BY DANA BISIGNANI, Publicist
In a review of The Penultimate Suitor, Arielle Greenberg noted that Mary Leader’s work “generally gives the impression that the poet is having a really good time.” A lawyer and poet with an insatiable curiosity, Leader is simultaneously formal and wide-leaping, playful and experimental. She has published two books of poetry, Red Signature, which won the 1996 National Poetry Series, and The Penultimate Suitor, which won the 2000 Iowa Poetry Prize. She currently teaches in the MFA program at Purdue University and in the low-residency MFA program at Warren Wilson College. Her newest book, Beyond the Fire, has just been released by Shearsman Books.
DB: Your first book Red Signature was published by Graywolf, and your second book, The Penultimate Suitor, was put out by University of Iowa Press. What made you decide to pitch Beyond the Fire to the British-based Shearsman?
ML: I found Shearsman magazine in the directory put out by the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses. It said something about “poetry in the modernist tradition,” which led me to their website where I found evidence that this was a press that might be after my own heart. I sent him some work for the magazine, and he took it. Four poems, four of my favorite poems. And meanwhile I had been reading the website in depth and finding that I really loved his authors, I really loved his taste. Tony Frazer is just…brilliant I think is the word they use in Britain for this kind of person. He publishes some sixty books a year of poetry.
DB: That’s a lot.
ML: Translations, Irish poetry, Jewish poetry…a lot of the things that I’m interested in, so it’s a good fit. And when I said, “I’d like to send you a whole manuscript,” he said “of course,” and he took it. Together we came up with the title. I’m excited now…about the possibility of, maybe next summer, going over and reading at some places over there. So it’s literally expanded my horizons. The contents [of Shearsman’s books] are really interesting, really wide-ranging, chosen by someone who can appreciate both the traditional side and the experimental side [of poetry]. I am most interested in combining those two in my work. So that’s why it’s such a good fit, and I hope to stay with him because I admire the list very very much. Plus, he’s cute [laughs].
DB: That never hurts! Let’s talk a little bit about Beyond the Fire, which was just released. In the first section, you mention a painting by Kandinsky, an abstract artist who also had synesthesia, who claimed he heard music when he saw colors. There is a great deal of color and sound in the book. For example, in many of the poems, there seems to be a tension between the colors red and blue. Would you talk a bit about color and sound in your work?
ML: Yes. What I would say first is that I’m interested in sonic structures that are like mobiles. So I’m interested in synesthesia too. I’m interested in sonic structures that seem to be moving in the wind in some way. So poetry, like both sound and music, proceeds one particle at a time, in a linear way. I don’t take that to mean, as Coleridge said, that poetry “consists in the best words in the best order.” If any words, not best words, but interesting ones occur and they’re set in motion, then the poem can behave like a mobile, and that’s the kind of sonic structure I’m interested in. I’m also interested simply in the humming and the booming and the clicking sounds of language. That’s always a level which interests me when I read and when I write.
Color I’m particularly interested in. I read somewhere that there’s a gender difference, that when confronted with a set of objects, women tend to notice color and texture while men tend to notice size and shape. And I’ve always been fascinated by color. My medium as a child was Crayolas…and watercolors. I didn’t express myself with language as a child. I used paint and especially crayons and drawing, too, with pencils from my dad’s store that said on them “Pool’s Work Clothes—They’re Sweat Proof!” So visual arts interest me, and within visual arts, I’m particularly interested in line and color. I read when I was studying Blake that he gendered these things and that he considered color female and line male. Because he gendered everything—these emanations that he wrote about, the whole cosmos that he envisioned and created in his mind as a meaning-making system with all these emanations and opposites. Like the I Ching, he was thinking at that archetypal level. So that stuck in my mind. The colors red and blue interest me the most because they seem to be the closest thing to absolute opposites, more so than black and white.
DB: Red and blue start to feel gendered in some of these poems. The tension between them feels gendered, so it’s interesting that you say that.
