Micheline Mayor


bio picMicheline Maylor is the poet laureate emeritus of Calgary and a decorated professor who has inspired many students to write, including yours truly. She has published five books of poetry, the most recent of which, Drifting Like a Metaphor, featured twelve emerging Calgarian poets handpicked by her. She joined me for this interview from Windsor, Ontario, the day after participating as a featured guest in Poetry at the Manor.

From 2016 to 2018, you served as Calgary’s poet laureate. Looking back, what was the most memorable moment from that time?

The most memorable moment… Oh boy, that’s a tough question because there were a few. Many of them had to do with the people that I met. People were coming to consult with me anywhere from someone who had a polished memoir about his alcoholism, all the way to a new immigrant who had been in Canada for only two weeks, and there were kids as young as three and people as old as eighty-five. It made me realize that poetry, literature, and self-expression are a hugely connecting factor in our society. Before, I could understand how important poetry was to me but I couldn’t see it on a societal scale until I had that experience.

Wow, so even at a poet laureate level, you’re still learning.

 Of course! I think that poetry is a lifelong art, I think all literature is a lifelong art. It’s you against yourself no matter how long you’re doing it. So it’s a continual thing as long as you’re breathing you’re still learning. So that only puts me at the middle of my journey, so that’s pretty neat (laughs).

(Laughs) Also maybe daunting, especially for new writers.

 Well daunting or glorious because once you can say to yourself, this is a lifelong learning opportunity, you can give up on the idea of perfection and just move into letting it be a process. Rather than having an end goal, the journey is the goal.

How do you find inspiration for your poems?

 Well, as my friend Mary Ann Mulhern said yesterday, “You don’t find inspiration, inspiration finds you.” If you are standing or walking down the street, something can catch your eye and that can be enough. You’re riding your bike down the street, and all of a sudden you hear a line in your head, or sometimes you wake up from a dream with a line, and that can be enough to begin. So inspiration comes from everywhere. I think it’s also essential to add in commonality. Because If I only told of my own experience—that would be fine—but what is even more essential is when you can tap into the experience of the other, the big other. The big other can be the human experience, it can be human emotion, it can be the pure livingness of being on the planet, that can be enough. We all have this common experience of love, sorrow, joy, elation, exuberance, laughter, naughtiness, and sorrow. All of these are common experiences, so when we find those moments where a specific thing can become grander because of its connection to the larger experience, that’s when the best inspirations happen. So my experience comes from walking around being me. I’m a walker, I walk and think, walk and think.

Out of all the poems you write, how do you pick the ones to continue working on?

 The ones that I pick to work on have that element in them. Once I write out a rough draft, I double-check and I say to myself, can this also be someone else’s experience? Because I don’t need to diarize my experience, I need to tap into the connection. When those things come closely with an emotional charge, then it becomes important to work on the language of the thing. Then, is the language also doing something beyond common speech, beyond what can be said in the vernacular? If the language doing something, is the form doing something? And I think both the language and the form is essential to elevate a poem out of a common occurrence. The language is creating the entryway, the spell, the rhythm, it can entice you to think about things in a different way. So it’s the language, the emotion, and does it have that bigger experience available within it?

What’s your editing process like?

 I’ll look at it over and over and over again. I’d say my average is editing something about twenty times. Once I can say to myself, okay, this is satisfying for me at this point, then I have people I send my work to regularly. I break my own rules and I also send my poetry to my mother but that’s because she’s not the typical mother who’ll say, that’s nice dear, you’re so talented! My mother would say, this doesn’t work, this sucks, this word is wrong… So I send her my work because I get good feedback. But that’s because she’s been listening to me for twenty-five years harp on about how you should read, and what you should look for, don’t do this, and don’t do that… She’s been my most consistent student.

Right, so you taught your own mother to become a good workshop partner.

