Monday, September 09, 2013

Unicity: Melanie Dennis Unrau

Melanie Dennis Unrau is just about to publish her first book.

Her launch is set: September 30 at McNally Robinson Booksellers in Winnipeg.

Between now and then, she has to pick a set list, rehearse said set of poems, figure out her thank yous, decide what to wear. She has to send out invites to most everyone she knows. She has to decide if she wants her two children in attendance and, if not, who will take care of them during the launch... [...]

In these anxious-yet-heady weeks before her book is launched,  Melanie took the time to answer a few of my pesky questions.

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As a writer (someone whose artistic practice is predicated on time spent alone), how do you approach performance? What do you get out of it?

Here’s a big surprise from one writer to another: I love to be alone.

Performance is one of my growing edges. Fortunately, I’ve had some good practice over the past several years as a magazine editor giving radio interviews, as an academic presenting papers, and as a parent reading bedtime stories and novels to my kids (I like to do voices). But it still doesn’t come easily to me. I have rituals for speaking or reading in public that involve lots of practice ahead of time, a realistic and meticulous plan, cozy and comfortable clothing, conscious breathing, etc.

My best reading-aloud experience was in a recording booth: I loved hearing my own voice so loud all around me, so full and clear. I aim for that sound whenever I read.

What do I get out of it? I get better for next time.

What do you want people to know about Happiness Threads: The Unborn Poems?

It’s a book of poems about mothering, and about the tension between making art and mothering.

It’s also a book about births and deaths—obvious ones like the births of children; hidden ones like the deaths of desire or of dreams; and the in-betweens like the never-asleep-never-awake state overtired parents live in, or the non-event of delivering a dead fetus. Late in the editing process for the book, I arrived at some lines for the prologue poem: “a mother’s job is to know / what matters and keep it alive // a poet’s job is to feel / for a pulse.” There are questions about life and death, what it means to really be alive, whose life matters, and who’s keeping track that surface again and again in the book.

It’s a feminist book, challenging the notion that women are completely fulfilled through motherhood. Winnipeggers struggled this summer to wrap their heads around the story of a “good” mother who drowned her children; these poems resist the image of the good, happy mother and show the dark and bright sides of (white, middle-class, Canadian) mothering. My poetry is influenced by feminist poetry and theory about motherhood. Readers will see references to the work of Sara Ahmed, Adrienne Rich, and Debbie Keahey; I was also reading Lola Tostevin, Nicole Brossard, Margaret Christakos, Susan Holbrook and other poet-theorists while working on the book and on the life-project of being a feminist mother.

When I started writing “the unborn poems,” poems that mourn the loss of a pregnancy, I was focused on capturing the raw grief I was dealing with at that time without falling into empty sentiment or cliché. I worked and reworked those poems, delivering them silently to my writing group for feedback—I couldn’t read the poems aloud. Reaching for language to describe the mixtures of beauty and pain, fulfillment and loss, happiness and depression experienced by a parent of young children became a focus for the whole project.

The book has five sections: the first three (“little bird,” “little pumpkin,” and “little guy”) are organized around the arrivals of three children; the fourth section, “happiness threads,” is a series of poems that play with the form of an online parenting forum; “love poems” look out with still-bleary eyes on the other side of the years of parenting infants and toddlers, assessing the damage and finding joy in unexpected places.

What would you tell a stranger about Winnipeg?

I’ve wanted to leave Winnipeg forever, yet I’m still here. When I meet someone who’s visiting Winnipeg I usually offer to tell them what they should do, then realize I’m not sure what to say. I tell them about whatever cultural events or festivals are coming up. Then I tell them about some parks to visit—the Whiteshell, the beaches, the city parks. Then the WAG and the other art galleries, then restaurants and neighbourhoods like Osborne, Corydon, and Wolseley.

I tell my hater relatives in Toronto that of course it’s cold and there are lots of mosquitoes, but I live within walking distance of downtown and grocery shopping and restaurants in a neighbourhood with giant elm trees. I can afford to make very little money because housing prices are low. I can see The Weakerthans perform at home, and almost all the people I love live here.

Tell about the pleasures and perils of academic writing and/or editing. (And how does it inform your poetry?)

So far, my experience has been that academic work sparks ideas and creativity for poetry. It was while I was doing my MA that many of the poems for this collection were written. I think I need the constant intake of new ideas—and it helps that I study literature. I’m inspired by innovative feminist poets, as well as YA novels and picture books. And, as I’ve already mentioned, I’m a geek about theory. Of course there are tough days and deadlines, but academic work is almost all pleasure for me, and the synergy with the poetry is a bonus.

Editing is another story. I find writing and editing tap the same energy. When I’m busy editing for work (most recently for Geez magazine, also as a freelance copy editor and proofreader), I don’t write, at least not poetry. I write editorials, blog posts, newsletters, and book reviews. I like the editing work a lot, but I have to reserve some time and energy for poetry.

I’ve seen how a mediocre piece can become something really terrific with help from a good editor. I have appreciated having excellent editors like Clarise Foster and Catherine Hunter, who ask the right questions and push me to make the poems and the whole project better.

