Linda McCarriston: Interview
According to Linda McCarriston, poetry exists for reasons beyond displays of linguistic or lyrical talent. It can address institutions of public power. It can serve as grounds for intellectual inquiry.
So when McCarriston (pictured), who is an accomplished poet herself, teaches creative writing, she encourages her student to consider poetry’s role as public speech. Teaching since 1965, McCarriston serves as a core faculty member and full professor at the University of Alaska–Anchorage’s low-residency MFA program in creative writing. She considers teaching poetry through one-on-one mentorship an opportunity for a classic exchange of letters, work, and ideas between student and instructor.
McCarriston’s first collection of poems, Talking Soft Dutch, was selected for the 1984 Associated Writing Programs Awards series. Her second book, Eva-Mary, was awarded the Terrence Des Pres Prize in 1991 by TriQuarterly and Northwestern University, under the editorship of Reginald Gibbons. Eva-Mary was subsequently short-listed for the National Book Award in Poetry. McCarriston was a featured poet on Bill Moyers’s acclaimed PBS Poetry Series, The Language of Life, and she has been twice interviewed by Terry Gross for National Public Radio’s Fresh Air.
While her third book, Little River, was first published in Ireland (she enjoys joint citizenship), the US edition was published by TriQuarterly and Northwestern. A section of a long autobiographical essay, “Weed,” was also published in TriQuarterly.
TriQuarterly Online: Many of your former MFA students had their first books produced from their MFA theses. You’ve been teaching since 1994. All these writers are different, with different concerns and different types of work. How have you taught such a diverse group of poets?
Linda McCarriston: First, I love teaching poets. My workshops have been good and successful over the years because the students in them wanted to learn, and wanted—needed—to learn different things, differently. My workshops earned a reputation for being open.
TQO: What was meant by that?
LM: Well, the poems could say things or try things about which students had concerns that they might be . . . well, discouraged. Workshops were very diverse—religiously, spiritually, socially, economically. Antithetical perspectives were both taken to be approved, and students writing in them learned to help their ideological adversaries make better poems. Beginners and students already publishing learned to learn from each other, too. If you could publish it anywhere without getting arrested, you could write it in my workshop.
So these were serious-minded students, already aware of pressure against some facet of their voice or aesthetic or subject, coming into workshop.
TQO: How so?
LM: Workshops—the MFA “poetic” you might say—is mostly a “don’t do” poetic. Students arrive already knowing what not to do—what to sneer at. They all know how to wield the phrase “over the top,” for instance, and they all carry “confessional” as the rock in the slingshot pocket. There are countless control terms—sentimental, for instance (but none is derided for its opposite, ironic). There’s a vocabulary list of “undesirable” words. Supposedly passé words. Heart, soul, etc.
I taught a class called ‘Heart AND Mind” in which we read two poets as intellectuals as well as emotional beings to be shown what the MFA poetic seems to suppress: that poetry is the mind’s arena. Language is the mind’s turf. Ideas are the mind’s meat. Though literature’s impact is taken to be emotional, it resonates because its means are cognitive and its encounter with familiar ideas provocative.
TQO: So you’re saying that the MFA aesthetic isn’t absolutely true, isn’t inarguable?
LM: Sure! We never see it this way, but the MFA aesthetic—that workshop consensus, that unexamined battery of nuances—is treated not as a premise or proposition to be questioned, not even as an “authority” to be questioned at the bumper-sticker level, but as dogma, an article of faith. To be believed, not inquired into. That’s why the MFA workshop isms are referred to as “verities and pieties.” And that’s why my favorite students have been those who took the bit in their teeth and ran when they perceived that they were being herded into some meaning corral that would trivialize or undo their work and weaken their powers.
TQO: But the bottom line in a workshop is usually “what works,” and you’ve said that every poem establishes its “own poetic,” which it must then work out on its own terms. And you’ve also talked about the authority of the ear in the process of writing.
LM: I have indeed. Every poem does establish and then realize its own poetic, but much of that depends on what else the writer (and workshop) have read as well as what they’ve lived. Students “self-censor” on a host of levels, some conscious and some not. Becoming aware of, let’s say, aesthetic choices that block out (or newly admit) aspects of your thinking or experience is part of the apprenticeship.
TQO: Does this have anything to do with the McPoem? What is the McPoem?
