Who are the members of the League of Canadian Poets? With over 750 members – growing every day -, our membership is diverse. Of course, though, all members have one thing in common: poetry! 6 Pieces on Poetry is our new quarterly series where members of the League will answer our 6 questions. We’ll talk poetry, writing lives & lessons, and inspiration, and through 6 Pieces on Poetry, you’ll get to know our membership a little better.
Today we’re talking poetry with Michael Mirolla! Michael Mirolla’s publications include three Bressani Prize winners: the novel Berlin (2010); the poetry collection The House on 14th Avenue (2014); and the short story collection, Lessons in Relationship Dyads (2016). He is also the author of a novella, three other novels, two other short story collections and a second poetry collection. A novella, The Last News Vendor, is scheduled from Quattro Books in the fall of this year. The short story, “A Theory of Discontinuous Existence,” was selected for The Journey Prize Anthology; and “The Sand Flea” was a Pushcart Prize nominee. Michael lives in Hamilton, Ontario. Find Michael on Facebook & Twitter.
1. How did poetry become part of your life?
I can’t recall a time when poetry wasn’t part of my life. Writing in general (and poetry in particular) can’t really be disconnected from who I am. It would be like pulling the plug on a respirator that keeps me breathing. Without writing, I wouldn’t exist. From the beginning, it was my way of making sense of myself. My first memories of writing come from elementary school, creating stories and images while under the dining room table reading Tom Swift and his many adventures in outer space and alternate universes. What drove me to write? I don’t know. It was just something that I had to do. It was an essential part of me. (This was before I came to the realization that there is no such thing as an essential part of a human identity.) My first piece of published writing was a poem (“The Strange Land”), published in Canadian Forum when I was 19. In my final year of high school, I was fortunate enough to have a Christian Brother of Ireland who, aside from being quirky and unique, believed in creativity and not only in the study of literature but encouraging students to express themselves in creative ways. So I wrote poems, short stories, fantasies. At McGill, in the midst of undergoing the tortures of advances physics, chemistry and math, I took a creative writing class. We workshopped poetry and I enjoyed that more than the science courses. So much so I switched to an English Lit major. And it has been satisfaction and penury ever since. Now, whenever I feel like I need a lift, I listen to Guy Clark’s Cold Dog Soup and Rainbow Pie:
Ain’t no money in poetry
That’s what sets the poet free
I’ve had all the freedom I can stand
Cold dog soup and rainbow pie
Is all it takes to get me by
Fool my belly till the day I die
Cold dog soup and rainbow pie
2. What themes do you explore most consistently through your writing?
If I had to come up with one major theoretical concern behind my writing, it would be the intersection between self-identity-society. Questions: What does it mean to be human? What makes us essentially human? How does the individual consciousness interact with that of others? At what point can we state that a human being has been stripped of all the non-essentials that accrue over a lifetime? In my opinion, the questions being asked in much of today’s literature miss the point: rather than asking what it means to be human, they tend to ask what it means to be this or that — gender, race, etc. Rather than looking inward to see what’s right and what’s wrong, they tend to be directed outwards, looking to place blame elsewhere. Of course, the search for that intersection leads back to the search for identity itself which is paradoxical. Much of my writing explores two elements: (1) the notion that the attempt to pin things down, to analyze their components or to create some sort of formal system, is a doomed enterprise due to the self-reflexivity of human consciousness; and (2) that human identity is not as constant or uninterrupted or unbroken as we are usually led to believe or make ourselves believe.
Why poetry as opposed to other forms of writing? Poetry to me allows for a compression of language and a concreteness of imagery that prose doesn’t usually achieve. Poetry does away with the “mundaneness” of having to explain, of having to set things up in a linear fashion. With poetry, you can skip the connections and go straight to the heart of the matter. That’s where the concrete images come in. I think there’s an irony in the creation of good poetry. The irony is that poetry might arise from an emotional response to something or someone but, in order to create a good poem, the poet needs to go beyond the “gush” of the emotional response. That is, a lot of mental discipline, a lot of thought, goes into a gut-wrenching emotional poem! Or at least it should. In terms of reaction, a poem offers the type of instant satisfaction that prose can’t. Finally, a good poem takes you closer to the “thing-as-it-is” than other forms of writing. The poem is an effort to do away with intermediaries between you and the objects of the world. Of course, it’s an impossible task and no one will ever touch the “thing-as-it-is” because, as direct as poetry is, there still remains a barrier, the barrier of human consciousness.
3. Do you feel that you’ve found a writing practice that works for you? If yes, can you tell us about it? If not, describe the challenges that you face that prevent you from feeling this way.
I’m fortunate in that I’ve discovered the ability to move from one form of writing to another without having to re-charge or spend time changing gears. I guess part of the reason for that is that I’ve worked as a newspaper copy editor as well as a freelance writer. So I had to move quickly going from paying jobs to my own creative efforts. Now, given that I help run Guernica Editions and am involved in all phases of the operation of the publishing house, I’m glad that I have this ability. Otherwise, my own writing would have suffered to the point of extinction. However, this isn’t something that can be passed on to someone else as a “writing practice”. It’s a very individual thing.
