Writing Poetry and Being Human

Dec 20, 2016 by

Writing Poetry and Being Human

A COFFEE HOUSE CHAT with Magdalena Wolak.

Alex Risen and I are drinking coffee with Magdalena: poet, poetry editor and self-described “poety human.”

D: Welcome, Magdalena.

M: Thank you for having me.

D: What does ‘poety’ human mean to you?

M: Finding the ‘story’ in everything you do.

D: You were the poetry editor of The Spectatorial, the only University of Toronto journal with a genre: “untruths.” Can you elaborate on that?

M: It is about speculative fiction. We had so many fabulous people work on the most insanely creative stories. And not just fiction. It was poetry, too. When I started they didn’t have a poetry section, but I pushed for it, and then became the poetry editor.

D: How do you edit poetry? This is something Alex and I are really interested in.

M: Well. It’s about the human who has an idea and creates a story and, then, it’s about working very closely with that human to keep it what that human wants it to be. A lot of the time I’ll hear about editors who edit and change and make a poem something it’s not. I get the author to work closely with me. So I guess it’s about the interpersonal relationship between the editor and poet.

D: What was your criteria for publishing?

M: It just had to speak to me. If a poem made me feel things. I would publish.

D: It’s different than fiction. Poetry doesn’t have a clear narrative, a linear story. Sometimes it’s just the combination of images, feelings.

M: Hard to even explain. When you edit fiction you can cut or change things but with poetry, you have to be so careful. If you change a line, you can change the whole poem. You can go terribly wrong if you don’t edit correctly

D: How did you start editing poetry?

M: I had been writing poetry for a long time but I really didn’t get into it until I took a course with Lynn Crosbie. She ran us through a fantastic and terrifying course. We all came in thinking it would be easy and fun, and then she took us through our paces, completely changing the way we looked at poetry. She had us editing and writing.

That’s when I knew it was what I loved to do. That’s when I got into it hardcore. A group came out of that class. We still write together, gush over each other’s stuff, and edit for each other, too.

D: Can you share your writing process?

M: Just scribbling everything everywhere. At the end of the day, writing it down and then leaving it alone before coming back to it. Then I’ll leave it alone again. If in a month, I still don’t hate it, I might have something.

D: You’re very interested in visual poems. You like what we used to call architectural poetry, which “kinstugi” is as well.

M: Yes. I wasn’t in the beginning. Most of my poetry was very standard. But over time I noticed that I liked to play around with word placement and having a word here or there. Spacing. I became interested in spaces as an extra touch to the writing.

D: Let’s talk about “kintsugi,” your poem that won our contest. It’s layered. It’s dense. I called it “a bold poem about broken lives and repaired legacies; about art, love and forgiveness (and possibly much more)—a richly layered and ambitious work.” How, though, I wondered, as I was contemplating this interview, would you talk about it?

M: To start, I like Japanese poetry. I read it a lot and came across this word Kintsugi. When you have a broken plate, dish or bowl, you don’t throw it away. You mend it with gold powder, so not just mend it to be useful but mend it to be more beautiful.

So in the context of being human and broken, even shattered, and also in terms of aging—people think that when you’re past a certain age you fade into the background—there is this other image of being broken and yet making something beautiful, even more beautiful, from it.

D: Speaking of broken things, this is from your poem, a line I was really arrested by: “Trying hard to recreate what I consider beautiful, feeling lost and flashing a piece of broken Ontario lake mirror across the expanse of your throat.”
Can you speak to that?

M: I live close to Lake Ontario and during the winter, my favourite season, it’s just covered in ice. The ice cracks and it rebonds with thicker lines. Just like the image of the broken bowl. Also there is self-harm: a lot of people, myself included, know people who…

D: Cut?

M: Yes. And if you look at that pain not just from the broken perspective That lake water, that image, it has some beauty in it. Or can have.

D: How long did you work on this poem?

M: A long time. I came back to it a few times. I wrote it, like, three years ago. I left it alone for a long time because I didn’t actually know what I could do with it. I didn’t really know what is was until I saw your contest calling, and I thought, you know, it is mostly about love, not so much romantic, but self love and love towards others and fighting to find love.

D: Oh. We definitely thought it was about love. Were you surprised when you won?

M: It’s hard to consider yourself like that. Yes. I wasn’t expecting it, and it was fantastic.

D: You knew you had a quality poem?

M: Yes and no. Poetry is so much each person’s own thing.

D: Poetry more than other writing?

M: Yes. Poetry is so all over the place: kind of hit and miss. I write so much stuff that is awful. Stuff I will never show to anyone.

D: Do you know right away?

M: It’s funny. Sometimes I know right away. And sometimes I have twenty different snippets of thing that finally come together. There is a lot you have to set aside. You have to keep going back and trying.

D: Do you have advice for aspiring poets?

M: Inspiration. You need to find that somewhere. Writing is the first place to look.
I came to Canada and I didn’t speak English—

D: How old were you?

M: I was ten, and it was really hard to learn the language. So I started reading. Being a kid, if you don’t speak the language, you spend a lot of time alone. I would just read and read. That’s how I learned English, translating in my room by myself. I would sit there with a dictionary, finding different words’ meanings.

D: Wow. I love that. Now I’d like to read a section of your poem that shows just how beautifully you use words.

This story of you begins with an old bowl.
Passed down from hand to hand to hand.
Your old mother’s wrinkled wrist is kissed over and over.
You are in love with your own story,
you tell her, sniffing at the absorbed wax of flower petals.
There is no other way to trail brokenness, she sighs,
but with your tongue pushing at
the gold filling in the cracks of your favourite teacup.

Magdalena Wolak, thank you so much!

M: Thank you. I was nervous as all hell.

Magdalena Wolak is a poety human from Toronto

Related Posts


Share This