Interview with Cate Marvin Part II

A colorful abstract painting features swirling reds and blues
If you have, at any point this year, had a conversation about the number of women in publishing–the number of female-authored books reviewed in newspapers, say–you’ve had that conversation (likely) because of some numbers which were researched and published by
VIDA, an organization devoted to women in literary arts. The author of two shockingly, lastingly great books of poetry (2001′s World’s Tallest Disaster and 2007′sFragment of the Head of the Queen), and co-editor of Legitimate DangersCate Marvin has been a significant touchstone for lots of us who’ve found our way into poetry in the last decade, and her work with VIDA–”to explore critical and cultural perceptions of writing by women through meaningful conversation and the exchange of ideas among existing and emerging literary communities,” from the website–promises to hopefully/finally establish the Big Conversation we’ve all got to have about writing and gender. There’s plenty more to say about Marvin–how her poems are jagged impossibilities which stick ferociously in gray matter (I dare anyone to read “I Live Where the Leaves Are Pointed” or “Scenes From the Battle Of Us” and not carry at least a few of those lines for days or months afterward), how she blasts open doors on lyricism you may not have even realized were there and/or closed–but instead of just waxing on an on, here’s the second part of a long, engaged and engaging interview which was conducted over email in the early parts of 2011. You can read Part I here.

Cutter: The poetry question: what’s the first sexy or suckering phrase you read which made you point at the page (or whatever) and deep breathe-in and go, shit, that’s what I want to do. And, if you can: what was it about that line?

Marvin: Well, I used to read heaps of historical romances when I was between the ages of twelve and fifteen. I was quite the reader, and I would tear through hundreds of these bodice rippers. I was also very thorough, in that I would read every single book each author wrote. My parents didn’t censor a single thing I read, and my mom took me to the library and bookstore all the time. They also had several poetry anthologies on their shelves, and I was at first very taken with the shorter poems of Stephen Crane. But the poem I was really nuts about, which I discovered as an epigraph in one of those tawdry historical romances, was “Tears, Idle Tears,” by Tennyson.

Tears, idle tears, I know not what they mean,
Tears from the depth of some divine despair
Rise in the heart, and gather to the eyes,
In looking on the happy Autumn-fields,
And thinking of the days that are no more.

We moved a lot when I was a kid. So when reading this poem I was no doubt thinking about the places I’d left, and despairing over my present situation. I was probably in the 7th grade when I encountered it, a year that was particularly difficult for me because we had moved mid-school-year, and I wasn’t only bad at making friends and fitting in: my grades dropped from A’s to D’s because I was depressed out of my mind. I still like Tennyson a lot (“In Memoriam”; “Lady of Shalott“; “Maud”) and, for that matter, all the Victorian poets for their outlandish excess and sentiment. All that death and hair and gloom! I think I could have hung with them. It’s always fun to think about what it would have been like to hang out with Keats . . . but what about Dante Gabriel Rossetti? Sign me up. Now.

Cutter: What’s a poem of yours which has been published, and it’s out and available, but which you’re still not 100% satisfied with? Why?

Marvin: Perhaps one of my grossest failures is a poem my last book titled “Flood Museum.” The poem falls apart like a soggy sandwich. I can’t even talk about it.

Cutter: On a different/other track: what’s a thing of yours you’re working on which you can’t seem to nail down? Is there some ‘problem’ you’re working at/toward, consciously, in hopes of solving?

Marvin: You asked . . . since 2008 I have been working on a very long poem in sections, presently titled “The Goethals,” that concerns a love relationship / divorce / working-class male protagonist and operates along the analogy of the bridges that connect Staten Island to other boroughs—bridges other than the Verrazano. It has many different modes of address, and too many motifs, and is, in its current state, all over the place. The reason why I’m invested in this poem is because it operates outside of my speaker, while being, at the same time, a construct of empathy of behalf of my speaker (who is smitten with the “you” of the poem). This poem is proving hard to write because of certain rhetorical and structural problems, and because the speaker is essentially an outsider who doesn’t understand the working class at all—this is doubly problematic because she is inherently elitist (and I’m interested in this conflict) and because the poem necessarily addresses class-conflict and, therefore, judgment on behalf of the speaker who attempts to speak on behalf of the “you.” So, I begin to worry that it contains the oversights I find suspect in Wordsworth and Whitman when they assume to speak on behalf of the so-called “common people.”

I fear I’ve cursed this poem to nonexistence by writing about it here.

Cutter: If you can talk at all about how editing Legitimate Dangers worked with/through/against/whatever with your writing, I’d love to hear it. How clear a sense of the finished project did you have in your head as you began? How closely did the final product hew to what you’d originally attended? There are all sorts of correlative questions that go along with this one: do you feel like Legitimate Dangers, despite being so recent, still offers as good a snapshot of present poetry as it did the moment ago it came out in? (that’s not at all a dig: I’m really curious) Do you feel like there’s real overt organizing principles at work in certain strands or branches of contemporary poetry?