ML: Yes. And it’s true that they vibrate, as I say in the “wave” poem [“They Vibrate”]. There was a book by Sidney Perkowitz, who is another cute guy. I get most of my influences from whomever I have crushes on [more laughing]. He was a physicist I knew. He had a sentence about red and blue in a book: “They vibrate.” So I started noticing that phenomenon in paintings and my postcards. I started collecting images of red and blue, seeing how blue recedes and red comes forward, and finding in myself an attraction both to red and to blue. So what is my signature color? Blue like the Virgin Mary? Or red like Mary Magdalene? Red and blue became my interest because they’re oppositional, and because I cannot perceive them simultaneously. They do not blend. As pigments they blend…into purple, but as conception, as perception, they keep apart.
DB: They seem to fight for attention.
ML: Yes. But not in the sense of battle always. They’re exclusively independent, and they’re both equally strong and valuable. And here’s another source. Stevens uses color a lot. I once went through all of [Wallace] Stevens and simply pulled out lines, put all the green lines together, all the yellow lines together, all the blue lines, the red lines. For a while, the working title of my book was The Hammer of Red and Blue, which is from his poem “The Motive for Metaphor.” Does that tell you enough about red and blue?
DB: Yes! That’s wonderful. In both “Shaker’s Bereavement” and in “Lulling” you experiment with form and language by pulling out certain words from the poem to make an accompanying gloss down the side of the page. Will you talk a bit about this practice?
ML: “Shaker’s Bereavement” is a very old poem of mine. That’s when I first started thinking of a poem in a mode which I have since started calling the “proliferative” mode. It’s almost a fourth genre, on top of the dramatic, the narrative, the lyric. Then there’s the proliferative, which says in itself there’s more where I came from, and any idiot could keep going with this. It made of the poetry-making activity a gin. I used to work with my mother a long time ago with her poems, toward the end of her life, at the very beginning of my own turn to poetry. Her little code for getting off the chit-chat and down to work—I would go up once a month and work with her—her little cheer was, “Let’s gin!” You know, let’s gin, let’s make the thing roll. Like a cotton gin, let’s get the thing going.
So around that time I had this idea of a hundred-syllable poem that a Shaker would write. I would listen to John Adams’sShaker Loops, a piece of music which is minimalist, repetitive. Like Philip Glass only not as extreme, but of that mode, of whom Steve Reich is my favorite composer. In any case, I made it 99 syllables because the Shakers—actually the Amish but I lied and said the Shakers—would always put in a flaw in their quilts. So I made ten lines, rhyming couplets of iambic pentameter, but with one flaw, one syllable shy of a hundred. And then I thought, how would this look if you took the first two syllables of the poem away and then tacked it onto the end of the poem, and then shifted each line so that the first ten syllables would be the concluding nine syllables on the first line plus the one syllable from the next line. And then you could keep that going, and it would get off. The trajectory would get increasingly off because of that flaw. I went through, ten times ten, and made a hundred poems out of it, and then “peeled off” the right-hand edge and treated that as a syntax, a short version.
DB: But the flaw creates a transformation each time.
ML: Yes. Plus lineation, syntax. Where the sentence endings stay the same, but where the line endings change. So that creates a different emphasis. It taught me a lot about enjambment and end-stopping. It taught me a lot about meter. I thought I was trying to get at some true thing of what religion would feel like…but it wasn’t the content, it was the new word combinations that ended up giving me phrases like “gasped speed.” But I thought, there’s something of content there, something about the crucifixion. When Jesus took his last breath and his soul flew out—at least that’s how we envision something that we cannot know—that would be like “gasped speed.” And one of the words that ended up at the end of a line in one of the permutations was whose. That caused me to ask, not poetically but theologically, was it “we,” the witnesses, who went [makes an exaggerated gasping sound] when he died? Or was that his gasp? Or was it all onegasp? So it taught me some profound things, and I tried to leave just the vestige of it so that somebody could understand that ginning process.
I don’t know if I was thinking consciously of “Shaker’s Bereavement,” which was thirteen, fourteen years earlier, but when I did write this other poem you mentioned, “Lulling,” again, it was a mechanical thing. A sestina is made of staves—staves of six— like a barrel. A sestina is a gin. But I don’t like to fulfill the capacity of a form necessarily without warping it first or without leaving it out in the rain, so it’s ruined in some way. And then when you try to play on it, it’s dissonant, or it no longer says that the form is beautiful but that the form is still productive.
DB: It’s weathered.
ML: It’s weathered…right. That’s a perfect word for it. So I’m not interested in making an exemplar that’s a perfect form, but I’m extremely interested in the forms of poetry as these gins that can create proliferative modes because they’ve got a formula. A mathematician could figure out the formula, which is a spiral in the case of a sestina. After the last line, the sixth, the spiral goes up to the top and picks it up, then it spirals inward and picks up line five, and then it spirals up and picks up two at the top, then four, then three. Then you put that same spiral template on the resulting six lines and so on until you have to reduce it down in the envoy at the end. It’s the generative possibility…it’s not for backward-looking reasons that I like form. It’s not a traditional oh, let’s go back to the good old days when poems rhymed and were metered and everybody read them and recited them and memorized them. I’m interested in them as a future-looking, proliferative device.
DB: During a recent interview with Eleanor Wilner, she mentioned that wave motion has influenced her work. I thought immediately of your poem “They Vibrate.” Were you thinking of wave motion when you wrote this? What was your process behind this poem?
ML: Well, waves and particles…I was reading, without the remotest comprehension, about physics and optics, but “They Vibrate” was done in the sheer spirit of play. I was writing the other poems about red and blue, including working after that Kandinsky painting, which is called Horizontal Blue. Horizons are also interesting to me. It’s a whole cluster of things I like to think about. Horizons, waves. Patterns. For example, I think about sewing at the same time I think about poetry. I think about shapes, pieces, colors, colors next to each other. I was writing “Education for the Likes of Civilization,” which concludes “Blue is prettier, but red is better.” As if a child could kind of perceive the truth of things through her crayon box, which is pretty much how I did perceive the truth of things.
So I had red and blue…what else can I do with that? So I wrote red, blue, red, blue, red, blue in my notebook just for something to do. And then I discovered the superscript/subscript function on my word processor and so decided to do that. Red and blue go back for me even farther, though, to a really early poem based on a photograph by Irving Penn, a photograph of a man in a rowboat, and I’ve forgotten the name, but anyway that poem had “narrow red, broad blue, narrow red”—those were the stripes on the boat—and that’s when I first discovered red and blue. That “narrow red, broad blue, narrow red”—it became erotic. It’s also the colors of arteries and veins. Blue and red—they became, really, the colors of life for me. And then fire and water…
DB: You have all these different opposites that wave back and forth in “They Vibrate”: narrow broad, red blue, love war…
DB: And actually, if you hold the poem up, it almost looks like a quilt square that’s been stitched.
ML: Yes. It looks to me more like a woven fabric. I make all these fine distinctions between my quilt poems, my knitted poems, my woven poems, my embroidered poems, my crocheted poems…
DB: Of course. They’re different forms, so it makes sense to distinguish among them.
ML: Yes. So to me it looks like weaving. You have a double strand of red and blue and you would run it through the warp. But obviously I was very interested in waves, and I was interested in the particle/wave discussion, in the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, which is also part of where I got the idea of the proliferative: on a large scale and a small scale, things do not behave like billiard balls on a green rectangle. What you see will depend on how you look. The idea of living in uncertainty, of general relativity and special relativity—again, I feel obnoxious saying that since I know nothing about these things, but they’re provocative to poets. I like to read about them and make strong misreadings and strong nonreadings. Sometimes I just read the table of contents or the index.
DB: Willful misreadings.
ML: Willful misreadings, exactly, of what it means to me. Then I set up, purposefully, a war…a male and female, this whore and virgin idea. I just thought of all those free associations, Ares and Aphrodite, artery and vein. In the Catholic Church, there are mortal sins and venial sins. I thought these words must be etymologically connected: Mars and Venus, Venus and venial. So I just got my little sets of opposites, and I had a lot of fun setting them up, and when I would reach the right hand margin, of course they would just tail off, or trail off…they would both tail off and trail off [laughs]. Then I gave myself permission to go back. Some of them are just straight—ergo, if, ergo, if, ergo, if—because I liked the way they looked on the page. And others, I wanted to have them morph into other words and then morph back. So I go into German for a minute. Blau, which is almost the same spelling [as blue]…and rot. I always thought it was interesting that the German word for red is rot in English. So that was entirely an exercise in play, but its serious intent is to set up an argument.
DB: Textiles, stitching and weaving metaphors, as you were discussing, are a thread throughout the book too. In the poem “Education for the Likes of Civilization,” for example, the speaker tells us that the word stitched is the same word for poetryin Greek. What makes this connection important for you as a poet?
ML: I’m trying to inscribe there a child-like feeling of how we know, of taking in information. [The speaker]’is a good-natured little girl and a happy little girl, but she’s taking things in, and she keeps thinking “I know I’m supposed to know that, but I forgot…how am I going to remember all this?” She’s also giving out her information: “I know something about samplers that you don’t know,” that you say “worked” or “stitched.” You don’t say “sewn” when you’re talking about samplers; this is my area of expertise and I know what I’m talking about. Then she gets confused. She starts talking in legal maxims. It’s not exactly a persona of a little girl, but it’s a child-like voice. I have the speaker say that it was the same word that the Greeks had for stitch. That, in fact, is a strong misreading because the word “stitch” has nothing to do with the Greek word for poetry, it turns out. When I later did look up the etymology, I found very strong links that were important to me, between linen, line, linnet. The linnet is the bird that Yeats evokes several times. That’s the bird that eats the flaxseed, a European bird. That idea of line and linen, that weaving and using lines—that those were etymologically connected has been a big part of why I think in textiles.
DB: So that first willful misreading actually led you to connections that were, in fact, there.
ML: Yes. I was stunned to find out, just some months ago over Christmas, all this time I thought that stitch and stich were the same word, and they’re not. Stich is an old German word having to do with joining. That became our “stitch.” It has nothing to do with poetry. But I still like that it looks like it. Like the Greek stich. Then that little girl in the poem can conclude about how she ranks red and blue. It’s kind of who’s she going to be. She could be blue, which would be pretty. Or she could be red, which means she would be powerful. She would have agency. Active power, not receptive power. In the lexicon, red and blue have all these associations for me as this dyad…this yin/yang relationship almost. As for textiles, I mean it to be both a metaphor and a practice. So symbolically, I feel that writing in terms of needlework allies me, historically and specifically, with women who were not taught to read but were taught to sew.
One of the early strands was my coming across the emblem books, these emblem books that were popular in the Renaissance in England, massively popular. And they were bougie. They were things that, you know, merchants would have in their houses as well as high-born educated people—except that more merchants could read than high-born men, actually. These emblem books would have a little picture, a little engraving, and have a motto, a word, sometimes a virtue like Temperance, or they would have a little verse, like maybe a Bible verse. Some were in Latin. Some were in the vernacular languages of whatever country—these were a European phenomenon. It wasn’t just English. So they would be in vernacular languages and in learned languages. And there would be a poem at the bottom. Universally bad poems. They were either borrowed from some anonymous source…but they’re Hallmark card-y. They really are like early Hallmark cards: a picture that everyone can relate to, a value that everyone can agree is good, and then a little verse honoring that or talking about it in a way where everyone can go uh-huh, uh-huh. And here’s another example of poems that flunk if the test is “best words, best order,” but they make a very interesting, very generative, proliferative form. The idea of joining a picture and a text, where there’s a caption. Any of the joinders of text and picture interest me because of this. A woman’s book world, you see, was pictorial when she couldn’t read.
Remember in the movie Yentl, at the beginning? The book peddler is there, and Yentl is looking at religious books and he says, “You’re on the wrong side of the cart,” you know? “Come around here, miss. Here’s for you.” And then he trundles off with his cart: “Picture books for women! Holy books for men! Picture books for women! Holy books for men!” So I want to, then, own and claim picture books. There are extant examples of women’s embroideries of the little motifs from the emblem books, the little cupid or whatever it was. They would embroider that. So in other words, the book would be sitting around on the coffee table. The man would set it down after reading these platitudinous verses, and the woman would pick it up and say, “You know, that would really work for my tapestry,” or “that would make a great pillow.” So I try to embody that spirit in the interest of allying myself with those people. And of course then it becomes larger. It’s a class issue as well, the idea that reading is something that can be protected by and owned by a certain group…the fact that it was illegal in the American South to teach a slave to read, or for a slave to learn to read. And there were draconian punishments for it.
