Autobiographical Notes for Turning Points Conference (2002)
I am a third-generation Jewish Anglophone Montrealer. In other words, a minority (Jewish among Christians) of a minority (English among French) among a minority (Quebec within Canada). This sense of being an outsider seems to be typical of most people who become writers; writers tend to be observers rather than participants, and are aware of a certain detachment even in the thick of things. Nobody in my extended family was – or is – interested in literature; no one is even a serious reader. But everyone loves to talk and to tell jokes and stories, and maybe that general chattiness had an influence on my work. I was an insatiable reader as a child (and I still am; no one has ever become a good writer without being a dedicated reader). I think that the fact I had such a big loud emotional familydrove me to read more just for privacy!
Reading is one kind of travelling, of course, and the best way of travelling through time. But nothing beats actual physical experience of the world for a sense of place and of the differences in society and culture that go with it. I left Montreal at seventeen to go to university in Boston, in Greece, and then in England, doing a lot of travelling as well across Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. And that’s another typical writerly path, I have found: we tend to be extremely curious about the world, and therefore avid travellers.
I think it is very helpful for young writers to see a bit of the world so they don’t get too complacent about their values or their interpretations of things. I know that my writing was strongly influenced by Greek literature, which I never would have read had I not spent ten months studying archaeology and art in Athens. Like everyone else, I’d done a lot of creative writing as a child, but poetry first became a serious vocation when was introduced to Modern Greek poetry (Seferis, Cavafy, Elytis, Ritsos, Sikelyanos, and so on). These writers seemed less preoccupied with formalism and more politically and emotionally engaged than the Modern English and American poets I was familiar with. Their work opened new doors for me and started to close the gap between what I wrote in my private journal and the rather precious myth-and-metaphor laden poems I’d been working on in creative writing workshops.
SO: what drew me to writing in the beginning was
1) a sense of being an outsider
2) a love of oral language: jokes, stories, and conversation
3) a love of books
3) curiosity about the world
Another big influence on my career was the American poet Denise Levertov, whom I met back in Boston after I came back from Greece. I took a poetry workshop with her and she became my mentor, and later my friend. Besides having the literary equivalent of perfect pitch, she also had one of the fiercest consciences of anybody I’ve ever met. Her example taught me that being a poet didn’t mean you had to cower in your garret, or even lurk in an ivory tower. You could be out there, actively, in the world, and your poetry could speak to any issue that moved you. My first book, Complicity, published in 1983, was dedicated to her. It was more explicitly political than any I’ve written since, but I think my definition of what constitutes a “political” issue has broadened since those early days. Nonetheless, that title sums up an important theme in all my work: individual responsibility and communal affiliation.
After changing my major every five minutes, I finally decided I wanted to study English literature and went, for that purpose, to Oxford (it being about the most “English” place I could think of). Subsequently I worked at publishing house in London and then at another in Toronto. I got my Ph.D. in 1983, the same year as I published my first book of poems; by then I was teaching English at U. of T. where I worked, off and on, for many years.
My second book, The Power to Move, was published in 1986; it can best be described as poems of love and travel, and of love as a journey. Several of the poems in it were written during the time my husband and I lived in Mexico. Henry Moore’s Sheep and Other Poems was published in 1990. The long title poem is feminist, satirical art criticism, and other poems in the book tackle the experience of growing up female. My fourth collection, about the female body in sickness, health, pregnancy, childbirth and motherhood, entitled Hide & Seek, came out in 1995, a year after the birth of my second child. The best poems from these four titles, as well as about twenty new pieces, were included in Running in Prospect Cemetery: New & Selected Poems, published in 2004. I’ve also written a couple of unpublished books of kids’ poems.
In 1998, a book of essays, The Picturesque & the Sublime: A Poetics of the Canadian Landscape, was published by McGill-Queen’s University Press, and won two major awards: the Gabrielle Roy prize for the best book of English-Canadian literary criticism, and the Raymond Klibansky, for the best work in the Humanities. This book was the fruit of a research fellowship I held at the University of Toronto for many years. Ironically, I won the prizes after my teaching career had ended! But writing a long work in prose gave me the confidence to undertake my first novel, The Violin Lover (Goose Lane Editions, 2006),which was set in London between the wars in a community of classical musicians, and hence required a lot of research itself. So, although I’ve gone back and forth between academic and creative writing the collaboration has always been a fruitful one. I did almost as much research for The Violin Lover and for my second work of fiction, Esther, Star of the Sea (set in 1738) as for my scholarly book; it just came out in a different form.
If there’s anything I have to teach you, then, it is probably that writing doesn’t come from nowhere – it comes out of a lifetime of learning. You can learn many ways: from books, and art, and all the things people make; from your family, friends, and people you encounter, from travel to different countries, from doing different jobs. But you have to pay attention. I often find that young writers think they have to be “original” and believe that they will be inspired without working hard at their craft; that they shouldn’t read too much or they will be influenced by other people’s books. This is the single biggest mistake you can make.