canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

TDR Interview: Melanie Cameron

Melanie Cameron is a Winnipeg-based poet. She is the author of Holding the Dark, a first collection of poetry (1999), which was nominated for Manitoba's Best First Book Award. Cameron is one of the Poetry Editors at the esteemed Canadian literary journal Prairie Fire. She also teaches writing at the University of Manitoba. 

Interview by Michael Bryson, summer of 2000.


TDR: Briefly, who are you? That is, give a brief sketch of your non-writing background: family, school, jobs. Whatever you think is relevant.

CAMERON: I was born in Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario in 1971, grew up mostly in Ontario, but moved lots as a kid (including: seven years in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan; a year in Durham, North Carolina; a year in Palo Alto, California), studied for three months in France, traveled a few summers in Latin America, and have lived for four years now in Winnipeg (the first three of those in an apartment in Osborne Village, and the past year in a house I adore and bought for ridiculously little from a friend, in Winnipeg’s North End).

I did my first year of university at the University of Toronto, finished a B.A. in English (Rhetoric and Professional Writing) at the University of Waterloo, and did an M.A. in English with a Creative Thesis at the University of Manitoba, apprenticing myself to poet George Amabile (I was also mentored informally, in the few years previous to my M.A., by poet/playwright Patrick Friesen).

I have worked primarily Social Service-related jobs, but for the first time this year (now that my first book has been published) I’ve taken the risk of leaving such work and am trying my luck at making my way on writing-related contract jobs/gigs: Poetry Co-Editor at Prairie Fire Magazine, Creative Writing Instructor for the University of Winnipeg’s Continuing Education Department, Grader/Marker at the University of Manitoba, private contract writing, etc.

Family? They’re mostly in Ontario. My dog, Nakita—my defender against North End bad guys!—is my only immediate family in Manitoba! And then there’s my S.O. (Significant Other, that is!): Writer/CBC Columnist/Lecturer/Doer-of-Many-Interesting-Things Extraordinaire, Mark Morton.

TDR: Many writers follow a crooked path towards their chosen profession or calling to be a writer. When did you know you were a writer? Or when did you decide to become a writer? Why?

CAMERON: Certainly not for the paycheque!

…I can’t explain when or why the desire/obsession/delusion set in! I remember, at age twelve, declaring that I would be a poet, although I had never read poetry written for adults, was still steeping myself in Dennis Lee and Shel Silverstein. I used to write lots as a kid and then as a teen. (I suspect this isn’t sounding much different from what most other writers would have to say on this subject!?) Even as a wee little kid, I was fascinated by language…. I was sorting through boxes of old stuff from my dad’s attic recently. My brother’s an auto-mechanic and stock-car driver, and his nursery-school pictures inevitably include images of cars; mine nearly always had letters of the alphabet scrawled randomly on them…. How do you explain that? I don’t know. But the impulse was there early on somehow, I think. I certainly read a lot. Friends of mine have a ten year-old son who always has his nose in a book: when he comes over to visit, at restaurants, on the floor in the middle of his empty bedroom as we chaotically move boxes into their new house…. It makes me laugh--he reminds me of my young self, in that way….

Now I understand that I need to write—writing balances me in a way nothing else seems to: it "brings together" my intellect, emotions, experiences of sensation, dreams and day-dreams; it forces me to challenge myself, while letting me have fun; it stimulates and settles me, at once….

On some intuitive level, I’ve been carving a path for myself as a writer. But I have also consciously watched other writers over the years to see how they construct their careers: how do they begin publishing; do they manage to have families and to write; how do they earn their primary income; how do they present their work when they read to an audience…. All that stuff…. studying how I could make it possible for myself to write and still do the other things I want to in life.

Figuring out how to organize your life so you can support yourself while you write takes almost as much skill and determination and guts, I think, as the actual writing and publishing! When I was working on Holding the Dark, I was discovering how to push myself as a writer and how to put a book together. I feel myself continuing to push myself to become a stronger, more interesting writer, to explore other genres and techniques, to do things I wouldn’t expect myself to do with language. But I find a lot of the energy I expend on "writing" lately has to do with figuring out (or maybe trusting that things will keep figuring themselves out!) logistically, how to organize my life as a writer.

I have to add, I find myself answering this entire question with a sense of tentativeness—with only one published book, I feel I can’t quite yet claim the title "writer." I’m conscious of still being a little sprout!

TDR: For your writing process, what is more important: discipline or inspiration? Why?

CAMERON: Well, you can be amazingly disciplined and write uninspired/ing crap every day; and you can go around with the most inspired/ing ideas in your head, but if you don’t sit down to work them through, they aren’t worth much to your writing. …To me, discipline and inspiration are equally important. And you can actively create (or at least foster) both. You need to foster both, I think.

At the same time, it helps me to remember that, like anything, the process of writing has seasons (germination, production, culling, and fallow times). I believe that learning to be an ever-stronger writer isn’t just about being disciplined and inspired to write, but is also about coming into synch with the seasons or rhythms in yourself—finding the balance between pushing yourself, and letting yourself rest in the necessary ways at the necessary times.

TDR: Your book, Holding the Dark, explores metaphors of darkness. What did that exploration teach you? How does the structure of the book (the cycle of the poems) relate to the work as a whole?

