photo: Dawn Synder
Every Saturday Awakin.org, through its Awakin Calls program, hosts an in-depth conversation with an inspiring guest. People join the conference call from all over the world and later the audio and text are posted online. Sometimes the transcript is also made available on conversations.org. The following conversation took place Feb. 4, 2017.
Our moderator Richard Whitaker will engage in a deep dialogue with our guest speaker Marjorie Maddox who has been engaging with the world through poems and stories. For all of us, the question we would like to explore throughout the call is how have poems or stories allowed you to relate to the world in a different way? (whether it is more empathetically or with more curiosity or in a more reflective space.) Also can you recall a work or poem that has offered you a unique doorway into the human experience? We will start by asking our remarkable moderator Richard Whitaker to kick off our conversation
: A singularly important moment with a poem? I was about twenty years old and really hadn't connected with poetry at all, but I'd signed up for an English Lit class. At that time, I spent a semester at L.A State. Anyway, we were required to write a little paper on one of Wallace Stevens' poems “Sunday Morning.” I looked at this poem and I thought, “Jeez, what a trial this is going to be.” And I kept putting it off. But finally the moment came when I had to face the music. So I started reading it, and I read it carefully. And it just absolutely floored me. It's hard to overstate the impact that one poem had on me; it completely opened poetry, the power of poetry, to me and and I could say it actually changed my life. So that's my personal testament to the power of poetry.
Wow, what was the poem about?
Well, I’ll read a couple of the first lines:
Complacencies of the peignoir, and late
Coffee and oranges in a sunny chair,
And the green freedom of a cockatoo
Upon a rug mingle to dissipate
The holy hush of ancient sacrifice.
So it takes place on a Sunday morning and the writer is pondering the meaning of the crucifixion. That's a quick way of putting it. And it's so beautifully and powerfully written about.
I love the way he described that and how Stevens also takes us into that holy moment during a poem through the sense of silence to connect.
Yes, "She dreams a little and feels the dark encroachments of that old catastrophe."
That is beautiful. Thank you Richard and Marjorie. We have the privilege of having our own in-house poet. Now I will pass it to Richard to introduce Marjorie.
Ok. Thanks Audrey. Marjorie Maddox is a U.S. Sage Graduate Fellow of Cornell University and professor of English and creative writing at Lock Haven University. Marjorie has published eleven collections of poetry for children's books and over five hundred stories, essays and poems in journals and in anthologies. She's coeditor of Common Wealth: Contemporary Poets on Pennsylvania
and is also the great grand niece of Branch Rickey, the general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, who famously signed Jackie Robinson seventy years ago, which was the decisive step in integrating Major League Baseball. The poet, professor, fiction writer, editor and self described bookworm grew up reading in the branches of trees, suspended upside down on the couch and by flashlight under bed covers. She grew up in a family that encouraged her writing and she began composing and giving away her poems in childhood. Her early captivation with the alchemy of words led to a lifetime calling.
So that's a summary and I think it's a good place to start. There are a couple of things in that introduction, that stand out for me. One is the fact that Branch Rickey is your great grand uncle. That's astonishing. So Marjorie, is it fair to say that you have a feeling for baseball?
: I do and I'm particularly fascinated by the history and family connections. One of the books that's coming out soon I hope in a couple of weeks is a middle grade biography of Branch Rickey. So it's been really fun to think about bringing some of his stories from the time he was younger until death to middle graders, and being able then to connect that to everything that happened with Jackie and Rachel Robinson as well. You know it's such an important part of our history.
Oh goodness, yes! It's a huge thing! Of course there was some self-interest on Rickey's part since Jackie Robinson was such an extraordinary athlete, but what great moral courage on Branch Rickey’s part to do that—to say nothing of Jackie Robinson's incredible self-possession to weather all the stuff he had to go through.
Well, a number of years ago—I guess in 1997 at the 50th anniversary of the Baseball Hall of Fame at Cooperstown—I was able to meet Rachel Robinson and that was just a treat to to be able to meet her in person.
I bet they were both extraordinary people. Jackie Robinson far beyond baseball, and I'm sure his wife as well. How do you think having Branch Rickey as a forerunner in your family tree, how do you think that has influenced you?
Yes, well I think one of the things that influenced me is this idea of standing up for other people and making your voice known—and the timing of that sometimes. And not being afraid to take a stand that might not be very popular. One of the things in my upcoming short story collection—it's a short story collection, but there are also some creative non-fiction pieces—is a short piece about watching the movie “Forty Two” with my mother. So it's also interesting to me to be able to kind of span different generations. She saw that screening of the movie at first in the same theater that used to show “Gone With the Wind.”
I thought, “Wow, you know what a difference has taken place.” And what that tells us about about history. But then also to watch the movie with my children and just talk with them about what this means for our day and age as well.
I noticed you have a couple of books of poetry about baseball.
I do, and that was a lot of fun to write about.I have different pockets of topics that I write about and one of them is baseball. I just had fun going through, and looking at, the metaphorical interpretations of all the rules of the game for baseball that was published by Boyds Mills Press. It was also fun to see how the poem became part of the illustrations.
You know in our little introduction to you there's this phrase, that you became fascinated with "the alchemy of words." Do you like that phrase? Do you accept that description as accurate?