LM: Absolutely yes. I think Donald Hall may have first used the term, to describe the particular conformism of workshop that creates poems with less and less difference. Maybe more useful, because more specific, is the phrase “formalism of content,” which I read in a review. Maybe J. D. McClatchy used it. Interesting concept, isn’t it? That what gets in to a poem might be just as controlled as, let’s say, rhyme and meter in a sonnet.
TQO: You mean to say that “formalism of content” describes not only poems in traditional forms but free verse poems, too?
LM: Absolutely. In fact, even excellent students are sometimes in the grip of the idea that a poem in a traditional form is “conservative” while a free verse poem is automatically “progressive.” Regardless of content. McClatchy’s phrase goes a way toward explaining James Scully’s assertion that “the avant-garde is always bourgeois.”
TQO: Do you get into all this in workshops?
LM: No. Not as such, although if a discussion is moving in the direction of an insight like this, it’s wonderful for a student to know that his or her observation/question exists in the larger world of criticism and theory, and that it is important. Workshops are the place for the hands-on craft aspect of writing. If a student makes a debatable assertion about “craft,” let’s say, or is impeded in writing her own poem or critiquing someone else’s, I raise these points for their bearing on getting this particular poem written.
TQO: If these same terms are used in workshops elsewhere, and no one challenges them, or imagines they can be challenged, do your students become isolated?
LM: Much of my teaching is trying to get students to see both sides of the sword of their education. While learning “how to get in” to the world of poetry, which calls to them, they will be taught to get out of any number of other “worlds” of insight, experience, feeling. I’m all for “getting in.” In fact, maybe you actually need to get in before you can begin to see what you left out. But students can learn to write good contemporary poems and still hang on to the rough edges of themselves and their poetics that will actually make their voices distinctive.
TQO: Please define poetics.
LM: Poetics are the implicit principles that make a poem a poem. Each poem creates a problem to be solved, some sketching out of terrain that intends to be the poem and that must be realized in the terms it has set out for itself. I base my genre teaching on the word verse and go from there: the poet controls the right-hand margin. The poet makes line. I do not teach that “poem” means something spiritual, or metaphysical, or psychoanalytical, or even emotional. All that is the disputed terrain of all literary criticism (and the poems themselves) since the invention of literature.
TQO: For instance?
LM: Well, most poems announce themselves in a handful of words, a line, maybe two. You write those down and try to keep the fish on the line. But you use the little bit that you’ve started with—maybe you know it is a line, not part of a line or half a line. So you have your first measure. And you have a voice, a tone, a speaker, a cast of sound, etymological choices, already made. This is what musicians do when plucking out a new song on a guitar. The better you get, the more you can push at those givens and not lose them in the process of finding the poem.
TQO: So how does this MFA, at worst McPoem, aesthetic stay alive? How does it get passed on? Where does its power come from?
LM: That’s several questions, with several answers. It’s taken me a long time, myself, to grasp this “downside,” if you will, of the MFA experience. To realize it’s not simply the usual human group dynamic that causes the edges to shrink ever further in toward the least-common-denominator center. It happens as it always does: ridicule and ostracism. Eye-rolling and whispers. We learn to pass these hunches and aphorisms on as though they were coals from the sacred fire, and we don’t like to keep unbelievers in our midst.
TQO: Give me an example.
LM: Think about “Show, don’t tell.” Think about the fact that it privileges an example over an abstraction. A specific over a generalization. Yes, an image, a picture, may be more immediate and moving than “exposition,” but the possibilities of meaning that, for instance, the sentence has are not available to the image. Robert Hass deals with this in his later poems, actually throughout his body of work. So “Show, don’t tell” values a sort of lyric meaning, a static meaning, over, say, discursive meaning. Image over syntax. We don’t like “tell-y” writing. God forbid it should sound didactic, as though the poem intends the reader to learn something, though the old Horatian adage to “teach and delight” still lies at the roots of literature.
TQO: From my perspective as a nonfiction writer, we can also view the telling as an information dump—too many facts piling up and not enough story. But in an essay, for example, without the telling, you also do not have reflection from the narrator, and without the telling, you don’t enter the narrator’s consciousness and see he or she is struggling with meaning or with ideas.
LM: Let me go a little further on the overall aesthetic that we’ve inherited and accepted as writers today. Not only poets: think of the way fiction and nonfiction are judged by, measured by, poetic terms. Think of how the term lyric is used to indicate the crown jewel of writing. I kind of went crazy trying to understand where these rules came from and why they were so important. But I had writer friends who were going through the same thing in their work, and over many years, we shared readings, books, and ideas, even presenting several panels at the AWP conference on the subject.
