Margo LaPierre is a Canadian poet and visual artist. Her first collection of poetry, Washing Off the Raccoon Eyes, was published by Guernica Editions in 2017. She completed her B.A. in Philosophy at Ryerson University and is currently pursuing a Publishing certificate, also at Ryerson. Her poems have been published in CAROUSEL, The Feathertale Review, filling Station, Bywords Literary Quarterly, Petal Journal, Echolocation, and EAT IT: A Literary Cookbook of Food, Sex and Women’s Writing, amongst others. Her poem “Bear Skin Rug” won the Silver award for Poetry at the Alberta Magazine Publishers Awards. She currently lives in Toronto.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
Well, this is my first book. Things have certainly changed, starting from the time it was first accepted for publication in 2014. I became more focussed on connecting with others in the literary community. Having a book published means I was able to apply for my first literary creation grant this year. No idea how likely I am to actually get it. Also, it led me to my relationship with my publisher Guernica Editions, and they’ve taken me on as their publicity intern. It’s my first internship and aside from Ryerson’s Publishing certificate, my first foray into the publishing world. It’s like a heavy door has been opened. Guernica has done so much for me. I’m very grateful.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
In grade school, I’d write simple rhyming poems as journal entries. As a teenager, I kept a nightly diary. My parents kept reading it. I ran away after one of those episodes. Eventually I decided to not be so literal and to write my end-of-the-day thoughts as poetry. Crab-walking my way to independence.
I wrote fiction as well, short stories and a couple novel attempts. I’d be focussed on writing The Book, the ‘big novel’, and writing poetry on the side was a constant. I was so anxious about creating something worth publishing. Poetry came through strongest and most honest because I wasn’t looking straight at it, I wasn’t putting that pressure on myself as I was writing poems.
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
Some of the poems in Washing Off the Raccoon Eyes took years to write. ‘Amulet’ began as a ten page post-apocalyptic poem and was whittled down extensively. I wrote ‘Kinetic’ in French, long before most of the other poems, then translated it to English for this project. Generally I will have started poems for a project before I’m aware of a single cohesive project. Poem-pools swell and touch until they form a poem-lake. As I continue writing, I often cross-reference and build relationships between the poems, creating a common universe. In Washing Off the Raccoon Eyes, certain dialogue lines resurface. The colour orange signals alert across several poems. Moons alluded to. You can map out the physical space. I do write tons of notes once I’ve got enough poems to start shaping the manuscript. Every poem in the book, except, strangely, ‘Boyfriends’, which came out pretty much as-is, has been edited countless times. I’d come home every night from work, or from going out with friends (my early twenties were very social years), and edit.
4 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
I have a few different ideas for books, both fiction and poetry. In poetry, I find it best when a project sneaks up on me, so that I’ve already started by the time the concept forms.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I love listening to other poets. I’d like to become better as a reader. I’m still finding my reading voice, I think. Playing around with delivery. My writing can be pretty dense. My poems have lines with several layers of meaning, or meaning that could go two different ways, and when you read it on the page you get both senses at once, but when I’m reading aloud I feel like I have to choose. It’s a challenge. There’s a pressure to be funny (probably self-inflicted) and I’m not a very funny poet. Being active in the community inspires me because it brings this literary world to the forefront of my mental reel. I’ve been to some excellent reading series, but my favourite is Tree Reading Series in Ottawa. I’m lucky to be featuring there alongside Kirby, the owner of Knife Fork Book, in January.
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
I enjoy exploring gender constructs, how we relate to each other through the roles we perform. As a woman, it’s interesting to me that some of the most gut-wrenching incidences that have really knotted me up inside and spurred me to write are moments that have been experienced by literally every other woman in varying iterations. This deeply personal and shared understanding of trauma is a theme I believe will continue to inspire me. One of the questions that gets asked throughout Washing Off the Raccoon Eyes: How do do we get through trauma whole? Themes of memory and identity are important to me. As a writer with bipolar disorder, my own memories and sense of identity have been disrupted to a degree, which has made me acutely aware of the instability of our personal narratives. But I think this instability holds true for everyone. We curate our histories.
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
Art gives us an opportunity to feel things and process things that we don’t always have the distance to do in real life. The writer gives others an arena to think and to feel. She/he connects us to others in that thinking/feeling. The writer creates an engagement through critical thinking and finds the vein in us called compassion.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Absolutely necessary. If it wasn’t for Elana Wolff and Hoa Nguyen who both worked closely with me on Washing Off the Raccoon Eyes, I doubt I’d have gotten very far. I really appreciate critique and feedback. I’m a better editor than writer, I think. Maybe that’s why poetry feels so natural to me. The paring down, rearranging, the joy of the cut and slash. My original title for the manuscript was Braille Tattoo. Elana challenged me on that it, among other things, and the book is better for it.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
It’s okay to take your time. It’s not a race. Thanks Mom.
