Friday, March 1, 2024

Nellie McClung's visual art

Some poets are also visual artists, bill bissett comes to mind and he is the foremost Canadian poet who is also a visual artist. Ken Norris's Vishyun (Ekstasis Editions, 2023) featured cover art by bill bissett. Nellie McClung was a poet and also a visual artist. Despite mental illness Nellie embraced life with imagination and love, she had a sophisticated sense of humour, was both highly intelligent and really funny in conversation, and her satirical poems are more humour than satire. I first met Nellie in 1991 and later visited her home, which she named Casa Contenta, in the late 1990s; she stored her paintings in a room by the front door and my wife and I both bought paintings from her. Nellie's grandmother was the famous Nellie McClung, feminist and author; her brother was Judge John McClung. Nellie died in 2009.

Come Dance With me in Ireland (Ekstasis Editions, 2011), Nellie McClung's
selected poems edited and published by Richard Olafson. Introduction
by Carolyn Zonailo

"Sailboats in  Kitsilano", by Nellie McClung. This is the painting (on left) that I bought 
from Nellie and that I used on the cover of my selected poems, she gave us the smaller 
painting on the right and I hung them together, as pictured. 

Here is Nellie McClung's painting on the cover of my recent book,
Farewell, Darkness, Selected Poems (Ekstasis Editions), 2023.

"Red Cat and Dandelions" by Nellie McClung, from a series of cat paintings. Undated, probably 1980s.

"Aspen's Quiver" by Nellie McClung, around 1994. A different title
is on the back, but it is difficult to read. Aspen refers to Aspen, Colorado, 
"home of the Pawnees". 

Reverse of previous painting. 

Two portraits by Nellie McClung. 


A typical phone call from Nellie, her message left on the answering machine: "Carolyn, answer the phone, answer the phone, answer the god damn phone; I have plans and I want you and Stephen involved with them. We'll fly to New York and see David Letterman, be on his show, discuss Marilyn Monroe, then we'll fly to London and visit the prime minister at his home, we'll discuss anti-vivisection and get him onboard for working towards a better world. Carolyn, Carolyn, answer the god damn phone." We weren't the saints that Richard Olafson was regarding Nellie McClung's phone calls, he talked with her everyday. 

Wednesday, February 28, 2024

End of February 2012


This is what the end of February looked like fourteen years ago, in 2012. This has been a very mild winter and no one wants to return to these snowy cold winters.

Saturday, February 24, 2024

`The Cedars’, February 1980

View of the house from the highway

View from behind the house, fields and then the Trout River just below the tree line

View of sheds belonging to our neighbour, Donalda Smith

View of the house from rear


I owned this house, located about fifty miles south-west of Montreal at 4359 Route 138, from June 1979 to June 1997 when I returned to live in Montreal. The house was about 100 years old when I bought it; the best thing about the house is that it was adjacent to the Trout River; an old barn (to the right of the house above) burned down around 1985 and was replaced with a post and beam barn of the same size as the original barn. We sold the house and the new owners lasted about two years and then sold it; whoever bought the house a few years ago totally demolished the interior and renovated the place, nothing of what was once there is still present. 

Monday, February 19, 2024

Interview in The Artisanal Writer

I was recently interviewed by Sabyasachi Nag, the author of Hands Like Trees (Ronsdale Press, 2023), and the interview was published in The Artisanal Writer on 18 February 2024; see below:

ekstasis editionsGirouard Avenuej krishnamurtiMapping the SoulSelected Poems 1978-1998

Sabyasachi Nag (SN): In this collection, (it seems to me) you have selected more poems from your latter works than from your earlier works. Is that a fair conclusion? What were the considerations at play in the selection process? How did you choose to leave out the work that you ended up leaving out? When you went back to poems that you wrote 30 or 40 years ago how did you know which poems to select (or rather, what were the considerations that informed your choices)

Stephen Morrissey (SM): Some of the early poems in Farewell, Darkness, Selected Poems were published in my first selected poems, Mapping the Soul, Selected Poems 1978-1998 (1998). The poems published after 1998 are taken from Girouard Avenue (2009), A Private Mythology (2014), and several chapbooks. I included poems that were thematically consistent with the other poems in the book. Unlike most selected poems, there are no chapters or dates indicating which book the poems were taken from or when they were first published, it is a single body of work, it is one long book made up of poems written and published over a fifty year period that represents what I have done in poetry.

