Wednesday, January 16, 2008

12 or 20 questions: with Mari-Lou Rowley

Mari-Lou Rowley has published six collections of poetry, most recently CosmoSonnets (JackPine 2007) and Viral Suite (Anvil Press 2004), and her work has appeared in journals anthologies in Canada and the US. Rowley has performed her poetry across the continent, from Harbourfront to Hornby Island. She also appeared at Bumbershoot, Seattle’s annual arts extravaganza with musician and sound designer Roderick Shoolbraid, where they released the CD Cellular Logic. A science geek and avid star gazer, her favourite constellation is Orion. Her favourite cosmological phenomena are binary pulsars. In 2006 she moved to Saskatoon from Vancouver to be closer to the sky.

1 - How did your first book change your life?

I felt like a real poet after all, and the wait was worth it. But it was more than personal validation, it was a confirmation of the way poets see/feel/hear/ the world and that it is somehow essential to the human experience, and yet what we convey is much more than experiential.

2 - How long have you lived in Saskatoon, and how does geography, if at all, impact on your writing? Does race or gender make any impact on your work?

I moved back to Saskatoon just over two years ago, after 13 years in Vancouver, ten in Toronto and seven in Edmonton. I grew up in Saskatoon, so I was apprehensive about moving back at first, but I think it is easier to return to one’s roots when you’re doing what you want to do. For me, moving back here has been one of the most positive experiences in my life. I have always loved the prairie landscape, the space, sky, light. It is where I am most productive as a writer. Both of my last two books were drafted at writers/artists colonies in Saskatchewan. The writing community is very active, inclusive and generous. I do miss the rush of the city, cultural events, activities, green grocers, anonymity. To live in the prairies does mean a compromise. But it’s one I’m comfortable making at this time in my life. I have a house with a yard and garden only three minutes away from the wild rambling river valley of the South Saskatchewan. I never imagined that I would own my own home (notice the rhyme, repetition and assonance in that statement). I’ve never owned anything more expensive than a computer. Still don’t have a car. On my river walks I see eagles, otter, coyotes, deer, pelicans. There have been cougar sightings along the river. I've even seen bear scat, though no bear. I love living in a place where the weather is still a main topic of conversation because here there is a direct connection between weather, livelihoods and life. And the weather, insects, wild animals, and isolation can kill you if you’re not careful. "Nature" is still relevant, a phenomenon not an idea, not just something you watch on television. And here, on average, nature is more dangerous than humans. For me this is a comforting thought. It also necessitates a sense of community in the larger sense. All of these things nurture the muse for me. I suppose I’m a phenomenologist at heart. Maybe even a pantheist.

So far race and gender, although they are issues that have entered my work in subtle ways, have not been major themes in my work.

3 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?

I’ve become a serial poet. And idea or concept grabs me and won’t let go until the creative impulse is spent. It can be from four poems to a book-length work. I still write the occasional one-off poem, but I generally don’t find them as interesting, or as inspired.

4 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process?

Yes. Love them. What is the point of writing books and putting them on the shelf? I believe readings should be performative. They are where the poems are put to the test. Do they connect? Do they sing? Do they resonate?

5 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?

Right. I think the best way to answer this is to excerpt an abstract of a paper on Ecopoetics as Enactivist poetics that I presented recently in Toronto and will be presenting, in a mutated form, in Brussels this spring. Is the muse affected by climate change? Does poetry have any function in the current political—environmental debate? I really believe that a poet’s world and work is shaped by observation, physical experience, memory, and the environment (in) which she/he creates. Poets are by nature interdisciplinary. It is the poet’s job to make associations and juxtapositions—often disparate and provocative. I'm interested in the poet’s role as interpreter, witness and communicator, and the challenge for ecopoets to bridge the chasms between art, science, philosophy, and politics in order to help catalyze change. I’m not interested in writing in a vacuum.

So that's a major concern, bringing poetry back into the public/political arena. The other one is bridging the language–lyric chasm that has fractured the poetic community in Canada. I want the best of both, the cerebral challenge of language poetry and the visceral impact of lyric. Again, I think Alice Fulton's fabulous essay "Fractal Poetics" in her book Feeling as a Foreign Language is a must-read for all creative writing students and aspiring poets. As is Faking It: Poetics & Hybridity by Fred Wah.

6 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?

For me it is essential, and enlightening. I owe a debt of thanks to Paul Dutton, David Lee, Fred Wah, Michael Barnholden, Don MacKay, Di Brandt and others who have provided valuable feedback and insights into my work. I don’t always make all the changes suggested—an author's prerogative, I guess—but I consider every suggestion very seriously. That's how we grow as writers.

7 - After having published more than a couple of titles over the years, do you find the process of book-making harder or easier?

Easier, in a way. I have more confidence in my own poetic voice and I'm more inclined to try new things, although I’m always afraid of saying the same thing twice, or running out of things to say.

8 - When was the last time you ate a pear?

I dislike pears. But I had wonderful pear-fennel soup at Paul Dutton’s place last October.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?

