INTERVIEW WITH MARI-LOU ROWLEY

Suicide Psalms (Anvil 2008 ) plumbs the depths of mortality with dexterous fingers. The poetry explores the extent of human vulnerability with language and sound. The sharp syntax pulls the trigger of the reader’s imagination creating a lyrical progression from sorrow to regret, to faith through bargain and prayer, and ultimately to psalms for survival.

Excerpt from “7”

nostalgia nicotine-stained
on the walls, in the closet
cat hair, old socks, fur balls
his teeth in a jar

toaster ghosts whisper
conspiracies of fire
abundant ashes of morning
grim light
through half-dead trees

1. I imagine Suicide Psalms was a difficult book to write, given the nature of the poems. The subject of suicide and its consequences are topics we tend to shy away from, or whisper about in quiet voices. I found that the poems challenge society’s perception of suicide through their written and audible prayer. How did you find yourself writing about suicide? Was it a healing process?

The book came very quickly, but the emotional aftermath lingered—is still lingering. At first I was concerned about “putting it out there,” partly because of the content, and also because it is so different from my previous book, Viral Suite. I was compelled to write the book because my father committed suicide when I was two months old, yet it was never talked about, and I didn’t even know how he died until my late 20s. The book is, in part, an empathetic homage to suicidal friends and strangers—those who succeeded and those who didn’t.
The reason I decided to submit and publish Suicide Psalms is that I believe suicide is the last taboo—the only topic we don’t openly discuss. Support groups aside, you won’t find a TV series on the subject, although we have shows about serial killers, sex addicts, gay morticians, mafia analysands, etc. Yet, in western society it has become an epidemic, particularly among the young and in Aboriginal communities. In Japan, the spectre of suicide clubs is particularly haunting. Young people link up online and then go out and collectively off themselves; and this happens with such frequency that it no longer makes the news. It is also a primarily a first world phenomenon. People in third world counties starve to death before they kill themselves.
And this rash of suicides is not motivated out of any kind of romantic notions of death, in the way that Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther had young men all over Europe wearing yellow waistcoats and killing themselves—ostensibly out of unrequited love. Today’s suicides are motivated by an utter despair and hopelessness with life per se. Existential, psychological, environmental angst. Mixed with some chemical imbalances, yes. But we have to ask, why are so many people on SSRIs? What’s wrong with this picture?
I believe our disconnectedness with nature and our environment is fuelling the disconnection with self and disaffection with others. And I believe the environmental crisis is a form of collective suicide. I hope that these poems help to pay homage to those who have suicided, and help those who have survived to talk about it.
So to the second part of your question: how I came to write the book? In the winter of 2006, while attending the Writers/Artists colony at St. Peters Abby in Muenster, Saskatchewan, I had an incredible and haunting experience. I was staying in a hermitage on the outskirts of the Abby grounds, which was rather daunting as the weather was in the minus twenties, and there was no running water in the cabin, so I had to haul it by sled. The trek back to the Abby for meals and showers was fifteen minutes on snowshoes each way. One night, just as I was drifting off to sleep, a coyote began to howl right outside the thin walls of the cabin. When it finally stopped, the silence was so complete and eerie that it took ages before I managed to fall asleep. And then I had the most horrific dream, which became the poem “God’s Dog Boy.”
A year later, Suicide Psalms began to emerge—a howl that had been building since my father’s suicide. The poems literally insinuated themselves—the first when I was in the middle of writing an article on binary pulsars. The rest of the book came with such speed and ferocity that the writing process was actually euphoric. So yes, writing Suicide Psalms was cathartic, exhilarating, and terrifying. And it took me to a new level of emotional resonance in my work that will be difficult to get back to, I think. Writing the cerebral, sensual, science-based work of Viral Suite felt much safer.

2. Did you intend the format of the book, or most precisely, the use of the three sections of poems, to produce a form of creative communion or worship, or did you see the poetry more as songs of prayer?

