Monday, May 10, 2010
Cate Marvin's first book, World's Tallest Disaster, was chosen by Robert Pinksy for the 2000 Kathryn A. Morton Prize and published by Sarabande Books in 2001. In 2002, she received the Kate Tufts Discovery Prize. Her poems have appeared in The New England Review, Poetry, The Kenyon Review, Fence, The Paris Review, and other journals. She is co-editor with poet Michael Dumanis of the anthology Legitimate Dangers: American Poets of the New Century (Sarabande Books, 2006). Her second book of poems, Fragment of the Head of a Queen, was published by Sarabande in August 2007. A recipient of the Whiting Award, she teaches poetry writing in Lesley University's Low-Residency M.F.A. Program and is an associate professor in creative writing at the College of Staten Island, City University of New York. She is co-founder and co-director with poet Erin Belieu of WILLA (Women in Letters and Literary Arts). For more information, please visit Cate's website.
I suppose must have been orbiting all the time
I've spent bent at this desk, unaware of its presence
as those victims of alien abductions, who claim
they were taken on board, experimented upon,
and gently replaced to their beds. Or the readership
may be hovering, held in a flight pattern, endlessly
repeating figure eights, everyone on board desperate
for the captain's reassuring announcement
they'll make their connecting flights. Or perhaps
it's like one of those massive sea vessels that looks
so grand from the shore, same as that ferry I saw
cutting its shape on the Mediterranean's edge,
when I was young and traveled with a notebook.
When to follow a map was to learn a finger's width
could mark the hours it'd take for us to get there.
Fellow passenger, companion, perhaps when
you were sitting beside me, your mind was really
on the readership. Maybe that could explain your
sudden disappearance: Mysterious as those lights
in late night skies no one can explain or identify.
Perhaps the readership prepares to land, and you
are among its passengers, presently ripping
at a bag of peanuts the flight attendants provide.
If this is so, I offer a goodly signal, words radiating
redness, radio towered. Much like a lighthouse
casts its warning to the morass of sea, I simply ask
that you heed me. Gentle barge, it does not matter
if you listen; it does not concern me. It's too late
for you to put the book down, cancel the flight,
concede you were always terrible at planning.
When you arrive, hold fast to your belongings.
The purse slashers in my poems have more
than your money on their unsubtle minds. I'll speak
for my life when I say I'm glad you have arrived.
I've waited like a starving country, arms heaped
with hand-worked goods I'll sell you at a native's price.
And if the readership does not exist? Perhaps
it's only intriguing as a conspiracy theory--
how I want to believe in it, as if it will provide
the answer for everything that's gone awry.
When was this poem composed? How did it start?
I wrote this poem ages ago: in the summer of 1997, right after I completed my MFA in poetry at the University of Houston. My mother and I had just returned from a trip to Mexico City, a journey undertaken in celebration of my graduation and in honor of my grandmother who had passed away that year (the money she’d left us funded our travel). This sort of vacation was not the norm for my family: we Marvins are frugal and don’t travel abroad with any regularity. I didn’t prepare for the trip until the night before we left. Only then did I read the Lonely Planet guide and it scared the crap out of me, as it warned of the many dangers one faces in Mexico City, such as purse slashers. The idea of purse slashing was fascinating to me—what bizarre stealth! Thus, it enters into this poem very much in the way a purse slasher might happen upon a traveler like myself.
I recall that when I wrote the poem my manual typewriter was in the shop. Back then, I tended to have it cleaned and oiled every few years. I never wrote drafts on a computer back then: just didn’t, wouldn’t. And I can recall feeling very propelled to write this particular poem, despite my lack of typewriter. Sitting in the living room of my tiny apartment reading (I believe it was Susan Minot’s Lust—I was reading quite a bit of fiction then, as I was about to head to the fiction program at Iowa and desperate not to reveal how under-read I was in the genre)—yes, I was sitting there reading on my red velvet couch when I rose with the urge to write this poem. Then I pounded it out on my computer. It seemed very significant at the time that I wrote the poem despite the fact I didn’t have my manual typewriter. By this I mean that the poem came to me whole. I sat down at my desk and wrote the whole thing out in one sitting.
The title was the catalyst. When I realized in a moment that the word “readership” could actually be understood as a ship, I sought to explore through the poem what kind of ship that would be.
At the time I was also friends with an individual who was obsessed with UFO’s and alien abductions, and he’d always read books about this type of stuff before he went to sleep, and then report back to me the many nightmares he’d had about being abducted. So I really ought to thank him for the metaphor.
How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?
This poem was done pretty much as soon as it was written. The arc of thought that incited the poem and the movement of thought that followed was essentially complete. I think I fiddled with parts of it, but if memory serves, the poem was rare in that it arrived entire.
Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears?