SN: In your long, illustrious, and extremely productive career that includes nine books of poetry, several chapbooks and two volumes on poetics what has been the most challenging work for you to write? Why?

SM: I began writing poetry in 1965 but I didn’t feel that what I was writing really expressed what I wanted to say. My first “real” poems were written in the early 1970s, when I was in my early twenties; for instance, “there are seashells and cats” and other poems that were in my first book, The Trees of Unknowing (1978); my apprenticeship as a poet was from when I began writing poems in 1965 to when I wrote what I felt were poems I could stand behind from around 1974. A second experience of writing a “real poem”, a long poem that was significant to me, was in April 1976 when I wrote “Divisions”; it was an achievement to write this long poem, it was cathartic and confessional.

SN: In the preface of this collection you say, “My experience is that where we begin as poets is where we end.” Can you elaborate?

SM: What concerned me in my writing, themes that were present from when I began writing poems, are still present in what I am writing now. Something like the transience of life is a universal theme, all of my themes are universal and timeless. I didn’t invent these themes, I discovered them as I wrote new poems; you don’t always decide what you want to write, the writing comes to you.

SN: If one may attempt to summarise the main themes in this collection being (awareness) and belonging (loss) seem to have been important drivers for your poetry. Your father’s early death had a profound influence and the past is a recurring theme. You point out in the preface “When I began writing poetry my themes were the transience of life, family, grief at losing close family members and romantic love…many years later I am still writing about the (same) but giving more emphasis to some and less to others.” What made you stay close to these themes particularly? What do you make of the changes in emphasis?

SM: I wrote about “The Great Reconfiguration” in The Green Archetypal Field of Poetry (2022), it is when an event causes one’s life to change radically. One’s life changes from one minute to the next; for instance, I was born into a middle-class family, we rented a large flat in Montreal and we had a country home, we had a car, we were a family of two parents and two children, we had many relatives, we were a 1950s family. And then my father died and everything changed—his death was the “great reconfiguration” of my life—with his death, we became a single-parent family, we were two sons raised by a single mother; my mother had to find employment and my brother, who was only ten years old, helped her keep track of the family expenses, he also worked washing floors in an apartment building. For me, even as a six-year-old child, it was a descent into grief, death, guilt, and remorse. But this was also the descent into the underground, into the darkness where one suffers at one level but at another level, one may also discover a richer and more significant life, as I did with poetry; it is a new life deepened by what you have learned about life. In Greek mythology this is the myth of Hades, of Persephone’s journey to the underworld; and while the descent to Hades is a journey to darkness, it can also be the discovery of one’s authentic and meaningful life. There is a second myth that represents my psychological or spiritual journey, it is the Garden Myth, the fall from innocence into experience; and, as we read in William Blake’s poems, there is a higher innocence after the fall; the higher innocence is a meaningful life.  

SN: You started writing in the early seventies, right after the post-war avant-garde movement and about when the Beat generation (Ginsberg and Kerouac) and the New York School (Frank O’Hara, Kenneth Koch, Ashberry) and the Black Mountain poets (Robert Creeley, Denise Levertov) were working feverishly down south. There is an aspect of confessionalism and existential angst in your poetry through those years that seems to be similar to some of Robert Creeley’s work but at odds with the works of the Beat Generation poets and say the NY school and the post-modern work of other Black Mountain poets. And you say, “The great theme of literature is the journey of self-awareness.” Was this choice to situate your poetry among family and grief and love a conscious defiance of the ‘trends’ or something else?

