Maureen Hynes has published three books of poetry, Rough Skin (Wolsak and Wynn) Harm’s Way (Brick Books), Marrow, Willow (Pedlar Press) and is working on a fourth. She has twice been selected for the Banff Writers’ Studio and in 2007, a selection of her poems were shortlisted for the CBC Literary Award. She is Poetry Editor for Our Times,Canada’s national labour magazine.
BCP: Why poetry?
MH: Well, the power of art – how to explain its force? The ability to create art out of language, to shape it, with form, into not just something that’s beautiful, but something that also resonates with us emotionally and is taken into the core of our beings and remembered – that is something that feels urgent and compelling to me. I think for a lot of people, especially women and marginalized people, the struggle to find your voice and use it is almost a life-and-death one.
What’s at risk in not expressing yourself is running through your entire life, without consciously reflecting on what you are experiencing daily; without in some way, making it yours. And when I am writing, when I am solving poetic problems, that has become a way of engaging the deepest part of myself. I feel like I am most me when I am doing that.
Jeannette Winterson says the following about art, but it really summarizes what I feel about poetry:
“Art is not documentary. It may accidentally serve that function in its own way, but its true effort is to open us to dimensions of the spirit and the self that normally lie smothered under the weight of living.”
For me, that’s both the challenge and the reward of poetry, to pull out from under that smothering blanket, the important things in our lives. And in a subtle way, that’s really what I am trying to get across to readers.
BCP: What is your process?
MH: I strive for a daily writing practice, even just a brief 15-minute writing session if I can’t manage anything more. Sometimes I do this in a café, sometimes at home (though there are many distractions there!). But ideally, I take 2 hours or so, could be morning or afternoon. I start with reading poetry, to move me onto the meditative ground that is, I think, the ground that poetry springs from. Then I get into some new writing and, a couple of times a week, some searching through my journals to see if there are any jottings that say to me, “I could be a poem!” Sometimes, the lucky times, something has occurred to me as an urgent idea to write about, and I sit down to write on that particular thing. Mostly I have to search my way into my subjects. I am aiming these days to write 1 or 2 poems a week.
BCP: How long have you been writing poetry?
MH: Of course I was writing poetry in my teens and early twenties, but got derailed from it by life, work, study, relationships, the usual big distractions. Though I was always keeping a journal. But in the early nineties, I enrolled in a couple of workshops for women writers with some amazing poets (Libby Scheier, Helen Humphreys, Rhea Tregebov) and just sort of took off from there. It was at a time when both my parents were getting older and were quite disabled and I was able to take very little time for my writing, but it was precious. In those days, writing felt like I was climbing onto a stable and supportive raft in a very troubled sea.
BCP: Who are your influences?
MH: There are a string of poets that have had a big impact on me, for different reasons: Adrienne Rich, Pablo Neruda, Tomas Transtromer, Jack Gilbert, Erin Mouré, Don McKay, Gwendolyn MacEwen, Roo Borson.
BCP: Do you see poetry as a form of activism?
MH: In some ways, yes; of course as we try to be more authentically ourselves in the world and engage with it as it really is, that is for some people a form of activism. I say for some people, because not every poet sees it that way. But for me, this engagement requires an awakeness, a presence, a vitality to really take in what’s happening in the world, and then to witness what is going on even if you can’t change it, at least not alone or right away.
BCP: You are the poetry editor for Our Times: Canada’s Independent Labour Magazine. Being an editor and a writer are very different. How has being an editor affected the poet side of you and vice versa?
MH: You’re right: it’s an important but different skill to be able to read poetry critically and to help another writer hone his or her work. I feel very honoured to have been in two or three writing groups over the years where writers workshop their work and learn to look for the strengths and “soft spots” in each other’s writing. In the work I do for Our Times, I am always searching for poets who are engaging with the world of work, or the labour movement, or with social justice issues, in a vital and urgent way.
Many of the poets are very welcoming when I suggest edits that might enhance the poem’s power. I feel all this work serves to sharpen the skills I bring to my own writing, though I think even very senior poets are quite aware that we all have a certain blindness about our own writing – flaws and errors and infelicities and vaguenesses that stand out to other readers somehow remain invisible to us, and need pointing out. That’s why I am such a big fan of workshopping.
BCP: Your two previous collections, Rough Skin and Harm’s Way, were more political. What changed in Marrow, Willow?
