Peter Grandbois is a writer, poet and playwright, who teaches English and Narrative Non-fiction Writing at Denison University in Granville, Ohio. Grandbois is the author of eight books. His poems, stories, and essays have appeared in…Read More
BLOG & INTERVIEWS
Negative Capability Press will features a poet on our website every month. To submit yourself for consideration, follow the instructions on our Submissions page.
Cordelia Hanemann is a native of Southwest Louisiana. The daughter of an army officer and diplomat, she has lived in Japan and London as well as in the US. Hanemann earned a PhD from LSU with a dissertation on the language of contemporary poetry and developed a career as a university professor. A published poet, her work has appeared in literary journals, anthologies, and in her own chapbook, Through a Glass Darkly. Hanemann resides in Raleigh, North Carolina where she is a working artist and writer, currently working on a novel about her roots in Cajun Louisiana.
who died one night in a hospital room
and I didn’t even know though we’d
shared life and death hundreds of times
over coffee and cigarettes in her living room
ensconced on the second-hand couch
with the calico throw hiding years of abuse.
It was either cancer or chemo that killed her:
first, tiny harbingers of death,
breeding like adders in her lungs
poisoning breath, stealing life,
then lethal juices shot through her veins
to nab cellular beasts but, got Betsy instead.
My Betsy, who regretted
she’d ever smoked,
stoked by yearnings
for life but consumed
by combustions in her chest.
Respiration, radiation, exhalation:
her vitality waned
to a simple orange glow
with each suck of air—inhale.
I watched her incinerate—exhale
to a cylinder of ash—inhale.
How she smoldered with rage—exhale
at the choices she’d made—inhale
out of ignorance, expedience—exhale
an addiction to belonging—inhale
at 13 to the crowd of cool girls who smoked
Still smoking at 35—cinders of hopes—
two daughters she’d never see women,
friends like me, dreams churned up
by the encroaching orange flame,
Betsy on her funeral pyre,
consumed by one final fire.
Like Gemini Only Different:
I have come back. The room we shared
is bare now, the climbing rose that crept
along the back fence, a snarl
of stems and thorns: papery petals
crumble under the crush of my thoughts.
Mother was such an indifferent gardener.
The family’s gathered; everyone is here,
but you, and Dad, of course,
your absence everywhere.
Though two maple saplings now flank
the front gate, it seems about the same:
behind the playhouse in the back yard,
the tire swing hangs from the crooked willow oak,
and grass still won’t grow on the digging place.
That we two were the last in the litter
of busy older boys never seemed to bother you.
Then again, you by yourself were always two,
like Gemini, only different, divided,
double—Walter-Craig—even your name:
my brother, my friend, my phantom.
Once, I thought I knew you—your need
to swing higher, run harder,
beat me at every game.
I loved your raucous laughter,
how you brought Mother dandelions,
lost yourself in music.
I, the quiet older brother, followed your lead,
as we tried on imaginary lives like play clothes,
defended leaf-pile forts with tree-limb guns,
or sailed to wars in cardboard boxes.
Like Gemini, Only Different
Then, you sailed away; became someone else.
I no longer knew you, your need…
your laughter high and light,
your body hard in strange new clothes,
your only friends, then, other men.
We were traveling to different ports.
That final week in San Francisco,
your body slumped in a rented wheelchair,
you fought a different battle.
You wore a baseball cap to hide your disrepair.
For your birthday celebration,
Mother exchanged the soiled pajamas
for your silver silk and rayon suit
that hung on your bones like play clothes.
We ordered an exotic steak
you couldn’t even swallow for our sake;
dry red wine choked in your throat,
the words of the toast unspoken in mine.
I picked up the tab and drove you home to rest.
Mother reminds me, I’m now her youngest son.
Portrait of two small sisters—
rosy cheeks and smiles,
holding prim little purses,
pastel pinafores starched and pressed,
patent leather shoes, white gloves,
cotton ankle sox with lace ruffles—
Jeanne and I are the end of things,
the children derived from white lies:
Night lights that burn
in the hall at noon,
blank by dusk;
Vacant daddy-made playhouse
snug in the back yard,
rickety wooden lawn chairs
where mother’s red-lipped laugh
jangles like ice in her glass,
daddy’s dark eyes blurred
behind a film of smoke.
on the kitchen floor
puddled in bourbon drool;
in the bathroom doorway
I, who planned to fly, played palomino,
but ran into the side of the house;
Jeanne, who threw scissors across the room,
pots and pans, dolls’ clothes and heads:
We were the kids who slipped
from the table under the arc
of their switch, to spit burnt toast
into the toilet, and flush—
Portrait of two small sisters hangs
now in the untenanted living room.
An Interview with Coredelia Hanemann
SBW: Let’s begin with a bit of fantasy. If we could be anywhere this morning -- in a coffee shop. I’m having a mocha-latte. Or perhaps we’re in New Orleans walking along the Mississippi as we talk. You choose the place for our conversation.
First of all, I want to thank you for reading my poems and for selecting me for the featured poet's slot. I feel honored to be in the company of dear friend-poets, Tony Reevy and Maria Rouphail. And I'm thrilled to see that you appreciate my poetry.
