Try Poetry: Emily & Elspeth + Catherine McNeil

Catherine McNeil provides insight as to why she chooses to not capitalize in her poems—how she places the words on the page by giving breath and space to the lines. Read this this musical approach below in McNeil’s poem ‘before leaving the west coast’ from the collection Emily & Elspeth (Caitlin Press).


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An Interview with Poet Catherine McNeil

ALU: When was the moment that you decided you wanted to write poetry? Describe it for our readers. Was it reading another poem? Was it listening to a poet read? Was it something different entirely?

Catherine McNeil: I grew up going to my Aunt Florence McNeil’s readings and receiving one of her poetry books every few years. I decided I wanted to be just like her and I took her poetry class at the University of British Columbia in grade 6, at which time I plagiarized another author’s writing because I did not think mine was good enough.

ALU: If you had to pitch your featured poem to someone who had never read poetry before, how would you do so? What kinds of things do you think the new-to-poetry reader might find fascinating about it? What could you share about the poem’s writing process?

Catherine McNeil: The form of poetry varies. I don’t use capitals other than for proper names. I pay attention to how I place the words on the page, like musical scores – giving breath and space to lines.

I use onamatopeia as in “oo la la” & “fa la la la la la.” I record what I write and listen to the musicality of the lines.

The use of alliteration like summerspill, someone, swallows the sky.

Also in poetry, one can take non-sensical leaps of the imaginations and explore philosophical ideas.

ALU: What’s a poetry collection or individual poem that you’d recommend to anyone looking to get into poetry?

Catherine McNeil: I would recommend Florence McNeil’s Swimming Out of History.

‘before leaving the west coast’

From Catherine McNeil’s collection Emily & Elspeth.

slipping away from herself   emily watches her body get up

salutes the sun  someone spies on her

has rented the suite across the street

emily picks up the coffee pot

pours  summerspill

through the window

someone has turned on the sun

frigate birds hitchhike

on BC ferries

the mountain    in prayer    swallows the sky

rose petals   dust   the heath


like wings   speed to the finish

writers are caught

in her mind

this is my home Emily

thinks   takes little bird notes   her hurried hand

cats wave  “oo la la” as she passes by  she sings to bones

“fa la la la la la la la”

eats what falls out of the sky

when closing her eyes

tears fall  ever since her car accident

she cuts the tears in half   puts them in a jar

there is always a staying before a leaving

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catherine mcneil is the author of under the influence (Bedazzled Ink) 2016 which won Milieu’s National Emerging Writers Competition. She has been widely published in literary magazines, including Event, Queer Chroma, Sinister Wisdom, and the Capilano Review, and in anthologies throughout Canada, the United States & England for the past thirty years. emily & elspeth came out with Dagger Editions in the fall of 2022. She lives in Halfmoon Bay, BC, with her dog, Gaia and her cat, Lavender. She is alsoa singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist; learn more about Catherine’s music at

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Thanks to Catherine McNeil for walking us through the very day she got into poetry, making a solid recommendation, and sharing ‘before leaving the west coast’ with us for Try Poetry (Why Not?).

Remember, if you purchase a copy of Emily & Elspeth or any of the other featured Try Poetry collections, you’ll receive a free digital sampler containing all of our featured poems. (Purchase from All Lit Up or from your local independent bookseller; send proof of payment to if you purchase from your local!)