As for challenges to my writing practice, My greatest challenges are probably the same as those faced by anyone who wants to be considered a serious writer: the attempt to balance the drive to write with the demands of family and life. I once thought that those who really made it had to have a combination of talent and a set of blinkers that made them see nothing but the object of their desire. Everything else had to be sacrificed for that career: family, friends, jobs. But then I came to realize that just wasn’t me. I came from a close-knit and extended Italian family. I fell in love with an Irish-French woman who serves as the heart and centre of my life. She has understood my passion but has also been there to temper it. She has encouraged me but has also let me see that life needs to be lived. She is beaming and smiling and filled with enthusiasm; I am naturally pre-disposed to melancholy. She is not afraid to express her love — for me, for our children, for our grandchildren; I have difficulty saying “I love you.” That we’ve been together for nearly 50 years is the closest thing I know to a miracle.
4. What lesson that you learned through a creative writing course/workshop/lecture/book stickswith you most presently?
I am very fortunate to have been a graduate of the very early years of the University of British Columbia’s MFA program in Creative Writing, under the tutelage of Doug Bankson, Robert Harlow, J. Michael Yates, Jacob Zilbur, Michael Bullock. Those two years re-shaped my writing and taught me several important lessons: question everything with a critical eye; read everything with a sense of excitement and promise; write everything as if it’s the last thing you write and never cut corners because it could very well be those corners that contain what is really needed. While there, I was introduced to the Eastern European writers and the Black Mountain poets. To irony and existentialism. To the dangers of laziness and clichés.
When it comes to books/writers who have influenced me and left scars, I’m very much a traditionalist. I still believe in Kafka, Joyce, Beckett. No other writers have moved me or affected me the way they did. I did have a brief affair with Bukowski and I still think he really stirred the shit nicely. And I like Mann’s Death In Venice and Hesse’s Steppenwolf. But Kafka, Joyce and Beckett are the Holy Trinity for me, the writers who spoke to me directly. Kafka taught me that there is no true continuity in life, that it is all a matter of starts and stops, of fragments and bits and pieces, that there is no such thing as normal, and that judgment day is every day. Joyce revealed the world of language, the delight in playing with words, the magic of painting a canvas, the many ways that all lead to the same way. In a sense, Joyce is like a modern Siddhartha: he created a universe where neither thought nor action takes precedence and where it is the sheer joy of creation that is important. No lessons to be learned, in other words. By the way, I don’t think there is a more perfect short story in the English language than “The Dead”. As for Beckett, he stripped everything down to the essentials, to show that there were no essentials. He represented in theatrical terms (even his novels are theatrical) what many philosophers were trying to express in the 20th century: if there is no canon, then everything becomes the margin.
5. What is the importance of community to your writing life?
There was a time when I believed that an author’s duty was to lock herself in a garret, a nice quiet place and write till she’s ready to explode. Then send the material out into the world and people would come knocking at the garret door having recognized the true genius of the person within. Now, I’ve come to understand that, while a writer does need a time of quiet, that’s only one small part of the writing life. Interacting with the community, be it other writers or simply interested readers, has become quite essential for me. I was shy and introverted, not willing to share my work for fear it would be belittled or ignored. Today, I enjoy reading, talking, trying to make an impact. I also like giving presentations and workshops. As a publisher, I have numerous contacts with fellow writers of all stripes. A sense of community and collegiality are very important, given that writing is such a lonely business.
6. What keeps you going as a writer?
As I may have hinted at previously, it’s not so much a matter of what keeps me going as a writer but rather what would I be if I weren’t a writer. Writing fills the void (at least for the time being) we all feel as human beings. The connection to a source of creativity is the closest we’ll get to god. To quote Maurice Blanchot from his masterwork, The Space of Literature: “The work is mind, and the mind is the passage, within the work, from the supreme indeterminacy to the determination of that supreme. This unique passage is real only in the work – in the work which is never real, never finished, since it is only the realization of the mind’s infiniteness. The mind, then, sees once again in the work only an opportunity to recognize and exercise itself ad infinitum. Thus we return to our point of departure.”
I continue to write because I don’t understand how not to write. I don’t understand how to live without writing. There is no separation between who I am and what I write. And that’s very interesting in itself because I am a Lachanian when it comes to identity. I believe that all we have inside us (all that defines consciousness) is a double set of mirrors facing each other. So I write to create the narrative of my identity; to edit that narrative; to critique it. And the object of all this? Well, perhaps a couple of lines from a poem might help explain. In my poem “The Touch”, I say:
To touch the thing-in-itself –
nothing more; nothing less.
That’s what you’ve written over and over, in one form or another, like a thick student who just doesn’t get it.
Recommending a book or performance by a Leaguer: Banoo Zan – Songs of Exile.