Creator Profile: Poet Margo LaPierre on art, identity, and living without limitations

Margo LaPierre is a Toronto-based writer and artist who recently published her first book of poetry, Washing Off the Raccoon EyesShe also runs a workshop series for writers and editors in Toronto, Mercury Writing & Editing Series. I chatted with Margo about her inspirations and process, Toronto's influence on her work, and personal branding as an artist. Her determination and focus is TRULY inspiring. 

You're a writer and a visual artist. What draws you to each form? 

They occupy opposite head spaces. When I paint, there’s a flattening of depth, it’s all about reworking the surface, balancing it out through colour and composition. I love to work large pieces and let the work span out of its own accord; it’s entirely visual. Very calming and zen.

With writing, there’s more depth. Ellipses and negative space. There’s meaning there in a way that isn’t explicit in my paintings. It’s more cerebral. The focus is more intense with words. Strangely enough, the outcome of each resembles the other more than the process. Both my writing and art tend towards moodiness. There’s a preoccupation in both with what it is to be female, of looking and being looked at.

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At any point in your life, did you feel like you had to choose one form over the other?

In recent years, I’ve privileged the role of writing over visual art. When I first came to Toronto, I had turned down a scholarship to study Visual Art at the University of Victoria. It was too far away for me. There was something about Toronto that drew me in. But I made a promise at the time to never give up painting. Writing seems to be an easier medium to share publicly because it doesn’t need to take up physical space.

You can write a blog, read at an open mic, submit your writing to journals digitally. If you want to show your art, you need to secure a location, actually set up a show. Even if you’re just showing your art on social media, you still need a decent camera. I had an art show in Taiwan that l was happy with. Since coming back to Toronto, I’ve been busy and have had to prioritize. I’m learning that you can’t be everything all at once all the time.

I’m doing a publishing internship with Guernica Editions (they’re also my publisher), I’m completing a post-grad in Publishing at Ryerson, and my first book just came out, so yes, I’m currently putting a heavy focus on writing. But hey, my artwork is on the cover of Washing Off the Raccoon Eyes

Something that stood out to me about your writing in Washing Off the Raccoon Eyes were the primal themes: sex, food, loneliness, and security. In a city like Toronto, and in the digital age, these kinds of themes are so often pushed into the shadows... 

There is a lot of hunger in these poems. Addiction and indulgence too. There’s a current of pre-apocalyptic anxiety that runs through. At the time of writing, my own life was pretty chaotic and unstable. I think these are issues on the minds of a lot of people our age. There’s more uncertainty about our future lives in our culture than the prior generation had to deal with. In Toronto specifically, do we have a problem with rootedness? Maybe.

Toronto itself becomes an interesting character in your book. How has your relationship with the city inspired or supported your work?

I wasn’t born in Toronto. I was raised just outside of Ottawa and moved here at 18 for university. That was the first time I’d ever stepped foot in Toronto that I can remember, and I didn’t know anyone here. This city became a place for me where I could be whatever I wanted without limitations. It was a very expansive era for me. I was studying philosophy. I was making friends with amazing people. I was experimenting with a lifestyle I wouldn’t necessarily recommend. I was writing constantly, on every rooftop available to me. I moved around a lot and developed a relationship with every apartment I lived in. I quite literally lost my grip on reality in this city and was diagnosed with bipolar disorder a couple years after moving here.

I think so much of my own identity was blasted open and transformed during this time that I found my sense of self fused to Toronto in a weird way. I don’t think I’m unique in this, though. I think Toronto does something to people: it’s so accepting of outsiders. When you’ve felt like an outsider all your life and then you come to Toronto and its full of other outsiders, there’s this sense of gratitude, and freedom, and community. But there’s an element of danger too, of not knowing when to say when.

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Every apartment I’ve ever lived in in Toronto between 2007 and 2014–there are eight of them–has made its way into this collection. The feeling of loss of not being able to turn a key and climb the stairs up to my former homes can actually be worse than the heartbreak over an ex-lover. The geometry of those homes, the way I can shut my eyes and retrace the paths through the hallways live with me. Not to mention the hours spent conversing in the kitchens with my female roommates and best friends. Part of who we are exists in the shape of our lived spaces. Our memories are pasted onto these mind-maps. All those homes we’ve ever lived in, they go on occupying space inside us, jangling our neutrons.

This line from your poem, "Kinetic" (a selection you also posted on IG), blew me away: "Weather has no courage to touch you. But I do. I do. You are a journalist and I am natural disaster. Escape me." I noticed water as a motif in a lot of the poems in your book (and I know you are a Pisces).

Thank you, Kait! I love that you picked out "Kinetic" to ask about water, because you’re right, it’s a theme that comes up in a lot of my poems, but I think "Kineti"c really shows the force of it, even the violence. I love water in its storminess. It’s a conduit for energy, it can carry an electrical current, but it also has its own internal currents. It is cyclical. It is both receptive and forceful and so it is a powerful symbol of femininity. As in "Tungsten Lullaby:" “you can’t stop / monsoon skin forever.”

