Monday, February 09, 2015

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Maurice Mierau

Maurice Mierau’s [photo credit: Merrell-Ann Phare] latest book, Detachment: An Adoption Memoir, was published by Freehand in September; you can watch a video trailer for the book here. He is also the author of several books of poetry, including Fear Not, which won the ReLit Award in 2009. Born in Indiana, Maurice grew up in Nigeria, Manitoba, Jamaica, Kansas, and Saskatchewan. He now lives in Winnipeg.

1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
Your first book is always the most exciting to you because when it comes out you’re a book-virgin. I remember in 2002, driving to a warehouse on the edge of the city with my wife to pick up the first copies of Ending with Music, since the courier missed me during the work day. And yes, I held the book, smelled it, and just abased myself before the  tangible reality of its bookness. But that book did not change my life. Like most first-time authors I believed, naively, that it would. But then when you get out of your home town (Winnipeg, in my case), you realize that some people, especially poets you admire, have actually read your book, and that is a thrill.

My most recent book, Detachment, came out this fall. It is different in genre from my last one, Fear Not (Turnstone, 2008), which was a collection of poems organized as an elaborate parody of the 50 or so self-help topics and their associated verses in the Gideon Bible; the book uses King James language and a lot of traditional forms as a poetic carousel. Some of the themes of these two books do overlap: I was interested in my father’s traumatic, World War II childhood in Fear Not, and there’s a poem called “Alone” which is about that subject. Then in Detachment I revisit the same material in narrative form, moving from the adoption of my sons in Ukraine, and flashing back to my father’s flight from Soviet Ukraine in 1943.

Other than the obvious difference, i.e. working in book-length narrative form instead of the short poetic forms in Fear Not, the other big difference has been the public reception of this new book. Because of the subject matter, there has been media attention across the country, and a lot of strangers and non-poets have contacted me, often to tell their own intimate stories about adoption or war trauma. Since I think every reader (and perhaps especially every poet) dreams of having an audience, this has been a wonderful experience, for the most part (I blogged about it recently for the National Post here:

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I started writing poems—extremely bad ones—in my teens, thanks to a remarkable high school English teacher in Herbert, Saskatchewan, named Alida Noble. Poetry is the genre that comes to me most naturally; my mind seems to work most easily in that form. I’ve got a new book coming out next year with Palimpsest Press, which will be my third book of poems, so it is also the genre I’ve published in the most.

However, I have always loved fiction and also memoir, and in fact studied the Victorian novel as my MA thesis years ago. And I’ve edited more than a dozen fiction titles for Enfield & Wizenty, plus I’ve edited an on-line journal of reviews of Canadian fiction called The Winnipeg Review for three years now. But I’ve published and written only a tiny amount of fiction.

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?
Although I’ve always been able to write quickly and fluidly to deadline for magazines and newspapers, my own book projects have been embarrassingly slow. First drafts are often drastically different from their final shape, and my work does come out of copious notes, often in the form of journal entries, scraps of paper, half-lost files on my laptop, etc. I’ve tried to solve this problem with technology and have so far failed completely, but the effort continues.

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?
A poem often begins with a fragment in my mind that I scribble on something or remember, usually because it sounds peculiar or striking. I tend to work on larger projects and then plug current fragments and drafts into that structure, so in that sense I’m always working on a book. That was perhaps more true of Fear Not than anything else I’ve written, but I’m a child of the concept album era, for better or whatever.

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 absolutely part of my creative process. I love doing them, and until someone contradicts me out loud will claim to be good in front of an audience, whether reading my poems or the new memoir. As with many Canadian poets, readings are one of the few places where people will actually buy my books, but just as important, they give me a sense of what resonates with an audience: for that reason I like to read new poems in front of an audience to see if I’m on the right track. Live feedback doesn’t always tell you what the best poem is, but it gives you an emotional connection you can never have alone in your study. It’s nothing like a Hollywood focus group, but it does give you some intuitive sense of what is working.

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?
When I was much younger I thought theoretical questions were fascinating, maybe because I wanted people to think of me as smart. Now that I don’t give much of a fuck about impressing others with my intelligence, since it has such obvious limitations, those concerns have been replaced by an abiding analytical obsession with craft that supersedes any so-called “theory”.

The questions in my work are not new. I think the American poet Franz Wright sums them up: “Why/ are we here?/ Is there anything to eat?/ Where are our dead friends?”

