McNeil, Florence

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McNEIL, Florence

Nationality: Canadian. Born: Vancouver, British Columbia, 8 May 1940. Education: University of British Columbia, Vancouver, B.A. 1961, M.A. 1965. Family: Married David McNeil in 1973. Career: Instructor in English, Western Washington State College (now University), Bellingham, 1965–68; assistant professor, University of Calgary, Alberta, 1968–73, and University of British Columbia, 1973–76. Since 1976 full-time writer. Awards: Macmillan of Canada prize, 1965; Canada Council award, 1976, 1978, 1980, 1982; Canadian National Magazine award, 1979; Sheila Egoff prize, for children's literature, 1989. Address: 20 Georgia Wynd, Delta, British Columbia V4M 1A5, Canada.



A Silent Green Sky. Vancouver, Klanak Press, 1967.

Walhachin. Fredericton, New Brunswick, Fiddlehead, 1972.

The Rim of the Park. Port Clements, British Columbia, Sono Nis Press, 1972.

Emily. Toronto, Clarke Irwin, 1975.

Ghost Towns. Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, 1975.

A Balancing Act. Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, 1979.

The Overlanders. Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Thistledown Press, 1982.

Barkerville. Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Thistledown Press, 1984.

Swimming out of History: Poems Selected and New. Parksville, British Columbia, Oolichan Press, 1991.

A Company of Angels. Victoria, British Columbia, Ekstasis Editions, 1999.


Breathing Each Other's Air. Vancouver, Polestar Press, 1994.


Barkerville (produced Vancouver, 1987).

Radio Play: Barkerville: A Play for Voices, 1980.


When Is a Poem: Creative Ideas for Teaching Poetry Collected from Canadian Poets. Toronto, League of Canadian Poets, 1980.

Miss P and Me (for children). Toronto, Clarke Irwin, 1982; New York, Harper, 1984.

All Kinds of Magic (for children). Vancouver, Douglas and Mclntyre, 1984.

Catriona's Island (for children). Vancouver, Douglas and McIntyre, 1988.

Editor, Here Is a Poem. Toronto, League of Canadian Poets, 1983.

Editor, Do the Whales Jump at Night: An Anthology of Canadian Poetry for Children. Vancouver, Douglas and McIntyre, 1990.


Critical Studies: In Canadian Literature (Vancouver), autumn 1977; CV 2 (Winnipeg), 4, spring 1979, and autumn 1982.

Florence McNeil comments:

I am interested in visual imagery and contrasts. Therefore, my poetry is often about art and visual imagery, and my imagery is mainly visual. I am also intrigued by history and the passing of time—how things remain the same and yet are different, how the past not only informs but also judges us, and how we are haunted by images of the past and the distant. I like to write about the family, an important historical link or connection to me. I come from Hebridean Scots, newly emigrated in the 1920s, bringing with them the Gaelic language and a romantic, ironic, self-effacing worldview. They have crept into much of my work; the sense of continuity with the past, with the ties of an extended family, and with a culture in many ways at odds with the North American culture provides much of my material. I am also interested in linked, connected poems; Emily, Walhachin, and Barkerville are all a series of connected poems. The Overlanders is a long poem based on a historical event. I am interested in the narrative, perhaps because I heard so many tales and legends as a child, but in transforming the narrative into something that speaks to us today, creating a universal situation, set of emotions. I use irony and wit in my writing to underline contrasts between reality and unreality. I have always been interested in the differences: representation of the thing and the thing itself and the various shades of truth in what is perceived. Perhaps it comes down to trying to untangle reality and illusion and ponder the unanswerable question, Is there any way to know? In my poetry I try to go below the surface of things, if not to know at least to make peace with the entanglement of fact and fiction. As I ventured into fiction, I found many of the same themes and interests emerging: the visual imagery, the contrasts, the sense of family, and of course the sense of story and narrative suggested by my linked poems.

*  *  *

Although Florence McNeil cannot be identified with any specific group, she is, like many other Canadian poets, a graduate of a university creative writing program, and in dedicating A Balancing Act she thanks Earle Birney "for his help and encouragement in the beginning." She also has a Canadian interest in the long documentary poem or linked series of poems based on historical material about a person, tribe, place, or event. In her book Walhachin she chose a settler's "imagined monologue" to tell the story of Walhachin, a town by the Thompson River in the British Columbian dry belt. Despite initial prosperity the town returned to sagebrush and wilderness after World War I had killed many of its men and a disastrous rainstorm had destroyed irrigation flumes. (The fascination with extinct communities is echoed in the title of another book, Ghost Towns.) Monologue also unifies the poems in Emily, based on the life and work of the great English-born West Coast painter Emily Carr (1871–1945), who is able to "find a leaf large as the coast."

In her book Barkerville McNeil draws on the gold rush days of an 1860s boomtown in the Cariboo Mountains country of northeastern British Columbia. Illustrated with period photographs, the book uses the metaphor of a stage set to exhibit a frenetic cast of adventurers seeking riches. Reinforcing the theatrical motif are poems and prose poems about the Barkerville Dramatic Society, Martin "the World-Renowned Wonder-Creating Magician," concerts and minstrel performances, and dance hall girls. The effect is of a photograph album filled with vivid snapshots, and the focal figure is Billy Barker, the hard-drinking Cornish sailor who struck gold but died penniless in 1894: "someone mentioned that he almost made it into the twentieth century." Appropriately, Barkerville was produced as a stage play in Vancouver in 1987.

The documentary impulse also extends to poems, particularly in The Rim of the Park, that illustrate scenes from McNeil's own life. In her most substantial work, Ghost Towns, she returns to her childhood, but the book also includes "Old Movies," "Montgolfier's Balloon," "Lilienthal's Glider," and a poem on the English Channel crossing of Louis Blériot. Even when the personal "I" intervenes, she is the onlooker. In "The Extra," perhaps her best poem, she says, "I am half a Roman spectator / at the cardboard coliseum," and she asks,

is there a place (beyond the corner of the screen)
to utilize
my enduring inability
to be completed?

Although sometimes at the expense of the imagistic incisiveness that marked poems like "At a Poetry Convention" ("The moon shone with transparent purpose / cutting through the lean quarrels of ice"), McNeil in later work has moved toward more fluid diction and increased openness of form. The sense of historical wonder remains, however. Her collection Swimming out of History gathers poems from six previous books and adds new ones. In the title poem time and timelessness merge:

Only the clear wimple of water
my arms circling
like hands on a clock
that has no numerals
And time is now.

—Fraser Sutherland

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McNeil, Florence

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