For me, just coming up with the term “Cold War Modernism,” which I drew from Frances Stonor Saunders’s The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters, made clear so much about what we were up against. The intellectual conformism I experienced, and which students seem to arrive knowing intimately, was congruent with the limits and limitations on thought in place all around us.
TQO: What does this have to do with poetry?
LM: Poetry is the “art of language,” and therefore the site of all possibility in language. The battles written in blood, over poetry, are legion. Poetry can be devastatingly revolutionary, an IV drip into the vein of society. “Confessionalism,” properly seen, embodies that revolutionary history of poetry.
What I’m saying is “simply” a critique from the Left, but one I’ve discovered, a crumb-in-the-dark after a crumb-in-the-dark, by myself, over many years. Let me give you a good example of today’s poetry enforcement mechanism. That aesthetic monologue that reaches all the way to the top is enforced from there. Think of Helen Vendler ranting around about what poetry can’t be. Here is a quote from her taken from John Leonard’s review of her book on Yeats, in Harper’s: “Poems . . . are hypothetical sites of speculation, not position papers. They do not exist on the same plane as actual life; they are not votes, they are not uttered from a podium or pulpit, they are not essays. They are products of reverie.”
Vendler’s quote sounds all of piece with a rant against the Geraldine Dodge Poetry Festival that she published in the New York Times Book Review, focusing especially on me. I spoke on poems as “utterances” of power that exceed the actual situational power of the poet as individual. Public power. The social imagination, again. I spoke about the bardic tradition and its association with “praising and dispraising,” as poetry’s “other shoe dropping.” You can hear the stridency of her denunciation of that other shoe.
The shoe she is—if I can extend this metaphor—beating on her desk is defending “the lyric” as poetry’s whole self and single standard. It will not tolerate another mind of itself. It will not talk to that mind. It is what Eavan Boland calls “the toxic lyric, the poem to which there is no antidote,” which Boland referred to as the “cosmopolitan lyric” earlier, in her Object Lessons.
TQO: Has any of this thinking ever led to student success?
LM: Yes, this critique of poetry from slightly outside liberated many student poets in many ways. For instance, early on, it caused Arlitia Jones, a brilliant lyric poet, to allow the language and matters of life that she lives—working in her family’s Anchorage meat shop—into the poems. Her first book, The Bandsaw Riots, won the Dorothy Brunsman Prize and drew many readers and much praise to her work.
TQO: What readings influenced your thinking on this issue of the lyric and the bardic voice?
LM: Most importantly, Terrence Des Pres’s Praises and Dispraises, which I’d never read when I won the award named after him. I’d never heard of the bardic tradition, even as I eventually discovered it in the poem “To Judge Faolain, Dead Long Enough: A Summons.” After that, I was trying to understand how and why it had come to be considered not the requisite other mind of poetry but second string, automatically inferior. I trawled tons of sources. Australian poet and critic Paul Dawson’s study Creative Writing and the New Humanities (Routledge, 2005) has been a most important history of the ideas we pass on about “institutional” poetry. It showed me the origins of our contemporary workshop assumptions in educational, political, literary, and intellectual histories, largely, but not solely, in the United States. When the aestheticist (art unto itself) principles of the New Criticism were routed from literature classrooms in the 1960s, those conservative aesthetic principles remained and flourished in creative writing. This is obviously the briefest, and so inadequate, summary of Dawson’s work, but my own experience, going back to undergrad English classes in the early 1960s and observing what has happened since, certainly confirms his analysis.
TQO: But you said that English departments—as we surely know—embraced great cultural and social diversity when the top-down “old white male” dominance was questioned. And more than questioned. And MFAs surely include that diversity as well?
LM: English departments still study, in criticism, the ideas that took down the New Criticism, but the workshop has pretty much engaged only new identities, not ideas. We’ve included the “formerly marginalized,” but we’ve included them in the old ideas. We used to be vanilla tapioca, and now we are mocha tapioca, and the “workshop” manages to pass on its secret-handshake poetics generation after generation, incorporating many identities without messing with the overarching “monologic” vision of art.
TQO: Can you give some specifics of how this operates in the literary community?
LM: Yes, in the response to the FOETRY scandal of 2005, which exposed the relationships between poetry book prize winners and the judges who awarded them. Though it was terrible to see how usual it was for these prizes to go to personal friends, lovers, protégées (the most spectacular instance of this “insider trading” involved Jorie Graham, who had awarded the Georgia Review Contemporary Poetry Series prize to her lover, Peter Sachs), outrage was mostly personal and monetary—about who “never had a chance” and what the reading fees were. (Graham is alleged to have said she never intended to read any manuscripts, and did not.)