CAMERON: I knew, before I set out to write Holding the Dark, that I wanted to write poems exploring the "theme" or "concept" of darkness. I was thinking about darkness from several perspectives, at that time in my life…. I’d had several major retinal surgeries (the first at age 18), which changed my physical vision, and caused me to consider the possible reality of losing my sight altogether at some point in my life. Grappling with this possibility/experience opened me to my other senses in a way I had not been previously so conscious of. I wanted to write about the things I gained from a situation that seemed to others only to be robbing me of something. I was also interested in darkness as a metaphor for depression, grief, fear, etc.—the way darkness is usually "type-cast"; but, again, I wanted to explore the flip-side of that—how could "darkness," in the "negative" senses I have just mentioned, come to be a place of rest, rejuvenation, birth, peace, possibility, hope, etc. How to turn the negative into a genuine positive?… And I was interested in the darkness of one’s skin as a metaphor which other people respond to in a very real way, cycles and darkness (day and night being the most obvious), etc. etc. There were lots of points of entry into that concept for me. (Melanie means "dark one"—a further joke I love, but don’t address in the book.)

…Interesting question, how the structure of the book relates to its ostensible preoccupation with "themes" of darkness… Each poem stands alone, and yet doesn’t. Together, the poems take the reader from one place to another by the end of the book. A sort of journey takes place, which I think the reader can make sense of. But intuitively, not narratively. And here’s the whole metaphor of darkness again, right? Even the process of writing, and now reading, the book, becomes one of somehow stepping into and moving through darkness. You can’t always see what’s coming next, or see something in its entirety, but you can see the landmarks along the way, reference points. And you have to trust in the things between, the things that can’t be seen (or read) but that carry you from point to point. I often think of the structure of Holding the Dark as a grid—in a traditional novel, say, you might expect to travel from point A to B to C etc. across the grid. In Holding the Dark, you still make a journey, but you travel from X to C to M, and maybe you miss some points that you have to imply. Maybe you come back to M in a few different poems.

Of course, this is all hindsight—I had no idea what the structure of the book would be as I was actually writing the poems. George Amabile is largely responsible for helping me to uncover the structure, once I’d written the bulk of the initial sketches (i.e. drafts) of the poems.

TDR: What’s your favourite poem in Holding the Dark?

CAMERON: I don’t know if it’s the best poem. Stylistically, probably not--it’s not particularly complex. But I’m a sucker for "I love you furiously…." I like the sensuousness. I like that it celebrates senses and arts and a supposed other/lover, or a composite of others/things. And I’m a total sucker for a clinched ending to a poem, and this one has that, I think, circling back to the poet, making the seduction of the reader explicit.

TDR: Who are your major influences? How/why?

CAMERON: Dennis Lee’s Alligator Pie. I used to soak it up as a kid—stay up late rereading the poems, figuring out how he used rhythm and rhyme and line.

Leonard Cohen. As a teen, the first "adult" poetry that I’d read, really. I admired (still do) his ability to clinch an ending. Also, his range: from tender love poems to poems that consider political or historical questions; from a slight three-liner in free-verse, to a dense lyric in rhyming couplets. The cleverness, his ability to illuminate riddles, almost, in a very satisfying way. The confidence.

Patrick Friesen. I admire him personally. He is an extraordinarily open and kind person. Early on (1995) he was able to identify the potential in my then-very-underdeveloped poetic voice, and offered assistance to me. "You are a poet. Poets help poets," I clearly remember him saying. His confidence in me was very important to me at that time, as was his willingness to mentor me—working to become a poet is such a nebulous task. Having Patrick act as a reference point for me was invaluable as I was just beginning to get my bearings, so to speak. …Of course, I admire Patrick’s poetry, itself. More than most poets, I think, Patrick is constantly aware of the poem as music, how it comes to and off the page. I think of Patrick’s poetic voice as one that "jams." I have a lot to learn from that fluidity, that kind of letting go.

George Amabile. Again, I admire and love George tremendously as a person, a poet, and a teacher. I came alive as a writer under George’s care: he knew just when to move me in and out of the sun, how much water I needed or when I was in danger of drowning! He taught me an amazing amount about how my poetic voice was working, and how it could continue to develop. And he made me feel completely safe as I explored—writing extremely poorly, writing about subjects that were scary for me to address or to share with others…. George has an extraordinarily keen ear for poetry. As Patrick once told me, George will often approach him (Patrick) after reading his latest book, quote several lines from it, tell him what works and what doesn’t and why—and he’s always right!

Karen Connolly. I was inspired that a young woman only two years older than myself was so successfully publishing her work. What I call my "tumbling line" (stanzas indented for purposes of clarifying syntax) I adapted from one of the techniques she uses (though quite differently).

Sharon Olds. Her early work (especially Satan Says and The Dead and the Living) helped me to unlock the emotional energy I needed to write some of the poems in Holding the Dark.

Anne Michaels. I am learning a lot about how to further develop my own technique from studying her latest book (Skin Divers).






TDR is produced in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. 

All content is copyright of the person who created it and cannot be copied, printed, or downloaded without the consent of that person. 

See the masthead for editorial information. 

All views expressed are those of the writer only. 

TDR is archived with the Library and Archives Canada

ISSN 1494-6114. 

We acknowledge the support of the Canada Council for the Arts. Nous remercions de son soutien le Conseil des Arts du Canada.