That said, I'd love to sit with you in a CC's coffee shop in New Orleans where we could nurse our dark rich Arabica French roast coffee, heavily laced with cream and sugar, or to stroll beneath the oaks of City Park on this brilliant spring day. But actually, I invite you to the back deck of my house here in North Carolina. I can make a mean mocha with a Luzianne coffee base. We can sit beneath the spreading branches of an oak that makes my elevated deck feel like a tree house. We are surrounded by my garden--vegetables on one side, shade annuals blooming with the last azaleas and my palette of greens, creams, blues--hostas, fatsias, farfugias, hydrangeas--all shade lovers. Welcome.
SBW: Let’s talk about poetry first. Both of your poems, “Like Gemini Only Different” and “White Lies” are about family and rooms as well. Is family – and rooms – themes in your work?
I love to talk about poetry. Family is definitely one of my recurrent themes. The complexities of my first family as well as the family I created seem to be more comprehensible and manageable when elucidated through the language of poetry--and for me as a poet, through the process of writing the poems. As I have aged, I have re-evaluated my parents, their life choices, the effects of their choices and behaviors--good and bad. Bringing my poet's mind and heart and vision to the old stories has generated new insights and understandings, and in many ways has enabled me to make peace with the past. Plus, I do love stories and many of my poems rely on family narratives of one kind or another.
The poem "Like Gemini, Only Different" originated in a friend's struggle with the death of his younger brother from AIDS. I was so moved by his story and by my friend's anguish, that I felt compelled to capture it all in the poem.
You ask about houses and rooms as recurrent themes. Houses should be places of safety and belonging; they're the places we go home to as in "Like Gemini…". The persona returns home for family and for celebration, but life brings painful changes and shifts in the family dynamic, so going home can be filled as much with sadness and loss as with familiarity and celebration.
Too often, too, these houses either aren't safe or comforting, as in "White Lies." Many families are broken; bad or strange things happen in our homes. My alcoholic parents' erratic behaviors were disturbing to the little girls growing up in our childhood house, but it is the adult poet who can write the story and capture the sense of displacement and estrangement we experienced in that house.
In my poem "To Betsy," the house was a place of companionship--life stories and experiences shared over cups of coffee. Only, that wonderful house, too, was transformed by the tragedy of Betsy's cancer and finally the loss of the mother of the household.
SBW: I note that you are a poet and a scholar and have written a dissertation on the language of contemporary poetry – specifically Diane Wakoski. She gave a reading at the University of South Alabama in Mobile – and stayed as a guest at our house. She has long been a favorite poet of mine; we still keep in touch. What do you think are Wakosi’s major contributions to American poetry?
I am so thrilled at your connection to Diane Wakoski. Unfortunately, I never met her myself or even had the pleasure of hearing her read. I was fifty when I went off to graduate school to work on my PhD and fifty-eight, working full-time at a small liberal arts college, when I finished my dissertation, which I wrote in the interstices between lesson plans, faculty obligations and meetings, grading papers, and ministering to students. I'm so envious of your opportunity to spend time with her.
I found in her volume, Emerald City of Las Vegas, a rich source of ideas about the relation of language to identity formation, the real subject of my dissertation. Wakoski has the unique and wonderful capacity to weave myriad threads into the tapestry of her poetry: love, art, nature, personal history-mythology, physics, popular culture, fairy tales. This makes her so contemporary and on-pulse with the complexity of our present-day ethos. The multiplicity of these 'languages' fascinated me and invited me to explore the nuances and possibilities of application to identity formation, specifically feminine/ feminist, though I know Wakoski eschews any identification with feminist movements. And much of the feminist impulse has dissipated or become less politically correct. Still, I loved exploring how women's identities [and of course men's too] are forged through language and the stories of our culture. Wakoski showed me through her poetry that language--especially the language of poetry--is also a site of resistance, a place where those old roles and identities can be re-written, re-imagined. What a wonderful adventure for me as a fifty-year old discovering yet again who she could be.
Today, as I continue to engage with her work--on a much less intense level--I find her poetic contribution centers in two significant areas:
1. The interplay of myths/ stories--personal, cultural, literary, truth and fiction. Our lives are our stories, the stories of our families, of our places--or lack of them, of our experiences, of our readings, of those 'truths' of the culture that we believe in or that influence us whether we want them to or not. We write stories for ourselves, create myths to believe in, etch out the narrative of our future, remake our memories….on and on--story is so powerful.
2. The way she implies through the language and form of her poetry, language both as impediment and as means of liberation, that is, through language and the stories of our culture we are consigned to roles, yet through language we can also press against the parameters of those roles and expand ourselves and our visions of possibilities. This is so wonderfully American, perhaps our greatest gift to the world--constant re-vision. I find her poetry illuminating and inspiriting and inspiring.
SBW: How do you feel that your work as a scholar illumines your poetry?
I was permitted by my wonderful dissertation director, Dr. Robin Roberts at LSU, to write a creative rather than a mostly research-based dissertation--when I wrote my dissertation, not much had been written about Diane Wakoski, which I considered my lucky break. Though Robin did force me to craft an argument and to develop expertise in my focus, I would not say that I'm a scholar in the strict sense. Yet, reading the great French feminist theorists--who are also in many ways poets themselves wrestling with the language and the ways in which we can use it-- expanded the scope of my relationship with language. Helene Cixous, Luce Irigaray, Julia Kristeva so enlarged my understanding of the possibilities of language that I know I'm a better poet for having read and studied and applied them to my enterprise. From them, I think I came to understand that the poetry of language doesn't reside merely in poems, and that this poetry of language lies at the very heart of all that moves us and enables us. Delving in language is a dangerous and risky business--totally essential.