But there was no concern about the books themselves as—what, content? Did these books differ in any way? The overall response would suggest that it was all about and only about poets, not poetry. And that books, prizes, money, et cetera, were about people, not ideas. The deep underlying assumption shared by just about everyone was that there was no utterance of any note, anywhere.
The scandal provided, if not an answer, then a route to an answer to Dana Gioia’s famous question, “Can poetry matter?” So long as we bow to an aesthetic that makes books virtually interchangeable, valued solely on skill level, the internalization of the Don’t Do’s, then poetry obviously cannot matter, except as a forum for the display of linguistic talent, large personality, and a certain network of connections. It’s just another career ladder, on which the same class of players who fill the top rungs in all career ladders will be found occupying ours.
TQO: Can you give another example of the sort of self-censorship that that creates this interchangeable content?
LM: I once reviewed a fabulous show by a visual artist at UAA, in which he presented work that explored intergenerational male family relations in the light of alcoholism. I found the work spectacular, moving, technically masterful and formally inventive. When later he talked to me about my review, he focused on whether or not I found his show “universal.”
Universal enough. That’s another of those controlling phrases. And it is still at work, although it was completely deconstructed in order for the experience of women and minorities to enter “literature” at all. It is so easy to forget the ideas that made each of our liberations possible and to believe that we “got in” just because we were/are extraordinary, and to then hitch our wagons to the stars the that didn’t align themselves to our advantage in the first place.
TQO: How do you help your students to dig deeper in their poetry, to “blow the dust off their poems,” so to speak?
LM: One of the best ways to get at the “vital reality” of a poem is to study the process by which somebody else got to that in a particular poem you admire. My own MFA thesis was on Yeats’s drafts of “Sailing to Byzantium,” which ended up being a poem he really didn’t want to write. The speaker is an old man confronting his own death, and Yeats had set out to write a poem that would fly in the face of his age and mortality. He was at the time, I believe, like many people today, taking experimental hormone drugs to extend his youthfulness. He wanted the poem to help, but the poem declined. Draft after draft, the poem wrestled him down. What he wanted to write didn't have the proper sound, ring, resonance.
TQO: Do you think many MFA students are under this sort of duress?
LM: Do you mean being torn between what they know to be really true for them and what everyone else agrees in committee “feels true”? Yes. Not every poem. Not every time. But frequently enough to sense that the whole self does not fit into the mold of the desired poet self. That’s why I try to teach while holding open all the doors on which is written Do Not Enter.
TQO: Was this sort of thing spoken about while you were an MFA student?
LM: Not really. Only incidentally, perhaps.
Ellen Voigt, one of my teachers, once said that she often set out to write a poem that she wanted to write, only to find that, once on the page, it seemed, and was, predictable or clichéd. The Real Poem was out there in the dark somewhere, and the Willed Poem had just been the boat and oars to get the poem away from shore and bobbing around alone, lost.
How to proceed in the direction different from the one you intended is a major part of inspiration and creativity. Before the days of computers, I would take a new sheet of paper and retype the part of the poem that I knew was Right—my ear told me that it declared the poem’s authority—and tried to tease that line forward, on its sounds, on maybe an unexpected word, a word tonally different or suggesting conflict with the flow. If it felt false and statement-ey, I'd take the sheet out, throw it away, and put in another and go back again.
Free verse poems may be harder to write in this regard than poems in forms. The forms themselves operate to push the poet away from semantic meaning and into another aspect of language, usually related to sound. The unexpected and perhaps undesired can enter the poet's mind while the poet is looking for a rhyme, say, or a specific syllabic construction in a line.
This may sound like an auto mechanic’s answer to a shaman’s question, but poetry is first and last the art of language. Language as heightened speech. All we have to work with is the countless ways language, with all its absolutes and conditionals, can mean. As the art of language, poetry has the potential to include and exceed all other linguistic meanings.
TQO: I imagine that MFA students who are just starting out don’t come armed very often with this knowledge.
LM: Some do. Some are already readers—from that small percentage who choose or manage to be heavily “into books.” But many are not. There are, you know, as many reasons to go to grad school as there are to go in the army. Some student poets are downright hostile at first to readings assignments’ intrusion into what they see as a privileged zone in which live only their muses and themselves.