For the past few years, you’ve been working amidst/among visual artists. Specifically, visual artists who are mothers. Were you ever tempted to throw away language and start working with paint or clay instead?

No, I’m too uptight to switch like that, although I love working in visual media. I think visual artists are more comfortable moving between media—the fact that they studied painting or ceramics in art school doesn’t keep them from writing a poem or doing a performance piece.

The Mother Artists’ group at Mentoring Artists for Women’s Art has challenged me to do poetry as visual art. For a show last year, I typed and stitched a poem onto flannel fabric; this year, I wrote a poem I was working on for the book, “petit point (by royal albert),” on a china plate. The “happiness threads,” which I wrote in collaboration with my artist friends, began with a visual concept; I worked within the constraints of my own online forum to generate plain-text poems with emoticons and a customized colour palette.

It reminds me that poetry is visual art. I think I have more affinity with the visual artists than fiction writers, and for now I workshop my poetry almost exclusively with my MAWA group (I don’t have a writing group right now). I’m working on paying even more attention to the visual aspects of my poems, and also on poetry as performance.

Over the last few years, I’ve seen writers who’ve worked with tech-based constraints such as the poem-in-140 characters or the prose-poem-as-daily-status-update. But you’ve elected to work with a form that is simultaneously loose and tight – the newsgroup or chat room. Lots of abbreviations, yes? But also endless midnight threads...were there any challenges working with/from this particular form?

The funny thing is, I’m a bit of a luddite—a Facebook abstainer and cell-phone-ophobe. When my second child was born I realized I needed to be able to get my hands free once in awhile so I wanted to learn how to wear my fussy baby in a sling or other baby carrier. So, I joined the Winnipeg Babywearers, a group that meets monthly and also has an online forum.

When I started on the forum, I was completely lost. I’d never done online chatting or anything like that before. The abbreviations the mothers used—the babywearers were all women—puzzled me. Think LOL, IMO, etc., plus a whole bunch of parenting- and babywearing-specific language. For example, I could tell DH meant something husband, but what was that something? I had a lot of fun imagining funny acronyms that were much more interesting than the saccharine “dear husband,” “dear daughter,” “dear son” translations I eventually found in an online glossary. I never really got into using abbreviations, but I did become a frequent poster on the forum, asking questions, sharing tips and recipes, and relating to a whole circle of friends I would have been lucky to recognize in a face-to-face encounter.

In some ways, we were an excellent support system for one another. But there were negatives: already isolated and lonely, spending my days with little children and my nights copy editing in my house, the forum became another thing that kept me from making healthier choices for myself, like going out or writing poetry. Plus, I was tired of the gender politics (where were the dads?), the heteronormative environment, the middle-class privilege and racism tied up in the collection of expensive and exotic baby gear.

It was not long after I finally gave up the forum that I had the idea for the “happiness threads.” My art group at MAWA had been talking about doing an artwork a day for a month. I pitched the idea to start right away and I began writing poems based around the acronyms from the forum. I had a list of the ones I wanted to use and I just went. I’d never had such a concrete plan for a series of poems before, nor had I ever been so prolific.

The play with the abbreviations didn’t really feel like a constraint, although I was certainly thinking of the procedural work of poets like Margaret Christakos and Rachel Zolf when I came up with the idea. I did begin with all plain-text formatting (no italics or underlines or other fancy stuff, except, of course, emoticons), but I have had to bend a bit on that to make sure the threads can be interpreted by readers.

The “happiness threads” were easy to write, but are they easy to read? That’s been the challenge. I wrote the poems cumulatively, assuming the reader knows all the abbreviations that come before each poem. If you read them in order, you should be able to decipher all of the coded language without using the glossary. But when we made the book we decided to put the glossary first so that readers know it’s there if they need it. I’ll be curious to see what people think of it.

At an early stage in the project, I made a poster of the poems with help from a designer at the U of W, then put it up in an academic show on campus. One of my old babywearer buddies who had also been on the forum read and loved it. In a way, I think the poems are a success if they resonate with the speakers of the specialized language I was writing in, but I hope other readers will also be able to find a way into the language. Or maybe they can make up their own meanings like I did.

What are you reading right now? What are you writing right now?

For work, I just finished reading Difference and Repetition by Gilles Deleuze. For fun, I’m reading The Sacrifice by Adele Wiseman—a modern Canadian novel and a Governor General’s Award winner in the 1950s. It’s about a Jewish immigrant family that escapes pogroms in Europe only to face more hardship in Canada. With the kids, I’m reading C. S. Lewis’s Narnia series.

I wish I could tell you about the great poetry project I’m working on, but I feel I’m between projects just now. The Happiness Threads book collects ten years’ worth of poems on the theme of mothering, and now I’m ready for something new. I’ve finished my term as a magazine editor, finished the introduction to an academic book I’m working on, sent the kids off for their first day of school, and now it’s time to figure out what comes next. For the next several months, I’ll be blogging for Rhubarb magazine at

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