Interview with Mark Irwin

Mark Irwin’s forthcoming collection, Once When Green (2025) has just been awarded the 2024 Juniper Prize for Poetry. Irwin is the author of twelve other books, including Joyful Orphan (2023), Shimmer (2020), A Passion According to Green (2017), American Urn: Selected Poems (1987-2014), Large White House Speaking (2013), Tall If (2008), Bright Hunger (2004), White City (2000), Quick, Now, Always (1996), and Against the Meanwhile: Three Elegies (1988). He has also translated Philippe Denis’ Notebook of Shadows and Nichita Stanescu’s Ask the Circle to Forgive You: Selected Poems. His collection of essays, Monster: Distortion, Abstraction, and Originality in Contemporary American Poetry, was published in 2017. His poetry and essays have appeared in many literary magazines including The American Poetry Review, Agni Review, The Atlantic Monthly, Georgia Review, Harper’s, The Kenyon Review, Paris Review, Pleiades, Poetry, The Nation, New England Review, New American Writing, The New Republic, The New York Times, and The Southern Review. Recognition for his work includes The Nation/Discovery Award, four Pushcart Prizes, two Colorado Book Awards, the James Wright Poetry Award, and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Fulbright, Lilly, and Wurlitzer Foundations. He is a professor in the PhD in Creative Writing & Literature Program at the University of Southern California and lives in Los Angeles and Colorado. His poetry has been translated into several languages.

Ann van Buren has been conducting interviews for KPS since 2017. Her poetry and other interviews and book reviews are published in The Rumpus, Library Journal, The Westchester Review, The Columbia Review, and elsewhere.

Ann van Buren: Hello! Thank you so much for your beautiful poetry and for talking with Katonah Poetry Series. We look forward to your reading on Mother’s Day, 2024

Mark Irwin: My pleasure.

Ann van Buren: You’ve published 12 books and your 13th volume is forthcoming. Several motifs are woven throughout your writing and language is one of them. In what way can language save us? And why do you think it fails?

Mark Irwin: Language cannot capture the ineffable. For me, the most important part of language is what we can’t say or what we can express. There’s a wonderful film by the German filmmaker, Werner Herzog. He interviews a mountain climber whose brother died attempting the same climb. Herzog asks him why he continues, and he says that he feels like each foothold, each handhold, is a step toward articulating some notion of God. He says he couldn’t express this in any other way than by the physical, tactile, moment of climbing. I think it’s like that with language. You get lucky at times, and you have windows into the ineffable. I’m not sure anyone gets there completely, because it would be the absolute sublime of course.

I’ve spent a lot of time with animals in my life—on horse ranches, and with cats and dogs. Animals don’t have words. They whinny, moan, bark, meow. Moaning often can be a much more articulate emotion than words. Listening to the warble of pigeons or the moans of animals might come much closer to the ineffable than language does.

Ann van Buren: That’s the inverse of what we usually think, which is that animals can’t communicate like humans do.

Mark Irwin: Listening closely enough, they do. Another corollary to this occurred when my mother was dying in in hospice. There was a moment where she couldn’t really speak anymore. I was at the geriatric center and before we brought her home she was having trouble speaking, reading, writing. So, I had this big piece of paper and I would draw a large, green square. She would get a crayon and make a blue square within the green one and then I would make a yellow one inside that. Emotionally, it was a much more advanced system of communication than talking. I felt much closer to her. There’s no grammar to color, which is more immediate than language. It skips grammatical rules that make you think and think again. I was conversing with my mother on a much deeper level than anything we ever communicated with words.

Ann van Buren: Your poem, “Primer” describes that experience.  Another poem describes crumpling a piece of paper, wetting it, and only writing on it after that. Can you tell us more about handmade poetry and its connection to the physical?

Mark Irwin: You know, the great Italian painter Caravaggio said that there’s nothing more difficult in art than simplicity. That’s the hardest thing to attain. Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” uses language that is very honed down. Whose woods these are I think I know/ His house is in the village though That’s very primal, incantatory language. Spell-bound mono-syllabics until we get to “village.” There are no adornments. It’s as urgent as a hatchet stroke into wood. That’s the greatest language, I think.

Ann van Buren: I remember Galway Kinnell would always say that the most powerful poetry is the language of ordinary everyday speech.

Mark Irwin: Exactly, and he was a great poet. Such a beautiful reader! I remember him reading Keats’ “Ode to Autumn.” I’m sure he read it better than Keats did!

