Boston University Wind
Ensemble, conducted
by David Martins, at the
Tsai Performance
Center on Thursday,
December 6, at 8 p.m.
Week of  30 November 2001 · Vol. V, No. 15


Search the Bridge

Contact Us


ENG staffers engineer time for art outside work

By David J. Craig

Ann-Marie Madden Irwin was a single mother in her early 30s when she discovered her voice. Now 41 and a published poet, she writes every day, before and after work, where she coordinates the graduate program at the College of Engineering's manufacturing engineering department.

  Andy Abrahamson (SFA'91) is the research assistant for the manufacturing engineering department's long-distance learning program, and in his free time plays bass for the punk rock group the In-Out and is a serious painter.
Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

Andy Abrahamson (SFA'91), on the other hand, knew the day he graduated from BU that his passions were music and painting. To free himself from the hassle of lining up the freelance photography and design work that had been paying his bills, he took his first day job two years ago. He is the research assistant for the manufacturing engineering department's long-distance learning program, plays bass for the punk rock group the In Out, and spends most weekends in his Fort Point Channel painting studio.
Hardly dilettantes, Madden Irwin and Abrahamson each say that working at ENG offers an alternative to struggling to become commercially successful, and allows them to focus on the simple dignity of making art in their free time.

"I know that to make a living as a poet I would need a graduate degree and probably have to teach and write essays as well, and I'm not interested in doing that," says Madden Irwin. "It would be great to have more time to write, of course, but I'm prolific as it is."

Late bloomer

  Ann-Marie Madden Irwin, the graduate program coordinator at ENG's manufacturing engineering department, is a published poet and directs the Ann-Marie Madden Irwin (AMMI) Collaborative, a series of writing workshops for poets with full-time jobs. Photo by Vernon Doucette

As the ENG department's graduate program coordinator since 1998, Madden Irwin assists students with the logistics of scheduling, financial aid, and other administrative issues. "I'm very close to my students," she says. "They remind me of myself when I went back to school as an adult learner."
Madden Irwin hasn't always felt so fulfilled. In 1991, she was bored working at an MIT administrative job and decided to pursue a career in social work. She enrolled part-time at UMass-Boston , but favorable feedback on poems she wrote for a creative writing course the next year made her switch her focus again.

"I discovered that I could create something very intimate from the quirky, circular way my brain works," she says. "Writing was spiritually fulfilling for me, so I decided to immerse myself in it."

She had recently gotten out of a long, "unhealthy relationship," she says, so had accumulated plenty of "poetry fodder." Upon earning a bachelor's degree in economics and English in 1996, the self-proclaimed "late-blooming overachiever" decided to remain in university administration and dedicate herself to poetry outside of work.

One of her first published poems, "Settling In," appeared in the Roslindale newspaper The Parkway Transcript, in 1997. A playful piece about moving into her Jamaica Plain home with her second husband, musician and librarian Charlie Irwin, the detailed, realistic poem dealing with domestic life is characteristic of much of Madden Irwin's work. "I don't care for poems that have excessive abstraction," she says. "I like my poems to be accessible and earthbound, but to have a certain grace."

Madden Irwin has also published poems in The Larcom Review and The Café Review and has read her work on WBUR's Here and Now. In addition, she directs the Ann-Marie Madden Irwin (AMMI) Collaborative, which hosts a series of poetry workshops in New Hampshire three times a year and has attracted well-known American and Irish poets. Madden Irwin helped found AMMI in 1999 to create a community of "serious poets who have nine-to-five jobs, who may have kids, and who might not have time to take a course," she says. She spends about eight hours a week overseeing the program.

Madden Irwin dreams of publishing a book of poems, but it is of less concern to her now than when she started writing. "I like sharing my work, but I was too hung up on getting published at one point," she says. "I finally decided that I wanted to spend my time writing poems, not cover letters, so I really got away from being disciplined about submitting my poems."
When it comes to writing, however, Madden Irwin could not be more disciplined, rising at six every day for at least 90 minutes of "fresh writing" before work, spending several hours each night revising, and constantly keeping a notebook handy for the flash of unexpected inspiration. "When I wake up, I know that time is precious," she says. "I don't squander it."

Shift work
Andy Abrahamson has a rule about the way he earns money: the work has to be stimulating and relate to his personal interests. He has plenty of options. Since graduating, the artist and musician, who studied painting at BU, has done everything from photojournalism to Web design to desktop publishing to framing artwork.

"I like my job at BU because I get to do a lot of problem-solving and I'm always learning a lot of new technical skills," he says. He works 30 hours a week maintaining the teleconferencing equipment used in the distance learning program at the department of manufacturing engineering. "I loved the work I did as a freelancer, too," he says, "but the more expensive rents got in Boston, the more difficult it became to survive. I also got tired of always having to chase after the next job. Working at BU, I have more time for myself."

Like Madden Irwin, Abrahamson takes his free time seriously. He estimates that he spends 20 hours each weekend painting at his Fort Point Channel artist studio, or playing with the In Out, or recording his own electronic music in his Allston recording studio. In addition, he paints before work at least twice during the week and plays music most weeknights.

His dedication has helped make the In Out one of Boston's hot-test bands. The group toured the United States supporting national rock act Sebadoh two years ago, and the In Out's second full-length CD, A Living Memorial in Deutschland, was the third most played record on local radio station WMBR last year. The band is preparing to release a new CD in February.
A recent Improper Bostonian profile called the In Out's music "openly confrontational," and listed as its strengths "deadpanning repetition, razor-sharp friction, and sustained tension." Abrahamson says his primary musical influences are the intellectually bent punk rock of the 1970s British bands the Fall and Wire, as well as reggae producer and dub music pioneer Lee Perry.
"The band's music is very sparse and minimal, and the impact comes from its lack of adornment," says Abrahamson, 31. "There is also a balance between structure and chaos. There are plenty of bands that make a racket and a lot of bands that have structured, beautiful songs, but I think we combine those two elements in our music in a way that gives it something that neither quality has on its own."

The same aesthetic is evident in Abrahamson's paintings, which typically feature geometric shapes created with compasses and other drawing tools suspended above large blocks of bright colors whose tones are in subtle contrast to one another. "In my paintings, I want the colors to offset each other a little bit, to be a little bit out of tune, so to speak," he says. "I want the paintings to have the same feeling as when you bend a musical note and you can hear how the frequencies of the notes don't quite match up, although they want to." He has exhibited paintings at small shows in Philadelphia and in Boston, and he currently is being considered for a one-man show at a Portland, Ore., gallery.

Abrahamson says he welcomes large-scale exposure for his music and for his artwork, but only on his own terms. The In Out got rid of one of its guitarists last year. Stripped down now to a three-piece, it has "a less radio-friendly, and even more intellectual sound," he says. "And it would be great to show my paintings more often, but I know there is a lot of politics in the art world, which can ruin it. So if those kinds of opportunities come along, that's great, but first and foremost, I do it for myself."

To view some of Abrahamson's paintings in progress, visit


30 November 2001
Boston University
Office of University Relations