ML: The protection of reading by the group in power—I’m interested in any way that you can chink at that, and pictures and needlework are a way to chink, and they can do it without being noticed so much. See, the little girl, she says, if I make things as big as I like, I am in trouble. If I make things as small as I like, you know, you can get away with it. And then she finds the Latin that says the law does not take account of trifles—de minimis non curat lex—and so she thinks, “I can take advantage of that.” And that has been a female survival mode, a way of little bodies surviving when they’re surrounded by big bodies, and it has been a way of women expressing themselves in materials that they had to make anyway, from fibers, surviving.
So I have deeply political reasons for being interested in [and] being mimetic of needlework, and having needlework be subject matter, but also having it be an out-and-out manifesto for me. Then the other thing is, I just take endless pleasure in it. I really am an excellent needlewoman. I know what I’m doing.
So trying to do something like that with black and white with a word processor on an 8½ x 11 piece of paper is deeply pleasurable for me: as meditation, as manifesto, as political statement, and just as sheer creativity. We know this from the quilters at Gee’s Bend [Alabama], when the Sears catalog [people] came in the 1930’s and said, “here’s a little pattern. Why don’t you make your quilts like this and we can sell a lot more of them.” And the women just [reacted like] “we can’t do that.” [Sears] said, “Well, we’ll supply you the materials.” Well, that’s going to take all the fun out of it. The idea was that you used the material you had.
DB: Right. Yes.
ML: So to make needlework, especially in the face of scarcity, of being poor, of being in the Depression or of not having very much stuff and needing to make what you can use and make what you wear and make what you write…you know, scarcity’s materials are helpful. It’s business. What’s the expression? “Necessity is the mother of invention.”
ML: So that’s one of the reasons I like forms. It’s another loom I like to set up…because if you set up a weaving grid or an embroidery pattern, there’s only so much you can do. But you can do that with no end. So it combines the finite and the infinite in ways that I find extremely fruitful…and fun.
DB: In Beyond the Fire, the poems seem to run the gamut from formal to colloquial. You also quote people or record conversations quite often in the poems. What is the significance of voice in this book?
ML: That is a thorny question. Because I turn up my nose at these current usages, these current gestures toward plurality, which are coming into the language. For instance, poetries, Englishes, both of which are current. That annoys me for some reason. I prefer to think of poetry as one thing with infinite inclusions, not as a set of schisms. But, on the other hand, I like voices, as opposed to voice. Poetry, English, voices. That’s how I do: two collective nouns, but then one plural, voices. I would never say that I have a voice. This comes partly from a deep suspicion of the bromide given to writers of my generation, which is “you must find your voice.” If you just find your voice, then everything will be, you know, la la la. You know, you find your voice, and once you’ve found it, you’re there, and all you do from then on is write your poems in it.
DB: I think many writers, many poets, are still told that in workshops.
ML: I think they are. It’s really common, and it’s meant to be empowering to those who have not had a voice. But for me…I had just a counter-reaction. If you’ve learned to mimic, then the idea of a “genuine” voice is not the voice that is a performative voice for you.
So I’m deeply suspicious of this idea of a unitary voice, that each person is issued one. And I’m suspicious of any aesthetic that does not take account of the visual, that only takes account of the aural. So the people who are the “voice” people, the “find your voice” people, also tend to be the ones, like Robert Pinsky, who recognize but do not explore the fact that poetry is also words on a page. That it’s a figure on the page, a visual figure. They say all that matters is how it sounds in the larynx, the mouth, and, okay, what’s the other word for larynx? That would be Adam’s Apple. I think this is also gendered.
In a culture where you need voices for magic, you’re going to get the guys with the big barrel chests. Your idea is going to be that if someone or something supernatural is going to hear, it should sound like thunder, and so on. If you don’t have that, you have another job, which could include making paintings on the wall of the cave: the job of the historian, visually. What bugs me is the attitude that the domination of voice, the aural level of poetry, the bass or imitating-bass voice, is thegist of poetry.
DB: It amounts to a kind of prejudice.
ML: Yes. It’s a very strong bias. So I right away bridle at the very idea that I have a voice. And nonetheless, it’s clear that I do. I mean, I do kind of occasionally recognize oh, that’s me talking. But more often than not I’m putting together a pastiche of voices, some of which are closer to mine than others. Nor does anyone have one voice for their whole life. And I’m interested in how other people talk. I’m also interested in the gesture of inclusion. This is what interests me about found poetry. In this book, the most radical poem of this type is “Three People Who Broke Their Hearts from Bewilderment.” My contribution exists entirely as the frame; the “poem” is all quoted. “I” put in an epigraph, then a caption at the top, or a heading, a header, describing each of three speakers, but then simply record, or seem to record, quotations from the three people. That heteroglossic structure. I like stage-managing a poem.
ML: But at the same time that I like dramatic structures, or communal structures, I still want poems to be needlework-like, which is a kind of solitary…oh wait, actually I should take that back because there are quilting bees, and there’s the medieval gynecium, the spinning room, which resulted in many strong songs and stories, you know, that came down the maternal line, the distaff side. But for me, at least, needlework is quiet and an activity of solitude. Just for me…because I don’t go to quilting bees. I just go in my meditation room, get Lyddy [the cat] to get off the chair [laughs.] She’s already enlightened.
But as I said, I also like high drama in poetry, and in this way I am a child of Modernism. Frost said a poem is only as good as it is dramatic…or words to that effect. And Pound calling his first book Personae, after the masks of Greek drama. I like poems to be dramatic, and I like them to read out loud well. So those are concerns of mine with voice. Those are my thoughts about the idea of voice.
DB: Many of your poems seem to resist a “poetic” end, or what a former poetry teacher of mine called “a rhythm of closure.” Many of them come to feel almost like fragments of document or of conversation, as if they continue off the page somewhere without the reader, beyond the reader…
ML: Or before the reader.
DB: Or before the reader, yes. The book itself seems to resist ending. The last line of the penultimate poem is someone saying “It is begun.” Is this something you were conscious of?
ML: Very. I’m continually on the prowl for ways to make what looks like a circle turn into a spiral. I’m also interested in quadrature, I’m interested in a four-square shape as well. So resisting…oh god, there’s so much involved in this that goes back to my most formative thinking as a poet, which was when I was approaching forty. And the first book, called Red Signature, has an epigraph from my reading of Vincent van Gogh’s letters to his brother Theo that said, “I had begin to sign canvases, but soon stopped because it seemed too foolish. On one seascape, there’s a clamorous red signature because I wanted a red note in the green.” So my idea was that poetry is not about ego. Poetry is about participation, and it’s about making the design for the sake of the design, like a painter using color or like a seamstress using color. It’s the design that matters more than the individual.
So you can see how all my faith kind of revolves around this idea that nothing is ever really begun or finished, that it is continually beginning and ending, beginning and ending, and it happens in large cycles, which we recognize as birth and death. It happens in much larger cycles, which we recognize as galaxies. And it happens in much much smaller cycles, which is the frisson, a shiver. Back and forth begin-end-begin-end-begin-end, which is also part of the thinking of red-blue-red-blue-red-blue-red-blue. That wave motion. That spirals happen on all scales. Then there are fractals and, you know, chaos theory. But the term fractal is not used to describe something as simple as a spiral. It’s a complex shape that never completely recurs, but does always kind of reiterate itself. It repeats the pattern, but without exact iteration of the order and combination of reiterating lines.
DB: Like trees.
ML: Yes, like trees.
DB: They study fractals in trees.
ML: And clouds. Because the figures in clouds happen often enough so we can say, oh, that’s cumulous, that’s stratus, or whatever they are, but there are never the exact same clouds, and over long enough periods of time, it never repeats itself. So that’s how I perceive time, as does everybody else who’s alive in this century who’s paying any attention. That’s why I’m interested in poetry, in having some sense that you pick up at a certain point, but that the silence itself is fraught, that the silence before any poem already has a shape, and you break into the curve of it, and that causes a change in the trajectory. And then you get out of it the same way, and the trajectory goes on, altered because you were in it.