Well, I’m not religious in any traditional or Christian sense, but I definitely wanted the book to evoke a kind of prayer, with three sections invoking elements of psalms, meditations and incantations. I also wanted the book design to have a hymnal shape and tactility. Brian Kaufman and Anvil were fabulous to work with. I had a lot of input in the size, shape, and cover design, which we wanted to be playful, graphic and colourful to provide some visual intrigue and relief from the sombre title. I think the book is stunning as fetish art object in itself.

3. The poems in the first and second section are often visceral chants. Did you find the prayer in the third section a way to reconcile the often violent contradictions in the first two?

I did intend the second and third sections to provide emotional balance and relief to the first section. While “Hermitage Poems” are more meditations than chants, “Survival Psalms” is indeed an incantation that deals with larger issues of environmental suicide, and spiritual and cultural impoverishment. In these poems, I touch on what systems biologists—and Buddhists—have been saying all along, and an area of study (enactivism and biosemiotics) that I am currently interested in. All living things are interconnected and interdependent. And I think that truly understanding this, and acting on it, can provide a sense of purpose—a wanting to be here, in this world, on this planet. That’s the tone on which I want the book to end. Not despair, but optimism, however guarded.

4. In the poems, nature is steady though always changing and flowing like a river. Do you envision the steady element of nature, as one that is continuing to be re-sown, evolve, as a kind of salvation?

In the sense I mentioned above, yes. It is evolving; nothing in nature remains in a single or constant state. We are evolving as well. I’m not interested in romanticizing nature, but understanding our place within it. I find that connectedness something that inspires and motivates my writing. There is much critical discourse about the demise of nature, the lack of wilderness. Anyone who has experienced remote parts of Canada—or a prairie winter—knows that nature is alive and kicking, and we had better be prepared for it. I love that about living in Saskatchewan. It is a landscape and environment that can kill you if you are not careful. Yet the beauty is so expansive and understated that it seeps quietly into one’s consciousness.

5. In the first section, you deal with the theme of “nostalgia” and the longing for the past. How important do you feel the idea of nostalgia is to human survival?

As poets we have to be careful with the word “nostalgia” and writing out of a sense of it. My reference to nostalgia in the second poem is “rancid and sweet.” Nostalgia is different from memory. Much of my work deals with desire and yearning, but not for the past. For something ineffable, unknown, lost, or not yet experienced. In the case of Suicide Psalms—a father who died while I was still an infant. In that respect, some of the poems do deal with a kind of yearning for a father figure, but he’s certainly not idealized in a romantic, nostalgic sense. He’s a conjurer, a deal-maker, soul-taker. So while hanging on to some nostalgic, idealized notion of the past is not the way to move forward, understanding one’s history, ontogeny, is. Sometimes that demands a dredging and purging. A psychic re-membering.
And, of course, most of the poems don’t have any relation to my own life, but are loosely based on people and things I have met and seen.

6. I know you’ve lived in various places, but would you consider yourself a prairie writer? Why or why not?

I spent most of my adult life living in the centre of large urban cities: Edmonton, Toronto, Vancouver. But I grew up in the prairies, so this is the landscape that I’m drawn to and where I feel most at home, but not in a nostalgic way (hmm, that word again). More an emotional and physical centering that I find very inspiring and productive. The Sask. Writers/Artists Colonies are where I have written, or at least drafted, most of my work.
While the themes and concepts of my poetry are not particularly “prairie,” my work is certainly informed by the landscape, the sense of place, flora and fauna, sky—more so than it is influenced by the urban streetscape, for example. Having said that, many of the poems in the first section of Suicide Psalms deal with the urban underbelly. I lived in Vancouver’s East Side, one major intersection away from the drive-by-shooting capital of Canada. I also co-authored Vancouver’s controversial drug strategy document. So I got a first hand glimpse into urban social malaise. Curious that these poems finally emerged in a hermitage in the middle of the prairie, and a cabin on a lake in the northern boreal forest.

7. Who would you consider your influences in poetry, contemporary or otherwise? Which poets do you read on a regular basis?

Anne Szumigalski, Christopher Dewdney, Marina Tsvetayeva, bp Nichol, John Donne, Don McKay, Christian Bök, Sylvia Plath, Louis Zukofsky, Nicol Brossard. More recently I’ve been reading Simon Armitage, John Ashbery, Emily Dickenson, and young Russian writers like Ilya Kaminsky and Dmitri Alexandrovich Prigov.

