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10 Questions for Mark Irwin

If I could make language simpler I would.
Language says that each word equals something
else, but that’s not true. If I could make
language simpler, I would make an invisible
equals sign that extends through each of us . . . .
from “Human Pageant,” Winter 2017 (Vol. 58, Issue 4)

Tell us about one of the first pieces you wrote.
When I was twelvve years old, I accidentally shot a robin, high in a tree, with a BB gun. I think that I wrote something trying to understand how this happened. I’m sure that the piece was not very good, but I learned then that writing was both a way of thinking and feeling.

What writer(s) or works have influenced the way you write now?
I think that I’m influenced by a lot of different artists, not only poets, but some important influences have been works by Caravaggio, Dante, Keats, Rilke, Dickinson, Rimbaud, Bonnefoy, Camus, Lagerkvist, Stevens, Bishop, and Milosz. I’m also very interested and have written about the work of Ashbery, Merwin, Anne Carson, Jorie Graham, and Mary Ruefle, but my influences probably come more from music and visual art. I’m very drawn to the immediacy of truth in music and visual art. I’ve also spent a great deal of time in the natural world, hiking, exploring, and I built a house in the mountains of Colorado where I live part of the year.

What other professions have you worked in?
I taught at the Cleveland Institute of Art for several years, and I have written a great deal about contemporary painters. I have also worked with animals, which I consider a great influence in my work—the immediacy and power with which they communicate, often through silence.

What did you want to be when you were young?
I remember wanting to be a fireman, perhaps because my grandfather was a fireman and he let me slide down the firehouse pole when I was five. I was a very spacey kid, in turns distracted and obsessed. I spoke mostly to my dog, Elvis.

What inspired you to write this piece?
“Human Pageant” obsesses with language and the need for equality among people. Language is a great equalizer, but anyone who has ever been to a foreign country and does not know the language gets a sense of what it might be like to be illiterate. The horrible, social isolation of it. I would like language to be simpler, more vowel-filled so that it mimics the mewls and moans of those animals from which we evolved, those animals that still live in the paradise from which we were exiled. As I say in the poem, I want language to be an “invisible / equals sign that extends through each of us / toward the horizon . . . .” Language has the higher power to create harmony, but is often recognized for inciting dissonance and hatred.

Is there a city or place, real or imagined, that influences your writing?
The house that I built on five acres in the mountains of Colorado.

Is there any specific music that aids you through the writing or editing process?
I love classical music, jazz, contemporary music but I never listen to anything when I write. Silence is very important to me.

Do you have any rituals or traditions that you do in order to write?
I love silence.

What are you working on currently?
I’m finishing a tenth collection of poems, entitled Shimmer, and a new translation of Rimbaud’s Selected Poems.

What are you reading right now?
Rimbaud, Denis Johnson, Dickinson, Komunyakaa, Graham, Ruefle, and this wonderful issue of the Massachusetts Review—in part about truth, which I’ve always believed is one of the most important aspects of a work of art, but difficult to define. Truth is the splash of light that ignites us, but also the splash of light that infinitely lingers. Defining it is like defining a cloud.

MARK IRWIN is the author of nine collec­tions of poetry, including A Passion According to Green; American Urn (Selected Poems 1987-2014); Tall If; and Bright Hunger. His collec­tion of essays, Monster: Distortion, Abstraction, and Originality in Contemporary American Po­etry, was published in 2017. He teaches in the PhD in Creative Writing & Literature Program at the University of Southern Cali­fornia.

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