Tell me … how do we leave all guts on the page? Poet Marilyn McCabe will certainly ask you this. She is fond of videopoetry, soundscaping, and placing these intimacies to the page. Women writers she has found are “more willing to reach for new ways of communicating through the arts, to be louder, more unruly.” Consciousness is a central theme and the topic of this interview in her work Glass Factory newly released in 2016 from The Word Works. Simply she says, “how we connect to each other’s consciousness over space, time, death is of interest to me.” The way that the body specifically withholds memory is of a particular focus.
Here we address “Other”. Her poems consider the “mystery of connection with the Other and with the self, even in the face of the annihilation of the consciousness of self and Other in death or in loss of memory.” The self is one of a temporary task. A talk we permute indistinguishing how we ultimately disintegrate. McCabe states, “Time is something we have constructed and float ourselves along even as we caress ourselves into pieces.” In the end, we may only be as she reveals, “a rolling stone” that which, gathers “moss but it certainly gathers dust, mud, bacteria, insect wings, bird shit, and more fragile vegetation than moss.”
Marilyn McCabe’s new book of poems, Glass Factory, was out from The Word Works in Spring 2016. Her poem “On Hearing the Call to Prayer Over the Marcellus Shale on Easter Morning” was awarded A Room of Her Own Foundation’s Orlando Prize, fall 2012, and appeared in the Los Angeles Review. Her book of poetry Perpetual Motion was published by The Word Works in 2012 as the winner of the Hilary Tham Capitol Collection contest (available from Small Press Distribution, http://www.spdbooks.org). Her work has appeared in literary magazines such as Nimrod, Valparaiso Poetry Review, and Painted Bride Quarterly, French translations and songs on Numero Cinq, and a video-poem on The Continental Review. She blogs about writing and reading at marilynonaroll.wordpress.com.
- What were the first inspirations that made you desire to become a writer? Who are your favorite writers and how did they change over time?
I have always been a reader, from “Aunt Allie’s alligator…A…A…A” on, and I think it was books by Madeleine L’Engle that wakened in me a secret desire to be a writer. But it wasn’t until my 30s that I began to write, starting with YA fiction — but I found I really have no head for plot. I then started writing essays, influenced by Annie Dillard, e.g., and Terry Tempest Williams and John McPhee. Then Mary Oliver’s work inspired me to work in poetry. I was taking a summer seminar in creative nonfiction when I wandered in to a lecture by Ellen Bryant Voigt, and that also tumbled me off the essay path and into poetry. For the most part, my favorite writers remain my favorite writers. I still reread periodically Kenneth Graham’s The Wind in the Willows, one of my foundational texts, and go back again and again to Louise Gluck’s The Wild Iris. I just keep adding to the favorites. I have a hard time juggling all my rereading with all my new reading.
- Who have been the creative inspiration / mentor writers in your career?
I’ve worked with a handful of people who have inspired me, but many of my “mentors” have been so only through their work. Albert Goldbarth, for example, continues to teach me how to make connections and leaps; Bruce Beasley teaches me how to wrap religion and emotion and science; Louise Gluck and Carol Frost teach me how to leave guts and all on the page; Kathleen Graber teaches me to be smart yet accessible. I read widely and allow myself to be influenced by whatever work is speaking to me at the time. I’m inspired often by visual artists and by multimedia artists such as Laurie Anderson. I’m also mentored by my writing group, the Women of Mass Dispersion (the WMDs), who are supportive and patient when I’m all crabby and insecure, and generous when I need a fresh eye on my work.
- How has your own work changed over time and why?
I hope it’s changed and changing. I hope I keep digging deeper. I want to be doing that.
- Have you been influenced by different genres, and if so how?
I am often inspired by visual art, and, as I mentioned, multimedia work. I go to museums often. I also read a lot of nonfiction in the sciences, religious studies, art history. All of that feeds my work.
- What are your plans for the future?
I hope to keep pushing and broadening my creativity while digging deeper into emotional verity. What the output will look like I have no idea.
I’ve been making videopoetry, soundscapes, as well as still toiling to the page. I have big dreams of installations, place making, sensurround poetry. I worked with a choreographer two years ago who set one of my poems to a dance while I and two others voiced the poem on stage with the dancers. I am eager to find other collaborative, cross-genre opportunities. I am just not sure of my next steps. But the future has a way of rolling right at us, the way those moving sidewalks at airports force us to hop off them or fall on our faces. Either is a possibility.
- What are your views on writing by women as it has occurred in the past twenty years?
Women seem to be more willing to reach for new ways of communicating through the arts, to be louder, more unruly. I like the work of VIDA, keeping a sharp eye on how women are being represented in the arts world.
- Who are promising women writers to look at in the future?
Oh, there’s so much good work coming out, and only a very small portion of it comes across my attention. There’s so much to read! If I start to name names I’ll inevitably forget whoever is topmost on my list of favorites. I will say that I try to read at least one author a year, male or female, coming out from The Word Works, Black Lawrence Press, Tupelo, Four Way, and Alice James. But, see, even there I know I’ve neglected several favorite publishers. I also like to read the work of people I may have met through the year. Right now poems by women on my pile of books: Lisa Sewell, Sarah Freligh, and Carol Ann Davis.
