Tanis MacDonald is the author of three books of poetry and two books of critical work on Canadian poets/poetry.
A once-and-forever Winnipegger, Tanis now lives in Waterloo and teaches English and creative writing at Wilfred Laurier University.
She is also firmly invested in what she calls FaunaWatch, which is the naming and numbering of the wildlife she sees in her everyday life.
Tanis was recently in Winnipeg and we met up for a walk in Assiniboine Forest that was all marsh wrens and pink mushrooms and heady understory, undercut with poetry talk.
And so I'm pleased to present this interview about her most recent book, which is all that it should be, interview-wise...
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What do you want people to know about The Daughter’s Way: Canadian Women’s Paternal Elegies?
So much! I researched and wrote, and re-wrote this book for ten years, which is the longest time I have ever lived with a book, so I have plenty to say about it.
I’m a poet as well as a scholar, and when I was writing The Daughter’s Way, I thought a lot about the importance of explaining the position of the elegy – a poem that mourns the dead, or the passing of a particular time or way of being – in contemporary culture. The book is a scholarly study with a difference, the difference being that even though I quote Derrida and Freud and do literary analysis, I begin and end the book with down-to-earth questions about what it is like to live with the conditions of mourning and how our increasingly secularized society struggles for the language to talk about such things. These themselves are enduring questions in elegy studies, but I was surprised to find so little written about gender and the elegy. So people should also know that the book is about how women’s writing has changed the elegy, and I wrote quite a bit about why Freud’s ideas need to be examined with caution. He was a very influential thinker, but if you read him, you’d think that he never met a woman. Ever. I think the same about George Lucas, for the record.
Finally, I would like people to know that The Daughter’s Way was a book that I was told by various people couldn’t be written, primarily because those people said that there were not enough Canadian female poets who wrote poetry about their father’s death, or if they did, no one cared, and that the idea of the elegy as a feminist moment was not substantial enough, etc. etc. None of these statements cut much ice with me; I had already done enough research to disprove these downers by the time they came my way. In fact, I found far more material than I could comfortably fit in the book, which is, of course, making me think about a follow-up book. But such admonitions were valuable to me because they prompted my first inklings that I was the expert on this material. The Daughter’s Way is one of the few books published about women’s contemporary elegy, and the only book about the elegy in Canada that looks at the role of gender in the production of the poems. It was also a finalist for the 2013 Gabrielle Roy Prize for Canadian Literary Criticism, which was a nice honour.
Tell me about your best reading in Winnipeg.
The Elegy Roadshow, in November 2012, was probably my best reading in Winnipeg. I read from the introduction and the conclusion of The Daughter’s Way to a very appreciative and sizable audience. People were so attentive; it was fantastic to see. That reading was a true hometown reading – people from all different parts of my life showed up: writer friends and scholar friends and high school friends and actor friends and my mother’s friends, and my former MA supervisor, Brenda Austin-Smith, whom I love with the white-hot intensity of a thousand suns. Plus, I had great guest elegists that day in Jennifer Still and Katherena Vermette; there’s nothing quite like having living writers demonstrate everything that appears in the book! Kate is also a former student of mine, so having her fraternal elegies from her first book at the Roadshow made me very happy.
But I should also say that I’ve had several memorable readings in Winnipeg at McNally-Robinson. There was the launch for my second book of poetry, Fortune, during which I read poems based on the turns of a wheel of fortune that audience members got up and spun. I also launched my first book of poems, holding ground, to a huge crowd in the Café in June 2000 and received a beautiful note the next week from the McNallys saying that they had never seen so many people turn out for a poetry book. I’ll bet that record has been broken by now, but it was a wonderful thing for a young poet to hear. The funniest reading I had in Winnipeg was one at which my mother decided that I had read for long enough and said so loud enough for the whole room to hear. People fell about laughing. And what could I say in reply? Nothing. When your mother says it’s time to stop, it’s probably time to listen.