Ann van Buren: He really was a great teacher, poet, and reader, unlike Eliot, for example, who was a terrible reader.

Mark Irwin: True, though I love his subtle inflections when he reads “Burnt Norton.”

Ann van Buren:  But back to the physical connection. Quite recently I taught at a school in Rockland County, NY, that doesn’t allow computers. Students use books and write everything by hand. A few weeks ago, I came across a study whose data suggests that students retain more when they take notes and write with pen or pencil. The motif of writing by hand comes up often in your work.

Mark Irwin: That’s very important to me. I don’t write anything on the computer except when a draft is finished. It starts with small notebooks and then the notebooks get bigger. Sometimes it starts with a piece of paper. I believe in the tactile. Now, some of my students do everything on their phones. I suggest that there’s a physicality to putting a pencil in your hand, and to putting words on paper. It’s similar to when Native Americans rode horses without saddles. They were essentially connected to the earth. The saddle wasn’t separating them. When people write on their phones or computers there’s an intermediary between themselves and the word.

Ann van Buren: Your poems seem to be resensitizing us to the elements of nature and existence. I was wondering if you’re doing that deliberately or if you can’t help it, because that’s how you live and think.

Mark Irwin: I think it’s probably just intuitive because I’ve lived so closely to nature. You know, I built my own house on 3 acres outside of Salida, Colorado. It took 3 years. Something about that process is like making a book. I remember buying old walnut doors that I kept in a barn along with square granite slabs, and glass blocks—waiting for where they would go. In the same way, I write a phrase down and wonder, When will I use this? Where will it go? Then suddenly I realize Oh, yeah, that’s where that goes! So, I was buying beautiful old things. I didn’t have the space for the door yet, but I would make space for it. I enjoy the sense of starting from scratch—whether it’s a piece of a house or a word—I’ll take a hike in the mountains and write down words that I wouldn’t have written down had I not been on a hike. The title poem of my book, A Passion According to Green, began on a hike. The rest of it was kind of a dream I had about the hike. That’s how I wrote that poem…

Ann van Buren: I was wondering if your poems came from dreams. They do seem to come from dreams, memories, and the immediacy of experience.  

Mark Irwin: Some definitely come from dreams, and I’d say, equally from the immediacy of experience. I do have very vivid dreams. I keep big pieces of paper by the bed and if I wake up I’ll jot a phrase down. Otherwise, I would never remember. You know how it is with dreams. If you don’t write down just one word, you lose everything. Sometimes it just takes one word, and then it all comes back to you.

Ann van Buren: That’s true, but it takes a lot of discipline. Your writing travels very far and wide. You must be very organized to be able to keep all your notebooks in order. I know that I start in one notebook and then I wonder where I’ve put it. And then I start another notebook and it’s downhill from there.

Mark Irwin: Thank you, I think that’s part of the art of attention. I got in the habit of using Faber-Castell pencils to write. I remember once I left one at a ranch. It was 75 miles to go back. I immediately turned around. I thought, God, I can’t continue with a new pencil. I just began with that one. Most people would think that’s crazy. But it’s the idea of keeping a connection. I was working on a particular poem with that pencil, and I couldn’t continue with a new pencil. Of course I could have, probably—I don’t know—but not on my end.

Ann van Buren: That’s amazing! I remember there were some kids in school who would keep the same pencil until it became really tiny, only a point and eraser, practically. Were you one of those people?

Mark Irwin: I can’t remember but I like that. You know there’s something about the amount of use an object has. I have an old Volvo from 2001. I have so many memories in that car! I have a newer car, but I don’t like driving that as much as the old car, just because the old car contains so many trips. It’s that Thoreauvian thing— Utilitarian values and firsthand experience with things.

Ann van Buren: So. Let’s see. You’re a poet and also a translator. I’ve noticed that you write some prose poems and that you’ve worked with Alain Borer on Rimbaud, who also wrote in that form. People are always having arguments about whether or not we’re allowed to write prose poetry. What is your defense of the form?

Mark Irwin: I would say it only makes up about a tenth of my oeuvre. There are times when a poem might have too much emotion. Versifying it might create purple passages. The prose poem allows for more emotion. I also think that if a poem has a lot of details those square margins allow you to pack stuff in. You can pack it until it’s kind of bursting out of those margins. That’s my idea for it— that you can pack more diverse material in, and it also allows different sentence structures which you might not be able to get away with as easily in verse. You also don’t have to worry about it quite as much, because the margins are doing more work.

