Colorado Poets Center E-Words Issue #11

n Interview with Marilyn Krysl
(Mary Crow)

MC: The whole question of political poetry seems to be very emotional.  For some poets political subject matter is not suited to poetry. I think of Adorno's comment that poetry cannot be written after the Holocaust.  That is, that the devices of poetry—simile and metaphor, heightened language, formal considerations, etc.—trivialize tragic events.  Would you comment on how you view this issue.  Are there models of political poetry that you have learned from?

MK: Adorno was stating his speechlessness at the horror of the Holocaust. I don’t take his remark literally. The suffering of others—in war, in ethnic, religious and class  discrimination—is resoundingly political and an urgent topic for writers, artists, musicians.

arilyn KryslAs a child I lost all hearing in one ear, an invisible wound that sensitized me to notice others wounded by inequalities and injustices. I was my family’s first (and last) Marxist. And I came of age during the political Sixties, Seventies— the Civil Rights Movement, the Anti-Vietnam War Movement, the Women’s Movement. Millions of lives were shaped by issues of gender, race, class, choice, disability, “difference.” The Women’s Movement coined an adage: the personal is political, i.e., politics reverberates in all aspects of our lives. Even love poems may reveal the lovers’ situation within a politicized context. Examples: Ostriker’s The Mother/Child Papers, my book length poem Diana Lucifera published by Shameless Hussy Press. Lawson Inada, Ray Gonzales, Martin Espada, June Jordan, Amiri Baraka, Linda Hogan, Ed Dorn all wrote political po. In Colorado, Eleanor Swanson and David Mason have written book length poems on the Ludlow massacre. Another local, Jake York was highly political in Murmuration of Starlings, which addresses the complicity of gringos in the suffering of blacks in the south.

Yes there is bad political poetry, but that’s just bad poetry. I don’t believe poetic devices trivialize tragic events, certainly not in the hands of  Yeats, Auden, Pound whom I read as a freshman, or Neruda (whom I cherish for his politicas and everything else about him), Darwish, Akhmatova; or Ginsberg, Olson, Bly, Gary Snyder; or Muriel Rukeyser, Adrienne Rich. Evan Boland’s “Tirade For the Mimic Muse” and her book In A Time of Violence come to mind. Poet activist Marilyn Hacker’s poems reveal that so abiding is her awareness of suffering that there is no “escape” from politics.

My new collection, Swear the Burning Vow: Selected and New Poems, contains a double “Sestina For Our Revolution,” contrasting the politics and personalities of Emma Goldman and Alexandra Kolontai (Lenin’s Chairwoman of the Ministry of Social Welfare). Also “Requiem for the Turn of the Century” in 17 parts addresses almost every conceivable aspect of “politics” as we live it. All my collections, even Midwife and Soulskin, published by the National League for Nursing, feature political poems. “Baghdad: the Disappeared Girls,” “Bulldozer Sestina: Rafa 2004,” and more. Forche’s anthology Against Forgetting still reminds us that witnessing matters.

MC:  Many poets have written essays about their craft and how they view it.  If you were to state the principles of your poetics, how would you describe them?

MK: My only essay about poetry, “Sacred and Profane: The Sestina as Rite,” (published in APR) is a thorough discussion of everything you’ve ever wanted to know about the sestina, including the Middle Ages’ obsession with numerology. Possibly I’ve written more sestinas than anyone else, so I was the person to write that particular essay. I was trying to understand the implications of this intricate, obsessive form. Having done that, I didn’t want to write more essays.

As for a poetics, when I first encountered Levertov’s comment that the end of a line is equal to half a comma, I was grateful. I’d experienced that small, pregnant pause at the end of lines but hadn’t articulated it for myself. I didn’t sign on to Allen Ginsberg’s “first thought best thought” injunction because it invites cliché. I like the feel of Williams’ three line triplets, how they appear visually like three descending marble stair steps, then a plateau, then three more steps descending, and so on.