MH: Hmm, interesting; and other people feel that the work is very political! I don’t feel like there has been a substantial change in the quantity of political poems over the three books – Marrow, Willow is divided into four sections, as you know, and the final one is intended to be the home for the political poems. So the book does deal with issues like globalization, torture, severe political repression, environmental damage, war and how guilt for war can be individualized into the lives of soldiers, how our working lives daze and exhaust us, and so on. But I do have to say that this book is a little more hopeful, a little less full of dread because of the new and sustaining love in my life, a presence that wasn’t in previous books.
BCP: The launch for Marrow, Willow was packed. It felt like poetry mattered, that people sill have an appreciation for what is regarded as the most underappreciated genre. What did that night feel like for you?
MH: It was amazing! To have over a hundred people there, people from so many different communities – the writing community, labour, education, family, friends – all supporting me and the work and the publisher! It was very gratifying and I don’t think I touched ground for a couple of days afterwards.
BCP: Your first published book was a memoir: Letters from China. Did writing a memoir help with your poetry? Why have you not written another memoir? Would you consider writing another memoir?
MH: Letters from China was written before I went back to poetry – I have always had the compulsion to be writing – letters, journals, academic writing, technical writing, a little fiction… and then finally, back to poetry. That book was the result of an amazing experience of teaching in China in 1980 when the country was on the verge of some enormous changes – the end of the Cultural Revolution; the trials of the Gang of Four; the one-child policy had just come in and the west was finally beginning to recognize China in significant ways. To get close to Chinese people and experience the fabric of their lives was really intense, and I just needed to write at least an hour a day – this time in the form of letters – to grab it all and get it down.
Another memoir? In some ways, I feel my poetry is my memoir. That’s the only kind of memoir I am considering writing at the moment.
BCP: What are you working on now?
MH: I have a couple of series of poems I am working on – the Art Gallery of Ontario installation of a dress made of twigs by native artist, Rebecca Belmore, Rising to the Occasion has inspired a series of poems about dresses, some of them quite political. I was in Chile in January for almost a month and have been working on polishing the poems I wrote there. Otherwise, I am still just writing day-to-day, and getting the odd assortment of unrelated poems written, too.
BCP: When do you expect to have a fourth collection of poetry published?
MH: Soon! Now that I am retired from my teaching job at George Brown College, I am hoping to have a much shorter gap between books than between Marrow, Willow and my previous ones. It’s a very long process, though, and the publishers are having such hard times now that it’s hard to see forward into what is possible.
BCP: You quote many poets in Marrow, Willow. Is there a book of poems that you read over and over? Do you have a recommended reading list for young poets?
MH: There are a couple of anthologies from Copper Canyon Press in the U.S. that I read over and over, and take with me on trips: Like Underground Water and The Gift of Tongues.
But as for a list of poets for younger folks, I’d recommend different poets for different things:
- Don McKay for his sensitivity to nature and to language and the sheer wit of his work
- Lorna Crozier for the ease and naturalness of her voice and yet the mastery of form
- Tomas Transtromer for his brilliant metaphors and his engagement with all the artefacts of modern life
- Sina Queryas (especially Expressway) for a sharp feminist intelligence
- Robert Hass for some fine political poems, especially about U.S. foreign policy
- Dionne Brand for the startling beauty and intelligence of her work, and her engagement with what life in a big Canadian city is like, especially for immigrants to Canada and people of colour
- A collection by Carolyn Forché, Against Forgetting: Twentieth Century Poetry of Witness for a really comprehensive collection of political poems across many cultures and continents and wars
- Anything by Pablo Neruda for his joie de vivre, his intense involvement in the worlds of nature, literature, human life and the politics of South America – and for his gorgeous language.
Other poets that have meant a lot to me are John Steffler, Ronna Bloom, Roo Borson, Jane Kenyon, Paulette Jiles, Gwendolyn MacEwen, Federico Garcia Lorca, Philip Levine, Jane Hershfeld, Jack Gilbert… the list goes on.
BCP: What advice do you have for other writers out there who are having difficulties with their writing, or who have yet to see their work in print, or who are afraid to perform their poetry?
MH: Of course keep reading! Go to poetry readings and writing events in libraries. As I’ve mentioned, the thing that has helped me the most is to workshop my work with other poets, and a good way to get yourself into a trusted and nourishing and challenging group is to take a course at a college or a university and from there, find a few simpatico souls who will make a commitment to meeting regularly and learning. Remember that the way is long… there are so many people writing and sending their work out and the publishing opportunities are so few that it takes many tries before your work gets picked up.
Tune in to Black Coffee Poet Friday April 22, 2011 for a video of Maureen Hynes reading her poetry.