Marilyn Dumont: a poet’s confession

On Feb. 8, York’s Canadian Writers in Person course and reading series presented poet Marilyn Dumont. York teaching assistant Chris Cornish sent the following report to YFile.

reed instrument my body
woodwind my larynx
the keys of a clarinet
lifting open and shut
its sweet hollow sound echoing
a reed for God or some other mad musical
inclination to play a ditty or dirge on my losses

from "sad flute"
green girl dreams Mountains
by Marilyn Dumont

"Writing is one of the hardest things to do." This was Marilyn Dumont’s confession early in her reading for the Canadian Writers in Person series. It was a mark of both her vulnerability and honesty as she very quickly dispelled notions of writing as a glamorous profession in which words flow naturally from the pen. Rather, she spoke frankly of the inner tension in which the desire to write is resisted by the voices that say, "You can’t". 

Left: Marilyn Dumont

Circumventing these voices takes courage and strategy. One of these strategies is to think of writing as a habitual physical activity like dancing or weightlifting. Without thinking of it but simply doing it regularly, the mind develops muscle memory and over time comes to move with grace and strength. For Dumont, thinking in these terms was useful in working through serious depression, an illness she feels is physical as well as psychological. "You feel hollow like a reed, like anything can blow through you. Writing is how I survived, what kept me alive. It was a place where I could go," said Dumont.

In "Do not write for the Harleys", Dumont speaks humorously of the often less than ideal conditions at poetry readings. Air conditioners clunk, motorcycles roar on the street outside, cell phones ring, people leave abruptly.  She used to be nervous at reading her work in public but thinking of her Cree/Métis ancestors gave her an "inner fire." She wanted to stand up for them, remembering how debilitating silence was for them. It became almost a family obligation to "use words to say things they wanted to say but couldn’t or did but weren’t heard." She is descended from the Métis revolutionary Gabriel Dumont, and one could hear that fighting spirit in her voice, "its sweet hollow sound echoing" in her "reed instrument".

Dumont found the courage to deal with her material head on, to write as she experienced it, despite the difficulty of turning private suffering into public expression. Though she was uneasy about the work’s reception by her family, she wanted to be faithful to both her creativity and pain.  After reading a wrenching poem about her father, her brother said simply, "That’s pretty much the way it was." By creating an honest and complex portrayal of him, she was told by no less than Dionne Brand that she was actually "honouring her father".

On working with words, the poet finds that sound is as important as the sense. "If it works for my ear and my brain, then I’ve done a good job," said Dumont. Writing then becomes about relationships between lyrical and lived experience, author and reader, speaker and listener. One could say that this is what Dumont’s poetry is about: considering the range of relationships between self, urban life, landscape, language and family.

Perhaps the best way to describe Marilyn Dumont and her presence at the Canadian Writers in Person Series is to relate one of her experiences. She recalled a recent gathering of Métis at Batoche, commemorating where the rebels had their last stand. ("Only the Metis would celebrate a battle we lost.") The wind and the dust were incredible and she contemplated her ancestors’ difficult way of life. She noticed that among all the modern and most expensive tents, only the traditional tepees resisted being blown over.

The Canadian Writers in Person series of public readings at York, which is free and open to the public, is also part of an introductory course on Canadian literature. The series is sponsored in part by the Canada Council for the Arts. Camilla Gibb reads from her novel, Sweetness in the Belly tonight and Larissa Lai reads from her novel Salt Fish Girl on March 29.