A poem’s formal lineation on the page is analogous to music’s notation. The staff strewn with notes is how music appears visually, just as poetry’s lineation on the page is how its music appears to the reader’s eye. I’m fascinated by formal constraints, and I want to look at a poem as well as listen to it. When musicians jam I often wish I could see how they might notate it. When I write free verse in couplets, it feels to me that the end of the second line of each couplet is equal to 3/4ths of a Levertov comma. Often at readings I listen to a poem’s cadence and don’t register the words’ “meaning.”

I say yes to the statement that “form follows content,” and I also say no. The word “content” is problematic, because it implies that we all agree on a word’s “meaning.” One of the fascinations of language poetry is that it calls into question the whole notion of stable, immutable meaning. In my experience meaning is highly mutable, and shifts, depending on context. (I seem to be writing an essay about this, so I’ll stop here!)

Call me a “poet,” and remember that I’ve always written in multiple genres. As soon as I finish a sestina, I want to dash off to free verse, or split the po scene and write a story, or an essay or a letter to the editor or an elegant grocery shopping list. To shift genres feels like rebirth. Think Pound’s “make it new.”

And this—what we call imagination, that instinctual, receptive impulsiveness in all artists, is sacred, wild, unknowable, frightening, thrilling and utterly unpredictable, and I honor it and feed it and wait upon it, and when it graces me with its presence I get down on my knees like Roethke did, and offer up gratitude.

MC:  What is your poetic process? I see on your website that you offer poetry writing exercises.  Do you work from such exercises?  Do you have a regular writing schedule?  What inspires you?

MK: I guard mornings for writing, but often I’m busy being Mother Marilyn, seeing to this or that person, making sure everybody got a nourishing breakfast and a chocolate chip cookie. (Sometimes I wish I could drop that persona, but it often leads to wonderful consequences.)

What inspires me? The live world inspires me: the totality. I spend time with clouds and birdsong a la the Romantics, feeling grateful. Then there’s the suffering of others. The suffering of others wrenches me, and I write in attempt to “understand” that suffering.

As for exercises, they lure beginners into the totality, the unexpected. DO NOT TRY to write, and don’t write something you already understand because the language will be dead on the page. Joyce Carol Oates said it: art is a record of the artist explaining something to herself.  Exercises are simply prompts for beginners: you ease yourself into the vast theatre of all available language and into your own vast ignorance. Hopefully that ignorance acts as challenge and engenders humility.

The function of art—image, symbol, poetry, music, chant—all ritual—is to open the inner self of both artist and the receiver of art. To open the inner self is to open our bodies and senses, infuse body with spirit. When an artist is at work the heart speeds up, we embody a higher frequency energy, and if we’re lucky we slip “in the groove.”

As a child I thought words came out of the ground and wind blew them into our mouths. Then I was taught not to believe this, but now I believe it again.”

Steep yourself in the rich soup of raw language. And choose as your addiction reading the great works from the past, and present. (This will save you from the debilitating addictions.) I advise students to fall in love with language itself, its mysterious being, and to carry on a secret love affair with a certain word, or words (See “Saying Things” in Swear the Burning Vow.) I urge students to listen to the music in language. We’re mostly unconscious of this inherent musicality, but when a waiter asks what you want to drink, and you say “a glass of California chardonnay,” you’ve spoken an iambic pentameter line, the most common line in English poetry. Writers are musicians, your body is your instrument, and language jams.

As a child I thought words came out of the ground and wind blew them into our mouths. Then I was taught not to believe this, but now I believe it again. Everything in the natural world is connected, and I am a place, a location in space, time and greenery where arrangements of language arrive on a current of air, and I write the words down, word for word. “I” do not make these soundings up: they appear.

Quite a few writers agree, though they may say it differently. Richard Rodriguez says there are times when writing writes itself, that he has to “sit there and wait like an idiot.” I like being this waiting idiot. I enjoy purposeless contemplation. Language floats through the world, and I’m air’s scribe, writing down words mysteriously given by the Great Lap of earth. Humility is necessary. If you don’t have a scribe’s humility, go get an MBA.

MC: What recent poetry are you reading?

