Violet and Violent: A Conversation with Melissa Green
By Sumita ChakrabortyFebruary 21, 2016
MELISSA GREEN: Do you have any idea how to do this?
SUMITA CHAKRABORTY: No ma’am.
MELISSA GREEN IS THE PRIZE-WINNING AUTHOR of two memoirs and several collections of poetry, most recently Magpiety: New and Selected Poems, from Arrowsmith Press.
Green would be the first to tell you that physical and psychiatric illnesses have been deeply intertwined with her writing life, both beneficially and destructively. She describes each of her books as embodiments and articulations “both in form and language” of different anguished voices. The Squanicook Eclogues (W. W. Norton, 1987), an elegy for her father, was followed by a yearlong stay in Charles River Hospital; a staph infection in her bone directly affected the meter and form of the poems in Fifty-Two (Arrowsmith Press, 2007); then, in the early months of 2013, after undergoing electroshock therapy for a deep and persistent depression, she found that she had, in her words, lost language. It returned to her 18 months later, slightly ahead of Magpiety’s November 2015 release.
Green’s books also have in common her singular poetic sensibility, which Joseph Brodsky described as one that “commits everything she touches to your memory,” and which Derek Walcott calls that of “the true poet.” Her poems caught my attention well before I knew anything about her life. I was still an intern at AGNI magazine when we accepted 11 of the poems eventually published in Fifty-Two, the largest number from a single poet we’d ever taken for a single issue, and they were beautiful. Ornate, yet stark; gentle, yet brutal; vibrant, thoughtful, self-excavating, elegant, wild.
The few interviews with Green that exist tend to center on either mental illness or her relationships with Walcott and Brodsky. Both of these realms are significant to Green and her poetry (Walcott and Brodsky were important mentors) — but they don’t show the entire picture. As Tracy K. Smith wrote in a blurb for Magpiety, Green’s work “attests to a heart that is fearlessly attentive to the world, and exquisitely vulnerable to the great sweep of experience.” Over the course of our friendship, our conversations have leapt from influence to influence and subject to subject, from assorted obsessions to resonances between our lives. In celebration of the publication of the new book, we sat down together at her kitchen table in Winthrop, Massachusetts. I’d recently learned that Green keeps multiple Pinterest boards. They are full of all the things we like to talk about — visual art in its many-splendored forms, photographs from corners of the world far and near, a variety of how-tos — and are ripe for an excavation, a mapping.
In a 2015 Poetry magazine podcast, Michael Seth Stewart says that ableism leads us to read poetry written by poets with mental illnesses exclusively and entirely in the context of their illnesses. In the spirit of countering that tendency, I introduce Melissa Green, awash in nothing less than the “great sweep of experience.”
MELISSA GREEN: [Thumbing through a pile of books and magazines.] I recently found some incredibly beautiful magazines from the Royal School of Needlework, in Windsor Palace, where they do their work. It’s like, “Oh, could I go there now, please?”
At Jo-Ann’s, there’s a rack of remnants, just these little balls of fabric, and they’re just fabulous for what I need. And the ribbons! Once a month — I can’t buy everything I want all at once, and I can’t go too often, because I don’t have that kind of disposable income — I’ll go into one of their stores, and I just stand there and drool. It’s like paint in a tangible form, it’s like something I can hold ... I’m thinking of Matisse. Did you know he grew up in the north: cold, raw, industrial. And the generation before his had all been cloth-makers. Weavers. The machines had come in and just decimated all the trees and put up these factories. But! The most amazing thing: they would go into these factories, and they’d pull all this incredible fabric out of their heads — all weavers and cloth-makers. And then the couturiers in Paris were using these things that these peasants were making.
SUMITA CHAKRABORTY: I didn’t know that, about the couturiers.
I didn’t either! House of Worth, Coco Chanel.
So Matisse had this incredible feeling for fabric and textures and textiles, and wherever he went, he always had a little piece of fabric in his pocket, a little piece of carpeting or embroidery, and all over his studio.
