An Interview with Marianne Boruch:
Trapdoors to an Inner Outer Space
By Mark Danowsky
Marianne Boruch is the author of eight poetry collections, most recently Cadaver, Speak, and The Book of Hours, a Kingsley-Tufts Poetry Award winner, both from Copper Canyon Press. Her ninth book, Eventually One Dreams the Real Thing, is due out from CCP this July. Poems and essays have appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, Poetry, American Poetry Review, The Nation, The London Review of Books, and elsewhere. She’s published prose: two collections of essays on poetry and a third coming out next year from Michigan University Press. Her memoir is The Glimpse Traveler (Indiana, 2011). Her recent awards include a Pushcart Prize last year and a poem chosen for the forthcoming Best American Poetry. She’s been a Guggenheim and NEA fellow, a Fulbright Professor at the University of Edinburgh and had artist residencies at the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio, the American Academy in Rome, Yaddo, MacDowell, the Anderson Center (Red Wing, MN), and at national parks, Denali and Isle Royale. She teaches in the MFA programs at Purdue University and Warren Wilson College.
Mark Danowsky: What do you think has affected your poetic cadence? What are contributing factors that continue to shape and reshape how you deliver language?
Marianne Boruch: The sound of anyone’s poems probably somehow reflect the inner voice one hears. And that changes over time, I suppose, even day to day. I don’t have any theories about cadence, except that it seems to be a way to record both sound and silence, the stop and the go, the public sound vs. what’s private. I aim for a necessary variation to invite life’s crazy alterations of tone and phrase and point of view into the poem. That seems to me to mime my own human and imperfect experience of the world. (By the way, Paul Fussell’s book on these matters—Poetic Meter and Poetic Form—is brilliant, stunningly useful, however cranky he is….)
MD: What roles do you see poetry play in society today? Should poetry have different aims?
MB: Poetry is the single voice, the individual consciousness, the thing that lasts and is private, what should be treasured. Its great subjects are the oldest we have: time, the natural world, love, knowledge, grief. Its aims? Dickinson nailed it (and is constantly quoted for her trouble): to tell the truth but tell it slant.
MD: Do you think irony is effective in the contemporary poet’s toolkit?
MB: Absolutely. One needs to step away sometimes, from the self and from others. It’s part of our human solitude, or at least the part that makes our willed or unwilled isolation bearable. And this sort of humor can endear and open understanding—a quality vastly needed in contemporary poetry.
MD: Please share some of your thoughts on the use of formal constraints in poetry.
MB: I’ve always shied away from formal verse—not the reading of it, but the writing. It’s never appealed to me to work, say, with the sonnet or the villanelle. But certain impulses in formal verse have great power in poems, and are always with us, the pull toward repetition, for instance—for clarity, for emphasis, to record longing or surprise or simple endurance. Or the way the poetic line works its wonders, to mime hesitation or discovery, often a perfect, if momentary, silence of being. The sentence itself is a wonder, how it gets threaded down through those lines. Ditto the stanza (the Italian word for “room,” after all). But one has to figure out the size of such a room, the odd little touches of each that are needed, the window seat, the built-in shelves, how high or low the ceiling, most of all the various trapdoors to an inner outer space. Okay, I’m rambling. So much for constraints….
MD: When is it appropriate to sacrifice the facts of personal experience for the sake of a poetic truth?
MB: I love Elizabeth Bishop’s confession about the experience that triggered her poem “The Fish.” In an interview she admitted she lied about the number of fish she let go at the end, released back into the water. Guilt, for that? One adds and subtracts to honor truth in a poem. The mind is a veg-a-matic, a sieve, a garlic press, the basement of a true hoarder. The fact that we remember things at all is a miracle. (As I get older, even more a miracle!) But I often ask my students: what’s more important for you in the writing of poems, to remember or to forget? And what’s the greater truth, the facts or the impulse behind those facts? I just don’t know. The facts only matter if you’re recording experience. But poems are out to transform it, yes?
MD: Have your favorite poems (that you've written) received the most acclaim?
MB: To be honest, “acclaim” isn’t a word connected to what I’ve written. It seems to me I’m always in the trenches, under the radar really, just trying to figure out what a poem is. With every new piece, I’m starting at zero. And the weird process of writing a poem gets more and more mysterious to me.
MD: How has your vision of success as a poet shifted over the course of your writing life?
MB: I’m not sure what “success” means, for a poet anyway. It’s not money, clearly. It’s not even much fame, since both are virtually impossible in this genre. Our audience is miniscule but that’s okay with me. It’s rather freeing really. It becomes a labor of love and personal quirkiness. We don’t have to revise to please the agents or the filmmakers the way fiction writers often do. Pretty much, poets are ignored by both.
Which means “success” is building an ongoing relationship with one’s own work. In my case, that turns out to be a daily checking in with poems under construction. (I call this my “hospital rounds,” going outside of time itself to get there, the solace and demand of that discipline each morning.) It’s taken me years to get comfortable with this process, to look forward to it, to be more and more engaged by the strangeness of it. Poems slowly emerge out of nowhere. Or they leap wildly from that nowhere. To not be fearful of that but still largely unnerved by it and thus curious and welcoming, to have some patience with it: that is success.
MD: Tell me if this sounds right to you. Should poetry be timeless? No. Should poetry be lasting? Yes. What makes for a lasting poem?
MB: I often quote Wallace Stevens on this, from his “Notes toward the Supreme Fiction,” that a poem should have three elements: it must give pleasure, it must change, it must be abstract.
The first concerns sound and image, I think, the music of a poem and how startling and true its imagery, how clear on the page and in your mind’s eye: how that haunts. The second requirement has always fascinated me, that the poem not repeat what’s already been said a million times (ie: flowers are pretty, war is bad, and so forth) which is a variation on Pound’s old saw about “making it new.” But Stevens means more than that, I think. Something must truly happen between the start and end of a piece; the writer herself/himself must be changed because of what’s discovered by writing the damn thing. This is a variation of Frost’s old adage—“no surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.” Stevens’ third element—it must be abstract—is one I resisted for years, being the confirmed imagist I am. But now I’ve come to see that sense of abstraction as crucial, and simple: at some point, the piece has to widen and deepen beyond the self. It has to get bigger, beyond being just a poem about —me! and my little life!!
Meanwhile, “timeless” vs. “lasting”? Is that like that Mobius strip phrase I loved in college—“merging apart”? None of us will be around long enough to know.
MD: What poets/writers are essential today?
MB: So many favorites, I hesitate to start such a list, fearful of leaving people out, but….
The beloved old ones, of course, to be read over and over: Hopkins and Whitman and Blake, Dickinson, Keats, Williams, Stevens, Moore, Frost. On to those closer to us: Larkin, Bishop, Roethke, Plath, Kees. Even closer, unto now: James Tate, Charles Simic, Russell Edson, Louise Glück, Ellen Voigt, Lucia Perillo, Mary Szybist, Tony Hoagland, Brigit Kelly, Larry Levis, Tom Andrews…. (Forgive me, all you spirits living and dead, forgotten here in this rush of a moment.)
About the Interviewer:
Mark Danowsky’s poetry has appeared in About Place, Alba, Beechwood Review, Cordite, Elohi Gadugi, Grey Sparrow, Mobius, Red River Review, Right Hand Pointing, Shot Glass Journal, Third Wednesday and elsewhere. Originally from the Philadelphia area, Mark currently resides in North-Central West Virginia. He works for a private detective agency and is Managing Editor for the Schuylkill Valley Journal.