The fundamentals of how one read a play were immediately apparent but Shakespeare’s language was in code, so beautiful when I whispered it aloud that I got chills, and so foreign, it might as well have been another tongue.
My mother explained that it was English, just an older form of it. I began with Twelfth Night and As You Like It. It was agonizing and exhilarating. I would read the play to the end, knowing I was missing most of it, and start all over and read it through again. Soon I could hear the voices in my ear and distinguish the struttings, the jokes, the romance, the tears. I remember all one summer being put to bed when it was still light and reading and reading to the sound of crickets and peepers, and I felt as though I were in the enchanted world of Titania, Oberon, Peaseblossom, Moth and Puck as the stars blinked open and the moon came up. Reading and rereading those two small but infinite volumes became my secret life, and the secret language of my secret life.
The big dictionary was in the little parlor in a bookcase behind the door to the kitchen. I began to look up words that baffled me in Shakespeare and then I fell in love again with discovering meanings in those and in words nearby. I was so starved, both physically hungry and emotionally ravenous, I began to inhale language in place of what I actually needed, and thought that words were chocolates and licorice all-sorts.
I suppose I should have grown up to be a playwright. My earliest writings were attempts at plays, and a novel I worked on with enormous pleasure before I was a teenager, but it was very difficult to finish anything. I needed guidance and there was none. I needed clues how to build a book and a play and I couldn’t read the instructions Shakespeare and Jane Austen gave me.
By the time I was in high school, I was able to finish plays and strong-arm my classmates into helping me put them on. I didn’t begin to understand the joy and complexities of reading poetry until my mid-teens.
1. The Linen Way vividly describes how, in the midst of much sadness in your life, your early poetry received the support, praise and encouragement of two great 20th century poets, Derek Walcott and Joseph Brodsky (and other great poets as well, such as Seamus Heaney). Do you feel that this support, and the success of your first collection, The Squanicook Eclogues, sustains you and your work still?
Joseph Brodsky died at the shocking young age of 55 in 1996. We lost Seamus Heaney at the end of August 2013. Derek Walcott, now in his 80s, is for the most part in a wheelchair in the Caribbean painting his lovely water colors. It’s been a great many years since any of them have literally been in my life, and yet the light on my bookshelves fills up the room for me with their continued presence.
I knew Seamus least well, but a he was so often in the company of Joseph and Derek, I absorbed his gentleness and humor over the course of years. Joseph was infinitely good to me–I can only guess at the ingenious ways by which he showed his loving support for me to the wider world without my knowing. Seamus wrote of Joseph in The New York Times shortly after his death, and I will borrow those words for which mine would be only a poor echo, “He was a verifying presence. His mixture of brilliance and sweetness, of the highest standards and the most refreshing common sense, never failed to be both fortifying and endearing.” Seamus wrote of ‘the intensity and boldness of his genius plus the sheer exhilaration of being in his company’. Joseph was such a beguiling and electrifying character, it was impossible once you had warmed your hands there to ever be without it.
Derek and I spent the most time together. We walked a great deal as we talked and he often took me for a meal. Though it’s been more than thirty years snce we were in each other’s company, I don’t think I’ve ever written a line of poetry without hearing the deep Caribbean music of his voice in my ear guiding my choice of language and metaphor. He championed me when I was very young. He considered me his peer, always, though that used to confuse me completely.
2. As someone who has studied Russian language and literature, I was intrigued to learn about the way you started learning Russian – and why and how you stopped. Have you ever gone back to the language, and are Russian poetry and Russian poets still important to you?
I am quite chagrined by my attempts to learn Russian, as a matter of fact.
I turned out to be surprisingly good at French, but the Cyrllics flummoxed me utterly, in the same way that I loved solving the puzzles of algebra and could not for the life of me comprehend the spatial relations in geometry. Joseph wrote a poem a Christmas time for many years and when it came time to translate the work that became his “Nativity Poems,” each poem was distributed to one of his friends for translation. I struggled and anguished over the shortest, only 10 lines, and I think my translation too longer by months than the many pages done by Derek or Glyn Maxwell. I gave up my study of Russian because clearly I didn’t have the gene for it.
But because of Joseph, I fell in love with and still read Osip Mandlestam, Marina Tsvetaeva and Anna Ahkmatova. They will always be important to me.
