July 18, 2019

FOUR PATHS: TANIS MACDONALD


Word-hoard, lone-wolf, stormcloud, throw: Tanis MacDonald on four paths that brought her to poetry -- and poetry to her.


Path #1: word-hoard

I was a reading kid, a memorizing kid, a reciting kid. I learned to read with oddly Victorian books: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Stevenson’s A Child‘s Garden of Verses, an illustrated Grimm’s Fairy Tales as big as a phone book. I suspect that my grandmother’s educated friends bought these books for me. I know that my parents didn’t, though they read them to me night after night until I was old enough to read by myself. Each of these books, and the other book I heard read aloud in the first few years of my life, the King James Bible, used incantatory and repetitive language. Words crowded into my head and stuck.

To this day, I have a strong aural memory and sensitivity to sound. If I quiet my mind enough, smooth down the shoutiness of the day and just listen, I can hear a voice in my head that speaks poetry nearly all the time. This is not an auditory hallucination so much as it is what I think of as the underlying babble of consciousness. I never took creative writing courses at university; I was in a big rush to graduate and move thousands of miles away, and I was a bit suspicious that creative writing courses would interfere with the good thing I had going on in the privacy of my mind. So taking my first poetry writing workshop was a trip to another planet.

Prose was someone else’s language for a long time. I wanted a way to refer to everything I didn’t read about. Poetry seemed like a private language that was public, and eventually, a public language that was private. Poetry gave me the chance to bring together the consonances I couldn’t make sense of but also couldn’t ignore. Somewhere along the way, I decided that language belonged to me. There were people along the way who said yes keep going but my beginnings were modest, and mostly my practice still is.

Path #2: to have and to have not

Beginner writers often ask me how I started, looking for practical ways to think of themselves as writers. So it’s important