And then, when he went to the south of France, it wasn’t, Oh my god, here’s the world that I belong in, it was like, Oh! Here’s a world I recognize. And nobody would have guessed that from the north of France: it can be rainy and damp and raw and gray and bleak. But Matisse had all those colors in his head, so then he went there and he said, Oh! I know this! Not, Oh, here I am at last, but Oh, here I am again. I’m home. Home in all his colors.
Okay, so. I recorded all that. Just as a quick heads up. I grabbed my phone and hid it under the table. And I hit record, because I was like, If I tell her that this is happening … she’ll stop! But I had to tell you eventually, and now here we are. Earlier you were wondering when we’d start. We started.
[Laughing.] We started. Okay.
I always wanted to write about art. I don’t think I could do what Calvino did with The Battle of San Romano. But, up in Gloucester, there’s this little part of Gloucester called Folly Cove — did you ever read the book Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel as a kid?
Yes, I did!
Well, this woman called Virginia Burton wrote that in the ’30s, and she did all kinds of block printing. She made a beautiful object out of a kids’ book, and she changed the way people thought of children’s literature, or what should be in a book. So Make Way for Ducklings came out of that a few years later, and then later, Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are — these incredibly beautiful books, and Burton was the one who did the first one.
She and her family went up to Gloucester, and she started this guild. People came in and out as they wanted to over the years, over 30 years it was open, and she taught them linoleum block printing, and they made fabric, they made paper objects, and then all of a sudden, the next thing you know, it’s 1950 and Lord & Taylor wanted to buy some fabric. The arts and crafts moment had exploded, and it came from the 1850s with this old printing press, hand printing. All the little blocks, they’re sitting still today in a beautiful little Cape Ann museum. I think her work was exceptional. It’s folk art, raised to a really high level. Look, here’s a book I have on it.
Has anyone written about her?
I don’t think so. They’ve just done a little tiny PBS biography, about 40 minutes. And you look through the names of the designs that people did, and it’s just like, Dr. So-and-So, Massachusetts General Hospital. And he would have been there and made one plate of a whaling ship, a Gloucester fisherman, and gone off on his merry way back. And this is the 1850 printing press — they still have it there.
And I love these names, too, of her designs — Dance of the Hours, A Fish Story, Kit Nip, Spring Lambs I and II, Grand Right and Left — that’s great. Right and left.
She died in the 1960s, and when the guild disbanded they promised not to print more. That’s her. Beautiful dress, beautiful woman. It was revolutionary. And it’s all done with block printing.
Virginia Lee Burton Demetrios, Swing Tree I, undated. Image courtesy of the Cape Ann Museum.
You asked me before, and I’ve been trying to think back to the first time I was knocked out by a painting. I made a little trail of how I got to poetry by thinking back on all the books I did read that might have led me there. Daddy-Long-Legs, Old Mother West Wind — Thornton Burgess — they were wonderful little stories. Jimmy Skunk, Jack Squirrel. The world — the woods — was, were already peopled for me, peopled with creatures. So when somebody read it to me out of a book, it was like, all of what you read is true. Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm, The Yellow Fairy Book, The Blue Fairy Book. Then straight to Little Women —
Oh, sure. Me too.
And then seamlessly to Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights and Sense and Sensibility.
My poor mother, she was psychotic all her life, and just deeply, deeply. She was awfully destructive to me. But now that I’m so much older I feel such empathy. Because you see, she came to this farm. And she was raised in a city, and went to Emmanuel College, and she wrote poetry — which I didn’t know until much later. She joined the Book of the Month Club in the ’50s. And so these books would arrive, these slipcased books, beautiful, illustrated — and I could see, later, that she had this idea that she would have an intellectual life of some kind. She ordered a few years’ worth, and then stopped ordering. So it wasn’t an excitement we ever shared. I think now how sad it was that those books were just sitting there, and that they didn’t keep coming in.
I read all of them — I couldn’t get enough — and I kept wondering why there weren’t more. But the ones that were there — to me that was the whole world. So that was where I started. Jane Eyre, Sense and Sensibility, and from there to Middlemarch, House of Seven Gables, and Moby-Dick. But even before the novels, there were plays. I started reading plays first.
