Friday, October 15, 2010

12 or 20 questions: with Marilyn Irwin

A graduate of the winter 2010 edition of rob mclennan's seasonal poetry workshops and forthcoming graduate of Algonquin's Creative Writing program, Marilyn Irwin [photo by John W. MacDonald] can be seen (mostly) and heard (less) in and around the multi-faceted poetry scene of Ottawa, with work appearing in ottawater and Bywords, and recently, above/ground press reissued her little self-published chapbook, for when you pick daisies (2010).
1 - How did your first chapbook change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
As my self-published chapbook (for when you pick daisies) just hit the book table in July of this year and the above/ground re-issue- August, I don’t yet know fully how it will change my life. Up to now, though, I think it has given me a concrete glimpse into the life of a writer and, admittedly, I like what I’ve seen. Self-publishing was an adventure unto its own and the desire to repeat the process is lingering, for sure. Because of the small batch made, the re-issue brought exposure to a wider audience which can only be a good thing.
My most recent work seems to be a reflection of the honing of the style I’ve been writing in, in recent years. I almost always write in free verse although I do dabble in westernized Haiku. I used to write a lot of ballads when I first started out but, since taking up the guitar, and having read more modern and experimental poetry in recent years, I feel the ballads a bit grey for the wide spectrum of possibility within poetry.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
Growing up, I wasn’t surrounded by much poetry other than your standard nursery rhymes, The Cremation of Sam McGee and the like. I reserved writing for short stories but could never persevere. When I discovered poetry in high school, a light turned on or a door shut or a butterfly flew and I haven’t strayed since.
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?
I’ve never timed myself but it can take anywhere from the listening length of a song to an album or two, depending on what I’m attempting to do and what the piece demands.
I usually write when I have an idea; a word, a phrase, a concept that distracts me from whatever I might be doing at the time and then revisit and work through it later that day when I do have time to give it the attention it deserves.
Depending on the piece, one draft may be all that seems necessary where another may be more jumbley on the way out and requires a bit more love, often carrying only a single concept or word from its original form. I always write by hand and, so, some drafts might seem unbearably illegible to some but, at times, the messiness is inherent to the creative process.
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?
When I write a poem, I don’t consciously set out with a beginning, a middle part and an ending; I sketch down, up and sideways until an image appears and then smudge until the image becomes recognizable and congruous.
I never set out to write a collective to string them as a whole as I feel they are whole, individually. That being said, it was tremendous fun pushing them all together to form a different kind of meaning in my chapbook and that thought now follows me around.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I’m generally conflicted between my nervosity towards public speaking and my strong desire to share my work and hear how it sounds aloud, experience how it’s received. I find it a very useful tool in the editing stages of the creative process and find reading my work aloud much easier once the objective of each poem and, subsequently, each reading becomes clear in my mind.
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?
As a living, breathing organism constantly in flux, adapting to change within me and my surroundings; I, too, am constantly in flux within my work; seeking the boundaries of words (and wordplay) and the way they fit together to form meaning. Not all would agree all poetry has to have meaning and they’re probably right: art can be art for the sake of being art, but I purposefully inject a healthy dose of subtext in everything I do in the hopes that a question or an answer lies between the lines of my work for someone, somewhere.
I think I raise as many questions as I provide answers to questions yet asked.
I think the current questions are the same as the archived questions with modern wording. One might question: why are we still posing them?
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?
Like any artist, the role of the writer, aware or not, is to provide insight or bring a sense of understanding of the reader’s surroundings, their darkest fears, their loveliest highs and everything in between. The writer, aware or not, is here to make sense out of things that often have no sense at all, through simple sense, non-sense and any other sense capable of being described and portrayed through the use of words.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I’ve not had the pleasure/adventure but imagine it would be fun and useful- as it has been in workshopping, to gain some objectivity on my work (always a good and valuable thing!).
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Write. Just write.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to songwriting)? What do you see as the difference?
