Tia McLennan: there are fallow periods and it’s important not to fight them

June 2022

Can you tell us a little about yourself?
I go by the pronouns (she/her). I’m originally from so-called Vancouver, Vancouver Island, and the Sunshine Coast of BC (traditional and unceded territories of Coast Salish, Ko’moks, and shishálh Nations among others). I’ve lived in St John’s, NL (island of Ktaqmkuk, traditional territories of Beothuk and Mi’Kmaq people) for nine years with my partner and more recently with our four-year-old son. My educational background is in visual art (particularly printmaking and painting) and creative writing. Words have often played a part in my visual art and the two practices certainly feed each other. I Love gardening perhaps just as much as art, poetry, and writing.

Can you tell us a little about Familiar Monsters of the Flood (great title) – the genesis of it, how you’ve been bringing it along?
First, I can’t take credit for the title! I was receiving editorial feedback from the wonderful poet Adéle Barclay in February and asked if they could give me some input on the titles I was considering. Adéle came back with the suggestion Familiar Monsters of the Flood which is a mash-up of my other titles and words from poems. It clicked perfectly and I’ve gratefully kept it.
In 2006, I began writing more seriously while my father was terminally ill and as a way to process his passing. In 2008 I attended the Banff Writer’s Studio and had the opportunity to work with poets Don McKay, Mary Dalton, and John Steffler. After this I knew I had a book to write, but I was just learning how to write poems (still am). An early version of the manuscript was born out of an interdisciplinary MFA in 2011 at UBC Okanagan. Since then I’ve continued writing, reading, taking workshops, and applying for opportunities such as mentorships. I’ve been fortunate to have been part of a great little poetry group here in St John’s.
About six years ago I had submitted my manuscript to a publisher and it was shortlisted. Their decision not to publish it turned out to be a gift – it wasn’t ready and part of me was aware of that. After moving to St. John’s, I went through some very difficult years trying to become a mother (and suffering multiple miscarriages) before finally giving birth to our amazing son. Throughout that time and postpartum, my mental health deteriorated and writing didn’t come easily. Having some temporal distance and good therapy has allowed me to begin investigating those experiences through poems. Notions of loss, motherhood, inheritance, and ecological grief continue to converse and spread their mycelium through my writing.
In 2020 I was awarded a spot with WANL’s mentorship program and was paired with the excellent poet Mark Callanan. His guidance and feedback helped craft the manuscript into something more cohesive and alive. He also gave me tips in preparing grant applications, and I thankfully received Arts NL and Canada Council funds to complete the book. Now fourteen years later, I have a finished (enough) book that I’ve started to send out to publishers for consideration. My current manuscript has greatly evolved and diverged since 2011.

Do you have a work routine?
I wish. My writing ebbs and flows depending on circumstances and motivation. I also try to keep up some kind of visual art practice though, in the last five or six years I’ve focussed more on poetry. Writing by hand in a notebook is an important part of my process. I’ll scan my notebook for the bits that jump out at me and start to assemble them in a word doc on my laptop and see if a poem begins to take shape. Becoming a mother/parent of course changes how one uses their time. It was such a gift to receive funding and get to focus on poetry every day. While I’m employed and parenting, I manage to siphon away a few hours a week for writing if I’m lucky. Sometimes this lack of time can put helpful pressure on the creative process, but I’m most productive when I have expansive stretches of time to get totally lost in the work.

What’s the best advice, not necessarily artistic, you’ve received?
To have confidence and to continue. Sometimes easier said than done. Rejection happens (especially in creative fields) and it usually stings. There are fallow periods (creatively speaking and in life) and I think it’s important to not fight these, but to find the small quiet ways to continue doing or connecting to the thing you love. Sometimes it’s just taking care of yourself, reading instead of writing, watching a good movie, or doing something physical to reset the body and clear the mind. This advice seems to be very true for me when I remember to follow it. I’ve also received great financial advice in life, but that hasn’t stuck as much.

What artists, not necessarily writers, inspire you?
Writers come to mind first because that’s the world I’m currently immersed in. Some writers I’ve loved reading in the past year include Canadian poets Liz Howard, Billy-Ray Belcourt, Adéle Barclay, Canisia Lubrin, Karen Solie, Sue Goyette (there are so many more) and I love the work of US poets Mary Ruefle, Natalie Diaz, Tommy Pico, Brenda Shaughnessy, Ocean Vuong, Tracy K Smith. There are many other artists that have left a big impression me; it’s impossible to list them all, but off the top of my head and in no order of importance: Marina Abramović, Jean-Michel Basquiat, David Milne, Jim Jarmusch, Tanya Tagaq, David Lynch, Neko Case, Oscar Peterson. Just as importantly, I’m deeply inspired by friends and people I know who follow creative pursuits personally and/or professionally. One thing about living in Newfoundland, is the long intense winters are a hotbed for creativity, and I love seeing the brilliant things people get up to.

Do you agree with this quote: “There are no laws for the novel. There never have been, nor can there ever be.” — Doris Lessing
I don’t know if I agree as I have little-to-no experience writing fiction, but I like this quote. I love to encounter writing that bends, defies, or baffles genres.

What’s next for you?
My immediate future is back working at my day job. I’m looking for a publishing home for my manuscript and will continue to send out individual poems to journals. We’re just coming into summer and the garden calls! In between gardening, parenting, and working I’ll be gleaning whatever time I can for writing in whatever form it may take.

Tia McxLennan is the winner of the 2022 NLCU Fresh Fish Award, for her manuscript Familiar Monsters of the Flood.