Monday, October 18, 2021

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Mary Germaine

Mary Germaine is a poet, an educator, and a Ph.D. student at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton. Her poems have appeared in The Walrus Magazine, Riddle Fence, the ArtSci Effect, and Augur Magazine. She was the recipient of the Adam Penn Gilders Scholarship for Creative Writing from the University of Toronto and the Heaslip Award from Memorial University. Her special talents include finding lost items and having a face that reminds people of someone else they know. Her debut collection is Congratulations, Rhododendrons (Anansi, 2021).

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

Congratulations, Rhododendrons is my first book, and it’s launched me into the glitzy world of fame and fortune that the poetry industry is known for. So the big life change is I am writing to you now from a secluded mansion by the sea, as far from the relentless paparazzi as possible. And of course, the poems in Congrats are much different from my earlier, unpublished and unpublishable poems; they’re much higher quality, and they rhyme a lot more.

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

Leonard Cohen was my gateway drug. My parents would put The Future on at supper time and I just loved it, even if I didn’t totally understand. The insert of that CD was probably the first poetry I read and it definitely had an edge on The Babysitter’s Club, though I read every one of those books too.

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 am an Olympic deliberator, so it takes a long time to start a poem and then it’s slow-going until it’s finished. The final draft looks much like the first, but I’m a few hairs grayer.

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?

I start with a title or a first phrase, and then I lay one line after another until I get to the end. Then I go back and make sure everything fits right. I never know what’s going to happen in a poem (who does?) so it’s hard to imagine how the piece might serve a book’s overarching purpose. That said, I think my next book will probably be a planned book. I think so, anyway, because I have the title already in mind. 

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

I love giving readings, but I only read stuff that’s definitely done. I find going to readings more energizing, but they’re also hard. Mostly because I either feel I ought to be paying better attention to the poem than I am, or I get too into it. More often then not, I get all rowdy and I want to heckle (nice heckles, but ill-timed praise is not polite) so I must be stern with myself (Mary. Do not. Heckle) and that gets me quite sweaty. Also there has never been anywhere to put your coat at these things. I might be the only person who actually likes the covid-times zoom readings. It’s such a relief to mute myself.

Fiction readings are quite different, because I have no critical faculty for fiction, so at a fiction reading I can just stand in the way and enjoy listening.

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?

Yes, lots of theoretical questions and concerns. I have the mind and wardrobe of a nineteen-year-old Nietzschean. Where’s the meaning of life? What is art? How do you know if somebody’s in love with you? It’s a constant internal whine. And so gentle readers might notice I never answer anything in a poem. And then there are all the meta and half-practical questions about poem writing. How does one write a poem worthy of its subject matter? What can poetry do during a race riot? As a whitey-white, how do I make space with my work for systematically silenced voices? Such are the musings of a black turtleneck who doesn’t have a goatee because I can’t grow one.

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?

In my mind, the poet’s democratic responsibilities are thus: “To endeavour to produce or enlarge the perception of beauty” to quote our favourite soft-feudalist William Wordsworth. I think we have to speak honestly. To pay attention to everything (and isn’t that so relaxing? Knowing that the poets are supervising the moon? You can go on your break now.) To nibble the cheese right down to the rind, and then eat the rind. To stand at one extreme of tenderness, in order to give a definition of the parameters.

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

I don’t think it’s essential for me, nor is it a trial. Each time I’ve worked with an editor has been a total boon.

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

A few years ago, at a seminar for writing keeners at U of T, Spencer Gordon told us that if any part of the poetry business wasn’t fun for us, then we shouldn’t bother with it. I don’t mean he told a room of shiny faces to quit writing, and actually, I’m think I might be badly paraphrasing here. But the gist I got was this: if writing/editing/reviewing/going to readings etc isn’t fun for you, go do something easier or less financially draining. Which was great advice. Very freeing. I work better knowing that actually, nothing hangs in the balance because of a poem. I would make a terrible surgeon.

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

A routine! It is the true philosopher’s stone, the key to richer, more productive life, better skin, sweeter dreams. I wish I had one. I long for a day that requires no planning. That would be such a sweet freedom. The perfect routine.

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

I regularly decide I actually hate poetry it’s a boring, stupid waste of words. So then I need to be re-seduced. There isn’t a list of authors or books I return to; my trick is to go cruising and see what catches my attention. Usually new poems—the saucier, the better—and a random variety. I like to feel like I’m discovering something. I scroll through a magazine or go down to the bookstore. Even when I hate poetry I love buying stuff.

12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

Lovage. Which is funny because think of all the places that lovage grows which are not home to me. And some of which I’ve never even seen!

13 - 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?

One of the main reasons I write is that I never got good at drawing, so yes, visuals are important to me. Much of my work could be broadly construed as ekphrasis, a way of out-telling a picture. I don’t think of nature as a form, but I do write about it. Nature is the pre-condition and one of the main problems for Congratulations, Rhododendrons.

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

Number one most important writer is definitely God, who penned the greatest story ever told. Number seven is and number eight is Donne. I try to keep the rest of my influences under my hat and people can sniff them out if they like.

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

One day I would love to finish last week’s New Yorker before this week’s arrives.

16 - 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?

Professional miniaturist is my dream job, but that’s a very, very competitive occupation. My realistic plan B has always been law school.

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

Writing is cheaper to practice than pretty much any other art form—you don’t have to shell out for a rehearsal space or trombone lessons. It’s nice to have a moleskin but you don’t need one. And so before I could afford creamy pages and felt tips, I had a library card and scrap paper. What else could I have done with that? 

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

Dionne Brand’s The Blue Clerk has been a gift that keeps on giving new depths. DM me if you want to talk about this book—I’m down to talk. The relationship between writing and freedom has been of primary concern for me lately, and Brand thinks it through so beautifully, so intelligently and ruthlessly.

And A Fish Called Wanda is the last movie I saw. That was a pretty good time.

19 - What are you currently working on?

I’m doing an extended study on the activities and personae of the Coleman’s parking lot, which is across the street from my mansion hideout.

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

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