Marilyn’s first collection, A Really Good Brown Girl, won the 1997 Gerald Lampert Memorial Award presented by the League of Canadian Poets. This collection is now in its twelfth printing, selections from it are widely anthologized in secondary and post-secondary literary texts, and it is a course text in twenty-three post-secondary institutions in Canada and the U.S.
Her second collection, green girl dreams Mountains, won the 2001 Stephan G. Stephansson Award from the Writer’s Guild of Alberta. Her third collection, that tongued belonging, was awarded the 2007 McNally Robinson Aboriginal Poetry Book of the Year and the McNally Robinson Aboriginal Book of the Year.
Marilyn has been the Writer-in-Residence at the Edmonton Public Library, the University of Alberta, the University of Toronto-Massey College, Windsor University, and Grant MacEwan College. She has also been faculty at the Banff Centre in Literary Arts and since 2009, she has taught in the Aboriginal Emerging Writers Program at the Banff Centre. In 2009 Marilyn published her first novella, entitled Stray Dog Moccasins.
She is on-leave from Athabasca University while fulfilling the role of Writer in Residence at Brandon University and working on her fourth poetry manuscript in which she explores Métis history, politics and identity through the life and times of her ancestor, Gabriel Dumont. Marilyn serves as a board member on the Public Lending Rights Commission of Canada.
BCP: Why did you start writing poetry?
MD: I was drawn to the honesty and courage of poets. I was also fascinated with language since I grew up in a bilingual home: Cree and English which made me aware of the power of language. I was curious to unlock the codes of English which seemed to always be privileged over Cree.
BCP: What is your writing process?
MD: I am struck by a phrase, a quality of light which reminds me of something, an observation of nature or human beings which provokes an impulse in me to follow the language that emerges in my mind. I feel this compulsion to write it down as if it were a force from the universe bidding me follow it and discover something. The desire to discover this mystery makes me write it down.
BCP: Much of your writing is political. Do you also write about the fun stuff of life? Why or why not?
MD: In my early writing, particularly A Really Good Brown Girl, I was working through anger, shame, hurt, disillusionment and grief about the subjugation and mistreatment of Aboriginal peoples and traditions in Canada, so I vented these emotions in that collection. Many of those poems were politically inspired and conveyed explicitly through charged political language which had its place then.
Experience has taught me that sometimes directness doesn’t always bring about the response in readers that I want. So now, I try to reach my audience in different ways- through humour, through pathos, through sleight of hand, through elegance.
BCP: This week is Indigenous Sovereignty Week. What does that mean for you?
MD: I can’t say that I am very motivated by such an event. I think it’s great that someone is initiating it, but whether it will bring about the kind of awareness it’s designed to, it will have to convince the instruments of power that it’s important: political parties, education institutions etc.
BCP: How can Indigenous literature help with Indigenous sovereignty?
MD: Indigenous literature can education and inform readers, but generally people who read Indigenous literature are the already informed.
BCP: Who are your favourite writers?
MD: There are so many, but some of them are: Sharon Olds, Joy Harjo, Leslie Marmon Silko, Simon Ortiz, Louise Erdrich, Gwendolyn Brooks, bell hooks, Dionne Brande, Philip Levine, Stephen Dunn, Tim Siebles and more.
BCP: You have said that Sharon Olds was a big influence on you. How? Is there are particular collection or poem of hers that you feel influenced you the most?
MD: The Dead and the Living was a collection that gave me the courage to write about family. It taught me that one can write about all that a family holds: love, fear, joy, hurt, terror, confusion, safety etc. It provided a model for me to write honestly and compassionately about family.
BCP: My favorite poem of yours in not Dick and Jane. Can you talk about this poem a little bit?
MD: I grew up in an alcoholic home where drinking was the major conflict between my parents. My mother never drank and my father was a binge drinker. The pervasive tension in the home I grew up in was one of insecurity and not knowing if my parents would stay together. They did for 50+ years and in the end found a way to reconcile their differences and alcohol became less of an issue. My family experience like most is fraught with love, loyalty, fear, joy, terror, compassion, jealously, tenderness; somehow we survive our families and sometimes thrive.