Marvin: It’s funny that you describe Legitimate Dangers as “being so recent,” because it feels like it was completed a zillion years ago, and I can already look at it and think about the very many things I would do differently now in the editing of it.  Michael Dumanis and I certainly had an “idea” of what we wanted to make, but we could never have anticipated the result. First, I knew the book would be strong, but I was surprised by how strong it was once it was completed. I am not patting myself on the back here. The fact is, I like to read dead poets, and editing Legitimate Dangers required me to spend over a year reading my contemporaries. Naturally, I didn’t write much at the time. I wouldn’t have been friendly or open to the poems I was reading if I’d been working on my own stuff. The long and short of it is that I learned a huge amount about poetry, period, and I was more often than not awed by the work of my generation.

I have no tolerance for statements that “poetry is dead.” Because, that year, I read a shit-load of amazing poetry. And I’m not just talking about the poets we published in the anthology.  As for “overt, organizing principles” in poetry, I’m not much into conspiracy theories. I think there are a lot of poets writing extraordinary well, given the little time they have to do so, and I commend them all.

Have you seen the British/UK version of Legitimate Dangers? It’s edited by an old friend of mine, Roddy Lumsden, a poet I knew well when I was doing my junior year aboard at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. His anthology, just out this year from Bloodaxe Books, is called Identity Parade. I taught from it last semester and it’s excellent.  There’s also another terrific anthology I implore everyone to check out: New European Poets, edited by Wayne Miller and Kevin Prufer. Both of the books broaden the discussion of 21st century poetry in a way that is necessary and entirely delightful. I think it would be wonderful if we could create a poet’s exchange of sorts, by sending American poets to the UK and Europe to read, in exchange for hosting their poets at reading venues in the US. If I weren’t up to my neck in work with VIDA, this is a project I’d very much be trying to get off the ground right now.

Cutter: I don’t know you personally, so I apologize at the 100% personal nature of this question, but I’m really curious about how having a kid has changed writing for you.

Marvin: Having a child has changed everything and nothing for me. First of all, when you have a kid, it’s not like some generic baby shows up on your doorstep. Your kid is a person, from day one.

Your very sense of time changes. You have much less of it. But this serves as a reminder of how much one is able to get done within small amounts of time. It also reminds you, somewhat harshly, that you are mortal—meaning that you better get your shit done while you can! As such, it enforces the sense that one’s time is not worth wasting worrying about what others think of you or your work.

I sure as hell wouldn’t recommend to someone trying to finish a book that they have a child, unless they have an excellent support system. I think that writers rarely have much of a support system for their work in just about every case— is it not a fact that we really have to duke it out with those folks in our immediate lives to get our work done? Because writing is such a solitary activity.

It’s true that I don’t get to write as much as I used to. However, I have to believe that the quality of my vision has changed—not necessarily for the better, just that it’s been altered. There are many poems I haven’t written, and sometimes I have sense that my life has fast-forwarded over them. But I have faith that the poems that need to be written will be, and that my poetry will ultimately, over the course of my life, be very different than it would have been if I’d chosen to not have a child. I wish to stress that I do not speak to a difference in content, though that’s sure to be the case, but to a difference in process.

Lucia was eight months old when I started VIDA with Erin Belieu. I know myself well enough to recognize that I might not have had the balls to go on record as a female writer, to speak to larger issues that affect women writers, if I hadn’t of just been faced with one of the most physically/emotionally/intellectually extreme experiences of my life (and I do not refer to the birth itself, but rather to the difficulty of feeding a baby every two to three hours, which equals getting no sleep whatsoever, to the point you primarily occupy spaces comprised of ether / anxiety / intense befuddlement / horror / not to mention, a kind of love for the child that devours one’s very sense of self). At the time, as exhausted as I was, and perhaps because I was so exhausted, the idea of creating such an organization seemed entirely doable.

Be assured: I don’t think motherhood is something that all writers should experience—God, no!

As for writing, I think I write a lot more in my head nowadays, whereas I used to always write on paper. But I think this is something that tends to happen to writers as they get older. You can carry your poems around your head for a long, long time, and be pretty confident that you won’t lose them if you don’t write them down right away.

Finally, I don’t find myself writing poems about my child. She turns up, every now and then, in a poem. Simply because she’s in my life. But I tend to write toward concerns that existed three to five years prior, so the poems I’m working on right now don’t have much to do at all with parenthood. If anything, I’m presently more preoccupied with adolescence.

I’ve been thinking a lot about high school as a universal experience since I took a trip to China during the summer of 2008 and had the opportunity to visit several schools, as this was an academic tour of sorts, one that I participated in on behalf of my school. Being inside a junior high school in a city in China—a dank, cement building much like the junior high I myself attended— got me thinking about how school inscribes us socially when we’re younger, how—at the time!—we cannot escape it. Is it not a prison of sorts? And maybe this continues to concern me because I have a daughter who will be attending such schools. The manner in which we are formed by this experience (at such tender and rebellious years) haunts me. What does this have to do with writing, with poetry? Everything.

