Writer in Residence

Hearing the Muse

By Koom Kankesan


I was always fond of my teachers but one couldn’t help but love Mary di Michele. I realize that my impressions and recollections are fifteen years old but so what? Of all my professors at Concordia, Mary left the greatest impression. A lyric poet, her injunction to examine sentences and words like archaeologists stuck with me: no object, no brush or tool, was too small. A fierce cabal of loyal students surrounded her. The immediacy of her love for writing made one loyal. This was, after all, the institution where in one of my introductory writing workshops (not Mary’s class), a student pulled out a box of massive spliffs and passed them around while other students ‘analyzed’ my writing. Anything went.

A lovely and lively dimunitive sprite, Mary roamed Concordia’s halls wearing the thinnest of jogging sneakers and attempted to keep abreast of HBO’s The Sopranos. You felt nothing less than the desire to bend down and kiss her on top of the head. She existed in the moment in a way that was disarming. In an institution of academicians, how can you not love someone who admits "usually, everybody keeps their emotional plumbing on the inside but mine’s on the outside", before ruefully shaking her head, chuckling, and proceeding with the lesson? You cannot tell from the author photo attached to this blog (credit given where credit’s due: Terence Byrnes) but Mary possesses a thermonuclear grin. When I was her student, energy crackled around her. There always seemed to be a portal, slightly visible and palpable, hovering near, perhaps just behind her shoulder, leading to the realm of poetic abstraction and subjectivity. Her new collection Bicycle Thieves will be out in the Spring.


tenor of love


Koom: When I was in the fourth year of my undergrad and doing an independent creative writing project with you (I was trying to work on a novel which ultimately did not pan out but taught me lots), you were working on the last drafts of your novel Tenor of Love. I came into your office one day, not having been able to sleep, in an obsessive consumed state about what I was writing, and we talked a little about writing. You were in a similar state yourself. You asked me if it was the muse and I nodded. Now, I wasn't used to thinking of it in those terms, a gendered classical allusion, but I instinctively understood what you meant.

I'd like to try and get at what the muse is, at least for you. It's not a notion we talk about in discussions around creative writing. There is the muse as a figure of speech but I don't think that's what you're talking about. For me, it's a state of waking consumption, comingling ecstasy and an almost animal drive. It's a state of ecstasy that's more chemical than classical, though it's writing that takes me there, not drugs. I should say that it was something I gave myself to more easily when I was younger, or perhaps I was more powerless when I was younger. I think that being older (and fatter) has allowed me to absorb these energies more readily. What is it like for you?

Mary: I caught my first glimpse of the muse in John Keats’s “La Belle Dame Sans Merci.” My desire to write poetry was sparked by that poem. She spoke a language of otherness and of death. Death may be the most powerful muse. What Lorca called duende is one of the many faces of the muse.
Sometimes the muse comes to me as a voice, more often in dreams, and one time in a waking one where she pirouetted to show me her wings. The muse is sometimes male, sometimes female. But she’s always something other than my self, that patina of personality, that subject of the selfie.

One of the Greek muses is called Mneme, memory; and she is a primary source of inspiration for me, but that memory encompasses more than my individual life experience, it includes what we know in our DNA, what’s stored in what Carl Jung called the ‘collective unconscious.’ She is the muse of my new book, Bicycle Thieves. For my last poetry book, The Flower of Youth, it was Clio, the muse of history. Sure I did research, but the x-factor was hearing Pasolini’s voice, whispering lines in my ear, literally hearing it.

Memory and history are both figures of time. The epigraph for my new book is a sentence from John Banville’s novel, The Sea: “The past beats inside me like a second heart.” I recently read an article in The New Yorker called “Present Tense” about how time is experienced as psychological. The author, Alan Burdick, relates a fascinating anecdote about the first dream, a nightmare, that his five year old son recalls: the boy is lost in a wilderness and hears an invisible voice ask “Who are you?” Burdick thinks it’s obvious that the voice is his son’s own voice. But he goes on with this: “so here we were two selves confronting each other–one self unknown to itself–at least one of which was self-aware enough to ask humankind’s most existential question.” I think the muse is that self that remains unknown to our selves.


la belle dame


Koom: Yes, but what is the experience like for you? If you can put it into words on an experiential rather than an intellectual level? You do describe it as a voice, but what I'm asking is: is that all it is? A voice whispering in your ear? When I saw you while working on Tenor of Love, you seemed in a state of consumption/abstraction.

Mary: Not intellectual, though talking or writing about it might make it seem so. To articulate is to try to understand what I experience as deep mystery.  When I was working on Luminous Emergencies and literally saw an angel, the waking dream I allude to above, it was terrifying. My body broke out into hives, the visceral, physical aspect of my terror. I remember talking to my friend Bronwen Wallace about my terror at 'seeing things' when she visited while I was living in Saskatchewan, working as writer-in-residence at the Regina Public library, and she said I was scared because perhaps it was the angel of death.

