Mary Ann Mulhern - Interview

What are your thoughts about reading your poetry in Cobourg at the 3rd annual POW! Festival?

I'm really excited about this fantastic opportunity to introduce my poetry in Cobourg! Every audience brings a unique response, and I relish that novelty and excitment!

Please tell us about your most recently published book and also a little about any other books you've had that "saw print."

My latest book Sleeping with Satan- Salem Witch-hunt, 1692, was published by Black Moss Press, November, 2010. I've been asked to read at Summer Solstice, June 21, 2011 at an outdoor setting with several members of a witch-coven in attendance. Also, I hope to read at the original court-house in Salem Massachusetts during the 2011 tourist season.

I've also written The Red Dress, about life in a convent in the sixties, Touch the Dead, about growing up in a cemetery house, and When Angels Weep about the Father Charles Sylvestre priest sexual-abuse case.

Touch the Dead, and When Angels Weep were both short-listed for the Acorn-Plantos Award.

At POW!, do you plan to read pieces from your book (or books)?
Do you plan to read new, unpublished work

I may read a few new poems, but plan mostly to read from my four books.

How would you describe your poetry?

I would describe my poetry as spare, hard-hitting, and acessible. People say my subjects and images are "dark". Narrative poetry allows " a story," which may indeed be somewhat dark. It is my hope to present readers with issues they would not ordinarly consider or ponder. People don't like to think about realities such as death, priest sexual abuse, and the oppression of women, but nothing will change unless someone writes about these issues and puts them "out there".

A person who has never composed a poem is likely to think of that as something of a magical or mysterious process. Is it possible to explain that process of creation?

There may indeed be "some magic"- I like to think that of writing.

However, the magic is assisted by knowledge of the craft of writing. This requires writing courses, extensive reading of good writers, and attention to details such as image, line, form and voice.

Years ago in a poetry workshopping group, I was witness to the following exchange:

A novice poet breathlessly proclaimed, "I don't know how to write formal poetry. All I know is -- my poetry comes from deep inside me, it shows how I'm feeling at the time, it comes pouring out of me unexpectedly, once it starts I couldn't stop it, even if I wanted to, and when I see what I've produced in front of me, I can hardly believe it came out of me but it's colourful and it's something that has never been seen before!"

Without a moment's hesitation, a woman I had not greatly admired until that very moment said, "You know, everything you just said also applies to vomit."

In my opinion, her retort captured something in a simply perfect way. Nonetheless it is true that sometimes a poem just pours out of the poet and when the initial product is viewed, the surprising conclusion is, "That's it. Amazing. I don't have to re-work that at all. Even if I did, I would not make it better." Can you tell us about one of those moments happening for you?

I've often experienced a kind of "high" while writing the "bare bones" of a poem, but I must go back and edit ,and also ask for the enlighenment of "another pair of eyes" - someone who may not see this poem as "magical" but as needing more work.

I read about Farley Mowat, the amazing Canadian novelist, who was asked by a student, "How do I become a Writer?"

Mowat replied, "Son, write a million words and throw half of them away."

The student responded: "But how do I know which half to throw away?"

Mowat replied: "Son, that's what you have to learn.

However, what I describe above is rare. More commonly, any piece that a poet initially scratches out needs work. There will be re-writes, scrunched up pieces of paper, polishing, editing, moments when the poet recoils in horror at how weak this creation is and sets about strengthening it. Can you tell us about those moments?

First of all, these are indeed "rare moments". Perhaps one poem I can point out is the poem "Confession," page 52 in "The Red Dress." This poem was written from a "core experience" of shock and dismay that something as private as virginity had to be reported to a religious superior. I saw this as a violation of one's interior life, and, I think my writing was poignant, clear and strong. I don't think I made any changes.

It is said that all artists create their art in part for themselves and it is born of a deep inner howl that cannot be denied expression but, whether one chooses to admit it or not, such creation is also in part for an audience. Do you think our audience influences what we create, even if it is only a sub-conscious tailoring we do to make things fit?

I like to think that I write from my "core experience" - for example, in the convent, as a very young woman, I experienced intense loneliness and isolation.

The irony of the convent was that it housed five-hundred women, none of whom could be friends. One young sister remarked: "Here we are never alone, never together."

In my view, her words captured exactly what was happening behind those forbidding and imposing walls of religion in the sixties - a decade of incredible social change.

When I wrote The Red Dress, I was greatly influenced by the "desert" in which I wandered as a young, aspiring nun. I think that in the process of writing, "the audience" is present in a distant, silent way - and the audience indeed has a subtle influence, but the over-riding force exists with "the howl," as it is so well described in this question.

Would you say it is true that poets should know various set-forms of poetry and have a conscious awareness of poetic device, even if they then choose not to follow them or employ them? Is that an archaic ploy to ensure that writing poetry remains an elite activity?

First of all, the poet must learn the craft, and that includes awareness of set-forms of poetry and poetic device. That knowledge needs to be there, even if the poet does not employ set-forms or poetic device.

I'll use the example of the famous architect, Frank Lloyd Wright. He designed homes and buildings that were beautiful and "open." He did not use walls unless absolutely necessary for support. However, he had studied classical architecture. Out of that study came his own unique creations.

I think the same can be said of the poet - one needs an understanding of "the history" - that includes form, image, line and voice. I need to know something about "iambic pentameter." I also require an awareness of metaphor, and simile and assonance. These are all part of 'the craft." In narrative poetry, I most likely will not choose to use rhyme, but metaphor and simile and assonance can be very useful.

On no, it is not an archaic ploy to ensure that writing poetry remains an elite activity. Rather, it assists the narrative poet to achieve fresh, new images - to create a unique voice that the reader seeks and desires.

The POW! Festival rides along from year to year on the notion that poetry should not be relegated to an existence as "a niche art form" which an average person doesn't care about and never will care about. Some poets think that notion is so idealistic as to be silly. They might be correct. Others agree with us. How do you respond to that?

Oh, I'm with Walt Whitman all the way - a book of poetry in everyone's pocket! As a beginning writer, I was greatly influenced by this wonderful concept!

Very often, after a reading, people will say to me, "In high school I hated poetry - never understood it - but I understood your poems and really liked them" Most often, they buy a book!

In my view, this is the essence of success as a poet - to "reach" someone who has always had a "bad taste" from poetry, and to change that to something positive, enriching and hopeful.

Wendy Morton, a poet from Victoria, successfully organized "Random Acts of Poetry" over the past seven years. She involved hundreds of poets across Canada to simply "read a poem" to people on the street, in the work-place, in stores, schools and restaurants. I was involved with "Random Acts of Poetry" during five of those years - the response from "ordinary" people was amazing!

In Wingham, Ontario, the day after I'd read a few poems from The Red Dress, two women stopped me on the street and said they'd never liked poetry, but loved The Red Dress. What an affirmation!

When I read in Hamilton a few years ago, a man came up to me with a copy of Touch the Dead and said, "I love this book."

I'll never forget that - to me that's what poetry is about - a connection with fellow human beings that goes way beyond a greeting or a handshake - something meaningful, helpful, lasting.

Read Mary Ann Mulhern's Bio