ARS POETICA: An Interview with Ceilidh Michelle

Curtis John McRae

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Our Managing Editor, Curtis John McRae, had the chance to sit down with Montreal-based author Ceilidh Michelle to discuss her latest book, Vagabond, as well as her experiences in creative writing programs and residencies, her early inspirations, and the writing advice she received from Denis Johnson shortly before his passing.

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Yolk began as an electric conversation around a picnic table in Saint Henri Square.

Our scruffy pioneer and present prose editor had previously approached each of us with an idea, a vision: We would establish our own literary magazine in Montreal. And so it was, or so it would be. After that original encounter, eight individuals devoted to the word resolved that they would gather bi-weekly, on Sundays, and bring something new into this busy, manic world—something that might slow its spin down somewhat and cause its patronage to say: “You know what, it ain’t so bad, is it, Susan?”

We are undergraduate, graduate, and graduated students of writing. Some of us learn our craft formally from accomplished authors in seminar courses, and some of us learn by looking out the window of the world and onto the streets that sing below. Some of us learn from screaming squirrels, old curtains, departed grandfathers, and bowel movements. We learn from old lovers, long winters, imperfect mothers, and from the deep internet where a musical genius remains entombed.

Yolk is cold floors on Sabbath mornings, home-brewed ginger beer in the endless afternoon, and downpours of French-pressed coffee in assorted artisanal mugs. Our first official gathering was scheduled for a duration of two hours; most of us remained for six, departing only to attend to the summons of our own beckoning realities. Together, with time suspended, we talked endlessly of contributing something to disrupt Montreal’s literary ecosystem. Something unparalleled, something true.

But what? There was nothing to discuss. There was everything to discuss.

We volunteer our time, hounding some elusive beast composed of combustible words and works. We are hopeful, truly hopeful, that we can give something new, a new way, a new light, and that if we cannot, we might at least uphold the traditions of our predecessors, cast star-wide nets to capture their echoes. We are a thousand decisions. We are a sanctuary for the orphaned word, the solitary writer, the cereal-eating artist who yearns for company, for the comfort of a like mind; we sit together with them at foggy dawn, it rains a baptism, with our arms and hands intertwined, we form an umbrella—underneath, they scribble madly, the perfect picture.

Yolk in no way presumes to be superior to its contemporaries, but its contemporaries should not presume yolk to be anything other than loud—quite, quite loud. We are yippidy jazzed to address the oh-so-technicolorful magnificence of the human experience, but we are prepared also to address the ugliness, to stare at its wet, hairy snout and into its square depth and to roar in return at the things that yearn to devour our skin, beset our ethos, and dig graves in our own backyards.

There’s so much to say, there’s so much we don’t know, but together, with you, we can placate that ignorance, render it peaceful, tolerable, and perhaps even, fucking beautiful.

And Susan says, “Amen.”
Vagabond (Cover), Ceilidh Michelle

When I first encountered Ceilidh Michelle, she seemed to have materialized from the front cover of her latest book. We met at Librairie Drawn & Quarterly on Rue Bernard, where we were to make our acquaintance and I was to pick up her memoir, Vagabond. After someone tapped me on the shoulder in line at the cash, I turned around to that same inimitable, thrifted fur coat as the one on the cover of Vagabond—a coat I now associate with authentic Ceilidh Michelle. I had to look down at the book in my hands to confirm she hadn’t stepped off the page.

The paradox of the thrifted coat, of it being thrifted and inimitable, takes on its own symbolism. Ceilidh performs this act with her writing: she takes something with a unique life force and makes it wholly her own. When Ceilidh writes of Montreal’s music scene, it becomes her music scene, her prose takes on its own musical quality; when she writes of life on the road in California, it becomes her road, it becomes her California.

We lingered in Drawn & Quarterly, oscillating between trading anecdotes and pointing to books by some of our favorite local authors. In similar fashion to Ceilidh, Montreal-based author Heather O’Neill walked into the store with her two dogs just after we had spoken about her novel When We Lost Our Heads. I couldn’t help but think that Ceilidh attracted these chance encounters, that her life and work had a gravitational pull, the same one that led me to wanting to interview her. I was struck by the notion that her life was peppered with stories, that through seeking experience, experience had a way of finding her.

A few weeks later, Winter turned to Spring, coats were replaced with sweaters, and we met once more for our interview. We brought some chairs out to the front balcony of her apartment, where we spoke of how Ceilidh drew early inspiration from Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise and from PJ Harvey’s song “Down by the Water,” of how she began her trajectory with aspirations of becoming a comedian, of some of the fundamental differences between writing fiction and non-fiction, and of the advice Ceilidh received from Denis Johnson when she met him in Portugal just before his passing. The city was coming back to life all around us—cars whizzing by on the streets below, birds singing from their nests—and Ceilidh’s dog Harriet (after Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy) joined us for the last few minutes of our interview with a few choice things to say herself.

Ceilidh Michelle is the author of the novel Butterflies, Zebras, Moonbeams (Palimpsest Press, 2019), and the travel memoir Vagabond (Douglas & McIntyre, 2021). Michelle has had work published in Entropy, Longreads, The Void, Broken Pencil, Matrix Magazine, yolk, McGill University’s Scrivener Creative Review, Cactus Press and Lantern Magazine. She is currently studying writing at the University of Edinburgh and calls Montreal, QC, home.

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Sicilian Blue

Age of the Machine

Beyond Control

When I first encountered Ceilidh Michelle, she seemed to have materialized from the front cover of her latest book. We met at Librairie Drawn & Quarterly on Rue Bernard, where we were to make our acquaintance and I was to pick up her memoir, Vagabond. After someone tapped me on the shoulder in line at the cash, I turned around to that same inimitable, thrifted fur coat as the one on the cover of Vagabond—a coat I now associate with authentic Ceilidh Michelle. I had to look down at the book in my hands to confirm she hadn’t stepped off the page. The paradox of the thrifted coat, of it being thrifted and inimitable, takes on its own symbolism. Ceilidh performs this act with her writing: she takes something with a unique life force and makes it wholly her own. When Ceilidh writes of Montreal’s music scene, it becomes her music scene, her prose takes on its own musical quality; when she writes of life on the road in California, it becomes her road, it becomes her California. We lingered in Drawn & Quarterly, oscillating between trading anecdotes and pointing to books by some of our favorite local authors. In similar fashion to Ceilidh, Montreal-based author Heather O’Neill walked into the store with her two dogs just after we had spoken about her novel When We Lost Our Heads. I couldn’t help but think that Ceilidh attracted these chance encounters, that her life and work had a gravitational pull, the same one that led me to wanting to interview her. I was struck by the notion that her life was peppered with stories, that through seeking experience, experience had a way of finding her. A few weeks later, Winter turned to Spring, coats were replaced with sweaters, and we met once more for our interview. We brought some chairs out to the front balcony of her apartment, where we spoke of how Ceilidh drew early inspiration from Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise and from PJ Harvey’s song “Down by the Water,” of how she began her trajectory with aspirations of becoming a comedian, of some of the fundamental differences between writing fiction and non-fiction, and of the advice Ceilidh received from Denis Johnson when she met him in Portugal just before his passing. The city was coming back to life all around us—cars whizzing by on the streets below, birds singing from their nests—and Ceilidh’s dog Harriet (after Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy) joined us for the last few minutes of our interview with a few choice things to say herself.