How to Grow a Garden: The Library as Braided Essay

In my branch of the library, the poetry section faces books on travel—thick Lonely Planet guides with simple titles: France, Indonesia. A little further down the aisle is fly fishing and hockey biographies. In the other direction, on the facing wall, the history of Spain 

My first book, The Bosun Chair, is here, in poetry, though it is a hybrid of poetry and family memoir and most of it is written in prose, in full sentences and paragraphs. My latest book, Micrographia, is also here, though it is in nonfiction in the bookstore. It is a collection of essays, though many of the short pieces have the lyric language and compression of prose poems.  

Sometimes my books fall between the shelves.

There is a form of lyric nonfiction known as the braided essay. In these pieces, threads of narrative are interwoven with fragments of science, history, or politics. As the essay unfolds, the fragments create new layers of meaning through their juxtaposition—by being placed side-by-side. 

When librarian Melvil Dewey created the Dewey Decimal Classification in 1873, he divided all knowledge into 10 broad categories: general works; philosophy and psychology; religion; social sciences; language; natural sciences and mathematics; technology; the arts; literature and rhetoric; and history, biography and geography. The literature section was meant to cover fiction, poetry and drama.  

Because of the huge amount of fiction, most libraries today, including EPL, shelve fiction separately by author’s last name. All the other shelves, the ones organized by Dewey, are labelled “nonfiction.” This is where the poetry still lives. 

Is poetry “nonfiction?” This question may be answered theoretically, philosophically, or artistically, with different results. There are numerous examples of fictional poemspoems whose speaker is a character different from the poet, poems that describe imagined scenes or even just take liberties with the facts. And some poems live in experiments with language and sound for which the question doesn’t even make sense. Yet there is still a common assumption, belief and even instinct that poetry is a genre of confession and intimacy. 

Before Dewey, books in libraries were sometimes shelved by height. It is a wonder that anyone found what they were looking for.  

It took me 10 years to write The Bosun Chair. It began as my Master’s thesis in creative writing, a straightforward family memoir recounting my great-grandparents’ shipwreck experiences in early 20th century Newfoundland. It didn’t feel quite right in that form. I kept setting the manuscript aside, then coming back to it, revising, re-revising and setting it aside again. Writing poems that fit the content but not the manuscript. When I finally let go of the walls of genre and leaned into a hybrid format—when I realized this was something I could do—everything seemed to fall into place. 

The Dewey Decimal Classification, or DDC, is anything but neutral. Some of its inherent gender bias, Anglo-centrism and homophobia have been mitigated with system revisions over the years, but some remain.  

On a purely practical level, the EPL’s manual on the DDC shows how the evolution of publishing and culture in general has created endless questions and grey areas. If a book covers more than one topic, the manual tells us to classify it with the predominant one. The hundreds of Chicken Soup for the Soul books—the Golfer’s Soul, the Horse Lover’s Soul—require their entry in the manual. These books “consist of anecdotes and should be classified in 000-999 according to the topic, rather than in applied psychology.” 

Dutch astronomer Tycho Brahe’s 16th century books described the positions of 777 stars and made huge advances in the field of astronomy. They also claimed the sun orbited the earth

The Bosun Chair is poetry, but it is also nonfiction to the extreme—uber-nonfiction, meta-nonfiction. Nonfiction that explores the very edges of truth and narrative. When faced with oral histories and archives about my great-grandparents in 20th century Newfoundland, all I could see were contradictions and gaps. Some of these I tried to fill with poems about my own life, some with fictionalized scenes. But running throughout this book is an overarching question—when writing about the past, how can we ever know what is true? This question, for me, is the real story of the book. 

When I wander through the library shelves, I am amazed at everything we claim to know about the universe. I am equally amazed by all the stories that have been conjured, which feel, when they are good ones, like truth. Which is truth—the truth of human emotions relationships and experiences.

What do we lose when we hold too tightly to the boundaries of genre? How can anyone find what they are looking for? 

I don’t know if the library classification system that was first created 150 years ago is the best one. Nor do I know—not really—that the earth orbits the sun. In both regards I trust the current experts. I love watching the sun seem to fall behind our horizon. And I love wandering in a library, the titles that pop out from the shelves.  

How to Create Your Garden. 
On Gravity. 
Infinity: A Very Short Introduction. 

New layers of meaning are created in the juxtapositions. How a book of poetry can be a travel guide. How a book of astrophysics can be a book of poetry. 

Jennifer Bowering Delisle is the author of four books of poetry and creative nonfiction: The Bosun Chair, a lyric family memoir (NeWest Press 2017); Deriving, a collection of poetry (University of Alberta Press 2021); Micrographia, a collection of lyric essays (Gordon Hill Press 2023); and Stock, a collection of poetry (forthcoming with Coach House Press 2025). Her work has been funded by grants from the Canada Council, The Alberta Foundation for the Arts, and the Edmonton Arts Council.

Jennifer completed her PhD in English at the University of British Columbia in 2008, and published her research, The Newfoundland Diaspora: Mapping the Literature of Outmigration, with Wilfrid Laurier University Press in 2013. For the last 11 years she has applied her skills in creative writing, teaching, and research to a career in instructional design.

She has taught numerous creative writing classes and workshops, most recently for the Alexandra Writers Centre and The University of Alberta Faculty of Extension. Since 2018, she has served on the board of NeWest Press, where she has the privilege of helping select and edit exciting new works of nonfiction, fiction, and poetry. Jennifer recently completed the first draft of her first novel, a middle grade adventure story. She is currently working on a new collection of poems about parenting in the midst of global crisis.