8. How did you begin to write poetry? Did you have any mentors that helped you or that continue to provide you with ongoing support in your writing?

I began writing poetry when I was 15, inspired by Leonard Cohen’s Flowers for Hitler, which I stole from the high school library and still have. My English teacher, Gerry Cooke, was my first mentor. When I was eighteen I joined Anne Szumigalski’s poetry group, and was encouraged by Anne, Nancy Senior, Terry and Caroline Heath, and others. It was an amazing to be part of that group of writers, especially since I was so naïve about writing, poetry and life in general. Later, in Toronto, I met several writers who had an incredible influence on my work, Chris Dewdney, Paul Dutton, Steven Ross Smith, Anne Michaels, Steve McCaffery, Lola Lemire Tostevin, Victor Coleman, and of course, bp Nichol. It was a fantastic time to be in that city, and that’s where I really became a poet.

9. Could you describe a bit of your writing process? Do you write in the buff? Do you need to travel, or do you need quiet spaces?

I need to have my mind clear of other tasks at hand. Since I make my living as a science and corporate writing for a living and am pursuing my own independent academic interests in, finding the space–time for poetry is difficult. That’s why most of my creative work has been drafted at colonies and residencies. I do write the odd one-off poem, generally in the wee hours of the night, but I don’t have a regular writing schedule for poetry. However, I am constantly note taking and processing, so when I do sit down to write the poems generally come quite easily. Having said that, my previous two books, Interference with the Hydrangea and Viral Suite took over ten years to write, while Suicide Psalms was written in under a year. It just depends on the work. It takes the time it takes.

10. Do you have any future projects in the works? Do you intend to write a novel?

Yes, I am currently working on another manuscript of poetry. I have an idea for a novel, but I would need a concentrated period of time, and don’t think I could keep my cats and myself fed while that was in the works.

ALMOST TIME

…to disappear into the sunset at St. Peter’s. Today I spent most of the afternoon gathering reading material for the three weeks I’ll be away. I started with something older, and something reminscent of the extreme winter we’re enduring with The Weather for Poetry by Donald Hall, then onto something a little more recent with Contemporary Poetry Meets Modern Theory, edited by Antony Easthope and John O. Thompson, then onto something more contemporary yet with Jorie Graham: Essays on the Poetry, edited by Thomas Gardner. I figure that’s enough critical reading and quickly moved to some smaller books, and rescued off the shelves of the library Carl Phillips The Tether, Sharon Olds’s One Secret Thing, and Grace Paley’s Fidelity.

Earlier in the week I purchased a few new Canadian author’s books that I didn’t have such as Tim Bowling’s The Book Collector, (you can find a review of it by Zach Wells), The Given by Daphne Marlatt, (here is a brief review by Gerry Hill), and More to Keep Us Warm by Jacob Scheier ( with a brief review here).

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If you’re in Saskatoon next week:
Don’t forget the Midwinter Salon, the social event of the frigid season,

Saturday, January 31, 7:30 pm.
At the home of Bernice Friesen and Colin Boyd,
636 University Drive
Saskatoon, Sask.
One block off five corners at the top of the Broadway bridge.

Hear hot poetry by these warm writers…..
Tracy Hamon and John Barton.

Dress code: poetic

The hat will be passed, and there will be a raffle of fabulous signed books by many scintillating local authors, as well as orginal prints by the brilliantly twinkling Elyse St. George and your humble host.

All for the benefit of the Saskatchewan Writers Guild Foundation.

Food and drink will be present, potluck appreciated.

I’m also reading along with Kelly-Anne Riess at the Flint reading series, Sunday Feb. 1. Hope you can make one of these!

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There won’t be much on the blog for awhile, except for a few interviews, I hope. The last 12 pages of a thesis are calling, along with its companion called the critical introduction, bells are tolling, suitcases are being prepared, meetings have been arranged, rooms are designated, rides have been negotiated, and the smallest of the smallest details are slowly being delicately arranged. Peace out. (Meh, how corny is that saying?)