3. In The Linen Way, you mention both your fear of strangers (strongest during childhood, but still present) and your love of giving poetry readings. How does the act of reading poetry to an audience keep that fear at bay?
I still find it difficult to go to unfamiliar places or meet new people. I’ve never learned the subtle artlessness of small talk. I spend most of my life like an eremite, but if I do have to go out, I do much better with a companion, a Virgil to guide me through what often feels like the inferno of the world. Poetry readings give me fits in the abstract. As the date creeps closer, my anxiety level rises, and getting ready the hours before is its own hell, as I’m never sure if I’ll actually make it out the door without canceling at the last moment. Once I arrive at the podium, all that fear flies away and I somehow relax. Perhaps the poems act as a kind of scrim between myself and the audience. I usually find I love performing and discovered years ago that I am at ease in front of an audience, and am quite a good reader. It must be my inner ‘ham.’ It’s only afterwards when I have to talk to people again that gives me conniptions.
4. You say that Kathy Anderson at W. W. Norton taught you how to write prose during the course of completing your first memoir, Color Is the Suffering of Light. Are there other prose stylists, or teachers of prose, you particularly admire, and do you intend to do further prose writing?
Kathy Anderson, my editor at W. W. Norton and later my literary agent, was the most marvelous blend of writing teacher and artistic psychiatrist, and if I know anything at all about writing prose, I lay it at her feet. There are many writers whom I adore and you might never guess the profound effect they’ve had on my thinking and the lineaments of my prose, were I to name them here. I think it’s possible to live with certain writers you admire over many years without their influence readily showing itself.
I learned a great deal from Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek; from the New Yorker writers E. B. White and William Maxwell. There are writers it feels as if I’ve taken in intravenously and it may be nowhere apparent: the Danish short story writer, Isak Dinesen; Italo Calvino; the journals of Gerard Manley Hopkins and Dorothy Wordsworth; Hermann Broch’s The Death of Vergil; the Israeli novelist, David Grossman; the Canadian short story writer, Alice Munro; Graham Swift; Frederick Buechner; all of the works of Roberto Calasso and W. G. Sebald; the Canadian short story writer and Nobel Laureate, Alice Munro; the essayist Guy Davenport. I’m hoping to write a prose book about art but please don’t be looking for it any time soon!
5. In The Linen Way, you mention a poet to whom you have acted as a mentor, James Stotts. Would you be willing to say a little more about him, his work and this mentoring relationship?
I have my friend the photographer and poet Melissa Shook to thank for my first meeting James Stotts. About five years ago she emphatically insisted I attend a poetry reading with her but would say no more about why, only that there was a poet I had to hear. James Stotts was the ‘warm-up’ act for a well-known and beloved local poet who was to be followed by a lengthy open mike. I settled in for a long afternoon.
James was in his early 20s with a shock of bright red hair, and he did not read his poems but recited them, clearly, cleanly, with a powerful but natural gravitas. From the first line, I found myself holding my breath, afraid to move, blinking hard so as not to break into tears. I recognized in him what I had recognized in Derek so many years ago–the true voice of poetry. His style is not like Derek’s or my own. It wasn’t a similarity of narrative, metaphor or lexicon that captured me that day. I felt the way one does when you see an athlete, say a figure skater, perform a perfect routine, where the music, the poise, the genius of the body all work sublimely together, and when it’s over, you clap with a concussed kind of joy because you know you have seen something extraordinary.
After James finished reading, my head rang with his tales, his images. I didn’t hear a word of the local, well-known and beloved poet’s work, nor a single line from the writers who stood up one after the other to take the open mike. The applause at the end of the afternoon stirred me out of my daydream and I looked around, frantic that James would disappear before I had a chance to speak to him, to put my hand on his arm and ascertain he was real. I said to him, rather stupidly, almost expecting him to name another star, but really meaning how and where had he learned his magic, ‘James, where did you come from?’ He paused and said, rather flatly, “New Mexico.” We’ve been inseparable ever since, though he would have to be the one to tell you in just which ways I mentored him.
6. One of the advantages of ebooks is that they can include links to other material. The Linen Way includes, after the poem of the same name, a link to the 2007 Tribute to Melissa, introduced by Derek Walcott, in which 15 renowned poets read in your honour. Looking back six years on, what’s your perspective on this tribute?
