Leslie McGrath: The TNB Self-InterviewBy Leslie McGrath
August 13, 2018
The title of your new collection is Feminists Are Passing from Our Lives. Where does it come from and is this a book about feminists?
I used the title of one of my favorite poems in the manuscript, which is a parody of Philip Levine’s poem, “Animals Are Passing from Our Lives” which was published in the 1960’s. Levine’s speaker is a pig being taken to market to be sold for meat. The pig can sense his fate and speaks with a dignity we wouldn’t expect from any being under those circumstances.
With what’s been happening in the lives of American women, whose health care rights are under threat, who are still not paid equally for our work, and who are being targeted by extremist groups in the “manosphere,” I sometimes feel like that pig, properly fattened on title 9, on access to safe healthcare and a good education, now being guided into a future that looks a lot like the past. It’s a cautionary. It’s also an accounting of growing old.
What’s going on in your cover?
The cover is a painting made by my friend Tina Gibbard, who I met in 2010 during a ten day residency on a 100-acre island off the coast of northern Maine. I don’t think the residency’s still operating. But those ten days were among the strangest of my life. There were ten of us, if I remember correctly, including the writers Brian Bouldrey, Ron Tanner, Gus Rose, Andy Duncan, and D. Foy. Experiences included a foray to a nearby island which a magnificent (and fully furnished) long-deserted house, a mystery theft of cash from one of the artists which resulted in forcible removal of another artist, three backbreaking hours collecting mussels with Ron Tanner only to be told after lugging buckets to the kitchen that they were inedible due to red tide, watching a meteor shower in black-black sky, being woken every morning by ripe language by a lobsterman convinced that his traps were being poached by another lobsterman, and spending hours alone on a remote beach collecting sea glass.
I wrote one poem in those ten days. It was never published. But I met Tina and fell in love with her work, which has a wonderful wryness. The Swedish horses in her painting are facing each other in the usual stolid Swedish horse way, but their shadows are having a very different and far livelier discussion. It was the perfect visual representation of the poems in this book, which point to the layer of truth beneath the accepted truth.
Any Easter eggs?
Oh yes. Starting with the cover image, which didn’t fully register with numerous loved ones, including my husband. So I did what poets can do. I thought of two people I admire who have Swedish-sounding names (Elsa Rush and Sven Birkerts) and made up a second epigraph for the collection. Hopefully it helps explain the cover image a little more.
I’ve put bits and pieces of images into many of the poems that will be known only to a few readers. “Astonishment” for instance, is written to a poet friend who prefers her name not to be mentioned, but who I wanted to honor with a poem. “Bitterness in the Mouth” and “Mumblety Peg” were kindled by a man in the literary community who was a grifter. He wreaked havoc in the lives of people and institutions I hold dear and it infuriated me to see person after person turn their headto it for years, not wanting to get involved. If we care for each other, then we must speak up when harm is being done.
These kinds of poems can be tricky in terms of finding the right balance between allegiance to what happened and the likelihood that the poem will move readers who know nothing of the precipitating event. Now “Mumblety Peg” is often read as applying to Trump, but he wasn’t yet on the national political stage when the poem was written.
Why do you write so much about mental illness?
I wanted to be a clinical psychologist and to that end I got a B.A. and an M.A. in psychology. I left my doctoral studies at NYU when I became pregnant and when I was ready to resume, the world had shifted. Managed care had been installed. My dreams of being a psychoanalyst whose treatment was covered by insurance were slim. And then the most terrible blessing of my life happened: I went into a depression so severe that I was hospitalized in a psychiatric facility on and off for a year. I found myself on the other side of the doctor-patient dyad. My sense of empathy for my fellow patients bloomed. As a psychiatric patient, I became an outsider, not to be trusted, considered too crazy to pick up on snide remarks and outright cruelty by some staff. This continued after I was released back into my home and life. People I’d grown up with, socialized with, avoided me. My husband at the time told me he no longer loved or trusted me. Because my depression was interwoven with having been sexually violated as a child by a family member, some members of my family chose ridicule and ostracism over believing me. It remains this way now 26 years later.
But I found my people in that psychiatric hospital. And I find more of us everywhere: online, as neighbors, in my classes, trying to live productively and with dignity in a world that tends to shame us. I think of my poems on mental illness as a kind of whale song, heard by many but best understood by my pod.
What is the role of social media in your life? Be honest.
I’ve got a Twitter account, but it’s mostly read-only. So much of what comes out of that fire hose is impulsive and of low nutrient content. That said, Roxane Gay is a goddess for all eternity. Facebook has been a better fit for me. I’ve made many friends, gotten and given encouragement and comfort from people I’d never ordinarily come into contact with. And more than one poem in this book came out of a slapdash status that I’d posted, to which another poet said “That’s the start of a poem.” The tanka “Some Comfort in a Smaller Field of Vision” came about this way and was published in the Yale Review. I love the serendipitous quality of poetry.
How does an older white woman from Connecticut approach issues of social justice?
The news about race relations in the last four or five years, particularly how African Americans are regarded with suspicion and treated viciously by law enforcement, woke me up to a part of life in America I’d ignored. This is one area that social media has been very helpful to me. I was taken to task, and rightly so, quickly and directly by writers of color who challenged my language, tone, and my belief that my behavior, though unintentional, wasn’t hurtful.
When writing about race, gender, mental illness, and the way human beings prey upon each other, I write slant but unsparingly. I want my audience, which is mostly white and older, to hear someone who looks and lives like they do wrestling with these issues. I want to bring them in and get them talking and reconsidering. I want to model for them the fact that this kind of introspection is painful but necessary, no matter how old we are.
Do you have any top secret weapons that you deploy when writing?
Oh yes. I can think of three immediately: online dictionaries, reading other poets’ work, and slipping into the kitchen to bake. Each of these things activates a kind of mental peripherality, in which I’m no longer thinking directly about the trouble I’m having on the page. I use thesaurus.com and online etymological dictionaries like other people take walks, I suspect. I follow my nose from link to link with no particular goal. Sounds, images, and whole webs of ideas pop up. It’s a kind of travel that’s both relaxing and broadening. Reading other people’s work allows me to get out of my own mind and enter another’s obsessions. And baking is a great deal like poetry in that it takes decades to learn to do well and involves concentration and precision. Thankfully baking, unlike poetry, provides an immediate tangible payoff. I can eat that brownie.
Your first two books seemed to be all about food. This one isn’t. What gives?
As a cook, food is rich with metaphor for me, so it was a natural launch pad into writing poems, especially when I was a beginning poet. My first successful poem was about baking soda bread. And I had (and still have) an obsession with butter. I was commissioned by Cabot Creamery about eleven years ago to write a poem that appeared on their butter package. Because Cabot is a collaborative, I was operating on orders from the farmers to include a cow, a field, and a farmer. I was pretty happy with the poem—and thrilled with the huge audience it got—until I read it one night at a big reading in Manhattan, when I realized I’d essentially re-written Goodnight Moon starring butter.
I began to hear people referring to me as a food poet, which annoyed me, so I changed direction. Still, food sneaks its way into poems in strange and hilarious ways. In “The Mouth of the Mind” a baby rabbit is “mild and untouchable as a baked potato.” In another I borrowed the phrase “you can’t lift a cheesecake with an iron hook” from my friend Norman Rush’s novel Subtle Bodies.
White, whole wheat, rye, raisin, or English muffin?
White, but choosing whole grain more often.
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