The Mary Germaine Interview

Through poems that speak to plastic bags and drones as much as they admire roses and the moon, Mary Germaine surfs the confluence of artificial and natural environments, technology, and our small but consequential feelings about them. At turns devotional and suspicious, these poems toe the boundaries of intimacy, responsibility, and reason.

Mary Germaine is a poet, an educator, and a Ph.D. student at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton. Her poems have appeared in The Walrus Magazine, Riddle Fence, the ArtSci Effect, and Augur Magazine. She was the recipient of the Adam Penn Gilders Scholarship for Creative Writing from the University of Toronto and the Heaslip Award from Memorial University. Her special talents include finding lost items and having a face that reminds people of someone else they know.

Nathaniel G. Moore: You have written a very entertaining and winsome collection, with lines of abstract realism such as “a drawer of diamond drill bits the baby dumped on the floor”. Do you do a lot of notetaking to build out a poetry universe, a fragment here, a stanza there… or does the poetry come out in waves?

Mary Germaine: Thank you! “Build” is exactly the right word—I lay a poem down brick by brick. It’s painfully slow work 92% of the time, and rest is the furious divine lightning you see in the movies. I’m glad you pulled out the drawer of diamond drill bits line, because it’s a good example of a “founding metaphor,” for lack of a better term. I was in Fredericton, it was breathtakingly hot, and I was getting some relief by looking at the river, admiring the rough glitter, and the drill bits line arrived. An image like that is always evidence for or against some argument I’m having. So then I need to pull apart the image to find the argument’s conclusion or if there is one. I was reading Jane Eyre at the time, so I went to Jane to help me make sense of the heat. Then I did what I always do: measured the syllables, checked and re-checked the alliteration and the vowels to make sure each line is balanced and the whole poem is structurally sound—solid, but not too rigid. That’s the basic process. I don’t know how inspirational it is, except hopefully, it inspires someone to read Jane Eyre. That book’s a wild ride.

“Having your poems proofread is like receiving a perfect, permanent haircut. I can’t recommend it enough.”

NGM: What was it like working with Anansi? A lot of new poets never know what to expect. Whatever you feel comfortable with sharing, please do so!

MG: I was one such new poet! I had no idea what it would be like to work with a publisher, never mind such a hotshot press as Anansi. It was wonderful. I don’t mind that writing is a solitary task, but let me tell you what a thrill it was to share my obsessions (line breaks and prepositions) with other people. A major thrill. Kevin Connolly, my editor, was great for that. We spent quite a bit of time debating the merits of a certain “a” on page 5 of the book, which you won’t find there now because Kevin won that debate. It’s the only change I’m not completely sure he was right about. And maybe I would be bitter about that one tiny thing, but instead, I’m just grateful. At every stage of production, I worked with someone as excited as me about my baby’s every detail—what could be more fun than that? And having your poems proofread is like receiving a perfect, permanent haircut. I can’t recommend it enough.

NGM: ‘Super moon’ is a love poem to the moon in a way, but also props the moon up as a character, an entity that is with “us” the humans, and we can, and have, projected personality onto it, written songs about it, blamed things on the moon, when its full and we werewolf, etc. Do you have any other moon poems in production? Are you a moon person or a sun person?

MG: Moon person. I’m usually too squinty to enjoy the sun. The moon I love because it is the part of the scenery that’s the same wherever you are. And I move around a lot, so the moon is a major comfort—something in the landscape upon which you can depend. Between the condos and the climate change, a lot of landscape is going down the toilet. The moon’s pretty reliable. Even when it doesn’t come out, you know that’s perfectly natural. The moon is one of the few things we don’t have to worry about, at least, not yet. I don’t have any other moon poems on the go right now, but chances are high there will be more. Considering all the literary hay already made about our favourite satellite, saying something new about the moon is a kind of Everest, I think, for writers. Maybe not the apex of literature, but a base camp anyways. I like the challenge.

NGM: Can you explain the title? (Sorry if that sounds vacuous).