SM: By “confessional” I mean writing poems that deal with aspects of one’s life that are usually kept private. Up to the mid-1950s, with W.D. Snodgrass, Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath, most poets weren’t overly confessional. Confessional poetry refers to expressing the darker experiences in one’s life and even T.S. Eliot was confessional in some of his poetry however much he deplored the self in poetry. John Keats, in 1819, referred to the world as a place of “soul-making”; confessional poetry is also an aspect of soul-making, it emphasizes the journey to self-awareness. What confessional poetry has always aimed to do is bring to awareness the “human shadow”, that area of consciousness we are either not aware of or that we keep hidden; and this is the journey of self-awareness.  

SN: How conscious have you been about modernity in your poetry? What poets, trends or movements have impacted your work the most? As a teacher of poetics, how important is ‘modernity’ as an ideal for a young poet?

SM: All I can suggest is what I have learned from experience. Young poets need to read widely, this includes poets from the Modern Period, poets who rose to prominence from approximately 1915 to 1945; for instance, T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, HD, and William Carlos Williams. But, as well, young poets should know something of what is being written today; I did concrete/visual poetry, cut-ups, sound poetry, visual collages, and other experiments in poetry that were current at the time. It is also important to meet and be friends with other poets, to talk about poetry, to lay the foundation of being a poet. Poets need to listen to their inner voice, that is where creativity is discovered; creativity has nothing to do with what is fashionable.

SN: Through this collection, you seem to be aware of your poetics– “poetry/creating areas of silence” pg. 38; “only poetry justifies language/and when poetry ceases there’s disharmony” p39; “we should let the poem grow” pg. 41; “Poetry is only the modification of the old” pg. 53; “I am sick to death of these old poems that wear blank expressions” pg. 54 etc.? Can you say a few words about your career-long curiosity about poetics and how it evolved?

SM: I am curious about the mechanics of writing poetry, remembering that a poet sometimes discovers what he or she wants to say in the act of writing. But I also felt, when I was young, that the actual act of writing was somehow special and if this is so then it is special because it is the voice of one’s soul. This is a shamanic approach to poetry, an approach that includes the ancestors and significant dreams.

SN: At one point in the collection, you say “emancipating my being…was always the point…the single point of education” pg. 34 and a few pages earlier (in what seems like one of the early attempts at concrete poetry) the line “Regard as sacred the disorder of my mind” repeats through the page in various motifs, lengths, and degrees of clarity. When you juxtapose the two ideas – poetry as the process of awareness of the psyche (the current state of affairs in the mind, such as disorder) and as also the saviour, the emancipator (if you will) – do these ideas look counterpoised in any way, or are they the same thing – you become aware and hence you are saved?

SM: That was my premise; my intuition was that if I could write about something then I could resolve that issue, I could express it, make sense of it; from an early age I was concerned with expressing my inner self, with  “emancipating my being”. I had a lot to work on; for instance, I was always an outsider; my father died when I was six and my stepfather died when I was nineteen; I was the youngest of a large extended family and the older members, aunts and uncles and grandparents, were all dying over a several year period; I failed twice at school and this certainly makes one an outsider, children can be cruel about anyone they can make fun of. What made these events worse, for me, is that nothing was ever discussed, my father died, and he was rarely, if ever, mentioned again until we were all much older. I did not come from a demonstrably loving family, I resigned myself to this life. No wonder, in the mid-1960s, I turned to both writing poetry and writing a diary as a way to express myself, as a way to understand my life; no wonder I became a confessional poet without having heard of this type of poetry. Human consciousness has a natural intelligence and a desire for wholeness and love; consciousness has an innate proclivity to move towards wholeness and love. It was J. Krishnamurti’s books that helped me the most, and hearing Krishnamurti speak at Saanen in Switzerland, at Ojai in California, and in New York City. And in all of this, my focus was poetry not because I wanted to be a poet, but because it was my path in life, it was my calling.

