Thomas March is a poet, critic, and teacher originally from Springfield, Illinois. He teaches English at an independent school in Manhattan, New York City. Aftermath, his first poetry collection, was selected by Joan Larkin for The Word Works Hilary Tham Capital Collection. Other recent work has appeared in Bellevue Literary Review (“The Barn,” Pushcart nomination), The Account, The Common Online, Confrontation, The Good Men Project, Pleiades, and RHINO. His poetry column, “Appreciations,” appears regularly in Lambda Literary Review and promotes new poetry by offering close readings of poems from recent collections.
Virginia Woolf’s Walking Stick
Before she filled
all her pockets
with river stones
to return them
to the river
one more horror
the cruelest way
that words are not
she left the one
thing that would float.
She must have leaned
on that cane, so
careful to stay
along the way
it once. After
a tour, I asked
if it was true
that it was there.
He drew it from
placed it across
my open palms,
as one might give
someone a sword.
It was bamboo,
so small, so light.
I leaned my weight
on it, just once
as she must have,
just once, before
all was weightless,
and I couldn’t
not think about
how fragile things
are so often
stronger than we
believe they are—
how hard it was
to give it back
the question of
what one would leave
by the river.
in the pump’s weight
was the water.
would let me try
and fail, before
with one hand, he
I couldn’t move
with all the weight
of my body.
I held the cup
under the spout.
Once, it had been
the house and fields.
But now, it was
a treat for me
through the pasture.
I balanced on
the rolling mass
of black walnuts
under my feet,
don’t know about.
From a walnut
tree the lightning
split, a hired man
who used to tell
to her brothers
built the cabinet
keeps china in.
And then the hot
tin cup was cold
with the water.
It tasted new,
and clean, like dirt
smells after rain.
I never thought
about what lived
down in that well—
what crept along
the wood or stone
or lay quiet
at the bottom,
trapped or waiting.
Interview with Thomas March by Sierra LaFollette and Matthew Glaser
MG: To start, how did you hear about Negative Capability Press?
TM: Well, I had known about the press, and then a couple poet friends of mine were talking about the poetry feature. I checked it out and thought, “Well, this would be an interesting thing to apply for.” I like the way the interviews and the work go together, and there’s a sampling of whatever the person is working on. Sometimes we don’t get to talk about what we’re currently working on because we are responding to what’s already out there and how people are responding to that.
SL: We wonder what led you to submit “Virginia Woolf’s Walking Stick” and “Well Water”?
TM: Those are two poems that are relatively new and aren’t in the current book. I wanted a chance to get those out there. They speak to many of the same themes that are in my new book Aftermath, particularly themes about death and memory and family, but they’re doing so in ways I haven’t addressed before; I wanted to give certain ideas more air.
MG: How recent are those two poems?
TM: I think I started them this fall. It’s hard to say because most of the time, if I'm finishing a poem, it’s existed for a very long time, in scraps and in folders.
SL: Can you explain what your writing process looks like?
TM: I can probably count on one hand the number of times I composed a full draft of a poem right at the start. Some people compose that way, and then their revision process goes from there. I usually start with a lot of lines, phrases, ideas, and strong images, and collect those. When I figure out what belongs in a poem, they get a folder. Then, at some point, when I know it’s time to write that poem, I spread them out and figure what makes sense together. Before it becomes a full draft, it will suggest itself. And then there is the editing, however long it takes.
MG: That sounds like quite a process.
TM: It’s messy, but at some point I think I had to learn to trust the mess. When you’re a young writer and you’re not sure if you’re doing it right, I think it’s easy to fall into the trap of comparing yourself to other people you imagine for whom first drafts might come easy. But things come out in the form they need to take—and some other people just don’t write that way. It takes some seasoning and some trust development with yourself before you can realize you can let things be for a while until they suggest the form they need to take. All it takes is a few times being happy with what results to realize you can trust your own process. Look, I'm a 44-year-old person whose first book is just now coming out.
SL: Can you tell us a bit more about Aftermath?
TM: It took a while to figure out I could stand by and be happy with this collection in its entirety. It occurred to me last spring to reorganize the poems to create a better arc, so I broke the poems down into four categories.
The title Aftermath suggested itself because the poems relate to being in the aftermath of something else. There’s a section on queer legacy and community, one on longing and relationships, a section on family, and a final section on death and mourning. And those are all situations of “after-ness.” Once that structure suggested itself, editing came easy, because there were some poems that didn’t seem to belong in the book..