Ann van Buren: You also sometimes write poems in 3 columns. I’m curious about that.

Mark Irwin: I like working with the silence of space, kind of the way John Cage worked with silence in his musical compositions, or Max Richter, or other contemporary composers, even Philip Glass. I also have poems composed in 3 panels, reflecting the triptychs that some artists like Francis Bacon might use. I’m a lover of classical music, especially contemporary classical music, and I’m sure there’s an influence there. I’ve also collaborated with painters and composers.

Ann van Buren: Who are some of the painters you’ve collaborated with?

Enrique Martínez Celaya - The Enchantment
Celaya – The Enchantment

Mark Irwin: Enrique Martínez Celaya is a colleague of mine. One of his pieces, a sculpture of sorts, depicts an image of a house inside a bare bush (“The Enchantment,”2012). This will appear on the cover of my forthcoming book, Once When Green. The cover of my book, Shimmer has an image of a person falling from the sky. I worked with its creator, Sarah Charlesworth, and the Paula Cooper Gallery. Ron Kroutel’s wonderful painting, Swinger, is on the cover of my book, Joyful Orphan. He’s an old friend. We taught together in Ohio University.

I’m very influenced by visual art. I taught at the Cleveland Institute of Art for 5 years, and loved the experience, especially of the critiques.  Painting critiques and poetry critiques are very similar, but also very different. In a painting critique, the painting might be too finished and you need to throw a wrench into it somewhere. For example, I might go to Enrique’s studio and see a painting that begins with a boat on water in sunset light that later becomes a boat burning on a mountain. He probably couldn’t get enough out of the original image. I like watching the metamorphoses of his paintings. It is surreal. In the questions you sent before this interview, you mentioned that my own work is surreal at times. Placing a boat on a mountain is much more interesting, in a way, than a boat in the water.

Ann van Buren: I want to talk about that. But you’ve reminded me of several motifs that run through your work. There’s the house, the fire, the letter that wasn’t opened. There is also a telescopic perspective that plays with time. The poem “I wanted to tell about the weight of it” is an example.

Mark Irwin: That particular poem is for a friend and former partner, Randi Schulman, who committed suicide. When she moved to Los Angeles, we bought this green ladder from an antique store. After we’d split up, we remained very close. She was like a sister. The green ladder became very haunting. It was something that we both loved. So that became part of this poem, as did the blueprint of the house I built. These things start bleeding into each other, along memories of going up in the elevator to her condominium, the thought of her death, and then going to her grave. I went there last spring and just standing in front, looking down at the headstone—talk about the ineffable— I can’t put all of that together, our time living together in Italy, the carriage house we shared, welcoming her to Los Angeles.

Then there is this notion of the house that runs through my work. I think all artists carry their house/s on their back. I mean, literally, you don’t really live anywhere. For example, I’ve lived in 11 apartments in Los Angeles in 20 years. In the first 10 years I lived in 9 apartments. I kept moving because of noise.

So again, this idea of house keeps coming up, along with the possibility of never really arriving home. The home for an artist is one that you’re constantly remaking. There’s the literal home we all have where we grew up with our parents, and we can only physically return there for a limited amount of time. Then it all becomes all memory and the imagination. This is probably true for both of us. Returning home is an element of memory. So, you keep improvising. For me, making it somewhat surreal often makes it more real.

Ann van Buren: Thank you for sharing all that, Mark.

I would like to talk a little bit more about surrealism and the extra-dimensional perceptions you employ as you describe consciousness and grapple with the present in the past. I think you’ve answered that pretty much, but how is this oblique way of writing those memories a tool for greater understanding? Why is it a more powerful tool, in a way, than specifically describing experience?

Mark Irwin: Well, there’s a wonderful quote by Hugh Davies on the work of Francis Bacon that distills this notion. “Mystery lies in the irrationality with which you make appearance, if not irrational you make illustration.”

I think artists are always looking for something that is disjunctive as a way to come closer to the original. You know Van Gogh does that all the time in the manner in which he paints, the thickness of the paint, along with what he chooses to depict. The self-portraits with red beard and swirling green background. Such disjunction through the use of color. I’m thinking of the portraits of the postman Joseph Roulin: the navy blue uniform contrasted with the red beard—an animal that wants to carry the face away. “Exaggerate the essential,” Van Gogh said, “and leave everything else as it is.” When something is too realistic, it risks becoming decorous. There’s a wonderful quote by the Nobel Prize winning novelist, Peter Handke. He says, “Reason forgets, the imagination never.” If something is expository or literal, we’ll forget it, but if it’s imaginative, we’ll remember it forever.