There are moments in the book where water is still. There are bodies of water in "Quietly So As Not to Wake Others," "Further In You," and "Talk Show Host." There’s sort of a dreamy, Jungian quality to these poems, because still bodies of water are teeming with mystery, and monsters, and seaweed, and mermaid babes with glittering teeth. Then, in "Heat Wave," men have dug moats to keep women out, but we learn to breathe underwater.

In the first poem, "Pondwatering," a word-play on pond-water and pondering, the pond is chosen as a setting where we become aware of millions of other subjective beings in their aliveness. When I read this poem I picture multitudes of croaking froggies, blinking fireflies, skimming waterbugs.

In "Amulet," there is a pulsating sex compared to “words spoken underwater.” So there’s this whole aspect of primal knowledge that accompanies water in these poems, or knowledge of truths beneath the surface. 

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Your poems touch upon occult themes like tarot and voodoo. What roles do the occult and mysticism play in your day-to-day life, and do they enter your creative process?

I’ve always had some natural psychic skills. Mostly through dreams and future flashes. I started reading tarot in university and it was the right medium for me. Our senses are open to so much more than we’re able to focus on. We make subconscious predictions about the future all the time. The strange thing I’ve noticed about writing is that things I write often come true. This could either be for predictive reasons like I just mentioned, or performative reasons. Like an incantation, something magical, the writing brings a situation into being.

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In my poem "Futures Tarot Palmreading," there is a direct warning from the fictional psychic: “you’re going to fall in. I see you / on the edge of something. / Stay away from edges.” A year after that poem was published in Echolocation, I was in a near-fatal accident when our car was driven off a cliff in Taiwan. The first time I read that poem afterwards, I freaked out. The voodoo elements in my book came from such a strange time/relationship in my life that I can’t even explain it to myself, and have stopped trying. I’ll say this: it came from being immersed in a negative environment, and needing to protect myself.

Where do you write? What are the bare necessities you need to write best?

I love going to cafés and restaurants to write. Nirvana on College is my go-to, as is Supermarket and sometimes Café Pamenar in Kensington. My dining room table works quite well for me most of the time. I come from a big family, so I don’t need peace and quiet, just some ear buds and good tunes and I’m good. My Moleskine works well for writing early drafts of poems, but if I plan on getting any real work done I need a keyboard. When I’m working on a manuscript, I’ll print the whole thing off and spread it on the floor (like in "Rejection Letters:" “my burden / cascading over the cherry floor, pale scrawls”), then scribble notes all over it and rearrange.

What are your feelings on personal branding as an artist? Who do you think does a great job at it, and who inspires you?

Whew. This question. This is something I’ve been trying to hone. As an artist, you’ve got to be producing work and sharing your work, curating it as you go. It’s a challenge, for sure. My gut instinct is to want to try new things all the time, whereas you’ve got to create somewhat of a box for yourself with a personal brand. I’ve become more outspoken on women’s issues, and will continue to be.

Props to Rupi Kaur for everything she’s done with her brand and for the sisterhood. I’ve read articles that criticize her for lack of craft. Well, I think what she’s saying needs to be said in simple, elemental language and she’s saying it. She’s also found a way to marry print and spoken word in a way I admire, though my poetry is quite different from hers. Sina Queyras has been my fave poet for years now. She just keeps writing the most gut-wrenching books of poetry. She’s honest and entertaining on Twitter. Brandon Wint is a talented poet and I appreciate his insight on Facebook. Kirby, owner of Knife Fork Book, has done so much in terms of enlivening the poetry community from his space in Kensington Market and bringing poets together.

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This is your first book. WTF is next for Margo LaPierre? Do you hate when people ask you that? It's okay to not know.                                           

Nah, no hate. I "finished" this book three years ago, so there’s more brewing! I’ve been working on two projects. The first is a collection of poetry that I started while teaching ESL and leading a creative writing series in Taiwan. It’s in two parts, one in Taiwan and one in Ontario, and I get to dive into notions of home, relationships I developed abroad, and what drives people from our community to make a home across the world. The other is a work of fiction that came to me very urgently earlier this summer about the reunion of two sisters, one of whom is in prison for the vigilante killings of numerous rapists. I took a week to go off into the wifi-less woods at my parents’ cottage to work on it, which was great. The next step with the story is doing the research that needs to be integrated.

I’ve been working with Guernica Editions as an intern. They published Washing Off the Raccoon Eyes, so I’d like to release some doves right now in honour of Guernica Editions for making my life better in uncountable ways. Michael Mirolla, Elana Wolff, Connie McParland, Anna Geisler, and Alex Dunn, thank you! I’m also in the middle of finishing a certificate in Publishing (revisiting Ryerson for the post-grad), so my hope is to work as both a writer/poet as well as in editorial/publishing work. If my whole world revolved around writing, books, and loving people, I’d be my happiest self.

Where can people find you?

You can find me walking with gale force up and down Spadina Avenue. Or on Twitter @margolapierre, Instagram @margolapierre, or my website and blog www.margolapierre.com. Washing Off the Raccoon Eyes is available at www.guernicaeditions.com, Amazon, and Chapters.