That said, I like to think that my poetry is also informed by my background in music. Stevens says, "Music is feeling and not sound," but poetry is a music of sounds that evokes strong feeling. I studied music--piano--off and on my whole life, thought at one time of being a music major, taught piano lessons to put myself through college. Music is still important to me--I still dabble at playing the piano and the violin. My youngest son is a musician, teacher, and composer. I like to think that my poetry ripples with music; I'm very conscious of the sounds of words, their juxtaposition, the cadences of phrases.
SBW: I saw on facebook that you are an artist as well as a poet and that you have a book on how to draw nature. Do you consider yourself a deep ecologist? Is the natural world have a significance in the things you write?
I have come to the world of art only since I retired from teaching--teaching is pretty all-absorbing. Art--painting, drawing--has become for me a new way of looking at the universe, both large and small. I dabbled at painting at first, loved it and wanted to get better. I enrolled in the Botanical Illustration course at the NCBG where I learned the discipline of looking and of seeing what was there, then of capturing it, finding the right line, the right colors, the right proportions. It was a wonderful adventure: I was thus able to blend two loves--my new love of making art and my long-lived love of, as you call it, the deep ecologist.
I am steeped in nature, though I live in an urban center. We're very fortunate here to have greenways and parks, a state park in the heart of our county, wonderful city and county lakes, three stunning botanical gardens--Raulston Arboretum, NCBG, and Duke Gardens. We're two and a half hours from the beach, two and a half hours from the mountains, heavenly. I've written poems about both. So, yes a significant theme in my poetry is nature.
I'm an avid gardener, a visual artist, and a lover of the outdoors, so I see in nature patterns and meanings and ways to articulate complex human dilemmas through the interplay of nature. For example in one poem, "When You Have to Kill the Snake," I wrote about an awful moment when I had to kill a beautiful but deadly copperhead that was sunning itself on my doorstep. As I wrote the poem, torn between the snake's beauty and its threat, I meditated on the end of a personal relationship that I had thought lovely and fulfilling but which was actually 'poisoning' me. The poignancy of loss I felt at killing the snake and at ending the relationship seemed similar to me. Writing the poem--thinking through the correlative between nature and my life events--enabled me to articulate complex feelings and insights. It is interesting to note that I don't reference the human relationship in the poem, but several of my readers have made the leap from my 'snake' experience to similar 'life' experiences.
Also, I grow much of my own food--love the whole process of making the soil, crafting a relationship with the seasons, nurturing seeds to fruition. My passion for design and for the nurture of gardening feeds me--literally, spiritually, artistically. Then, I have a series of poems articulating my frustration with 'Zeus' who withholds rain, the pangs of the work of gardening--hauling compost, pulling weeds, sharing figs [with the bugs!], killing snakes, etc. Ecology is a complex facet of life itself.
SBW: I spent a number of years in New Orleans while I was working on my Ph.D. at Tulane University. I love the ethos of the city – the food, the French Quarter, the history. What are your connections to the city that care forgot?
My husband was from New Orleans, brought up on St. Charles Avenue, but we, as a family, never lived there. However, as with Cajun Louisiana, I still return there frequently wanting to belong to its history and mystery, its diversity and its culture. I, like you, love its ethos, and feel it's a small part of who I am. But I generally go mostly as an outsider, or perhaps as an insider-tourist.
You mentioned the city that care forgot. Going back to this city I've always loved to love was so painful, knowing how it had been treated, neglected, abused. It was a ravaged city. Its devastation and the piece-meal reconstruction disturbed me, made me feel that same sense of loss and emptiness I have felt in going back to old plantation homes along the river, many of which are ghostly skeletons of their former glory, ravaged by time and the vagaries of history and river and weather. But, I've been amazed at the city's resilience. It is coming back, and still retaining that part of its mystique that has characterized it. I don't write much about New Orleans, but it will feature briefly in my novel.
SBW: Maybe we’re having dinner at Antoines tonight – or maybe somewhere else in the city? Where? Do you favor gumbo and maybe jambalaya?
Ah, are you a foodie, too? I said I'm perhaps an insider-tourist because I do know many good places to visit and to eat in New Orleans. When my mother-in-law was still living, we always loved to get the Trout Marguery at Galatoire's, though my children insist now that we go to Frankie and Johnnie's--shrimp po-boys and boiled crawfish. But when we go home, it's to Lafayette, where my sons grew up. We can all fix the meanest gumbo in town--and all my boys cook. The secret, of course, is in the roux! Years ago, my husband and I put together a family cook-book with all our favorite recipes. The boys still pressure me to update it, but I haven't the time. My sister keeps urging me to write more food-poems. Perhaps I will. Anyway, our favorite gathering is standing with friends at trestle tables spread with newspapers working our way through piles and piles of boiled crawfish, drinking beer, or better yet old-timey nickel cokes in the little green bottles [am I dating myself?].
SBW: Tell us a bit about the novel you are working on and about Cajun roots.