Because someone had given me these two — and I found them in a bookstore later and I bought them and now I don’t know where they are — little paperback books, the comedies and tragedies of Shakespeare. And they had beautiful little line drawings above the title, and then all the participants, or all the actors. And it didn’t seem far to go from Old Mother West Wind and the woods, the woods people, and the fairies —
— to Midsummer Night’s Dream.
And when Bottom was turned into an ass, it was concrete to me. We had a donkey! I’m sure I had the usual troubles falling over the language, like anybody would — I was really young — but it was like, it seemed like, Of course! Of course! Titania and Oberon, of course! They were right over the hill — they were so real to me.
Yeah. It’s sort of like what you were saying about Matisse at home in all his colors — you recognized that world.
Yes, exactly. Titania and Oberon might as well have been creatures walking around in our own hills — except in Midsummer they could speak so beautifully — and when Bottom was turned into an ass I was not surprised: I had a donkey under my apple tree.
So I read the comedies and tragedies, two little volumes. I would read them at night, and I could barely see, it was so dark and dusty in the room, but I couldn’t stop reading them, and even if I didn’t understand what was happening, it didn’t matter, I just had to keep reading. I was obsessed. I fell madly in love with those plays. And after that I read — we happened to have in the house all of Eugene O’Neill, and a book of orphaned Elizabethan plays that weren’t by Shakespeare. So I read Christopher Marlowe, and I had a little tiny — Kyd?
Thomas Kyd, Spanish Tragedy.
Yes. That’s what I started reading after my little novel that I wrote. And then I wrote plays all through school, and we used to put them on.
We didn’t have any poetry, but my mother had a lot of history, so I also read things like a big scholarly bio of Mary, Queen of Scots. I read Antonia Fraser. Then they started coming out with all of Virginia Woolf’s letters, so I started reading all of those.
We started somewhat similarly, then. When my mom could manage it, she shuttled me books, and she also went by what looked the most grand and beautiful. So sometimes she would scurry off to a Barnes & Noble and there’d be these beautiful — I mean, I’d never buy them now, because there’s clearly no point in them, but I can see the appeal, for someone trying to make sure her kid will be okay, and knows things —
They were those grand-looking fake leather editions with the gilt drawings, and she was on a mission to get me what she thought I’d need, so she wouldn’t be buying me a book, not exactly — she’d be buying Shakespeare for her daughter. It was very sweet.
So, shall we Pinterest? Let’s just scroll.
Okay. I don’t go to Facebook much — it’s a bore — I can’t stand any of the other ones, either, but look, something about this is so great —
[Gesturing at Green's board titled "Illustration and Paint: Women."] Okay, I’m just going to say this out loud, for the sake of the recording: 13,406 pins. On one board. (In the months since we recorded this conversation and my adding this parenthetical, that board has amassed 4,000 more pins, now over 17,000.)
[Beginning by reading from one of her board descriptions.] “I find it utterly astonishing to see portraits from the Etruscans through the Renaissance to the present set side by side — it sheds light on all facets of beauty and how artists have represented women over time.” If you go to some people’s, they have the Nabis and the Fauves all separate, and that’s a very great learning tool. But somehow, I couldn’t.
Yes, makes sense!
And also, these are not just formal portraits. I love stuff out in the woods, out in the beach, strange, and all aspects of women in different parts of their lives, and young girl children … I kept trying to find different kinds of beauty — anyway, that’s what I did with my 13,406 pins —
Oh my god, they’re so different, it’s fantastic.
Isn’t that something? Look: Paul Gauguin’s Washerwomen, isn’t that fabulous?
Paul Gauguin, Washerwomen, 1888. Image courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art.
I started out with just drawings and paintings, but other things just keep slipping in.
If I asked you to pick a cluster of three or so portraits and go wild, could you talk about what appeals to you about them all together?
I can’t pick. When I think about it that way, I find myself choosing formal portraits, but the gallery represents stages of women’s lives, and various “scenes” I feel like I’ve experienced, too. I was so relieved when Corot and Pissarro began to paint women who were occupied, who worked. And then this other board is —
[Looking at the second board on Green's page, "My Little Museum."] Four thousand, six hundred and eighty-nine pins.