Usually, though, once they’ve made a strong connection to the work of a poet within their creative reach, they begin to learn from there. And often they bring artistic influences from other areas, such as music, visual art, and movies, and they can apply some of the strategies they use to appreciate these to developing their powers in poems on the page.
I teach hoping that students will learn how to continue to write and develop after they’ve earned the degree. I think of the actual period of study as an opportunity to create the habit of an interior life, a creative and intellectual life that writers will sustain indefinitely. Learning, for instance, how to read poems for help in solving problems in your own poems (as well as for the other reasons) is a big part of what poets do. I also teach hoping that some of what students learn might not even be applicable, really, to their own process until after their apprenticeship is over.
TQO: I like how you delineate these two ideas—the Willed Poem and the Real Poem—when describing the creative process to your students, how in the beginning of the work there’s a fragment, a wisp, a strand of something, and that in the end a poet has to follow it and tunnel down into the mine shaft.
LM: I think the “conscious” effort is to try to follow the first givens of a poem, you know, the inspiration. When you've “gotten” a few Real Poems, by the equivalent of breaking rock for weeks or more, then you know the difference.
The resulting poem has surprised you, the writer. It has discovered something you didn’t know you knew, maybe even something you didn't want to know you knew, but you’ve discovered the power innate in the poem. Once that has happened, not only have you solved a problem for your life, maybe, but there’s no going back to contenting yourself with first drafts plus tinkering. Once you know it, the first beckoning of a poem becomes an invitation to something that could be arduous and long. A quick dance or a climb up Denali.
And once you’ve accepted several of those invitations, you’ve learned, or taught yourself, countless subtle ways in which to try to stay attached to and follow the real energy of the poem, and strategies for finding that thread when it’s lost. And you’ve also lost it irredeemably in some poems, and know it.
TQO: Do you just throw these out then and start something new?
LM: It depends on what you have so far. You carry around in mind many poems left at their last real pulse, always watching and listening for what might be the lead to the next real pulse. I tell students to take the poem for a walk to the donut shop, or the dry cleaner’s, by which I mean, get it out of its depth, its charter, its territory, and let it be faced with vocabulary and imagery from outside it.
TQO: So to get to some keepers, you have to break a lot of rocks, as you say . . .
LM: That process is never wasted but becomes a sort of account in the Bank of the Muses which eventually produces interest in the form of an earned gift—the poem that seems to write itself and yet does all the heavy lifting of the poems you labored so hard to achieve. It makes discoveries. It surprises you. It makes you cry.
TQO: I want to ask in general how you think a student’s reading feeds into that student’s writing.
LM: It fits in the way protein fits into a runner. Or carbs. (Or fats, even!) I often had students memorize poems, when we had the traditional resident MFA program. I had them “get the poems by heart,” which is an old phrase that gets at the physicality of language.
LM: “The ear in the chest” is what Robert Bly calls it. The “safest sex” is how Hass refers to it. It’s about having the actual words in their actual cadences of someone else’s body come coursing through your own. Students have been learning to do College Board reading for decades, “silent reading,” speed reading, which deduces information from language, more or less extracting a cognitive essence without the bother of all those extra musical, or not-musical, words and lines.
When these students try to write poems, it’s as though they are trying to make ice cream out of skim milk. They feel stupid if they read slowly, and I must harp about poetry coming to us not through the eye but through the ear. The ear is what remembers poetry, and what poetry we remember not only sustains us, as poetry does, but models poems we might at some point in our own lives write. If your ear is weak, if you are stuck in one tiny mode of writing poems, or if you just know that you like poems but don’t know exactly why, enroll in the poetry gym.
So I tell students that even when they are alone, they should read at the speed of speech, audibly or subaudibly, if necessary, to allow the dimensionality of the whole language into their whole bodies. You are what you read.
Finally on this subject, I’ll mention that often a poem that a student or students find hard to understand—even some prose—will come clear to them when I read it to them, out loud.
TQO: You sometimes ask students to immerse themselves in the whole works of a poet. You ask them to study the evolution of a particular poet by asking them to read from their very beginning works to their later works. Why?
LM: Reading a poet you admire from start to finish, including his or her prose, if possible, teaches the student poet so much that needs to be learned to develop, persevere, and flourish as a poet. To be a writer means to do your adult development (or lack of it) in public, so reading a significant career means that you’ll see a poet being young and relatively inexperienced, maturing, changing, living, succeeding and failing, contending with the open doors and the closed doors of the genre, trying new things (not only craft but ideas), over time.