I had a dream just after bp Nichol died. I had my first ms. out with Underwhich Editions and hadn't heard back from them. In the dream bp said "it's good but it needs polishing before it will shine." So I guess the best advice is spit and polish. Also Letters to a Young Poet by Rilke, and "Projective Verse" by Olson were really important for me as a developing writer.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to non-fiction)? What do you see as the appeal?

I don’t as a rule. I have no interest in writing fiction, at least not yet, although I have been writing more essays lately. But that is a very different experience. Since a lot of my time is spent writing freelance science and technical material for a living, writing poetry is a euphoric experience for me. When I have time to spend on creative work, I want to it to be the buzz of poetry.

11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?

It depends upon what freelance work is on my plate, and how much energy and time I have left over at the end of the day. So I tend to write in concentrated spurts, often at retreats. Once I am working on a project, it seems that the poems are already half written by the time they appear on the page. Not to say I don't research or revise, but for me the first draft of a poem comes relatively quickly. Prior to that I need lots of time for quiet and contemplation, for the poem to percolate.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?

I read—classics, obscure texts, philosophy, non-fiction on science and ecology, other poets, literary/cultural theory—in that order. If I'm on a retreat, I'll turn to dictionaries, lists, old notebooks to jog something. But the poems come when they come and I usually don't worry about it too much. I'm more interested in quality than quantity. Force-fed poems end up fatty and pale. I want lean, taught poetry that you need a knife, not a fork, to cut into.

13 - How does your most recent book compare to your previous work? How does it feel different?

In the past year I've been working on a manuscript called "Suicide Notes," which will be published by Anvil Press in Fall 2008. Unlike the poems in my last book, Viral Suite, which were inspired by concepts from my science writing, there is nothing premeditated about these poems. No concepts, no quotes, no interwoven texts to draw from. Just a kind of primal memory. They were written out of a sense of immediacy—rather like panic mixed with euphoria. And in relation to my last book, Suicide Notes is more visceral scream than intellectual interplay. Although I strive for a balance between the cerebral and visceral in my work, these poems are mostly entrails, drawn out with quick precision. This is the way the poems want to emerge. As if they were indeed written in haste, or delirium, before tightening the noose or firing the pistol or jumping off of the ledge.

14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?

Yes, yes, yes, and especially yes. I lived with visual artist Robert McNealy for eight years, and we recently collaborated on another book, CosmoSonnets, published by JackPine Press in Saskatoon. He was and still is one of the most important influences on my creative work.

Again, science has informed much of my work, as I've mentioned. It's difficult not to be inspired when you interview some of the top scientists in the country, or world for that matter, and write in depth about their work. I realized that their process and mine are very similar—the contemplation, research and serendipity that leads to discovery or art or poetry.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

Whew, that would be a truly unmanageable list. Perhaps I will just acknowledge who first inspired me and who is most inspiring me now. My early mentors were Anne Szumigalski, Christopher Dewdney, Paul Dutton, Anne Michaels, Steve McCaffery to name a few...

What I find inspiring right now is the work of Maturana and Varella, Robert Bringhurst's new book of essays The Tree of Meaning, anything by Tolstoy, Baudrillard, Plato's Timaeus, Stephen Hawking's God Created the Integers (what I can grasp of it), and anything by Cormac McCarthy. Poets I’m reading now include Nicole Brossard, Sheri Benning [see her 12 or 20 questions here], Christian Bök, Ilya Kaminsky. Poets I read regularly are Don McKay, Lisa Robertson, Ken Babstock, T.S. Eliot, Marina Tsvetayeva (Feinstein translations)… etc..

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?

See Machu Picchu. I had a recurring dream about the place before I actually saw a photograph. The dreams were amazing. The times I reached the top felt like I had reached Nirvana. I still have the dream, but now the place is commercialized, with tourist info and handicraft stalls along the path to the top. Hmm.

17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?

Mathematician or theoretical physicist. I would love to take remedial math classes and then attempt some university math courses. Math, trig and geometry were my best subjects in high school. When I was at Banff I met a young mathematician, Matt Baker, who was also a poet—a very good one at that—and he said he just didn’t write much poetry because of the demands of his profession. Perhaps it was just as well that I ended up a poet and not a scientist, I’m not sure I have the stamina or could stomach the politics, but I love the language of mathematics and the concepts of physics. I recently wrote a poem in the form of a mathematical formula. Of course now there are websites devoted to poetry and code. I love that.

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

You should really ask: What other occupations have you had in order to feed your writing habit? Cocktail waitress (what they called us in the 70s), cook’s helper on oil rigs, advertising and marketing executive, court reporter, arts administrator, temp. Whatever…

Actually, to answer your question, what inspired me to become a poet was Leonard Cohen’s Flowers for Hitler, which I stole from my high school library. It is still on my book shelf, and I still pick it up occasionally.

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?

No Country for Old Men. Ditto. Talk about banality of evil.

20 - What are you currently working on?

I’m finishing my manuscript Suicide Notes for Anvil, and also working on another manuscript loosely themed around cosmology.

1 comment:

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