These are just paintings that I love, and also just a lot of artists’ self-portraits.
Oh, look at that Picasso!
Pablo Picasso, self-portrait, 1906. Oil on burlap. Image courtesy of the University of New Mexico.
Isn’t that fabulous? He was very young.
This whole thing — your Pinterest as a whole — is incredible.
Well, people have asked you a lot about your biography, and that’s important, and people have asked you a lot about your teachers, and that’s important, too. But your writing has a very singular sensibility and aesthetic and mission, and it comes from a really strong stream of you that I don’t think readers have begun to understand yet. Not beyond or beside illness, but in addition. We’re missing a lot of the context. What makes you tick?
Nobody’s ever asked me about that. Nobody’s ever asked me that.
Do you think I’ve spoken about illness too much? In interviews? And in the memoirs? I wish — how do I explain this. It was hard for me personally to leave out mental illness. I probably discussed it way more than anybody ever wanted to know about it, but it would be like not talking about the elephant in the room. I think for a long time those two points — Derek and Joseph as one, illness as another — were how I defined myself, myself. Because I was obliterated for most of my life. With me, it was like there was somebody who wasn’t home.
My mind was there, but the self wasn’t there, though it’s hard to say how the mind could exist without a self. But when I could attach myself to Derek and Joseph, and when I began to get help, my self began to inhabit itself and the world.
And then, whatever those shock treatments did to me … they took away language for all those months, but they also took away anguish, fear, dread, anxiety, which were my accompanying personas. I didn’t have dolls and I didn’t have imaginary friends, but I had this crowd of harpies around me all the time, and they’re all gone. It’s this incredible miracle, and I sit here and I say, Fuck, what just happened! I’m finally at ease, however old I am, 787 —
… Sure. Yes, that age must be accurate.
Finally, I get to be the person that I was going to be before the harpies tried to push me off a cliff. Wow.
I did a whole Pinterest board on doors. [She shows me.] And I swear, each one represents — why do we read books? So we can live more than one life.
Personal screenshot taken of Melissa’s Pinterest home page, 2016.
When Matisse was a young office clerk, going to be a lawyer, he just happened to look into an open door that went into the lawyer’s office, and the window beyond, and he suddenly saw space. So he painted so many windows, with the internal, the foreground, being one story, and then through the window, seeing something completely different, often a garden, but not always — sometimes a sea, or sailboats. He never said it in so many words, but that those could exist on his plane of vision, it was so thrilling to him. And the open window, it was like an open door on another set of stories.
I’m alive. I’m alive for the first time ever. I don’t have to be afraid. I’m not afraid. And to not be afraid, and to not be grief-stricken all the time.
So what is it like, to feel alive and unafraid — and to have regained language?
I don’t know if life could be any fuller for me. I mean I sit in this little kitchen all day long. But the whole world is here. And even when I lost language, I realized I still have whatever it is inside a person that makes it absolutely necessary to create something — makes it so compelling that you have to do it. My hands used to hurt to make something.
I don’t think you were wrong to talk about mental illness. The problem is a cultural one: the second it comes up the rest of us can’t talk about anything else. And there’s a particular way that this affects women — you say something like trauma or mental illness, and it becomes the whole conversation. I was just talking to a friend about this: the Sylvia Plath conversation is still, She put her head in an oven after making a snack for her kids.
Right. Yes. Right, exactly.
But Colossus! Ariel! Or, we could talk for the 5,000th time about how Ted Hughes cheated on her. And I’m not trying to divorce the two — biography and poetry — nor am I trying to say that we’ve spoken enough about illness and suffering, in any sense, for women or for anyone else besides. Of course not. It’s only that I think the way we think about them sometimes does actually divorce biography and poetry in a way that silos poetry to the detriment of both, and to the detriment of dialogue.
I know. You know, my first psychiatrist, the one I had for eight years starting when I was 22, he said to my mother on the telephone, Your daughter is fixated on Sylvia Plath, and I fully expect her to commit suicide. Fixated on Sylvia Plath? I had barely read her — I mean, she was among the people I read, but I didn’t say, oh there’s my role model. I loved her work.
