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Behind the Page: Katherine Lawrence on Never Mind

Where from language, ideas, the poem’s gesture?

Never Mind began soon after the death of my mother in 2011. I felt the attention of what I can only describe as a presence during the early days of my grief. I didn’t feel frightened, nor did I feel consoled. What I felt was curiosity because my writing took on a mannered voice that lifted me from my sorrow and into something that felt like ancient sadness.

I began to wonder how our foremothers and their daughters said goodbye in the Old World knowing they would never see, touch or hear one another again. There would have been letters, of course, and eventually trains, but no email, no telephone, no Skype, no Boeing aircraft and probably no time or money for a cross-Atlantic visit by ship. Most settlers would not have attended their mother’s funeral.

Yet the voice of the poems seemed to insist that communication was not only possible, but necessary and eternal. I wondered who the messengers might have been in those days. The wind? A crow’s call? A river’s white water? Yes, yes, and yes.

So I began to read, guided by a brief family history: immigration to southern Ontario from England and Ireland in the early 1800s; my own interprovincial migration in 1982 when I moved to Saskatoon from Hamilton (including a four-year stop in Regina).

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I was in a lot of pain as a teen. My parents had divorced. They sold the family home and everyone scattered. My dad to Hamilton. My sister and I to Burlington with our mother. I missed my dad, especially in the morning. I missed the sight of his starched white shirt, the spicy scent of his aftershave, and his airy scrambled eggs. I didn’t like our new apartment, nor did I much care for the guy Mom was dating. At the age of fourteen, my life changed faster than a new hairstyle.

I began to write. Why poems? I had discovered Canadian writers like Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje, Al Purdy, Gwendolyn MacEwen, Milton Acorn. It was the early 1970s and their poetry felt to me like another kind of home. A place with room for all my sadness and wild awakening.

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Let me tell you a secret: I believe that poetry saves lives. I believe in the power of language to run ahead of us, sort something out, and rush back with more questions, better questions. Poetry centred me and never left me alone. Poetry taught me how to intuit a world that felt like a house with a false front and a drop-floor.

The world still feels that way to me.

I need poetry and prose in my life.

Art.

~

The voice in Never Mind is a woman I call Wife. Her story is the story of every woman who has said goodbye to a home, her friends, the people she loves. As she says goodbye, she knows in her bones that she will never see them again. Immigration, death, broken promises; loss knows a thousand ways to shatter that thing held close. How, asks Wife, does one repair the ruined vessel?

Never Mind is written from fragments— lines from letters, diary entries, sketches, paintings, hen’s faint scratches in the dirt. The collection can be read as individual poems, as one long poem, or as a loose novel-in-verse. It tells a story but it does not offer a tidy ending because the conversation is ongoing, never ending.

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I write every day but I haven’t always been so disciplined.

Early in my writing practice, I wrote when I could find a quiet hour. I was working and raising two little girls. I was figuring out how to stay married to someone I loved. I was also wondering about my parents’ marriage and what happened to their love. I wrote my first book, Ring Finger, Left Hand, from these questions.

Later, when my daughters were older and I had studied poetry with greater stubbornness, I wrote my second collection, Lying to Our Mothers. The poems address questions about courage and how girls and women move through a process of finding, losing, and reclaiming their strengths.

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 I don’t know who I am when I let the writing fall away from me. I forget my name, and whether or not I need to buy milk and eggs. I lose track of my friends. But when I write, when I return to my office and sit down every day at my desk, I feel vital and obsessed. Later, when I return to the world as a writer, I know my name again. I know what we’ll eat for dinner and how to cook food that wakes the tongue. And as if by magic, my friends return.

~

Never Mind is an extension of my earlier work. I still wonder about love, marriage, family, and the courage required to be a woman in any era.

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Turnstone Press acknowledges the support of the Canada Council for the Arts, the Manitoba Arts Council, the Government of Canada, and the Province of Manitoba through Manitoba Sport, Culture and Heritage.

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