Guest Writers / On Writing / Poetry / Publishing / Writing Life

An Interview with Mary Ann Mulhern, Poet, on her new book, ‘How We Fare’

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Mary Ann’s latest hard-heart-hitting collection of poetry launched this past April (Black Moss Press), and is as powerful and timely as ever. Taking news stories and writing them into ‘poetic events’, Mary Ann’s poetry presents a different voice, a unique reading, and a necessary reflection on both tragic and triumphant human happenings. ‘How We Fare’ is another collection that holds Mulhern’s place on the Canadian poetry landscape – at the top of a mountain of brave, succinct re-tellings of truths we need to face. From a childhood in the shadows of a graveyard to convent confessions to Catholic priest molestations, and now to the daily news – Mulhern’s poetry fares on the side of justice, empowerment and humanity.

For more information about Mary Ann, and to purchase any of her books, please click on the Black Moss Press website link here.

Please enjoy our interview!

1) How/ when did you get the idea for the theme of “How We Fare”, poetry from the news?

I’m not sure of exactly how or when this idea came through to me – I do recall reading about Christian Choate, the boy kept in a dog-cage, who wondered why no one ever came to help him, and if anyone would look for him if he died. That event in the news really made an impact – his profound sadness that there was no response to his pain, no offer of humanity toward him. I think Christian’s “letters from a dog-cage”,speak to all of us – a powerful reminder to take heed of “the other”. And, the irony of his name,”Christian”, should make anyone pause!

2) What was the toughest poem to write, why?

I think “Solitary”, the poem about the Canadian teen, Ashley Smith, who died in solitary confinement, was the toughest poem to write. To me, Ashley had so many similarities to Christian Choate. She was a teen-ager, locked in a prison-cell, kept in solitary confinement in a Canadian prison, mainly because Ashley had mental-health issues that were not addressed. To me, the girl was punished, not helped.  And,like Christian, Ashley died. Perhaps Ashley Smith’s tragedy is more significant because I was invited to give a writing work-shop to female prisoners in the Kitchener,ON prison where Ashley Smith died. I’ll never forget that strange feeling of “witness”.

3) Where did you write?At home, around the city?

Mostly, I wrote at my small, maple, kitchen table.Sometimes, I wrote in a restaurant or coffee shop. Also, I wrote some poems “on the train”.

4) Did you hand-write the poems first?

I really feel that there is a “hand-brain” connection when I write or print on paper. Always, I hand-write first, and, make lots of changes before it ever goes to the computer.  Maybe I’m “old-school”, but this works for me.

5) What Media-Outlets did you get the stories from ?

I read some of them in the Windsor Star and the Toronto Stat. Also, I watched CBC news, NBC news,and “Sunday Morning with Charles Osgood“on CBS. The Sunday edition of the Toronto Star has a section from “The New-York Times’. This has also been an influence.

6) How did it make you feel to read the news with a poet’s eyes and heart?

It certainly was a different feeling entirely. A great help with this was Phil Hall, who won the Governor General’s Award for his poetry.Phil was “writer in residence” at the U of Windsor in 2013. I met with him and he advised me to “make the poem the event” – what great advice – changed the entire construct of these poems!!

7) I see this collection as social justice and witness poetry – what do you think the role of the poet can be in terms of “speaking out” against or “holding up a mirror” to society?

I think the poet can have a powerful influence on society with regard to social justice. Indeed, this has always been the case. I’m thinking of some of the greats, Shakespeare’s “Merchant of Venice”, the “mind-forged manacles” of William Blake. And, there are many other examples. Indeed poetry has inspired people to work for social change,to rise up against tyranny. Governments often fear “the poet’s pen”. Dictatorships have always imprisoned poets.

8) Do poems in “How We Fare” hold up a mirror to society?

I certainly hope so. Even if one of these poems effects a re-thinking of an issue, or changes a negative attitude, or informs, the work succeeds!

9) How did you read positive news stories? Did you write poetry about these?

Like many people, I search for positive events! We all need these!The poem, “Wreckage”, about the little girl who survived a plane crash that killed her family, is an example – the child limped trough winter woods to the only house that had “a light”. We need inspirational stories like this!There are poems in “How We Fare” about Mandela and Malala. When I give poetry workshops in schools – kids know the story of Malala – they want to hear the poem. “Harvard Drop-out” is another example. This poem tells the story of a black girl who “came back to books” after someone offered words of encouragement. “An Apple Shared” is also a positive poem – a love story that came out of Auschwitz.The fact that anything positive could come out of such a horrible place is a testament to the human spirit.

10) I love that the headline of the story is at the bottom of each poem. It really presents a necessary context for the poems. Was this your idea? Did you think about using the headline as a title for the poem?

I had the idea of “the headline as context” from the beginning. However, I always placed the headline just above the title. Placing the headline at the bottom of the page came from the students, and, I like that idea very much. No, I never considered the “headline as title”, mostly because I wanted the poem to be “the event”, and, for me, this meant creating a title. Another poet might indeed have used the headline as title – I just chose not to.

11) What is your main message as you do workshops/ readings and promotion for “How We Fare?’

I want the audience to view these events of our world in a different way- through the “filter of poetry”. If even one person questions or re-thinks an event, the work is successful. How many people ever paid attention to the terrible work-conditions of factories in Bangledesh? And, who questioned buying and wearing clothing manufactured by workers who are endangered every day? Who has questioned mentally ill people being imprisoned instead of being helped? Add to that the torture of “solitary confinement” – I think the death of Ashley Smith has brought this issue into focus.

Forced marriages of young girls in several countries is just not acceptable. These girls have no hope of freely choosing their path in life. Early marriage condemns them to servitude, poor health and no options for a better life. Human beings need choice, education, and freedom of movement. I’m hoping that poems in “How We Fare” draw attention to issues we can no longer ignore, no longer excuse. There must be change!

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For a signed copy of Mary Ann’s book ‘How We Fare’, please leave a comment about a news story that affected you!

Thank you Mary Ann for sharing your words and poetry with us! Congratulations on yet another amazing book of poetry!

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