Yes. I do. I love the idea of playing around with words. I mean sometimes writing is just plain fun. A lot of times it's a struggle, too. As you know it's hard to look at that blank page, but it is also just plain fun.
You know it's a word play. And there's a magic to it when things finally click after all the hard work. Things finally fall into place, and you have kind of an epiphany; you're able to convey something that you really want to convey to other people. You don't always know what that is when you start out.
I tell my students sometimes that a poem can come in through the front door; you know exactly what you want to write about. But sometimes it comes through the back door; you have a phrase or an image or a sound, even, that kind of keeps playing in your mind - and you eventually follow that and see where it gets to.
Actually, with the Branch Rickey book, I just had this phrase that I put on my phone– "his name was Branch and his brain was brewing a great experiment." I kept thinking about that and that kind of becomes a refrain in that children's book.
: Wonderful. That moment of magic you say that sometimes occurs when you're wrestling with words trying to find the right way to capture that special thing. Can you say anything about that? I mean there's something special that can happen sometimes when some words come together that's kind of elusive.
I think it's always about finding the right word in the right place and then also the perspective of coming at the world from a slightly different angle, a different way than maybe anyone else has expressed it.
It's a kind of a wrestling to see how everything falls into place. I write with quite an attention to sound, and so often I will compose out loud and read things out loud as I'm going through. It's also a way for me to figure out how to process some of the things I'm experiencing or what's going on in our world.
Writing is a way, I think, of looking at how you see the world and how other people see the world, putting yourself in other people's shoes. It gives you that sense of empathy and I think that also can come through music and art.
: Yes. And I suppose writing, like all the other creative arts, can provide this opening to hidden parts of ourselves. I mean it could be an opening into the subconscious or unconscious and allow things to actually take form. You're speaking to that in part aren't you?
: Yes. I think you almost have to allow yourself to be in that kind of state where you can allow the subconscious to rise up a little bit more. That's why it's helpful to have larger blocks of time to write, and sometimes to write when there are not a lot of other distractions.
Different writers are different, but for me it's very helpful to have some silence. Sometimes to complement that silence with music or art, but to be able to have that space to kind of contemplate or to be in a place where I'm just anonymous, like at an airport or a busy coffee shop where I'm not going to think. Heaven forbid I would want to clean out the refrigerator - one of my least favorite tasks! There’s patience to do all kinds of things instead of writing sometimes!
Yes. That's interesting, your bringing that up of being in a place where you're anonymous. Just a few days ago I was trying to formulate what it was in my own experience—a rare, unusual experience— of being at times in a place that was so impersonal and so anonymous that I suddenly felt free in a surprising way. I could never quite understand how sometimes exterior conditions that were so empty seemed the most conducive to some kind of inner connection.
I think it has to do with not feeling responsible to do anything. If you're waiting in an airport or you're at a coffee shop - I'm not going to have someone run in tell me this needs to be done, or that needs to be done. Of course you want to be present to the people around you, but if you're not in that space, it is different.
You're right. No demands are being placed on you. You know in terms of that whole thing about an opening into the subconscious somewhere along the line, I was reading somebody talking about how the conscious mind could handle X number of thoughts while, at the same time, the ears, the eyes, the senses, are taking in a tremendous number of impressions, several magnitudes greater than what the conscious mind is actually able to process. So it makes sense that there's something in us that's much more aware and has much more information than our ordinary mind. so to speak.
Yes, it is always kind of making those connections, and I have a very busy teaching schedule so I don't get as much done. I don't get as much written during the year as I used to. I used to be able to block off days of the week, but I find that I'm getting just as much written during my winter breaks or during the summer.
I think it's kind of churning in the back of my head all the time. I jot down notes sometimes to remind myself, but I think writers are kind of always writing even if they're not putting pen to take or the keyboard or whatever.
Right, right. One of the tag lines, I think on your website describes you as "writing across the genres." I was thinking about that this morning. I thought well, a poem really is a different kind of writing than an essay. Could you talk a little bit about the different requirements of good writing, let’s say in a poem, in an essay, in a book of fiction? What are your thoughts around that?
Sure. On one hand I think they have a lot in common. You still have that close attention to details. You are still using the building blocks of similes and metaphors, and creating vivid scenes, but a poem is more compressed.
When a poem becomes more like fiction to me, is when I have a whole series of poems that I've kind of already started on and I'm thinking of the arc of the series - or if I'm working on a particular book, I'm thinking of the arc of the book.
When I'm writing fiction, I do feel like I'm writing out of a different part of my brain because I do tend to have very poetic fiction anyways. I like that short short form of two or three pages, but then I also have pieces that are twenty or twenty-five pages - nothing that's fifty pages. But I'm paying more attention to the plot and action than I would in a poem, or I may be based more on lyricism on the image.
Different topics I think lend themselves to different genres. So I've been writing essays more recently about topics that I think are really about my relationship with my mother who has recently gone into an assisted living place, and my daughter who's recently gone off to college. So I think there's something in those essays that I can address a little more straightforwardly.
I've written poems about those as well, and I think some of those issues come out in the fiction. But I can address them a little more straightforwardly, I think, in the essays - even when I didn't necessarily think the essay was going to be about that. Well I don't know if that answered your question or not.
: Well, it absolutely opens the door on this whole question. I was thinking about history writing, for instance, and I would imagine in writing history, you can comfortably report the data you've gathered.
I've heard writing teachers say “Don't say it. Show it.” But in history writing you might be able to say it. It might not have to be so tricky as always “showing it.” I also realize that poetry has a role in any level of writing, this alchemy of words. For instance that phrase in Wallace Stevens' poem “The green freedom of a cockatoo upon a rug." Now that to me has a magic in it, "the green freedom of a cockatoo."
It uses both the visual and the oral
Yes. And that magic of poetry is not so easy to do, when this alchemy, that chemical process, becomes felt, becomes real.
One of my favorite lines is from the modern poet Marianne Moore. She defines poetry as both a poet being a literalist of the imagination, but a poem being something that "has imaginary gardens with real toads in them." I have to make that so believable, even though it is imaginary. It becomes a whole world in itself and it has that element of truth in it.
That's a beautiful example. I love that example - imaginary gardens with real toads
. You know there are a couple of titles I sometimes quote I when I think of the alchemy of words. Truman Capote has a couple in a short story collection. One is “Music for Chameleons.” Well that's pretty darn good, isn't it?
Now, in our introduction to you there's mention of a favorite aunt who was important to you. Can you describe a little bit about how this aunt helped you and influenced you?
I can. Her name was Marjorie Anne Ricky and so all three of the kids in my family were named after her - Marjorie, Anne and Ricky. Actually, right now I'm sitting in my dining room surrounded by some of her paintings. She never married, but she had several dachshunds that she carried in a sack around her neck. Sometimes she would travel all over the world in her little V.W. Camper - including France and other places, and she would paint. She studied for a while in Provincetown with the artist Hans Hofmann. But she really instilled in me this love of art and of writing. She used to take turns takimg the kids camping with her, and she would set up her easel in Southern Ohio, or wherever, and she would paint.
She would have me write, and she also wrote some poetry herself, but that was just a great encouragement. She was also a strong woman of faith, very feisty; she always stood up for herself and was just fun to be with.
She sounds extraordinary and very special. Also I know Hans Hoffman was an important figure among Abstract Expressionist painters. I think he was maybe the founder of the Berkeley Art Museum - he and Peter Selz. So he was a major figure and she studied with him, you said.
Yes. And in her basement she had a studio so we'd have all these family birthday parties surrounded by hundreds of her paintings. It was just an affirmation that any of the arts are important, and that was nice to know growing up. I think kids are often told that art is a nice, fun little thing you do when you're a kid - you write, you might play an instrument, you might draw some pictures. But once you become a serious adult, you should leave those childish things behind. Well no, not at all.
: It's wonderful that she was able to play that role, one that's sadly under-represented in the schools, I think. Well, I'm wondering if you might feel like reading one of your poems and one of the ones we've talked about.
Sure. And which one would you prefer right now.
Well, let's start off with a kind of a tough one “Radical”.
: Ok. This is from my newest book of poems, True, False, None of the Above
. It really addresses teaching literature, writing literature, responding to different artists and then some of the things that we've been talking about - where a poem comes from and and how it affects your life.
I think some people see Robert Frost as all goodness and light, and obviously, he had quite an undercurrent of struggle and hard things in some of his poetry. This is a poem based off of a Robert Frost quote.
Radical - “I never dared be radical when young for fear it would make me conservative when old” - Robert Frost
This is the place to rebel:
the top of arching tree tops,
sky raunchy in red,
the wind kicking up a ruckus.
Nature is never tame or unforgiving,
the least safe escape from ourselves
because it echoes back in each twig creak
the bones we hobble on,
looking for a mountainous Babel
that lets us come and go
from here to the ethereal
and back. Tell folks you write
landscapes, and they’ll nod,
buy a book for a cousin in Vermont
without any suspicion of violence
bushwhacking through the words
thick as a local vernacular.
No sweet violets here
polka-dotting the lawn.
A tree is a tree is a tree is a birch
and night a close acquaintance,
shivering from the frost.
: Yes. That's a tough poem. I would say that it's an existential vision of nature—nature is powerful. And it's interesting to acknowledge that Frost wasn't sentimental, I guess.
Yes. I think that a lot of students are unfortunately told when they're young, or they experience when they're young, that poetry is something that's kind of separate from themselves, or something they have to have find a magic key to. And poetry can be about nature, love and of course it can be about all the things. But there are things that are very much connected to their lives like their responses to nature, which may not be the typical response.
It's not just a present you give a cousin in Vermont. It's not just about landscapes; there are other things going on; there are deeper things connected to what we experience every day.
Yes. Yes. That's so right. Maybe we could move straight into another poem, which I think takes us in a different direction although, in a way it's related, too.
“And the Topic for Today is Environmentalism”
Sure. This poem is also a response to teaching. I often teach Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poem “God’s Grandeur,” which even though it was written in the nineteenth century, I see it as a kind of an environmentalist poem.
That's very connected to my students in North Central Pennsylvania because the gas industry is so big here. We've had a lot of fracking and students feel very different about that. So it's something that we can talk about, talk about the controversies.
The poem is a Petrarchan sonnet, so it's set up with problem and solution - the Hopkins’s poem. I’m just giving a little background here. It starts out with the world being charged, being energized, with God's Grandeur, but mankind keeps destroying the earth, through industry and other things. Yet every morning the world is recreated. There's an allusion to Genesis - every morning the world is recreated because the sun goes down and it comes back up, the seasons recur year and the world is recreated, as well. So that comes out in the poem:
“And the Topic for Today is Environmentalism”
(teaching "God’s Grandeur")
More politically correct than divine grandeur,
it too flames out in this small Pennsylvania town
where fracking hijacks the headlines. Good reason
and good enough to bring the state students trodding
heavily into a poem piled high with God and earth,
with “responsibilities” they hear each morning
as the gas industry trucks rattle past our windows,
their tired drivers knowing nothing
of iambic pentameter or sestets but much
about food on the table, a steady job.
The freshmen, eager now,
blurt out dilemma
and all those other new-sounding ideas
suddenly connected to their lives,
their parents, the sonnet
they think was written last week,
even with its 19th century,
sound-packed syllables they don’t get
until slowing down, thinking.
And so—after playing with light, foil, sound;
the way trade “sears,” “blears,” and “smears”;
and why and how shoes separate us from ground—
we detour to Genesis, Cat Stevens, and a heavy metal rendition
that almost drowns out Hopkins with bass.
All this before rounding the terrain-raked bend
to solution, which is what—they are surprised to discover—we all most want: the eloquent octet, the bright wings,
! that opens the mind to talk,
at long last, about the holy.
That's powerful. "To talk at long last about the holy." Gosh that’s beautiful! Do you feel that this really describes a kind of reality that in a way is often missing or often not acknowledged or honored?
I do. I mean one of the things that this True False
book really deals with, and grapples with, is how much of literature is about the overarching struggles of the soul.
The characters or the voice or the narrator may not end up accepting a certain position, but I think it has a lot to do with it. Literature has a lot to do with what we work through in our lives, and oftentimes those are struggles of the spiritual and living between the two worlds — a spiritual and the natural worlds.
I think in in many ways poetry goes back and forth between the two worlds - the spiritual and natural, and between the here and now in the imagination. The writer is kind of a mediator between these. I think of those worlds as experiences, oftentimes.
Yes. And that is very difficult to write about, that is, the spiritual in a way that would not be easy prey to the hard-nosed rationalists, the sort of Richard Dawkins types. Do you ever ponder or struggle with that sort of thing?
: Yes. I think it's very hard. I mean, I think it's hard to write about the spiritual in the same way that it's hard to write a good love poem, that it is hard to write a good nature poem, because a lot of people do it not well.
There are people who do do it very well, but it's tempting for people to fall back on cliche, or to fall into easy thinking or surfacy thinking without really delving into, and crafting, the words. I mean, it has to be a good poem. It has to be a good story. It has to be a good piece of art. It has to be a good composition of music, and you want to avoid the dogmatic.
A lot of things you can't really paraphrase. I think what happens sometimes is that people try to kind of paraphrase what they're struggling with, or just have a little ‘the moral of the story is” kind of a thing. And that doesn't make for good writing.
Yes. I agree. I think it's so difficult to succeed in this huge and terribly important task of being able to bring something of the spiritual into form for the good of others.
I mean, this poem to me succeeds in that. It's the way it ends there, and springs the holy on you. You're totally unprepared. Actually, I was. I didn't really get the strong connection with Gerard Manley Hopkins' poem you cite. So it wasn't in my mind and this last line ambushed me in the most wonderful way! It's really a wonderful moment.
I take it as a great compliment “ambush”. Hurray!
Yes! I mean, that's when writing really works, when it delivers you to something, and you fall into it. You can't help it, because the delivery has been so skillfully prepared. You just fall in there. You can't help it. Do you like that description?
: Oh I love it! Thank you! It’s true there is that sense of gasp and, as Emily Dickinson says, it's like the top of your head coming off.
You know it makes me think that all of us need and hunger for a real touch of what the word holy is sort of used for. But because of the way that we have a certain thinking, it's like almost forbidden to talk in certain ways. So many people are on guard with certain words - they're on guard as soon as they get wind of something there.
: I agree.
: But if a person could be delivered directly to the experience - which all of us have, I think, somewhere in our depths - then that's recognized. Like you said, “Ah ah!" This is what I hunger for.
A few years ago, I wrote about this at one point. I took this TIME
magazine quiz - “How spiritual are you?” and I flunked it, because of the way that things were defined: I feel connected to everyone around me all the time
. No I don't, unfortunately. Or, I love the way flowers smell more than something else.
Just the interpretation of what that word means is defined very differently by a lot of different people. It can have a negative connotation in society or it can have a very new-agey, touchy-feely kind of interpretation, a non-rational kind of interpretation. And I don't really think that's now what it's about. I like your idea of ambush.
Well, that quiz you describe - I haven't seen it, but I'm guessing it's a sort of thing that gives all those things a bad name, that kind of puff-journalistic thing full of cliches as if it's the real deal.
Now I learned in talking to you briefly earlier that you've joined the Roman Catholic Church. How would you place Roman Catholicism in your life with your writing?
: Faith is very important to me. It's something that sometimes I address directly in my poems —poems that are specifically about specific doctrine or about things I'm struggling with, things that we're experiencing this last year, all of the turmoil, issues of doubt— those come out issues of faith.
So I do think it's a very big part of me. I grew up in a tradition that was not liturgical and I've been really drawn more and more, and with my husband as well, to the liturgical. There's something I love about the Catholic mass—this sense of mystery and the sense of worship and a sense of going beyond yourself as part of the the mass itself, as opposed to more the sense of “Jesus is my buddy.” And that's fine, too. But I really enjoy, and I'm drawn to, that liturgy.
Yes. Thank you. I'm thinking of asking you to read your poem “The English Teacher Contemplates Suicide”.
: This was a fun one to write, and obviously it's tongue-in-cheek, and I love to teach. I love the interaction with students, but sometimes you get enough of grading composition essays.
The English Teacher Contemplates Suicide
but first has to scribe a note
worthy of publication: the stress
of addressing the intelligentsia,
balancing wit and wisdom,
practicing the prose she preaches
paralyzes her. Posthumous
is the way to go, yet
unmixing metaphors is so
in a day, much less
those meticulous minutes
it takes to pen
a well-performed and poetic
! pitiful but pithy enough
for any Plath-loving
parishioner. She breathes
deeply, chooses a pad,
skillfully researches all
inner resources but everything's
checked out. After three
wastebaskets of would-be
winsome epistles, she settles
for near-death, takes up the red pen
once again to mark.
Well, you say that it's a humorous poem, which it is, but there must have some moments of frustration that you experience that you’ve described here.
Oh sure. I think any teacher loves for things to click in the classroom; it's really a dialogue; it's really a conversation with students—and you develop a rapport. But sometimes you feel like you've gone over the same things over and over. I'm sure that's kind of similar even to parenting or other kinds of coaching where you feel like, “We've done this!”
You’ve got this line, “the stress of addressing the intelligentsia.” Has that been something that’s part of being a professor of English, and so forth?
I think that was kind of tongue in cheek as well. If you were an English teacher and you were writing a suicide note—again suicide is an extremely serious topic—wouldn't you feel like you had to write the perfect note to be published right?
You'd want it to pass muster with the intelligentsia, right? That’s funny.
: Right. That was actually the first poem of what started out as a children's book. Then I thought, "Well, that might be a little too heavy for the first poem in that series!" But the whole series of poems are about different spelling mnemonics like “i” before “e” except after “c”. There is “iron” in the middle of word “environment,” a “rat” in the middle of the word separate. So I did a whole series of poems on the way we remember to spell certain things. and that was the first poem in the series.
Here's a question that just occurred to me and I wonder if you have any thoughts about it. What role does suffering play in awakening one's deeper sensibilities?
Hmm, that’s a hard one. I think that's something I’ve addressed more in a book Local News from Someplace Else
, because there's a sense that all news is kind of local news. When we see and experience what others are suffering with, and they are able to see and experience maybe what we're struggling or suffering with, there's a kind of bond there. It's also a way to to help each other, to reach out to others and reach out to one's neighbor.
In that book I really deal a lot with various news headlines—natural physical disasters or traumas, school shootings, all these things that are so hard to comprehend. Yet you go away and start to build those bridges with others when you're able to start thinking about what others might have been through or struggle with. Then maybe one is able to convey our own sufferings and where those lead us and where we want to go.
Maybe I'll read a short little poem in connection with this. My father died after an unsuccessful heart transplant. I grew up with him having heart attacks, and a few years ago my my husband had a heart issue, and that just brought everything back again. He's doing well now. But there's also a sense where you want to move on to, so this poem is called "AFTER"
Listen. You’re breathing
again. The wind flip-flopped past
your chin, leapt off your tongue,
dove head-first toward the lungs
that heaved with the breeze.
This in-and-out is pretty easy
once you have the will.
Oxygen ought to be illegal,
It flies your insides so high
and spins the sky in your eyes.
Look, the horizon is even
and waiting; it's time
to get living again.
I don't mean by that that we just ignore the struggles that we've been through. I mean we definitely need to to work through them, but I think we can help each other to do that. I think even the process of writing or the process of making another form of art, is also a way that we can do that kind of in dialog with the world, dialog with others.
I don't see writing or music or art purely as therapy. I think there's a big difference between a diary entry and a crafted poem, but I do think that you are thinking through things; you're discovering things about yourself and about others through the written word.
I certainly agree with that. I mean that reminds me of this line in your poem about the “English Teacher Contemplates Suicide” — “pity enough for any Plath- loving parishioner.”
Sylvia Plath—t's very sad that she committed suicide. The whole thing is sad, and I wonder sometimes if people don't focus a little too much on the dark side. Maybe it's time to get living again, as the last line of your poem says. Do you have any thoughts on that?
: I mean this Local News From Someplace Else
book does have a lot of darker poems in it because there's a lot of dark things that have happened in our country recently. But it also looks at those moments of joy, too—the moments of joy that can come through family or communities or through friendships. So I think the thing is how do you, through faith, balance these things? How do you keep your perspective? It's not always easy. I'm the first to admit it can be quite a struggle, but there's that perseverance that's needed.
Sometimes suffering is romanticized in the life of a poet as if somehow it's sort of a red badge of courage. I don't know if Sylvia Plath was making a virtue out of suffering, but she had success with those poems.
She has written some beautiful poems. Some students really attach themselves to Plath, and there's a cult for that kind of poem, but you know it's all of a balance.
: Well, I didn't ask you about your book of poetry called “Body Parts.” Is that right?
Oh, yes. I mentioned my father, and I have a lot of poems about my father's heart transplant. Then I have a book called Transplant, Transport, Transubstantiation
, and those poems are in the the middle there. But a long series of poems came about after I carried around Grey's Anatomy for an entire summer writing about kidneys, spleens, big toes, hearts—and all kinds of things like that. Some of them are playful. There are poems about the esophagus, and some of them are a lot of more serious. But I'm intrigued by the intersection of literature and the medical, and the intersection of body and spirit.
So this kind of seemed a natural. I don't know if you want to hear any of this or if we have time.
: Let me just ask you one more question first - Are you familiar with the idea of cellular memory by any chance?.
No I'm not. Is it like muscle memory?
Apparently there's lots of anecdotal evidence that for people who receive a new organ, a new heart, a new kidney, a new liver, that it can change their personality, their thoughts and feelings and appetites. I just wondered if you'd run across any of these anecdotes.
No. I mean, there are definitely chemical changes and I noticed a little personality difference, I guess, with my father after the open heart surgery. But I didn't notice anything after the heart transplant. That was just a whole ordeal. He got his heart during this huge blizzard of 1993. I'd just come back to Pennsylvania from visiting my parents in Ohio, and then someone died in a car accident. He got the heart, and I couldn't get back because all the roads were shut down for three days because of the blizzard. So that's something I could talk about for another hour
That must have been agonizing.
: It was. I still have trouble driving in snow partly because now we're talking about the subconscious. I'm sure there's something in there that comes up connected to that ordeal with my father.
: Yes. I love the title Transplant, Transport, Transubstantiation
. Could you say something about the transubstantiation part of that title?
Well, as part of this book there are series of poems. I think I'd mentioned to you earlier that my husband—he’s also an English professor—he was, for a short amount of time, in seminary. So he was taking an exam, and I decided to write the kind of poetic version to answer some of the questions on his exam. Some of those poems are woven into this collection, and there's also poems about traveling, which have to do with the transport part of it. So it kind of ties all that prefix of ‘trans’ into the different poems throughout the poems.
It's beautiful listening to Marjorie. It makes me want to write more.
Wonderful. I couldn’t hope for more.
: One thing you mentioned was falling in love with words at an early age, and I love the image of you reading on your couch with a flashlight or upside on couches or in tree branches. I'm curious, for all the parents and teachers and people who work with kids on the call in general, how would you recommend instilling that love of words, that love of writing?
I think just to encourage students to be reading, to write themselves. I just love going in for school visits and the illustrator of my “A Crossing of Zebras” book which is all about a collective nouns of like a “school of fish”, “crossing of zebras” as you know the things that we call groups of animals. Fortunately he works at the university where I do, so we will go and do school visits together and just to have you know kids play around with with the words and do some workshops with them. I will do some exercises on poetry with them and he'll do some exercises on the illustrations with them and so it's just a fun time and you get these immediate reactions of kids and most kids just love poetry. I think also if they know that it can be about anything. It doesn't have to be about standard topics. They can write about their pet slug or something and just really have fun with it. Also maybe address some issues that they need to be dealing with at home or at school so it can go both directions. One of the books that is about to come out - a children's books of collection called “Inside Out Poems on Writing and Reading Poems”. So I have a poem on how to write a villanelle how to fish for sestinas, how to text a triolet. I take these standard poems, it’s to be used with teachers and then I have at the end a bunch of exercises to get students thinking about and writing poems and that's coming out from a place called Schoolwide Inc and then it's kind of an electronic book that they will distribute to schools across the country. I think that's a lot of fun but it also opens up a way for students to address maybe some issues that they're having at home or issues about bullying so they can look at both the serious and the fun aspects of what their world around I guess.
Right, right. Do you happen to have one of the children’s poems?
I have the “Crossing of Zebras” here with me. So let me read something from there. I love the illustrations of this book that Philip Huber did. He used that old scratch board technique when you're a kid you have crayon and you scratch things up and you make the line. So here is someone called “ A Rhumba of Rattlesnakes”. I have the kids like act out the different parts to it when we go into the schools.
A rhumba of rattlesnakes knows how to shake
their long, slinky bodies and twist till daybreak.
They wobble their heads, give their hips a quick quake.
They jitterbug tails till their skeletons ache.
The rattle maracas and rat-tat on drums,
blow in tin trumpets, uncurl their tongues
to hiss a sweet song that invites you to come
a little bit closer. But you know to run
way over here and avoid the mistake
of dancing the rhumba with ten rattlesnakes.
They split and the last two lines are on the other page so you're going after run over away from the snakes. Yeah, it is to write.
I was just going to ask would you talk a little bit about some of your most memorable moments? Or maybe you haven't done this. Take in poetry into schools of younger kids maybe haven't. You're a college professor. So maybe that's not what you do.
No, I do do that with an illustrator.
