Melanie Cameron

BA '96 English

English grad becomes poet in the prairies

Melanie Cameron.Being a poet in Canada, or anywhere really, is rarely a lucrative career choice. One writes poetry because of a love of words and language and poet Melanie Cameron, BA '96, is certainly a lover of words. In the fall of 2004, Cameron's second collection of poems, wake, was published and selected as a finalist for the Carol Shields Winnipeg Book Award.

For many years, Cameron called Kitchener-Waterloo home, even before she attended Waterloo. She had also lived in Saskatchewan, North Carolina and California with her family, but her teenage self grew up in Kitchener-Waterloo. Wanting to spread her wings a little, she headed to Toronto for university. After a brief stint as an undergraduate at the University of Toronto (U of T), Cameron returned to her home town and continued her studies at Waterloo. U of T's size and lack of community made Cameron realize that Waterloo was a much better fit. As a last-minute transfer student she was only allowed to attend Waterloo part time, a trend she continued throughout her degree. She called Conrad Grebel University College home for several terms and even became a residence don.

She entered the Rhetoric and Professional Writing program after a few months in the English program, as she wanted

to be challenged to think about writing in a new way, about how writers were accomplishing what they did, about technique and audience....It got me thinking about writing and its evolution

and was instrumental in Cameron's future - to be a writer.

In the mid-nineties, Cameron completed her degree with majors in Rhetoric and Professional Writing and Peace and Conflict Studies and headed to one of Canada's warmest destinations: Winnipeg. Drawn by the creative thesis option and Winnipeg's active arts community, Cameron began her Masters in English at the University of Manitoba. That was in 1996 and Winnipeg has been her home ever since.

Cameron got her first kick at being a published poet in 1995 when uWaterloo's own The New Quarterly published some of her poems. She has since been published in several Canadian, American and United Kingdom literary periodicals and anthologies and in 2004, two of her poems kept Winnipeg city bus riders entertained as part of Winnipeg's Poetry in Motion project.

As a writer of poetry, Cameron knew there would be some lean years and was prepared to live frugally in order to focus intensely on writing. When she was writing her first book of poems, Holding the Dark, Cameron said she"essentially cleared everything else out of my life, eliminated every possible distraction." She lived in a city where she knew few people, had no outside job or volunteer position and had no TV, VCR or Internet service. She made her world about writing. The result was a collection of poems she is very proud of but the lifestyle she maintained during that writing process could not be sustained.

I think I needed to do that, to learn to put together the first book, to figure out at least one way into that 'writing space', to get into a groove with it

says Cameron.

Now writing has to be more integrated and balanced in her life. She fears that writing every day would cause her writing to suffer and she "would become a much grumpier person." During the writing of her most recent book, wake, Cameron did work at least five days a week on her poems but also integrated other writing projects and responsibilities into her day. As a writer, she is constantly "sitting with" her work, thinking about new projects or how whatever she is engaged in at the moment could fit into what she is writing. And what differs from the reclusive time of writing her first book is that she now wants to spend significant time with her husband.

Cameron is married to fellow writer and CBC Radio journalist Mark Morton. In a creative blend of marketing by their publishers, wake was launched in conjunction with her husband's latest book entitled, The Lover's Tongue: A Merry Romp Through the Language of Love and Sex. Cameron was unsure how the audience would respond to the co-launch as hers was "a book of poems preoccupied with memory and his was an etymological nonfiction work about words pertaining to love and sex." Apparently the blend worked as the launch was a success.

In the modern world of writing and publishing, you can't just be a writer scribbling away in the safety of your home. You must also have a public persona and be comfortable doing public readings, in order to promote your book.

I really, really love the actual writing process; the public aspects, including readings, come with the territory, and more and more I am adjusting to it,

says Cameron. She generally dreads all readings beforehand but ends up enjoying the reading itself and meeting new people afterwards. The most memorable readings are

typically those where I've had some kind of brief, intense and completely unexpected conversation with somebody I didn't know and will likely never meet again.

Although, whenever Cameron reads to kids, she is thrilled by witnessing their immediate reaction to the poems. The fact that kids will ask and tell you "the best and craziest things" makes those readings a pleasure for her.

Like most writers there are readings that have been less than pleasant. She recalls a reading that became embarrassing-after-the-fact when she told a joke about fellow poet and musician Leonard Cohen that flopped. Months after the reading, a friend explained that her attempt at humour was lost on the audience and people were actually concerned about her seemingly unhealthy interest in Leonard Cohen.

While poetry is a labour of love, few poets ever grow wealthy from their endeavours. During high school, Cameron delivered the Waterloo Chronicle door-to-door for a penny a paper and jokingly likens that salary to her current wage as a poet. Over the years, Cameron has supplemented her income with writing-related projects such as teaching writing at both the University of Winnipeg and the University of Manitoba and as a poetry editor at Prairie Fire magazine. The arts community in Manitoba has also been good to Cameron by supplying several arts grants, which have allowed her to take a hiatus from working regular jobs.

Cameron likes to have several concurrent writing projects on the go and is surprised by the amount of work required to sustain her writing. The "business of writing" can involve corresponding with her publisher and/or the marketing director, her editor, sending work to periodicals, scouting for suitable submissions, writing grant proposals, responding to requests - all more time consuming than she ever expected. But in between all that Cameron has found the time to work on a children's book with her husband, complete some short stories and a nonfiction work about her grandmother and a novel manuscript. Looks like readers have much to look forward to from Melanie Cameron.

Your local bookseller should have copies of Holding the Dark and wake. If not, you can order copies through Cameron's website.

Written by Jude Doble, Office of Alumni Affairs

Affiliation: 
University of Waterloo

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