SN: Can we talk a bit about the formal choices in these selected works? Nearly all the poems are unpunctuated (or sparsely punctuated), the lines are short (two/three/four words mostly), the language crystal clear and the breaks are startling at times yet devoid of any showiness; sometimes empty spaces denote the pauses in breath; the tone is confessional, and the voice carries an aspect of endearing vulnerability that makes the reader trust it. How did you arrive at this form? In so much that most of the titles included in this collection are formally similar, what made you stick to the forms that you started with?

SM: Punctuation, line breaks, length of lines or fragments of lines, like themes, this is all discovered in the act of writing. And to write directly, honestly, authentically, and without artifice, you have to be brave to write something—to enter the unknown—even though your desire is to censor what you are writing. The main thing is to have the courage to write without censoring yourself, it is the truth-telling function of poetry, of consciousness. I wanted to be as direct and simple in my writing as possible, the line breaks indicate how the poem is to be read, the length of lines is direct and simple but this is a lot more difficult to do than one might expect, it requires a lot of editing, of living with the poem and working on it until you feel you have said exactly what you need to say. 

SN: In reading this book it is impossible to walk away without experiencing a strong undercurrent of a cyclical worldview as we encounter in Zen and Hindu philosophies (“the whole earth is a movement of waves and stones” pg.18; The Secret Meaning of the Alphabet…discover/…becoming/ the rain running/ down the windowpanes. p..g 52; “death/is not the closing of doors; pg. 65; “I divested/the past in meeting you,/and meeting you again/and again and again/into infinity.” pg. 118. In some places “the emancipation of the being” leaps out of the page and through the clear, unambiguous, enormously vulnerable voice brings an awareness in the reader that is available mostly in the reading of philosophy. Could you talk a bit more about it?

SM: When I was young, in the late 1960s, I used to visit my brother, who was a student at MIT, in Cambridge, Massachusetts; I remember visiting the Harvard Coop and buying V.K. Chari’s Whitman in the Light of Vedantic Mysticism (1964), a book I still own. I read Colin Wilson’s Poetry and Mysticism (1969) and W.T. Staces’ The Teaching of the Mystics (1969), and later I wrote several essays on R.M. Bucke’s Cosmic Consciousness; Bucke was a friend of Walt Whitman and wrote about Whitman’s cosmic vision. There were other books that made an impression on me, for instance, books by John Cage and D.T. Suzuki, and others. But after I began reading Krishnamurti’s books in the early 1970s I knew that no organized set of beliefs, no organized religion, was really of interest to me. Krishnamurti was, for me, the great teacher of exploring the psyche, more so than C.G. Jung. Late one night about twenty years ago I took a taxi from the Vancouver airport to where I was staying; I asked the Indian taxi driver, “Who do you think is the greatest Indian of the Twentieth Century?” His answer, which shouldn’t have surprised me, was Krishnamurti. For Krishnamurti freedom is a pathless journey, it is a journey to awareness.  

SN: Has there been a relationship (in your writing life, that you are aware of) between your writing practice and how your writing has been more or less of a spiritual activity integrated or interdependent on the community around you?

About the Author

Stephen Morrissey was born in Montreal, the city where he still lives. He was educated at McGill University; while at McGill Morrissey won the Peterson Poetry Award. He has published ten books of poetry, several chapbooks, and two volumes on poetry and poetics; Farewell, Darkness, Selected Poems (2023), which collects poems that were published from 1971 to 2021.

The Stephen Morrissey Fonds, 1963 – 2014, are housed at Rare Books and Special Collections of the McLennan Library of McGill University. Visit the poet at

Sunday, February 18, 2024

Demolishing Ecole Ste. Catherine de Sienne, late February 2018

Ecole Ste-Catherine-de-Sienne was demolished due to asbestos in the original construction; a new school with the same name was built on the site. Located on Somerled Avenue near Coronation Avenue.