Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Melanie Janisse on her beloved Lake Erie, its legends and her poems

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Melanie Janisse on her beloved Lake Erie, its legends and her poems

By Nathaniel G. Moore

Toronto-based poet Melanie Janisse launches her first collection of poetry, Orioles in the Oranges, on December 6th with Guernica Editions’ First Poet Series (full event details here). The book combines "destructive modern love" with a famous Métis legend of Pelee Island involving a young woman who plunged to her death in Lake Erie after being abandoned by her English husband. I asked Melanie a few questions about what went into creating her new book.

NGM:

How long have you been working on the book?

MJ:

Orioles took me about six years from start to finish. I spend a year of that on Pelee Island living alone in an old farmhouse doing research and experiencing the island. I wrote the poems over a five year period and spent just over a year editing with Elana Wolff from Guernica.

NGM:

What was it about the legend of Hulda that inspired you to incorporate it into your book?

MJ:

Well, we hear stories all of the time. Usually I find that I skim the surface of the narrative and comprehend what I have just heard or read as storytelling. I think that once in a while a story, legend, news item, whatever, gets to us. We are able to perhaps connect with the more visceral, emotional aspects of the experience being presented in the story. This is what happened to me with the legend of Hulda’s rock. I was standing on Sheridan Point on the property that houses Vin Villa (totally trespassing), looking at the famous outcropping of rocks. I was feeling a bit lonely, and could easily imagine the grief this woman faced while hovering there between life and death. It became very powerful for me at that moment, even though by that point I had heard the narrative dozens of times. Hulda became real for me, and so when I began to write my poems, many of my thoughts went to that day—literally itching with jiggers, trespassing, imbibing a very old grief. It is a tale of impossible love, hauntings, Lake Erie (beloved to me), what is sunk there (fascinating to me), what is not possible to face (familiar to me). It was a natural fit.

NGM:

Who are some of your influences?

MJ:

I love outsiders—those who acknowledge the edges of things. Mc5, Mule, Emma Goldman, Elizabeth Smart, Carson McCullers, Plath, Duras, Margaret Gibson, Susanna Moodie, Atwood (poems especially), The Stiff Records, Robin Hitchcock, Jung. George Miller, Saul Williams. The list is endless. I learn a lot from people who live on islands and people who are not entirely sold on the notion of spectacle.

NGM:

Tell us a bit about your background as a writer and artist.

MJ:

I have always written. I remember my first poem that I wrote for my mom when I was six. She was astounded that I used the word “melodious” in a sentence. I have never been published outside of the last year or so, but I have always turned to words. I am a visual artist as well, having studied photography at Concordia, and then Emily Carr. I use photographs like concrete poems. My work is always very atmospheric, full of narrative. I moved into painting a few years ago and have enjoyed learning how to make creepy portraits which, oddly, always have poems written in pencil along the background. I love Francis Bacon, Chuck Close. I would love to be gainfully employed as a portraitist. That would be smashing.

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