STUDIO SALE EARLY ACCESS

Margot Lettner

"There was this passage on an exhibition card from a diary written by this woman, and she talked about sitting on the banks of the Humber River at night in her canvas tent, reading Palladio by candlelight, and I just thought Who is this person?" 

 

 

Margot Lettner is a writer, poet and editor. Her latest poetry book, anglepoise, was released earlier this year. This Q&A delves deeper into Margot's process and what it took to bring anglepoise to life. 

Purchase your copy of anglepoise at Daed’u Books https://www.aflaflafl.com/store/anglepoise 

 

Here is Margot in her own words...

 

The first poem I wrote, I was about eight. It was a haiku - I found it recently in one of my father's notebooks when I was clearing out my parents’ home, he’d handwritten it. He bought me my first book of poems, Poems To Grow On. It was a “comfort book” of my childhood, I loved it and still have it. I wrote a lot when I was a kid and into my teens. And then, for a very long time, I wrote for a living but it wasn’t literary writing. Coming back to poetry is, for me, coming full circle. 

 

The Writing Process

It starts with a word or phrase, something I’ve read or overheard. Sometimes I actually misread, and it's the misspelled or portmanteau word that I write down. I read a lot when I’m writing - it’s like listening to music, and for me poems are soundings - and I’ve learned that what I read tends to suggest itself - one book, author, or idea leads to another. It’s field work and, like writing, it passes through me on its way from somewhere to somewhere. 

I tend to have a couple of projects happening at once, co-existing in different stages. This was advice I got before my first residency, to take a few things along because the thing you plan to write may not, in fact, be the thing you can write. Having other work also means I have a place to park ideas or lines - I often have poem titles but no poem, but at least I’ve set down a beginning.  

With anglepoise, it was my main focus. The research and writing were so intensive that leaving off always meant a long way back in. For the poem suite after husk, I also wrote 10 poems to pair with the 10 erasure poems. Each double-page spread holds a pair, like the erasure poem “Katherine” and its companion “creve-coeur”, or the pair “cold, fell” and “grief, his wife.” I really had to stay in this space for these poems to walk with each other. 

My work is very connected to place, to particular groundscapes and watersheds in southern Ontario. So field work is a big part of my practice, I'm very fortunate to be close to the Humber, Mimico and Etobicoke watersheds, the Black Oak savannas. It’s how I refresh and re- engage, going out with the binoculars or snowshoes. I’ve also learned to allow work to evolve and breathe over time. Sometimes when I leave a poem that’s not working, when I come back to it, it’s worked on itself.

I do a lot of rewrites. I think this is something I learned from my writing life outside poetry - there comes a time you just have to let go. No piece is ever finished. And I find this exciting, that a poem has infinite room. 

  

a two page spread of the poetry book angelpoise

  

Inspiration and Responsibility

About 10 years ago I went to an architecture festival in Toronto. There was this passage on an exhibition card from a diary written by this woman, and she talked about sitting on the banks of the Humber River at night in her canvas tent, reading Palladio by candlelight, and I just thought Who is this person? And this person was Elizabeth Simcoe, and the passage was from the journals she wrote in the 1790s when she lived in what is now Ontario. And that set me to find out who this person was, and to find and read her diaries.

I wanted to read Elizabeth’s original journals, and I was fortunate to find very supportive staff at Archives Ontario. It’s very special to work with archives, to be with old books, to see their marbled covers, cotton-pulp pages, their 220 years of living, to get that intimate contact.

And then when you open them, you see all these interleaves, the bits and pieces that she left inside -  shopping lists, reminder lists, little scraps of drawings and watercolors, scraps of writing, the fact that she would write down the page and then up the side of the page. And you know, you don't see that in digital reproductions online. Studying the originals suggested elements of the book design. anglepoise is printed in brown ink because that’s the colour Elizabeth’s handwriting has aged to. Its pages have splotches because that’s what time and weather and boat crossings have done to her journals. 

Voice and representation were also challenges. The journals are intimate writings. They are also documents created by a settler, the wife of a British colonial administrator.  Elizabeth’s voice felt very close by as I wrote. And so many of the poems weave her words with mine, hers appearing in lighter print or in her actual handwriting.

But, it’s also 220 years later. The poem suite after husk, which emerges from erasing all 10 chapters of Elizabeth’s published journals into 10 poems, so her words still speak but in different voices, explores an iterative process of re-composition. Because I explore how place, landscape and memory are layered over time, and come from a settler heritage, I have to ask how to approach Canadian settler archives within the counterpoint of Indigenous archives and experience, how to evolve an ethic of care and challenge. What do we do with ourselves on this land that became an eventness of whiteness?

 

close up from anglepoise of page with a charcoal drawing

 

Significant Breakthroughs

Letting Elizabeth’s journals speak by using erasure to create the poem suite, after husk. Some of the poems rewrote themselves 10 or 15 times - each time slightly differently, sometimes quite differently, like the text was having different conversations. And that just seemed to reflect the fluidity of time, the fluidity of memory, and my own unfinished work of understanding colonization.

The poem ampersand is another kind of fluid conversation. I had read around Elizabeth’s century, 1750-1850, there’s all this amazing context on every historical level - including how cooking signals class revolution - and when I was at the Vermont Studio Centre a colleague suggested I write a list poem. That list became ampersand and recipes became the thread that binds the cast of voices together. These are European voices of the Enlightenment and the age of discovery - the cultural ground of Elizabeth’s world. But with 50 other voices, it would be a different poem.

And making anglepoise a collaboration among artists, and across generations. Two writers. Two painters. Three walkers of the same watersheds, Oksana handmaking inks from materials she finds there. Hayley’s idea of the folding cover and vellum band. Aaron imagining how loss, discovery and displacement might move over the physical space of the book, each journal a different single or multiple voice as each hand - Elizabeth, me, then Oksana - enters.

 

On Bringing in a Visual Element

Words are wonderful, I love them, but images add what words simply can’t express. If you set drawings and words among each other, much as you might do if you’re curating a show in a room, you're opening a space where different media describe and counterpoint lived or imagined experience. Their fields of perception, of expression, set up all these invitations to open out.

 When I look at Oksana’s charcoal drawings for the long poem ampersand, which are bark rubbings from an old oak tree called Great White, I see in their textures, in their lines, the liminal nature of time.

anglepoise reminded me how much I underpin words with other ways of sensing. Colour, texture, space, sound. So making an art book is a natural, intuitive part of my exploration and practice. 

 

close up of a line drawing of a pear

 

On What's Next

I'm [...] feeling tremendous joy. To hold the book in my hands! To share it with people, hear what it makes them wonder about. The book’s design - its intimate journals, its faded type and watermarks, how it begins in one woman’s voice then adds other voices - I hope readers are curious, go back, explore and muse, which is a poet’s dream reader!  And for me, it’s also time for a fresh start.

I’m early in some new work called A Place For the Time Being. It’s grounded in a 100-acre landscape that has an unusual history. Some is documented, some is suggestive. This small patch is really a deep well of bigger things. I'm seeing a series of short journals, each perhaps 10-15 poems, that appear randomly as the project unfolds. 

 

Purchase your copy of anglepoise at Daed’u Books  https://www.aflaflafl.com/store/anglepoise 

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published