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The City and the Writer: In Montreal with Nyla Matuk

By Nathalie Handal

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.
Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

Can you describe the mood of Montreal as you feel/see it?

It’s a cliché to describe Montreal as melancholy, so I don’t want to use that word; for me, its mood is soft-focus, looking back—i.e., it never wanted me to do things according to a plan, but worked deliberately to take me away from goals, agendas, trajectories.

What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

I was nineteen at the start of my first year at university. My parents and younger brother had just helped me move into an apartment on rue Hutchison in the McGill student ghetto, where I was going to be living with two friends from high school. We were having lunch in the restaurant of the Holiday Inn on Sherbrooke Street, across from the campus. I had always been careful not to show my family any emotional vulnerability, but I remember feeling the worse sort of sadness there, bereft to be left in a big city alone for the first time.

What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?

I can only dream this up from my vantage point, not being a native Montrealer. There are no fewer than four universities in the city, so it’s a hub of ideas and books that might go unnoticed because they are so much a part of the urban air; along l’Avenue du Mont-Royal, there are still new and secondhand bookstores filled with continental philosophy and French literature, as if the internet didn’t exist; as if it’s still 1990 and everybody wants to talk, in person, about love, the body, and Julia Kristeva; Marxism and psychoanalysis.

What writer(s) from here should we read?

Mavis Gallant, Emile Nelligan, Leonard Cohen, Michel Tremblay, John Glassco, A.M. Klein, Nicole Brossard, Mordecai Richler, Louis Dudek, Robyn Sarah, David McGimpsey, Pierre Nepveu, Carmine Starnino, Michael Harris, Dimitri Nasrallah, Asa Boxer, Susan Gillis, Jason Camlot, Mary di Michele, Nelly Arcan. This isn’t an exhaustive list, and I’m not as knowledgeable on French Montreal writers, and indigenous writers from the area—and some of these writers weren’t born in Montreal. Remarkable, though, is the phenomenon of the Anglophone native Montreal poet: a minority in a French province and neglected by the French, and neglected by the rest of Canada because he/she is Quebecois.

Is there a place here you return to often?

I always stop into the bookstore, The Word, located on rue Milton in the McGill student ghetto. In my first year there, I lived right around the corner and must have walked by that legendary place hundreds of times on my way to campus. And Boutique Scandale—practically every smart dress I own was designed in-house there.

Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

Leonard Cohen’s house on Parc du Portugal Square between St. Dominique and St. Laurent; also, the St-Henri neighborhood, where the celebrated French Canadian author Gabrielle Roy set her incredibly moving 1945 novel Bonheur d’occasion (The Tin Flute).

Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

When I lived there, every area of the city I discovered was a novel, foreign place. I have always loved two in particular: the Mile End, with its tiny cafés and dépanneurs popping up mid-block among the walk-ups or on the corners of those narrow pedestrian-scaled residential streets, made cozier in winter when the snowbanks take up most of the sidewalk space. There is something seductive in the way the snow acts as a sound barrier, muffling traffic noise in the middle of the city. Also, despite its tourist appeal, the austere elegance of the maze of cobblestone streets looking over the Vieux Port, especially on a crisp fall night when the tourists are long gone and you can share a bottle of wine in a candlelit boîte. Dark doorways, fog rolling in from the seaway.

Where does passion live here?

In the yellow streetlamp’s light cast onto a snow bank outside a bring-your-own-wine restaurant that seats only six, very late on a Saturday night in the bitter cold of January.

What is the title of one of your works about Montreal and what inspired it exactly?

My poem “Then and Now” in my latest book, Stranger, is mostly a look back at my student days, now more than half a lifetime ago. It starts in the present but goes to Montreal on a cold February night in a restaurant near the Carré St. Louis, then skips around neighborhoods, memories, and political phenomena. I was inspired to write it because every time I visit Montreal, I’m seized with a sense of uncanniness; my state of mind of twenty-eight years ago floods my perception in the present. This only happens to me in Montreal.

Inspired by Levi, “Outside Montreal does an outside exist?”

In this case, in a city of interiority and a bilingualism that is both canceled and preserved, an outsider sensibility exists in each person who’s spent considerable time in Montreal. You can live in one language or in both, so you’re always inhabiting an outside and an inside when you’re there.  


Nyla Matuk is the author of two books of poetry: Stranger (Véhicule Press, 2016) and Sumptuary Laws (Véhicule Press, 2012), which was nominated for the Gerald Lampert Award, named a National Post best book of poetry in 2012, and selected as a “must-read” book of poetry at CBC Books. Her poems have appeared in The New Yorker, the New Poetries VI anthology (Carcanet, 2015), Best Canadian Poetry in English (Tightrope Books, 2012), PN Review, Canadian Notes and Queries, Prelude, The Manchester Review, and other magazines in Canada, the US, and the UK.

Published Dec 12, 2016   Copyright 2016 Nathalie Handal

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