How did the events in the Elegy Roadshow (your extended multi-city tour which included other writers) compare to touring a book of poetry? (Put another way, talking about literature instead of performing it…)
I believe that when it’s done right, there doesn’t have to be much difference between talking about literature and performing it. Both actions should get people excited about reading, excited about words, excited about possibilities. There is great synergy to combining the two, and my observation has been that readers are really hungry for that kind of critical/creative event. The Elegy Roadshow is just one example of how such an event could be presented, and it was born of my decision to make the link between my creative and critical lives explicit. I have a background in theatre so I thought I would put the “show” in “Roadshow” by having guest elegists read while opening up the ideas to the audience in between the poems. The Elegy Roadshow has been a really amazing experience, and attracted audiences in a way that I hadn’t anticipated. Those audiences are a testament to my hard-working and imaginative colleagues across the country, all of whom got fired up by the idea of the Roadshow and took time from their busy schedules to promote and organize locally. In some cases, they found local elegists whose work I didn’t know, so that was a bonus for me. I am absolutely indebted to Karis Shearer in Kelowna, Jason Wiens and Kit Dobson in Calgary, Jeanette Lynes in Saskatoon, and Ruth Roach Pierson in Toronto; to Karis especially because she was the first to say yes to the whole mad idea. I will be doing one more Elegy Roadshow, in London, Ontario with sound poet Penn Kemp, in the spring of 2014.
For me, the similarities to touring with a book of poetry were there, for sure. It was my work, it was poetic, I read from it, etc. But the differences were very exciting, especially seeing the devotion to the elegies (for all kinds of people: parents; siblings, children, friends, lovers) that my guest poets brought to the reading, and how their readings pull the event together. It was different than promoting several poetry books together, because everyone was reading from their elegies and everyone had been thinking about elegiac writing on their own. That kind of confluence was very gratifying and it made for intriguing conversations at each of the stops on the Roadshow route. I also ended each Roadshow with an elegy of my own, so I had the privilege of wearing two hats at each event. That is something that I live with in my consciousness every day, but people often ask me about how being a poet and a scholar works in my life, and I was happy to have the space to do a practical demonstration of it.
What are you reading right now? What are you writing right now? And how does it inform your poetry?
Halfway through my doctoral study, a poet-scholar said to me, “Isn’t it cool the way scholarly work informs poetry?” and I had no idea what he was talking about. I first had to figure out what kind of scholar I would be, and then I dealt with the cross-pollination dynamic. I had to learn to trust my writerly self to make something of what I read, and that took a while. That’s less about being a scholar than it is about being a voracious reader. I know plenty of autodidactic writers who read widely and produce intense, finely-written work that draws from a million sources, is deeply allusive, pleasurably complex and rich and fantastic to read. I know other authors who guard their reading and writing practices carefully. Both approaches have their successes, but I’m pretty influence-drenched.
Part of my challenge with poetry lately has been to find ways to write that depends less upon beauty and more upon strangeness and incompleteness, in terms of language and subject matter. This doesn’t mean giving up the lyric entirely, but I am finding that the process of revising my next poetry manuscript has been long because of my own demands on language and form. Right now I am reading Lisa Robertson’s The Weather, Erin Mouré’s My Beloved Wager, Miranda Hill’s Sleeping Funny, Simone Weil’s Notebooks, Rebecca Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby. In order, that’s a poetry book, a book of essays about poetics, a short story collection, notebooks of philosophical and theological miscellany, and a creative memoir about being a writer. I like a mix of genres and I also like to read several books at once and let them crash up against each other. I like the way such combinations make different demands on me as a reader. I never write one thing at a time. This month, I am putting the finishing touches on a book of poems about female embodiment, the animal self, and disability. I just finished writing a creative/critical essay about the FaunaWatch project, and will be writing a scholarly paper about elegists as public intellectuals, and continuing my long-term research project on Simone Weil in Canadian literature. People laugh when I say that it’s all one project in my head, but that’s really true for me.
Tell about the pleasures and perils of writing lit-crit.
