A short interview with Marilyn Irwin

Marilyn Irwin : photo credit: John W. MacDonald
Marilyn Irwin : photo credit: John W. MacDonald

Marilyn Irwin’s poetry has been published by above/ground pressArc Poetry Magazine and Bywords and has or will appear in ottawaterThe Peter F. Yacht ClubNew American Writing, and Matrix Magazine, as well as the anthology Ground rules: the best of the second decade of above/ground press 2003-2013 (Chaudiere Books, 2013). The winner of the 2013 Diana Brebner Prize, her fourth and most recent chapbook is tiny (In/Words Press). A fifth chapbook is imminent. She lives with her two cats in Ottawa.

Q: Your poems are often very small, focusing on density over length. What is it about the form that appeals, and who have been your models?

A: I gravitate towards shorter poems because, as writer and as reader, I often find it all too easy to get lost in the details. Some poets excel at pages of flowery description and are meanwhile able to sustain some sort of narrative. I find this approach onerous and unnatural but fun to experiment with. I find smaller pieces with succinct lines much more instinctual and poignant and am drawn to them as both writer and reader. I think it would be hard to say who has been a model for my work, implying copyright infringement and a good memory – neither of which I’m capable. I do think there’s a wonderful subconscious process that happens with all life experiences with creative folk, so I think it fair to say I probably carry a bit of inspiration from everyone I’ve ever read and heard read. To name two poets whose smaller poems sustain my interest and joy with poetry: Mary Ruefle and Richard Brautigan.

Q: That’s an interesting pairing: Ruefle and Brautigan. What is it specifically about their works that have influenced the ways in which you write? I would argue that one element the three of you share is a precision (even through Brautigan’s flowery surrealism).

A: I’m not sure there’s a causation effect here as I’ve only just discovered both in the past year or two but I admire what I’ve read by both Ruefle andBrautigan and Nelson Ball and Bill Hawkins, etc., etc., in terms of the often used minimalist bent and the sort of mystical quality to their packages of work. All have this really engaging, wandering sense to their pieces and seem to (have) borrow(ed) from the stream of consciousness vein but their work is not so easily boxed. I am drawn to the empty spaces and under spaces of poetry. They seem to recognize the importance of both what is and isn’t being said on a page. There’s a zen-like quality to poetry when you can ponder the ins and outs of four lines for days and weeks and so on versus a longer piece with more action and imagery which can, at times, be overwhelming and excessive and disengaging. That being said, they’ve all written longer pieces in and outside “poetry” which I find very organically expands on the zen-like quality of their smaller pieces and which I love no less. I suppose I write what I like. Objectivity is challenging when reviewing one’s own work. If I’ve reflected any of the above-noted admirations into my own work, I’d be very glad to know it.

Q: Is the zen-like quality you mention something you strive for in your own work?

A: Absolutely. Even (or maybe especially) in my most chaotic or emotionally driven pieces. That meditative quality often helps me to be objective about my work. It’s also often the feeling with which I begin a poem and can be what helps propel it forward.

Q: I’m curious: how do you feel your writing has evolved over the past five years, from the time you published for when you pick daisies to your current work? Where do you see your work headed?

A: I think my writing has taken some unexpected turns in the past couple of years which has been both invigorating and daunting. I’ve not only written things out of my comfort zone but have seen some of them published. My last chapbook, tiny, had the look and feel of a long poem but could also be read as a string of those more familiar, smaller stanzas. There’s also an increased element of personal disclosure or confession in my work. I think it’s just relative to the evolution of me as a person. The longer I live, the less patience I have for disingenuity. I’m currently working on my fifth chapbook and find I’m cycling through similar anxiety-producing questions. For anyone who creates, there is always this internal struggle between not giving a damn how your work is received while hoping your work at least speaks to someone (or your future self) to help justify the act of pouring your time and energy and interest into creating your art. It’s an uncomfortable dichotomy. Art doesn’t need justification.

Q: You say that you’ve been writing lately outside of your “comfort zone.” In what ways do you feel you have, and what, precisely, has caused the shift or shifts?

A: Though I’ve always written from a very personal place, I don’t think I wrote as candidly as I seem to these days. I think I’m less intimidated by length. I think there’s room for experimentation without loss or sacrifice. I think I’m getting better at saving poems without revising the meaning out of them. I think, as people grow/change/evolve, so does the art they create. Change is necessary and unavoidable. It’s what keeps us alive and interested as humans, as poets, as readers, as audience. Best to go with it.

Q: You’re fairly active in the Ottawa literary community, and have been for a few years now. What do you feel you’ve gained as a writer through being part of such a community, and what/who have been your personal highlights?

A: I’m very fortunate to be a poet living in Ottawa in 2015. Since my arrival in 2007, I’ve been witness to the birth and have become an admirer of many amazing entities like The AB Reading Series and VERSefest and Apt. 9 Press and, more recently, The Sawdust Reading Series and Hurtin’ Crüe Press. If staples of the poetry community such as The Tree Reading Series and The Factory Reading Series and the ottawa small press book fair and Writersfestand the Plan 99 Reading Series and the In/Words gang and Bywords didn’t call Ottawa home, I assure you I would not be the person or poet I am today. It’s through the folks who run these things and attend these things that I have met my peers, my friends, my idols and (now) exes. It’s through these networks that I’ve been given chances to stand on countless stages and platforms and say words at people: poetry, an essay, a workshop; it’s all been uniquely terrifying and rewarding. The most recent highlight was sharing the stage with jwcurry at a recent VERSefest Volunteer Appreciation event as we read some sound poetry pieces of his together. Another highlight was quietly starting a broadside micropress last year. I’ve self-published two of my chapbooks and really love the love required to hand stitch poetry. Poetry workshops with rob mclennan (hey, that’s you and thanks, again!). Winning Arc Poetry Magazine’s Diana Brebner Prize still seems a surreal experience from 2013. Having been voted by Tree as a “Hot Ottawa Voice” last year. Watching Mary Ruefle do her piece entitled “Fitted sheet” at last year’s VERSefest. Spending an evening with Alan Doyle as part of Writersfest last year as he talked about growing up on the east coast. Sitting hip to hip in the packed basement of the Clocktower for the monthly In/Words reading. Ian Keteku and Brad Morden tearing down the house the first year of VERSefest. Every Capital Slam experience at the Mercury Lounge. Where to stop? Grateful for it all.

Q: jwcurry has been developing quite a reputation in Ottawa as a mentor, collaborator and influence. How was it performing sound poetry with him? Is sound poetry something that you’d been interested in doing prior to his invitation to co-perform, and how does it play off your own work, if at all?

A: It was a neat and fun experience – especially to read pieces curry had written – but terrifying because, to the untrained eyes and ears, you’re just standing in front of a bunch of people making weird sounds at them. There is a musical quality to much poetry, including some of my own pieces, so it’s not so difficult a feat if you can recognize and build on that concept. If we hadn’t been scheduled to feature at that event together, I wouldn’t have co-suggested we attempt. curry has suggested collaboration before and since and while I’m grateful for the opportunity and experience, I still need to formulate some more thoughts on the whole sound poetry performance thing...but it’s always a treat to hear “the band” (Messagio Galore, etc.) do their thing.