Monday, July 06, 2009

12 or 20 questions: with Mary Pinkoski

[photo credit to Randall Edwards] Mary Pinkoski is a spoken word poet from Edmonton and the winner of the 2008 National CBC Poetry Faceoff. Her writing has been called dynamic and visceral. Mary has presented her unique style of spoken word both nationally and internationally. In addition to her live performances, Mary's work has been played on CBC Radio One's Radio Active and the Key of A, as well as Philadelphia's Spotlight on Jazz and Poetry. Mary's first chapbook, Set List: poems for lonely microphones, was published by red nettle press.

1 - How did your first chapbook change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?

With my first chapbook, I moved from doing, almost exclusively, performance poetry into a written form. On the one hand, having my work in print form seemed validate it in some sense; however, on the other hand, it also presented my work in a new and somewhat unfamiliar format. This, I think, allowed me to consider other possibilities for my writing. Therefore, my most recent work now often explores the tension and the potential negotiations/possibilities between performance poetry and ‘for-the-page’ poetry.

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?

My friend told me to answer this question, with one word: Proust. However, I don’t trust myself to a brevity (or understanding of Proust) like this.

Poetry has always come easiest to me. My thoughts come in patchwork segments that seem to best fit into poems. I always seem to have trouble holding a narrative line for more than a few pages, which does not lend itself readily to fiction.

Unfortunately - or perhaps fortunately – because I have had a relatively long academic career and now work in communications, non-fiction writing seems too much like work or something that needs to be graded for me to engage in it with any amount of seriousness.

3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?

A poem sits in my head for an indeterminate amount of time. Lines get worked around and tossed around in that space for a long time before they ever hit the page. I think that I use this mental space to get used to a line, to become familiar with it, and to gain a confidence in my ideas. (This notion of ‘thinking my poem,’ I believe, keeps me from taking notes.) After this, my poems come out on the page often close to their final shape. However, revision still occurs.

4 - 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?

Every poem begins with an idea.

I think that because so much of my poetry is written as spoken word, writing for a larger project or with the idea of working on book seems foreign to me. Nevertheless, what I sometimes do have in mind when I work on poems is how they will fit into a larger performance set.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?

Public readings are integral to the majority of the poems I write. When I work in a spoken word genre, I am always considering the public performance as the end result. I write with the intention of performing. That being said, I am the polar opposite when I write ‘for-the-page’ poetry. The idea of public readings seems counter to what I am doing. Recently, I wrote a poem a day for National Poetry Month and was posting them unedited on my blog. Even this public display was almost too much for me.

Despite readings being integral to most of my poems, I don’t really enjoy readings (or poetry slams, which I often do). I am inherently introverted and every time I read it takes a huge leap in personality to put myself in front of people, but I continue to do it because I believe it is important.

6 - 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?

The broadest theoretical concern behind my writing, which I deal with, is accessibility. I want my poetry to be accessible. I try to work in realms that are easily understood, which means my poetry often shifts towards personal narrative.

Further, because my poetry is often intensely personal, I find myself trying to negotiate the relationship between narrating the personal, but also making it universal.

7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?

I want to move away from the idea of ‘a larger culture’ in my answer to this question. I think that we move within ‘cultures’ and writers have roles within in these. I think the biggest role of a writer is meaning-maker. A writer contributes to create another layer of meaning to a culture, a layer that is both crucial and diverse in its presentation. I think that this is important because it moves people through levels of understanding. For instance, to use an example, at the inauguration of Barack Obama having poet Elizabeth Alexander read and hearing Aretha Franklin sing and the quartet of Yo-Yo Ma, Itzhak Perlman, Gabriela Montero, and Anthony McGill play added a different layers of meaning to the event which may not have existed without their respective performances. I don’t think writers are meant to change the world, but I think they can explain it in a way that may help others to change it.

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

Writing is mostly done in isolation for me – a lonely affair - so when I get the opportunity to have my work examined by an outside source, I find it relieving. I enjoy the process because it helps to not only make my writing better, but it also makes it something new.

