Saturday, May 18, 2024

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Melanie Marttila

Melanie Marttila (she/her) is an #actuallyaustitic author-in-progress, writing poetry and tales of hope in the face of adversity. She has been writing since the age of seven, when she made her first submission to CBC's "Pencil Box." She is a graduate of the University of Windsor’s masters program in English Literature and Creative Writing and her poetry has appeared in Polar Borealis, Polar Starlight, and Sulphur. Her short fiction has appeared in Pulp Literature, On Spec, Pirating Pups, and Home for the Howlidays. She lives and writes in Sudbury, Ontario, in the house where three generations of her family have lived, on the street that bears her surname, with her spouse and their dog, Torvi.

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

The Art of Floating changed my life by being my debut poetry collection. Though I’ve been writing and publishing poetry since the mid-90s, this is the first time I gathered all my work together and presented it to the world. That I’m doing this as a middle-aged, late-diagnosed autistic, means that I get to present my poetry and myself to the world authentically. So, though most of the work in The Art of Floating reflects my poetic history over the past 30 years, it's given new freshness and impact by the poet I am today.

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

I started writing poetry seriously during my undergraduate degree at Laurentian University. The campus arts community was self-contained, but vibrant. I was part of the English Literature Society (now the English Arts Society, which produces the journal Sulphur), and we’d often carpool to the downtown for open mics and community poetry readings. We’d also host event on campus for the larger community. There was one memorable poetry slam which pitted students against professors. Guess who won?

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 write most days in some respect. The ideas for individual poems may come quickly, but I tend to be a slow writer, especially since I continue to work full time and struggle with the effects of masking for the first 51 years of my life. I’ve come to understand that I’ve been teetering on the edge of burnout for most of my adult life. I have to be selective in the open calls and deadlines I work toward and kind to myself if I fail to meet them.

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?

Each poem varies. Some strike like lightning and have to come out allatonce. Others rattle around in my head for days, weeks, months, or even years. Most poems come out of moments in time, animals I see during my twice-daily dog walks, or ideas that just get stuck in my head. I’ve only recently thought of writing series on specific themes. As to projects, well, The Art of Floating took 30 years to come together. I hope to improve on that in future collections.

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

I enjoy reading my work, but peopling tends to exhaust me, so I have to be mindful of my energy and executive functioning levels as I go. I often have to recover after a reading or other event. Fortunately, that often involves writing, which continues to be a solace.

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?

My concerns are more personal than theoretical. For instance, I’m working on a series that revisits my life in light of my autism diagnosis. How many traumatic events were simply the result of my neurodivergence? Is forgiveness possible? Is it even necessary? Of course, the inherent unreliability of memory plays into this. Neuroscience tells us that the longer we retain a memory, the more often we access it, the more potential there is for subtle (or not so subtle) changes to the real events that initially created the memory. Is how I remember an event even close to how it happened? Does that matter?

7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Do they even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?

Every act of writing is an interpretation of the world the writer lives in, tempered by their frame of reference. Give a room full of poets the same prompt, and each one of them will write a wholly original and individual piece. Though the goal of the writer is to tell the truth but tell it slant, as Emily Dickinson said, it’s the impact on the reader that truly tells the tale. The writer’s role in larger culture is to affect the reader (or auditor) emotionally, and by so doing, to resonate with the reader’s experience, cause them to reflect, and discover something about themselves. If that goal is achieved, the writer has some measure of longevity and success, even if it is only with one, or a handful, of readers.  

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

I was surprised to discover that I am not precious at all with my poetry. I can be very precious with my prose. The editor’s goal is always to improve the piece and I can see almost instantly how the poem is improved by following the editor’s suggestions. I really enjoyed working with Tanis MacDonald. Mind you, she was my first poetry editor.

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

One of my professors, John Riddell, once said that the writer has to take pains not to make their alphabet too personal. By that, he meant that you need to keep your writing accessible to the reader. The author Is only half the equation. The reader completes the work.

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?

Because I work full time, I have to write around the workday. I journal daily, usually during a break. And I read during lunch. I walk my dog twice a day and keep my eyes open for the raccoon squeezing out from under the garage eaves, or the peregrine stooping for a meal. I watch the clouds, catch sun dogs and pillars and rainbows. I often can’t write until the evening, but I always have essential oils diffusing, incense burning, lofi music playing. I need some kind of transitional activity, especially now that I’m working from home, even if it’s just a few minutes of breathing or a couple of quick sun salutations. Once the stage is set, I set to.

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

If I’m having trouble with a particular piece, I’ll switch to something else, whether that’s another poem, a creative non-fiction piece, a short story, or a novel. If nothing seems to be working, it may be a sign that I’m nearing burnout. I may need to spend some time daydreaming, freewritng in my journal, going for a walk, or getting out into the community (though, as an extreme introvert and an autist, that can be tricky). You have to find ways to fill your creative well, as Julia Cameron recommends.

12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

Rosemary and wintergreen. The first for home (memory and cooking) and the second for “the bush,” as we call it up here in northeastern Ontario. I’ve found and chewed wintergreen leaves at the Laurentian Conservation Area.

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?

Some of my poetry is ekphrastic, that is inspired by photography or painting. Some has been inspired by a favourite musical artist, like Kate Bush. I draw on mythology, spirituality, or psychology and science, and often intertwine them for an eclectic interweaving where leptons dance like Sufis, stone yields to sweet release of fallen cloud, or tectonic plates come together in self-destructive frenzy.

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

My favourite poets are local women poets, Kim Fahner and Vera Constantineau, both former poet laureates of Sudbury, and Margaret Christakos. Kim has recently helped me to expand my poetic reading to Vanessa Shields (loved Thimbles!), Monica Kidd, and Beth Kope. Outside of poetry, I adore Tanis MacDonald’s Straggle, and anything Farzana Doctor writes. I also have a soft spot for speculative fiction and read everything from Guy Gavriel Kay and Margaret Atwood to Premee Mohamed and AI Jiang.

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

In terms of writing, I’d love to be recognized with a prestigious award or prize (don’t we all?), get an agent, and bring one of my novels to publication. I’d love to go back to Finland—I was in Helsinki for a week in 2017—and conduct more genealogical research. I’d also like to learn to paddle board.

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?

I tried (and failed) to pursue both fine art and music in university before settling on writing. I was in gymnastics and dance when I was a child. But I think the path I did not take was to go into the biological sciences. I think I’d have been an excellent veterinary technologist. Or a wildlife biologist.

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

I started writing in grade 3 at the age of 7, inspired by a combination of comics, C.S. Lewis, Susan Cooper, Lloyd Alexander, Madeline l’Engle, and the beautiful storybook created by Siobhan Riddell (then in grade 5) of St. George and the Dragon.

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

The last great book I read was Waubgeshig Rice’s Moon of the Turning Leaves. The last great film was Poor Things.

19 - What are you currently working on?

In terms of poetry, I’m working on a few things. A series examining my life in light of my autism diagnosis; a series called Schrodinger’s Animals, in which you have to read the poem to learn if the animal is alive or dead; a fairytale sisters series; and a series about croning. I’m hoping to place some of these in journals. I’m toying with the idea of incorporating the autism series into a hybrid memoir, working title: the autist’s orrery. I’m also working on a piece of short fiction for an anthology call, reworking another for an open submission period, and working with a mentor to get my first novel revised and ready for submission. And, of course, I’m continuing to promote The Art of Floating. There are a couple of projects I’ve had to put on the back burner until some time/space opens up in my schedule.

12 or 20 (second series) questions;


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