Marilyn Iwama

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.

Works by Marilyn Iwama

Book ReviewsPoetryArticlesBook Reviews of Author

Book Reviews by Marilyn Iwama

The Lady and The Vamp
By Marilyn Iwama
Published in Diasporic Women’s Writing. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 196 (Spring 2008): 172-174.
  • A Woman with Demons: The Life of Kamiya Mieko by Yuzo Ota
  • One Chrysanthemum by Joan Itoh Burk
Wary of Angels
By Marilyn Iwama
Published in Canadian Literature 184 (Spring 2005): 108-110.
  • Imprints and Casualties: Poets on Women and Language, Reinventing Memory by Anne Burke
  • The Elders' Place: Iniqnirit Qalgiat by Natasha Thorpe (Author) and Margo Button (Author)
  • Jacob's Dream by Elizabeth Brewster
Knowing Qu'Appelle
By Marilyn Iwama
Published in Writers Talking. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 183 (Winter 2004): 138-140.
  • Qu'Appelle: Tales of Two Valleys by Dan Ring, Trevor Herriot and Robert Stacey
  • Rediscovering the Great Plains: Journey by Dog, Canoe, and Horse by Norman Henderson
By Marilyn Iwama
Published in Black Writing in Canada. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 182 (Autumn 2004): 138-139.
  • Discourses of Domination: Racial Bias in the Canadian English-Language Press by Frances Henry and Carol Tator
Satisfaction Guaranteed
By Marilyn Iwama
Published in Canadian Literature 181 (Summer 2004): 136-138.
  • Eating Their Words: Cannibalism and the Boundaries of Cultural Identity by Kristen Guest (Editor)
  • Bodies out of Bounds: Fatness and Transgression by Jana Evans Braziel (Editor) and Kathleen LeBesco (Editor)
Who's for Dinner
By Marilyn Iwama
Published in Canadian Literature 173 (Summer 2002): 189-191.
  • My Year of Meats by Ruth L. Ozeki
  • The Way We Ate: Pacific Northwest Cooking, 1843- 1900 by Jacqueline B. Williams
  • We Are What We Eat: Ethnic Food and the Making of Americans by Donna R. Gabaccia
Traveler's Tales
By Marilyn Iwama
Published in Asian Canadian Writing. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 163 (Winter 1999): 193-195.
  • Picture Brides: Japanese Women in Canada by Tomoko Makabe and Kathleen Chisato Merken (Translator)
  • The Japan We Never Knew: A Journey of Discovery by David Suzuki and Keibo Oiwa
Unrelenting Genealogies
By Marilyn Iwama
Published in Asian Canadian Writing. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 163 (Winter 1999): 181-183.
  • Lake and Other Stories by Gerry Shikatani
  • Splendid Monarchy: Powerand Pageantry in Modern Japan by Takashi Fujitani
  • Picture Bride by Yoshiko Uchida
Angel of Tokyo
By Marilyn Iwama
Published in Canadian Literature 154 (Autumn 1997): 171-171.
  • A Heart at Leisure From Itself by Margaret Prang
Mainstreaming Margins
By Marilyn Iwama
Published in Canadian Literature 154 (Autumn 1997): 156-158.
  • An Ethical Education: Community and Morality in the Multicultural University by M. N. S. Sellers (Editor)
  • Off Center: Power and Culture Relations Between Japan and the United States by Masao Miyoshi
Babel from the Tower
By Marilyn Iwama
Published in Urquhart and Munro. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 150 (Autumn 1996): 150-152.
  • Writing Diaspora: Tactics of Intervention in Contemporary Cultural Studies by Rey Chow
  • The Japanese Woman: Traditional Image and Changing Reality by Sumiko Iwao
  • Colour. An Issue by Roy Miki (Editor) and Fred Wah (Editor)
Who is the Daughter?
By Marilyn Iwama
Published in East Asian-Canadian Connections. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 140 (Spring 1994) (Spring 1994): 94-95.
  • Bittersweet Passage: Redress and the Japanese Canadian Experience by Maryka Omatsu
  • Paper, Scissor, Rock by Ann Decter
Lie of the Land
By Marilyn Iwama
Published in Past, Present, Future. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 138-139 (Autumn/Winter 1993): 124-126.
  • White Lies for Mother by Liza Potvin
  • The Empress Has No Closure by Adeena Karasick
  • The Work of Our Hands by Sharon H. Nelson
Telling Subjectivity
By Marilyn Iwama
Published in Letters & Other Connections. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 134 (Autumn 1992): 136-137.
  • Vancouver's Chinatown: Racial Discourse in Canada, 1875-1980 by Kay J. Anderson
  • Justice in Our Time by Roy Miki and Cassandra Kobayashi

Poetry by Marilyn Iwama

Articles by Marilyn Iwama

Book Reviews of Marilyn Iwama's Works

Skin Whispers Down
By Marilyn Iwama
Reviewed in Of Note by Robert Amussen