Marty Gervais

1. Poems In My Mother’s Voice are, as the title suggests, written in your mother’s voice? Can you describe how you conceived of the title; and the process you followed in building that collection? What were your primary motivations and concerns for doing this collection?

I grew up listening to the wonderful stories by Guy de Maupassant that my mother read to me in the original French. These were such haunting strokes of werewolves and oddball characters, but from there, she would spin her own accounts of growing up in a French-Canadian community about an hour’s drive in those days, deep into the countryside where farmers grew wheat and soybeans. The landscape was flat and open, and the church steeple could be seen for miles around. This was my mother’s world, and English was only ever heard at the gas station or from passing tourists. I loved those stories, especially those about a great grandmother who was raised by Lutherans, converted to Catholicism, and upon her deathbed, feeling she would never be worthy of Heaven, warned she would return for prayers. Indeed, she did. In the form of a poltergeist, and my mother swore they would kneel on the hard wooden floors of the farmhouse and watch the cupboard doors slap and teacups flying about the room while they praised the rosary. Hearing this, and stories of near-drownings of my aunt, the faith healer who was the seventh son of a seventh son, the attempted kidnapping of my mother by a caravan of travellers, all this began to emerge, but all of it in my mother’s voice. One of the biggest concerns was to capture a female voice, something authentic in its feel and presence, which is why I turned it over to Micheline Maylor, a disciplined editor and amazing writer, and she nudged and urged me to make changes, to make the book more authentic in its feminine presence. The title A New Dress Every Day, though it was a dare on the part of my father who promised my mother if she agreed to marry him, he’d buy her a new dress every day. Naturally, he did not. But the dress becomes a symbol of that femininity, but in a much larger and more important way. It is my mother’s identity as a wife, a mother, a woman, someone who was creative and strong in conviction. This was long before Feminism as we know it today. She was a loving mother, and she deferred to my father, but she drew the line when it came to who she was. And she made sure the world knew about it. She raised seven children, and at the age of 62, went back to college, got her early childhood education, and landed a job at a nursery school in Windsor. She then sat down and wrote two children’s books, and they sold 30,000 copies. She spent her royalties on some investments but went on cruises.

2. The poems in A New Dress Every Day featured in a film by Taylor Campbell. How did this collaboration come about? Could you talk a bit more about the process of staging the poems? How was the work melded into the screenplay? Can you talk a bit about your involvement in the process?

A conversation with Michigan Opera cellist Nadine Deleury, with whom I had worked to create an opera on the life of the photographer, Pat Sturn, led me to an arrangement where we hired an actor to perform in a one-woman show filmed by Windsor Star videographer and reporter Taylor Campbell. This was launched online and garnered scads of attention. Kianna Porter played my mother reading her poems about growing up. She gave a very different perspective of the story, which resulted in really in some ways telling the same story but a different lived experience.

3. Letters to Grace is your latest play based on actual letters from graduates of the former Grace Hospital in Windsor, Ontario. These letters written around the second world war time frame are from leprosy colonies in India, South Africa, and France. How did you conceive of this work? Did you have an audience in mind when you wrote this? How different was this experience from the other works that you published recently?

I was hired to write the history of Grace Hospital: Windsor. The book was commissioned by Hotel Dieu-Grace to celebrate Grace Hospital’s 100th anniversary. The original Salvation Army Hospital amalgamated with Hotel Dieu, and soon after fell to the wrecking ball. Its nurses and doctors however migrated to Hotel Dieu. In the process of doing the research for this history, I stumbled across all these letters from nursing grads who had lived in residence during training, formed friendships and loyalties, and carried that into the field of real work. Some went off to missions in South Africa, others joined leprosy colonies in India and still more sailed across the Atlantic to join the Canadian Army as it made its way into Nazi France. These letters tell those stories in a rich and colourful way. I included some of these or excerpts in the history, but I saw a play forming. I joined with Nadine Deleury, a talented cellist and someone with whom I worked on the story of Pat Sturn for the opera that was produced a few years ago, and one that travelled throughout Ontario and Michigan, and Ohio. The original music for that opera was prepared by the composer Jeff Smallman of London, Ont. After reading my script for Letters to Grace, he joined me and created the most amazing accompaniment to these letters. The Windsor Feminist Theatre launched this play to a great reception.  As for an audience in mind, I thought it told the story of some amazing women who pushed the boundaries of authority, good sense, and the common good, to work the magic that was needed in caring for the hurt and the wounded. These women were angels in the lives of the people who needed them.

