hands
plump and certain, nails full of earth.
You’ve been digging
a fort. The walls, small rises of fine dust,
will blow away in tomorrow’s
      The rocks are rounded,
grooved, abraded by glacial movement, spring floods,
and penetrating ice, where buffalo have leaned itchy hides
for a hundred thousand mosquito-ridden dusks.
      Each rock releases afternoon sun,
the remembered warmth of its making.

Dried grasses poke through crevices, stubborn
as their roots. Your feet are hide-tough,
from the gravel of the lane to the unpainted
farmhouse, the sun’s reflection on its windows
fuchsia, gold.

      You balance on the cap stone, heaved from the field
fifty years ago. You wave your hands, reach for the sunset,
shout to the rocks, the earthen fort, the stooped
figures at the door of the glowing house, the sun itself:
I am King of the Castle. The chant
echoes back from the barn. You call again,
again, sense the indulgent, love-filled
eyes on your climb, and what you understand as weariness.
      They remember crenellated towers, dust-born,
their pillowing potential,
their own inevitable fall.

Conversation points

If you are a member of a book club, like to discuss what you read with family and friends, or enjoy interior dialogues with yourself, a few questions follow to get the conversational ball rolling.

  • Why do you think the author chose the title How to Be a River?
  • In what ways does each section title - Room Full of Men, Over the North Atlantic, Blunt Instrument, Places of Grass - fit with the poems in that section?
  • How would you describe the character of Anita, who plays a central role in the first section? How would you explain the reasons for the path her life took?
  • How much of the intensity of the second section arises from the nature of a long distance relationship? How does a long distance relationship differ emotionally from other kinds of relationships? 
  • What issues regarding legal systems does the third section raise? 
  • How does your family compare to the family highlighted in the last section?
  • What is the role or impact of physical landscape in the poems? 
  • What kinds of emotions do you experience as you read the poems?
  • In what ways do or don't the poems reflect your own experiences?
  • Which poems do you relate to most, and what is it about the poems that connect you to them?

Meet the Author - Brenda Niskala

Brenda Niskala

Born and raised in west central Saskatchewan, in the Coteau Hills near Outlook, Brenda Niskala currently makes her home in Regina. Brenda has been, among other things, a nurses' aide, a community college co-ordinator, a crisis counsellor, a legal aid lawyer, a labour rep and a writer-in-residence. She currently works in the cultural industries.


photo by Donna Niskala 

About Brenda's writing

Brenda Niskala’s first full book of poetry was Ambergris Moon (Thistledown, 1983), followed by a co-authored collection, Open 24 Hours (Broken Jaw, 1997) and a number of chapbooks including Emma's Horizon (Hagpapers, 2000) and What Butterflies Do at Night (B-Print, 2005). Her forays into fiction include the novella Of All the Ways to Die (Quattro, 2009) and the linked short story collection For the Love of Strangers (Coteau Books, 2010), nominated for the City of Regina Book Award and the CBC Summer Reading list for Saskatchewan.  She is now collaborating with Barbara Kahan on a film script featuring an opinionated macaw, and working on her next (well, first) novel, which will introduce the pirating adventures of a Viking ship in about 1065. Brenda has read to audiences across Canada, in Finland, and in England. In 2011 she presented at the Festival of Words in Moose Jaw.

Questions and answers with Brenda

Who should read these poems? 
I hope that people who think they can't understand poetry will read my poems and find them accessible. I hope that people who already love poetry will also find them enjoyable. I've chosen to try to reach these two groups because both are in my life and I want to communicate with each of them. 

Why should people who don't usually read poetry read your poems?
There is a way that people who don't usually read poetry can appreciate poems. I think that way is through being open to the feeling that a poem evokes, whether all the nuances are understood or not. For me the most important thing about a poem is that it evokes an emotional response. Although my very favourite poems also inspire me to think. They move my thoughts as well as my feeling to a new place. That's what I hope these poems in How to Be a River do.

What are the inspirations for your poetry? 
Poems in this book have arisen from personal emotional issues, intellectual questions, from things I've read, from art. I find writing exercises are good for getting me writing but they don't necessarily allow the depth that other poems do. 

What is the background to the poems in this collection?
The book is a mixture of poems written long ago and written fairly recently. Some of them were written on napkins in restaurants, some were written on used envelopes on the corner of a kitchen table. That's a very common thing for me, to write at the kitchen table. Some were written directly onto my computer at a writing retreat like Emma Lake. The themes in the book's four sections have been with me for many years and I'm very pleased that they've come together in what I consider a satisfying and cohesive narrative. 

Do you have particular favourites in the collection? 
I'm hoping to have a couple of the poems memorized for the launch so currently they're my favourites: Cleansing Breath and Time in this Place of Grass. I chose them because when I've read them to audiences in the past I recognized they had a fair amount of power as spoken pieces. Next week two others might be my favourites. 

What is your process for writing your poetry? 
Poetry is the stuff I write when the process of writing fiction bores me or scares me or both. Poetry is a way of getting to the deep stuff fast so it frees my voice and I can move on then with my other writing. I don't sit down and say "now I'm going to write a poem" Although, I did do that for about a year - I wrote a poem a day. But there weren't very many good poems out of that lot. 
     In general when I write a poem the first six to eight lines are trash but then I get right into the heart of it and by the time it's in the second draft it's pretty much the way I like it. Having said that, I probably go through a dozen rewrites at a minimum, especially because issues such as line breaks and punctuation are things I'm currently playing around with. I have moved from an open to a more structured style. The current book reflects both, as I'm in transition. My newer poetry is moving towards more attention to form and I'm having fun with that because form can create a tension in the narrative line of the work.

How do you find being published by a very new, very small press?
This has been a very collaborative process. I feel like I've been involved in every stage in a significant way and that's been gratifying. In particular I now have a greater appreciation for hand binding. And the intricacies of paper selection. And paper trimming. 
     So much of publishing is industrial and the focus on the author is on promotion - but the author is typically not encouraged to be part of the production. Being part of the production makes the book very important to me in a way that a machine-created book would not be - could not be. Book publishing needs to address all forms, from the highly industrial model to the hand crafted. I find that a big part of my heart is with the hand crafting. I do love a beautiful book. 

Photo gallery

Photos from the launch (co-sponsored with Connaught Branch, Regina Public Library, October 17, 2012). Photo on the left is by David Rosenbluth; photo on the right is by SK Books. For more launch photos, visit the Events page













Photos below are from the "
Pottery/Jewellery/Poetry/Drumming" afternoon of browsing and conversation (December 1, Connaught Library, Regina). For more photos of this occasion, visit the Events page.












Photo at right: Brenda reading at Books and Art in Fort Qu'Appelle, August 29, 2015. For more detail and more photos, visit the Events page.




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