Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On Writing, with Louise McKinney

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Louise McKinney

The Woman Who Drank Her Own Reflection (Guernica Editions) by Louise McKinney may be a first book, but it is the product of many years of thoughtful and disciplined writing. The poetry collection draws on pieces written as early as the 1980s, as well as recent work.

Today Louise speaks to Open Book about her show-stopper of a title, her wandering days and a perfectly ordered, ideal day of writing.

Open Book:

Tell us about your book, The Woman Who Drank Her Own Reflection.

Louise McKinney:

The Woman Who Drank Her Own Reflection began as a collection of lyric poems organized on the points of a compass rose, i.e., north, south, east, west. It seemed like the most convenient way to gather pieces I’d written across three decades and in (or depicting) such cities as Toronto, Calgary, Vancouver, New Orleans and Atlanta. Also, some poems dealt with my “Maritimer” origins, as both my parents are from New Brunswick. The collection I’d initially called Unconventional Signs, which is the title of one of the poems from a “western Canada” sequence, and is also a term from a topographical map for characters used on a legend for marking places.

Michael Mirolla, Guernica’s publisher, had the idea to name the collection after the poem “The Woman Who Drank Her Own Reflection” in order to give us more leeway for picking a good cover — the title lent itself to more options and suggested more concrete, less abstract kinds of imagery. It’s quite evocative, too! I loved the idea. I thought it was particularly apt to be the title poem because it brings in associations of wanting to “ingest” all of life’s experience — to possess them. The image of a woman by a lake is, itself, a reworking of the Narcissus myth (for women), reflecting (pun intended) a woman’s fecund nature. In Jungian psychology, the lake is a symbol for the unconscious. New divisions for the book, “The One,” and “The Other,” are allusions to a reflection, of course, and also to my movement from North to South, order to disorder, and a number of other dualities.

OB:

These poems span a long time period, from the '80s until the present. How does it feel to re-visit the older pieces? Do you feel you've changed as a writer over time?

LM:

The reason so much time intervened between writing some of these poems and publishing them is simply this: “Life happened.”

I began a “wanderjahr,” year of wandering, with Len Gasparini, then wound up living in the city of New Orleans. There, I got married and had three baby boys. Well, raising and supporting this young family became of paramount importance. I did publish a book, however, out of the experience —a book of literary nonfiction for the “Cities of the Imagination” series, simply called New Orleans (published in 2006 by Oxford University Press).

The year following my first child’s birth, I did get busy with my collection of poems and submitted it to numerous writing contests. It was shortlisted for the annual Texas Review poetry prize, and this was quite encouraging. I like the newest poems best, however, because they are more representative of what I can do (they’re the last poems of the collection).

OB:

There's an engagement with the natural world in this collection. To your mind, what is the role of nature in your writing? How does the natural world lend itself to poetry specifically?

LM:

Beyond its great diversity and beauty, of course, nature offers a point of entry or egress beyond what is merely observed or absorbed by the senses. In some ecstatic moments, “natural highs” can reveal a glimpse into, or appreciation of, the unseen laws of all creation. Nature offers relief… and it invites one to transcend time. I always think of poetry, also, as a place where we can do the very same. One book that really brings this idea home is Rollo May’s The Courage to Create, in which he posits poetry should reveal the writer’s own intense encounter with the world.

OB:

What would an ideal writing day look like for you?

LM:

If I am going to be honest with this question, I’d have to first say that profit motive would be completely off the radar screen. I spent time in the ‘80s as a freelance writer and editor while living in Toronto, so I know this rhythm works for me. But, yes, I’d like release from any job (as they say, “A bad day’s fishing is better than a good day at work"). . .

  1. Rise early (5-6 a.m.), brew exceptionally good coffee and feed the animals
  2. Write until noon, solid, looking out the window most of the while
  3. Time for meditation and walking on the beach or in a forest (or the French Quarter if it’s New Orleans)
  4. Afternoon is for attending to the “business” of getting published and any or all literary activities
  5. Evening: spend time with family, friends, and read

OB:

What were you reading while you worked on this project? And what are some of your favourite recent reads?

LM:

  • poetry of Mary Oliver
  • poetry of Czeslaw Milosz
  • Pema Chodron, Starting Where You Are
  • Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now
  • And I did read The Awakening, by Kate Chopin (it’s a good read while experiencing the vagaries of divorce)
  • OB:

    What are you working on now?

    LM:

    I’ve got a big lot of new poems written, and they seem to divide into two sorts of works—one group is quite formal (experimenting with some verse forms), highly aesthetic, almost painterly. The other group is wild and adventuring, capturing times, experiences, people, images of the year of wandering that took me to that bizarre city, New Orleans. Already, one of these freewheeling, loosely fashioned pieces, “Tell It Long-Story-Short” has been accepted as the lead poem for the Spring 2013 issue of Wild Goose Review. Since I seem to get livelier, positive feedback when I perform these works at readings, I’ll probably concentrate my efforts on this subject matter for my next collection.


    Louise McKinney is an author and journalist with a 25+-year career as writer and editor. She has been published widely in Canadian and U.S. journals. In 2004, she started teaching full-time and currently leads a variety of writing and literature classes at Georgia Perimeter College. In addition, she is the non-fiction editor of an internationally recognized literary journal that recently won the Governor’s Award in Georgia, The Chattahoochee Review. This present collection was a finalist in the Texas Review Annual Poetry Prize (The Southern and Southwestern Poetry Breakthrough Series) under the title, Unconventional Signs. Before leaving Toronto, she was poetry editor at Toronto Life in the late 1980s, having led poetry workshops at Ryerson and studied with Don Coles, Roo Borson and Kim Maltman. This is her first book of poetry.

    For more information about The Woman Who Drank Her Own Reflection please visit the Guernica Editions website.

    Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

    Check out all the On Writing interviews in our archives.

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