When did you get interested in Pinterest? Which of these boards came first?
I discovered it was a way to hoard images of all kinds of things that I loved. I thought it was wonderful. The first one was the one with those doors — so many places to live, entries into imagined interesting lives.
Henri Matisse, Open Window, Collioure, 1905. Image courtesy of the National Gallery of Art.
So what you’re saying about Pinterest is that for you, it’s like those open windows were for Matisse. These are some of your open windows. In some cases, windows into windows. And you explore them all here, seated at this table next to your kitchen window.
How did you become interested in visual art?
Wyeth was one of the first painters that I knew. In both art and poetry, I started with the familiar — Wyeth was the painter, and Robert Frost, when I was in high school, was the poet. I took a college class, and it was like total immersion. I’d hardly read any poetry up till then. It had been only Frost, Frost, Frost, Frost, five days a week. And I was so knocked out — it took me years to recover.
Sure, that’s a lot of Frost.
[Looking along as Green moves from her board of doors into one full of ceramic, glass, and textiles.] Oh, my god, what’s that vase? It looks volcanic.
I know. It’s pottery. Sometimes the pottery looks like glass, this is when the glass looks like pottery. And look at that pot — it looks knitted.
It does! They’re like knitted seashells.
So, it’s a lot of ceramics, and a lot of glass. But then, some furniture, and look at how old this is. Look at that. A little fireplace, a Calder brooch, so it’s just anything that doesn’t go anywhere else. A lot of these are from the Victoria and Albert Museum — it has this incredible fabric costume department, it’s just to die for. All kinds of embroidery here, and I have a lot of lace and crochet and tatting. All of this has come back in a big way.
Yeah, my mom learned — when she was a little girl — she does tatting.
These kinds of crafts are worldwide, all the people are bringing out all of their old tools, learning how to do them — these here are all quilts.
It’s a quilt with a window! And once again we’re back to the idea of windows in things and looking out on other things.
This is the stuff that makes my head just go. I almost have to wear a bib when I look at this.
Have you always loved textiles, or did you discover them after you lost language?
I’ve always loved the tactile — ribbons, lace, and fabric have sent me over the moon since I was a child. I knitted quite stupendously at one point in my life. Do you remember the Windsor Button shop in downtown Boston? My granny used to take me there, and it was as thrilling as going to Johnson’s art store, where she also took me. And my mother was a fabulous seamstress. Although I’d never done anything except for knitting, I loved all that, enormously. When I lost my language, I was thrown violently back on my old love of ribbon, lace, silks, satins, organzas, velvets. I felt like I’d been “possessed by Eros.”
This conversation is reminding me some of a theorist, Eve Sedgwick. Her book Touching Feeling; among other things, it’s a meditation on texture, and its catalyst is the work of Judith Scott, a fiber artist who was deaf, mute, had Down syndrome, and was hospitalized for much of her life. And then there’s Sedgwick’s own experience as a textile artist, which she describes in "Making Things, Practicing Emptiness": right before her cancer was diagnosed as incurable — but not, she suspects, before she and her body knew that had come to be the case — she says she had "fallen suddenly, intrusively, and passionately in love with doing textile work." And there is something about fabric, texture, textile.
I mean, god, look at that. Speaking of “possessed by Eros.”
I think that’s actually Alexander McQueen.
Alexander McQueen, from Plato’s Atlantis, 2010. Image courtesy of Style.com
McQueen is one of my favorite designers! How did I never know you like fashion?
There’s more McQueen in here. Look at this! He was a total nutcase!
Remarkably and wonderfully so.
I don’t know if you look at couture, but —
I do, yeah.
All the couturier stuff right now, it’s all embroidered and beaded. It’s like five years since he died, and everything. Everybody is doing it. And look at these — these beautiful gowns from all over the world —
I’ve been trying to embroider? It is the funniest thing. You see? [Going back to her home page, gesturing at a different board.] I had to make a board for embroidery lessons.
With 920 pins. All this voracious collecting reminds me, by the way — I love Magpiety as a title for your collected poems.