A student learns that it’s correct—it’s OK—to be young and inexperienced when you are young and inexperienced. Students often compare their poems to mature poems of mature writers, who have in fact struggled both with formal aspects of the genre and with the bigger issues of What Is To Be Written over a lifetime. Careers of great poets often show the poet torn and whipped back and forth between opposing philosophical or political positions, particularly in times and places of great turbulence. And they produce, often, unevenly.
TQO: What else?
LM: Well, you can see a poet “using up” a form, a model, or a voice. I mentioned the problem of “lyric primacy” earlier. The lyric is a young poet’s stage. Think of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s tremendous difficulties maturing beyond it. She had to turn to drama. Other people’s voices. Men’s voices.
TQO: There’s a real dimensionality to the work which you’re suggesting here in which you can see much more of the poet than we often take from a poem.
LM: The student will see all sorts of influence in the poet being studied. Not only the influence of other poets (which may or may not be recognizable to the student at the time) but also that of other kinds of reading and study—history, philosophy, the sciences, other art forms—and the changing social and cultural ideas of one life lived for a decent period of time. The student gets from a substantial poet a sort of curriculum. Shakespeare’s curriculum may not be the very one a contemporary poet needs, but it will give the young poet the idea that poets do read other things besides poetry, do engage political and historical facts and ideas, and are themselves influenced by (and even influence) all these things.
TQO: But doesn’t that exhaustive study of one poet risk making the student’s own work sound derivative?
LM: At the time, yes, but all language is learned and sounds like somebody else’s. It’s part of brain-building. And further reading will add its layers. Not “plagiarism” but part of internalizing the many facets that will make up the student’s whole, individual voice. As the poet continues to read others, to converse with them in poems, an impasto of intellectual history is being created, ever-more-truly unique to its carrier by virtue of who he or she has read.
The notion that one should be intimidated by wonderful works (rather than thrilled by them, made to aspire toward them, both humbled and empowered by them) is very new. And very awful. I can't imagine how anyone can want to write poems who does not want to read them, but as you suggest, that’s true for some.
TQO: So you’re saying that what one reads contributes as much to one’s work as what one experiences?
LM: I believe so. These influences that shape our ways of expressing ourselves have already internalized other influences, and they before them. We become heirs to traditions in this way, heirs to ideas and values and forms, or dissenters from them, seeking new influence elsewhere. Since it is impossible for anyone to know all poets or even most poets deeply, the student learns that the poets to whom one apprentices oneself should be well chosen, and that no poet by virtue of being a poet is obligated to be an encyclopedia of all poetry, or a mind filled only with poetry. God forbid.
TQO: Who are the dissidents to whom you are heir?
LM: First, of course, I’m heir to many canonical poets, or at least the canonical works of major poets in English, which brought me my love of poetry.
Many of the dissidents to whom I’m heir aren’t poets but thinkers like Terrence Des Pres and Tillie Olson. Sharon Olds’s treatment of family and sexuality was important to me, and she was indebted to Muriel Rukeyser.
TQO: In UAA’s MFA program—the new, low-residency program, specifically—you are teaching pretty much along the traditional lines of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, but with an eye for the ways in which that workshop can cramp a young poet as well as liberate one. Is that right?
LM: I hope so. As we’ve been talking about the workshop, and MFA teaching in general, it has occurred to me that nothing much has changed about it since the beginning—the beginning being the Iowa Writers’ Workshop’s founding. My own MFA program was founded by “Iowees.” The aesthetic that Paul Dawson more or less deconstructs, by historicizing it, remains dominant. As a student, I internalized ideology along with whatever else I was learning. Yet even then there was Robert Hass presenting a lecture on transformation and transcendence—two traditional and opposite visions of poetry: the one concerned with making change to, the other with “rising above,” life.
TQO: Two different conceptions of art: activist—engaged as a participant in the world people create—and “above it all,” helpless before it. Two powerfully different ideas about where human suffering comes from.
LM: You’ve said it. Are we fated “by the gods” to live what we do, or are we burdened with human agency to attempt to make real the lives we hope for? Collectively, I mean, as well as individually. Hass was reading Tomas Tranströmer at the time and eventually turned his thinking on the subject into an essay on Tranströmer’s Baltics.
TQO: So Hass was bringing a European poet to U. students and focusing on the problem he was already facing in U. poetry?