 Yes, and now my daughter also takes my classes but she’s a songwriter. She’s a really good lyricist because she picks up the same elements of poetry writing and puts them into her songs. One of the other people I send my poetry to is Susan Plett, she’s a poet who thinks she should be a psychologist, but she’s really a poet (laughs). Another one of those people is John Wall Barger because he takes no prisoners. He currently works for a magazine in the US called Painted Bride, and they have a podcast where the editors sit together over the slush pile and pull something out of it, read it, and discuss whether or not they are gonna publish it and why. Quite fascinating. You really get an inside view of what it absolutely looks like in an editorial meeting.

Speaking of editing, you’ve also been a long-time editor at FreeFall and now at Frontenac House, and also a professor at Mount Royal University. Does working on other people’s poetry affect your own writing?

 What’s most interesting to me is that I can deeply respect someone’s work and think to myself, oh, I’d love to write like that, then don’t, because my voice is completely different. But typically, I’d say it makes my writing sharper because I see what other people are doing and I think to myself, okay, you gotta clean that up and that up and that, and it forces me to look at my own work and say, alright, is all of this stuff cleaned up?”

But you know, I don’t think that anyone should write like me. I think you know from my classes too, where I don’t say, “write like this.” What I say is, “this is what your writing is doing, is this what you want your writing to be doing?”

Also, there’s this other thing that I learned from working with new writers all the time because I get this perpetual stream of first-year writers coming my direction. I have to remember what happened in my son’s karate class—if you can just hold on while I go for this little ride. I went to my son’s karate class when he was about six, and there is this black belt teaching this class. So I asked, “Sensei, you are a black belt, why are you teaching little kids?” And he said to me, “it’s important to be in beginner mind, if I can’t teach them, I’m learning nothing.” He really emphasized to me what it was like, oh yea, beginner mind! So teaching these first years forces me to have beginner mind and, in so doing, I also get beginner enthusiasm. I go, ah… this is fun. Ah, this is fun!

 What’s the toughest thing about being a poet?

 The paycheque. (laughs)

(laughs) Of course, the grim reality.

 The grim reality! Yea, it’s a tough go, man. You make a couple hundred here, a couple hundred there and that’s it. So, why do you do it? I gotta remember what Tom Wayman said, which is that poetry lives outside of the money economy, therefore it’s an act of social change. Being a poet is an act of rebellion, there is no reason to do it except that you love it because you got something to say and you want to say it beautifully. That’s an act of rebellion against the economy, all the politics, shit news, the crazy president down south, sorrow and suffering that goes on in the world.

Do you have any advice to new poets in dealing with the capitalistic realities of our world?

 Yea. Poetry is still free. You go to your free public library, with your free library card, and you can get free poetry and that’s also an act of dissent. Everything is available to you, a world, a lifetime is available to you. So my recommendation to you is to get yourself a library card and go read. Read, read, read, read. If you have a cellphone, pull it up on YouTube, that’s free too. So the paycheque sucks, but poetry is free, and that’s a big deal. It’s a wonderful amazement of life and it’s available to you, for free, at your fingertips. So my advice to young poets is to read. Use your library, use YouTube, learn something, expand your mind, think of things differently, be awake, be aware, be engaged.

As a final question, what is the most common mistake you see new writers make?

 Self-doubt. Everything else can be fixed in your writing. If you have shit grammar, alright we can fix that. Got writer’s block? Meh, we can fix that too! But self-doubt can kill your writing. The thing that can’t be fixed is self-doubt, that’s the one you gotta break through yourself from the inside out. As a writer, will you have self-doubt? Yes, because that’s human nature, it’s the human experience. But what do you do with that self-doubt? That’s the question. At times of self-doubt, feel it, rail against it, express it, and you rebuild yourself. It’s a tiny act of heroism, denying self-doubt. Giving up is the only time a mistake is fatal.

Juhyun Tony Bae is a Korean-Canadian writer currently studying at UBC. He’s currently trying to establish a sleep schedule, but writing isn’t helping. His work has been published in Grain, FreeFall, Wax Poetry and Art, and most recently, he was shortlisted for PEN Canada’s New Voices Award. You can find him on twitter @jTonyBae.

%d bloggers like this: