On Writing, with Irene Marques
Writer and academic Irene Marques is the author of The Perfect Unravelling of the Spirit (TSAR Publications). Irene's lush style, also present in her first book, Wearing Glasses of Water, has prompted comparison by critics to magic realist great Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
Today Irene speaks to Open Book about her new collection, her relationship with titles and how she balances her literary and academic identities.
Tell us about your book, The Perfecting Unravelling of the Spirit.
This book asks you to be in touch with the happenings around and inside you. It asks you to remember your life, your body, your loved ones and the world through kind words, poetic insight and philosophical reflective illumination. The book celebrates happiness, sorrowfulness, love and tenderness with words and metaphors that try to call us to our darkest and most intangible places, which are also the most fulfilling and bright spaces. The title tries to capture that mood, that intention: what you feel, what you live, what you remember about that. You unravel through words feeling more complete, more at home in a world that makes more sense.
You have a knack for crafting memorable titles. How did this one come about?
I have a deep relationship with titles. The titles usually come to me in a moment of insight or after reminiscing quite a bit about the subject I am writing about. Often I hear a word or a phrase or a story and I feel them calling me. Whatever is being said in the word or phrase or story affects me — it asks me to take it further, to unveil the pulse of the thought or feeling or idea which is not being completely explored there. It is as if the words exert a magic power over me: they are calling me to something deeper and I cannot resist the call. I have always felt this way with words.
I remember when I first learned how to read and write at the village primary school in Portugal (one of those with a single room where all the classes were mixed and where we had an armoire full of fabulous story books). I was in complete awe with the letters, the words and the stories: they were calling me and that there was a lot that they wanted to say. The title may come from this call sometimes: that initial word or phrase or story calling for more meaning. I also notice that often the titles that I choose have a certain musicality — the choice is also unconscious as if the unconscious naturally gravitates towards pleasing musical sounds.
The title for this collection came, I believe, from the mood that I try to put across as explained above. The unconscious pull towards the musical was also there: I pronounced it in silence and it felt right, evoking peace and solace within me. Often I also choose titles that can have ambivalent multiple meanings to convey the complexity of the matter at hand.
You also have an academic background. How do you balance your academic and literary identities?
I have, for at least the last 14 years, been an academic. I have also worked at a mental health hospital and in many other settings at the same time, though at the moment, I am between jobs and not directly affiliated with an institution. It is not easy to balance all the work that I have been doing but the different work settings have helped me in my writing: they allow me to come in contact with different people and learn from them. By drinking into different realities, we become wiser, more informed, more tolerant even. I have had several jobs since I came to Canada at the age of 20 and I am glad I did. Obviously, I have worked in different places also because of financial need. I will say though that because I come from a certain Portuguese background (poor, rural, where most people do manual work) I may feel guilty if I am just writing or working as an academic. (My mother still has trouble accepting those as legitimate jobs!). Perhaps with time and opportunity, I will change and feel at peace just by doing what I love the most: writing.
Tell us about your ideal writing environment.
When the call comes, I can write anywhere. Sometimes I may go for some time without writing, either because I have other work to do or because I have not yet arrived at a moment where the idea that I have been reminiscing about is sufficiently mature or simply because I avoid writing for other (existential) reasons. When I reach a certain point though, the words have to come out. At that point, I can write anywhere and I will make time to write even if I have to get up at 6 am to write for an hour and a half before I go to work. Sometimes I find an environment that I become attached to and I do not want to write anywhere else. I’ll tell you a story: recently I had developed the habit of writing at work and so I would come to work at around 7:00/7:30 am and I would write until 9:00. I felt good there: the thoughts were flowing, the ambiance was right. One day my boss forbade me from doing that invoking institutional policies — and she was right! But I was upset. I cried. Then I moved on and found another place. When the call is there, nothing can stop me.
Were there specific collections or poets you were reading while writing this book? What are some recent reads that really knocked your socks off?
I can’t really say that I was reading a specific one book when I wrote The Perfect Unravelling of the Spirit. Due to my academic background and because I teach literature and writing I have read many poets and writers from many eras and cultural spaces (Nigerian, Mozambican, South African, Brazilian, Portuguese, French, French-Canadian and so on). I will say though that the Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector is someone I deeply identify with. Two books that I recently read and found very inspiring: The House of the Spirits by Chilean-American writer Isabel Allende and Half of a Yellow Sun by the Nigerian Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Currently, I am reading The Piano Cemetery by Portuguese writer José Luís Peixoto and I am quite taken by it: the minute inspection of the intimate familial, the poetic and philosophical depth, the visual acuity, a certain magic-realism even, all working together to create something quite unique, transcendental, introspective.
What are you working on now?
I am in the final stages of a novel. It’s a work that goes back and forth between Portugal, Canada, Mozambique, Cape Verde and the world at large, to display and juxtapose specific cultural and historical contexts. It mixes the intimate personal and familial with the political and deals with themes of torture, the Portuguese Fascist regime, the First and Second World Wars and inter-racial love. I am also working on a new collection of poetry and I think I just wrote the first sentence of my next novel last week and also came up with the title.