Oh, good. In my heart, it sounds like mag, hag, bag lady. That suited me. That was perfect. It was my deep dread, from the time I was this high. How I even knew what a bag lady was, I don’t know, but I knew that was how I was going to end up. The bag lady is tucked into Magpiety, and it was perfectly fine that nobody would ever know: I would know.
Like a little secret. Can you tell me how you came up with the name?
Mark Strand had used it in some fashion — I think that’s where I got it from.
The word itself means a sort of funny, askew, off-kilter version of piety, or not-entirely-real piety — but there also seems to be something different going on in your use of it, your version. It seems like your definition of the word is more like a worshipping, a gathering together, which is what magpies do. And that feels somewhat along the lines of what Miłosz spoke to, with "What is magpiety? I shall never achieve / A magpie heart."
In language, I like all the shiny bits, and that’s what magpies like. And there’s also the connection between being a magpie and between being a hoarder. And that may be true, too! Maybe that’s what this is: I’m hoarding all this stuff on Pinterest. At least it’s not in my house!
Listen, you’re talking to someone who takes pictures of everything. As far as I can tell, my house is cleanish —
And your mind is very full.
Right. Don’t you have to hoard? In a way?
Somewhere! [She scrolls down her home Pinterest page until her eye catches on a board titled “color,” with almost 70,000 pins. She clicks.] Okay. And this board, it’s just full of things with color. Color — I think of it as a vitamin, honest to god.
Have you read Victoria Finlay, who wrote Color? I was going to get you her latest book, The Brilliant History of Color in Art, but I figured that you already had it.
Oh, thank you. I do have it — my friend in New Zealand actually, the last time I was in the hospital, she read me the whole book, and sent me all the chapters and everything in MP3 form.
So [pointing to the screen again] these are just pictures that have color. Intense color.
Gorgeous, just gorgeous. It’s funny, I’ve posted a lot of pastel colors, but I tend to think of myself as liking the violent — the violet and violent.
Wisteria. An untitled image on Green’s board of vibrant color.
[Scrolling.] And I started this other one here — I love puppets. Puppets, marionettes: I wish I could do that. Maybe in another life. But anyway, this one is puppets, marionettes, dolls, sculptures, and Venetian masks. They all go together as representations of us in some way, of the human form — some of it’s glitter, some of it’s ancient work, some of it’s ancient art, and it all belongs together for me.
And you call it "I Contain Multitudes" — from Whitman — which reminds me of another running idea here: that we have many lives, many faces. You have a board of portraits of thousands of women, thousands of kinds of women. You have a board full of self-portraits, wild and different. Not only different artist to artist, but different within each artist’s oeuvre — the different ways in which they saw each other. You have quilts that have windows, vases that are fishes, masks that change their wearer’s face into a different face. And your books, too — each one of them contains a different self, in subject, tone, form, syntax, rhythm.
“Love takes off the masks we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within.” That’s James Baldwin.
So, speaking of love and masks — and moving to your books — I’d love to hear more about the different selves in them. What does containing multitudes mean to you and your work? Let’s start with The Squanicook Eclogues, your first book, which is in memory of your dad, and Daphne in Mourning, your second, which is in memory of Brodsky. What else animates them?
If each of my books contains a different self in the ways you describe — and I believe they do — I think it’s a function of two things: time and eruptions of my illness on the one hand, and a curiosity about some part of the craft I was struggling to learn on the other. Each book and self came in to being because I loved something in the language I wanted to explore, as I was becoming my full self.
I’d say Squanicook was written in a classical mode, my attempt to master first the crucial line, then pentameter, off-rhyme, and varied rhyme schemes. Giving grief a voice and a form. A wild horse caught, fought with.
Daphne in Mourning is, to me, clearly a book carved out of wormwood, perforated by bitterness and grief again. The elegies were written sporadically over many years when I was too ill to work regularly; I was ill more often than well during those dark years — the fitfulness and the fragility of the poems is apparent to me. In that book, more than any other, the self and the language developed at different paces. When I could concentrate, I was interested in exploring the longer poem, how to manage the narrative and pour the molten material into different forms.
