Friday, November 09, 2007

Kelly Moffett with Mary Ann Samyn

Kelly Moffett
Kentucky Wesleyan College

Hunkering Down and Looking Up: Mary Ann Samyn’s Lyric Experience

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Mary Ann Samyn is the author of four collections of poetry: Rooms by the Sea, Captivity Narrative, Inside the Yellow Dress, Purr, and a recently completed collection, Incredibly Small and Impossibly Lovely. Her poetry has been called “dazzling . . . the poetry hovers between irony and true despair . . . hip, elegant, sorrowful, witty, and new” by Lynn Emanuel; and representative of “the texture and shape of the world” by D. A. Powell. Currently, Samyn teaches in the MFA program at West Virginia University and directs the Far Field Retreat for Writers.

In this interview, Samyn discusses her experience with language, her thoughts on lyric poetry, and her approach on the compositional process. The interview was done via email over the course of three weeks.

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KM: How does (or should) a lyric poem behave?

MAS: Well, I'm not sure that it should behave! But as to how it does, I guess I'd say the more lyric a poem, the more it feels, to me, subterranean. A digging down. Or, a staying down. When I write, I frequently tell myself to stay down. Stay with it. The emotion. It’s like tunneling. I go by feel. If I look up—like a prairie dog—then I record the looking up. Then, I hunker down again.

KM: When you “look up” from the emotion, is that when you allow yourself to become more self-reflective as in: “this is, after all, a poem I am writing”?

MAS: Wow, that’s a hard question, because I’m always aware that I’m writing a poem, which is a strangeness. In fact, that’s why I try simply to record the smallest things as accurately as possible. The shift of a mood, for instance. A poem is a made thing, and yet I hope mine, though well-constructed, carefully crafted, aren’t perfect. I guess I’d like to think of my work as handmade. And, in some ways, hand-me-down. I try to keep the process as non-poetic as possible. Not special. If I look up, literally, metaphorically, then I try to include that, so the poem is not streamlined or cleaned up or too perfect, all of which lead, for me, to inaccuracy.

I guess, too, that my reaction would be not “this is, after all, a poem I am writing” with the emphasis on the act of writing, the making of poetry, but more with the emphasis on the “I”—this is, after all, coming from me. So it better sound like me, whether I’m looking up or hunkering down—or doing a little of this and a little of that, which is probably most likely.

KM: Gregory Orr wrote recently in The Writer’s Chronicle: “Poets write to help themselves. They are knocked off balance by some intensity, and they write to right themselves. They write out of that existential jeopardy Emily Dickinson describes so well:

“I stepped from Plank to Plank
A slow and cautious way
The Stars about my Head I felt
About my Feet the Sea.

I knew not but the next
Would be my final inch—
This gave me that precarious Gait
Some call Experience.”

I know you have been influenced by both Orr and Dickinson. How do you feel about Orr’s assessment about the poem and about a poet’s key reason to write?

MAS: Not only have I been influenced by Greg as his student and as a reader of his work, but I also spent a semester as his student assistant. During that time, I typed up some of his journals, so I’m very familiar with his thinking about order and disorder, about poetry as an ordering mechanism—though ‘mechanism’ is probably more my kind of word than his. So, yes, I think I agree, in principle, though I don’t know if I consciously consider poetry in these terms—perhaps, of course, because I’ve internalized them so thoroughly that I don’t need to think about it, per se.

I definitely think poetry is a good place to explore your extremity—positive or negative, or, more likely, somewhere in between—those times of bittersweet intensity. But I’ve never felt ‘righted’ by a poem unless I also felt that it was a good poem! Otherwise, I’d just feel worse. I guess poetry is such a daily habit for me—not necessarily writing it, but thinking about it, reading it, responding to students’ work, etc.—that it’s hard to isolate the reasons I go to poetry. Nothing doesn’t belong there, so the off balance moments and the re-balanced moments and the balancing-just-fine-thanks moments loop together over and over for me and poetry is part of that entire process, even the going along happily part.

That said, I do love the Dickinson poem Greg quotes. Especially the word “plank,” which is quite a nice little group of consonants: it sounds like it could hit you over the head!

KM: How you respond to the word “plank” fascinates me. Is this how you typically respond to language? Do you hear words and/or experience them as a sensation in this way? Is your relationship with words this tactile?