SL: So, switching gears a bit, if you could have coffee with anyone, whom would you choose?
TM: Does it have to be a living person? If it can be anyone in history, I might feel compelled to say Jesus or Buddha or risk seeming spiritually bereft in some way. So I will pick two non-religious figures who are no longer alive, but they’re at least kind-of contemporary: Virginia Woolf and James Baldwin. I think they make a lot of sense together as people who care about representing experience on the page in very particular ways. But the reason I'd like to have coffee with those two people, aside from comparing notes, is that they were able to combine outrage and laughter. Not necessarily always on the page, but they possess a sense of humor that does not exist separately from a real and a deeply felt outrage about injustice. There’s something about being wickedly funny that lends itself to being outrageously peeved, perturbed, and dismayed by the world.
MG: So who inspires you as a writer? Would you say that Virginia Woolf and James Baldwin fall into that? Are there more?
TM: Well, there’s a passage at the end of James Baldwin's essay “Notes of a Native Son” that speaks to the turmoil that’s happening in our country especially with regard to how people approach notions of and responses to what they would consider the “other” to be. Baldwin writes:
“It began to seem that one would have to hold in mind forever two ideas which seemed to be in opposition. The first idea was acceptance, the acceptance, totally without rancor, of life as it is, and men as they are: in light of this idea, it goes without saying that injustice is commonplace. But this did not mean that one could be complacent, for the second idea was of equal power: that one must never, in one’s own life, accept these injustices as commonplace but must fight them with all one’s strength.”
In order to exist in the world, you have to accept the fact that things will be unjust. You have to be able to confront and face that reality. This means signing on to feeling a lot of pain. Only then are you equipped for part two, which is: now what do you do? What do you do about injustice that you find intolerable?
I don’t know if you know the book Knots, by RD Laing. He was a British psychoanalyst who revolutionized attitudes toward schizophrenia and mental illness generally in the UK in the ‘50s and ‘60s. The book Knots is a very, very thin volume that will take you seventeen years to read. Each one of these poems is an attempt to represent the layers of assumptions people have of one another in the simplest situations. He traces all the projections you have about another person. “I think this of you. I think this of you because you think this of me. You think this of me because I think this of you thinking this of me.” It’s a book I’d say to put on your desk and see who picks it up.
SL: Thanks for mentioning these books, but what are you reading now?
TM: I have Richard Ellmann’s Oscar Wilde, which I never quite made it all the way through. I’m starting it again because I'm on sabbatical, and I have time. I am rereading Moby Dick. I am reading this at a time when I read differently than twenty years ago, and it’s forcing me to face what that real difference is. I don’t think it’s just age. The difference between forty-four and twenty-four in terms of the ease with which you read is not that vast, except for the depth of your understanding, maybe.
I'm reading Thom Gunn’s poems, making my way through more of those, and I started my first audiobook. I’ve never listened to an audiobook, but I thought, “You know, something has to happen while I’m cleaning the apartment, so I may as well be putting words in my ears. Besides music.” The first book I got was Hillary Clinton's What Happened, I have to tell you, because I’m a political junkie. Politics is like my football; it’s my favorite sport.
SL: Let’s move from sitting still to moving around. What is a favorite place you’ve visited?
TM: Most of my travel by volume is between New York and Charlotte, North Carolina, because my partner lives down there. I spend a lot of time in Charlotte and around Charlotte. Both of us love Asheville. He’s an architect, so we visit Biltmore quite a lot. Asheville is a very good place for artists, so we like to spend time there. His family also lives in North Carolina. My family lives in Illinois, so we spend time visiting my family. Probably half of our travel has to do with going back and forth visiting our two families. I'll admit to this in print because I don’t think there’s any shame in it, but our favorite place to go is Las Vegas.
We were in Paris and London this past summer. We spent a lot of time in museums and walking around surprising ourselves with what’s there. It sounds pretentious, but it’s just kind of lazy. We like to walk around and see what there is without an agenda. We have plans to go back to Paris and London this coming summer. I'm hoping to do a few readings over there this time.
MG: What is it like to be a poet in New York City? Do you get a moment where you see something, and it kind-of inspires some work? What’s it like for you?
TM: What is it like to be a poet in New York City? Is there anything that is especially poet-friendly about New York? My honest answer is no. Or it depends. New York City is the only place where I could be a poet because this is a place where most things I care about are— but I also like spending time in the country, which you can’t do in New York City.