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

To leave a light on in the house at night, so you will know if the power has gone out//Keep a quarter (Aspirin) between your knees, so a boy won’t go too far with you//Wear clean underwear, in case of a car accident//When soaking seeds over night for planting, don’t plant the ones that float to the top.

Or, it was once said to me that I should never doubt my words and their power; to believe in them with an unrelenting passion.

Also, I read an interview once in the Guardian called ‘Why I Write’ with Markus Zusak, author of The Book Thief, and he was asked what makes him write. To this he answered: “To me the question is always this: if a ray of light came out of the sky and said, "Your next book will never be published - would you still write it?" If the answer is yes, the book is worth writing.” This is a concept I like to employ.

10 - How easy has it been for you to shift between forms, from page to more performative works? What do you see as the appeal?

I find the shift between forms tricky, if I think consciously about it. However, I often find that different poems lend themselves more readily to one form or the other. For me, the less personally intimate the poem – and the more universal the images – the easier it is to perform it.

The appeal of shifting back and forth between forms lies in the opportunity it allows me to play with and challenge definitions of poetry, as well as stretching me, personally, as a writer.

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?

I stray from routine. I am a poor committer. However, I have just recently come to realize the potential and the benefits of routine when I was doing my poem of the day. Yet, my writing still exists around other things.

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

I turn to the world; to music; to movies; to television; to other poets; to a stolen phrase captured from a conversation; to a place in my mind/heart that I don’t want to go; to love.

13 - What do you really want?

Wow! Well, to answer in list:

1. As Sandra Bullock phrased it so eloquently in Miss Congeniality, I would like: “harsher punishment for parole violators [...] and world peace.”

2. A pony.

3. A hamburger phone.

4. Love.

5. peace.

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?

I think everything influences my work. My work breathes personal experience and I don’t/cannot exist outside of everything that I am exposed to, neither does my work.

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

This, changes daily. I am always being influenced by what I read. However there have been a few steady influences in my writing from writers who have encouraged me and inspired me through their own works.

The constant support and mentoring from Edmonton novelist Thomas Trofimuk has been instrumental in my continued development as a writer. His patience and encouragement has often propelled me forward as a writer.

Toronto-based writer Zoe Whittall’s encouragement many years ago is what first made me believe that I could be a writer, and ignited the possibility that I could actually see myself as a writer. Zoe’s writing continues to inspire me.

Finally my work as a performance poet has been encouraged by many including Calgary poet Sheri-D Wilson and Edmonton poet TL Cowan. Also American spoken word/slam poet Jack McCarthy has been fundamental in helping me believe in my work and the need to showcase it.
I feel very blessed to be surrounded by these mentors.

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

Accomplish world domination peace. Own a pony. Talk on a hamburger phone. Or work seriously on a manuscript that is suitable for publication.

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?

Is day dreamer an occupation? I would like to try that.

If I didn’t work in communications during the day, I would love to devote myself full-time to writing. And, if devoting myself full-time to writing was not feasible, I would like to work as an historical interpreter at a museum, which basically brings us full circle back to being a day dreamer.

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

Writing came naturally to me. I am terrible at math – which eliminates all the sciences – and I have a poor sense of rhythm, so music and dancing were out when I turned to the arts, and drawing was feasible. Once I thought I might be a pool shark or backroom gambler, but I never seem to have the spare change to get very far in this regard.

I see writing as an extension of how I communicate. It is as much as necessity as talking. It seems inherently part of me and what I was meant to do. Of course, I have had some fantastic encouragement along the way which has propelled me forward (and makes the task easier).

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

I have been touting The Book Thief, Markus Zusak, as the last great book I have read. I recommend it to everyone and force it onto those who I care deeply about.

I tend to navigate to the old films when I look for greatness. I recently re-watched Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, which I love for its optimism and its use of the word ‘filibuster.’

20 - What are you currently working on?

I am working on a number of projects. Most immediately, I am working on a second chapbook of spoken work poems. I am toying with the idea of creating a spoken word CD. I am also working seriously on preparing a manuscript of ‘for-the-page’ poetry.

I have 2 incomplete novels kicking around, but I don’t give them the attention they deserve.

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