Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Poets in Profile: Maureen Hynes

Share |
Maureen Hynes (photo credit: Ruth Kazdan)

Open Book is celebrating National Poetry Month with daily profiles of today's "unacknowledged legislators of the world." Find out what inspires, confounds and delights the poets behind this spring's new releases by following our series.

Marrow, Willow, Maureen Hynes's third collection of poetry, is published by Pedlar Press. Joyful and explorative, layered and personal, the poems look at the "human project of mortality" from surprising angles. Here, Maureen tells us about how she came into her own as a poet many years after abandoning her earliest attempts.

Maureen Hynes launches Marrow, Willow at Toronto's Supermarket on Tuesday, April 5th. Visit our Events page for details.

Open Book:

Can you describe an experience that you believe contributed to your becoming a poet?

Maureen Hynes:

Well, first I had an experience that deflected me from becoming a poet, then a series of them that put me back on course a decade or two later.

Of course as a teenager, I wrote and wrote and wrote, all kinds of things, but always in isolation, never connected to or in dialogue with others who were writing. Near the end of my undergraduate years, I noticed a call for poems from a journal on campus, and sent in a poem — with absolutely no knowledge of how a journal operates. When it wasn’t accepted, I thought, “That’s it, I’m not a poet,” and stopped writing poetry: accepting that one judgment for life.

I think a common and challenging experience for people nearing 40 is the realization that many of us have “buried” our creativity in pursuit of degrees, careers, families, maybe just survival. I think at an unconscious level, my mid-life experience was one of panic at the prospect of not being able to live with my creativity as the centre of my life. A sudden clarity came over me! Thinking I would write fiction, I enrolled in a number of creative writing classes, where, to my surprise, I found myself back at poetry’s door, knocking to be let in. Those classes, with Libby Scheier, Rhea Tregebov, Helen Humphreys — three very strong women poets — taught me a lot about poetry, about the practice of writing and how to improve and strengthen my work; and put me in touch with a group of colleagues that have sustained and inspired me for over 20 years.

Now when I am talking to younger poets, or people who might get easily discouraged, I mention hearing a CBC interview with Doris Lessing, who said, “Actually, the ability to write is a fairly common thing. So many people have a novel in their bottom drawer. But what separates those who get published from those who can write is persistence.”

OB:

What is the first poem you remember being affected by?

MH:

I grew up in the 1950s and early 1960s, when no living Canadian poets were on any syllabus at any level. And because I was especially enamoured of poetry, I think I felt I had to define myself in opposition to the kinds of poetry that the nuns at my high school were teaching us in preparation for departmental exams — so I looked down my nose at powerful and amazing poets like Shelley, Keats, Dickinson and Hopkins, even Yeats. I was wowed by e. e. cummings — his wonderful language play, innovative typography, anti-intellectualism, and on top of it all, he was really sex-positive! I notice that here, in one of my very old journals (old! I mean pre-1970!), I’ve copied out the whole of one of his “sonnets — unrealities” beginning,


it may not always be so; and i say
that if your lips, which i have loved, should touch
another’s, and your dear strong fingers clutch
his heart…”

Like many high school students then and now, I struck out on my own in search of more contemporary poets. In those days, Canadian poets like Raymond Souster showed me you could write about Toronto Island or Yonge Street. And Eli Mandel tore the heart out of me with his grappling with his faith’s requirement that he cover his head in “Day of Atonement: Standing”:

This is the time
The bare tree bends in the fierce wind
And stripped, my God, springs to the sky.

I was stunned by encountering P.K. Page’s work, and Gwendolyn MacEwen’s. And of course Leonard Cohen’s 1962 Love Where the Nights are Long collection rounded up an assembly of Canadian poets, though I remember being annoyed even then at how dominated his selection was by men.

It’s funny that as I write this, digging through my old books and journals, a poem that comes floating up to me is James Reaney’s “The School Globe,” about looking at and holding an old globe:

This blue globe is a parcel of my past,
A basket of pluperfect things.

OB:

What one poem — from any time period — do you wish you had been the one to write?

MH:

I think I would not so much love to have written a particular poem, but to have been a poet in ancient China, to have the sensibility of a Li Bai (Li Po) or Du Fu or Wang Wei. To meld the personal, the political with the natural world in such succinct and moving ways. One of the first books of poetry I bought myself, again in high school, was Kenneth Rexroth’s 100 Poems from the Chinese.