Many of my poems are rooted in the opulent wild Louisiana landscape of which I have and have not been a part. As a child of the military--my father was an Army officer--I had no place to call home, no people to call my folks. So I've hungered for a place and a people to belong to. Though Mother often returned, children in tow, to Cajun Louisiana, place of her roots, and I wanted to belong there, I was always something of a stranger. Yet, even now I'm haunted by its very elusiveness--the uniqueness of its culture, the lushness of its landscapes, its water, its sultry beauty, even as I stand outside, wanting it to be mine.
I think my impulse to write my novel derives from my attempt to locate myself in that place with those people. Unlike so many Southern novelists who come from storied homes where stories were handed about dawn to dusk, I'm essentially 'un-storied'. Besides, my mother, my aunts, uncles, grandmother all spoke French, so I suspect they were telling stories, but, again, I was the outsider. And I wanted to get inside their story, to belong to their place, to share in their continuity.
Yes, I love story. Since I lack the shared stories from my folk, I have long felt I'd have to make my own. There is one skeleton of a family myth that all the cousins know, but no one knows the 'real' story or much about it: a great-great-great grandfather owned a plantation and slaves. A mean and imperious man, he wore black and rode a dark horse and beat his slaves with a whip. One day, the slaves hid out, ambushed him, and killed him. End of story. This kernel, probably apocryphal, became the core of my novel. I knew I'd have to humanize this 'all-bad' man, so I had to give him something to want, something he couldn't attain. A dynasty, sons--then he has all daughters, then a son who dies, at his hand perhaps. My mother was the youngest of nine, one brother and seven sisters, so I had all these wonderful aunts to populate my novel. Interestingly, my uncle married late and had no children, so there are no direct heirs to my mother's family line. As I've worked through the story arc, the protagonist shifted to one of the daughters, and I've moved the time up to the early 20th century. Through the novel, I hope to explore the nuances of culture, land, family, personal angst--all those wonderfully complicated things that novelists explore. These fictional characters are becoming my folk, their home, my home. It's been a wonderful journey--ongoing.
SBW: How would you describe your career as a poet?
As with the art, I've come to the career as a poet only since my retirement from teaching. Unlike me, the artist, I feel I've been a poet all my life. I seem to have always written poetry and read poetry and loved it. A reviser, I'm often pulling old pieces out of my slush-pile to rework and refine. So, I've been developing a body of significant work, especially over the last twenty-five years, but it has often languished in files. Only now have I marshaled the energy and the not-inconsiderable effort to find an audience for my poetry. I have begun getting published in the literary journals, and I have two privately published chapbooks of poems with commentary that I have sent out to friends and family. Now, I'm working on compiling a series of Louisiana poems to send to a publisher. One of the problems with coming to this enterprise so late in life is that I have so many things I want to accomplish, but so little time--do I work at putting the poems together or do I write poetry; do I market my poems and stories or do I work on my novel; do I frame and get my art juried or do I paint? I love the creative process and have surrounded myself with wonderful artistic friends who critique and appreciate my work, but the dilemma still remains--I would like to have a wider audience.
SBW: Why does poetry matter?
What a wonderful question! I think of it all the time. Without poetry we are automatons going through the motions of life without our being able to get in touch with our deepest, most spiritual selves. Honestly, I feel that many of the problems in our culture--our obesity, our self-absorption, our greed, the need for moremoremore, our inherent dissatisfactions--stem from a want of poetry. There's a reason the religions all have 'poetic' texts to articulate many of the complexities of human relationships and the very complex relationship of the individual and of humans in general to the Creative Spirit of the Universe, called by many names: God-Allah-Buddha. Without language we are lonely, isolated. Without poetry, we are separated from ourselves, from our connection to the universe, the universe of people [over time] and the universe of nature--in large and small ways.
A favorite moment of mine occurred when I was teaching. A 'jock' student in a Brit Lit class insisted he didn't like poetry, didn't see the point of it, didn't have any use for it in his life. Then, one day, he crept up the stairs to my office and sheepishly [imagine it!] asked me if I would read a poem he had written for his fiancee. It was quite bad poetry, but it was so beautiful: a young man struggling to find the language of love for someone who mattered to him. Poetry matters because humans matter. It matters what I feel, what you feel. When bad things happen to us, we need a voice and a language to express ourselves; when we experience great joy, when we confront a confusing situation, when we want to celebrate--we need a voice and a language. Poetry is that voice, that language.
Your story matters, my story matters. All the voices need to be heard. At a recent open mic a group of young people roared out what I thought was very loud, raucous, often obscene stuff. The crowd loved it. Regardless of my 'opinion' about it, those voices matter. We need to struggle to understand each other and ourselves, and when we don't, we tend to do awful things to each other. When I was a teacher [not that I've stopped being a teacher--it's like breathing], I wanted more than anything to give my students the gift of poetry--the magic of new insights, new visions, the opportunity to dig deep and to soar, to expand the dimensions of who they are as human beings. This is what poetry is--this is why poetry matters. Besides, it won't leave me alone!
Negative Capability Press will features a poet on our website every month. To submit yourself for consideration, follow the instructions on our Submissions page.
MARY A. HOOD is Professor Emerita at the University of West Florida. She is the author of The Strangler Fig and Other Tales: Field Notes of a Conservationist and Rivertime: Ecotravel on the World’s Rivers and Walking Seasonal Roads. She has published poems, articles on conservation and the environment as well as numerous scientific articles in the field of microbial ecology.
