PHOTOS BY STEVE SMITH, VISIONFIRE STUDIOS
Winter, Words, and Wonder
Neither rain, nor snow, nor sleet, nor hail shall keep Anne Simpson indoors. And let’s face it, here in Nova Scotia, all this can happen in a single day. No, Anne Simpson is not a postman as the saying goes, but she does deliver. Words. Lots of words.
An Antigonish resident, Anne Simpson is an award-winning poet, novelist, essayist, and an outdoor enthusiast, even during inclement weather.
“I love a good storm in winter,” says Anne. “Sometimes I’ll go walking in it just to experience the wildness of the wind and snow. But the clear days are so great for skiing or snowshoeing. The best thing about winter is getting out in it, taking part in it.”
She’s not alone on her snowy treks. Her family loves dogs and has had many over the years. Currently, it’s Bruce. “He’s a golden retriever with a sweet disposition. He hikes all over the place with me.” They often walk early enough to catch the gorgeous sunrise as it peeks over the horizon.
But it’s not all outdoor play for Anne. Her work is her words and, although it might not be a nine-to-five job, she spends the better part of each day working. “I try to write a certain amount each weekday,” Anne explains. “It’s not a great deal, but it does add up.”
Natural light permeates the loft where she writes and, when sitting at her desk, Anne faces several pieces of artwork. “I was an artist before I was a writer and I painted landscapes more than anything else. As a writer, I need to think about the setting in my fiction. Or I depend upon imagery in my poetry.
It’s very helpful for me to think of fiction as if it were a film or a poem as if it were a photograph.” Her own paintings, both oils, and watercolours, adorn the walls on the main floor adding to the warm feeling of home.
Her house is nestled on an estuary with a breathtaking view of the Northumberland Strait where Anne has the opportunity to rejoice in the splendour of colours the sunset offers. And watch the water glint through branches or spy an eagle perched in the willow tree by the shore. When it comes time to work, she turns away.
“I’m so distractable! The view from here is wonderful, but when I write, I don’t look out a window.” There was even a time when Anne, a young mother beginning her writing career, read of another writer who eliminated distractions to help maintain focus. Anne took the advice to heart and went so far as to get rid of the television.
Now, with the holidays upon us, Anne can take time to enjoy the diversions. “I love getting together with family and with friends: that is what makes the time special for me. This year will be different, but we will still celebrate,” says Anne. Her two children, David and Sarah have grown and live away. Even though they may not make it home for the holidays they are in her thoughts. “I like having a tree in the house, hung with decorations that the kids made years ago, and spending time enjoying a fire in the evening.”
Anne studied at Queen’s University and the Ontario College of Art and Design (now OCAD University), travelled, and lived in France and Italy before coming to Antigonish. Years ago, she taught at St. Francis Xavier University and began the writing centre there. She still likes to teach, but in a less formal way, hosting workshops.
Books nine and 10 hit the shelves this year, yet she still experiences self-doubt. “I think that my work consists of about three parts fear and one part courage,” she says. She refers to the words of the Australian novelist Peter Carey, “Every day you’re making up the earth you’re going to stand on.” In her own words, she adds, “It is not clear that a writer can accomplish this extraordinarily difficult task of inventing something that will be the earth to stand on, but he or she has to try to do it.”
Writing in different genres means taking different approaches. “With a novel, I’m in it for the long haul, so the idea has to be one that stays with me and doesn’t lose its fascination over time,” says Anne. “Poems are shorter, and the inspiration can come from the smallest of things, or the largest of things, or a combination of the two.” And lastly, “Essays often have to do with questions I have that don’t easily resolve themselves in poems or stories.” Anne has tackled tons of topics in her work ranging from birth, illness, dementia, death, relationships, having children, to beekeeping, trees, chairs, snow, and winter. Most in a way the reader has not considered before, showing a new perspective, begging one to question themself and the world around them. Providing a chance to think and to wonder.
Anne has lived and worked as a writer-in-residence in many places in Canada. She has also lived in Europe and Africa. It is here in Antigonish she finds home. “Nova Scotia is my beloved place, my touchstone. Like so many people, I hike and cycle and kayak here: it’s my way of communing with this place.”
In all forms of her writing, whether poetry, essays, or novels, Anne has included Nova Scotia. In her novel, Falling (2008), this passage is included in chapter one, “A roll of waves fell gently and retreated, leaving the sand darkened, velvety brown, as they drew away. The tides of the Northumberland Strait weren’t as high as those on the Fundy and seemed almost lazy in comparison, and although the water was as warm as that off the coast of the Carolinas, the jellyfish had already come and gone.”
In Experiments in Distant Influence (2020), a book of essays, Anne talks of Nova Scotian people, beaches, flowers, and seasons. Also tucked within the pages are her line drawings including Ice-Northumberland Strait, Dunes of Pomquet Beach, Snow on Wild Apples, and Pomquet-Mark’s Head.
In Strange Attractor (2019), her fifth collection of poetry, she includes several poems about winter which are surely influenced by being a resident of Nova Scotia. One she deliberately wrote without using the word “snow.” After being encouraged to investigate the etymology of words by a friend, she was fascinated by the word and discovered several variations, seven of which appear in her poem Cloudboat. Snãw, sneo, snjór, snihyati, schnee, snaygis, nieg.
Her latest novel, Speechless, is the story of a young Nova Scotian reporter who writes an article about a Nigerian teenager facing trial for adultery. This book was many years in the making. Anne recalled her time living in Nigeria as a CUSO volunteer teacher and admits, “It changed my worldview completely. Being in Nigeria for two years was probably the most important time of my life.” Speechless explores two vastly different cultures and asks the question, “Who has the right to tell someone else’s story?”
Two of Anne’s books, Speechless, and Experiments in Distant Influence, were launched during the Covid-19 pandemic and like many artists, she has turned to social media to reach her audience. And Anne, who claims, “There is much to be said for living off the beaten path,” doesn’t shy away from this increased visibility any more than she shies away from wintery wild weather. “We write in order that people can hear our words,” she says. “I didn’t know that would happen during the pandemic. But this is one of the things that people have found during this time: we have connected, and not only have we connected, but we also continue to yearn for art and music and writing to help us make sense of the world.”