So that’s how I think the poet situates in time. I like to have each poem be a fractal, just as the edge of an oak leaf is a small scale version of what happens when land meets water and a bay forms. It’s the same curvature, but it cannot be mathematically pinned down. It cannot be duplicated. It can only be approximated. But it’s approximated in a recognizable way. The basic principle is, as the signature is to the work of art, so the work of art is to Art; and as a work of art is to Art, so a life is to Life. So it’s these increasing rings of beginning and ending, beginning and ending, never ending, never beginning.
DB: Contributions to the design.
ML: Yes. Contributions to the design. It’s what the poet does. And so I’m interested in ways of not ending and not beginning. But on the other hand, no artist can resist those opportunities. No dramatist can resist those opportunities. No seamstress can ignore them! You know, clothing is not infinite.
So then, one of my other teachers…I notice the teachers I’m mentioning, like the crushes, are male, but in my actual life I don’t follow that [pattern] because my thesis advisor Heather McHugh was extremely important, and so was my first teacher at Warren Wilson, Susan Stewart, to name another. But my teacher-as-patriarch was Allen Grossman, who told me, “Begin and end as often as you possibly can,” and poetry does that. The sentence begins and ends, the line begins and ends, the word begins and ends. On every scale of the fractals there’s a beginning and an ending of everything. The poem begins and ends, the sequence begins and ends, the section begins and ends. I told you to do this when we were working together on your manuscript: begin and end as often as you can. I think it’s excellent advice, and it keeps poems from sticking in the mud, you know? Not that I’m not interested in stick-in-the-mud poems. I am interested in poems that don’t move, that don’t go anywhere, that end exactly where they started. Immobilization is part of the mobile too. I’m interested in that too. I don’t believe in progress. On any level. I only believe in opening and closing, like the soul, which doesn’t always recognize chronological time as a viable model.
One of the important poems in the book is this one called “Folio,” and it started out as a very little poem. And I took that poem to my writing group [fellow poets Dana Roeser, Don Platt, and Dan Morris]. It was about a half-page poem with really short little lines.
DB: It’s much longer than that now.
ML: Yes. It was really based on the notes I took when my mother was actually dying. And it didn’t really work as a poem. It was just little sketchy notes, and so that was the group’s verdict: this needs to be more of a poem.
The coincidence was that right at the same time, Don brought in an absolutely ravishingly beautiful poem about his dead father, a long poem that is in prose, and it ranged from just a word or two or three or five or six words, a fragment or a short sentence, it ranged all the way to, you know, a paragraph of seven or eight or ten or eleven sentences of prose. But what I noticed was that when Don got to the end of each section, he resisted terminal punctuation, would not punctuate the end of that sentence and instead would put an asterisk and start over…start over a new sentence. So it starts over, and rather than ending, it is suspended, and then there’s another start. It’s start-suspend, start-suspend, start-suspend, start-suspend instead of start-end-start-end-start-end-start-end. Then of course writing about my mother’s death I thought I’ve got to try that form, and the poem just exploded, and I got to some really interesting material, from my point of view. It ended up being not just about my mother’s death but about my own history.
So many of my ideas in practice would be wishy-washy if I weren’t such a bossy girl and so determined to keep control of my materials and so rigid about the way I want to do things. So my whole aesthetic really comes out of my personality, which is to believe philosophically and with all my heart in a universe that is not the hierarchical one that we are taught to understand. But at the same time, hierarchy is a beautiful structure to me. It’s beautiful aesthetically, even as politically it’s a disaster for people, even the people at the top who are dehumanized by their own dehumanizing of the people at the bottom. So I cannot resist the structures that have been the tools of oppression of just about everybody, some more than others.
DB: We’re all somewhere in a hierarchy of some making.
ML: Yes. It’s hard to even imagine an organization without it. That’s why Stein is so interesting to me because she was sodetermined to have everything just be flat, you know, and have there be…I should read a lot more Stein because I can get inspired by reading just a little bit of Stein, and I can just go for days. But that idea of leveling…the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets were interested in that too. So L equals A equals N equals G…their experiments have been part of my thinking too. All of that I absolutely believe, and at the same time that I believe in radical activity, I also believe ultimately, and perhaps paradoxically, in radical receptivity that’s embodied in Eleanor Wilner when she says that the main thing a poet must do when a poem is being written is “Get outta the way!”