I don’t know if it’s a question of ease that dictates if one feels successful at one genre or medium over another but I do seem to perceive when a piece requires music and when it’s this fully-clothed body unto its own. With writing music, the words generally come after the chording, so it’s never really been a question or of any inconvenience.
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?
Typically, I wake up too early and work my 9-5, so my time for writing is limited to lunch time, after work and, depending, during or after school. I carry writing tools and a notebook on me at all times and this truly makes the difference between writing down a fleeting thought and forgetting about it. I also keep pen and paper by my bedside which has proved valuable for those bed-time clearing-of-the-mind-thoughts and those waking-up-at-3 am-for-no-reason-thoughts. For fun, I keep small, random scraps of ideas in a candy jar if I ever feel the need to write but haven’t a single thought in my head (although, I’ve only ever added to it).
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
If I’m stuck, I tend to take pause from the work itself and whatever else I’m doing at the time. Sometimes, getting up to wash the dishes helps take away the sensory overload my mind is experiencing to sort out a line. Others, a good night’s sleep or, others still; a change in soundtrack or a flip through a thesaurus can be the key.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Lilacs. Freshly combined fields.
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?
Most definitely; anything that has someone else’s imprint of creativity and sounds appealing to my ears, catches my eyes, rolls over tongue; I consider an influence. It’s hard to separate and label everything that my mind processes and filters in a day but it could be as simple as a ray of sun peeking through the yellow and brown leaves of the tree in my backyard and speckling onto my arm as I type this response to the sounds of Radiohead wailing in the background, after having read your blog and glancing at photos of steampunk art.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
The vibrant multitude of writers and readers and artists in Ottawa plays a heavy role in this seemingly one-act play. I believe no writer stands alone in the things s/he brings to the stage or the page and no civilian is complete without being exposed to the things these gracious and talented people do and offer; some, daily. In no particular order, current and livewire writers such as one notorious rob mclennan, the bright and descriptive Frances Boyle, the word-twirling Christine McNair, the word-smithing Pearl Pirie, the word-throttling Marcus McCann, the elusive Joe Blades, the rural treasure-trove that is Phil Hall, the endearing, echoing Cameron Anstee (and the list does go on) have all had an impact on the various perspectives I carry with me and bring to my writing, whether conscious or otherwise. The same goes for the perhaps more notorious Robert Service, E. A. Poe, P. K. Page, Kerouac, cummings, and on. If these elements or foresights are in my writing, it means, by extension, they’ve become a part of my life outside of my work and, for that, I am ever-grateful, ever-enriched. Like a good and sifted flour.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
In terms of printed word, I think I have much more to learn and accomplish. A lot more. I would like to more closely explore the art of self-publishing and its various offerings; I’d like to have enough poetry to fill a real, live trade book; I’d like to write more fiction and non-fiction in varying lengths and styles and forms;
Aside from that, I’d like to keep on experiencing this vast and misunderstood thing we call life and all that entails. Spaceship Captain, Inventor, and organic vegetable farmer are all viable, future titles, some kidding aside.
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?
As it is, I do not write full-time (gosh, that would be great!), and currently work for a local not-for-profit organization while schooling in the evening towards becoming a Library and/or Information Technician. If I had to throw that list in the recycling bin, though, I’d probably become an organic vegetable farmer, some kidding aside.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
The written word and the understanding of it made me write. I’ve always written (with | intermittent | pauses). Reading, hearing good writing, and that little voice inside my head that tells me to write keep me writing.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I’ve been digesting a lot of smaller stuff one wouldn’t necessarily classify as “book”, with an even taller pile at the ready. I had an aversion for the longest time towards “classics” but finally bit the bullet and read some, like 1984 and Jonathan Livingston Seagull in recent months and was forced to re-evaluate some things- always a good thing. I suppose “The Best of Robert Service” would count as a book and, so, that might be the end of the beginning of this answer. As for the last great film I saw..whatever it was, it was probably something amazing, profound or extremely interesting on the National Film Board of Canada’s website (
20 - What are you currently working on?
I’m currently working on writing more. Period. I’m interested in the weight of mini-short (short-short?) fiction/non-fiction as a direct result of the wonderful things Sheila Heti (and others) have graced pages with. Perhaps another chappy might surface as a result of all this and that but, for the immediate future, writing more- period, is the most foreseeable and attainable goal. Period.

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