Marilyn Iwama was born in Nipawin, Saskatchewan. She began publishing poetry in 2001 (“An Old Wife’s Tale,”Prairie Fire 22:3). Her first volume of poetry, Skin Whispers Down, was published in 2003 by Thistledown Press. In 2008, Gaspereau Press published I Got It From An Elder: Conversations in Healing Language, a chapbook she wrote with Albert Marshall, Murdena Marshall, Ivar Mendez and Cheryl Bartlett. Her poetry appears in various magazines. Her research and poetry interweave Aboriginal and other ways of knowing. She lives in Ottawa.
Questions & Answers
Is there a specific moment that inspired you to pursue poetry?
I was trying to make sense out of hard times by writing about them. My non-fiction was pretty bad. Someone told me if I wanted to write about such things to go and learn how to do it so I am. For now, poetry seems to be the form that can hold what needs writing. I find myself in a zone, like when you’re running and you finally look up and there you are, kilometres later. So no more or less inspired than a good run.
How/where do you find inspiration today?
Life’s more tolerable if I’m writing. In the process, I’m learning how better to look at and listen to what’s there—nature, people, the news, a phrase, a smell. Sometimes it seems necessary to write about those observations. If I do, the writing might turn into a poem. There’s a guy, Dave, who lives on the street by a bookstore in Ottawa. He writes poems on pieces of cardboard. When he’s not there he leaves the cards propped up by his sleeping bag. I met another writer who stands on the street in Halifax and talks poetry to whoever will listen, and sells it right there. They inspire me.
What is your writing process?
It usually begins with an event or impression that won’t let go. The first poem I wrote (by choice) was my response to some confusing family history. The poem was published much as I put it down the first time. Sometimes the process is more like hiking up or down a mountain. The way there may be important. Or everything but what’s at the end of the hike gets tossed. Writing poetry that engages Elders’ teachings is also one way I learn about traditional knowledge. Every time I write something or make a change I read it aloud.
What is your revision/editing process?
I have a lousy memory so I write on the computer right from the start. I aim for language concrete and simple enough to handle ideas. I always hear Charles Simic saying, “Ambiguity is. This doesn’t mean you’re supposed to write poems no one understands” (Wonderful words, Silent Truth: Essays on Poetry and a Memoir).
I start. I stop for four reasons: 1) the poem says “enough,” 2) it feels “finished” enough for now, 3) the poem belongs as part of another poem or in the garbage, or 4) I can’t stand it anymore. After letting it be for weeks or months I pull the piece out for another go. I submit a poem for publication once someone besides my mother has read it. There are some extremely patient and wise readers out there.
Did you write poetry in high school? If yes, how did you get started? If no, why not?
No. I remember nursery rhymes and skipping songs from childhood, ridiculous cheerleading chants. We must have read poetry in high school but I don’t remember any. I wrote poems when they were assigned. Maybe if a teacher who enjoyed poetry shared it with us—or a poet visited the classroom—I would have remembered. Or maybe I wasn’t ready for it. I didn’t write a poem by choice until my own kids were in high school. A creative writing course with Shirley Sterling opened the way.
Do you use any resources that a young poet would find useful (e.g. websites, text books, etc.)?
I read and listen to all the poetry I can—poetry that I enjoy but especially styles and themes that make me uncomfortable. I read and listen to the poetry in magazines, at readings and on websites that I stumble on. Being in nature is the most helpful.