Monday, July 23, 2018

Maryann Corbett

Maryann Corbett spent almost thirty-five years working for the Office of the Revisor of Statutes at the Minnesota Legislature. She is the author of four books of poems and three chapbooks; her most recent book is Street View, which was a finalist for the 2016 Able Muse Book Prize. Her work has appeared in many journals, such as 32 Poems, Ecotone, Literary Imagination, Rattle, and Southwest Review, and in a variety of anthologies like Imago Dei and Measure for Measure: An Anthology of Poetic Meters. She is a past winner of the Richard Wilbur Award and the Willis Barnstone Translation Prize and a past finalist for the Howard Nemerov Sonnet Award. One of her poems will be included in Best American Poetry 2018.


You find it when you’re tearing up your life,
trying to make some sense of the old messes,
moving dressers, peering under beds.
Almost lost in cat hair and in cobwebs,
in dust you vaguely know was once your skin,
it shows up, isolated, fragmentary.
A tidy little solid. Tractable.
Knobbed to be fitted in a lock-step pattern
with others. Plastic: red or blue or yellow.
Out of the dark, undamaged, there it is,
as bright and primary colored and foursquare
as the family with two parents and two children
who moved in twenty years ago in a dream.
It makes no allowances, concedes no failures,
admits no knowledge of a little girl
who glared through tears, rubbing her slapped cheek.
Rigidity is its essential trait.
Likely as not, you leave it where it was.

When was this poem composed? How did it start?

I needed my records to figure this out, because the poem is among my earliest. I came back to writing poetry, after some thirty years away from it, in late 2005 and started workshopping poems on discussion boards in 2006. I do recall that this poem was workshopped. My submission records say I first sent the poem out in late 2007, so its first drafts must have happened within that range.

At that time, a great many of my poems had to do with mothering, mostly because I was then the mother of college students and making the shift to mothering adults. The trigger experience of finding an old, stray Lego happened many, many times.

How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?

There were several changes during workshopping—probably in more than one online workshop, because during those years I was active in several at once. I recall the changes as small and having to do with smoother meter. I don’t remember making changes between magazine submissions. When I included the poem in my second book, which came out in 2013, I made another change during the proof stage; what had been “looking under beds” in the poem’s magazine publication became “peering under beds” for the book.

Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears?

I do believe one is “hotter” some days than others, better attuned to really good choices. There’s something about intensity of emotional involvement that turns up the heat. The memories involved in this one had that effect. That may be why this poem felt “received”—that is to say,  close to finished after relatively few tweaks.

How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?

I write a great deal of blank verse, and during those years I would often begin by turning on the iambic pentameter spigot and letting it run. I allowed the memories and associations to be what they were. My iambics are often very loose in the first instance; they admit a great many substitutions. Revision quite often involves taking a hot iron to the wrinkles, and it did in this case.

Was there anything unusual about the way in which you wrote this poem?

At the time I wrote this, I was using my usual methods: letting the poem happen as it would and then subjecting it to critique.

Since then, some things have changed about the way I work: I hope that I’m now demanding enough to see on my own the flaws that workshopping helps one see. (But see my answer to the question about how long I let poems sit. Mea culpa.)

Another difference is that I worry more now about how a poem will come across in a reading. If I had worried about that in those days, the poem might never have been written. As it is, I don’t believe I’ve ever read it to an audience.

How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print?

Quite a while, according to my submission records! It went to nine magazines over the course of three years before it was finally accepted by Think Journal in 2010. Then it was included, with one revision, in the final manuscript of my book Credo for the Checkout Line in Winter, which appeared in 2013, and poems from that book were chosen for American Life in Poetry.

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?

I have to admit that my worst poetic habit is not letting poems “steep” long enough. Fairly often I revise while a poem is still in submission, or after it’s come back, or after it’s appeared and I want to include it in a book.

I push myself to submit poems at regular intervals, a practice I regularly think I should change because it rushes the process
-->but I haven’t yet changed it, in twelve years of submitting.
Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two?

This poem is cagey about fact. While it doesn’t deliberately fictionalize, it leaves the story vague and general. The vagueness allows people to see story elements that were not in my own mind when I was writing. I was asked once whether the poem was written out of the memory of the child or of the parent. I declined to answer, in part because I would rather not remember and in part because I think the poem is richer, and meaningful to more readers, if not nailed down.

Is this a narrative poem?

I would call it a lyric poem based on a recurring narrative that many readers will relate to.

Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you’d care to disclose?

In those years I was first coming into contact with the poetry of Richard Wilbur, Anthony Hecht, Rhina Espaillat, Timothy Murphy, and Maz Griffiths, to name just a few. I was also reading the poetry that other participants posted on Eratosphere, The Gazebo, The Waters, and some other boards now long gone.

Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?

I think a poet always hopes for a reader who sees the world the way the poet sees it, so that the words chosen make an immediate connection. Apart from that, different poems need readers in different groups. Nearly all the time, my ideal reader needs at least to expect meter and to recogize it even when it isn’t ribbon-smooth. Often, too, my ideal reader needs to have an attitude to rhyme that’s like the one expressed in A. E. Stallings’s “Presto Manifesto!” At the time when this poem was written, my ideal reader would probably have been a parent. Not always, but rather often lately, my ideal reader is a believer of some kind, or at least knowledgeable about “churchy” matters and matters of the spirit.

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?

Yes, a fair number of people saw it, and a handful of people commented. Although I don’t workshop now, I owe a great deal to the group of poets who posted at Eratosphere in the late 2000s and who in some cases still post there.

How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?

I’m not sure it is. I was going to say that it’s more guarded and less revealed—much of what I write is quasi-confessional—but I haven’t taken a close look at twelve years' worth of poems. It may be a bit choppier—written more in fragments and less in sentences, which adds to its hesitant quality.

What is American about this poem?

Apart from being metrical (which is still not typical for an American poet), just about everything: the assumptions about family structure, family homes, and families’ private truths. And even though the Lego brand is manufactured by a Danish company, is there any better symbol of an American childhood?

Was this poem finished or abandoned?

I believe it’s finished, but perhaps I only believe that because its current form is rather prominently fixed online. In the unlikely event that I publish a selected some day, I may yet think about it again!

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