River pebble smooth
larger than prayer beads, smaller
than a talismanthey tell stories. In
the Finnish creation myth the earth is made
from the shards of a duck egg. In our own modern
story which is no myth, pesticides make them thin and
fragile. Is this what we know of life on this thin egg-shell
of an earth. And why as delicate as it is it keeps going, is a
mystery. Yellow-eyed, their centers see our nature, good
egg or rotten, hardboiled or soft. With all our questions
of what came first, my vote goes to the chicken. Then
there’s their placement, all in one basket or all over
ones’ own face, occasionally one lays one
in public or caches them away in a nest.
If one is too brainy he’s quickly labeled
an egg head and best of all in an act
of contrition they offer themselves
up to be sacrificially
hurled at offending
Rescuing the Turtle
The middle of the road is not a good place to be so I stop
pick up what could be mistaken for a muddy rock
take it to the roadside and point it in the direction of the pond.
It stretches its rubbery legs out swimming in air
and when grounded begins a slow deliberate crawl
to who knows where.
What must it be like to live on the tongue of the earth-
in those soft mushy places where the words
of the wind always blow high overhead
Where with only a little effort you can burrow
into ground’s spongy quilts and pillows
and sleep on and on like a Sunday morning
Where the sky is a physicist’s world
full of dark matter or a monk’s world full of god
never really seeing it but knowing it’s there
Where time is not measured
except in the taste of dandelion leaves
and chicory sprouts and by the way
shadows take form and dissolve into liquidity
Where no matter where your feet take you
Connie Wilson was drum majorette
in white Nancy boots, baton and tall hat.
Like Delacroix’s Liberty she led the school band.
Varsity all-state, dating the most popular boys
she held the leading role in all the school plays
and as featured soloist in the choir
sang the best parts. She drove a red convertible
Mustang, had a full scholarship to L.S.U. and
from a leading family she lived in a house
columned and prominent on the town square.
Sometimes it is easy to know why we love
and why rejection comes as no surprise.
Today Connie would be in her 80’s.
Maybe she’s dead, in a nursing home
wheel-chaired, disabled, with Alzheimer’s.
Because time diminishes the differences
among us, takes away all the yearnings
you would think the lesson
would be to stop wanting.
Sue Walker Interviews Mary A. Hood
SBW: I love the way that the Paris Review situates their interviews, and I know that you have traveled the world – Florida and Mississippi and New York – ventured along the Nile, Ganges, and Yangtze rivers – so suppose we are, this morning, in your favorite place, so tell me, Mary, where are we?
MAH: We would be in my home, Watch Hill Cottage, in the Finger Lakes of New York on a spring morning with the lilacs blooming and the grape vines just beginning to leafing out and down by the creek, the trillium at their peak. In all my travels, I think the most beautiful place on earth is my home in these lakes and hills.
SBW: Mary, you make me think of Thoreau – and of the importance of walking. The following is one of my favorite Thoreau passages – care to comment?
"... in the distant woods or fields, in unpretending sprout-lands or pastures tracked by rabbits, even in a bleak and, to most, cheerless day, like this, when a villager would be thinking of his inn, I come to myself, I once more feel myself grandly related, and that cold and solitude are friends of mine. I suppose that this value, in my case, is equivalent to what others get by churchgoing and prayer. I come home to my solitary woodland walk as the homesick go home. I thus dispose of the superfluous and see things as they are, grand and beautiful. I have told many that I walk every day about half the daylight, but I think they do not believe it. I wish to get the Concord, the Massachusetts, the America, out of my head and be sane a part of every day." Thoreau on walking.
MAH: “There is probably no other activity that affords us the ease of connecting mind, body, spirit and place” (from Walking Seasonal Roads). In the craziness of today’s world, it seems walking in nature brings a certain peace found nowhere else. But Thoreau did not see nature as an escape from the real world but as a rejuvenating force that might allow not only enlightenment but the energy of activism to make the world a better place.
SBW: You are variously described as a biologist, botanist, ecologist, poet, historian, humorist, conservationist, grand story teller – and you are also Professor Emerita at the University of West Florida. How do all of these aspects of Being define who you are?
MAH: The qualities of a scientist are to clarify, to understand the inner connections and to find and express truth. In my roles as scientist, ecologist and poet, I think those are the qualities that characterize my work.
SBW: What poets / writers have been of particular import to you?
MAH: My favorite poets are Sylvia Plath and Mary Oliver, plus my friends, Edward Dougherty and Margaret Reed. Ithaca writer, Diane Ackermann, and Iowa writer, Mary Swander are some of my favorite writers. Of course, they all write in very different styles about different things but what they all do is write with clarity, craft and skill.
SBW: What are you currently reading?
MAH: I am currently rereading Chris Authors essays. His Words of the Grey Wind and several other collections (Irish Nocturnes, Irish Elegies, Irish Haiku, On the Shoreline of Knowledge) contain some of the finest essays written today. Some of his passages raise goosebumps, some make me want to weep and some bring such deep pleasure.
SBW: Where did you grow up and where did you go to High School, College, Grad School?
