The Reluctant Poet

Debbie Okun Hill has won numerous poetry awards but the most significant are two recent Ontario Arts Council Writers’ Reserve grants that have freed up her time to create new work

The Reluctant Poet

Debbie Okun Hill (BA' 95) had an upbringing that would be unfathomable to youngsters who spend their time glued to smartphones and tablets.

“For the first five years of my life, I lived on the prairies in a three-room house with no running water or working toilet,” says Debbie. “That serene life – books, words, open rural spaces, and unscheduled play – is something I still treasure.”

Later, her family moved to Selkirk, Manitoba, where Debbie discovered her love for writing and volunteering. In high school, she was the newspaper and yearbook editor, the grad chairman, and a student council member.

For the last 12 years, Debbie has been a full-time poet. Over 290 of her poems have been published in more than 110 publications and websites including Descant and the Literary Review of Canada as well as American poetry magazines Mobius and The Binnacle.

“I want my poems to be like kites without strings: not tied down to a particular school but free to fly in new, perhaps less travelled directions,” Debbie reveals.

Oddly enough, Debbie’s early affinity for literature didn’t extend to poetry. For decades she says she hated the genre until a local writers’ group shifted her perspective. “Today, I like to advocate: if you don’t like poetry, you just haven’t found the right poem yet,” she says.

After high school, Debbie dabbled in different areas, trying to find her way, including a year as a bank teller and two years studying Creative Communications at Red River Community College in Winnipeg. She also worked as a Public Relations assistant at The Winnipeg Art Gallery for several years.

In the mid-1980s, Debbie moved to Thunder Bay when she was hired as an Information Officer at Lakehead University. Lakehead became an outlet to refine her writing abilities – Debbie was the first editor of the AGORA, a staff and faculty newspaper established in 1984.

Each hour, she runs through her daily life attempting to create a better world where Olympic torches lead athletes away from gutters and ditches dark bowling over lanes unsafe alleways

Excerpt from The Finish Line (published in Tarnished Trophies, 2014)

“One of the best parts of the job was interviewing amazing researchers doing some extraordinary work,” she says.

Debbie also took courses part time, completing her Bachelor of Arts in 1995. “The long road was worth it as it allowed me to be mobile, relocate several times, work full time, and start a family.” But what she remembers most about Lakehead were the people. “I appreciated their friendliness and helpfulness,” she says. “Dr. Bob Rosehart was appointed interim president the year I started and it was fascinating to watch the progression of his vision to build Lakehead as a university ‘in and for the north.’”

Although Debbie has been focused on her literary ambitions since leaving Lakehead, she and her husband have remained strong supporters. “Our annual alumni donation is always directed to the B. H. Lacey Memorial Award (in memory of a dear friend and business administration professor who passed away) and a mechanical engineering student ‘car’ project.”

In 2014, Debbie achieved an important goal – her first poetry collection, Tarnished Trophies, was released by literary trade publisher Black Moss Press. The volume explores sports and athletics and is described as “…metaphorical snapshots of tarnished men and women, the unrewarded failures, and the need to reflect.”

Besides gardening words full time in rural southwestern Ontario, as Debbie puts it, she is a former president of The Ontario Poetry Society, a full member of the League of Canadian Poets, and a new member of the Writers’ Union of Canada.

Read more about Debbie Okun Hill’s poetry, upcoming readings, and events at: