Author spotlight: Annick MacAskill

Annick MacAskill’s most recent poetry collection is Shadow Blight (Gaspereau Press, 2022). She is also the author of No Meeting Without Body (Gaspereau Press, 2018), a finalist for the J.M. Abraham Award and the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award, and Murmurations (Gaspereau Press, 2020). Her poems have appeared in journals across Canada and abroad, and in the Best Canadian Poetry anthology series. She is currently serving as Arc Poetry Magazine’s poet-in-residence and is a member of Goose Lane’s icehouse poetry board and Room’s editorial collective. A settler of French and Scottish ancestry, she lives in K’jipuktuk (Halifax), on the traditional and unceded territory of the Mi’kmaq.

Your latest poetry collection, Shadow Blight, is hot off the press. How will you be marking its release?

My partner took me to a patio the other day and we toasted the book. I’ll also be reading a few poems from the collection at a friend’s launch later this month. Not many plans beyond that, yet.  

Shadow Blight explores the pain and isolation of pregnancy loss by entwining a poetic narrative rooted in the present with the ancient Greek myth of Niobe. What led you to refract the collection through this particular lens?

After my miscarriages, I struggled to find an articulation of pregnancy loss that resonated with me. And overwhelmingly, what I found was silence. Eventually, I tried to come up with something myself, and a couple of poems in my first collection concern my second miscarriage.

After No Meeting Without Body came out, I realized I had more to say, and started writing the first few poems in Shadow Blight. Quite quickly, I found myself looking to Greco-Roman myth. I’ve long been a fan of ancient literature, and often turn to it to think through a difficult topic. In this instance, it was the story of Niobe, particularly as recounted by the Roman poet Ovid in his Metamorphoses, that beckoned to me. I had encountered Ovid’s account about ten years before in a Latin class I took during my graduate studies, but now this figure took on new meaning. I started searching through the Metamorphoses for other stories of maternal grief (stories about Ceres, Semele, and Dryope, for example), translating the lines I found most compelling and then using these as jumping-off points for my own writing. One of the things I appreciate now about this practice is how it allowed me to play with scale—I took a taboo subject that tends to be written off as a non-event (despite how painful and even dangerous pregnancy loss can be), and considered it through the gravity and urgency of myth. This better reflects the grief I went through, and still live with, which has been anything but incidental.

All three of your books feature gorgeous, textured covers and pages. It’s very apparent how much craft and care goes into each printing. What’s it been like to collaborate with Andrew Steeves at Gaspereau Press on both the editing and design of these manuscripts?

Andrew is a great editor to work with. He has welcomed all three of my books with enthusiasm. He has a remarkably keen eye (and a terrific vocabulary for anything to do with farming or birding). As for design—that is entirely his domain, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Nature is a prominent motif in much of your work. It made me wonder if you often compose your poems out-of-doors. Can you describe your typical writing routine?

My writing routine varies, depending on my other commitments, but I tend to draft quite quickly—and usually inside. I allow myself time for multiple edits and as much pruning as I can stand. I sometimes revise as I’m walking—in my neighbourhood, through parks, gardens, forests. More and more, I’m aware that my poems come from ongoing preoccupations, including parts of the non-human “natural” world, particularly birds.

I always appreciate the chance to hear poems read aloud by the author, as it allows me to pick up new subtleties and meanings in a text. What are some of your favourite poems to share with an audience?

With Murmurations, I love reading the sonnets—“Magpies,” “Yarmouth County,” and “Pitch,” for example. I’m not sure yet how I’ll feel about the poems in Shadow Blight, though I’ve already shared the first poem in the collection, “Swimming Upwards,” at a few events.

The way your second collection Murmurations explores queer love through seemingly mundane moments—moving a car to avoid a parking ticket, eating takeout in a Comfort Inn, glasses fogging up from a kiss—was so well done. These poems also stretch across the country with mentions of Banff, downtown Toronto, and Yarmouth County. Was this perhaps a commentary on the need to broaden the types of queer stories we see in Canadian literature and the media, since queer love occurs in many different forms and places?

When I wrote Murmurations, my focus was the poems, not making broader commentary on any subject, including that one. That’s not to say the work isn’t political, just that my attention was elsewhere when I wrote the book. But I do agree with you—we always need more queer stories.

June is Pride Month in Canada. Who are some up-and-coming 2SLGBTQ+ poets you’d encourage more folks to read, not just in the coming weeks but all year long?

Brandi Bird, Patrick Grace, A. Light Zachary, Victoria Mbabazi, Yilin Wang, Jane Shi, Samantha Sternberg, and Tiffany Morris all come to mind. Their work is superb.

I know you’re just wrapping up your stint as Arc’s 2021-2022 Poet-in-Residence. What have you most enjoyed about your time in that role?

Although this residency has afforded me some time to work on a book-length poem I’ve been playing with for a few years, the focus of the role is mentorship. Every month, I receive a batch of poetry from about six writers, and send them my feedback via email. There are always a few writers who respond to my comments with excitement, sending more poems or asking questions. It means a lot when I can tell that my response has resonated with a mentee. And the deeper we can go, the more rewarding the experience, for both of us.

You’ve served on editorial boards, been a finalist for several prominent literary contests including the CBC Poetry and Ralph Gustafson Poetry Prizes, and published poems in a number of journals and anthologies. Do you have any advice for emerging poets who are just starting to query their work?

Focus on your craft. Read the literary journals, magazines, and books that speak to you, and try to build up a batch of poems. When you feel ready, submit to the journals and magazines you (actually) enjoy reading, not just the ones you think you should publish in. If possible, try to find another emerging poet or two whose writing you respect to trade work with.

Writers (and publishers!) appear quite split on whether it is too soon to start crafting artistic responses to COVID-19. Some literary journals won’t even look at a submission on that topic. What about you? Have you been writing pandemic poetry, or do you prefer to steer clear of the subject?

I don’t understand restrictions on subject matter. Let poets write what they want. I’m living in the pandemic, as we all are, and yes, it’s crept into my poetry. While I’ve never explicitly sought to write about the pandemic, it finds its way in.

In a previous interview with Sanchari Sur, you talked about your 2017 relocation from Ontario to the East Coast and said “I’m not sure I have enough distance yet to understand exactly how the move to Halifax will affect my writing.” Can we return to that question now in 2022? Do you have a clearer sense of Nova Scotia’s influence on your recent work?

In truth—not really! If there’s an influence, it’s likely from the poets I’ve found to write, workshop, and have a laugh with. Folks like Jaime Forsythe, Nanci Lee, Anna Quon, Alison Smith, Samantha Sternberg, and Nolan Natasha. And I don’t think I’ll ever manage to chase the starlings out of my writing, now that they are such an integral part of my everyday.

—Questions by K.R. Byggdin

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