Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Ten Questions with Michael Mirolla

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Ten Questions with Michael Mirolla

Author Michael Mirolla talks to Open Book about his latest book, Light and Time (Guernica Editions), his inspiration and his advice for aspiring writers.

OBT:

Tell us about your new book, Light and Time.

Michael Mirolla:

Light And Time brings together poetry written over a span of more than 30 years. I had no particular theme for the collection (such as relationships, parents, children, nature, politics, etc.). The only thing that holds the poems together is my stubborn notion of yoking concrete imagery to the page in an attempt to make the images not so much universal but real. As in real objects. Stuff we can smash our heads against. The idea is to use the word to bring objects (used in the widest way possible to include ideas and other imaginary creations) into existence, rather than using objects to bring words into existence. This is perhaps where the “light” and “time” elements come in, given as they are two of the fundamental principles by which we can describe the world around us. Or, if we really want to get particular about it, the way the world around us describes us. Naturally, this is doomed to failure – as I indicate in my poem “The Touch”:

To touch the thing-in-itself –

nothing more, nothing less.

That’s what you’ve written over and over,

in one form or another, like a thick student

who just doesn’t get it.


OBT:

Did you have a specific readership in mind when you wrote your book?

MM:

No, not any specific readership if you mean in terms of demographics. I do know that my writing is not for everyone. Time and again I’ve been told it is too “heavy,” “intellectual,” “difficult,” doesn’t have enough KISS to it. But it’s not something I can help. Nor do I want to. I don’t think the task of poetry is to simplify things or to simply spill emotional baggage across a page. That was not the original impetus for poetry. Poetry is not Valentine’s Day, in other words. Poetry should be closer to what the shaman tried to do when he/she related the creation myths to the tribe. It needs to be something that can allow us to come into contact with a level of consciousness that we tend to sweep aside during our day-to-day efforts at survival. And which is becoming more and more difficult to fathom within our capitalist society.


OBT:

Where do you gather your inspiration for your poetry?

MM:

My “inspiration” comes from within. It comes from a place that I no longer even think about because it has been a part of me for as long as I can remember. At the same time, I made it a point in my youth to imbibe as much poetry as possible because I’ve always believed that one needs to know what has been done before if one wants to (a) avoid the same errors; and (b) stay up to date in terms of technique, approach, etc.


OBT:

When did you first start writing, and what did you write?

MM:

I started writing when I was still in high school. I wrote bombastic poetry and prose that seemed to smack of terrible heroism (or so it seemed at the time): civilizations reverting back to jungle; windswept plains where travelled caravans constantly forced to move from one oasis to another. That sort of thing. I was fortunate in high school because several of my teachers were very advanced for the time (even if they were Christian Brothers of Ireland). Thus, when it came time to answer questions on in-house tests (Please provide a two-paragraph paraphrase of “Ode To A Grecian Urn”), I was allowed to write fiction. Okay, so maybe I never did learn how to paraphrase John Keats but I think it was worth it.


OBT:

Describe your ideal writing environment.

MM:

I don’t really have enough data to determine an ideal writing environment. My writing environments have all been pretty much the same for the past 25 years: a room with a computer in it (starting with the original IBMs with 56 k of memory). But I did manage to get quite a bit of writing done while teaching high school in Nigeria in the late 1970s and we lived on a compound with barely a few hours of running water and electricity. And we have moved about a dozen times since then without it having all that much effect on my writing. So …


OBT:

If you had to choose three books as a "Welcome to Canada" gift, what would those books be?

MM:

As much as I like Canadian writing, I don’t think any Canadian writers would rank in the top three as my welcoming gift to someone I liked or really cared about. Actually, I lie. One Canadian book that I would recommend unequivocally is Aislinn Hunter’s A Peep Show With View Of The Interior: Paratexts. One of the very few books to get me thinking in the last several years. The other two welcoming gifts would be Der Prozess, which I think is becoming more and more appropriate for Canada, and Gravity’s Rainbow.


OBT:

What are you reading right now?

MM:

At present, I’m trying to catch up on the Guernica Editions backlist: Laura Boss, Maria Gillan, Pasquale Verdicchio, Ken Norris, Barry Dempster, Antonio D’Alfonso, Elana Wolff, Julie Roorda, Karen Shenfeld, Gianna Patriarca, Len Gasparini, Tim Quinn, Andrea Zanzotto, Samuel Beckett, Roberto Pace, Erika Rummel, etc., etc., etc.


OBT:

What's the best advice you've received as a writer?

MM:

I don’t recall having received any specific advice as a writer (I tended to keep my own counsel when younger, mostly out of intense shyness). However, I did have the wonderful opportunity of studying under Hugh MacLennan while at McGill and he encouraged me to pursue my writing. (I’ve always loved that image of “pursuit” as if trying to chase down an ideal, something that always stays just beyond one’s grasp). More practical advice came from the various instructors/writers at the University of British Columbia. People such as J. Michael Yates, George McWhirter, Doug Bankson and Robert Harlow. They didn’t just talk the talk. They got down and dirty and showed you where you were going astray and where you were on perhaps one of the right paths. And, as I have said before, they showed me there was more to Canadian lit than E.J. Pratt.


OBT:

What advice do you have for writers who are trying to get published?