MAS: Yes, actually. Words feel very physical to me. They have heft and dimension. Some sparkle or glint. Some have a little catch in them, a spot where I get caught for a moment, as on a fence. I feel similarly about punctuation and can and do spend a lot of time thinking about the merits of a particular comma. The subtlest shifts mean so much.

KM: How does visual art figure into your creative process? I know you are influenced by Eva Hesse, for example, but how so?

MAS: First, I just have to say that “How So” is a very good title! Can I use that?

Okay, now, about visual art: yes, I have thought about it a lot, done some visual art (badly) as a kind of free-writing, and basically longed to wear one of my father’s old shirts—inside out and backwards—as a smock.

What I’ve loved particularly about sculpture is my own longing to touch it. Paintings, too, I guess, if the paint itself is interesting enough. Dimensional enough.

And of course we’re not supposed to do that. Stay back, an alarm will sound, etc. But we want to, anyway, don’t we?

I want to write poems like that. Something to touch. Or, as though reading it was like feeling a breeze against your skin.

I’m very drawn to Hesse’s pieces in that sort of transition from wall to not-wall. 1965. The pieces that hang yet come toward the viewer via a gear or cord or etc. I’m thinking “Eighter from Decauter” and “Up the Down Road,” “An Ear in a Pond” and “Ringaround Arosie.” I don’t think I’ve said this before—at least not out loud—but these pieces always remind me of going to a fair, the midway, “step right up and try your luck.”

—That’s another good title! This is a very helpful interview!

Anyway, as you can see, art gets me thinking and feeling. A good combination for me, for poetry. Also, in the case of Hesse anyway, the non-narrative quality of the work is very allowing. She made ‘the lyric moment’ (which is a weird phrase that I hear too often, really, and it’s getting dulled from use). It’s good to study that, in whatever form: poetry or movies or sculpture.

Speaking of movies, last night, I watched American Beauty, which I’d not seen before because I’m not really a movie person (too much plot!). But one of my students, a wonderful writer, told me that if every person could be ‘explained’ by just one movie, this would be her movie. After I watched it, I knew what she meant. The movie did lyric very well. It also did dialogue and setting and plot twists and all that other movie-stuff. But I was struck by some small moments: Annette Bening’s character, for example, standing in front of vertical blinds (the kind with textured fabric on them) that she’s just pulled mostly closed. That moment: the blinds closed but not (this always happens, doesn’t it? . . . they need to be snapped back into formation . . . ), the character just about to sink into crying, the house gone cold and impersonal . . . that could have been the whole movie for me. I felt about that scene the same way I feel about Hesse’s work or about poems that I love: this is accuracy.

KM: The accuracy you speak of, the lyrical moment of Annette Bening’s character and the cold house, feels like your poetry. Your poems contain a sense of longing as they move through mental states within a domestic world. I’ve often identified your subject as a search for spiritual and mental understanding, and that that understanding comes through as mostly domestic moments, like a husband improving a wife’s photograph, a man stopping by the side of a road to pick some flowers, a woman opening a box to see her saint statue safely arrived. Is it okay for me to assume spiritual and mental understanding as your subject?

MAS: You began your email by saying that you didn’t yet have a question, then wrote awhile about ‘not-poetry’ things and then realized you had written your way into a question. I’d say that answers—and enacts—the question about spiritual seeking! And yes, that is my subject and it’s probably everyone’s, in the broadest sense, and what you did in your email, the process you went through, is pretty much my process. I just try to record the moment, or the day, or the week. The span of time isn’t important. The paying attention is. Whatever I’ve paid attention to, I’ve done so for some reason. And whatever I’ve missed, I’ve missed. I have this idea, which I mostly believe, that things are on track. The noticing and the not-noticing are both happening in a helpful way. For me, this is spirituality. That sense of ongoing-ness and going forward-ness. Sometimes it seems I’m realizing things at a rapid pace; other times, not so much. I tend, like most people, I guess, to be a mix of patience and impatience. The longing you sense in my poems is part of that dynamic.

KM: Your first collection, Rooms by the Sea, contains more narrative verse than your second collection, Inside the Yellow Dress and onward. Would you say your development as a poet has been a movement toward being more of a lyric artist, and was this an intentional progression?