LM: Yes, although I was intellectually unprepared to follow his thinking back then in 1976, and I was also eager to turn a deaf ear to anything that might put my poems outside the absolute deep middle of what was taken to be “good.” As my mentor, Hass had me read Rich as well as Roethke and others, but I knew that Rich’s “radicalism” had moved her away from the “Pure.” “Don’t go that way,” everyone advised. And the pressure I felt was to choose. I didn’t realize he was inquiring, himself, about how poetry could or can be both.
It took me twenty years—and my own radicalization—to grasp what Hass was already thinking back then, not long after his first book, Field Guide, was published and won the Yale Younger Poets Award. His work since that time returns again and again to this ethical and aesthetic dilemma.
TQO: Even when you were writing the poems of your book Eva-Mary, this did not occur to you?
LM: No. I couldn’t have said how those poems belonged to poetry, though I knew they surely did and yet were surely unwelcome.
TQO: When you use the word ideology, do you mean these two possibilities—transformation and transcendence—as opposites?
LM: Michael Hamburger’s classic The Truth of Poetry: Tensions in Modernist Poetry since Baudelaire is the most accessible, if erudite, study of this dynamic that I know. Hayden Carruth in one of his essays says, more or less, “Every important poet is either a revolutionary or a reactionary.” But we don’t think we “have” ideology in our sort of goodhearted liberal poetry “community.”
TQO: So tell me how you tried to introduce all this to your students without blowing them out of the water.
LM: I did a seminar on international poetries, an unusual MFA offering. Generally we stick to the here and now as models for writing and thinking, but US anti-intellectualism is as stunting to our contemporary students of poetry as it is to any other student who undertakes any historical and global art form. The seminar made considering an American and an Irish poet in the light of international, intellectual, and political consciousness less traumatic for students who might otherwise have felt gratuitously “politicized.”
TQO: What poems personally sustain you? Or, as I heard the poet Derick Burleson put it, what poems do you “carry around in your belly”?
LM: Different poems at different times. I think that carrying a poem around in your body means that you’ve memorized it, or at least parts of it, so that the actual words and lines come to mind. Millay, Bogan, Hopkins, Cummings, Yeats, Shakespeare, students’ and friends’ poems. The poems I carry have moved me emotionally and intellectually, and the parts I recover as comfort and reassurance don’t necessarily all add up to a single, coherent, all-purpose human balm.
TQO: What journals do you read?
LM: I subscribe to Poetry, the New York Review of Books, the Atlantic, Harper’s . . .
TQO: What does a magazine like Harper’s contribute to your teaching of poetry?
LM: Everything. I never “wanted to be a writer,” or a poet, I just always was. And a reader. When I first entered MFA-world, I read what we all read and were reading, “slim volumes” by each other, mostly, and a few poets from maybe a generation before. But I’d been an English major, and I knew of a previous literary history. And as time passed, I undertook a more full, let’s say “adult,” intellectual life, as writers generally do and have. A magazine like Harper’s introduces me to writers and their ideas and helps me contextualize our “discipline.” I take my job to be, in part, the “contextualizer” for us.
TQO: What sorts of contexts?
LM: Cultural critique of the kind Curtis White writes. His The Middle Mind is pointedly about the failure of, especially, poetry to do its social job. “Literary art” in general, poetry in particular. The Middle Mind is about American anti-intellectualism, the tiny parameters of the intellectual comfort zone of most of us most of the time. Most art, surely art that wants to sell, happens there. Most writing happens there. Boland’s “toxic lyric” is another way of stating poetry’s comfort zone. The “middle mind” loves the word lyric, which has come to mean so many things that it doesn’t mean. We use it as the highest praise for writing, not only poetry but prose as well. Hass confronts the idea from a different angle when he writes around image and discourse, “image” being associated with lyric “beauty,” and discourse with, well, talk.
TQO: How do you know this? Where do you see this?
LM: One very talented poet who confronted me very soon after her arrival in Alaska with the assertion that I was not going to get her to write “confessional” poems because she wasn’t going to allow herself to be pigeonholed, meaning relegated immediately to second string.
Interestingly, after a couple years of writing excellent poems as far away from her personal life as could be imagined, she spontaneously began writing very “confessional” ones, very wonderfully in-your-face poems aware of their transgressiveness, and aware of the intellectual nature of their transgression. She became aware that confessionalism, properly understood, is revolutionary, as Bill Knott exclaimed to me when we met.