MK: I’m reading Patricia Smith’s smashingly fine book length Blood Dazzler, on Katrina. It’s about (among other things) politics. Also Nick Lantz’s political We Don’t Know We Don’t Know, an intriguing juxtaposition of Pliny the Elder and Donald Rumsfeld. And Rae Armantrout’s Versed.

I’m also reading local poets, because I’ve lived in Boulder forty years, and the community is everything to me. When I arrived, Jack Collom was running the only workshop in town on Sunday mornings at his house, and he introduced me to the local community of writers. Some former students of mine still live here, and those like myself,  Reg Saner, Peter Michelson and Anselm Hollo, are the nurturing elders, and Colorado has drawn talented young writers: John Brehm,  Sandy Tseng, Bill Notter, Dan Beachy-Quick, Matt Cooperman (a former student of mine), David Mason, Eleanor Swanson, Veronica Patterson, Aaron Anstett, Maria Melendez, Aaron Abeyta, Jane Hilberry, Jake York, Sandra Dorr, Joe Hutchison, Ruth Ellen Kocher, Chris Ransick. (Also LOTS of excellent young prose writers, Jenny Shank, for instance, in McSweeney’s.)

We’re blessed to have David Rothman’s poetry, his winning sense of humor and amazing knowledge of formal craft. Bin Ramke is a formidable talent who’s been around as long as you and I have, as has Ann Waldman. Your poems, translations and your yeoman service as Laureate are part of the richness. And now there’s also the Lighthouse crew. I don’t buy Auden’s statement that “poetry makes nothing happen.” The careworn stock broker’s heart needs to breathe, and audiences listen because everyone needs soul food.

MC: A great deal has been written about the Language Poets and about their impact on poetry in general.  What was a few years ago a decidedly outsider movement has become widely accepted and imitated.  What is your reaction?

MK: I admire Lyn Hejinian’s remark that language poetry "invites participation, rejects the authority of the writer over the reader and thus, by analogy, the authority implicit in other (social, economic, cultural) hierarchies." Hierarchies ought to be obsolete, though they persist in spite of the fact that everything is impermanent, even hierarchies. But disappear one, and another pops up. The language poets began as a small coterie of revolutionaries, and, as almost always happens, have become the new establishment (well, almost). More important, to my mind, is that both language po and lyric po have the potential to transform us, and the potential to alienate and disappoint. With both lyric po and language po, I now and then find a gem, but often not.

The issue that interests me is the nature of language itself. In my experience it’s language that speaks, not I, and I am not its meaning maker. Language itself and the context from which it emerges—the living totality of creation—is the meaning maker. Yes, we have agency and must take responsibility for our actions, but the statement “I write” is a construction that came about when humans invented alphabets and began to use inscribed (“written”) language as a way to keep records. Before alphabets though, spoken language arose from the flora and fauna, stone and air sounds of the natural world.

Over time human animals used these sounds to suit their purposes.
The English language makes us sound as though we’re not live linkages in a progression through time, but stolid solids referred to as “I”—solids supposedly graced by an invisible “muse.” I’m forced to use the pronoun “I” because that’s the convention. But Humility Training has taught me that I’m merely a live location where from time to time patterns of language emerge into the auditory world. I am not author but scribe.

Flannery O’Conner, Harold Pinter, Annie Dillard, Richard Rodriguez, Ruth Stone and more have said as much. Roethke said of writing, “I was privy to oily fungus and the algae of standing waters,/ honored…by the ancient fellowship of rotten stems.” D. H. Lawrence said it eloquently: not I, but the wind that blows through me.

MC: Do you think your new work is moving in new directions? How would you say it differs from your previous work?

MK: I’m writing less, swimming and cloud watching more. I feel responsible to younger writers, but I also crave more solitude. Not in order to write endlessly, but to be. I’m at an age when each morning feels like the first and last morning.

I can’t see “my work” because it’s mine: Heisenberg, remember, established that the observer is part of the thing she observes, and thus can’t be “objective.” It’s like trying to see the middle of your back by looking over your shoulder. When the May/June issue of Orion published my short story “Shut Up And Fish,” I received more mail than I have ever received about a single work. Why? Is it the internet? I have no idea. Life is mostly mystery, and I honor the humility implacable mysteriousness offers us.