Annick MacAskill’s poems have appeared in journals and anthologies across Canada and abroad, including Arc, Canadian Notes & Queries, The Fiddlehead, Plenitude, Room Magazine, The Stinging Fly, and Best Canadian Poetry 2019. Her debut collection, No Meeting Without Body (Gaspereau Press, 2018), was nominated for the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award and shortlisted for the J.M. Abraham Award. Her second full-length collection, Murmurations, was published by Gaspereau this spring. MacAskill lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia, on the ancestral and unceded territory of the Mi’kmaq.
Murmurations is a collection of love poems that spans seasons and cities, and draws parallels between the nature of birds in their habitats and people in theirs.
Annick MacAskill is interviewed by Alli Vail.
Alli Vail (AV): Birds are prominent in this collection. They appear in the poems, and even in the titles: Geese, Magpies, Great Black-Backed Gulls, for example. What is it about birds that appeals to your poetic sensibilities, and are you a bird watcher?
Annick MacAskill (AM): I could go on about this point forever, but I’ll say for now that I love how birds are at once common and remarkable. Though obviously threatened by environmental degradation and exploitation, birds remain a part of the human everyday almost everywhere we live. I love how even in a city, I am frequently surrounded by many different species of birds. These days, that means pigeons, starlings, crows, blue jays, song sparrows, chickadees …
Birds are regular as in quotidian, extraordinary as in wonderful; physically quite close to us, but also quite far, as what do we know of their language? In this book, which is a poetry collection about love, I was interested in conveying a sense of everyday wonder, of renewed fascination in the speaker’s setting, as a mirror for the amazement and energy we feel when we fall in love. Birds were of interest because they allowed me to elaborate on/play with conversations within the book about meaning, communication, misunderstanding, music, and sound, about where these categories overlap and where they are in conflict.
AV: Your poems move and travel through Canada. Different oceans, cities, places, apartments, slide through the work. How does being in different cities or towns influence your writing?
AM: It can be difficult to bring a proper amount of poetic attention to one’s own setting. Moving around helps with this.
When I was a child, I desperately wanted to become a writer. One of the things I loved most about reading was diving into a new setting, a place I had never experienced before. I thought my own environment was so banal and ordinary that it would never be of interest to anyone. I had to move away, move around, to be able to come back and see what was noteworthy about my home. I try to carry that attention with me, now, wherever I go.
AV: One thing I particularly enjoyed was the presence of food — not fancy food, but everyday cooking — in your poems. You write, “Toast the bagels and kiss my fingertips,” and “We ate hot dogs bubbled to black char” and “Later I make breakfast, fry eggs,” or “shaking pasta into one of the copper pots”. These references offer a cosy, easy-going intimacy and invite the reader in. Why do you think food, used in this way, can do that?
AM: What I admire in so many love poems (and other literature) is the specificity of the setting, the speaker (and poet)’s attention to detail. Often the banality of the everyday takes on a new shine when we’re in love. One of my favourite examples of this is the Irish poet Colette Bryce’s “Carwash.” One of my all-time favourite poems, it takes place, as the title suggests, in a carwash in Belfast, and there is a gentle surprise in a love poem taking place in such a setting.
A bit like birds or the setting of a carwash, food is an everyday commonality that I could bring attention to. And the overarching significance, I think, of this attention within a collection of love poetry, is to reflect/underscore the attention that the lover is (hopefully) bringing to their beloved; not an authoritative, reductive attention (as in traditional love or nature poetry), but an opening, gentle questioning.
AV: This collection explores changing relationships, but it also delves into physical seasons: “February is a cold tongue, slick —” and “Snow through the first days of April — my boots / reveal the bloodied pinks of early cherries” or “August / and autumn already here in the trees.” Do you find it easier to focus on writing poetry in certain seasons, or do you follow a strict, year round writing schedule?
AM: It’s not new to structure a book of love poetry around/over a year—Spenser did it, Carol Ann Duffy did it, Marilyn Hacker did it, and while Petrarch’s Canzoniere took many years to write, it contains 366 poems—one for every day of a standard calendar year, with a bonus piece. Writing the poems in Murmurations over the course of twelve months (November to November) was a way to interact with this tradition. Perhaps because of this structure, no one season proved easier than the others, or more inspiring.
As for my writing schedule, it’s far from strict, though when I get started on a project I like, I do try to keep working on it in a continuous way, even if that’s just in the back of my mind.
AV: My favourite poem in Murmurations is ‘Pitch’ because of its sly insight into human behaviour and mimicry. Do you ever have a favourite poem among your own work, or is there something that connects you to a specific piece?
AM: First of all, thanks for saying this! I’m so glad you like ‘Pitch.’ Typically, my favourite poem is the last one I wrote! I have to wait to reach a “cold” period to do a bit of clear-headed editing and evaluation. In the case of Murmurations, all the poems feel dear and intimate to me. I also very much wrote this collection as a cohesive sequence — by the time I finished the first two poems, I knew I wanted to write a whole book. To me, the entire collection is also a single poem, a single breath.
AV: How can poetry connect people — or make us think differently — about nature and our environments?
AM: I’m not sure. Writing this book was more about questioning and wondering than about arguing or asserting, so I don’t see myself as an authority on this question. I also don’t consider Murmurations to be a book of nature or environmental poetry. In terms of thinking differently about nature/environment, I’ve learned a lot from poets like Don McKay and Laurelyn Whitt.