A poem of mine describes a cake I made for my mother’s 75th birthday. Architecturally, the actual cake wasn’t very good, but then I imagine us digging into it with our hands, making a cave with rooms and such. Because we’ve had so many cakes, we needed to do more with this one. We had to keep upping the ante with the cake.

Ann van Buren: I see how all of this is coming together. The surreal and the real. You are referring to the poem “A Vanilla cake,” which depicts an elderly mother and her son whose hair is “the color of ice.” There is a dripping candle and a snowy mountain where the mother lives. She asks, “How are things in the valley?” and he responds “Still green,” which I read as a metaphor for the son’s remaining years of life. Then,

as they began to feed each other with their fingers, closing their eyes,
making wishes as the stars blazed through the big window, snow blowing
from the eaves as they ate, telling of the past, then moments of the present—
the weather and the heart—continuing to eat bigger handfuls, their faces white, smeared, till it
started to taste of something new and strange and far away.
                                                              (A Passion According to Green, p. 18)

This poem stood out for me because you’ve made an ordinary birthday cake into a mighty adventure. I had originally thought that this was an allusion to the King’s Day cake that the French share on Epiphany. A tiny figurine of a king is hidden in those cakes and whoever finds it is crowned king.

Mark Irwin: Well, you know, that might be loosely in the background, but not directly. Ritual is a part of my work, too. I used to teach comparative religion, where there is a lot of ritual. In the questions you sent you mentioned the transcendental.

Ann van Buren: Yes, I dubbed you a “modern-day, post-surrealist, transcendentalist.” Do you think that’s an accurate appellation? 

Mark Irwin: There is a transcendental aspect to my work. I think that’s true. With all religions, even meditation, you’re trying to leave your body. I’m trying to leave my body in each poem. If I don’t leave my body in a poem, I would consider it a failure. I’m trying to get out of my body in each thing I write, and that’s part of the joy.

I’m probably not as surreal. There are there a lot of surreal moments in my work, but my poems are more transcendental than they are surreal. I hadn’t read the title poem of my book, Passion According to Green, in several years.

Ann van Buren: Yes, that poem is very transcendental. It depicts the human experience at a molecular level and alludes to way that we are never really gone, rather somewhere in the atmosphere. We are at the bottom of a flame where it is blue and burns the hottest. We are at the top of a mountain, tipped with snow. The last reader for KPS, Jennifer Michal Hecht, talked about how poetry is used for ceremonial occasions the way that religious texts once were employed. This one might be appropriate for a memorial.

Mark Irwin: I still like that poem a lot and I’m glad you like it too. It’s a desperately strange and otherworldly poem.

Ann van Buren: Many of your poems are appropriate for particular occasions, speaking of which—you’ll be reading in Katonah on Mother’s Day. You have so many mother poems.

I love the one called “Arrival.” It puts the mother figure on a starship hovering over a gorgeous copse of trees. And your poem “Why” is also a portrait of an elderly woman who, I presume, you are visiting in a nursing home.

Mark Irwin: That poem literally happened! I was going to visit my mother, and suddenly I was very nervous. I’m not a very vain person. I was fixing my hair and worrying, like I was going on a date. I had some flowers but when I got there, I had no vase. I was just shaking. I don’t know why I was so nervous, perhaps because I thought it was going to be the last time I saw her.

Ann van Buren: The poem is so beautiful! I hope you will read that poem when you are in Katonah. Here is an excerpt:

and how is it that from one cell dividing
I’ve returned again and again, and before promising now
to look for one sock in the lost and found, I lean forward and kiss her crooked
lipsticked mouth, and take both crepe-paper hands in mine
as though just getting ready to dance.

Mark Irwin: Yes, I think I’ll read several poems that may resonate on Mother’s Day.

Ann van Buren: I love how your poems play with time, the physical dimensions around you, and how memory plays with both. You create a world that makes sense in time and memory but not in the rational world.

Mark Irwin: Thank you. Memory is a huge component of my work. Memory and the imagination. I’m very interested in protracting time, as in the poem we just discussed.

How did I, from a one cell dividing, get to this point where I’m looking for a sock? Why does that matter?  It might be her last sock. The answer is ineffable.  I won’t let it go. I’m obsessive compulsive about things like that.

Ann van Buren: For you, is writing a path toward the future?

Mark Irwin: I think it is. It starts with memory. Saint Augustine, the great Christian philosopher said, Memory is the belly of the imagination. What a great thing! Right? You have to digest it, and then it is transformed.

