Hello from the midwintery Irish midlands - where poetry has been keeping me (half) sane though the dark evenings. I've been taking a zoom poetry workshop with the talented Emily Cullen, and finishing my third novel - one day at a time, as they say - these aren't easy times to concentrate!
I was delighted to receive a poetry collection from Carolyne Van Der Meer in the post recently. Carolyne is a poet, fiction writer, journalist and lecturer who lives in Montreal, Quebec. She has recently published 'Heart of Goodness' - a sequence of thirty poems exploring the life of Marguerite Bourgeoys who established the Congrégation de Notre-Dame... we talk here about the book, the subject and the writing process....
Welcome back to the blog Carolyne, and congratulations on your new book on Marguerite Bourgeoys. Can you recall when you first became aware of Marguerite?
First, let me say thank you, Niamh, for interviewing me about my book on your blog. It's been a few years since you've invited me and I'm delighted to be here! I first came across Marguerite Bourgeoys when I moved to Montreal in 1990. I noticed that her name was associated with schools--there was a school named after her as well as a school board, but I didn't really know much about the significance this woman held in Quebec. I was new to Montreal and had spent my early life in Ontario, the province next door--where Marguerite is not known at all, really. Then in 1997, a literary journal called Quill & Quire asked me to review the book Marguerite Bourgeoys and Montreal, 1640-1655 by Patricia Simpson. I loved the book and gave it a positive review (here).
And for the next 20 years, Marguerite was tucked into the back of my mind. In 2017, my family and I moved to a condo in the old part of the city, where the Chapelle de Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours is located: this chapel, rebuilt in 1771, sits on the site where Marguerite built her first chapel in 1678. For quite a while, I would walk by this chapel on my way to work and felt strongly that Marguerite was present. Suddenly, this incredible saint was back in my mind again, quietly telling me that there was a book to be written about her. A different sort of book than the many others.
I should mention here that Patricia Simpson, the author of the book I reviewed in 1997, was instrumental in my journey to write Heart of Goodness. After a good year of walking by the chapel, I reached out to her by email and asked if she might be able to help me get access to the archives where all writings by and about Marguerite were kept. These were located in the Motherhouse of the Congrégation de Notre-Dame, the uncloistered community of sisters that Marguerite founded. Because Patricia was a sister in the Congrégation, she was particularly helpful in making this happen! Working in the archives was key to beginning the thinking work that would lead to Heart of Goodness.
Marguerite was a fascinating woman - what does she mean to you on a personal level?
Marguerite Bourgeoys signifies courage to me—in so many ways. Remember, she was from a well-to-do family in France--and finding a suitor for her would have been prominent in her parents' minds. Instead, Marguerite had the courage to choose a non-traditional path: of dedicating her life to God. Secondly, she decided to come to New France--with Paul de Chomedey de Maisonneuve, a man she didn't even know--by boat. Those decisions are courageous ones as well.
And when she got to Ville-Marie, the colony that became Montreal, she created, with a quiet and steadfast fortitude, the means for women to gain an education. She opened the first school in 1658, and her central role as an educator enabled women to take on key roles in the community. She was a pioneer of education and religion--and though it took many years for her to be seen in this way, Marguerite was a feminist, blazing the trail for women in a way few before her had done.
'... intricately crafted poems which shine like their subject with sincerity, originality, and fidelity to essential truths.' (Michael Farry)
You have whittled a whole life into a beautiful poetic sequence Carolyne, was it challenging to decide what to include and what to leave out?
What a great question! It was incredibly difficult. But I kind of went with my gut on this. As I was doing my research, I made a list of the most significant milestones in Marguerite's life. I knew that I wanted to write only 30 poems, so I worked it down systematically at first—and slowly got to my magic number. Some were obvious, others less so. For example, there is a poem about a young mother, Françoise, who gave her wilful daughter, Catherine, a "time-out" in a barrel. Catherine tried to get out of the barrel and got caught between the slats of wood that held her inside--and died. Marguerite worked to ensure justice for Françoise as she knew this death was an accident. She didn't abandon Françoise but rather, helped her to find peace despite her guilt. To me, this event, though certainly one among many that required compassion, showed Marguerite's fairness, as well as her loyalty and her dedication--which I thought needed to be illustrated to the reader in the clearest of terms.
Best of luck with your future writing Carolyne, and with Heart of Goodness.
A review of 'Heart of Goodness' can be read on poet Michael Farry's blog Here