The Next Chapter

Why Agnes Walsh's first poetry collection in over a decade is a love letter to her mother

The Newfoundland poet spoke with Shelagh Rogers about why she wanted to honour the life of her mother through verse.
Agnes Walsh is a poet, playwright, actor and writer from Newfoundland and Labrador. (Simone Savard, Pedlar Press)

This interview originally aired on Nov. 9, 2019.

Agnes Walsh is a poet, playwright, actor and storyteller from Newfoundland and Labrador. Her first collection of poetry, Going Around with Bachelors, was published in 2007. She returns to writing poetry in 2019 with the sparse and evocative poems of Oderin

The poems in Oderin portray her mother's hard life growing up in a Newfoundland outport and working on fishing boats as a young girl just after the First World War. They also describe her mother toward the end of her life, hospitalized and suffering from dementia at the age of 93. 

Walsh spoke with Shelagh Rogers about writing Oderin.

The forgotten child

"My mother was born in Oderin, a small island in Placentia Bay in Newfoundland. She didn't spend much time there because after her father died, she was put into foster care. She was five at the time. She never got over it. I saw every day of my life how it affected her. Unfortunately, it robbed her of joy.

She never forgot the way she was treated. She never forgot being given up by her own mother.

"At times, she could be happy. But underneath it all, I think she never forgot the way she was treated. She never forgot being given up by her own mother."

Secrets from her mother

"My mother saw me as being the watcher. She'd talk to me about things. I have three older sisters. When I speak with them, they're often surprised at the things that our mother told me. I think from early on I wanted to be a writer. It just seemed normal for me to ask my mother about her life and childhood.

"She trusted me and she told me as much. That meant a great deal to me. She suffered from mental illness and I never judged her. I spent an awful lot of time telling her things were okay." 

Bits and pieces from a life

"It took me about 10 years to write this book. When I started it, the aim was to write from the bits and pieces of things she told me about her life and work them into poems. But then she got sick. I felt when I was writing about her dementia I wasn't being fair. I felt like she doesn't know that I was doing this. I felt like I was intruding, but I kept at it.

When she died, I had to put the book aside again. It's the hardest book I've ever written.

"When she died, I had to put the book aside again. It's the hardest book I've ever written."

Agnes Walsh's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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