An interview with Margo LaPierre

Margo LaPierre (www.margolapierreeditor.com) is a queer, neurodivergent Canadian poet and fiction editor. Her debut collection of poetry, Washing Off the Raccoon Eyes, was published by Guernica Editions in 2017.

How did you begin writing, and what keeps you going?

I read books, insatiably, as a young kid. I don’t actually have any memory of my parents reading to me, only of me reading to them in bed at night, since I learned to read early. My parents didn’t buy many toys compared to our neighbours but we had lots of books and we went to the library. Each time my dad went on a work trip he’d bring home an abridged classic for me. I don’t know if he bought them at the airport or if he had to go searching, maybe he was only ever going to one city, one bookstore. Black Beauty, Call of the Wild, and White Fang were favourites. In First Grade the teachers had us start journaling. One week, I wrote “I lost my cat. I am sad” every day, with a drawing of me crying. But scattered about that journals were days when I’d write rhyming poems with an accompanying picture. There was one about a puppet. So that was the true beginning. My dad, being in the computer biz, brought me home a bulky old laptop—the Internet had come around around and made it obsolete. When I wasn’t playing learning games like Reader Rabbit or Word Rescue, I’d transcribe stories from library books on that computer, or write my own. In Eleventh Grade, my first poem was published in the Claremont Review, a journal for young writers. I felt like I’d made it, and so did my English teacher. Oh, to be in the good graces of an English teacher. Then, from 2006–2013, my chaotic undergrad years (I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder 1 in 2008), I wrote Washing Off the Raccoon Eyes, which was published by Guernica Editions in 2017. Writing is the nucleus of my identity, along with all things literary.

You’ve published in a number of journals. How do you decide which journals to send to? 

My literary Twitter game is pretty healthy. I don’t post much but I follow tons of writers, publishers, and journals, and so I get a sense of which journals are publishing what based on their online presence, the poems they share, who’s being published by them. When I was younger, I was more focused on The Big Ones, perhaps simply because they were more visible. Now I try to keep an eye out for feminist journals, or journals that align with my interests, and I’ll send to journals that are publishing other poets in my community. But yeah, Twitter. Or I’ll go to my poetry shelf at home and flip through to the back bio pages, and get ideas/reminders there.

Have you noticed any repeated themes or repeated subject matter in your work? What are you currently working towards?

Themes of mental illness, relationships, women’s rage. The word tender as both a gentle, loving disposition but also the medium of financial negotiation. Husks, shells, things that can be cracked open by growth. When I was quite sick with bipolar a decade ago, before medication, I suffered the delusion of time being flat, of past, present, and future existing simultaneously. It turned out to be quite a dangerous delusion, and luckily I’ve not been immersed in that belief since my diagnosis, but sometimes that idea wafts over my thinking. So I like to play around with time (cause and effect) being able to go forwards or backwards, or for it to roam around as though on a tapestry laid out on the floor. When I edit others’ work, I’m often suggesting authors make their work more chronologically linear. Readers prefer it. If you want to read a story that does the concept justice, read Ted Chiang’s “Story of Your Life” (from their excellent book of short stories Stories of Your Life), which was adapted for film in Arrival. A line from Chiang’s story: “I experience past and future all at once; my consciousness becomes a half-century-long ember outside time.” My mom made me watch that movie, after being like This reminds me so much of you! I gushed tears at the end of the movie and the short story. I’m working towards better expressing concepts of perception, and at being a more conscious storyteller. I like that poems can have a simultaneity to them, as often you see the whole poem even as you read line by line.

What poets have influenced the ways in which you write?

In a foundational way, TS Eliot—the poetry was there for me as a kid with Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats and as a teenager with poems like “The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock” and “The Wasteland.” Rilke, Wallace Stevens, and Evelyn Lau had their influence. Sina Queyras made the biggest mark of all on my writing, and I go to her books (Lemonhound, MxT, My Ariel) when I need inspiration, or to feel nestled. Margaret Atwood was a big influence through my youth and so to exclude her name would be an erasure, from my history anyway, but I won’t mention her without also mentioning the awful things she’s done to the assault victims of UBC and those who’ve come to their aid. If you haven’t heard about it, here’s a good place to start : https://www.vox.com/culture/2018/1/17/16897404/margaret-atwood-metoo-backlash-steven-galloway-ubc-accountable.

How important has mentorship been to your work? Is there anyone who specifically assisted your development as a writer?

Hoa Nguyen, my poetry teacher at Ryerson, carved my voice from the muck. Elana Wolff, my editor at Guernica, taught me the potency of a single word within a poem. Brandon Wint, who teaches privately, nurtured my understanding that poetry can be gentle. Stuart Ross, who teaches privately, recently reanimated my dedication with the message, to my understanding, that poetry is playful and conversational even when it’s serious. My advice to poets seeking publication: contact a poet you admire to inquire about hiring them for a manuscript assessment.

You are currently one of the poetry selectors for the online journal Bywords.ca. Why do you feel this work is important, and what have you learned through the process?

Bywords was one of the first journals that published my work. Amanda Earl, the publisher, is a compelling, authentic writer and hardworking in the community. Bywords.ca is an online journal, but it also has an updated calendar of all the literary events going on in Ottawa. Bywords publishes work by newcomers as well as by veteran powerhouse poets, which is important in keeping those heavy doors open. The judging process is blind, so the poems really do speak for themselves. And perhaps being an online, regional journal, it gets far fewer submissions than, say, Arc Magazine, where I’ve recently begun volunteering also, which makes Bywords more accessible simply due to numbers. (Although Arc has a fantastic mentorship program for emerging poets to hone their craft; poet Stevie Howell is currently the program’s poet-in-residence.) And Bywords pays its poets.

In reading a wide range of both craft, voice, and content in these submissions, I’ve learned to notice extremities. It’s like if you were to look at a hundred faces superimposed onto one another, you’d likely notice two things : structure and deviation. A gorgeous poem has a strong sense of internal structure, which creates tautness and tension, purpose and direction, and often some form of transformation or inversion by the end. But it also possesses deviations : odd, granular, specific choices, often at the vocabulary or grammar level, that instantly set it apart and give it texture.

What are you currently working on?

I’m working on two full-length projects: a poetry collection and a literary fiction novel. The poetry collection is structured in form, but its content is wild and energetic, taking up the elemental to draw out perception and memory. Chaos magic and performative utterances inspired this work. You can find performative language in incantations and manifestos, participating actively in the world’s unfolding, directing its course one way or the next. Contrast with “performative wokeness” that puts on a show of virtue, often without supportive action. Performative language accomplishes action as soon as it’s set to page or breath. That transformative power makes it effective for healing but also capable of destruction.

The novel follows the formation of an unconventional family through the trials and exhilarations of a young sex worker and a bipolar transit worker. It’s told in the limited third-person perspective of its main characters, Stella and JJ. It’s set in Toronto, not far in the future. I aim to write a novel with nuanced care to show that sex workers’ work is legitimate work, that mentally ill people’s choices are legitimate choices.

Can you name a poet you think should be receiving more attention?

Conyer Clayton, whose debut full-length book of poetry (though she is widely published in chapbooks and journals), We Shed Our Skin Like Dynamite, is forthcoming with Guernica Editions in spring 2020. Frances Boyle, whose poetry collection, This Nest White (Quattro), was just published, and by whose whimsical, arboreal poems I was enamoured during the Ottawa launch at the Manx a few days ago. 

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