Maureen Hynes' powerful new collection Sotto Voce (Brick Books), her fifth, is a timely cri de coeur for a troubled world. From the ecological to the economic, Hynes turns a sharp light on inequalities and failures of empathy. From the large scale - stolen Indigenous lands, refugees in need - to the personal - broken hearts, death and grief - these are poems that look loss boldly in the face. There is hope and lyricism here as well though; a search for a way forward, and a celebration of small beauties amongst the chaos. It's no wonder the collection prompted author Helen Humphreys to remark that "Maureen Hynes is a poet at the top of her game."
We're excited to welcome Maureen to Open Book today to speak about both Sotto Voce and her life as a poet, from early influences to favourite reads.
She tells us about the intimidating but rewarding assignment challenge that first opened her up to writing poetry, notes the surprising allure of the ordinary in poetry, and shares some of her favourite lines as a reader, including a timely excerpt from an Adrienne Rich poem.
Can you describe an experience that you believe contributed to your becoming a poet?
The first Creative Writing course I took was a “Women Writers” course with Libby Scheier in the early 1990s. I enrolled fully intending to write fiction, but, one evening, Libby gave our next assignment: write a poem. I attempted it, even though it felt like she’d told us to build a boat and bring it into the next class! Though it was not at all a successful poem (about my mother’s dementia), the assignment felt both challenging and comfortable at the same time. Comfortable to return to poetry which I’d loved in high school and university, comfortable to work in a genre whose size and scope and spirit seemed to suit me – and challenging to realize how much I had to learn!
What is the first poem you remember being affected by?
Like so many young people, I was drawn to poetry in my teenaged years. I copied out poems, fragments of poems and writing I admired in a large, hard-bound black journal– scraps of Rilke, Spender, e.e. cummings, Tagore, Camus, William Carlos Williams. I still have this journal and, looking at it now, I am amazed at how few words by women are in it. One Emily Dickinson poem! But—also stashed in this notebook is an essay I wrote in my last year of high school on women writers (Freya Stark, Carson McCullers, Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Edna St Vincent Millay) (what an array!).
Probably the first poems I was really struck by were those of Raymond Souster, who I discovered in high school. Wow, I thought, this is plainspoken poetry, poetry with immediacy, poetry drawn from locations I knew well in Toronto. Its ordinariness is what drew me.
In university, I haunted library stacks and read as many early Canadian literary journals as I could get my hands on. In one, I found an Eli Mandel poem I used to recite to myself, "Day of Atonement: Standing" about the poet’s inability (or refusal) to bow down to God, and yet acknowledging the power of God. It was, however, not the sentiment or the theology, but the starkness of emotion and the flow of language that drew me: "This is the time / The bare tree bends in the fierce wind/And stripped, my God, bends to the sky."
What is the last book of poetry that really knocked your socks off?
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Recently, with three poet friends, we read Jorie Graham’s From the New World: Poems 1976-2014, and now we are reading her most recent collection, Fast. Graham’s work astonishes me with its heart, its sorrow, its empathy and insight. The breadth of her topics and the scope of her knowledge; her ability to so deeply explore a single moment of transformation. She writes in "Deep Water Trawling": "The work of humiliation. The pungency of the pesticide... You have to keep living. You have to make it not become waiting."
What one poem—from any time period—do you wish you had been the one to write?
I’m going to cheat and give you two. Maybe Seamus Heaney’s "Postscript." Or–just any poem by Adrienne Rich, especially one like her "What Kind of Times are These" with the lines, "this is not somewhere else but here, / our country moving closer to its own truth and dread, / its own ways of making people disappear."
Do you write poems individually and begin assembling collections from stand-alone pieces, or do you write with a view to putting together a collection from the beginning?
So far, I’ve written poem by poem, and then, when it seems like I might have enough work to make a book, I tackle the ordering of a manuscript from a jumble of seemingly disparate poems. I’ve read every article on "ordering a manuscript" I could lay my hands on, but in the end, it’s a very instinctual process. Lately, I’ve begun to write thematically – to write on one topic – but it’s a new project, so I am not sure it will be successful.
What do you do with a poem that just isn’t working?
Often I struggle with a problematic poem and try to wrestle it into coherence and beauty. I get some help – I workshop it, but it may just not want to cooperate and actually be a poem. Sometimes I abandon that kind of a poem – I recognize that a portion of my work just may not have enough potential to rise to the bar I’d like to see. But sometimes I am determined: the poem is important to me, and I enter the struggle fully, and work and work on it till it satisfies me.
What is the best thing about being a poet... and what is the worst?
Again, I’d like to cheat!
There are a lot of best things about being a poet: the satisfaction of working a poem into its close-to-final shape and seeing it be received well; the good company of other poets; the delight of working with younger people who are keen to enter poetry and the writing of poetry.
The worst things are just the uncomfortable feelings I get when non-poets respond in one of two ways to the fact that I write poetry – either total awe, or complete perplexity at doing such a useless thing.
Maureen Hynes lives in Toronto. Her first book of poetry, Rough Skin (Wolsak and Wynn, 1995), won the League of Canadian Poets’ Gerald Lampert Award for best first book of poetry by a Canadian. Her second collection, Harm’s Way(Brick Books, 2001), was followed by Marrow, Willow (Pedlar Press, 2011) and then The Poison Colour (Pedlar Press, 2015), which was a finalist for both the League of Canadian Poets’ Pat Lowther Award and Raymond Souster Award. She is poetry editor for Our Times magazine. Sotto Voce is Maureen’s fifth poetry collection.