In Conversation: Tanis MacDonald
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 04/01/2020 (1005 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Tanis MacDonald has characterized Mobile, her fourth collection of poetry and sixth book, as her “grouchiest book yet.” This description is the Waterloo-based but Winnipeg-born poet and prof all over.
She also says she took her time putting this collection together, that she had to relearn how to write a poetry book, but in the meantime she taught full time, edited an anthology, published a book of essays and taught creative writing during the summer at Saskatchewan’s Sage Hill Writing Experience. And that’s on top of community work like mentoring students and emerging writers and organizing events.
Tanis launched Mobile in Winnipeg in early December with a bookstore launch and a poetry walk, but also took the time to answer questions.
Winnipeg Free Press: What do you want people to know about Mobile?
Tanis MacDonald: Mobile is a poetry collection about the ways women move through spaces, both physically and emotionally. It’s also about the fears we inherit and the fears we confront. Mobile, in some ways, is about feeling lost in a city. Some characters find their feet in the book, and others don’t.
WFP: What were your goals for this book?
TM: I wanted to write about a series of experiences that were everyday and palpable for me when I was a young woman, but for which I didn’t have the right language to write about at the time. Although I don’t live in a big city anymore, I think about that experience every year when I spoke to my writing students about what it was to write their reality, especially their experience of place. One of my goals with this book was to take my own advice and write about the cultural and political implications of taking up space.
A second, equally important goal was to engage with a (mostly male) tradition of writing about walking in the city as a privilege. I don’t think I would have written Mobile if it hadn’t been for my students, and for younger writers who were speaking out about violence. I wanted to speak back to some of the poetry that focused on other limitations of the city — including the classic long poem about Toronto, Dennis Lee’s Civil Elegies — and say, basically, that’s true but that’s not the half of it. I respect Civil Elegies as a text, but part of reading a tradition means challenging it, or as the back cover copy of Mobile says, giving it a feminist reboot. I think of that reboot as a technological term — to restart — and also is a more ribald way, as a boot in the seat of the pants, a wake-up call.
WFP: You grew up in Winnipeg and did your first degrees here, but also studied in Toronto and Victoria and now teach English and creative writing at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo. Do you bring the Prairies — a sensibility, a vernacular — with you everywhere you go?
TM: Short answer: yes. My longer, life-is-weird answer: there’s no way, in my experience, not to take the Prairies everywhere I go. It’s become clear to me in the last decade that I am not a modern cosmopolitan subject whose life is defined by peripatetic movement. Years ago, I was giving a reading from Rue the Day in Hamilton, Ont., and someone asked how I positioned my poetry in CanLit. I opened my mouth to say that I didn’t position myself anywhere in CanLit, because CanLit didn’t position me, and phooey to that. But I looked at the man who asked me and saw that he was sincere in his question, not dismissive, and I said that I was an ex-Prairie, always-Prairie writer who was interested in the problems of being both. I went over to talk to the questioner afterwards, and that was how I first met Daniel Coleman, author of Yardwork.
WFP: Last year, Wolsak & Wynn published Out of Line: Daring to be an Artist Outside the Big City. As someone who grew up in Winnipeg and lives in a community a few hours outside of Toronto, why was it important for you to write this book?
TM: It is hard to be a writer in a big, expensive city because of the high cost of living, but being a writer in a smaller centre is hard in a different way because of the low value placed on art in places that are more far-flung, less cosmopolitan, more attached to agrarian or manufacturing bases. Every place is different, of course; Winnipeg and Hamilton, for instance, are both smaller cities with very active arts communities. I wrote Out of Line because I wanted to name the work it takes to create space for art in smaller places and to let people who were embarking on this kind of work — including some of my students — that art gets made everywhere because I knew that the rest of the culture would try to convince them otherwise. It’s my manual for how to make art without waiting for the “right” set of circumstances.
Ariel Gordon is a Winnipeg writer.