And if I had to choose one contemporary poem, it would be W.S. Merwin’s “Vixen” (the title poem of his 1996 collection, The Vixen) because of its beyond-beautiful language.

I forced myself to answer this question quickly because a crowd of considerations jumped up and down for my attention, and I have to give voice to them now. There are important aspects of different poets that I would kill for, sort of like wanting one person’s shoes and another person’s leather jacket and a third’s slender legs… What about Emily Dickinson, whose spare and mysterious lines pack such a punch? Or W.B. Yeats, whose mysticism enlivens still? Or Adrienne Rich, whose amazing poetic skill is matched by her political clarity? Or the brilliant Tomas Tranströmer, with his startling metaphors about modern life, or, oh lordie, couldn’t I have them all? Oh, and Neruda, how could I forget Neruda. Or Carolyn Forché.

OB:

What has been your most unlikely source of inspiration?

MH:

A skidoo. A bathrobe. A pot of polenta.

OB:

What do you do with a poem that just isn't working?

MH:

Well, I would have lots of advice for someone else who’s having that problem — of course get a trusted poet friend to look at it and pinpoint where and what’s going wrong. Either work on the weak parts, or try taking them out — sometimes the last solution that occurs to me is to omit what’s dragging the poem down. Or try taking out every second line. Look for six or so solid, sound lines in the poem and start over, working from these, maybe “exploding” each of the lines to move you into a new poem. Start a file in your computer of sections of abandoned poems and keep adding to it over the months — then come back to it and, oh, I don’t know, jumble them all up like laundry and see if that takes you anywhere. Or at least comfort yourself that your good lines are not forever lost, but waiting for you if you should need them.

But strangely, I am not that creative with my own poems when they stumble and teeter — I keep coming back to them, trying to force them into shape until I get tired, and then ultimately abandon them. I think the energy goes out of them. Or the energy goes out of me. Then months or years later, I come upon them and re-read them and have a tender thought for the effort. Really, in the end, I ditch them. But it’s hard as we get so damned attached to them.

Alas, not every poem a poet writes is successful.

But I also have to say that occasionally, for reasons I am unaware of, a poem is very important to me and the force of that conviction keeps me at it until it works.

OB:

What was the last book of poetry you read that really knocked your socks off?

MH:

Ruth Roach Pierson’s newest book, Contrary, from Tightrope. Before that, Sina Queyras's Expressway, from Coach House. Between the two of them, W.S. Merwin’s 2008 The Shadow of Sirius (Copper Canyon).

OB:

What is the best thing about being a poet…and what is the worst?

MH:

There are a lot of “bests,” starting with experiencing the intense visceral pleasure of getting an idea that says, “I think I could be a poem”; the equally joyous and felt-in-the-body pleasure of what language can do — sometimes so simply; the amazingly difficult challenge of discovering what you want to say; the worlds you can enter through a poem; encountering on the page the jaw-dropping skill some poets have; workshopping with other poets to get familiar with the specific terrain of a single poem, learning a way of being rigorous and open at the same time; the community of poets across the country that it is a pleasure to be part of. How vast the ocean of poetry is.

There are two “worsts”: I still get stung by rejections, no matter how much I reason with myself and others. The other terrible part of being a poet is the reaction I’ve gotten so often when explaining to someone that I write poetry: “Oh, right. My son wrote some poetry in high school.”

Oh, wait: there is a third awful thing — how only .001% of poets — and poetry publishers — can earn a living wage.

Maureen Hynes’s book, Rough Skin, won the League of Canadian Poets’ Gerald Lampert Award for best first book of poetry. Her second book of poetry, Harm’s Way, appeared in 2001. She is a past winner of the Petra Kenney Poetry Award (London, England); her work has been shortlisted for the CBC Literary Awards and appears in Best Canadian Poetry 2010. She also co-edited, with Ingrid MacDonald, we make the air: The Poetry of Lina Chartrand. Hynes is poetry editor for Our Times magazine.

For more information about Marrow, Willow please contact Pedlar Press.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

Related item from our archives

JF Robitaille: Minor Dedications

Dundurn

Open Book App Ad