The pleasures and the perils of writing literary criticism are a lot like the pleasures and perils of writing poetry. Both are demanding genres in which you have to think about every word because the people who read these genres will scrutinize it closely – and as well they might. Both audiences have a sense of community and competition; we support each other and criticize each other in equal measure. The biggest peril, I think, in writing literary criticism is the time it takes away from writing poetry, but that’s all part of being “bitextual” as I like to call it. When I was grad student, I had a ton of poet/critic role models, especially on the prairies: Dennis Cooley, Robert Kroetsch, Deborah Schnitzer, Di Brandt, Catherine Hunter – and I read my way through the great “Writer as Critic” series that Smaro Kamboureli edits for NeWest Press. I was also writing about female poet-critics like Erin Mouré and Lola Lemire Tostevin. In that kind of environment, it never occurred to me that my dual focus was unusual. However, I take seriously the caveat that if you get involved with promoting literary work, there are people who will tend to think of you as a promoter and not as a fellow poet. With the kind of literary advertisement and ceaseless self-promotion that happens on Facebook – and believe me, I use it myself for the same reasons! – this is a fine line to walk. I am always happy to promote someone’s work if it fits in with what I am teaching or with an event I am planning; I had 18 writers read at the Congress literary readings at Laurier in May 2012! That was a big literary shindig and a lot of fun.
Another built-in job of working in both genres is that sometimes writers have questions about whose text gets taught in the classroom, or written about in a paper, and why. I understand if writers feel gravely misunderstood by the academic community, and when senior writers have complaints, I listen because they have been around enough to know. I also do a fair amount of scholarly research and writing about ignored or misread texts (and authors). But some odd situations have arisen as I swim in both pools. P.K. Page once lectured me at length about the difference between being clever (criticism) and being smart (poetry), but Page was famously suspicious of literary criticism. Another writer told me that she refused an interview from an earnest graduate student because she thought that the student was using her to “write his *#$! dissertation.” Sure he was, just as she could be “using” him to get the criticism right and promote her work, except that she turned down that chance. It’s absolutely her prerogative to do so, but I was surprised by her vehemence, and can only assume there was a history there – that she had been treated poorly by scholars – of which I was not aware.
For me, personally, Sheila Heti described my reality in and out of the academy in her recent article, “A New Canadian Myth for New Canadian Times,” in which she writes about how groups of artists help each other with all manner of practical support, from proofreading to filming performances to offering accommodation to publicity and reviews to hauling boxes of props. Sometimes I’m a Canlit critic, reviewing books, recommending them, teaching them, and inviting people to read at my institution, and sometimes I’m the artist doing the readings, getting my book promoted by people I know, etc. Every once in a while there’s an Elegy Roadshow, or Margaret Christakos’s Influency Salon, where I get to do both. I was on a panel at the Public Poetics conference at Mount Allison University in September 2013 that was made up of poet-critics – Rob Winger (Muybridge’s Horse), Amanda Jernigan (Groundwork) and me – and chaired by Kevin McNeilly (Embouchure)! – and that’s the kind of experience I crave.
Your third collection of poetry, Rue the Day (2008), contained several elegies for your father. Did the writing of those poems lead you into the ideas in The Daughter’s Way?
I began my research into women’s paternal elegies years before I started writing Rue the Day. My father was a life-long athlete who had ridden his bike across Canada with his brother over the course of three summers and when I began the research, he was in excellent health. My interest in the elegy was rooted in all the questions I had when I was studying Milton and then later in my work in the AIDS community in Toronto in the 1990s, but when it came time to choose a research topic, the deaths of my friends were still much too recent. I knew that I couldn’t conduct a full-scale research project into AIDS elegies without losing my mind, despite the fact that I had been writing them since 1993. (My elegies for my friends appeared in holding ground, and also in the new manuscript that I am working on, so I’m still writing them, and still thinking about how I might consider AIDS elegies in a scholarly study.) However, as I researched, I found all these fathers in elegies written by women and thought that there was a feminist moment there that hadn’t really been discussed. So that was the direction I went. My father was diagnosed with prostate cancer and died about three months before I completed the dissertation. So the two books were written concurrently, but Rue the Day saw the light of publication first (in 2008) because I knew how to write and edit a book of poems and was still figuring out how to write a book of literary criticism. The titles rhyme (Day/Way), which I did not intend and didn’t even notice until halfway through the Roadshow tour, but it’s an example of how deeply the two books are connected in my thought. It’s also an example of how there really isn’t a clear separation between the two modes of writing for me; I need both. People ask me “but which are you, really, first, fundamentally? Poet or scholar?” And there’s no answer for that. But there’s also no real contradiction