Born in Newfoundland in 1949, just prior to Confederation, Robin McGrath has had a diverse and prolific career as a writer. She earned a PhD from the University of Western Ontario in 1983 and her first publications were scholarly works on Canadian Inuit literature. By the 1990s, she began publishing fiction and poetry, with Trouble and Desire, a collection of short fiction, in 1995, and Escaped Domestics, a collection of poetry, in 1998. But in the first decade of the 21st century the floodgates really opened for her creatively via Donovan’s Station (novel, 2002), Covenant of Salt (poetry, 2005), and Winterhouse (novel, 2009). As well, she published two collections of folklore from “the Rock”: Nursery Rhymes of Newfoundland and Labrador (2004) and All In Together: Rhymes, Ditties, and Jingles of Newfoundland and Labrador (2009). She has also written young adult novels, the most recent being Livyers World in 2007. On top of this, McGrath has published several works on the province’s history and culture, including Salt Fish and Schmattes: A History of the Jews of Newfoundland and Labrador from 1760 (2006). Coasting Trade, a poetic performance piece, was released as a CD in 2006. Currently, she lives with her husband in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, Labrador.
As a telling note to this brief bio., I feel I ought to relate the following: Recently, I was looking for her books at a second-hand bookstore in downtown St. John’s and I wasn’t having much luck, even though the store’s shelves were crammed tight. When I asked the shop-keeper if he happened to have any McGrath titles around, he answered, “No. People tend to hold onto her books.” It seems to me that’s one of the finest compliments a writer can receive.
Jacob Bachinger interviewed Robin McGrath via email in the autumn of 2010.
You’ve been publishing prolifically for the past ten years, with some years seeing two new McGrath titles. Has “the Muse” been beating you with an inspiration stick?
I always thought every writer had an inexhaustible flood of idea and the only thing stopping them was the lack of time to get it all down on paper, but recently I’ve felt the water diminishing. The ideas are still there but I don’t seem as driven to realize them as I was. It’s not writer’s block, exactly. I think it’s related to my moving to Labrador four years ago. I’ve finished all the things I started before I arrived here but I’m not really ready to start writing from this new place. Labrador is a different country, particularly Central Labrador where I live. It’s a trapping culture, not a fishing culture. It’s more like the Yukon than the Avalon. I’ve just finished reading Kathleen Winter’s Annabel, which is set in Central Labrador, and what she knows about trapping you could fit in your eye. She doesn’t even know the difference between babitch and sinew. I don’t care how many books she sells, I don’t want to write like that.
In the introduction to All In Together, you write about how so many people that you knew as a child “believed in decorating even the most common exchanges with ditties, fragments of verse, limericks, parodies, riddles, counting games, and catch phrases.” Do you think that’s particular to Newfoundland and Labrador? Did those decorations help to make you a poet?
I don’t think of poetry as “decoration.” I think I take it more seriously than that. But perhaps it demystified the genre for me. As a teacher, I found that a lot of students were intimidated by the idea of poetry–afraid they wouldn’t or couldn’t understand it. I never worried about that. If people are quoting Wordsworth or Shakespeare at you all the time, in a context, you eventually figure out what they mean by it. I think what the rhymes did was show me how narrative and even fairly complex abstract ideas can be boiled down into a compact form.
I think that perhaps oral rhymes and word games are more popular in Newfoundland than elsewhere in North America. When I was growing up, I met lots of intelligent people who couldn’t read or write, and even today we still have the highest rate of illiteracy in the country. In a place like that, oral poetry can flourish. I read somewhere once that Newfoundlanders have a greater active vocabulary than people in other parts of the country–we know and use 30% more words than CFAs [Come-From-Aways], and of course many of those words were invented by us, which is why we need our own dictionary. I’ve heard it said that Inuit “speak” poetry. I think Newfoundlanders do too. You just have to listen to a really lively conversation between two locals in a bar or down on the wharf and you will hear poetry, not all of it in rhyme.
You’ve collected a number of nursery rhymes in particular. I can’t help but wonder if that’s something disappearing from the lives of children today. Do you think children still receive rhymes and ditties?
I’ve collected plenty of rhymes from children, so I can’t say they are disappearing from their lives, but I do think there was a fracturing of the tradition at around the time televisions became universal, in the late 1950s. It’s like alleys, what you might call marbles. When I was a kid, everyone owned alleys, and played a variety of games with them. They are still widely available in any dollar store you go into and I expect alleys can be found in just about every household in North America, but I don’t see kids playing with them. They are used for flower arrangements or something. I saw some the other day on someone’s dining room table, and they were for bazzing at moose in the vegetable garden. Sooner or later, though, some kid is going to figure out a new game for them and we’ll see kids playing alleys again. Parents and teachers assure me that kids invent and quote plenty of rhymes, but they are ruder than they used to be. I doubt that—we knew plenty of rude ones. If there’s a gap, it’s in the dissemination of more classical rhymes and poems. Nobody is learning the type of verse you used to find in the old Royal Readers.
