Major discusses storytelling through poetry
Born in Scotland and raised in Toronto, Alice Major is a well-known Canadian writer with twelve published collections of poetry.
Major’s most recent work, Welcome to the Anthropocene, continues her long engagement with the sciences as a way of finding meaning in the world. Major has received many honours for her writing and community work, including the Lieutenant Governor of Alberta Distinguished Artist Award.
With a theme of “Stories For Generations”, the 7th Annual Spirit of the Land conference will explore how storytelling connects to the land, ecology and community. The Medium sat down with Major to discuss why she thinks stories are important, where she finds inspiration, and how her writing connects to the conference themes.
Why are stories important to you?
Stories are a kind of map-making — we live in time as much as we live in space, and story helps us understand the landscape of time. They’re really about cause and effect, actions and consequences.
I’m a poet, and we often think that poetry is different from story-telling. But we’ve used poetry for narratives as long as we’ve been using language—look at the epic of Gilgamesh, which is about the oldest poem we have on record. Even the shortest poem is a snapshot in time, capturing a moment in time’s landscape.
How do you find inspiration for writing/storytelling?
To start with, I find so much inspiration in having found this place. I came to the west in my late twenties – to the Cariboo, first of all – and found myself somewhere that was Canada and yet so different from the urban Toronto I’d left behind. Slowly, I realized that this part of the world speaks to me, and I wanted to listen to that and try to capture it.
I’m also really inspired by science. It’s another form of story-telling, a way of trying to understand cause and effect. It presents different kinds of narrative—the story of geology, for instance, and how our landscape was formed. Or the story told by archeology, the way that we can explore the past.
How does your storytelling connect to the land, ecology and/or people?
When I came out west, I heard terms like wolf willow and aspen parkland. I saw magpies for the first time and heard coyotes in the river valley I worked for an electric company (since poetry doesn’t exactly pay the bills), and got to learn a vocabulary like subbituminous coal and brushing a right of way – that job took me over much of the province, from High Level to Consort. All these things find their way into my writing – the vegetation, the creatures, the jobs people do as cab drivers or linemen or office tower workers.
But the greatest privilege, I think, has been learning about the history. When I first came west, I worked on the Williams Lake Tribune and the photographer there was Agness Jack, who comes from Dog Creek reserve. She took me under her wing and drove me all over the Cariboo, from Alkali Lake to Bella Coola, and she gave me my first glimpses of how Indigenous people have experienced this complicated story called “Canada.” I’ve had opportunities since then to learn more, though I can’t pretend to really know what it’s like.
Then finally, our story right here is connected to the whole story of the planet that sustains us and is being altered by human activity. My latest book tries to connect the global issues of the Anthropocene to how we are living our lives here.
How does your writing reflect complex real-world situations?
No single story tells it all. I can only offer my take on the landscape of this place. I can try to convey the sense that there are multiple narratives that braid together, but it really takes all our stories, all our literature and art and science, to truly express the complexity.
What are some of your favourite stories?
When I was a little kid, I really loved the Narnia stories—used to hide in the closet hoping it would suddenly turn into the entrance to another world. I think what I really liked was that they were about transformation and the possibility of becoming someone new and better because you’ve explored somewhere new. I like stories that give me hope.
Major is set to speak at the 7th Annual Spirit of the Land Conference on Oct. 27. For more information or to register, please visit spiritoftheland.ca.