That said, it’s also exhausting to live in the city because of crowdedness, energy and other people’s moods and attitudes coming from all sides. But it makes my work possible, or at least what gives me energy for any kind of creative work. It’s not only New York City. A lot of cities have creative centers, but NYC has music, theatre, dance, opera, poetry, drama, fiction, all of it.
SL: So, that segues well into the next question, which is about your new project [A Good Mixer] and about collaboration. Can you tell us a little more about that?
TM: It started because my friend Valerie Mendelson, who is a painter and an art historian, started painting portraits of cocktails. We call them portraits now because they’re associated with different people. We were having lunch one day, and it occurred to me that I had this cocktail guide from 1933 that I had found in a box of things my mother got at an auction. It’s called A Good Mixer, published by an alcohol distributor in 1933, the year prohibition ended. It was full of cocktails you’ve never heard of, many of them with an actual person’s name attached to it. For example, there's a Jack’s Cocktail. There’s a Sadie’s Flip. They’re things that suggest a person or personality, and I suggested to Valerie, “Why don't I write a poem to go with each cocktail, and we’ll figure out from this guide which cocktail would inspire a painting.” I realized what would be even more interesting—if each of these cocktails that represented a character had a poem as well.
We decided we would do thirty-three portraits in honor of 1933, the year prohibition ended. It would be a good mix of different couples in relationships with each other. The things that might be on someone’s mind, unspoken, at a gathering that is supposed to be relatively light. A cocktail party is never as light as it pretends to be. If someone has a serious illness, if someone is in a relationship and it’s in a decline, that’s still there at a cocktail party. Ideally, the project will be displayed in a gallery space, with each painting paired with two poems, in a triptych—one poem representing the character’s inner voice, and the other representing what the character presents to others.. It’s a party in progress.
It won’t always be something that’s very clear. There won’t be a brochure that says: “Now so-and-so is married to so-and-so.” The names [of the cocktails] are gender neutral. Some of the names such as Jack can be a woman’s nickname. There are a lot of names like that.
MG: What’s the process of assigning personalities to the cocktails?
TM: It’s more like assigning cocktails to the personalities, as it turned out. I’ve got an elaborate Excel spreadsheet with each of the cocktails and what’s in each one of them because I wanted to see if those things actually suggest personality. But what's the personality of vermouth? I don't think you can nail that down. I started with a core of maybe six to ten, and then I built on it over time. Now we have thirty-three, for sure. I have a couple who are the hosts of the party; I have a couple where one is a much older man with a younger man; there’s one where the man is in love with another man, and the wife doesn’t know.
There are couples like that, and it’s not always a hidden secret. There’s someone who’s dying but people don’t know it, who is very cavalier about death outwardly but is very frightened inwardly. There is someone who’s just witnessed a death but can’t talk about it because it’s a party situation, yet all she can think about is how she just watched this man die on the way to the party. I think about the concept of living together and apart; it’s not really two separate things. It’s the simultaneity of those things.
SL: Do you have a favorite cocktail? Either your personal favorite or of the paintings? Or both?
TM: I dread trying most of the cocktails in the book. By the time the project is over, I will try them all, but it’s not often you go into the liquor store and buy a bottle of Benedictine. All I ever drink is a vodka soda or a vodka neat.
MG: One final question: what advice would you give to upcoming writers, whether they’re poets or fiction writers or playwrights? What would you suggest to motivate them or get them started, or reassure them if they’re nervous about expressing themselves through writing?
TM: Well luckily, I teach. Unlike some people who get asked this question and it has to be theoretical, I get to answer. One of the reasons it’s a pleasure and an inspiration to keep answering this question is that it’s the same answer whether you are brand new or publishing your tenth book.
Figure out what you care about. Figure out what you’re interested in. Take it seriously, and recognize that it might deepen. Trust what you’re interested in and spend your time investigating that. Form and craft, those are things you can learn and discipline yourself. Talent is not something you can derive just from discipline. But you need discipline to cultivate it.
Be interested in yourself, in what you care about, and ask why. Who else has thought about that? Who else has written about that? Read more of what they have written. Not to be imitative, but to find your compatriot, to find your comrade. Trust yourself enough that you can be freer in what you produce and less inhibited because you’ve proven to yourself that you can fix things. Don’t hold back.