This poem was very much received, but it was also the result of “sweat and tears” as it came out of the great many poems I’d been writing over the years preceding its composition. I believe all poems grow out of the poems that have preceded them, that one’s work grows and builds on all of the poems one has written, whether the final outcome of such poems be poor or successful. This poem was inspired: some of the best poems are. I say this as a poet who is accustomed to hammering out individual poems over a span of years. This poem was a kind of apparition, a realization, that arrived: a gift. A gift that came at the cost of the hard work I’d been engaged in prior to its appearance. It came to me like a lesson, a culmination of many concerns I’d been addressing through poetry for about five years prior to writing it.
How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?
I recall it was initially written in strict quatrains, a form that was very helpful to me at the time for its restraint. The creation of the poem was intuitive, and not very conscious at all. It was one of those poems you look back on and say, “Did I write that?”
How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print?
This poem was never published in a literary magazine, though I sent out it to many venues, time and time again. In this way it represents something I learned about submissions to magazines: some of your best poems may never appear in a journal, and you have to trust your own knowledge that the poem is good despite the fact no one has “picked it up” (a phrase I hate). I knew this poem addressed a central motif in the manuscript I was working on, which would eventually take the form of my first book. The poem first appeared in print when my first book, World’s Tallest Disaster, came out in 2001.
How long do you let a poem “sit” before you send it off into the world? Do you have any rules about this or does your practice vary with every poem?
It probably took me a while to send it out as I was moving at the time. I was finished at University of Houston and moving to Iowa. The first instance I really showed the poem to a group of readers was at the Sewanee Writers' Conference in the summer of 2008. I may have sent it out before that; I can’t remember. I was pretty good back then at keeping my poems in a consistent submission rotation.
Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two?
This poem is a fiction, naturally, as it addresses the “idea” of the readership. It questioned whether anyone was reading my poems at all. It questioned who I was writing my poems for, and why I was writing toward the “you” of the poem in first place. I’d been writing a great many poems that addressed a couple of figures— in “The Readership” these figures merge into one. The poem concerns the disappearance of the beloved, who is the most desired reader. The poem questions whether this reader has been paying attention at all to the entire body of work preceding it. There were two very real people in my life who are considered in this poem. They are, neither of them, readers of my work or of me. I had hoped, way back then, that I might attain their attention with a supreme poem. The poem arrives at the realization that this is a false hope. So, the poem is very much a “fact” for the speaker of my poems and, as such, very much a fiction (for me, who is not the speaker of the poem) in the final form it takes.
The poem is also a statement of poetics, in that it addresses the threat it wishes to lord over the reader, as it basically states that it is arriving, whether the reader wishes it to or not. In this way, the poem addresses commitment. In other words, “You asked for it, and now it’s too late to turn back. You wanted it, and now it wants you.” So, there’s a lot of doom and portent in this poem, which is ultimately a desire on behalf of the speaker, which is both sad and ridiculous, to mean something to someone, despite the fact the reader no longer wishes to engage.
Is this a narrative poem?
No. It’s a poem that accumulates pieces of narratives that combine to make a sort of mosaic. There’s no real narrative progression, at least not in my opinion. Despite the fact it’s about an imagined journey, there’s very little story. Or, if there is a story, it has no plot. The progression is one of realization, as opposed to being composed of events. The encounter with the presumed reader of the poem, which is a fantasy, is a means by which the speaker comes to face the fact she has no audience at all, other than herself.
At the center of this poem is the specter of morality, the idea of right and wrong. Is all good poetry in some way ethical or just?
I think that compass is probably present in most good poems, and that it’s situated in ways particular to individual poems. I am uncomfortable with the idea that poetry has to be “ethical or just” to be aesthetically pleasing; I believe the strength of a poem is inherent in the language that comprises it. Any interesting work of literature has inherent in it a central conflict: what that conflict might be is individual to the piece itself. I do not think all good poetry must be just, far from it.
This is something I think about a lot, though. Because I like to think that poems strive to be good, even when they address our failings as individuals. But who knows what’s “good” and “bad”? The point is that the poem be moving, empathetic, energetic. That it give the reader a sense of experience or being. That it address some depth of human experience.
I resist the idea that a poem has to be “good” in a moral and ethical sense; a poem is aesthetically convincing when it communicates its intention through clarity of language, and when its own peculiar beauty is declared via its own rules, shape, meaning, etc.
Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you’d care to disclose?
Other than Susan Minot’s short story “Lust,” which has no bearing on this poem, I was reading travel guides to Mexico City, in addition to heaps of fiction. It’s a bit of blur to me now.
Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?
I write for those whose work I respect. I write toward long dead authors whose work I love.
Did you let anyone see drafts of this poem before you finished it? Is there an individual or a group of individuals with whom you regularly share work?
Back then, in 1997, I had readers I trusted. I don’t remember if I showed them this poem. Since, I have had very few readers I trust enough to discuss my early drafts. It’s a bit of a handicap, one I hope to correct.
How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?
This is a poem about resignation: giving up. My poems more often close with a challenge or dismissal. In that way, the realization it arrives at is more honest than other poems I’ve written.
What is American about this poem?
Was this poem finished or abandoned?
Finished. Happily so.