We caught up with Maryann in her paper-piled seventh-floor office, across the street from the State Capitol in Saint Paul. Or maybe it was in her spare bedroom at home, the one with the stacks and shelves of book and the overflowing file boxes, the one she calls “poetry central.” The messes are eerily similar.
Let’s be direct: Why a sonnet? Why form at all?
Form, especially meter, is what I know best. It’s what I absorbed throughout my literary education, all three degrees worth. My undergraduate anthologies stop with Dylan Thomas! It’s the air I breathed in childhood, the fifties, when there were still poems in magazines and newspapers. The formal poets of the mid-twentieth century, although I found them rather late in my life, are my great models: W.D. Snodgrass, Richard Wilbur, Anthony Hecht, John Ciardi, Conrad Aiken. And I love the idea of bringing material to the sonnet that knocks the starch out of the form. On the other hand, I believe in adhering to the form as traditionally understood—metered, rhymed in a given scheme (there are lots), turned in some fashion.
Isn’t TNB a pretty far cry from the sorts of magazines that usually publish formal poetry? Doesn’t that stuff belong in The Lyric?
I discovered The Nervous Breakdown when I was Googling around for poems by Catherine Tufariello. When I saw her work here, I figured that was a good sign. Then I found Anna Evans, Lewis Turco, Timothy Steele, J.D. Smith, and Erica Dawson on the TNB site too, so I knew I was among friends. When poetry editor Uche Ogbuji joined Eratosphere—the formal poetry board where I’d been a staff member for several years—that settled it: The Nervous Breakdown is a formal-friendly place. You don’t have to look, or be, stodgy to publish form, and there are plenty of pubs besides TNB to attest to that now. Formal poetry is as au courant as any other sort of poetry.
But “The Method” seems to be a poem about poetry. Aren’t those kind of overdone? What’s your excuse for writing yet another one?
No one needs an excuse to write a poem about poetry. Thinking about why and how poems work is a necessary part of the poetry-writing operation, unless you believe that everything depends on some uncontrollable Muse. Turning those thoughts into poems is simply something we do. Besides, would you want to be without Dylan Thomas’s “In my craft or sullen art,” or Archibald Macleish’s “Ars Poetica”? Why not ruminate on how differently different words and images resonate with different readers? Why not picture the poet as a manipulator, scheming behind the scenes like a character out of The Godfather? Why not picture the form as a bully, which it can be if you let it slap you around? Certainly, this sort of poem is a minor poem. But like John Ciardi, I’m a believer in the unimportant poem.
Those TNB poets you named earlier—they all said something in answer to the question “Why rhyme and meter?” It looks like they’ve pretty well covered it. Do you have anything to add?
I spent much of last night reading Think Journal’s new Symposium issue on form, so I’ve been reminded that the topic is really inexhaustible. As for me, most of all I need meter. I need to feel a pulse; otherwise, the words don’t arrive. There are times when the pulse I feel in my somewhat irregular five-beat lines will register as blank verse for some readers but not for others. I confess to straddling the metrical/nonmet line some of the time (though not in this poem). I’d like to believe that straddling will win me readers in the free-verse world. I hope it won’t lose the readers I have in the formal-poetry world. I may find this out with more certainty when my full-length book comes out.
With rhyme I have a more complex relationship. Ideally, a rhyme scheme should drive the poet down into the subconscious to fish up things she might not otherwise find. But it often takes me a long time to figure out which tugs are little silver trout and which are old boots, so I’m chary about rhyme.
So what were you trying to be, with those three degrees, when you grew up, and how has it come to this?
I was trying to be a medievalist. Beowulf wrenching off Grendel’s arm, the Canterbury pilgrims in all their illuminated detail—I was going to claim all of that, and the convolutions of language history that go with it. I’d been entranced by Gawain and the Green Knight as a moon-eyed sixteen-year-old, and I persevered through undergrad and grad school with the intention of teaching Old and Middle English literature and linguistics-based English courses. I finished a doctorate in 1981, a year in which there were 800 applicants for every job Modern Language Association job advertised. (It’s worse now, I know, and most of the jobs aren’t even tenure track.) The only teaching jobs on offer would have taken me half a continent away from my husband, who already had a position teaching math.
