Interview with Megan E. Freeman

There is blood in these poems, and flesh as well. From conception to death, from LA to the Arctic to Colorado, Freeman finds the angles to deal with subjects from Greek tragedy, an email inbox, the operating room, and, yes, sleeping alone. Freeman fearlessly probes that life that sustains life for: “Our chemical selves in all our juicy mess leave trails of truth shining as any snail’s.”

Robert King, Some of These Days

You place a certain emphasis on the meat and liquids of our interiors or, as you put it, “the blood and the drool/ that comes from the many acts of human life.” Conception is an explosion in a symphony of cytoplasm. You’re not afraid of bringing blood, mucous, semen, meconium, and amniotic fluid into a poem. Have you always included that aspect of life in your work? What’s the poetic importance of it to you?

I was lucky to be introduced to writing poetry in elementary school by professional poets who came to our school every week for three years. Ever since, my poetry has been about exploring the many different aspects of my life as a human being, and I’ve been drawn to body imagery, whether metaphorically or microscopically.  I’m keenly aware of myself as flesh and blood, and of the physical responses my body has to emotional or intellectual experiences.  That awareness creates a fascination with human physicality, both the obvious (the outer terrain and products of the body) and the obscured (cells, blood, muscle, bone).  Sometimes an experience is so profound – like loving and being loved by my daughter – that I’m driven to search beyond the surface expression of an emotion to articulate it.  In those moments, I find myself turning to the miraculous inner workings of the human body and the miraculous outer workings of the larger universe to attempt to encapsulate the otherwise indescribable nature of that love.  Sometimes, the only way I can satisfy my desire to capture the primal complexity of my human experience is through the landscape and biology of the body.

You show a wide range of subject matter in this book. One poem deals with eating a Continental breakfast during a speaker’s presentation, another deals with imagining your own conception. What “starts” a poem in your writing?

For me, the urge to write poetry is often born of the urge to capture a moment or an idea, perhaps not unlike a photographer’s urge to photograph an interesting image or landscape.  Writing helps me understand my place in the world around me, and poems come from situations or ideas or experiences that intrigue me and arouse my curiosity. I write poetry in order to remember a moment or explore a question or feeling in more depth.  Sometimes I’m not able to stop and examine the thought right then and there, so I scribble the seed of the idea in my notebook. Then I come back to it later, when I have more time to explore and find out if it wants to be a poem, or if it’s enough to just let it be a journal entry. 
The two poems you mention in your question came from very different impulses.  I wrote “Continental Breakfast”while attending a conference where I was seated in the back of the hall and did not share the audience’s enthusiasm for the speaker.  Something about the contrast between listening to the keynote and noticing the food on the plate in front of me struck my interest, and the poem resulted.  “Conception, 1967” came from the family legend of my having been conceived on Valentine’s Day, under a web of hearts that my father had strung from the ceiling above my mother as she slept.  I loved the story and the notion of my young parents so deeply in love (they celebrated fifty years of marriage this past year), so I wrote the poem. 

These poems, I think, operate in a free-verse manner. What’s your sense of the “line” in your work? What makes “a line” in your writing experience?

I love playing with line, and with devices of sound and parts of speech within and between lines.  I often – though not always – begin poems writing by hand in my notebook, and when working that way, the first draft line breaks tend to be very organic and improvisational, sometimes even dictated by the size of the page I’m writing on.  I don’t focus on it much in the beginning; I just let the images and words play on the page.  It’s not uncommon for me to scribble and rewrite a poem several times in my notebook before taking it to the computer to continue and finish it.  The computer is where I start paying more attention to line breaks and stanzas, if there are any.  I play with how the line breaks enhance or impede the flow of the poem and how they may feature or diminish certain kinds of words (nouns versus prepositions, for example).  I read the poem aloud and try to anticipate how my choices help or hinder the ability of a reader to enter the poem.  I don’t necessarily want to make it easy, but I want to be intentional about it.  I play with punctuation and capitalization too, though my default starting place is always with nothing.  I’ll add conventions if I think they help convey the image or idea, but I start with words alone on the page and work out from there. 

In light of your question, the two poems we talked about before are interesting contrasts in style.  “Conception, 1967”is written in complete sentences with proper punctuation and capitalization, and I use stanzas very deliberately to contrast my parents’ point of view with mine.  The line breaks are still intentional and determined by the idea contained in each line, but it reads a little more like prose, I think.  On the other hand, “Continental Breakfast”has very littlepunctuation or capitalization and much shorter lines, without an obvious mathematical or rhythmic pattern to the lines or the stanzas. 

How would you describe your revision process?

It’s funny, I don’t think about revising poetry the same way I think about revising prose.  I teach whole workshops on revision, but in those we focus exclusively on prose, so this is an interesting question.  For me, the process of writing a poem is a constant revision process.  I don’t really think of poems as having multiple drafts, because when I’m working on one, it’s always in flux.  I’m trying to think of an analogy to explain what I mean, and one image that comes to mind is that of a sculptor, working in clay.  Does she “revise” the clay each time she sits down at the worktable?  Or does she keep working and shaping and massaging and rolling and cutting and pinching the clay until it takes the shape that pleases her?  That’s kind of like my experience of writing a poem.  The process of writing and revising are intricately enmeshed and indiscernible to me. 

On the other hand, when I write prose – and I have a few unpublished novels in various stages of development – I tend to write big sections, then go back to revise and rewrite in distinctly separate drafts.  I do the same thing with non-fiction and professional writing, too, and I have beta readers who read and give me feedback throughout the revision process. 

All that said, once I think a poem might be finished, I walk away and let it sit for a period of time, and I often come back later and make changes.  A little time and distance can provide a clearer perspective on the piece.  I’m also lucky to have a close friend who is a writer, and we meet regularly to write together. If she’s around, I may ask her to read the poem before I ultimately decide whether or not it’s really done. We’ve been writing partners for a long time and I trust her implicitly.

What poets have you enjoyed in relation to your own work?

I fell in love with e.e. cummings when I was a teenager, and I’m still awed by him.  His fearlessness – both in form and content – pushes on the boundaries of my brain.  I have his Complete Poems on my bedside table right now. 

In college and graduate school, I studied dramatic literature and then later I taught English, so I’m a big fan of Shakespeare, Shaw, Sophocles, and Dante.  I also started out reading a lot of women from the canon:  Emily Dickenson, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Adrienne Rich, bell hooks. Later, Margaret Atwood, Alice Walker, and Ntozake Shange also made huge impressions on me.

There are so many wonderful contemporary poets writing right now.  I love Natasha Tretheway, Billy Collins, Richard Blanco, Mary Oliver, and Ted Kooser.  I recently finished reading Kooser’s 2014 collection, Splitting an Order, and loved every page.  He’s also a wonderful speaker and I’ve been lucky to hear him read a few times. 

And I have to say that you’ve become one of my new favorites.  I read your collection Some of These Days shortly after finishing Kooser’s new book, and I particularly enjoyed your allusion to him in the poem “Apples of the Poet.”  I also love “Why I Invented War.”  It brought back vivid memories of digging up long-forgotten lead soldiers from the victory gardens in the back of the old house I grew up in.  I’m excited to beginreading Old Man Laughing, which I picked up at the Innisfree Poetry Bookstore in Boulder recently.