THE ANTHOLOGY

Last week as I made my bi-monthly trek to the Canadian section of the library to closely examine row upon row of tightly shouldered books (I love the smell of book spines early in the morning), I stopped for a moment in the anthology section and began to ponder the usefulness of the anthology beyond the shelf. And that alone seems to be a rather ridiculous thought, because, in fact, almost all of the books produced every year meet the same fate of the anthology, resting their hard card (or soft card) bones on the grey metal shelf.

But, how often are these anthologies removed from their perch? Are they ever removed? Who takes them out off the shelf? I must admit I, on more than one occasion, have removed some of the newer ones, took them home for a good meal, let them hang out in my bathroom, or my computer room, but I also admit to never reading them from cover to cover. And I’ll even admit to buying older anthologies in book sales, or at used book stores, anthologies that are out of print that contain quite a few important poets, or once important poets. It’s interesting to me to see the contemporaries of those poets. And, as well as buying the odd older one, I have extra copies of recent anthologies that I’ve been in, and what do I do with them? Don’t get me wrong, I like being in them as much as anyone; I enjoy seeing my poems butt butts with others, but (I apologize in advance for the repetitiveness of the “but’s” in this post, it can’t be helped) do we really need so many?

In the university library, there are shelves upon shelves full of anthologies. The ones in the Canadian section were probably only a cross selection of the past 20 or so years. Out of curiosity, I did a World Cat search: anthology canadian, 2007, 2008. World Cat came back with a tidy number of books: 76. After glancing at the list, I figured half a dozen could be eliminated so it would suffice to say that in the past two years, there have been roughly 70 anthologies produced. Is this too many? Sure, I understand the educational significance of the anthology, and that many professors will use them, but who reads the rest of these (I was going to add some of the obscure anthology titles I found in my search, but I decided that that would be targeting unfairly books that may well be fine books, so I’ll leave the title-imagining up to you, hoping you’ll do something more in this post besides read (glance quickly at))? Do they sell? Are they worthwhile ventures?

I quizzed a few writers at a recent reading and they all claimed to like anthologies, but of course, a number of them had edited them, some were in them, and others hoped to be in some one day. They were genuinely surprised when I mentioned the amount produced in a two year period, and while the writers all proclaimed a valuable quality to them, no one could say they were used for anything other than educational purposes, or on occasion, a celebratory occasion. No one said they bought them on a regular basis. No one made claims of anthology addiction.

So, this brings me to my last gasp. As I stood before the rows of anthologies I couldn’t help but wonder, is the anthology (gasp) overdone?

ENDING THE WEEK WITH A BANG

Here’s a little something to get you into the weekend spirit. (Thank you to Bernie Friesen and Colin Boyd who supplied me with the link.)

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Update: Interesting to note that the original commercial has suddenly disappeared. Now I’m a little choked. Or not. Good old youtube to the rescue.

NOT SURE

…whether my day has been distinctly foul, or if it’s some bizarre environmental climate change that has made me scowl today at pretty much everything and everyone, but I’m relieved to see there is relief, in some way, shape, and form. (There’s more in the table of contents if you’re brave enough to read them.)

MY NEW DAY PLANNER

…is an Edward Gorey calendar, complete with postcards, so if you’re a reader of the blog, and I know your address, you may get one of these this year, watch your mail. Today I found it interesting to see a little book, The Recently Deflowered Girl, written by Gorey, over at The Adventures of Accordian Guy. Read it while you can (apparently it may get taken down, as it has before). The little book is unpolitically correct, especially by today’s standards, but somewhat amusing nonetheless, if you’re a Gorey fan.

WINTER WISE

Why:

Do cars need more room in a parking stall?
Do health food stores bag your purchase in plastic bags?
Does -15 feel warm?
Does the wind hurl itself through a coat, two sweaters, and a scarf?
Do people drive in the middle of the road?
Does the sun seem so deceptively bright?
Do lineups slow when I get in line?
Do bubbly cashiers annoy me?
Does the gas leap .10 higher, but only drops .01 at a time?
Does the produce look like frozen mush?
Do do I buy more than I can carry, after walking to the store?
Don’t they make hats large enough for my head?