Poets.org How do you begin a poem?
Cate Marvin All poems, for me, are rooted in either a title or a line. I fall in love with a phrase I’ve read somewhere, overheard, or come up with on my own, and can’t let it go, ever, until I’ve done it justice by encrypting it into a poem as a title or a line.
I like to think of poets as moving through the world with their minds poised like nets, intent on capturing scraps of language, resonant images. Thinking as a poet means viewing the world as a poem; thus, the poet is prone to existing in real space and time in a most vulnerable manner. This means being super-observant wherever your physical self takes your mind, as it requires being terribly receptive to light, images, movement, conversations between others, oddities many might be inclined to overlook in newspaper headlines, heatedly intimate conflicts overheard in public places, disingenuous directions offered by advertisements and street signs, etc.
Sometimes a poem comes over me like weather, feels like an itch or impulse. It’s a near physical sensation. At that moment, there is nothing else to do but move to the typewriter or computer to pound the thing out.
More often, the poem has lived in my head for a long while, and I’ve battled with the entire idea of it. It insists on being made. I resist. I try to will it away. It won’t go away. This is the Real Poem. The poem not born simply out of anger, or from a fit of lyrical bliss—no, this kind of poem has a real agenda. And it happens to me. When I begin this poem, I must be humble. Because this kind of poem, which usually has a big idea in its back pocket, is prepared to duke it out with me for years until I get it right. (By which I mean, one has to write a great many very bad poems to get this kind of poem started.) This kind of poem takes a lot of time. Sitting down. Beginning it again and again. By the point you’ve started it, it’s taken so long to get there, you can’t honestly explain to anyone how you began it. It began with you. In you. And it won’t quit until you’ve got it right, by which point it bears no resemblance to the poem you “began.”
Poets.org What poets do you continually go back to?
CM I’m at the point in my reading life that I don’t always need to go to the page-bound poem to turn to it. I’ve got a lot of poems stuck in my head. Whenever I’m driving or walking, or if I’m eating or talking with someone, or just spacing out while riding the Staten Island Ferry, the poems I’ve read come to me readily. In this way, they greet me, engage me in an inner dialogue (i.e., torment me). Those poets include Sylvia Plath, T.S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Paul Celan, Emily Dickinson, Adelia Prado, to name just a few. John Berryman, certainly. Really, though, I have Plath on the brain. I don’t even read her anymore (in order to resist her influence), but I think of various lines from her poems all the time, and laugh out loud. People really don’t give her enough credit for how funny she is.
Poets.org Has your idea of what poetry is changed since you began writing poems?
CM Absolutely. Continually. The gift of poetry as a genre/medium is that it constantly recreates itself, and it does so in dialogue with our literary pasts and futures. The idea of what a poem is or should be or could be changes for me all the time.
I began writing poems when I was 11. I’ll never know why. No one ever suggested I write poems. I simply liked doing it. At the time, I only knew poems as rhyming things that dealt with thoughts/feelings via figurative language.
In high school, I was heavily influenced by the music I listened to. Which made for some very bad poetry indeed. Thanks to Led Zeppelin, my poems were heavy with addresses to “babe” and “baby.” (Yeah, babe, you knoooow I’m gonna leave you.)
Like many college-students, I wrote a very pared down kind of poem, in a style much derived from the post-confessional mode. My aim was to distill the poem. I didn’t understand that I was distilling my poems into a state of near-nothingness. Later, when I was in graduate school, a teacher (Adam Zagajewski) snapped me right out of this way of thinking by informing me, in no uncertain terms, that my poems were “anemic.”
It took me a long time, and a lot of reading, to understand how more ambitious poems can be built, how they can open and close in unexpected ways, and that they need not land on the foot of single epiphany.
Poets.org Are you on Facebook or Twitter? Does that fit into your writing life, and if so, how?
CM I’m not pithy enough to contribute to Twitter in a worthwhile manner. While I am on Facebook, it doesn’t play much of a part in my poetry life. I like it for posting pictures of my daughter and seeing what other folks, and their equally adorable children, are up to in their personal lives.
Poets.org Do you have a writing group or community of writers you share your work with? Who are they?
CM Over the past few years, the world of readers for my drafts has shrunk to the size of a flower. I fear I have become much more sensitive in response to critique as I’ve moved further along in my writing life. I wish this weren’t so, because I used to have a real sense of boldness about putting my work out in the world. In fact, I never thought I’d become this much of a recluse about my poems, but I’ve been feeling especially protective of my poetic production over the past few years. That said, the folks I show my drafts to are writers whose work I respect. Comrades.
Poets.org What are you reading right now?
CM Right now I’m on a big Richard Hugo and Raphael Alberti kick (check out Alberti’s The Owl’s Insomnia, translated by Mark Strand). It’s an odd combo, I know. I found both of their books, serendipitously, at a used bookstore this past summer. I can’t begin to explain how much reading these poets has breathed new life back into my writing. I’ve been teaching so much over the past several years, and have thus had my ears wide-open to so many different varieties of poems and voices, I often feel I can’t hear my own poems speak to me.
When I read Alberti and Hugo, I feel my poems coming back to life. Because I could never hope to write poems as good as theirs. Their poems provide a benchmark. I’ll be 42 years old this November. I’ve moved into the second half of my writing life. And if I want to make the kind of poems I long ago determined I hoped to make, I need to be reading poets whose work kicks my ass.
I’ve also been reading a lot of kids’ books with my daughter. I’ve come to despise Amelia Bedelia; Suess’s Foot Book makes good sense to me. I never thought I would end up memorizing Goodnight Moon. And the latest fave is in our house is Everyone Poops. That about says it all.
Read more about Cate Marvin on Poets.org here.