LM: What Cold War Modernism was charged with extirpating. Call it Realism, Social Realism, class consciousness among artists. Call it revolution. White’s “analysis, critique, and reinvention.” It requires a Left art theory that’s not sequestered in the English Department but active among creative writers as well. Without that, we’ve populated workshops with more “identities” but no new idea, as though each identity were saying, “The only thing wrong with the bus was that I wasn’t on it!”
If students are serious and stick with their work, they will come to a point in a poem they are writing where they will realize they are making a choice—an aesthetic choice, by definition—for or against the Blob / middle mind. They will be scared. They will know they are risking writing their way out of “Top Drawer” toward “Bottom Drawer.” It may not happen until years after they have earned their MFA, but when it happens, I want them to recognize it. It is at that moment that they are confronting the difference between art and craft.
A different student recently told me a story that is as common in MFA workshops as xeroxes used to be. She was working on a poem in which she asks a friend about the experience of caring for her profoundly injured brother after a car crash. The brother dies. The sister has long lived the role of mother to her brother. The poet anguishes for what the friend endured, and asks her—as a formal trope of the poem—what it was like.
The workshop agreed that she had no right to write this poem. That she was telling another person’s story, and that telling another person’s story was “immoral.”
That was the workshop consensus. That was one of thousands of tiny enforcements by the most dreaded and powerful of enforcers, “peers.” For the last many years this theme, of the “morality” (!) of “telling someone else’s story,” has been the wind that filled the sails of countless workshops and conferences. Countless hours have been spent, not as artists trying to figure out who or what such censorship might serve but as writers jockeying for rank on a scale of piety, or sensitivity, or niceness.
TQO: But don’t students have to confront the provinciality of this thinking when they meet up with famous writers?
LM: Not necessarily. When Russell Banks presented at the Kachemak Bay Writers’ Conference in Homer, Alaska, the substance of his essay “Who Will Tell the People?” he spoke of the ghettoization of writing and writers caused by such coercions that are unexamined in their origins and impact. “How dare he!” muttered a local arts enforcers under her breath, as she swung her well-shod foot in irritation. “A white man suggests that he could write about a fill-in the-blank.”
It’s interesting, isn’t it, to put this particular piety up against the verity about not being confessional, to see what’s left for a young writer to explore in his or her writing? And how it might be explored, with what emotions, what insights, what voice? Tinier and tinier and tinier and ever more domesticated become the products able to grow on that patch of barely watered ground.
TQO: Can you give me other examples, too?
LM: A student came to study with me because she was wrestling with a history of abuse as a child. She was writing inscrutable poems, based on a verity that to write these poems in an acceptable way, that is, nonconfessionally and “lyrically,” she would have to resort to metaphor as narrative. The idea that poetry is “public speech” had never been presented to her. The idea that in fact though lyric refers to the posture of address of the poet—back turned to the audience so that the poem is essentially “overheard”—the poet may just as easily turn around and face the audience, figuratively speaking, and be “heard.” That poetry is a dialectic between these postures of the speaker.
TQO: Are you saying that this is still a problem among those who are apprenticing themselves in poetry, and among the general readers—that poetry really exists, for the most part, in a private, creative realm, that it hasn’t much of a role in a public sphere?
LM: Not quite that. There’s poetry all over public radio and TV, for instance. It’s that we write and read—and hear—poetry as heirs of an undeconstructed lyric triumphalism.
TQO: And can you give me an example of “undeconstructed lyric triumphalism”?
LM: Yes. Maybe most famously, M. L. Rosenthal reviewing Robert Lowell’s Life Studies in 1957 in The Nation. Rosenthal read as private and domestic Lowell’s public discrediting of Brahmin patriarchal hypocrisy by means of his own family. But Lowell had “turned around,” not simply “removed the mask” of the poet, but turned around and spoken publicly. Rosenthal judged this bardic stance by a lyric yardstick and found it more or less an error of comportment.
But back to my student: she read and wrote, and read and wrote, and produced an excellent thesis, one that presented her experience of abuse as a public problem, a social problem, and for poetry, an aesthetic and intellectual problem. She presented her poems as bardic speech —public—not lyric speech, “private.” To be heard, not overheard. And she addressed our ideas about poetry as being as much a cause of the silence in which abuse has always flourished as any other institutional public silence.
I end my critique with these anecdotes to show how the nice liberal ideology that we don’t think we have is an astonishingly unthinking, vehemently anti-intellectual bias, birthed in the virulent “anti-Communism” that followed World War II.