And what about The Heloise, your unpublished book that tells the story of Heloise and Abelard; and your short sequence of "Mad Maud" poems, which were meant to be a book of their own? In your introduction to Magpiety — which was going to be the title of the book you wanted the Maud poems to grow into — you describe the relationship between you and your books as similar to "Eliot’s lantern," which "throws the pattern of nerves on a screen." How would you describe the lantern show in these two books?
The Heloise was difficult from the beginning, but it’s the book of which I am most proud. I was fiercely attentive to words dredged from forgotten and unused English, and found myself inventing a language that was meant to stand in for the French, Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic that Heloise knew — that my characters might inhabit and use as though it were their own. I have no idea how many drafts of The Heloise there are. Its transmogrification was intense: it began as poetry, became a novel, morphed into being a stage play, even became (for an infinite minute) an opera. It now is a lyrical novel of some 400-plus pages liberally sprinkled with poems.
The first Magpiety — that is, the unpublished book with the Maud poems (not my new and selected) — focused on the two characters who appear in the anonymous 16th-century poem “Tom O’Bedlam’s Song,” and its lesser known companion, “Mad Maud.” Like The Heloise, these poems required a great deal of historical research, an enormous linguistic inventiveness, and very long lines. I had thought to write an entire book of Maud’s poems, but it turned out to be merely nine. Maud stands in for me in this book. I imagined her as my ancestor, the one who carried the gene for mental illness, and lived in fear, poverty, with no care, comfort, comprehension.
With Fifty-Two, which was published in full in 2007, you spoke about almost losing your foot and finding that your metrical foot had been altered in the process, too. It’s funny that your metaphor is feet; I’ve always heard the Fifty-Two poems — and these were my introduction to you in a big way, the selection of them in AGNI 66 quite early in my time with the magazine — as something of a riotous dance on a graveyard. You have your characteristic lushness of language, your violet self, but also there’s something new. Sexuality and bodies here are less mythical; your diction has more moments of colloquialism. Although you still have "unguent on your lips," you’re also wearing "fuck-me pumps," and you’re "on broken concrete, with carious teeth and barking with laughter."
And then The Marsh Poems. These seem to have a new tone, too, a distinctly post-Fifty-Two tone.
I wrote The Marsh Poems in my mid-50s. It was the first time I’d ever been able to work every single day, which astounded me. They evolved when I walked every morning down little seaside lanes to the marsh and protected wetland that borders, with the sea, the town that I live in.
I sat on a disintegrating tie of the tiny, almost toylike, narrow-gauge railroad here in Winthrop that had circled the town in its heyday as a summer holiday resort before the turn of the 19th century. The wooden rail had tumbled from the roadbed into the sand, the tide softening and beginning to bury it. I would sit quite close to the water. I hadn’t had such happiness since I’d written pages of exacting, botanical prose for Derek as the foundation for what became Squanicook.
I went every morning for a spring and summer, and it felt as though all I had to do was open my notebook and a poem would appear, written in invisible ink, needing only salt and sun to make it surface. The poems called for very long lines, less rhyme, more a focus on seeing clearly and articulating the beauties of that place, and who I became there because of it.
Oh, look [she has begun scrolling through Pinterest again, and points to another board] — here are the antique typewriters. Because when I was seven I asked for a typewriter. And my mom actually got me one. It was too heavy to carry around. But I started typing my stuff in first grade. I knew I was going to be a writer in first grade.
That’s so cool.
And this one is art made only with beautiful paper, paper, paper — you have to see these Isabelle de Borchgrave’s, and these incredible pieces made by Li Hongbo, this former book editor. Another with anything sewn, embroidered: people like Raoul Dufy, William Morris. And then I have two secret boards. One has things that inspire me, and this has instructions for every kind of art that I’d want to know: how to make this, how to make that …
Eight hundred and fifty-seven pins. Like what?
Melissa. Personal photograph taken during this conversation, 2015.
All kinds of things — I mean, I don’t know if I’m ever going to use them — how to make little boxes. How to read a tape measure.
Oh, god, I need that one.
I know! It’s just like anything that looks just faintly like it might be fun. How to shade with colored pencils. How to chop a leek! Very important.