In the early stage of your career, you focused on scholarly studies of Canadian Inuit literature. Does Inuit literature have an influence on your poetry?
It certainly gave me an appreciation for orality, which most likely led to my rhyme collecting, and it definitely led me to see humour as an important element of poetry. Inuit use humour to sharpen even the most serious subject. Death, despair, impotence, starvation, are all subjects Inuit poets deal with, and there’s always a touch of wit or self-deprecation there. I think I would have been afraid to bring the ridiculous to my observations of the sublime if it hadn’t been for my familiarity with so many brilliant Inuit poets.
A theme in Escaped Domestics, which is further developed in Covenant of Salt, is the connection between Jewish traditions and Newfoundland traditions. Could you tell me more about this?
Most people see Newfoundland and Labrador society as homogenous, and I’ve read that in textbooks too, that we’re all white Irish. That simply isn’t true. We have aboriginal heritage, Jewish and Lebanese ancestors, Italian and Norwegian, some Chinese. It’s true there aren’t a lot of black people in our family trees, but there’s plenty of French, Welsh, you name it. In my own case, my connections are Jewish so that’s what emerges in my work. Newfoundland and Labrador is an overwhelmingly Christian society, but of course the old Testament is incorporated into Christianity so you might say I focus on the older elements of the tradition.
We’ve talked of traditions that have had an influence on your work, but what about individual poets? Whose work is important to you?
I grew up with significant exposure to the 18th and 19th and early twentieth century poets–the usual stuff found in most anthologies or undergraduate courses–Pope, Wordsworth, Blake, Browning, Yeats and so on. I was made to memorize reams of their stuff. I liked it then and I still do. But I think I’ve been more directly influenced by modern Canadian poets–A.M. Klein, Pat Lane, Alden Nolan, and Al Purdy. Particularly Purdy. We were good friends, and it was Al who made me write things down instead of talking out my stories and poems. He used to clap his hand over my mouth when I got launched on something that obviously deserved more writerly attention and he’d say “send it to me in the mail.” So I did, and that’s how I started to make the transition from academic to creative writing. The Newfoundland poets that I admire and go back to are the late Irving Fogwell, and more recently Mary Dalton, Don Austen, Agnes Walsh, and Tom Dawe. I think Carmelita McGrath (who is not related to me, though we come from the same part of the island) is greatly underrated. Like me, she writes in a variety of genres, which may account for that. Perhaps people see us as dabblers. We aren’t.
You’ve said that you feel your poetry is your most successful work. Do you still feel that way, especially now that you’ve had a few novels behind you? How do you define that success?
I don’t remember having said that but perhaps I did. I probably meant my most “satisfying” work rather than successful. I’ve won some awards and sold some books and reviewers have been kind, but I’m hardly a popular success. However, I do feel that my poetry has legs. I don’t go back and reread my own novels or histories unless I have to for some reason, but I still like some of the poetry I’ve written and I enjoy reading it to an audience. I dislike reading from my fiction and non-fiction, but I actually look forward to poetry readings because I can feel the approval coming from the listeners. They laugh, they nod. I often get spontaneous applause, so I know other people are getting what I’ve done. I’m no intellectual, despite my academic success, so my poetry is accessible. Ordinary people understand me. It would be terrible if all poets were like that, but there’s room for a few of us mere mortals. I’d love to be like Mary Dalton. Some of her stuff is so hard you could break your teeth on it, but she can also write poems that your average fishplant worker can understand and appreciate.
I have some trouble believing that the water is diminishing for you. May I ask what you’re working on now?
I’ve spent much of the last six months working on Hammered by the Waves, my late father’s translation of Henri de la Chaume’s travel journals. It’s in the book stores now, though it hasn’t been formally launched, so I’ve only just got clear of that and I haven’t started on a new book yet. I have an idea for a novel set in St. John’s in 1959, but it needs more thought and a lot more research, so I don’t know if it will happen or not. In the meantime, I plan to spend much of the winter working on my press. I have a Vandercook SL15 letterset galley press, on which I can set type and print linocuts. I’ve just finished a series of 18 linocuts for an exhibition, so now I’d like to do more text printing. I find typesetting concentrates my mind. Some of the fonts I have are fairly limited, and I find myself thinking “does this line really need all those vowels?” or “why do I need to include the word zombie when I’ve just run out of the letter zed?” I have a theory that if poets had to typeset all their work by hand, they would write a lot less and the poems might be better. Ask me at the end of the winter if that’s true.