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?
Unfortunately the role of the writer in North American society is diminished, for many reasons: our society’s only shared value is the accumulation of wealth, the school system focuses on producing consumers rather than citizens or even workers, the book industry is in a state of crisis, etc.

But I’m old fashioned, and believe that writers have a role in society as public intellectuals, which these days means getting on-line, engaging with younger audiences, and working with the media to talk about our books, even when that is an uncomfortable experience. It also means working with younger writers in developmental roles such as editing, mentorship, and teaching.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
It’s essential. Productive writers learn to self-edit up to a point, and then you need a professional editor. An editor should never be your employee, so that they have some authority; still, when dealing with you as a writer they must wield their power using tact and grace. Barbara Scott edited my book for Freehand and she was a marvel of intelligence, tact, and hardheaded determination to improve my book. Thank god for editors like her, they shall inherit the earth.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Stop whining. Frequently said to me by my parents and later by my wife. Have never fully taken this advice.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to non-fiction)? What do you see as the appeal?
It was hard. I could function well at the level of the scene, but I struggled to create a narrative arc, and sustain tension even within scenes. My observational skills and ability to do research were already in the toolkit from writing poems, and I could make phrases, but I had to work hard at the storytelling. The appeal? Connecting with more readers.

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?
When I’m working on a project I like to write early in the morning before my conscious mind begins editing and undermining my confidence. Currently days begin with me supervising children, so I write at all different times.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I return to the books I love to read, sometimes new ones like Ben Lerner’s. See below for a list.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Bacon frying on the pan; Sunday morning brunch.

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?

Music more than anything else. I love jazz, and hack away at an upright bass with little skill. For years before that I hacked away at guitars. In Detachment I describe seeing Il Trovatore with my son Peter; I love opera, but also trad country, including Wilf Carter, and it is partly the structure and storytelling involved in these art forms. Plus they make me cry.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Some dead writers: Emily Dickinson, Poetic Meter and Poetic Form by Paul Fussell, Walt Whitman, John Berryman, Charles Dickens, Sylvia Plath, Robert Kroetsch’s essays and poems, George Johnston, Milton, Laurence Sterne, many dead Russians.

Some Canucks: Michael Crummey, P.K. Page, Patrick Friesen, Steven Heighton, Amanda Jernigan, Jason Guriel and all his works, Elise Partridge, Barbara Nickel, David O’Meara, Marc di Saverio, Jim Johnstone, Elizabeth Bachinsky, Mordecai Richler, David Bergen, Joan Thomas, Shane Neilson.

Some Yanks: Frederick Seidel, Sharon Olds, Kay Ryan, Gary Shteyngart, Jonathan Franzen, David Shields, Patricia Lockwood.

From the former empire: Don Paterson, Carol Ann Duffy, Simon Armitage, the younger Martin Amis, Zadie Smith and all her works.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Write a novel, or something that was hard to classify but resembled a novel in the somewhat chaotic sense the word had in the eighteenth century. Get my lost childhood German up to a literate level.

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?
If I’d had the talent, I would have been a musician. I wanted to be an electrical engineer in high school, and might have done that if not for an algebra and physics teacher, rightly named “Dick”, who really put me off those subjects; but I wasn’t going to be good at math anyway. Without the impulse to write, I might have become a lawyer.

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
The greatest form of pleasure I’ve ever experienced is reading books, and that includes sex, food, and all the other good stuff we do with our bodies. As a writer, I want to create for other people the deep pleasure of reading something compelling. This is a quixotic mission, but it’s mine.

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Karl Ove Knausgaard’s first “autobiographical novel,” which is really a memoir, A Death in the Family. Even though everyone is right and he can numb you with boredom, he can also rivet you with beauty and feeling too, so you just have to skim a little. The Norwegian landscapes sometimes reminded me of Canada. And the alcoholic relatives too.

Madmen season 7 is better than many movies, and also many novels. Just watching the first half on DVD this week.

20 - What are you currently working on?
I just finished editing a new book of poems called Autobiographical Fictions, out this fall with Palimpsest. It was truly a pleasure working with the editor, Jim Johnstone, who is also a fine poet.

A monograph on the work of Patrick Friesen commissioned by Frog Hollow Press in Victoria. Patrick was an early mentor of mine, and he’s one of those western poets who gets overlooked in Canada, where reputations are often determined in Toronto without much reference to the actual work.

I also want to write a book about an uncle who was in the SS in World War II. Not sure what form this story will take yet—maybe something hybrid, maybe something of a composite of him and several other relatives who had rich, sometimes horrifying experiences. Have notes, fragments, images.

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

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