I wanted to make sure to also ask you about the kinds of things that wouldn’t make it to a Pinterest board. Movies, or theater —
I’m crazy about theater! When I was in college, I went to so many plays. Local theater companies. The best thing: opera. Don’t even get me started on opera. I was in Iowa, and there was this little tiny bookseller — and I’m always on great terms with my local booksellers. Wherever I live, first thing I do is get a library card and then find out where the bookstore is. There was this one little guy who was such a sweetheart and had a huge crush on me, which cracked me up. And one time I went over, the door was open, but he wasn’t anywhere, so I went downstairs. And he was sick, so I brought him soup and a sandwich, took care of him for a week, tried to run the cash register, which was really hilarious. And as a thank-you, he took me to the opera — Iowa City has a little opera company. And I had never been to it, so I was thrilled. I knew what opera was, but I’d never heard a show — and it was three little short operas, they call them trittico, operas of Puccini.
And I sat there, and I was levitating. And they began to sing, and the music — my hairs were standing, and I was crying. I cried through the whole thing, just — I was so overwhelmed, it was so beautiful, it was the best of everything, the combination of exquisite music, paralyzingly beautiful voices, a story, a narrative —
Costumes, set design, melodrama. Melodrama has such a bad name. Well, I’m sorry, everything we love is in it. It was one of the most powerful experiences I have ever had. In this little tiny auditorium. They did a beautiful job. I was so gobsmacked, I couldn’t leave my chair. I couldn’t walk. I was so —
I’ve had those kinds of reactions to things.
I was so … speechless with … how many years ago — 40 years ago. I mean, I still can’t tell you. I cried for those two hours, and I thought I would never get out of that auditorium. Opera is something that I absolutely am nuts for. And oh, anything to do with theater. And then when I came up here and went to Boston, Friday afternoons the Boston Symphony would have free admission — or it cost like two dollars — and you’d go in for two dollars and hear the symphony! To sit in that beautiful, beautiful auditorium.
Movies, that’s one thing I lost that didn’t come back, hasn’t come back yet. I used to be a movie nut. And I would go look at anything, and the more foreign the better. I loved everything about movies. I loved listening to the directors talk, I loved listening to the lighting guys talk. When I first got Netflix — I thought Netflix was the greatest invention ever.
Oh, my god. Netflix and Netflix streaming, too, just brilliant.
I thought it was the greatest revelation.
You know what I have to show you? It’s Godard’s latest — it’s called Goodbye to Language. Let me find you a trailer. It’s stunning. This might bring you back to film.
It was so hard after I lost language — I mean, I didn’t even know that it was gone. It was like, it’d been scooped out of me. And little by little things would come back, and I’d say, oh, I didn’t realize I’d lost that too. Like, film — it just hasn’t come back.
There’s nothing I don’t love. Well, I haven’t found my way in to science fiction. But that’s about it.
I’ll send you a DVD of Goodbye to Language. I swear it’ll be the ticket to get back to that. It was made for you, in this moment.
Is there anything …? The only thing I’ve never wanted to do is, oh, let’s say — the luge?
Sure. Well, I’d do that. I’m curious.
Right. And so are you, about almost everything except the luge. And that comes through in tone, too. In person and on the page. And with great humor, often. It’s like you say in "Pictures," from Fifty-Two: "I ought to laugh — and sometimes do."
I’m hilarious! Yet people tiptoe around me so gingerly.
People think they can see the horizon, and then get startled to learn that horizons are multiple, and aren’t where we think they are. But the world can be pretty fucking funny. Scary and grief-filled, but also funny.
It can be. Yeah! I mean, I want my universe to tilt. I don’t want my horizon to be in the same place every day.
I mean, I love that it is, but if it tilts sometimes, it’s like, Okay! [Grabbing her kitchen table, pantomiming holding on to a tilting plane.] Let’s get going! It’s like surfboarding —
White-water rafting, yeah —
And then: Where are we now?
Yes. Where are we now.
Sumita Chakraborty is assistant poetry editor of AGNI and a doctoral candidate in English at Emory University.
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