“The little things that shake us awake”: Q & A with Monica Kidd; Interviewed by Jacob Bachinger

Over the course of her working and writing life, Monica Kidd has been tugged in several directions: science, medicine, journalism, and literature, especially poetry.  Her most recent poetry collection, Chance Encounters with Wild Animals, was published by Gaspereau in 2019.  It followed three other collections: The Year of Our Beautiful Exile (2015), Handfuls of Bone (2012), and Actualities (2007), all published by Gaspeareau.  As well, she has written two novels, Beatrice (2001) and The Momentum of Red (2004), and a non-fiction memoir of her family, Any Other Woman: an Uncommon Biography (2008).  Alongside practicing medicine in Calgary, she prints under the name of Whisky Jack Letterpress, and works as acquisitions editor for Pedlar Press. She divides her time between Calgary and St. John’s.

Your CV is diverse: seabird biologist, radio journalist, family physician, and, of course, poet and novelist.  How do these diverse elements cohere in your writing?

I’m not sure they do. I’m a generalist by nature, and therefore not a very good strategist or self-promoter. I’ll admit I’ve often looked for the Grand Unifying Theory that brings together all of my strands, but I also see that this is mostly an attempt to please others. I try to follow my curiosity. I try to pay close attention, to document without sentimentality, and to speak plainly, but not to let any of that get in the way of love.

There is a definite category of doctor-writers, for example Chekhov and William Carlos Williams – to name just two.  What is it about medicine that leads to literature, or is it the other way around? 

A physician-writer colleague mine at the University of Toronto, Allan Peterkin, likes to say that medicine is a narrative act. And older physicians who taught me in medical school would say that if you are a good listener and a good questioner, patients will tell you their diagnoses. Medicine and literature are both all about story. The question I might cheekily ask is not why some doctors wind up as writers, but why don’t all of them see themselves as such? 

Here’s the question of influences: whose work is essential to you? 

(Gack!) Edward Abbey. Michael Crummey. Ani DiFranco. Eduardo Galeano. Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Don McKay. Lisa Moore. Michael Ondaatje. Michael Redhill. John K. Samson. Zadie Smith. Wislawa Szymborska. Hunter S. Thompson. Michael Winter. Jeanette Winterson.

In reading your work, both poetry and prose, the writing feels pulled between two regions: rural Alberta and the north Atlantic coast.  They’re culturally, geographically, and aesthetically very different.  Even the English spoken in those regions is very different.  How do you find middle ground?

I guess that would be Toronto, right? Ha ha. I wouldn’t say I’m looking for middle ground. Alberta and Newfoundland are where I’ve spent most of my life—Alberta by upbringing and now for work, and Newfoundland first for work and subsequently by choice. It’s true that Alberta and Newfoundland are very different culturally and geographically and by virtue of history. But there are similarities in the bits of Alberta and Newfoundland that I know. Big open horizons. Resource-based economies (fish, oil, farming). Small towns and family connections. A general distaste for the putting on of airs.

I also sense you’re pulled between two other poles: poetry and prose.  In your poetry collection The Year of Our Beautiful Exile (2015), you seem to find middle ground in the prose poem form.  What are your thoughts on the prose poem? What are its opportunities, its limitations?

I guess I like the prose poem because it asks the reader to question authority (Is this prose? Is this poetry? Who says?) and be okay with some genre-bending. In my own work I try to stay away from showiness and sentimentality, and I think the prose poem is the natural home for reportage. Critics sometimes see plain spokenness as superficial. But maybe that’s the journalist in me: show, don’t tell. I also think it builds tension (war reporting, for example, often presents the biggest details with the smallest ones without editorializing, letting the contrast speak itself) and asks the reader to bring herself to the work. I like finding myself (or my counterpart) in a story or in a poem, in its possibilities and spaces, so I assume my readers will also want this. Having said that, l Iove a killer line break and the judicious use of repetition, and those are harder to employ in the prose poem. 

In the title poem of your most recent collection, Chance Encounters with Wild Animals (2019), there are no wild animals.  Instead, the poem describes a scene with an elderly man, his “old-fashioned come-on,/ that elbow, inviting me for a stroll…”  What is the wild to you?

Now that’s a big question. Don McKay has said that wilderness isso overwritten it should probably be granted a reprieve from definition.” As a biologist and rural kid, I’ve had lots of contact with wild animals in a sense that everyone would probably agree on: animals for whom humans are intruders. And there are plenty of Actual Wild Animals in all of my collections. But in this poem and this collection, wildness stands in for surprise. The little things that shake us awake.

In Chance Encounters, the poem “A Charm Against Drowning” weaves images of you as a mother with references to Syrian refugees making their dangerous crossing.  What’s the role of politics in poetry? How can poetry respond to tragedies like Syria?

I think any art, including poetry, is political if it takes a stand. And taking a stand doesn’t necessarily mean arguing for a particular position or worldview. It can literally just mean standing: seeing another, hearing them, sharing the burden of sorrow or loss, being in another’s presence, doing the work of looking for meaning in the haze of capitalist, hegemonic, amnestic spin. That particular poem pauses with a thirty second news report of a boat full of refugees that capsized. There were mothers and children on that boat, just like my son and me. Why them and not us? Why am I granted the privilege of survival when someone else is not? What does that privilege ask of me? These are political questions. 

Also in Chance Encounters, in “A Meal of Duck,” there is the phrase, “If poetry is witness…” It seems like a lot hangs on the word if.  Could you talk about poetry as a witness, if it is one? 

I’m probably being a little coy with that “if.” Poetry is witness, in my opinion. It’s the getting down on paper of moments that shape a life, capturing the sensory information and emotional truths enclosed in them.

Jacob Lee Bachinger teaches at the University of Lethbridge and has had poetry published in journals such as The Fiddlehead, Prairie Fire, and The Malahat Review, among others. 

Photo: Stray Light Photography