8-Ball: Interview with Maurice Mierau

Maurice Mierau was born in the US and votes in both Kansas (by mail) and Winnipeg, where he works as an editor. His latest book of poems, Fear Not (Turnstone Press, 2008) is a finalist for the ReLit Award. His first book was Ending with Music (Brick, 2002). Maurice is writer-in-residence at the Winnipeg Public Library for 2009-10. His web site is at www.mauricemierau.com.

1. What do you want to talk about—which question do you wish interviewers would ask, and what is your answer?

This seems distinctly like talking to myself, something that, as a Canadian poet, I’m used to.

I wish that interviewers would ask me about my formal concerns and the influences on my work. For a long time I’ve been reading American poets. One of them is John Berryman. American writers in his generation (born before WWI) tended to move very easily between writing in meter, using rhyme or partial rhyme, and then adopting freer forms which still often echo the centuries of English verse that existed before modernism. Of course they were all Poundlings at least if you exclude the ideogram. It seems to me that a similar thing happened with the so-called new formalists in the US in the 1980s. I’m thinking of people like Gjertrud Schnackenberg and Mark Jarman.

You can see that kind of stylistic promiscuity in my last book, Fear Not, where I use—often parodically—a wide variety of technical devices that have their roots in the work of numerous Dead White Guys. At the same time the content can be about reality TV, or some other junky form of pop culture, and I’m also quite willing to ransack techniques from pomo stuff too.

In Canada, where we are still a colony in literary terms, poets have been earnestly rediscovering Black Mountain open form for more than 4 decades. What I think is vastly more interesting are the younger writers who actually read poetry within the mainstream English canon and beyond, and let that influence them. I’d mention David O’Meara, Barbara Nickel, Elise Partridge, Elizabeth Bachinsky, and Karen Solie as impressive examples.

Right now I’m obsessed with the sestina, and am doing a whole book of them. I’m working with some of Auden’s and other variations on the 12th century form, because of how the restrictions get dull. But I like the challenge of playing within a tight set of rules, even while pushing those rules right to the edge, both in terms of content and form.

2. What advice do you wish you’d received, but didn’t, when you first started to take your writing seriously?

I wish someone had told me to worry more about craft and prosody, and less about publishing. It’s like being an athlete. You have to be in shape and at the cliché peak of your game. Otherwise the big event (book publication) is just an embarrassment.

3. What is wrong with the publishing industry, and what are they getting right?

My response here will sound reactionary. I think the literary publishing industry in Canada is producing too many books, poetry in particular. Does anyone believe that the roughly 200 poetry titles published in 2008 are all worth a reader’s time? Probably not, but publishers keep trotting out the books because their block grants depend on quantity and not quality. I’d like to see the same resources or more concentrated among a smaller number of publishers. For granting agencies, measuring quality is contentious but necessary; we may even need jurors from outside the country to reduce the nepotism and log-rolling.

The best Canadian presses these days are producing really attractive books. Design standards have for the most part gone up considerably with the mass adoption of computerized book design. The technology has also lowered the cost of producing and marketing books. There are now many very creative marketing vehicles produced for books that are based on social media and other new tech. How effective they’ll be is yet to be determined.

4. How will technology change writing?

It already has in terms of both writing and dissemination. But I don’t think that writing is really about technology. An e-book or a web site is a medium, not the message. If it’s a novel, the reader will still want some kind of narrative. If it’s a poem, the reader wants craft and emotional connection among other things.

5. What is your process for a typical piece of writing, from idea to publication? (Give a specific example.)

I tend to be both chaotic and programmatic. In other words I flounder around for a while, then create a structure, and then plug some of the chaos into that structure, as well as making new material for the structure. For example with my last book, Fear Not, I had some of the poems kicking around for a while. Then I got on a roll where I realized that I could layer texts and forms over top of each other, always riffing off the Biblical source in the Gideon self-help material at the beginning of their Bible. This created an ironic context for all kinds of disparate content, and so it was really fun to write the book once the structure became clear to me. The editing process is largely about achieving clarity and eliminating junk.

6. What are your daily habits as a writer, and as a reader?

I try to work on a schedule. Right now it’s two poems drafted per week. Next year it will be a certain number of pages of prose every week. As a reader, I am constantly immersed in books, especially poetry, fiction, and nonfiction—often the nonfiction is research for my own writing. I also am big on taking notes on my reading either in diary form or on the computer with long quotes and commentary.

7. What is your ambition as a writer—what do you want to accomplish, personally and professionally?

I would only admit this under torture—it seems foolish to say how ambitious you are, in case you don’t live up to your own standards. I do want to have a new book of poems drafted by the end of this year. I’m also working on a memoir I started in 2003 that has been rejected by several good publishers because it’s a mess. It needs restructuring and new material, so that’s my 2010 project.

8. Why don’t you quit?

A good question, especially for poets. The average book of poems in this country sells two or three hundred copies. Even successful novelists in Canada nearly always have to teach.

I keep writing for two main reasons: one is the pleasure of doing the work. This includes competing with writers I enjoy, many of whom are dead. The other source of enjoyment is the connection with people who read my work, which I usually experience at readings. I’m an extroverted reader, and when people laugh or say they were affected by something at a reading, that is rewarding.

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