Poetry and Landscapes: A Talk with Tanis Rideout

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Tanis Rideout may not consider herself a nature poet, but one thing is certain – she is passionate about Canadian landscapes.

Arguments with the Lake, Rideout’s award-winning poetry collection that she wrote and defended for her MFA, reflects on the journeys of Marilyn Bell and Shirley Campbell swimming across Lake Ontario.

“I came across the Marilyn Bell story, which I had heard, but hadn’t thought about,” said Rideout.

For her, putting Lake Ontario at the forefront of her narrative was a way to reconnect Ontario residents to the lake that surrounds them.

"I thought, ‘This is a great landscape for this dramatic story.’ So I just started exploring that,” she explained. “And it turned my relationship with the lake into a different thing. It wasn’t just this attractive thing that sits at my doorstep. It became bigger and scarier and more powerful. It was an interesting change because I didn’t engage with it that way before.

“And I think for me to engage with the landscape I need a story to get at it. I think probably other people do too.”

Though she didn’t start writing seriously until university under the tutelage of Carolyn Smart, professor of Creative Writing at Queen’s, the lake has always been an essential part of life for Rideout.

“I have lived by the lake a lot. I have always lived by the water. I consider it part of my makeup. I wouldn’t want to not live by the water. I think it’s pretty fundamental.”

Now based in Toronto, Rideout talks about how easy it is “to take for granted what’s in your backyard.”

“Toronto doesn’t feel like a lakefront city to me,” she said. “Kingston feels like a lakefront city for sure. People engage in it. But Toronto seems pretty separated from it.”

Rejecting the lake as a mere backdrop here in Ontario, it becomes a central character in Arguments with the Lake, showing that writing can be a call to action to re-engage people with their surroundings.

“Hopefully it will make people think about the lake and the city being on the lake,” said Rideout.

Her work in progress, Above all Things, a novel about George Mallory’s 1924 expedition up Mount Everest, may be taking her to the Himalayas, but I get the feeling she’s not yet done with Canada.

Niagara Falls, the Canadian Shield, the Don River, the Great Plains, Algonquin Park and the Niagara Escarpment are just some parts of Canada that fill her with that sense of awe and wonder we feel when we see a place we have only visualized in our minds.

“It’s always easy to exoticize where you aren’t,” she said. “There are some pretty amazing spots here. I am going up to Algonquin Park because the leaves are all changing.”

As part of our everyday experience, these settings start to become mundane, according to Rideout.

“I think it’s easy to get bored by Ontario in a lot of ways.”

Rideout’s reimagining of the experiences of Bell and Campbell gives her a fresh perspective of the lake that she grew up on and allows readers to see the lake in a way that is radically different from their daily experience of it.

Resurrecting Lake Ontario and now taking on Mount Everest, it’s clear that Rideout’s writing will continue to be a force of nature.



Tanis Rideout is a poet and writer living and working in Toronto. In the fall of 2005 she released her first full-length book of poetry Delineation, exploring the lives and loves of comic book super-heroines, which was praised as a “tantalizing, harrowing read.” It has been featured on CBC Radio’s Bandwidth with Alan Neal and Definitely Not the Opera with Sook-Yin Lee.

In the spring of 2005 Rideout joined Sarah Harmer to read a commissioned poem on Harmer’s I Love the Escarpment Tour to draw attention to damage being done to the Niagara Escarpment by ongoing quarrying. Subsequently a performance of the poem appeared on the DVD of the tour - Escarpment Blues. In 2006 she was named the Poet Laureate of Lake Ontario by the Lake Ontario Waterkeeper and toured with the Tragically Hip's Gord Downie to draw attention to environmental justice issues on the lake.

Her poetry and fiction have appeared in numerous quarterlies and magazines and received grants from local and national arts councils.

An excerpt from her new poems Arguments with the Lake received second prize in the CBC Literary Awards and was called Macewanesque in scope, [it] invokes in the reader a sense of timelessness and breathless wonder.

You can find her online at www.tanisrideout.com

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