The Fourth Day of Writemas

On the fourth day of Writemas my true love gave to me

An interview with Marilyn Dumont!

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Gosh I’m having way too much fun with all this…. today, a lovely little convo with the uber lovely Marilyn Dumont.

Marilyn is the kind of poet who is a superhero to poets like me, we look up at her soaring in the sky and wish we could fly too. Her books included A Really Good Brown Girl which is one of my most favourite books of poetry… she’s also on Wiki, so that means everyone knows she’s the cat’s pajamas, and currently she is the Aboriginal Writer in Residence for Brandon University and will be there for the rest of the school year so check her out…..

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Kate: Hey Marilyn, thanks for the interview! So, you’re the aboriginal writer in res at brandon u this year – can you tell us about your work in brandon?

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Marilyn: I’m so grateful to have a chance to write after teaching and grading short fiction for 3 years through Athabasca University.  I need to create or I begin to feel that I have nothing to offer my students. I’m grateful that there is now an Aboriginal Writer in Residence program at a Canadian university and that I have been given this opportunity to work on a collection of poetry which I have been trying to write for 6 years on Gabriel Dumont, Louis Riel and the Resistance Period.  This collection has been and continues to be a challenging project because the historical research involved, adds another level of difficulty in entering the work.  I tried doing it piecemeal for 6 years and didn’t make much headway.  It’s because one needs to be subsumed by the historical period in order to write about it convincingly.  Much of my work before this was closer to my personal life and was easier to access creatively, so this project has taught me another way of working with content and form.  It’s different, but instructive.

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Kate: Your first collection,  A Really Good Brown Girl, was published in 1996, but when did you know you wanted to be a writer?

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Marilyn: The short answer is that I started imagining being a writer in 1985 or so.  I was studying English at the University of Alberta; I was absorbed and fascinated with poetry.  I was in my early thirties and had just separated from my husband of thirteen years and the world seemed open to me with possibilities.  I had attended a conference in Lethbridge entitled, The Aboriginal in Literature and there were about three Aboriginals there along with about 50 non-native scholars from various universities.  It struck me that there was something wrong with that picture.  I know the conference theme was open to interpretation, but the milieu felt very colonial and I thought about the possibility of being one of the lone Aboriginal voices in the wilderness writing.  I felt vulnerable and clinically examined at that conference even though I hadn’t  written very much or published yet, so that feeling of being analysed and commodified as a subject of study, spurred me onto think about adding my voice to a handful of Aboriginal writers in Canada.   I then took time off from school and enrolled in a non-credit poetry writing course with a warm and supportive teacher who encouraged me to send some poems out.  I did this, not expecting anything but a rejection letter in return, but CV2 accepted the two poems I sent.   This thrilled and frightened me because I wasn’t sure what to do next.  I persevered in writing and sending out poems until my list of publications slowly accumulated.  I then began to wonder if I could put a collection together.  I began imagining that and applied to the Writing Studios at the Banff Center and worked with Rhea Tregebov who just so happened to be talking to John Donlan, another writer one day and he also happened to be an editor for Brick Books.   He took a look at my manuscript upon the recommendation of Rhea and suggested that I submit formally to Brick Books and about 6-8 months later they agreed to publish it in two years from that date.  I waited patiently for that long two years and my first collection was launched in 1996– A Really Good Brown Girl.

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Kate: What do you like best about being a writer?

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Marilyn: What I like about being a writer is that I feel fortunate to being doing something that may have a positive affect on the world.  I’m not selling things to people that they don’t need, nor am I in a job which contributes to worsening environmental devastation.  I’m creating something even though I am not rewarded or affirmed financially.  Learning to live on what a writer/teacher of occasional courses makes, has been damn hard, but worth it.

Definitely, the worst part of being a writer is trying to earn a living, but this in itself has forced me to be more resourceful and learn what’s important in life.

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Kate: What do you like best about poetry?

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Marilyn: I love poetry because it can express on so many levels simultaneously. It can convey on the sensory level, the sonic level, the ideational level, the spiritual level, the political level etc, and it can do it concisely all as the same time.  It’s sublime when it works.  It’s a bitch when it doesn’t.

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Kate: You graduated from UBC’s MFA program – can you tell me about that experience for you? How was the program? (ok this is a purely selfish question ’cause this program is my dream grad school – just have to ask about it!)

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Marilyn: The experience was exhilarating and intimidating.  I was forty years old, one of the “mature” students in the class.  I felt old and slow-witted, but fortunately there were a few other “older women in the classes and we gravitated to one another.

I realized through that experience that even though I didn’t know all the correct grammar or elements of creative writing, I ,at least, had something to write about.  I keep a quote from Alastair MacLeod close to my computer because it best articulates this.  (Also on my first book tour I felt frightened, intimidated and inadequate and he befriended me.  He’s close to my heart because of this.)  But this is his quote:

WRITING ABOUT A LIFE THAT IS FIERCE, HARD, BEAUTIFUL AND CLOSE TO THE BONE

From time to time there are writers who come riding out of the hinterlands of this country called Canada.  And they are writing about a life that they really know down to its smallest detail.  And it is a life that is fierce and hard and beautiful and close to the bone.  They are not fooling around, these writers, not counting their phrases, not being coy.  And they have not returned from an aimless walk through a shopping plaza “looking for something to write about.”  They both know what they want to say and how to say it, and they go at their task with the single-mindedness of the Ancient Mariner encountering the wedding guest.  “Look,” he says, “no wedding for you today because I am going to tell you a story.  And I am going to hold you here and not with my hand nor with my ‘glittering eye’ but by the very power of what I have to tell you and how I choose to tell it.  I am going to show you what I saw and heard and smelled and tasted and felt.  And I am going to tell you what it is like to be abandoned by God and by man and of the true nature of loneliness and of the preciousness of life.  And I am going to do it in such a way that your life will never ever again be the same.”     Alistair MacLeod

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Kate: Love it! And one more, the question i have to ask everyone – favourite book of all time and why?

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Marilyn: I have many reasons for liking a variety of books:

Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck because I could identify with the poverty and desperation of the characters when I was age ten.

Education and the Significance of Life, Krishnamurti because it affirmed my belief that education needs to be relevant to what’s happening in one’s life to be meaningful.

The Dead and the Living, Sharon Olds because she gave me permission to write about family in an honest way.

She Had Many Horses, Harjo because she showed me how to write about the beauty of Aboriginal belief and traditions.

The Stone Angel, Laurence because she wrote about women like my mother who were tough as nails, but frail as thin ice.  For her compassionate treatment of her characters.

The Book of Hours, Rilke because he validated the contemplative and ecstatic realms of poetry

Kate: LOVE IT! Love thorough answer to that question. Thanks so much Marilyn!

Katherena Vermette

2 Responses to “The Fourth Day of Writemas”

  1. Kitty Lewis says:

    Great interview with Marilyn Dumont!! We are very proud of her first book A Really Good Brown Girl which we published in 1996.

    Thanks. I’ll be posting it on the Brick Books website.

    Kitty Lewis, General Manager, Brick Books