BCP: At the 2009 Aboriginal Writers Symposium held at University of Toronto you said, “Not enough Aboriginal writers are being published.” Why do you think this is? How can this change? Do you see this changing?
MD: This is changing slowly because there has been a paradigm shift about the contributions of Indigenous peoples, traditions and knowledge in the world and publishers have been influenced by that shift too.
Written storytelling is a new media for Aboriginal peoples even though our story tradition has existed from time immemorial, so we are learning to present our stories this way and it will take some time yet. However, new media gives us an opportunity to tell our stories in ways other than text and that’s exciting.
BCP: How does your aboriginality influence your writing?
MD: My ancestry and the history of imperialism and colonization in Canada, place me as a witness to the untold stories of this continent. I can either take up that role of witness or ignore it. I choose to witness and remind Canadians of their dependence on Aboriginal people to survive and thrive here from our appropriated land and resources.
BCP: Your second collection green girl dreams Mountains has more prose poetry than your other two collections. How and why did that come about?
MD: I believe it’s poetry not prose. What’s the difference? For me, how the text is placed on the page bears little significance to the music (poetry) of the language.
I guess it depends on one’s definition of poetry and prose. Poetry for me is the attention to the inherent music of language. I know that prose writers regard the music of language when they write, but poets employ it even more so.
BCP: The section City View in green girl dreams Mountains is hard hitting. You describe poverty and its environment and its effects perfectly. Is much of your poetry inspired by the place and time you are in?
MD: Much of it is, but this new collection I’m working on about Gabriel Dumont, Louis Riel and the Resistance Period is obviously historically informed.
BCP: Your third collection that tongued belonging has many poems inspired by other poets such as Simon Ortiz. How often do you find other poets inspiring your poetry?
I’m constantly inspired by other poets. I do believe that one of poetry’s devices is referencing the significant work of other artists and playing with the works of past forms.
If one reads poetry (unfortunately not enough beginning poets read poetry), one cannot help be inspired by their work. Language is the medium we work with.
BCP: Your poetry touches upon hard subjects that many people do not want to talk about. Do you see your poetry as activism?
MD: Definitely. In some literary circles, resistance writing is not perceived as “real” literature; however, I remind those circles of all the writers in history who have resisted: Dostoyevsky, Akmatova, Baudelaire, Sartre, Steinbeck, Achebe, Soyinka, Lorca and the list goes on.
BCP: Small publishers and independent bookstores are dying every month. How do you see this affecting poetry?
MD: Poetry and Prose solely in print, is dying. New media is the next wave. In the future, books may be considered eccentric and static objects, while new media applications of poetry and prose will involve audio-visual, interactive forms of communication, and that might be a good thing. In other ways it might not be because sitting with a book can be a meditative and introspective experience which is what is sought in the rush of our modern lives.
BCP: With people having much shorter attention spans these days do you see poetry having a comeback?
MD: Music such as rap and hip-hop has fueled a renewed interest in poetry, in prosody- alliteration, assonance, internal and slant rhyme, repetition etc.
BCP: Do you see the E Reader benefiting or hindering poetry?
MD: I have never read from an E Reader. I find reading from a screen uncomfortable, but it may result in benefitting poetry because audio-visual applications may make it more accessible to more people. If people read poetry without being told it’s poetry, they may lose their preconceptions and resistance to it.
BCP: What are you working on now?
MD: I’m working on a collection which is set historically during the Riel Resistance 1869- 1885 period and it is the most challenging poetry I’ve written because it is informed by historical accounts of the people and places which I must research and immerse myself in to write. I’ve been working with collection for five years now and I want to finish it and start new projects.
BCP: What advice do you have for young writers?
MD: Read as much poetry and as widely as possible, don’t just read poets who write in English, find translations of work from writers all over the world.
Keep a notebook and record your sensory perceptions of the world – ordinary things which can be used in one’s work. We all notice different things and these differences in observations distinguish poets from one another.
Tune in to Black Coffee Poet November 26 for a video recording a Cree poet Candace Brunette reading her poetry.
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