Interview with Mark Irwin

“Art . . . is about perception and generating human feelings. You can teach a person many things, but you cannot teach him or her how to feel.”

1. Could you talk about how you incorporate personal experience into your work? I’m thinking of poems like “Landscape with Ball, Then Smeared with Shadow.”

I tend to accumulate experience for poems, often for years until I’m floored, overwhelmed by it. That particular poem refers to the death of my father about 10 years ago. However, before that the poem delves back another 40 years to baseball and games of pitch & catch. I like when the poem travels a long way to get to the page; it seems more authentic. Tarkovsky, the great Russian film maker, says that experience is one of the most important things in art because it can’t really be passed on: each experience is unique.

2. With rare exceptions, your images are spare like a sketch or a shorthand symbol. Is it to indicate the uncertainty of landscape or the immaterial nature of location? Or are you allowing for readers to expand the object with their own contexts? How is it useful?

Yes, I believe that skeletal images, if suggestive in the right way, allow the reader to participate in the mystery. Dickinson’s quite good at this: what I would call a synesthesia-sketch. She enthralls the reader’s senses around a mysterious event. Think of “I felt a Funeral in my Brain” or “I Heard a Fly Buzz when I Died.”

For me the use is a selfish one: I’m always trying to surprise myself, which is what I think most artists are trying to do. Frost said it best: “No surprise for the writer, none for the reader.” Mystery brings things to life. “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard / are sweeter.” –Keats

3.  “American Urn” seems to be arguing against Keats’s urn, or maybe against the simplicities of its categories and finalities. And in the book there are so many titles that somehow refer to a category of some kind: “aria,” “psalm,” “elegy,” “landscape,” “icon.” Are these poems also arguing or opposing with their content the intention of their titles?

Yes, they do seem to be arguing with their content and also opposing their titles, and this is something I do subconsciously–probably to generate surprise, but I also think that much of the art I admire generates paradox of some sort. Look at that Urn of Keats; we go from joy to sacrifice to desolation! In that manner it may be the longest five stanza poem in existence.

4. Is there something about your time at Case that made this project possible?

My time at CWRU is more accurately a time in University Circle. How fortunate people are in this area. I lived in a carriage house behind the old Mather Mansion on Magnolia Drive. I went to every symphony, art exhibit, botanical exhibition, play, or interesting movie.

I am so grateful for this time, as I am to have worked with all the artists at CIA. I had excellent teachers at CWRU, some of whom may not know I was their student. I sat in on a lot of classes. I read all the time with my eyes hanging out.

Knowledge, however, won’t make you an artist. Art I think is about perception and generating human feelings. You can teach a person many things, but you cannot teach him or her how to feel: this is where art begins, because feeling has no end.

Mark Irwin is a nationally acclaimed poet and four-time Pushcart Prize winner who has been described as a “descendant of William Carlos Williams and Hart Crane.” He is the author of six collections of poetry, and he has also translated several French and Romanian works. Irwin teaches undergraduate and graduate poetry workshops. He teaches in the Graduate Creative Writing Program at the University of Southern California.