Koom: Hmmm... This is interesting because perhaps our experiences are very different. My experiences were things that happened primarily when I was younger. I would never see anything but perhaps the quality of light was different. For example, when I visited you in your office that day, the sunlight fell like honey through the window, though I know this comparison is a cliche. What were really affected were my mood and feelings. A sense of exultation that could last for days, even weeks. I felt a surge of ecstasy that could keep me up, buzzing and thinking, feeling and writing. In religious terms, it was like the combustion of body into spirit, matter into energy. Now, I primarily look towards a scientific framework to interpret the world so I think of it as my animal brain kicking into gear - everything is very intuitive and primal and strong and pure - but there is also a feeling of equanimity, of feeling lifted from the body. And then the crash would be awful. To no longer feel that way, to no longer feel those emotional capabilities... it would wreck me.

I think I moderate this more now because I am more sensible, a little older, a bit more confident in my abilities. When I was younger, insecurity necessitated and yearned for that ecstasy. Now, a regular writing practice and its attendant joys and sparks and emotional flourishes will do just fine. But I'll get a low level of that current from time to time - a kind of buzzed feeling. It's very different from the idea of Calliope or one of the muses singing to me. If anything, it's more like an emptying of the self, allowing the universe's winds to blow through - Coleridge's idea of an Eolian harp, I suppose. Do you constantly rely on the muse to write now? Are you upset if she is not there?

Mary: There's euphoria, you call it ecstasy, in writing when it's going well or even when deeply in the throes of it, wrestling the angel. But that's not the muse; that's the effect she has on you. The high is not the drug, it's the effect of the drug to use an analogy. I use the Greek figures as tropes. Forms and names historically used for what is a universal experience, not just for artists, scientists too. The muse does not wear togas. The muse is what you call "the winds of the universe" blowing through you. Writing is not self-expression, it's the universe expressing itself through you. To get to that you need to listen, you need to be open. Some lines from Transtromer, from his poem, "Vermeer": "and the emptiness turns its face to us/ and whispers/"I am not empty, I am open." Rilke waited patiently to hear the angel, when not writing, he called it 'gathering sweetness.' I can write without the muse but she writes my best poems.


bicycle thieves


Koom: I guess a question I want to ask then is: why the split self? I realize you're not really talking about being split in the conventional sense, but more in the sense of communion with your deeper self. Is it not possible to experience or see the process as a unified self? Is it easier to pull out the best poems if you allow your 'conscious self' to initially be unaware of the 'unconscious self' or collective unconscious? Has the process changed at all for you over time? You're as prolific as ever so I can only infer that your writing process is as strong as it always was?

Mary: That other is not the self, the self is just one of its masks. That other is the human species, and all the creatures leading to us, and the other is cosmic too, dark matter. I am not prolific, every book feels like it will be my last book, every poem or story my last. Writing doesn't get easier, it gets harder. You know more so you know less.


flower of youth


Koom: That's a good way to end our discussion, wisely and enigmatically phrased, unless there's anything else you'd like to add? I'm still curious as to whether this more magical side to your writing process has changed over the years? I don't know that it's possible to really pin it down into words in a mini discussion, as it's as fundamental as life itself. After all, saints have devoted whole books to the topic. I did find it interesting that you mentioned the angel of death though, and you started off the discussion with Keats' figure who brings about death. The mysteries of death in many cultures are portals to insights about life. I'm wondering whether you feel there's been a toll for all this? In my case, it has ground down my body and health. I feel like glass that has been ground down. It has lifted my mood for a while, and I can't say that it has hastened my death any, but it has taken a toll. I can't say I regret it but everything has its price.

Mary: I had a month long writer's retreat a few years ago at the house of my ex's recently deceased mother. Her ashes were in a box in a shopping bag on the dining room table. I wrote feverishly, one, sometimes two, three poems a day (not that I kept them all). Margaret Owen Newson was my muse for that month. The poems I wrote then are in my new book.

I feel that writing has been more gift than toll in my life. I feel blessed.


The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.

Koom Kankesan was born in Sri Lanka. While his family lived abroad, the civil war in Sri Lanka broke out and this caused them to seek a new home. They eventually settled in Canada and have lived here since the late eighties. He has a background in English Literature and Film Studies. Koom contributed arts journalism to various publications before becoming a high school teacher in the Toronto District School Board. Since working as a teacher, he has taken semesters off now and again to work on his fiction. The Tamil Dream, his new book, is his most ambitious to date. It looks at the end of the civil war in Sri Lanka and how it affected Tamils here in Canada. Besides literature and film, Koom has deep interests in history and science, and an enduring love for comic books.

You can write to Koom throughout January at writer@open-book.ca.