Thursday, November 11, 2010

Writers Talk with Mairi Graham

Mairi Graham is a portrait and landscape painter and a writer. She also makes sculpture out of the rusted detritus of our agricultural and industrial past. Her father believes this is a form of insanity but has been known to help carry fifty pounds of dirty metal half a mile over rough ground. She posts her poetry at Secret Poems From The Times Literary Supplement. In another life she writes about late 18th and early 19th century women writers.

On a personal note, I'd like to mention that the poetry on Mairi's blog is remarkably good—her skill with language, image & form are first-rate, & the thematic depth of the poems is always compelling.  Given my high esteem for Ms Graham's poetry, I'm most gratified that she agreed to participate in the Writers Talk series; & I'm even more gratified that she has been a staunch supporter of my own poetic efforts.  Don't forget to check out Mairi's poem "Hölderlin Masked" on the Writers Talk blog.  & now: on to the interview.

When did you first realize your identity as a writer? 

My mother used to read the dictionary for fun and her favourite answer to any question to do with words was “look it up.” I had to write a poem for a Brownie badge when I was about ten, and realised poems were a great way to use all those words I loved but couldn’t work into playground conversation. I’ve lost the poem but remember it was about “nature” and contained a good deal of gemstone imagery, and sparkle and dew. In grade six, I came across the word “torque” while I was supposed to be looking up something else in the classroom dictionary. From Latin torquere, to twist. It wasn’t the scientific or mechanical definitions that caught my eye but the necklace or armband made of twisted metal, worn especially by the ancient Britons and Gauls. I was smitten, and I knew immediately that there was a story attached to the word, and that I had to figure out what it was. That I was duty bound to do so, because no-one else would or could. That’s the thing about stories, in whatever form. If you don’t tell the ones given to you, they’re lost. A sensible child might have been crushed by the weight of responsibility but I just got a pencil and started to work.

Describe the creative process involved in any one piece you’ve written—this could be a book, a story, a poem, an essay, etc.

I work in all three areas and I suppose there are similarities between the approaches. Somehow an idea comes to me. In the case of a novel it’s usually an image that needs to be expanded on, or explained. Two men sitting under a pier in the rain, for instance. One of them a poet and one a man with no memory. That sort of additional knowledge arrives with the image, in much the same way information is given in a dream. I often write poetry to prompts chosen from the Times Literary Supplement, choosing what strikes me as I’m reading. What strikes me depends to a certain extent on what sort of mood I’m in, and whether the image evoked is one that resonates. “
Hölderlin Masked,” for instance, jumped out at me one day, as suggestive and interesting. Ideas for essays always spring from curiosity over some detail of something I’ve read. Why, for instance, did the anonymous author of a manuscript in the Princeton library claim her novella was “imitating” the 18th century German dramatist August Von Kotzebue. Or, why did Jane Austen so much prefer the hero of one unspecified book to the hero of another? And what were the books in question? Nothing earth-shattering in any of these instances, but it’s the way something opens out that’s of interest.  Curiosity is the common denominator. Whatever I’m writing, I move from idea to research. I want to know as much as possible about the subject I’m tackling, mainly in order to get hold of that “opening out” aspect . In the case of a novel, I want details of setting and history. A lot of details, as the details are often where the interest of the thing is hidden. I might visit the place and take notes and photographs, and then research background material.  Even a poem requires some research, a little or a lot, depending on the subject. In the case of Hölderlin, I read about him, his life, his work and the mask or hood the doctor in the asylum he was confined to put on his patients to keep them quiet, and somewhere I came across the fact that he fed and watched birds.  Once the research is done – hours, weeks, months, depending on what it is I’m working on – I let it all sit and stew for a bit. Or for years.  I write late at night, between nine in the evening and three in the morning. Six hours of uninterrupted peace and quiet.  I don’t mind the dog snoring or the cat purring but I don’t want to hear anything else. If I’m writing a longer piece I’ll try to put together a sketchy outline, but things grow organically and the outline often changes. Poems seem to form themselves in my head. I write them down as they’ve occurred to me and then revise and expand what I have. Whatever I’m working on, revision is the most important part of the process.  I revise as I write and I go over prose dozens and dozens of times. Poetry seems a more spontaneous form and I sometimes work on a piece for just a few days, with only minor shuffling and revision, often in the interest of internal rhyme, or metre.  In the Hölderlin poem I wanted something that played with the idea of a world inverted, topsy turvy, so I worked on placing the rhymes at the beginning of the lines of two of the verses instead of the ends, and then allowing the other two verses to break out of the restrictions of order or form. The revisions were mainly about getting the rhyme and tone to work with the subject, and matching the bird imagery to the emotional and physical reality of incarceration and mental illness.

Could you describe your relationship to the publishing process (this can be publishing in any form, from traditional book publishing to blogging, etc)?

Small independent presses interest me. Places that will deal with a manuscript because it’s good, or has the potential to be good, even though it’s unlikely to make a fortune.  I have very little interest in the large publishing consortiums that rule the business, or in most of the books they put out. They waste resources, both natural and human, and seem sadly uninterested in advancing literature. A bad book by a known name always seems to trump a good book by an unknown. I know that’s not true in every case, but it’s true in too many. The role of the literary agent underlines this. The responsibility for sorting books has been shifted away from the publisher, making the priority of the business clear. Only a manuscript that will bring in enough money to make it profitable for both the publishers and the agent is worth considering. In order to do that the first question asked about a new property has to be – “Is it promotable?” instead of “is it wonderful?” “Who wrote it,” often plays too large a role in considerations. All of this leads to the policy of one big blockbuster over a dozen books with smaller sales potential. I suppose it must make good business sense but it doesn’t make good reading. I like traditional books – ink on paper – and will go out and pay for them, but I also like the great wide world of internet publishing. I post all my poetry on a blog. If you read it, I’m delighted. If you comment on it, I’m doubly delighted. Many more people read my work there than would if it was on a shop shelf, and that’s worth a lot to me. It’s worth more than whatever small amount I might have made if I’d published it in the old fashioned way, and I don’t have to spend a lot of time I don’t have sending things out to journals. Someday the poetry establishment will pay attention to online work but for now, it seems as if poems on paper are the only route to recognition. Your blog is unlikely to make you the next poet laureate or get you a post as writer in residence anywhere in the real world. On the other hand, I publish my articles in scholarly journals that don’t pay a cent for them but make them easily available to people with similar unaccountable interests and lend them a whiff of respectability. I’m also interested in the possibility, tossed about in various places lately, of patterning publishing on the music business. Offer your work to an audience and ask for a good will offering. Something akin to the storytellers of old. Most writers suffer from a compulsion to share. They want someone to listen.  Most people want to be entertained. A nice symbiosis. If the listener likes what he hears he can toss something into the hat toward keeping  body and soul together and more stories coming. Will it work? I’m eager to know.

How has being a writer affected your relationships? 

My dog thinks I spend too much time writing and not enough time playing ball. My cat thinks I don’t work hard enough because sometimes there’s no warm lap available when she wants to nap. My bird – a blue celestial parrot – wouldn’t mind if I worked from seven in the morning till seven at night, as long as I thought out loud and let him help with the typing. After seven, he just wants me to be quiet, whatever I’m doing. My husband is an academic and works about eighteen hours a day, seven days a week. I’m sure he’s happy I have something to keep me out of trouble.

How would you describe the community of writers you belong to—if any? This may be a “real” or “virtual” (in more than one sense) community.

 One of the wonderful things about the internet is its ability to deliver like minded people into your living room, wherever you are. I know a few writers but I don’t see them often, and when I do we don’t sit and talk about writing. In fact, I’m terrible at talking about my work. But in the virtual world there are lots of people who love to write about writing. You can show them your work and they’re often incredibly generous in their comments, or you can look at someone else’s work and share your thoughts. It doesn’t matter what sort of question you have, someone out there has an answer and wants to write about it. The only problem is time. The more of it you spend chatting online the less you have for writing.

What are your future goals in terms of writing?

To improve. Uninteresting but true.

Bonus Question: If your writing were a musical instrument, what would it be? 

Optimally, a ‘cello. It has been described as sounding most like the human voice. It’s the emotional range of the instrument that appeals, its capacity for great intimacy, and poignancy and sorrow and ebullience. It’s something to aspire to. In reality? Probably a kazoo.


  1. A fascinating interview. Very un usually, I wished it could have been three times as long. I congratulate both participants. I was particularly intrigued by the references to Jane Austen and others in the context of sourcing ideas, and fully agreed with the remarks concerning publishers.

  2. What a great interview - full of insights.

  3. Hi Dave & Alan

    Dave: Thanks so much--I also could wish it longer. I know you're familiar with Mairi's work as I've seen your comments on her poetry blog. So glad you enjoyed it.

    Alan: Thanks!

  4. I'm so pleased to see Mairi showcased here, John. She is a wonderful poet whose work I am privileged to have followed on the Internet. Thanks to you both, and to you both -- keep it up!

  5. Hi Karen: Thanks as always for your support--& yes, Mairi is a wonderful poet indeed!

  6. I loved reading this! Really engaging writing about some great topics. Plus, I thought I was the only one who asked for help hauling large hunks of rusting metal home from the dump!

    My most recent find was on the old railroad bed, walking there with John on my fiftieth birthday. It seems to be a panel salvaged from an appliance perhaps - then a hole was burned/cut out of the center, perhaps to hold a drainage or irrigation pipe in place? It's on my porch where I'm going to gaze at it until I know what kind of puppet theater it will become - yes, history reveals itself in a particular way through these kinds of objects. Thanks for this, Mairi and John!

  7. Thanks, all of you, for your kind comments here, and for all the support you've given my work since I've been posting it.

    Eberle - I'll send John some photos of my rusty junk. The piece I mentioned was carried up and down across a basalt beach by my dad and I. He was 76 or 77 at the time. I gurss it was a talking point for him, later. One of those 'my crazy daughter' stories dads need a stockpile of. This summer I found a 93 year old farmer who let me go through the junk he'd been throwing out into a back field for most of a century. Oh joy. One of my great finds was a gear wheel - four feet or so across and over a hundred pounds, I'm sure - from a 19th century cheese press.

  8. I can't devote the time and attention that this fascinating interview deserves right now, but I will be back when I can.


  9. Hi Kat: Drop back by when you have some time--definitely an interview to savor!

  10. I'm so glad I postponed the reading of this excellent interview.

    At so many points I found myself nodding in agreement. I feel exactly the same about the publishing world and I love the notion of approaching poetry in the same way as music (being one of those who can't wait to share it). I too, have no real interest in making money for the sake of it; I just want to be read.

    We must have similar experience in so far as my husband is at work and I'm at home with my cats, trying to write and trying to take part in the internet world that nourishes me creatively and fulfills me with some feedback.

    "The only problem is time. The more of it you spend chatting online the less you have for writing." This, is indeed the rub, isn't it?

    I can only hope to mature to the level of intelligence and focussed curiosity that Mairi appears already to possess.



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