Originally from Southern Ontario, Sharon Irvine is a converted northerner. She is a retired teacher who has previously published two books of poetry, one being a collaboration with members of her writing group. Sharon will be launching her new short story book, Close Encounters, at the Waverley library on October 15th – be sure to stop by!
Shauna Kosoris: Your newest book, Close Encounters, just came out this year. What can you tell me about it?
Sharon Irvine: Close Encounters is a collection of short stories that has been written over the past ten years. The stories have all been workshopped in a prose writing group called “Writers Northwest” of which I am a member.
The title reflects the nature of the stories in that all the characters have ‘close encounters’; it may be with other people, with their own fears, hopes and dreams, or with events that life throws at them. Some of the stories are light and humorous, and others deal with serious issues which many people face as they go through life. Some characters commit murder for a second chance while others cope with loss or make decisions about how and when they will die.
The collection offers a variety of emotions and hopefully will appeal to a variety of readers.
SK: Why do so many of the stories in Close Encounters revolve around death?
SI: I had not really thought about the fact that several stories revolve around death. Actually, only four of the fifteen stories involve the death of someone, and one involves the death of an animal.
Death is a universal experience, one we all encounter sooner or later; so, it’s not all that surprising that it is a favourite topic of writers. It’s also the bogeyman under the bed that we all fear and wonder about, and I think it’s natural to write about something that has both an element of mystery and inevitability.
When you asked the question, I began to wonder if I was preoccupied with death, but I don’t think I am, even though I am older and closer to it. Death in the stories is really only a mechanism to tell the story and reveal the character; it’s not the focus of the story, from my point of view.
SK: Much of your work (including your contributions to Core Samples and your previous book, Watching the Parade) is poetry. What drew you to short stories for Close Encounters?
SI: I decided to write short stories initially because I wanted to see if I could. I became caught up in the form and quite enjoyed writing prose. I found it challenging but interesting. Of course, I had a lot of help from the members of “Writers Northwest” who have been very patient with my prose struggles.
As a much younger person, I wrote short stories all the time, but once poetry captured my attention, I let the prose writing drop to second place. Now, I enjoy doing both: they have different challenges, but I find them both stimulating. What intrigues me the most about prose is creating characters and making them react to the twists and turns of life. I love it when readers tell me they empathize with a character I have created.
SK: What first drew you to writing poetry?
SI: I love the music of words and the challenge of saying the most with the least number of words.
For me, poetry is the quintessential use of words; it’s the astronaut of language that flies above all the rest.
I was lucky enough to have several teachers who loved poetry and passed it on to me. They taught me to feel the words, not just see them. And they showed me the power of words.
SK: Can you tell me a little about your first published poem?
SI: My first published poem actually was in grade three: My dog loves me
even when I do bad things.
I think I have grown a little in terms of poetic technique since then, at least I hope I have.
Probably the most significant publication of one of my poems occurred when I joined “The Thunder Bay Poetry Workshop”. I had been writing poetry for many years but was afraid to show it to anyone. It was my friend, Elizabeth Kouhi, who convinced me to join the group and share what I was writing. Shortly after that, two of my poems were published in The Whiskey Jack. Since then, I have been sharing poems with fellow poets in a group called “The Paratactics” and have written two books of poetry, one on my own and the other with members of the group.
SK: What is your favourite poetic form to write and why?
SI: Free verse is my favourite poetic form, but I also enjoy the challenge of writing within specific boundaries dictated by a particular form like the sonnet or the ballad.
Free verse gives the poet so much latitude with regard to rhythm, choice of words, page set-up, etc. You are allowed to take the idea and run with it without having to consider specific rhyme, stanza length, line length, etc.
SK: How do you engage people who are not eager to read poetry?
SI: I was a teacher for over three decades which means I had a lot of practice trying to engage people in poetry who are not eager to do so. I believe that the most important thing is to convince them that poetry can have many meanings for different people; there is no set idea that fits everyone. Having said that, if you say a poem is about Superman, you had better be prepared to find details in the poem to support your idea, like a phone booth or two. You can’t just pull a meaning out of the sky; it has to come from the poem itself.
You have to convince them that poetry is mostly serious but can be fun, and you can do that by doing choral reading and dramatizing poems, writing limericks and giving a prize for the best one, writing a group poem where everyone puts in a line, etc. There are lots of ways to have fun with poetry.
If you want people to engage in poetry, you have to convince them that they can write poetry themselves. There are lots of techniques to accomplish this. Once a person writes a poem, he/she can understand the difficulties and appreciate what other poets have done, and also experience first hand the intellectual and emotional stimulation of doing so.
SK: You are originally from Southern Ontario, but are now a “converted northerner.” Why does Northwestern Ontario appeal to you so much, particularly for your writing?
SI: Much of Northwestern Ontario is sky, water, rocks and trees: the primary elements of life. Living here where you can feel the pulse of nature is important to me. It seems to me that northerners have a much better idea of real values. Life here is more basic; you can freeze to death and what’s more, you know you can.
This view creates situations and characters that are both interesting and imperative. For example, one of the stories is about blowing a beaver dam that is flooding a grain field. This is a fairly common problem in the north, and it creates situations and characters that are a very different type from someone who works on Bay Street in Toronto.
I think that the characters of the North don’t have the layers of unreal values that others may have because they have to deal on a daily basis with the geography of the North. You don’t just hop in your car and drive to Fort Frances; you make sure you have extra food, warm clothes, a sleeping bag, candles etc. because there are hundreds of kilometers where there is only you and the bush, and if your car breaks down, you had better be prepared to survive on your own.
SK: Finally, I have a few questions about what you read. What book, poem, or author inspired you to write?
SI: There is no one word answer to this question. Every author I have ever read has influenced me in one way or another. I may not know it, but the influence works its way into what I write.
I love to read the poetry of Don McKay who is a Canadian, but I have to say that my all time favourite poet is T. S. Eliot.
SK: Is there a book, poem or author that you think everyone should read?
SI: I think everyone should read Tolkien’s Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. In my opinion, it is a masterpiece of creation, a whole world of totally plausible, fantasy characters in the archetypal struggle between good and evil. It is totally engaging whether you are a child or an adult and without being preachy, it teaches basic values.
SK: What are you currently reading?