MAH: I grew up in a small town near Baton Rouge, Louisiana, went to school at Southeastern Louisiana College and LSU, did post-doctoral work at Harvard Medical School and Cornell University. My roots are in the south, the deep south, the Louisiana south but my intellect and sense of ethics probably comes from the northeast.
SBW: In one of your poems, “High School,” you contrast youth and old age. Connie Wilson had everything – but old age is the ultimate robber. I think that the diminishment that age brings is one of the more difficult adjustments—and you make me think of Shakespeare’s
Last scene of all, That ends this strange eventful history, Is second childishness, and mere oblivion, Sans eyes, sans teeth, sans taste, sans everything. Since a true “fountain of youth” has not yet been found, how do we make the most of what we have while we have it—instead of “wanting” – what was and what we cannot have?
MAH: How beautifully expressed! In Buddhist philosophy, it is believed that desire is what makes us suffer. While diminishment certainly comes with old age (and it is so very challenging), I hope the poem also raises the issue of how hard it is to control desire and how foolish many of our desires are.
SBW: I love your poem titled “Egg” in which you bring together all aspects of “egginess.” The poem is a concrete poem. Comment, if you will, about form in poetry? Free verse seems to be more prevalent than formal verse – sonnets, sestinas, villanelles, etc. Should poets be learning and mastering craft?
MAH: I try to write formal verse as often as I can. Free verse is easy, the formal forms are not but they provide disciple and open the mind to a sense of the complexity of language. Some of my favorites are Elizabeth Bishop’s villanelle, “One Art;” Theodore Roethke’s quatrain, “My Papa’s Waltz,” and Marie Ponsot’s tritina, “Living Room.”
SBW: I love the poem, “Rescuing the Turtle,” especially the final lines: “Where no matter where your feet take you / it’s home.” Having travelled the world—and having lived in Florida and upper New York, how do we make wherever we are a definitive home?
MAH: I think to make Home requires effort. It doesn’t just happen without understanding our need for safety, love, beauty, connections, i.e., all those qualities that make us good people; then to go about creating that kind of environment. I have traveled in some very poor grimy places in the world and discovered that community and connections can make up for the worst poverty.
In my latest book, Sanctuaries: Parks Preserves and Places of Refuge in the World (still looking for a press) I write about protected lands (over 60 refuges) in 20 countries where people have made Home (or habitat as the term for home is in the biological language) for rare, endangered or threatened species in an effort to protect earth’s biodiversity.
Thank you very much for being one of Negative Capability’s featured poets.
By S.E.B. Detling
Maria Rouphail is the author of the chapbook, “Apertures,” a 2012 finalist in Finish Line Press’s “New Women’s Voices” competition, and published in 2013. “Second Skin,” her next collection of poems, was published in the Fall, 2015, by Main Street Rag.
S.E.B. Detling: Dr. Maria Rouphail, congratulations on being the Poet of the Month at Negative Capability, and thank you for taking time to talk with me today. Before we begin, would you mind setting the scene for our readers? Where are we and why did you choose this place for our interview?
Maria Garcia Rouphail: Please allow me to thank you for selecting my poems for publication, and for selecting me as Poet of the Month. Negative Capability is a wonderful place for poetry, so this is truly an honor. I am responding to your invitation for an interview from my home in Raleigh, North Carolina.
SEBD: Family and memory are recurring themes in your work, as is illustrated in “Flight Plan With a Breakfast Menu” and “Memory Trace” above. I am curious as to how these themes were involved, if at all, in encouraging you to become a writer of poetry?
MGR: “Flight Plan With a Breakfast Menu” emerged quickly during a morning when my younger son was en route to his fiancée. Both are currently in graduate programs in different states. It was also true that repairs were being made to our house here in Raleigh. Imagining the breakfast table in the future where I would in some way continue to “mother” an extended family was irresistible. I would say that “Memory Trace” lies closer to the obsessions that make me write. I find myself going back and farther back to primordial memory, to the earliest scenes—“traces,” really—memories not given to me by others, but direct sensations that still live in me, such as the taste of iron warmed by the sun, and my mother’s warning voice. I was also thinking about how very young children learn by putting things in their mouths! Odd, I guess, but suddenly an excursion to the Bronx Zoo became cosmic. It was like going back to a personal “Big Bang.”
SEBD: Now working on your third poetry collection, having already completed your first two books, Apertures and Second Skin, would you mind sharing some insights into how your process has changed over time and with experience, or any struggles that you have encountered in the past or present?
MGR: I certainly can’t speak for others, but for me poetry is a need, a joy, and a struggle. I love the work of it, but I do have to work at it principally because I am learning all the time. And I fear that there is not enough time! When I was young, I wrote poetry in English and sometimes in Spanish. And then, I went silent for decades. Now, I am trying to catch up. With whom? With admired poets, living and dead. I am acutely conscious of my limitations and shortcomings. I revise constantly, as I work to refine the line, the stanza, etc. I am always reading and studying the poetry of others. And I am always amazed!
SEBD: Fellow writers Tony Reevy and Marjorie Hudson mention in their reviews of your second poetry collection, Second Skin, the importance of family and heritage as themes throughout your work, respectively. I also notice a recurrent theme dealing with the sense of sight. For example, in “For Reasons You Never Gave” you mention “periphery” and “seeing me,” in “The Riddle” you have the “peripheral eye” and “the retina,” in “The Deep” you write about “in the night of your seeing,” and in “Winter Light” you write about “shy eyes” and “the almond-eyed ones.” I wonder what you as the author think about these themes and their prevalence in your work?