Find your community. Get to know the scene and living poets. Thanks Hoa Nguyen.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to visual art)? What do you see as the appeal?
I used to incorporate poetry into my paintings. I find painting to be meditative, soothing. Writing, not so much. When I write my eyebrows scrunch up and deep lines appear. It’s an intense, exhilarating, somewhat exhausting form of focus. I enjoy creating in transition, so it’s good to decompress from writing by working on a painting, and painting opens up a creative flow that helps me in my writing.
11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
My resolution this September was to have more routine. I have two jobs: a bartender at a fancy hotel bar and a shoe shiner in the financial district. Between them I work 40+ hours weekly, and on top of that I have the internship with Guernica. I’m also completing the Publishing post-grad certificate at Ryerson, not to mention doing as many public readings as I can, as well as working on my current writing projects. I got married this summer, and the planning process ate up all of my good habits and routines. But I have a MacBook Air which is so light that I can bring it anywhere, and I do. I write between customers at the shoe shine. I keep a Moleskine by my bed at night and in my purse by day for more flighty thoughts and ideas. Twitter’s great for throwing out bits and phrases into the atmosphere as they come to mind –– I can do this as I’m walking. I actually power-walked into a tree a month ago doing this, though, so I’m trying to be better about acknowledging my environment. This summer I took a whole week off for a personal writing retreat and set up camp at my parents’ cottage where there’s no internet or cell service. It’s in my natural rhythm to be cyclical. I write most consistently at night, but as long as I keep notes and thoughts daily, I can connect the dots when I get a chance.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I turn to my personal library. I’ll reread my favourite books. I’ll go to a familiar passage in one of Ann-Marie McDonald’s novels, or open one of Sina Queyras’ books of poetry at random. Or pick up whatever I’m reading at the moment. Aside from the obvious comfort, it’s a reminder that writing is a dialogue.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Frankincense and myrrh: resins and essential oils.
14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
I was doing my undergrad degree in Philosophy at the time of writing this book, and philosophy felt very urgent to me. It influenced me in a big way. Phenomenology via Merleau-Ponty, existentialism via Sartre and Kierkegaard, absurdism via Camus. I always listen to music while I write.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
I naturally gravitate to books by Canadian women, and often Queer women. Sina Queyras came out with My Ariel and I just fall in love with every work she produces. I read Ann-Marie MacDonald’s Fall on Your Knees so many times, and the first time at such a young age (14), that I suspect it actually changed me at a deep level. Milan Kundera’s work has left a mark. Jorge Luis Borges. Patrick Dewitt’s Ablutions. God, I love that book. Entirely written in second person and it’s hilarious and true. Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be?. This year, with its troubling socio-political climate, I asked myself what I could do to help despite being very busy, and the answer that made the most sense was simply to listen. So I’ve made a point to seek out writers of Colour. At the moment I’m reading Canisia Lubrin and Roxane Gay.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Finish a novel. Get a writing career that is supported by other literary jobs (editing, teaching, or publishing) so I don’t have to feel so much like I’m being pulled in opposite directions all the time.
17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
My dream job would be an acquisitions editor, or a literary agent, or really any editorial job. Especially in publishing. I am working towards that. I’m moving to Ottawa next summer and there’s a wonderful poetry community there. Intellectual property law would be exciting work also. I was an ESL teacher in Taiwan for fifteen months, and I really enjoyed that work. Making grammar come alive and seeing students excited to create a sentence was very rewarding.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I wrote while doing everything else. I feel as though I’ve lived a thousand lives and writing is the the cohesive thread.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I generally prefer film to television, but I’m going to have to say Stranger Things 2, it has that cinematic quality anyway. I just finished Catherine Hernandez’ book Scarborough. It was so good, I read it all in one go. Black Flower by Young-Ha Kim was a gorgeous historical novel about a small group of Koreans emigrating to Mexico at the beginning of the twentieth century that I didn’t want to finish because I wanted to go on existing within that world. I think that’s the mark of an excellent book.
20 - What are you currently working on?
I’m working on a collection of poetry based on my year and half in Taiwan and return to Canada. It’s giving me an opportunity to write about the complicated meaning of home. I’m also working on a novel about two sisters, one of whom is in jail of for the vigilante killings of several rapists. The story came very urgently to me this summer, and I’m excited to be delving into emotional questions of retribution and mercy. I’ll also be hosting the new Mercury Writing & Editing Series at No One Writes to the Colonel on College Street every last Wednesday of the month at 7:30 p.m. (though it may change to every last Thursday in the new year).
12 or 20 (second series) questions;