Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Poets in Profile: Megan Mueller

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Megan Mueller

Debut poet Megan Mueller delves into big conversations in her new collection, Colour Theory (Guernica Editions). Talking to the likes of Van Gogh and Pope Gregory, Megan travels back through history to tease out timeless truths about who we are today. Vivid and intense, these are poems that investigate our desire for meaning and story in histories both collective and personal.

Today we welcome Megan to Open Book to take our Poets in Profile questionnaire, in which we ask some of our favourite poets to explore how they came to the craft, the poems that shaped them and what they get from the writing life.

She tells us about the wealth of poetic talent in Canada (we agree!), a five-way tie for a favourite poem and the beloved Impressionist musicians who offer her inspiration.

Open Book:

Can you describe an experience that you believe contributed to your becoming a poet?

Megan Mueller:

One experience? Well, being exposed to the works of amazing, largely Canadian poets, from a young age, inspired me. I’ve always loved poetry. I started to write, many years ago, to untangle and examine emotions and ideas. I think I’m drawn to poetry because it provides the opportunity to encapsulate ideas in a special kind of shorthand, compared to novel writing.
There was one, life-altering experience that spurred me to write Colour Theory. The book was, in many ways, triggered by my mother’s death. My family and I took care of her in the final months of her life, not all of which were overtly sad. We had some happy times — summertime barbeques on the back deck; lovely walks in High Park, picking the hollyhock seeds by the rose garden; living in the moment, despite the crushing inevitability.

This experience caused a sort of existential crisis that, naturally, led me to reflect on my life, on life in general; and to consider how to find meaning in all of it. Poetry seemed the perfect vehicle for working through this chapter in my life.


What is the first poem you remember being affected by?


“Fern Hill” by Dylan Thomas was the first poem that deeply resonated with me. The vivid imagery and juxtaposition of happiness and melancholy struck me at a young age. “Howl” by Allen Ginsberg was another poem that haunted me for years, for entirely different reasons, mainly the searing impact of verse.

The very first poetry book that I loved from cover to cover was a collection by Yevgeny Yevtushenko, which I read when I was at the University of Toronto. I took a fabulous course on Russian literature in second year. On the first day, the professor read Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin in its original. I was spellbound.


What one poem — from any time period — do you wish you had been the one to write?


Fabulous, but impossibly difficult, question! It’s a five-way tie: Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s “Colours,” Michael Ondaatje’s “To A Sad Daughter,” Leonard Cohen’s “Sisters of Mercy,” Esta Spalding’s Anchoress — the whole book is one long poem — and Barry Dempster’s “Devotion.” To me, these poems are perfection.


What has been your most unlikely source of inspiration?


I’m married to a cellist, so citing music as an inspiration may not be a surprise or even original, but the diversity of musical sources might. For example, the poem “Into the Desert,” about remembering and imagining my grandfather, was inspired by Peter Gabriel’s “San Jacinto.” For me, the panoramic soundscape of that piece of music set the tone and atmosphere for my poem.

Similarly, “Colour Theory” — a poem that I’ve been told reads as the most existential in the collection — was inspired by Jimi Hendrix’s “Bold as Love.” Not so much the music, but the notion of attributing feelings and personality to colours. This idea provided a creative break, a different path, for me as a poet, which was liberating.

In a broader sense, when writing Colour Theory, I listened to a lot of Debussy and Ravel. I love late 19th and early 20th Century music because it has vestiges of Romanticism, which makes it understandable to a layperson like me, combined with an unsettling quality that I equate with the lead up to and the heartbreak of the First World War. Debussy’s String Quartet in G Minor, third movement: Bring Kleenex.


What do you do with a poem that just isn't working?


It’s hard to give up on a poem. Sometimes I retain only the most workable lines, which can mean two out of forty! Sometimes I shift content from one poem to the next. I tend to write poetry in clusters, and so this kind of sharing can work well. I save everything, a million drafts.

But when I feel that a poem is beyond salvaging, I abandon it. That’s when I pack myself up and go to the AGO to commune with my favourite pieces of art. They bolster me when writing gets tough. Great art reminds me of the impermanence of life, and that’s strangely reassuring. It combats self-absorption: The crisis of an untenable poem quickly fizzles when you’re standing in front of a Bernini.


What was the last book of poetry you read that really knocked your socks off?


There’s so much awesome poetry published today. And Canada’s a big producer on the world stage. Yay, Canada!
I recently re-read two classics, Margaret Atwood’s The Circle Game and Leonard Cohen’s Let Us Compare Mythologies, because I enjoy reading ground-breaking works from the beginning of a now-famous writer’s career. These works, written before I was born, still blow me away. They’re timeless.

On the contemporary front, Barry Dempster’s Love Outlandish is one of my most cherished books. I also greatly admire the poetry of Pier Giorgio Di Cicco. The Dark Time of Angels and The Honeymoon Wilderness are exquisitely written.

More recent favourites include Michael Mirolla’s House on 14th Avenue, Chava Rosenfarb’s Exile at Last and Sue Chenette’s The Bones of His Being.


What is the best thing about being a poet…and what is the worst?


Best: It’s a comparatively expedient genre. Even if you’ve worked on a poem for weeks, its completion can mean near-instant gratification compared to larger projects like a novel. I just finished writing a novel that I started in my twenties — woefully, quite a number of years ago!

Worst: Like all writing, I’m never sure that I’m ‘done’ a poem, or that each word is the very best option. Self-doubt and floundering confidence are omnipresent. As well, the desire to be liked is undeniable. Writers are human; we want readers to like our work — and ourselves, by extension. It’s personal. You’re offering a slice of your soul.

Toronto writer Megan Mueller worked as a senior editor at Harcourt, Oxford University Press and Canadian Scholars’ Press for nearly two decades. She has contributed to numerous Canadian arts and literary journals including Geist, The Antigonish Review and The Dalhousie Review. Colour Theory is her first volume of poetry.

Check out all the Poets in Profile interviews in our archives.

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