Ann van Buren: You talk about that process in the natural world as well. Our environment is digesting us and all that we do. Your poem “Tree, River” (Joyful Orphan p. 19) seems to take us in multiple and eternal directions, as does “Light,” (Joyful Orphan p. 10) in which you say:

                         …I’m thinking how
the light never hurries to end, unlike words
that somehow need to keep opening like this forest
so that the first animal might come.

I spend a lot of time in the forest, perhaps a process of keeping the people I’ve lost in my life close. What has fallen into the ground has become a leaf!

Mark Irwin: I think we’re very similar.  There are moments in the real world that take us into the future. These moments might seem surreal, but they are not. They are very real. I remember once I was trout fishing and I hadn’t caught any fish. I’d been fishing for about 2 hours, and I caught this big brook trout. I was really hungry. I didn’t bring any lunch, and I cleaned the trout, only to find these twin egg sacs. I just put those in my mouth and ate them like caviar. There was an amazing electrical current. The salt was coursing through my body. The sun was out. I felt like I could run home. I felt the immediate energy of this fish going into my body via electrolytes and salt. I’ll never forget that moment.

Ann van Buren: There is another poem I wanted to mention, about an elephant. Did you actually feed the elephant a whole bag of peanuts, packaging and all?

Mark Irwin: That’s really true. My father took me to Coney Island when I was five or six years old. We went to the Coney Island Zoo. My father bought me a bag of peanuts. Instead of opening it, like a stupid kid, I just gave him the whole thing. It got caught in the elephant’s trunk. Twelve years later, I went to West Point for 2 years before I resigned. I went back to that zoo. That elephant was still alive. I had some peanuts, took them out of the package this time, and began feeding the elephant. The elephant, whose name was Charley, walked over to this huge canteen of water. He filled his trunk and just doused me! Then he went over and did it again! This elephant remembered! It caused quite a stir at the zoo. I knew—and tried to tell people—that this one was on me!

Ann van Buren: Your poem, “Plaster of Paris,” describes how this memory is sparked by the discovery of the Plaster of Paris hands you made at about the same time as your encounter with Charley. In the poem, you can’t remember the elephant’s name. Your mom is quite elderly, and you feel this urgency to reach her, so that she can fill in the details of that story. The poem speaks to the primal nature of memories, especially those we share through our interactions with animals, and those we share with our moms.

Mark Irwin: Think about it! That elephant spent not more than 20 minutes with me when I was 5 years old! Our brains are nothing compared to theirs! After that event I started thinking very deeply about elephants. I’m going to read you just this little passage from the forthcoming book. This poem is entitled,“Here I am working between the edge and center,” :

And the fossil shape, bird beaks have pecked
into the salt block, resembles pinnacles and cairns until there
is nothing but white, flattened the way an elephant’s face appears
like an ancient shield set before the eyes, caved
within whorls, a geography one cannot attain, a ruin for gazing.

I’ve read many books about elephants as a result of that event at the zoo. They are amazing animals. There’s a book called When Elephants Weep. Did you know that elephants have funerals? They have a very sophisticated consciousness, the way whales do. A lot of people don’t really consider this because they don’t have a connection with the animal world. I was fortunate that my father took me to every zoo there was. The imagination comes out of long memories. I’m sure that’s true for you.

Ann van Buren: Yes, it is. I love hearing your stories as much as I enjoy feeling them when I read your work. This is what’s amazing about poetry. It captures what an exact transcription of an event might miss. You wrote a poem called “Eclipse” that addresses that redaction of words, and since we just experienced a solar eclipse here in New York I thought I’d bring it to the foreground. It says,

what I redact from this body of text you will never know.
As the sun waxed full— like twilight backwards— the tomatoes grew
translucent, orange and we started eating our sandwiches
again, hungry for what we couldn’t say.

We’re living in such a dangerous moment in history. Although the sun returned after the eclipse a couple of weeks ago, can we dispel the shadows? How can we see the light?

Mark Irwin: That’s a good question to end with. I think we have to keep examining the shadow to appreciate the light, keep probing what was not completely revealed in order to feel the radiance.

Ann van Buren: Thank you for this encouragement, and for all of your words.

Once When Green will be out in March of 2025 from the University of Massachusetts Press. Other books by Mark Irwin will be available for purchase and signing at the Katonah Poetry Series reading at the Katonah Village Library on May 12, 2024 at 4PM.