4. What made you a writer?

Simple, I had an insatiable desire to tell stories. I didn’t really know what a writer was, or where you ought to go to become one — I just started telling stories, and writing them down, and reading and finding there had to be better ways to say what I wanted.

5. How did you come to write your first book?

I wrote a few chapbooks in the 1960s, some of which were published in mimeograph form, very maudlin, somewhat experimental, and sometimes a bit sentimental. I think there was a touch of — dear I say — Rod McKuen, but also Leonard Cohen … Yet it wasn’t all bad. Miriam Waddington, the renowned poet along with Layton, Cohen, and Purdy, met with me, and after tossing dozens of poems into the air saying they weren’t ever going to be ready for publication finally saw something that worked. She said, “Now, that’s good … That’s writing! You have it!” It changed my life.

6. Do you remember any experience around learning to write that became formative for you in the later years?

Well, the most formative thing for me came later. I was already publishing in magazines and even at that point, had a couple of books out. But it was Al Purdy, who edited “Into A Blue Morning”, my first Selected Poems, who identified for me my ‘voice’ as a writer. I really had no idea what that might be. I was too close to the work to notice. But he nailed it, showing me, I had a way of dealing with language that set me apart from others. It was my own peculiar way of melding the everyday affairs of shepherding sons to hockey, being a husband and father and lover, and keeping a family together, and juggling life as a working reporter and running a publishing company, that made my work different. It all came down to telling stories, spinning the most ordinary into the most extraordinary.

7. Do you have a writing routine? Or writing rituals? Or patterns you must follow regularly? Or rituals that you practice, say, when you are writing in certain forms, say a longer piece of work, like a novel, as opposed to a shorter piece, like a poem?

I write in the bathtub. I step into a steaming bath, lay back and lines of a poem begin to spill out of me. It’s more a recitation than anything else. And I hear my voice echoing in the tiled bathroom, and this provides me a sense of the poem’s rhythm, and I switch verbs and nouns and adjectives around, assembling into something that sounds right. I work with repetition. I work with sound. But all of this is merely an introduction to the whole tone of a poem that I write. And so, when I actually sit down to put it to paper, that rhythm finds its way into the narratives that I write. And if you pay attention to language, and the masters, you will see it and hear it. Even in John Keats’ poem Ode To A Grecian Urn, you can almost detect the awkward cough of the Romantic poet writing this in his last days in Rome when he was dying of tuberculosis. Or read “The Old Man and The Sea” by Hemingway, and the work is really one long lyrical poem, the sentences a long loop of poetic language. And so my ritual starts in the bath, feeling my way through the richness of sound. Hearing my own voice. Then it goes to my notebook, but the final composition is sitting at the keyboard. Years of writing quickly in a newspaper gave me the training to think — not with a pen, but the keyboard of a typewriter.

8. Are there any books that you keep visiting for inspiration?

Near my working space is a copy of Hemingway’s “A Moveable Feast”, his book about Paris. Another is “The Sign of Jonas”, the diary of the Kentucky monk Thomas Merton. In both, I am inspired by the way they look at the world, how ritual, how discipline, and how the imagination drives them forward.

9. Who is your work in conversation with? (i.e., other authors/artists, specific people, audience, peers, etc.)

I am in touch with lots of writers, and photographers, because photography figures big in my life. The craft of taking photographs is no different than writing for me. It’s telling stories. And if you look closely at my writing, I write like I make pictures. And so my friends are people who do that. We swap poems and photographs and our conversations on Zoom and on the phone are about what we are doing, experimenting with, thinking.

Marty Gervais is a Canadian poet, photographer, journalist, and teacher. Gervais has also published plays, children’s books, non-fiction and, a book of photography, A Show of Hands: Boxing on the Border (2004). In 1998, he won the prestigious Toronto’s Harbourfront Festival Prize for his contributions to Canadian letters and to emerging writers. In 1996, he was awarded the Milton Acorn People’s Poetry Award for his book, Tearing Into A Summer Day. That book was awarded the City of Windsor Mayor’s Award for literature. Gervais won this award again in 2003 for another collection, To Be Now: New and Selected Poems. Gervais has also been the recipient of 16 Western Ontario Newspaper Awards for journalism. His first published novel, Reno, appeared in 2005 from Mosaic Press and was nominated for the International Three-Day Novel Writing contest. In 2006 Gervais and his work were the subject of a TV Bravo episode of the television series Heart of a Poet produced by Canadian filmmaker Maureen Judge. Marty Gervais served as Windsor’s first poet laureate for seven years and now is poet laureate emeritus.

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