The job I found, which I’ve kept for thirty years, is with the Minnesota Legislature. I’m called a “language specialist” and I advise people about avoiding ambiguity in legal drafting, teach about drafting techniques, and help resolve disputes that touch on office editorial policies. I also oversee the production of the indexes for twelve volumes of statutes, ten volumes of administrative rules, the annual session law books, and the court rules. (Yes, I know that’s more than you wanted to know.) The political atmosphere means there’s never a dull moment, and I get to work with words. I’m fortunate.
But where does your own poetry fit into things?
I wrote poetry as a very young person. During college and graduate school, though, I wrote it less and less. I didn’t have a supportive community for it, while I did have one for music, so I put poetry in my brain’s back closet while our children were growing up.
Several things happened to make me haul it out again. I went through some life changes and emotional upheavals when I hit the empty-nest phase, and I began putting them on paper. At the same moment, I met a real poet, Anna George Meek, and had many opportunities to talk with her about poetry. And I discovered online poetry communities and online journals, and those supplied the support and the awareness of an audience that fired me to write again. And I began, barely, to catch up with the years of contemporary poetry I’d been missing.
And the upshot is…?
Something over 150 poems accepted in five years, two chapbooks in print, and a book scheduled to appear early next year. And a poem apiece in two anthologies, with a third to come. At this point I’m trying to do everything more slowly.
So is there any actual connection between all that study and what you’re writing now?
I’m working hard lately at writing more critical prose. Having written poetry for five years without really articulating a poetics (although I believe I have one), I want to pin one down. Writing reviews and criticism will help me do that. And I hope it will also usefully promote some people’s books.
I’m translating medieval poems as well. I concentrated at first on Old English, and I do love it best. But I’m also exploring Old Occitan (the language of the troubadours, which a lot of people still call Old Provençal) and Middle French. Working on poems outside the usual purview of English departments is giving me a far more thorough education in medieval poetry than the one I got thirty years ago, and the mind boggles at how much more the Internet now makes it possible to learn. I’m gathering myself to tackle Old Norse.
Is there a down side to working on translations rather than original poems?
A translation is always someone else’s poem, not my poem, unless I’m simply adapting. It doesn’t boil out of my own brain, from the stewings of my own life and thought. I don’t obsess about it as I do with my own work. This can be good or bad; I can more easily put a translation aside and see it later with fresh eyes. But it’s hard to love other people’s poems as much as I love my own. And it’s hard to be immediately carried away by a poem if its language isn’t something you actually use in your life. It’s tough to be truly fluent in a dead language. On top of that, medieval poems are often longer than modern journal editors have space for, so it can be hard to place those poems. And it can be challenging to incorporate translations into collections along with one’s own poems, though certainly some poets have done it well; Charles Martin is a wonderful example.
Let’s see. Medieval literature and ars poetica. Sounds ungodly high-minded and dull. What’s in your work for normal, non-poet, poetry-reading people?
Mothering and its passing. Strange family dynamics (especially the ones that relate to the Italian immigrant experience). Aging and dying parents. The difficult working-out of our love relationships. Gardens and the rest of the world’s beauties. War and what it does to us, even indirectly. Struggles with doubt and faith. Conversations with old poems. Those are all in the chapbooks and the book. The first chap, Gardening in a Time of War, is a mix of formal and free. Dissonance (from Scienter Press) is an all-metrical collection. The book also is also a mix. It’s about half rhymed and half not, though it’s nearly all metered in some fashion.
The conversation seems to be veering in the direction of your book.
Well, yes. What I most want people to remember when they finish reading is that I’ll have a book coming out next year, a full-length collection of poetry. It’s called Breath Control, and it will be published by David Robert Books. It’s scheduled to appear in February of 2012. Years of trying to schedule work with freelance indexers have taught me that book schedules slip, so I know that “February” is an approximation. But I’m still pleased and eager. And that’s true even though I know that having a first book doesn’t change the world, and even though I have a whole second full-length manuscript that I’m tinkering with.