MG: A lot of people ask about the title. The only explanation I can give is that I talk to plants the way other people stop in the street to address strangers’ dogs. And so the title began as a real conversation at the edge of my neighbour’s yard. ‘The Facts’ has one of my favourite seconds lines in a poem ever. “there is no right place for my eyes to rest”. It’s so private and secret but we the reader know almost as much (if not more perhaps) than the speaker. It’s this great moment that in a film would be done with internal monologue…or perhaps a flash mob lip sync combo. Are you a romantic?
I have an unfatiguing, sanguine desire for everything to work perfectly out in the end. Even though I know I almost never recognize either perfection or the ending when right in front of it. I still believe in permanent happiness. But I do get kind of gloomy about love too. Anytime I’m writing about love I think, uh-oh, this is going to create a lot of trouble for me. There’s something self-destructive about falling in love. Not dangerous exactly, but some barrier needs to break down in order for a person to give someone else access to the tenderest part of their self—tender in every sense of the word. I think a lot of Congratulations, Rhododendrons is about navigating that very touchy boundary. So I’m also one of those storm-cloud, brow-furrowed romantics as much as I am a swooner.

NGM: Humour abounds in this book. For many centuries, Canadian critics have delighted in debating how humour and poetry work together – or don’t. (I am not actually sure if either poetry or humour even work at all anymore, to tell you the truth [pause for laughter]). What is your stance?

MG: I do not understand this debate. Jokes are a life-saver for me. I think of humour as an extra set of eyes in a poem, a different perspective we can quickly switch to when things are looking too bleak. A good laugh doesn’t keep the world from sucking, but it does save us from falling down in utter despair.

NGM: The hyperlink question: Who are some of your favourite poets, novelists, filmmakers, artists, etc., who may or may not have directly influenced your work?

MG: I can’t name influencers’ names, in part because there are just too many, and in part, because my fragile ego does not allow much awareness of all the writers I pinch from. That said, there are a host of poets and poems with permanent residency in my mind. John Donne is one. Wislawa Szymborska, Elizabeth Bishop, Gerard Manley Hopkins. Gwendolyn Brooks. Anne Carson is impossible to escape. I love Jorge Luis Borges, though I don’t know how much Borgesian genius trickles down into my work. This summer I’ve been obsessed with this little-known Bohemian writer, Franz Kafka. I don’t know if you’ve heard of him. He’s great. So funny. Visual arts tend to have a more obvious influence on my writing—I love an ekphrastic. I can’t help it, I love the unearned hubris of the genre. You know the word “ekphrastic” comes from the Greek prefix “ex-” for “out” and “phrazein” for “to tell, show, or explain” (at least according to very basic etymology). So in a way, ekphrastic writing is an attempt to out-tell or out-do the original artwork. Which is pretty cocky. There are a few ekphrastic poems in the book—it ends with a poem about “Substance and Shadow”, a painting by Charles Green Shaw, which I saw in a gallery in San Francisco. Museums have generally been very fruitful places for me to visit and take notes, but it’s been so long since I’ve been to one! I’m hoping to return to that practice now that public places are opening back up. I’d also like to look long and hard at some of Nicole Eisenman’s more recent work, though that will probably have to be a virtual study.

“But on rough days down at the poetry factory, I try to remember that a poem isn’t going to pay your rent or get you laid, so you might as well enjoy writing it.”

NGM: What advice would you give a new poet trying to put their first collection together?

MG: I don’t know that I’m in much of a position to advise! But on rough days down at the poetry factory, I try to remember that a poem isn’t going to pay your rent or get you laid, so you might as well enjoy writing it. The other thing that kept me semi-sane in the final stages of writing was keeping in mind what a curious commodity a book of poetry is. It’s not really profitable (considering the years of labour it takes to produce) but it only costs about as much as two pints of beer. Is your book as enjoyable as two pints of beer? Then you’ve met your obligation to your reader. Does that mean you’ve met your obligation to yourself? Probably not. You didn’t spend two beers on this book, you spent a few of the best-looking years of your life. So don’t give a poem up until you are completely satisfied. That’s what I told myself, anyway.

NGM: What poetry or literary magazines do you read?

MG: Reading magazines is such a glamourous past-time—I do it as often as possible. In stacks around the house right now, you’ll find mostly issues of Maisonneuve, the Walrus, the Paris Review, the unrelenting New Yorker, and the New York Review of Books. I love book reviews! Such an efficient genre. Qwerty, which I am the poetry editor for, and the Fiddlehead, and Riddle Fence. And of course, I also keep tabs open from online publications like the Puritan and the Miramichi Reader, which I’ll confess is has just recently appeared on my radar, but it has become my new go-to for book reviews!

Nathaniel G. Moore is a writer, artist and publishing consultant grateful to be living on the unceded territory of the Wolastoqiyik (Maliseet) and Mi'kmaq peoples.