Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

At the Desk: Ingrid Ruthig

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Ingrid Ruthig

Canadian poet Anne Wilkinson was only 50 when she passed away in 1961. She was a modernist when few in Canada were writing in that mode, and a woman when the literary community was vastly male-dominated. Though she didn't publish her first collection until the age of 40, she was widely respected by her literary peers during her brief and intense career. However, her name is rarely mentioned now alongside the classics of Canadian poetry.

Ingrid Ruthig is changing that with The Essential Anne Wilkinson (Porcupine's Quill). Part of the Essential Poets Series from Porcupine's Quill, The Essential Anne Wilkinson draws attention to a talented, innovative writer whose work should be accessible to all Canadian poetry lovers.

Today Ingrid joins us as part of Open Book's At The Desk series, in which writers pull back the curtain on their workspaces and give us a peek into their writing processes. She talks with Open Book about Wilkinson's life and work, giving us quotes from Wilkinson's personal journals, and her own writing process and space, where she proves size doesn't matter.
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Some writers find their process inextricably linked to a particular physical place. For the Canadian modernist poet Anne Wilkinson (1910–1961) that place was Roches Point, the Lake Simcoe estate of her mother’s family, the Oslers. This country enclave is where she found the calm yet energizing psychic space necessary for her work. In June 1956 she recorded in her journal, “Once more I am writing from my bed on the verandah and the noise of the water splashing on the rocks is in my ears. […] The first few days at Roches Point have all the enchantment of falling in love.”

This past August I visited Roches Point with a friend. We found Wilkinson’s grave in the cemetery, then strolled to the estate gates and happened upon members of the extended Osler family who still summer at the Point. They invited us in to view the grounds and its various features, including the stone gatehouse known as “The Lodge.” They also showed us the spot at the lake’s edge where Wilkinson’s verandah-ed cottage, since relocated, once stood. Her poems echoed in the “summer-bowed trees,” “lake lap,” and “hot percussion jazz of insects.” My feet retraced imagined footsteps and, as the lure of the place took hold of my senses, new words surfaced.

My own writing process isn’t anchored to one location. At times, I’ve exited the day-to-day via cabins, hotels and country inns. Occasionally a café or library plays sanctuary. Words have ambushed me on trains, in rowboats and waiting rooms, in the quiet that a long road trip often evokes, or at night, when any scrap of paper from the bedside drawer will do. They’ve snuck up while I stared into space or a book, my legs slung over the side of a comfy chair, no pen in sight. The point is, if the words come and I’m writing, I don’t care where I am. Still, all this isn’t to say that, like Wilkinson, I don’t have a preferred place. I try to maintain a routine and a workplace comprised of time, as well as of psychic and physical space.

At home, I’ve a room of my own, technically speaking. It has four walls, a window, a top, a bottom, a door. But many walk-in closets would dwarf it. For a long time it sat neglected, a leftover space too puny for a guest room, barely large enough to house even a drafting board and the other equipment of my first profession. When children came along, the family room claimed centre stage. The kids played, and dialogue from children’s TV shows washed over me as I fed words into our first computer on the desk at the other end of the room.

When I retired my architect licence, determined to write full-time, I relocated to the tiny room. It’s a chameleon — a haven filled with books, a study with desk, a studio in which to create module-based art, and an office for all those dull-as-dust administrative tasks. It’s also a sort of camera obscura cum darkroom. The window looks onto the garden, to sky beyond garden, to intangible things. On sunny days, light plays over the desk; on dim days the room’s cocoon-like. Stationed inside, distracted by creative flux, I nevertheless register changes, season by season, year by year. Each spring, the peony tree outside the window bursts with face-sized blooms whose deep blush colours the view. July’s sky-blue eye peers through a canopy filter that, come October, leaf by leaf, dwindle-drifts past the window’s lens. Inside this room, minutes develop something tangible.

For earlier generations, being a wife and mother as well as a poet bred difficulties. It’s still not easy to juggle the day-to-day and maintain the separation necessary for “the poet’s daily chore” of creation. Wilkinson, in her poem “Lens”, wrote:

[…] In my dark room the years
Lie in solution,
Develop film by film.
Slow at first and dim
Their shadows bite
On the fine white pulp of paper.

In my own room, the A/C’s ducted white noise silences the world beyond these four walls. But through this single window, I’ve noticed and captured in the poem “Recognition”:

[…] the coming on slow
like the week’s first show of sun from
back of cringing winter cloud;
[…] the lamina of slumbering grass that
senses a shift in the wind, so unbends
if only a little; [….]

The physical is merely where I am at the time, yet the poetry dwells there with me.

— Ingrid Ruthig


Ingrid Ruthig is a writer, editor, artist and former architect whose books include Slipstream, Richard Outram: Essays on His Works, and the chapbook Synesthete II. Her writing has appeared across Canada and internationally in publications like The Best Canadian Poetry in English 2012, The Malahat Review, Descant, The Fiddlehead, The New Quarterly and Cordite, among many others. Her award-winning artwork fusing text and image is held in private collections and has been featured in numerous art galleries and festivals. Ruthig lives near Toronto with her family.

Check out all the At the Desk interviews in our archives.

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