Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On Writing, with Tanis Rideout

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On Writing, with Tanis Rideout

Last week, Toronto writer Tanis Rideout was named a winner in the poetry category of the CBC Literary Awards. The judges called her collection of poems, Arguments with the Lake, "a coming-of-age poetic odyssey told in mythic and sensuous language."

Open Book: Toronto:

First, congratulations on being named a winner in the CBC Literary Awards. Tell us about your winning entry.

Tanis Rideout:

Thanks! It was pretty stunning and flattering. The poems I submitted are excerpted from a longer, book-length manuscript that I’m currently working on called Arguments with the Lake. The poems are based loosely on the lives of two long distance swimmers – Marilyn Bell and Shirley Campbell. We all know Marilyn as the first person to swim across Lake Ontario. Shirley also tried to make the swim, twice, and failed both times. The poems imagine their respective swims and a relationship of sorts between the two of them over the course of their lives. I found the narrative gave me a way to get at other issues that were important to me – Lake Ontario, identity, feminism and environmental concerns.


Where do you gather inspiration for your work?


I was asked to write, several years ago, poems about Lake Ontario for a tour that Lake Ontario Waterkeeper was mounting with Gord Downie and Andrea Nann. After writing the poems for the tour I thought that I had more things I wanted to explore about the lake so I continued on, only to find after a while that I was running into difficulty getting the poems to have any movement. So I started looking for other ways to explore the lake, my relationship to it, Toronto’s relationship to it. I find for me to engage in a cause or an idea I need a narrative to hold on to, so when I came across the story of Marilyn Bell I thought it was a great way to engage and to get other people to engage with the lake.

And of course I’m inspired by other artists – particularly music and movies, I’ve been watching a lot of Esther Williams movies recently and listening to a lot of old Elvis and Buddy Holly, trying to grab hold of some of the naïveté that seemed to exist at the time of Marilyn’s swim.


When did you first start writing, and what did you write?


I didn’t write seriously until quite late, into university. I wrote the angsty poems in high school that everyone writes, but I never really thought about writing. When I did start to write, I wrote not very good narrative poems. And a novel, of course, which stuttered and stopped for years. Poetry always seemed manageable, somehow. It was small and compact. Even if it wasn’t very good, it was something I could finish.


Describe your ideal writing environment.


I like to be by water, and I’ve been really lucky to have been for the most part, to be able to see it out the window or walk to it. But I’m pretty easy as a writer. I can write almost anywhere – I enjoy having hockey on in the background if it’s available. But I don’t need anything in particular. My laptop. A notebook if I get stuck. Most of the time I sit on the couch or bed with my laptop on my lap rather than at a desk. It’s pretty rare that I walk in somewhere and think I cannot write here, but it does happen sometimes. I’d rather write at night than during the day. I like to write in small darkened rooms with cozy lamps.


Are you involved in any other arts, and if so, what's the effect on your writing?


Before I began writing seriously I was an actor - I had an agent, the whole nine yards. If you dig around hard enough there's old movies I'm in, a couple of music videos. And I've occasionally gone back and tampered with it. It's really useful as a way to get at character in new and interesting ways. Having to build a character as an actor out from the words makes you think differently about the words you put down to build that character.

And I'm really lucky to have a lot of friends in other disciplines - music and painting mostly. I find when they're doing exciting works it motivates me a lot, a combination of professional jealousy and inspiration I think. When you see someone else doing the work it makes you realize that you need to too.


What's the best advice you've ever received as a writer?


Most of it’s the typical stuff you hear I guess – don’t stop. If you can stop, do and go do something else with your time. That there’s no easy way around it, no magic pen. But then there’s the practical advice too – like do some exercise. That’s a good one. Otherwise there are back problems and the like.


Tell us about your current projects.


I’m finishing up Arguments with the Lake, which is also my MFA thesis at Guelph-Humber. I’ll be defending it sometime in the summer.

I’m also rewriting a novel called Above All Things, which is based on George Mallory’s 1924 expedition to Mt. Everest – it looks at his last climb from the point of view of both Mallory and his wife Ruth.

I’ve got a couple of other things flittering around in the back of my head – both for more poetry and another novel. I’ll probably start to do some reading and research on them in the next little while, but at the moment they’re barely even thoughts.

You can read more about Tanis Rideout and her work at her website,

Tanis Rideout is a poet and writer living and working in Toronto. In the fall of 2005 she released her first full-length book of poetry Delineation, exploring the lives and loves of comic book super-heroines, which was praised as a “tantalizing, harrowing read.” It has been featured on CBC Radio’s Bandwidth with Alan Neal and Definitely Not the Opera with Sook-Yin Lee.

In the spring of 2005 Rideout joined Sarah Harmer to read a commissioned poem on Harmer’s I Love the Escarpment Tour to draw attention to damage being done to the Niagara Escarpment by ongoing
quarrying. Subsequently a performance of the poem appeared on the DVD of the tour - Escarpment Blues. In 2006 she was named the Poet Laureate of Lake Ontario by the Lake Ontario Waterkeeper and toured with the Tragically Hip's Gord Downie to draw attention to environmental justice issues on the lake.

Her poetry and fiction have appeared in numerous quarterlies and magazines and received grants from local and national arts councils.

An excerpt from her new poems Arguments with the Lake received second prize in the CBC Literary Awards and was called "Macewanesque in scope, [it] invokes in the reader a sense of timelessness and breathless wonder."

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