Poets give ‘voice’ to women of the past

Nineteenth-century photographs of female lunatic asylum patients and Euripides’ play The Bacchae are the inspiration for two poets giving readings in Whitehorse at the end of October.

Nadine McInnis was so taken by photographs of Surrey County Lunatic Asylum inmates that she reconstructed the subjects’ otherwise unknown stories in her poems and found herself exploring her own experience of clinical depression in the process.

The photographs will be shown as a slide show as she reads from her collection, Two Hemispheres. “The photos are very compelling and I would like the audience to see them,” wrote McInnis by e-mail from Ottawa where she teaches professional writing at Algonquin College.

“I had to really think about whether or not I was exploiting these women’s images by writing about them and superimposing my aesthetic explorations onto them. Was I stealing more of their independence than illness already had?

“The poems started with the women alone but in the course of wrestling with the ethics of ‘using’ them, I found myself entering the poems more personally and giving up parts of my own struggles with depression that I would have preferred to keep private.

“But it was only when I did this, which I guess is a kind of identification, that the book started to take on its own energy and I could see it as something apart from me,” McInnis explained.

“These women were not just marginalized by their gender, but by illness, and probably poverty. After all, they were patients at one of the newly created, 1850s lunatic asylums for paupers. Writing about these photographs was a compassionate act and I hope they would have approved.”

Joining McInnis for the readings will be Brenda Leifso, author of Daughters of Men. Leifso also finds a way to give a voice to women of the past.

The central section of her collection, The Theban Women, is a multi-voiced re-imagining of the ancient Greek play, The Bacchae, in which the voice of Agave, one of the play’s female characters, “came bubbling up”.

The collection also explores sexuality, secrecy and family relations.

“More and more Canadian writing is coming from women and women are entering more and more fields than before and yet, as we gain some equality, sometimes I think this stops society from wanting to hear about those things with which and those places in which we still struggle,” said Leifso who, like McInnis, lives in Ottawa.

“And, as we gain more and more rights, it is easy to forget and under-appreciate the struggles of women who have come before us. We do not want to admit there are still epic struggles in the context of our everyday lives.

“To be honest, the rage that comes across in Daughters of Men still surprises me.”

The poets will be reading on Tuesday, Oct. 28 at the Second Opinion Society at 304 Hawkins Street, Whitehorse, from 1 to 3 p.m. and at Whitehorse Public Library at 7:30 pm.

They will also meet first and second-year literature students at Yukon College on Monday, Oct. 27.

To find out more about the poets, visit www.brickbooks.ca.

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