- If you were asked to create a flexible label of yourself as a writer, what would it be?
Not to be difficult, but I’d rather not label myself. I think the identity politics that has seized the world and particularly the world of American poetry these days is a bit bizarre and I can’t really, if you’ll pardon the expression, “identify” with it. My work is my work. I’m me. I shift. I don’t know.
- In your work, Glass Factory, forthcoming from The Word Works in 2016, we are inducted into a space of absence, congruity, and chaos. Sentimentality responds to connection in the poem “Goldsworthy Variations”. Here we encounter, “The last work we all make will be a hole, the black/ hole of our pruned energy, raisined reason,/ icy with our inner fires.” And later in the same poem, “Gravity, though physicists may quibble, I imagine,/ makes us endless, and what I think is a frisson of your ghost/ may be the wormhole of you coming home. … What nature tosses, man must assemble”. The body assembled is the collapse of the chaos and a return to the chills of our ghost. So then who keeps the order? The body into the structure or the collapse of the structure into chaos?
Connection, indeed. Love, if you will. Love — for the earth, for each other, those with us still and those departed, and for the transient nature of life, of matter. Love keeps the order.
- Continuing the interrogation of these evaluations we read in “Homeaway” that “Even her home has become alien,” allowing one of a few lines “and I will be queen” as the remainder of those unforgotten. In the poem “Incarnate” as well we face death and displacement: “A beak and one quarter of a skull./ Small something: song bird, sparrow, / glow buried; but one plume will wing skyward,/ as I am gorgeous with my dead, and full of mysteries.” Is the collapse of the striation in nature the collapse of our ego onto our skin? And in turn is this when we become the chaos and at the same time order of nature itself?
The body is an extraordinary order, and even in death the body disintegrates into earth, into another kind of order. The question of what is consciousness remains unresolved. And how we connect to each other’s consciousness over space, time, death is of interest to me. That the body holds memories interests me.
I took voice lessons for many years and my teacher would talk about students starting to weep when their voice work forced them to release some tension in their bodies — in the throat, the shoulders, the abdomen. The body remembered what the mind hid, and singing brought the memory to mind through the body. Where do I start and my body end?
These poems consider the idea of the self, the dear Other, and the mystery of connection with the Other and with the self, even in the face of the annihilation of the consciousness of self and Other in death or in loss of memory (as the earth “remembers” its glaciers in what is left behind, for a time, anyway).
- We encounter the backdrop of the dream in the poem “Munch’s Melancholy” in the lines “He appears to sleep but is dreaming, is/ awake to how sea and sky –/ as waiting, as living –/ are two parts of the same thing.” Yet in “River” the reader is strewn; “There straying, fringed, forgetting./ Deepening, I depend on the cycle/ of my own disintegration.” And later, in “Time series: Jordan River” the simple statement beholds “What cannot be held/ holds.” My question is then how does the dream interact in the landscape of the continual disintegration of order?
Most of the poems in this collection were written as I was wrestling with the loss of several friends, and with the increasing fragility and dementia of my very old mother. So death resides in them all. And again this question of consciousness and the idea of self. The self seems to be mutable, but provides order to a life even as that life disintegrates toward death. Time is something we have constructed and float ourselves along even as we disintegrate into it. The earth seems solid but is churning underneath. Everything is moving moving moving even as it seems to stay still. Where do memories go when we die? What are we living for? What are we waiting for?
- Lastly as we approach the end of this work in “On Hearing the Call to Prayer Over the Marcellus Shale on Easter Morning” we are asked to address the mathematical structures of these philosophical negotiations. The poem reads, “How can we solve ourselves, as zero is no answer, and x// resides always in the community of variables?” This question of identity is simultaneously addressed in “Self-sight” which questions “Or did I identify/ too closely with the corpse; ironic,/ as what is human of me is least/ corporeal: mood, memory and that other / impulse: the soul’s/ determination not to be alone.” This paradoxically attaches itself to the last poem of the collection “At Dusk”, in such that “You are you are// on your own, not a feather/ to your name. // But turning./ Turning.” So then do we reside in the x of variables as skin deconstructing in the chaos of also applied congruity? Or do we exist in the absence of these forms? How do you believe this is mimicked and or addressed in nature?
In these poems I am considering that any one thing is the sum of all that it gathered in its coming to be in the particular moment — as a rolling stone may not gather moss but it certainly gathers dust, mud, bacteria, insect wings, bird shit, and more fragile vegetation than moss.
Again, it’s this idea of connection, and that the self resides in the accretion of its experience coming up against the world, the tender licks and hard knocks, all the whiffs and stenches, the laughs and stories, the dogs and pet rocks. Therefore what and who we have contact with transform us, and that transformation is reciprocal and mysterious and lasting through our mortal time. And maybe even beyond. Maybe even beyond. Who knows?