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Poetry and its Preoccupations: An Interview with Annick MacAskill

Annick MacAskill’s debut collection of poetry, No Meeting Without Body, was published by Gaspereau Press in the spring of 2018. Her poems have appeared in journals such as Grain, Room, Canadian Notes & Queries, Prism, Versal, Arc, The Fiddlehead, and The Antigonish Review. She has also been selected as a finalist for prizes including the CBC Canada Writes Poetry Prize, the Edna Staebler Personal Essay Contest, and the Short Grain Contest. Originally from Ontario, she currently lives and writes in Halifax.

 

Why poetry? Why write mainly in this medium?

Poetry is the form I’m most comfortable with at this point. I enjoy reading and writing poetry, and most of the time, what I want to write about calls for a poem.

I also write prose, though quite slowly. I just had an essay longlisted for The New Quarterly‘s Edna Staebler Personal Essay Contest. It was the first time I wrote creative non-fiction, and I’d like to try more of it. I write short fiction here and there, but I rarely feel the same urgency with prose as with poetry projects.

You moved to Halifax not too long ago. Has the physical move from one place to another (Waterloo, ON to Halifax, NS) affected your writing in any way?

I’ve moved a fair bit, and Halifax is the seventh city I’ve lived in, the fourth I’ve lived in as a writer. I’m tired! One of the upsides to too many moves is engaging with different writing communities. It’s hard to leave people behind, but it’s also helpful and interesting to have a bit of a network in a few different cities.

This specific move had an immediate effect on my most recent writing project, because when I arrived in Halifax (about a year ago), I was working on a project with a lot of bird imagery. The birds are different here in Halifax than in Kitchener-Waterloo – fewer geese, more starlings, for example.

I’m not sure I have enough distance yet to understand exactly how the move to Halifax will affect my writing. I enjoy meeting new writers and being exposed to new communities (and their concerns), but I also spend a lot of time reading, and the books I read keep me in touch with other concerns and traditions.

You are a student in French Studies. I have also noticed insertions of French words/phrases in your poetry (for example, “Avenue Gambetta”). Yet, you write primarily in English. How do interactions between English and French affect your writing? Do you find knowing more than one language positively impacts your writing, or is it more of a hindrance?

Knowing other languages has been both a hindrance and a positive influence. Really it’s only a hindrance in the short term – I sometimes (often?) misuse words or have to search for words, and if I’m spending a lot of time with French, my English syntax can become a bit convoluted. But there’s definitely a richness that comes with studying other languages, a kind of new wonder with a language I might have otherwise taken for granted.

Tell me a bit about your new book, No Meeting Without Body. I am curious about the title, the “meeting” it speaks of. You mentioned in an interview with Western News that there are no unified themes in your new collection. Yet, the title speaks of a “meeting”. Can you expand?

I originally had another title for my collection: Book of Hours, after the medieval genre (essentially a prayer/devotional book for noble women, with biblical passages, prayers, and other texts). My editor, Andrew Steeves, suggested that the title had already been used for too many other poetry books (it turns out that’s true), and asked me to think of something else.

I pored over my book looking for standout lines. One of my favourites was “There is no meeting without body”, which is in a poem I wrote about a photograph of Tatiana Tolstoy and her father, Leo Tolstoy. The line resonated, for me, with the rest of the book (in various and abstract ways). Andrew liked it, so we went ahead with it.

Leo Tolstoy with daughter Tatyana in Gaspra, Crimea, 1902
Illustration: Photograph: Countess Sophia Andreyevna Tolstaya/Heritage Images/Getty Images

Any writing rituals that you find works for you?

I work multiple jobs in addition to writing these days (as so many of us do), so my only writing ritual is to try to write whenever I can, even if it’s just a few words. I keep a notebook with me so I can jot things down when I need to. I do wish I had a more structured writing practice.

You mention in one of your interviews about turning to poetic books of the Bible for inspiration. Is writing a religious pursuit for you as well (that is, writing poetry as an extension of engaging with your religious identity)? How do you see your religious beliefs/practices impacting your writing? 

Religion is a huge preoccupation for me. The first poem in my book, “Lingua Ignota”, explores some of what these questions are getting at through an extended address to the medieval mystic, composer, poet, and philosopher Hildegard von Bingen. I think this poem betrays my interest in devotion without religion, which is something I continue to explore.

I don’t think of myself as having a religion, but I did inherit a religious culture (Catholicism), as well as a healthy appetite for story. The Bible contains some of my favourite stories and characters (Judith, Job, Abraham, Ruth, Jesus, etc.), and some of my favourite poetry. Many of my poems are re-writings of stories or imitations of devotional verse, from the Bible or elsewhere.

Poetry is definitely one of my preferred ways to interact with my religious tradition as myth, and also to explore my own relationship with the divine, if I can even have one. I mean, how do I access the divine as an agnostic?

As a queer feminist, I also have a lot of political opinions on patriarchal religion in general, and Roman Catholicism in particular. What do I make of the beauty of this tradition when it is also so oppressive? Why does my conception of the divine have to be male? How do I reconcile the hypocrisy of contemporary Christians with the wisdom of the Hebrew Bible and New Testament? And so on…

What’s urgent (for you) about writing poetry? What are your preoccupations as a poet? 

Poetry is urgent to me in the way it calls for urgency, and the way it often creates the effect of urgency through a variety of stylistic and rhetorical devices. The poems that speak to me often have a distinct movement, an élan, that propels them forward. I find this movement, this energy, compelling, both as a reader and a writer.

I guess my greatest preoccupation as a poet is to say what I want to say while maintaining/imitating the effect of music in some way. I also enjoy the process of writing poetry, the way it leads me to where I need to go in the convergence of images and metaphors I find interesting (which I more or less consciously seek out) with the thoughts and emotions I don’t immediately have access to. If I’m turning over thoughts about broad concepts like misogyny and homophobia on a daily basis, my feelings about these issues will eventually come out in my poems. I know, for example, that I’m enraged and saddened by what I see in the world, but how exactly do those emotions operate in me? And what in particular scratches at my heart?

Best advice for emerging poets/writers?

Two things are essential: read, read, read (more than you think is necessary, and more widely than you might think necessary), and find community. I love my writing friends, and it’s nice to have people to turn to when I need some perspective on my work (I know I’m in trouble when I spend hours doing nothing but moving line breaks along, and talking to a friend helps me get out of the daze).

Also, trust that you have something to contribute. If it’s not immediately obvious where your writing will fit in, that’s probably a good thing.

 

This interview was conducted over email from 4th Sept to 6th Sept 2018.

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