Profile: Anne Michaels
by Sean McQuaid
UPEI's "Winter's Tales" visiting writers program has showcased some of Canada's most innovative and successful authors, the latest being poet and novelist Anne Michaels. A Governor General's award nominee, Michaels has been praised extensively for her two poetry collections: Weight of Oranges (1986) and Miner's Pond (1991).
A Toronto native, Michaels feels geography is very central to writing: "If you've lived in a place all your life, you have to find ways to recreate it, reinvent it." She believes a poem is like "an archaeological slice of time, investigating all the aspects of that moment." Michaels sees her writing as a way of preserving a piece of time and place.
This "time capsule" impulse has been a lifelong inspiration for Michaels, who has written ever since she was able to write. "As a very small child," she remembers, "I was conscious that things don't stay the same, and I wanted to keep an experience, to keep a moment."
One of the earliest outlets for Michaels's conservational inclination was a five-year diary in which she recorded things like the weather and other day-to-day trivialities; this was where her enduring habit of recording life's details began- and continues to this day. "I'm interested in the smallest daily domestic detail that makes you understand something you didn't," she says. She tries to convey the totality of human experience.
Inspiration aside, Michaels writes because she wants to make sense of something for herself. "Most often there are several disparate things that are haunting me but I can't find what's connected about them," she says. Michaels seeks "organic, truthful connections" between things, and that sometimes takes years to write.
Michaels hopes her insights are of value to her readers. "I want to unify conflicting ideas, conflicting moralities," she reflects. "Having done that for myself, I have a great desire to give something [to others]. Something of beauty. It's very gratifying for me."
Since writing is such a personal experience for Michaels, she never seriously thought about getting her work published until a publishing representative saw her do a reading and asked her to produce a manuscript. Though she welcomed the exposure, Michaels has always concentrated on developing her work to satisfy herself: "I feel so strongly that you have to listen to your own ear and pay attention and work," she says. "One has to apprentice one's craft."
In keeping with that philosophy of literary growth, Michaels tries to guide other writers in their own development by teaching through an independent workshop (actually a correspondence course). "I'm constantly reaffirming my love of my craft," she gushes. "Sharing the things I love and having other people discover them is great."
As for her own writing, Michaels is still going strong with a recently completed novel, an essay for a new anthology, and ongoing work on a third book of poetry, Skin Divers. For future projects, Michaels continues to collect items for her ongoing scrapbook, even though she isn't quite sure what to do with it all yet. "My next task," she says mysteriously, "is to find out what that next project is from the clues I'm collecting."
Anne Michaels read from her work at the PEI Arts Guild on January 19. She lives in Toronto where she teaches Creative Writing at the University of Toronto.