Could you could you sort of tell a couple stories around some of the better moments. I'm sure there are many of them when you work with kids and introduce poetry to them.
Oh, it's just exhilarating because these kids are kind of don't hold anything back. So they just immediately kind of get involved and they start writing, jump up and down. When I do the baseball poems, I do some exercise on writing poetry that moves, so I have them come up and act out some of the actions in baseball. I bring a bat and ball and then I have poems on you know a strike, a punt. You know those kinds of things talk about them but I also have them come up and try out a hula hoop. Try out with that that you put around your leg and hop over it again but it's got a lot of different things like that. Hitting a badminton, playing badminton, or hitting a croquet ball and then writing about what that motion is like using similes and metaphors. Acting out examples of onomatopoeia. So there is just a lot of ways to kind of get them actively involved in thinking about how we see the world in different ways and how we can write about some of the things that we really enjoy. Maybe the students would enjoy like dance or sports or other activities connected with their school or with their home life. I would just say their enthusiasm is contagious and that's what I think we need to encourage.
Have you ever taken poetry into an adult group of people you know not in a college setting but where people have never written poetry before or in a college and have invited people and just o give them some time twenty minutes or so and ask them to write a poem. Have you ever done anything like that?
: Oh yes, yes and that's wonderful too because you are able to introduce them to this whole new world. I mean I've done a lot of presentations at libraries, nursing homes, assisted living places, community organizations. One of the book that I co-edited “Commonwealth Contemporary Poets on Pennsylvania” really looks at places all around Pennsylvania and poets writing about their hometown or their connections to Pennsylvania and the other editor Jerry Wemple and I set up a bunch of different readings in communities across Pennsylvania and it was really invigorating and enlightening to see people writing about their hometowns, places that were so important to them you know I think place has a sense of sacredness to it and certainly connected with our memories right. So to use that as a jumping off point to introduce people to poetry is really thrilling I think.
That's, well, absolutely lovely. I had a brief one-time experience of being in a small group of people. A woman was going to have us all write poetry. She goes into the schools with the grade schools regularly and does this all the time with the kids. Claudia Dudley, a very good good poet but for me it wasn't exactly a big deal because I've had my own years of struggling with poetry. It wasn’t new but several people in this group had never never dreamed of trying to write a poem and there was a lot of protestations -I can't do that, I can't write poetry and all that but somehow they were finally persuaded to drop all that at least try and we wouldn't worry about whether it was any good or or not.
You're right. You have to get rid of the inhibitions.
Yes, and in one hour, which is the amount of time we took for this, I just couldn't believe the depth of feeling and transport that took place in this little group; it was amazing.
I love that you use that word transport because I I really think there is this sense of being transported from the beginning of the story or poem to the end of it or this sense of transcendence that happens. And I think sometimes that is facilitated by having that that deadline in the classroom and my students sometimes write their strongest poems for these twenty minute props. Because you have to put something on that blank page.You can't get up that we know I mentioned earlier and clean the refrigerator. You have something down and it forces you to keep going with it and not give up. I have seen some of these students write wonderful, beautiful lines from grade school or from libraries and maybe they've never done that before and yet they make these fantastic leaps, kind of leaps of faith in their writing.
Well, it's interesting because I think about myself in the eleventh grade in high school - a teacher gave us as an assignment to write a poem and I think she gave us overnight to do it and I was pretty much baffled by the whole assignment but I ended up writing I think a four line poem and then I got a response, such a positive response. I was kind of stunned by the response I got and then even a teacher or another English teacher had heard about those four lines and I heard from her and I've never forgotten that. I never forgot. Although I didn't start writing poetry I didn't even start reading it. It was the response that I got from that stayed with me.
Yes, it's wonderful.
And it was like a mystery, the door had been opened. But I didn't really understand. Anyway that was very powerful.
I think these are a fine line and a great responsibility in teaching creative writing because on one hand you definitely want to push this or that writer could be as strong as possible but also you want to encourage them. So there's a balance there. You certainly don't want to just say over everything's perfect and wonderful but you don't want to squash this emerging talent or maybe talent that is already there. You want encourage and have them kind of reaching for more. But yeah, I see some amazing works from students and I wish I had written that way.
I'm glad you brought that up that - how you feel is important not to squash students you want to point out some things that maybe could use their work but at the same time I just I'm really glad to hear that you are sensitive to that because some some teachers are not. Some teachers have this attitude - got to be tough, beat him down. They've got to be strong.
: Well, in writing classes sometimes they're dealing with very hard topics in composition classes and creative writing classes and again you want it to be a crafted, like you want it to be a crafted piece of art or music but you do have to keep in mind there's an individual here. I have that sense of empathy too.
What is that balance for you, Marjorie? You know, pushing the writer to be strong as possible - encouraging them, and honoring the depth of the material that they might be writing about.
I do think it is kind of an individual thing and often yit helps to meet with the students in conference and one on one. I do write a lot of comments and suggestions. When we workshop the poems, a student would have a poem that's kind of our topic for conversation and I think this is very common and just the author doesn't talk, when we're talking about the poem in class until we all kind of give our suggestions on what‘s really working well, what might be tweaked a little bit here, what might be a little confusing, what might need more context and then we allow the author to talk afterwards because I think it's very easy to say, “oh I like this poem because my grandfather does this too”, that kind of thing instead of looking at it as separate object but then also thinking about what these are some really important issues. They're really important ideas or struggles. What's the best place to make that as strong as possible and to encourage this idea that these ideas, these concepts, this courage to put ideas onto paper is really important and needs to be affirmed and supported. It's hard to say what the balance is I think you can get it kind of poem by poem, story by story.