MGR: The idea of seeing as knowing and being known, of coming into being when one is seen, is compelling and inexhaustible. Jamaica Kincaid’s The Autobiography of My Mother (1996) comes to mind. Here is a bleak novel of negation in which the withering effects of colonialism are located within the character of Xuela, Kincaid’s protagonist. Xuela can neither give nor receive love because she has lacked a mother’s life-giving gaze. There is also the idea of seeing a thing “slant,” of catching something fleetingly, indirectly, intuitively, as in the corner of the eye. These ways of implying reality intrigue me very much.
SEBD: I would like to spend some more time on “Winter Light,” one of my favorites, if you don’t mind. For readers that may not be aware, this poem was showcased in the 2011 Nazim Hikmet Ran Festival, a celebration of the Turkish poet’s hope for social justice, love of life, and longing for his homeland—key elements also included in this poem.
The first thing that struck me, even before reading the poem, was the inclusion of “Garcia” in your name, Maria Garcia Rouphail. As I continued to read, I discovered your use of place, “Guanabacoa,” physical traits, “the almond-eyed ones,” architectural details, “gingham ghosts in a room / the color of Caribbean coral,” and language, “abuela.” Now please correct me if I am mistaken, but I believe that this poem is about the exile of Cubans in the mid-1800s to the United States during political turmoil and an outbreak of tuberculosis, or essentially an encapsulated summary of a Cuban-American heritage.
Then thinking back to other pieces of your work, I found it interesting that you have poems that could be read as possibly being void of Hispanic heritage, meaning that heritage does not play a factor in their storytelling, as well as others where heritage is a key element. It seems as though your mind, pen, and poems are “Shuttling back and forth / on a rusting ferry across the Florida Straits / between Key West and Guanabacoa.” Tell me, how do you identify yourself as a writer—female, Southern, Latina, Cuban-American, or something else? And as a writer as well as a professor of literature, how do you feel about these labels?
MGR: Thank you for your kinds words about “Winter Light.” You are largely correct about my paternal family of origin. My father’s people arrived from Guanabacoa, Cuba, in the late 19th century, through the 1920’s. My father was born in 1910, and he arrived in Key West, Florida, in 1925. Those generations of Cubans were in the main poor and working class, and they were very politically progressive—as my father certainly was. His was a complex story of a pregnant mother and one of her sisters ferrying back and forth between La Habana and Cayo Hueso (Key West), but one of the central pieces of the story for me was his mother’s death from tuberculosis shortly after she gave birth to him in Cuba. My father did not know her birth or death dates, or where she was buried. He had only an undated photo of his mother, my abuela. In the photo she couldn’t have been more than a teenager, and she wore a dress typical of the early 1900’s that looked like it might have been gingham. The photo haunts me to this day.
My mother‘s forebears, also mostly poor and working class, were fair skinned Quebecois, Irish, and German. I deeply loved my whole family. I inherited my father’s dark complexion, hair, and eyes, however, and I was given a fully Spanish name. By virtue of this, my schoolmates in the 1950’s and 60’s reminded me that I was “colored.” The country was overtly racist during that period, so I identified emotionally with black and brown people, as did my parents.
That said, “identity” is fluid, in my opinion. Many highly trained and gifted poets today seem to locate themselves within particular niches, and their projects often thematize the distinguishing features and experiences of identity. I have alwaysthought about the forces that have made me a woman from a marginalized cultural minority, progressive, born in New York City, raised in the Jim Crow South, and married to a man from another “non-Western” cultural minority. But given where I am in the life cycle, and given the fact that I have not been in an MFA program (I have a doctorate in American literature), I see my “identities” todaymore as functions of my relationships.
SEBD: In “Winter Light,” I love how you have broken the word “re-membering” in regards to your grandmother in your final question. Just as you have broken the word, which in itself lends to the broken history of emotional and familial ties of this time in history, but also provides a new way to view what the process of remembering is—the actual putting back together of a person, piece by piece, as best as one’s memory allows. You mention in regards to your first collection, Apertures, that you “depended on memory to open its cedar box of precious things.” Would you mind walking me through your writing process and explain how you “re-member” details while you work?
MGR: So, here is where memory becomes the imperative project for me, at least for the present. I have been obsessed with Czeslaw Milosz’s poem “Late Ripeness,” in his final collection Second Space (2004), where he says of the dead, “they dwell in us, / waiting for a fulfillment.” This statement resonates with my felt conviction that the living and the dead remain deeply interconnected, even the dead we’ve never met or known. My mother’s death when I was twenty-four was a grievous loss. My grandmother who died after birthing my father has haunted me, too, and I knew that in calling her forth in a poem I was completing the story she didn’t get to tell. I felt this as an obligation and honor. The same would be true of telling a gruesome thing about a vexatious person who has affected us. We hold them and ourselves up to scrutiny, and maybe even pardon. Somehow, these things have to be told in order to make sense of being alive here and now.
