I Am YEG Arts: Wendy McGrath
July 20, 2023
Wendy McGrath is a Métis poet, writer, and visual artist who works in multiple genres including fiction, poetry, spoken word, and creative nonfiction. Giving voice to working-class stories through her ‘Prairie Gothic’ storytelling, Wendy explores family dynamics from a distinct lens that reflects her own experience of this particular place and the people who inhabit it. Her dedication and excellence are getting noticed – Wendy is the winner of the inaugural Prairie Grindstone Prize 2023 – 24 for her high-quality body of work. In this week’s I AM YEG Arts story, Wendy reflects on what the Prize means to her, how she got her start, and what’s next for her.
You describe your writing as working-class ‘Prairie Gothic’, what do you mean by that?
I really feel that working-class voices have not been celebrated in the Canadian literary canon, and to me, because I come from a working-class background, when I was looking at what I wanted to write about, for the most part, there weren’t depictions of families like mine in the books I read. Adding to that, I think there is an element in relation to Canadian Prairie Gothic that ties into that as well. I would describe Canadian Prairie Gothic as works set in the Canadian Prairie or written by writers from the Prairie provinces. The genre very much springs from its own geography and the writer’s origin. I think that anyone who’s driven across the Prairie provinces will recognize the horizon and the sky. There is an absolute infinite quality to it, which is beautiful, but I think the flip side of that is that there’s also this metaphorical and perhaps even literal weight of the sky. These elements can act on a character’s psyche, whether those characters are living or dead. Then of course, there is also the Gothic inspiration of the prairie’s larger urban centres such as Edmonton, Lethbridge, Calgary, Regina, and Saskatoon. Edmonton and Saskatchewan are where I largely draw my inspiration from.
Tell us about your connection to Edmonton and why you’ve made it your home.
I moved here along with my parents from Saskatchewan when I was small. My husband and I have lived in various places, but Edmonton is where my family is. I find it a very inspiring place. The North Saskatchewan River is beautiful – I’ve written about it; I walk along it. The city itself is inspiring and I have a very supportive and talented group of friends I admire greatly, so I also draw a lot of inspiration from them.
How did you get your start as a writer? Was it always your plan A?
I knew I wanted to be a writer, but I really had no role model, so I was flying blind to a certain extent. But I knew what I wanted to do, and I just kind of kept going. I’ve had incredible support from my husband and that support is immeasurable. I’ve also been very lucky to have had excellent mentors. Bert Almon and the late Douglas Barbour were so encouraging to me and so supportive throughout my writing career. That meant the world and continues to mean the world. To a certain extent, I think I just winged it and thought, “OK, I’ll just start, and I’ll figure out how to make this work.” The writing life is a lot of fun. I mean, of course, writing is work, but I wouldn’t do it if it weren’t fun, meaningful and rewarding.
You have a very artistic family. Where does that come from? How did you pass that on to your children?
I dabbled with piano when I was a kid. But I’ve always loved books. I’ve always loved art. My husband and I loved music, so we always had music of every kind in the house. My husband has been the consummate roadie for our musician sons since day one. We’ve always made it important in our family life to nurture and support artistic endeavours. There’s beauty in the world and a lot of that beauty comes from literature, music, and art, and I think it’s very important to surround yourself with those things. We wanted to make sure that our home was a place where our kids could be surrounded by those things. We’ve had everything from punk bands to big bands play in our basement, so the sky is the limit.
Our oldest son is a rock musician and writer now living in Windsor, and he’s toured and recorded extensively — Europe multiple times, the States, Mexico, Japan and throughout Canada. He has written two novels. Our youngest son, Brendan, is an extremely gifted pianist. He did his undergraduate at MacEwan in Jazz and he’s doing his masters in classical at the U of A. We’re incredibly proud of both of them and the paths they’ve chosen.
As a storyteller, what narrative or inspiration do you find yourself returning to?
I’d have to say Prairie Gothic, even though when I was an emerging writer, I didn’t really have a label for it. It was only when I was writing my three most recent novels Santa Rosa, North East, and Broke City (the Santa Rosa Trilogy) that I kind of began thinking of Prairie Gothic, and I thought “Oh, I’ll just go do some research about the genre” and found out there was really not much specifically related to this as a genre. More to the point there was nothing related to this genre and the working class so I thought I’ll make a niche and work within this genre. I am always fascinated by family dynamics. I’m fascinated by the specificity of prairie families and what any type of work means in the context of a family. In terms of the Prairie Gothic, I think work itself can also be a trope. Work can be dangerous, work can be scary and work that interacts with an urban or rural landscape can have its own inherent dangers. That’s something I like to take a look at.
In terms of structure, I like to experiment. I like to approach a project and listen to what that work is telling me it needs. For example, with my three most recent three novels the structure and cadence of each book changes as the protagonist, Christine, becomes more aware of herself, her place in the family, and her place in the world. She grows to become more aware – artistically and creatively – of the world around her and of what is going on the surface and what’s actually going on under the surface.
What are you currently working on? When working in such an organic manner, how do your projects take form?