: One of your poems.” Memorial Day weekend” - I'm interested in that poem because I didn't really pay attention to that “isla vista” reference and didn't even know what that reference was, so I missed that. But it spoke to me in a broader, more general way and I think it touches on something that's really important.
I was struggling with horrors we see everyday.
So Memorial Day week weekend, Isla Vista, 2014.
On this weekend for honoring the dead,
more dead, the radio blasting updates
between ballads, Beach Boys, the “Battle
Hymn of the Republic.”
Friday night post-graduation
in a college town not unlike ours,
sorrow drenched in war songs and the same
bloody questions we’ve mourned before,
each grief mounting beyond what we feared
possible, and possible again,
the way the radio keeps blaring
Sousa, worse-case-scenarios drumming still
worse long after we’ve tried
to turn the knob, silence the sound waves,
to finally and forever
disconnect the throbbing beat
between each patriotic wave
of the half-mast flag.
I think sometimes you just see the flag at half mast and it just seems like it almost always at half mast. There's this sense of an international mourning going on.
: Yes. That's a very very powerful poem. I sort of was thinking of I mean it's Memorial Day sort of remembering the dead in war. There's a kind of ongoing celebration or the glories of war.
here's something really unfortunate about that, if you ask me. I mean, with huge problems like world hunger and war - how can we make any headway? A good start, in terms of war, might be just not glorifying it anymore.
Absolutely. And I had a similar reaction and I and I have written about this too about even fourth of July. We forget what it's really celebrating Christmas and you know other holidays. Well, because there's so much emphasis on let's party. Let's have hot dogs and hamburgers or especially in the winter months when season just can't kind of goes into another just one celebration after another without slowing down and thinking about what is this supposed to be about. What is July 4th supposed to be about? What is Memorial Day supposed to be about? I am not saying that you can't have fun and relax everybody needs that as well but there's a disconnect I think.
On a lighter note, have you ever gone to any of the Little League World Series games?
: Oh yes. I was visiting author two years in a row.
And Williamsport is your hometown right?
That is my hometown That was just thrilling because I got to sit and meet players from all over the world and they even put my Rules of the Game: Baseball Poems
. They had had it up on the scoreboard for a whole like five seconds.
Tell us a little about what it's like to be in the stands there in the Little League World Series.
Well, it's really a lot of fun and actually I have a poem on that if you would like to ..
: Sure sure. Right.
: I have to go find that book. I have a poem: "Little League World Series: First Play" that would kind of tie into that. I should have had all these books I thought I had them with me. It's just amazing experience, the little league because it is such a family oriented experience and brings people just from all over the world and these kids have a great time. There's a real sense of camaraderie that occurs.
I can imagine I I would love to be there in the stands and I really I'm a somewhat of a baseball fan who isn't. I guess but I can't get myself out of the house to go to to Pac Bell Park to watch the Giants play so pretty low level fan but I would go to the Little League World Series for sure.
I actually like that. I don't like watching sports so much on T.V. I like to be there. But I don't mind watching The Little League World Series as much on T.V. because you get to hear all the stories about the kids' backgrounds and where they came from and how they ended up in the series and recently we've had several Pennsylvania teams in the final. So that's been exciting. OK. I found it.
The Little League World Series first play Williamsport Pennsylvania
Teams crowd the hills,
fill in the land along the river,
uniforms, like patches of colorful cows amidst the fields.
All the corn points to the ballpark,
the small town’s downtown leaning in for the anthem.
It is time to begin: the countries and counties
in parents’ faces shuffle in the stands.
A TV camera shifts to a close-up.
At the plate, a child, half the height of a tractor,
breathes in his heroes, exhales the length of the state.
In the nervous grip of a twelve-year-old:
planting, youth, harvest, old age.
I think you know there's that sense of your whole life is right there, kind of at that plate, at that moment when they're up. Yeah.
Oh yeah! Sure. That moment is a real moment.
I think every poem in a way almost like that moment is that moment
: I do think that a lot of what poetry and writing is about is to to bring others into these tiny moments that encapsulate so much else, or to be transported yourself and into somebody else's moment because those are all really universal things. Whether or not we've experienced them ourselves there are connections to other people's lives, I think, in those experiences.
That's a beautiful summary.
I'm noticing this call has flown by and we have one minute to ninety minute mark.
: We just have I think before we close we just have one last question for you. How can our ecosystems be of service and how can we be of service to you in your work?
: Oh. I don't know. I think just the support of artists, musicians and writers just to be kind of engaged in the process and inviting them into your communities and dialoguing with them like this. It's such a great thing to encourage the writing, the reading at a young age as well that we've been discussing.
Thank you for all the different poems from baseball to zebras, from somber to the serious, to the light and silly and I feel like you you really witness this the stream of the human experience in this conversation. Thank you Marjorie for taking the time.