Michelle Smith started writing about 15 years ago, publishing her first poems in Canadian literary journals (Room, Grain, and The New Quarterly, for example). Her life as an academic in the U.K. began about eight years ago, after she left her Alberta home and moved to Devon. Her debut collection of poetry, dear Hermes…, was published by the University of Alberta Press (2012), which is how I found out about her and her work. Her academic publications include several articles on Canadian literature and a co-authored monograph forthcoming with Liverpool UP. Her PhD from the University of Alberta has led to post docs and recently to her appointment as Lecturer at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, where she is now on maternity leave and looking forward to some non-academic writing. She graciously agreed to write the following guest post for Canadian Writers Abroad.
When people ask why I moved from Canada to Devon (2006-2010), and from Devon to Glasgow (2010-present), I tend to give a well-practised answer: I and my husband both had the chance to study in the UK, and then we were offered jobs here, so we stayed. The response is usually a nod of understanding. My explanation sounds completely reasonable, and most of us accept as sensible the idea of uprooting ourselves for education or employment.
“An international move is a ludicrous undertaking…”
It’s all nonsense, of course. An international move is a ludicrous undertaking, a logistical nightmare that entails great emotional and financial costs. In truth, my explanation ought to consist of just one word: love.
During my last year in Devon, I was writing the poems that would become my first book, dear Hermes…. When I needed a break, I would sit on the sun-warmed flagstones of my garden, inhaling the fragrance of lavender and rosemary and listening to the parish church bells ringing.
When my husband graduated with his PhD, we took family and friends along a footpath illuminated only by the January moon to have grilled sea bream at our favourite pub, The Lamb Inn.
Whilst on a writer’s retreat in the Scottish Highlands, two other writers and I wanted to hide under the kitchen table when Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy, who was leading the retreat, asked what on earth we were doing to the haggis we’d been charged with preparing for dinner. “Following the recipe?” one of us gamely replied.
“I have never heard of anyone peeling the skin off of the haggis and baking it in an oven,” she told us. (To be fair, this *is* what the recipe told us to do.)
This, haggis and all, is love. Oh, I know it looks as if I’m putting the proverbial cart before the horse by declaring I left Canada for love, since I didn’t know that I’d fall in love post-departure. But I did, and it’s that love of here that has turned me into a writer. I’m not suggesting this is a necessity for all writers – obviously it isn’t – but in my case, writing and living abroad are inseparable. That first book of poems, many of which were travel-themed, emerged from an acute awareness of what makes a place home – or not. My academic writing, consisting in part of a monograph entitled Magazines, Travel, and Middlebrow Culture (co-authored with Faye Hammill), was prompted by my innate wanderlust. And my current work, at the germinal stage after the conclusion of two extended projects, includes a handful of poems, a few scenes for a novel, exactly one short story, and several journal entries. The influence of place on these works-in-progress is evident in the shape of the poems, the setting of the novel, the dialogue of the characters, and the words (e.g. ‘trousers’ rather than ‘pants’) that pop up in the journal entries. It’s exciting, this change taking place right down at the level of the line-break. It’s exciting, and entirely unreasonable.