The Tribute was the brain child of friends and poets linked to the literary magazine AGNI and Arrowsmith Press, but which relied on the generosity of so many other people from the wider Boston poetic community, even now, six years on, I am astonished by how loved and held I was by so many people. It was part fund-raiser and part birthday party.
The poster advertising it read “A Sheaf for Melissa” and referred to each of twenty-five packets of beautiful rag paper and letterpress copies of poems donated by twenty-five Boston poets, each page autographed. The packets were sold to rare book collectors, rare book libraries and universities and the money raised was used to publish a limited-edition of my book of poems, Fifty-Two, and to hand me a check equivalent to a year’s salary. That was the first part of it. Then there was an evening’s celebration of me and my work, a wonderful and profoundly moving event: 15 poets spoke a little about me and read a poem of their own; then I read for 45 minutes from Fifty-Two. I could never have dreamt such a time for myself. My family was there, friends I hadn’t seen in very many years, poets whom I didn’t know personally but who knew my work, my students, even my doctors were there.
Six years later, I’m still astounded at the myriad gifts I was given that night. I was able to reacquaint myself with friends I’d fallen out of touch with, make new friendships with many people I met that night, and recognize ones I didn’t know I had: it’s as if all the doors and windows in my eremetic life had flown open. I was invited to give other readings, taught classes, established a kind of poetry soiree on Sunday afternoons that students and friends attend. My life is not empty any more. Even as far along as this year, a special friend from AGNI arranged a secret cabal who agreed to pay my rent for the foreseen future.
I never imagined such a rich social life for myself, but what was even more amazing was that the floodgates in my work opened. Pen & Anvil Press reprinted The Squanicook Eclogues; I finished a book of poems called Daphne in Mourning; I was able to complete a book about Héloïse and Abélard I’d been working on for years; I surprised myself by opening a blog which yielded my new memoir, The Linen Way, and one in which I posted new poems which eventually became The Marsh Poems; the nine poems in a major sequence called “The Mad Maud Poems”; and my affiliation with Ann Kjellberg’s literary journal Little Star. It’s been a remarkable six years.
7. Perhaps, especially to readers in the US, it may come as a surprise that The Linen Way was published by a New Zealand publisher. Could you let readers of this blog know a little about how that came about?
I honestly don’t know how I had the courage or even the idea to begin a blog, but sometime during early 2010, I started ‘Vesper Sparrow’s Nest’ with no expectations, merely the thought that I might begin to explore some auto-biographical pieces in what I told myself was a way to ‘write a book in the air’. I could not have dreamt of all that would open to me from those tentative beginnings. I’ve met extraordinary people online and established some of the deepest, most abiding friendships imaginable, ones from which I will never be shaken.
Claire Beynon of Dunedin, New Zealand was one of my first readers, one of the miracles which nothing else in my life could have prepared me for. We were just getting to know each other when she and her friend and fellow-poet and Kiwi, Mary McCallum, talked of starting Tuesday Poem: people with blogs would be invited to join a community which would require they post a poem on their blog every Tuesday. I leapt at the chance to take part, never thinking its avowed purpose might have been to connect New Zealand and Australian poets, for instance–I just had to make a place for myself at that table! It was thrilling, and for the two years that I belonged, I was for most of that time able to write a new poem every week, which were gathered into a manuscript I called The Marsh Poems.
Claire has visited me in Boston for three years running, and in 2012 while we were visiting Emily Dickinson’s home in Amherst, she read The Linen Way, which I had recently finished, was terribly moved by it, and begged me to let her show it to Penelope Todd, her dear friend, the wonderful founder of Rosa Mira Books. Penelope loved it, and she was such a gift to me. I loved working with her, I couldn’t have asked for a more sensitive and intelligent editor, or be happier with how the e-book came out. I hope someday to visit all my kiwi friends.
8. Which poets, contemporary and otherwise, are you reading with particular enjoyment at the moment? Are there lesser-known poets whose work you recommend to readers of this blog?
I tend to read favorite poets for many years at a time, and feel I have yet to catch up to a lot of younger poets, to my dismay. Readers of my old blog may recognize in this current list the Usual Suspects: Czesław Miłosz, Zbigniew Herbert, Miklós Radnóti, Patrick Kavanagh, Geoffrey Hill, Paul Celan, Amy Clampitt and James Wright; some others I may not have mentioned are Charles Wright, Charles Simic, Rosanna Warren, George Kalogeris and Lucie Brock-Broido.