Cutter: What’s the view out your window?

Marvin: I have a lot of windows. I live in a house that is very narrow, yet has three floors, and each window has an entirely different view. None of these windows feels like “mine.” If anything, the street through my front windows, the trees I view through the rear windows, own their view. They own their view of me. The thing with windows is that power occurs outside them. Windows happen to the viewer, not vice-versa. They do their juju to you.

The street I live on is pretty shabby. A lot of my neighbors have lived here for decades, so there’s a close community. Folks look out for each other. It’s a tight little street with cars moving fast down it. I have a pretty big back yard, completely overgrown and shameful. Utterly neglected. Most of the people who move down my street are heading to the Staten Island ferry, and I curse them for littering. People also steal. I’ve had packages stolen off my front stoop, and my car was broken into, right in front of my house, just last year. The thief stole a bag full of student papers, which he quickly deposited in a nearby alley. (I still had to grade those papers, even after they were stolen.) A month ago, a drunk driver drove right up into my and my neighbor’s houses (they are essentially attached homes) and busted up our respective fences. So, sometimes the view outside my window is the red-blue blare of a cop car’s headlights. Sometimes, it’s just plain pretty. Like a neighbor walking her dog. Trees blossoming. Or kids coming home from school, talking and laughing. It changes all the time.

Cutter: Can you talk at all about Staten Island, at least for those of us whose relationship to NYC is entirely Manhattan/Brooklyn-based? Does it feel deeply removed? Do you like it there? I don’t know what to ask about Staten Island, but I’m fascinated by it—I’d love to live on a place which is daily serviced by a ferry—and so any anything you can provide about the place, I’m all in.

Marvin: I try to explain to people that Staten Island, unlike a lot of other places in the NYC metropolitan area, is residential. People live here. There’s not much to show off or tell, or care about, unless you live here. The reality of living in Staten Island, of being a part of it, is not very accessible to the outsider. It can’t be: it’s a big fat secret rolled up in all the years you have to stake your life here to figure it out. It’s an insider’s job. It’s under the table. It has its own logic, and its own lingo.

And, no, you wouldn’t love to live on a place daily serviced by a ferry. It sounds romantic, doesn’t it? But it’s not. It’s weary. Staten Island is full of seriously hard working folks, and the ferry is merely a means to get from one place to another. Of course, most of the people here I interact with are my students, and they are very special. They know what it means to work, to be part of large and complicated families, to face the obstacles of working and going to school. Staten Island is unrelentingly real. It bears little to no relation, from what I can tell, to other boroughs. It is an island. A large enough island that it seems like a country unto itself. To be honest, I have very mixed feelings about it. I love how family-centered the community here is, but I find some of its aspects, such as the Catholicism and the conservative politics, oppressive. I think it would be fair to say that the culture is distinctly anti-intellectual, and that I often feel out of place as a writer and professor—but so often, I find this assumption (of mine) turned on its head by the conversations I have with my students. My students are pretty divine folks, astonishingly intuitive and smart, and such incredible readers of poetry. What I love best about Staten Island is that it doesn’t pretend to be anything it isn’t, when in fact it’s a lot more than anyone could ever know if they just visited for an afternoon. It won’t show itself. In this sense, it’s a community and, as such, it has a tight and protective sense of itself. I’m still on the outside, and I’ve lived here for eight years.

Cutter: What do you hope for? Wide and wild as you wish, I’m just curious.

Marvin: Well, shit, Weston, I could write a zillion pages about what I hope for. I think this question would have tempted me, wildly, ten years ago. But now I don’t spin pots (on my metaphorical potter’s wheel) unless I know I can fill them. I would really like for people to stop littering. I actually chastised a young man the other day, just outside the ferry station, when he dropped an empty plastic cigar case to the ground. “This is trash, no?” I asked him, brandishing the object. He brushed me away, almost kindly; I was distracting from his cool.

I want this to be a good world for my daughter. So, my hope is that I can raise my daughter to be unselfconscious about the fact she is female. My hope is for her to grow up natural and bold. And I hope, most of all, to never turn hypocrite on her. My own parents raised me as an atheist; when they retired, they returned to the church. That hurt.  I feel like they failed to impart to me a sense of faith, that they actually built me in such a way that I am unable to conceive of having a religious affiliation in this world—and it’s not just that . . . I simply don’t respect organized religion. This is a flaw. But it’s who I am. And to know that my parents, as they have said, regret that they raised me this way (they’ll invite me to attend church and I’ll refuse) is frustrating. So, I suppose my answer to your question is that I hope to create and sustain consistency in my daughter’s life.

As for poetry: I mention that I was raised atheist. However, poetry is my religion. I hope that poetry continues to be what I have always known it to be, will continue to be what it can be, and even more. And I think I can confidently hope that more women’s voices will heard in this century. Naturally, I hope for my daughter’s voice to be among them. Not to mention, my own.

This is Weston’s eleventh post for Get Behind the Plough.

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