MM:

All the usual things, I suppose. The work you’re presenting needs to be clean and professional in appearance. You need to do your research in terms of what a publisher is looking for. You need to know how they’d like the material presented. You need to have plenty of patience in waiting for a response (and then a gentle nudge/reminder at the right time). Before any of this, get out there and do the readings; send your material to the various journals – both print and online; join writers’ groups and workshops; and do a whole ton of reading. But the key advice I think is to have faith in yourself and confidence in your abilities. Don’t take critical comments on your writing personally but do take them to heart in terms of learning from them. And never let another person’s pessimism cause you to give up. If the passion, determination, persistence, (fill in the blank) is there, then a lifetime isn’t enough to bring it all out. Success will be yours.


OBT:

What's your next project?

MM:

Well, I’d like to rebuild all the relationships I’ve let slip while “pursuing” the writing life but … I suppose the question refers to that writing life. I have a speculative fiction novel, The Facility, due out in December of this year from the U.S. house that published my novel Berlin. I have two collections of short stories that are ready to go to press, one tentatively set for 2011. I have a collection of poetry that is awaiting a response from a publisher. I’m working on another collection of poetry and a novel. All in the interstices between trying to run a publishing house.


Born in Italy, and arriving in Canada at the age of five, Michael Mirolla calls himself a Montreal-Toronto corridor writer (because he spends so much time travelling between the two cities). He’s a novelist, short story writer, poet and playwright. Publications include the novel Berlin (a finalist for the 2009 Indie Book and National Best Books Awards), two short story collections – The Formal Logic of Emotion (recently translated into Italian) and Hothouse Loves & Other Tales, and two collections of poetry – the English-Italian bilingual Interstellar Distances/Distanze Interstellari and Light And Time. A second novel, The Facility, is scheduled for publication in December 2010. His short story, “A Theory of Discontinuous Existence,” was selected for The Journey Prize Anthology, while another short story, “The Sand Flea,” was nominated for the Pushcart Prize. A poem, “Blind Alley,” was shortlisted for the Winston Collins/Descant Prize for the Best Canadian Poem in 2007. His short fiction and poetry has been published in numerous journals in Canada, the U.S. and Britain, including several anthologies such as Event’s Peace & War, Telling Differences: New English Fiction from Quebec, Tesseracts 2: Canadian Science Fiction, The Anthology of Italian-Canadian Writing, New Wave of Speculative Fiction Book 1, and The Best of Foliate Oak.

Three of his plays—Gargoyles, Snails, and A Revised Experiment—have received professional production. Gargoyles was awarded the Solange Karsh Medal as first prize winner of the Canadian Playwriting Competition. He has also been the recipient of the Macmillan Prize in Creative Writing; and a Canada Council Arts Award.

After decades of maintaining his sanity despite being holed up in the garret of his own mind, Michael finally flipped in January of this year with the purchase, along with partner Connie Guzzo McParland, of a literary publishing house: Guernica Editions.

For more information about Light and Time please visit the Guernica website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

5 comments

I think a prospective Canadian going through the refugee process could relate quite well to The Trial. And even if you were born here, it's hard to spend time in a courthouse without thinking of Kafka. That goes for those with the granite lobbies and recessed lighting, too.

Hi again, Michael. I can appreciate your connection to Kafka. The Trial and The Metamorphosis shook me deeply when I first read them in my late teens and I found both works no less compelling upon recent rereading-- unlike other works that first captivated me during those earlier years-- Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse, for example. No doubt, Kafka's novels and short stories-- among the most influential of the twentieth century-- are necessary reading. Kafka's genius lay in his ability to render the absurd and nightmarish convincing by hyper-real matter-of-factness of tone and treatment. He probably "ranks in the top three" on many readers' lists-- in the original German and in translation. But what about three Canadian welcome books to Canada?

Okay, Elana. You've twisted my Canadian arm (not the one out in space, I hope). You want three Canadian books that would be welcoming to new arrivals to Canada and that I myself have enjoyed (the logical conjunction of those two propositions is what always trips me up). Here goes: Robert Harlow (The Saxophone Winter); J. Michael Yates (The Great Bear Lake Meditations; Tomson Highway (Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing). Then, of course, there's Elizabeth Smart (By Grand Central Station, I Sat Down And Wept), which Guernica published in a French translation.

Hi, Michael. Interesting that you would offer Franz Kafka's unfinished, posthumously published novel Der Prozess-- The Trial-- as a welcome-to-Canada- gift for "someone you really like." Nightmarish and fragmentary, it deals with a man persecuted and summarily executed by an inscrutable court of law. Not really very welcoming! Would you present a copy in the original Prague Deutsch as well?

Greetings, Elana. Kafka was the writer I most connected with growing up and I feel that everyone should be aware of him and his vision. I chose The Trial because I think it epitomizes what he has to say about the modern world and our role in it. It could have easily been The Castle or his short stories. When I first read The Penal Colony, I couldn't get it out of my head. The Hunger Artist to me is the final metaphoric statement on what it means to be a writer. And The Metamorphosis haunted me. I think it still does today even though I am no longer fixated on Kafka's vision (having migrated almost completely to the other end of the scale with Joyce). As for it being "welcoming," I don't know. Maybe a bit of reality is something we should all welcome, especially considering the state of the world and Canada's role/place in it. While I would love to present a copy in the original, that might be a bit much.

Cheers

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