I am working on a novel right now as well as poetry and creative non-fiction and, as always, I listen to what each project tells me it needs. I also have some possible collaborations in the future but my most pressing project is a chapbook I’m creating for Jack Pine Press in Saskatoon. The project was inspired by an orange scribbler my grandmother passed along to my mother, who in turn passed it along to me. This scribbler was a precious thing full of recipes she had hurriedly copied down. There were cookie recipes from a neighbour or an Aunt Mary. The fact that she found time to write these recipes out, considering the workload she carried, is remarkable in itself. What I also found interesting was to consider the recipe as a documentation of a certain time and geographical location that my maternal grandmother was part of as a settler. What that meant in terms of that time and the ingredients people had access to. I wrote a series of poem/memoir/flash-fiction pieces that used these recipes as inspiration. A cookie recipe might become the narrative structure for a story about a particular person. I’m finishing up this project for Jack Pine now, and it’s genre-blurring between a chapbook and an artist’s book. I’m having the best time.
Tell us about a person or organization doing great work in the Edmonton arts community that you feel more people should know about.
The wealth of talent in this city is mind boggling. There are so many talented writers in Edmonton, I wouldn’t even want to try to start naming everyone. This is a city with creative spirit and two people over the last few years who have taken risks are Luciana Erregue-Sacchi who started Laberinto Press during the pandemic. Also, Adriana Oniță, who started Polyglot magazine and who is putting out a terrific collection of multilingual chapbooks. I think publishers who are pushing the boundaries of the industry should be celebrated. I’d also like to highlight my publisher NeWest Press; which continues to publish outstanding work.
I’d like to highlight the EAC and the Writers’ Guild of Alberta for the many initiatives they support, including mentoring programs. It was a privilege for me to be a mentor as part of the Horizons Writers’ Circle and the Alexandra Writers’ Centre’s Own Voices program.
I think after the last few years, there’s such a thirst for people to get together, go to readings, view art and hear live music. I’m part of The Olive Reading Series’ editorial board and I’m excited to share that the series will be back this fall. I think we’re on the cusp of a really exciting time and I think it’s great to be in Edmonton and be part of a thriving arts community.
In what ways is collaboration an important part of your practice?
I really enjoy collaborating with artists, musicians, and photographers. My most recent project is a collection of poetry inspired by the bird and wildlife photographs of Danny Miles, who’s the drummer for July Talk. That manuscript is looking for a home (fingers crossed). It is a really fine example of how excited I get about collaborating. I learned so much about birds. But what really was inspiring was to see how the photographs also merged with the works of other painters and other musicians. It’s been a wonderful project.
My second collection of poetry, A Revision of Forward, was inspired by the prints of Walter Jule, a renowned Edmonton-area-based printmaker. The prints were exhibited at the Central Visual Arts Gallery at Houston Community College in Houston, Texas. I also collaborated with musician and producer Sascha Liebrand on the spoken word/experimental jazz album “Before We Knew” (Entity Records) that came out just before COVID so, we never did get a chance to tour it sadly. But it was just incredible to hear what a musician created based on my work.
I’m kind of a strange amalgamation of introvert/extrovert. Obviously writing is a solitary activity, but I really enjoy the process of working with other people. Going back to my mantra, it’s a lot of fun.
Congratulations on winning the inaugural Prairie Grindstone Prize of $50,000! Tell us about what receiving this special recognition and support means to you.
I was so humbled and honoured to be the inaugural recipient of the prize. I’m still a little bit in shock over it, to be honest with you. Of course, it’s incredible. It’s going to be really a big boost to have that funding and be able to work on several projects.
But there are a couple of things that are also really meaningful in the context of the prize. To be recognized by my peers means so much to me. It’s important to me to think that I am – and that we all are as writers, artists, musicians – part of a bigger support system. I think this prize is important because it shines a light on prairie writing and prairie writers. Someone [the Prize’s anonymous donor] has placed so much importance on writers and writing from of Alberta and Saskatchewan that they have created this award. That speaks volumes. We have a wealth of talent in the Prairie provinces. Let’s
Looking back, what else has been an important part of your journey?
Well, for me personally, it’s important to mention I’m just so very grateful (I know that’s a word that’s used a lot) but I’m truly grateful for having such a supportive husband, such a supportive family, and such a supportive community of friends, writers, and artists I feel very in tune with. Really there’s nothing that’s more important than that.
About Wendy McGrath
Wendy McGrath is a Métis poet, writer, and visual artist living and working in amiskwacîwâskahikan (Edmonton) on Treaty 6 Territory. Winner of the inaugural Prairie Grindstone Prize 2023 – 2024, McGrath’s writing practice embraces multiple genres — fiction, poetry, spoken word, and creative non-fiction. She describes her writing as Prairie Gothic.
McGrath has published four novels and two books of poetry. Broke City (NeWest Press), the final book in her Santa Rosa Trilogy (which includes North East and Santa Rosa), is a prairie gothic novel. Her two books of poetry, A Revision of Forward (NeWest Press), and common place ecstasies (Beach Holme Publishing) explore a range of poetic forms and approaches. McGrath’s work has been widely published in literary magazines and anthologies. In addition, she is a printmaker and creates artist’s books.
“Before We Knew” (Entity Records), is her second album collaboration with musician and producer, Sascha Liebrand. McGrath’s first spoken word project, “BOX,” with the group Quarto & Sound is an adaptation of her eponymous long poem. “Movement 1” was nominated for a 2018 City of Edmonton Music Award in the Jazz Recording of the Year category.
McGrath has a Masters’ Degree, English, from York University, and a Bachelor of Arts, English (with Distinction), from the University of Alberta. Her scholarly work has explored the Prairie Gothic genre.
Want more YEG Arts Stories? We’ll be sharing them here and on social media using the hashtag #IamYegArts. Follow along! You can keep up with Wendy McGrath on Instagram.
Listen to Wendy McGrath share her story on CBC Radio’s Radio Active show! Aired July 31, 2023.