SEBD: In “Flight Plan With a Breakfast Menu,” you describe a transitioning period in your home in regards to family, shifting the focus from the past to the future. Fellow poets from North Carolina, Tony Reevy and Shelby Stephenson, also focus on the subject of “home” in their work. Born into an immigrant family, Tony moves around, constantly searching for a place to put down roots and call home. On the other hand, Shelby consistently writes about his ancestors and how he and his family have been deeply rooted in a particular house and piece of land for over 100 years. It seems as though your sense of home may include a combination of these, along with your own unique splash of Caribbean, coral-colored character. Would you mind painting a picture of what the word “home” means to you and how this is expressed in your work?
MGR: I love the works of these fine poets. I’ve heard Shelby Stephenson read, and let me tell you he is a delight. After he finished one poem about the old homestead, I was prompted to write a “reply” poem that begins, “My dead, you cannot visit them.” It’s what I heard well up in my ear as he finished his lovely piece about generational history. Most of my people lie scattered in graves across international borders or in unremarkable plots across several states. Home is, for me, at once a geographical space (North Carolina, and Chicago, where my children were born and which holds particular pride of place) and a room in the heart where all are gathered.
SEBD: In your review of Helen Losse’s poetry collection Seriously Dangerous, you provide an interesting critique of her poem, “Just Saying.” The work tells about a car accident where the passengers are trapped in an upside down vehicle, and you note the change of voice from the first-person “I,” to the plural “we,” and then back to the singular subject “I.” In regards to this movement you mention that this “suggests a limit to shared experience.” I think this is an extraordinary insight into the human psyche. Because, if you think about it, there is only a minute portion of our lives that we actually share with others. The majority of our experiences happen within our individual interiors, filtered by our own perspectives. Many times we experience life alongside each other, but as so often happens, in the end each person walks away from the experience with their own version of the truth. This leads me to question, what types of shared experiences do you incorporate in your writing?
MGR: Right. And poetry works to overcome the wall that separates us, even as it affirmspersonal experience. Poetry mediates our solitude, making it shareable and bearable. Such life events as childbirth, surviving serious, even potentially fatal, accidents or illness can be shared. In my poem, “Now the Crickets Rub Their Wings” I attempted to channel a person in whose presence I sat for some hours and whose personal story had been particularly tragic, but whose oral version of it needed to be translated into English in my hearing. The poem was, in effect, an attempt to overcome a kind of double barrier.
SEBD: The deft manner in which you blend innocence with violence is impressive. For example, in “For Reasons You Never Gave” you write “An occupying army of bees swarms / down the tender throats of the black and blue sage,” and in “The Riddle” there are “Sunrays that are knives on the retina.” When you write these descriptions, where do these juxtaposed, sensory images of innocence and violence come from, and what response are you hoping to receive from the reader?
MGR: The first poem attempts to embody the slow burn of frustration with an intransigent other. The passage you quote from the second poem is in fact a physical recollection of what my eyes experienced on intensely sunny days in south Florida. That particular poem is a “seeing it slant” piece that attempts to capture the fugitive sensations of a very young person whose “identity” is in flux. I’m not sure that I succeed here, but I hope that a reader might recognize something of a younger self at that particular life stage.
SEBD: You expound upon the subject of a “catastrophe” in your review of Helen Losse’s book of poetry, Seriously Dangerous, in which you write, “Here is where art, especially poetry, is particularly necessary and curative, for in affirming life’s mysteries and its pain, art provides agency and control for both artist and for those who engage it. Art helps us to integrate the unthinkable and horrific dark night, thus helping to make tragedy endurable, if not also capable of enlarging rather than diminishing us.” Would you be willing to explain the role that poetry has played as an agent of healing in your life?
MGR: As I mentioned earlier, I went silent for decades and then began to write again during this last decade. Throughout the “great silence” I had been sporadically keeping journals in which I berated myself about not writing! Then, one day, a lyrical line sprang up in me and I wrote it down. I have kept faith with and have been grateful for that dawning.
SEBD: The two poems included here, “Flight Plan With a Breakfast Menu” and “Memory Trace” are works from your third collection. I enjoy a quote that Tony Reevy pulled from your second collection, Second Skin, and I will turn the table and ask the question to you in regards to your current work, “Where are you dreaming now?”
MGR: Well, things are gestating now. I would like to return for a while to translating poems from Spanish. It is something I did when I was young, but haven’t done it for a long while. I believe that translation provides invaluable knowledge and practice for poets. I read lots of poetry and poets in translation: Taha Muhammad Ali, Adonis, Milosz, Szymborska, Z.Herbert, Transtromer, Akhmatova, Tsvetaeva are particular favorites.
SEBD: Now your turn—you ask the question and you give the answer.
MGR:I believe Whitman when he says that “time avails not.” But I also hear Marvel warning that “time’s winged chariot [is] hurrying near.” By this I mean that I am aware of having so much yet to learn, but I don’t have the luxury of a full life span remaining to me. What to do? I try to stay focused and present each day when I sit down to write. And I am grateful for every minute.
SEBD: Maria, it has been a great pleasure spending time with you today. Thank you for taking time to answer my questions. And thank you for being part of Negative Capability.
MGR: The pleasure is entirely mine. Thank you so much!
Senior associate director of the Institute for the Environment at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Tony Reevy is a graduate of North Carolina State University, UNC-Chapel Hill and Miami University. He is a David P. Morgan Award winner (2006) and a Pushcart Prize nominee. His previous publications include…Read More