MAS: I don’t think the progression has been intentional. In general, I want the next thing and I don’t like to cling (or like to think that I cling) to too much mastery, so this has kept me on the move. Always, I’m trying for accuracy: a poem that reflects how I think/talk, that captures the complexity of being Mary Ann, which is really all I can be/do. I don’t want to go back to my earlier self or earlier poems. Some of those concerns are, of course, on a continuous loop—isn’t it this way for everyone?—but I’d like to think that I’m bringing a differently complex self to the page. Also, I’d be bored if I had to write those same poems. In fact, if I think I know where a poem is going, I usually stop writing it. Similarly, when I teach, I don’t enjoy teaching the same classes, the same way, over and over. Some people think of that as a relief: less prep. But if I’m bored, then my teaching is not going to be very good. I’m always looking for a new angle, another way in, a discovery.

KM: As a past student of Charles Wright, I wonder if landscape (conceptually or physically) is an issue for you when you approach a poem. Does landscape, say, figure into the performance of your language on the page? I mean, I know you say you hear the words and know where they need to be placed, but do you see them as well? Are they painted, as a landscape, into place?

MAS: It’s interesting that you ask about landscape because, in the past, I wouldn’t have said that I’m a writer of place—mostly because my poems tend to be located in the same place—me!—and thus I don’t think of them as having geographic origins or concerns. But it turns out they do. I’m very attached, more and more in fact, to my home state, Michigan, and I’ve come to realize that I feel most like myself when I’m there. You’ve suggested, if I remember correctly, that maybe if I lived there, my longing for it would go away—along with some of my poetic energy. I don’t think this is true; I’ve got lots of longing! On the other hand, I’m also not in a position to test the theory. So, that’s one kind of landscape, or two, I guess: the landscape that takes the shape called Mary Ann against the physical backdrop called Michigan.

As for the page as a landscape, I think I’ve tended to consider it more like a room. So, more with a sense of its boundaries/edges. And the words as occupying that room. But, really, that was an idea I was taken with several years ago (even during grad school, which is a while ago now). Currently, I’m not actively aware of thinking of the page in this way. It may be, though, that I’ve just internalized this notion so thoroughly that I don’t need to register it anymore. Or, perhaps more accurately, that my childhood love of dolls and dollhouses has continued on without the need for the actual things.

And yes, I guess I would say that I hear and see the language as it comes to the page. There’s really no not-crazy-sounding way to talk about this, unfortunately. I guess I’ll just say that I have a strong sense of the page and feel lucky for that.

KM: Do you carry a favorite word around with you?

MAS: I don’t know if I carry around a single word so much as a phrase. Recently, “take that,” a phrase that has more than one possible inflection/situational use. I like that. And I used it as a title because it’s sufficiently open, not pre-determined. An opposite example might be something like “high wind advisory,” which has been issued for West Virginia tomorrow. The University, I’m not sure why, has sent faculty an announcement about this impending “weather event,” and some advice. I think the memo is a found poem, but beyond that I couldn’t/wouldn’t use the phrase “high wind advisory” as a title. It’s too easily metaphoric. I might be able to work it in a poem, but that sort of language would take over as a title.

KM: Can you speak a little about your current manuscript, Impossibly Small and Incredibly Lovely? I’ve found it contains some of your strongest work. How is it different from Purr, your last book? What is the ‘project’ of Impossibly Small, if you consider it to have a project?

MAS: I hope the new manuscript does not have a project. Or, that it’s my same old project: emotional accuracy. Which sounds clunky and awful and not like a book anyone would want to read.

I write poem by poem (and within poems: line by line). Even if I have a group of poems that might seem to go together, I try very hard to let that happen without forcing, to step aside as much as possible. I’d much rather write and write and write and then look up to see “oh, 10 nice poems!” . . . or something like that. It’s hard enough already, isn’t it?

That said, I hope this new work is even more ‘shot through’ than what I’ve done before. By that I mean, shot through me. Clean. Clear. Fierce. Vulnerable. Essential. Kind, too. That word comes to mind even though perhaps it seems odd. I’m going to trust it, though, and let it do a little work in this paragraph. Surely a word like kind knows better than I . . .

KM: Any advice for fledgling poets?

MAS: Take good care.

Kelly Moffett directs the creative writing program at Kentucky Wesleyan College. Her poetry has appeared or will appear in Barrelhouse Magazine, The Laurel Review, Phoebe: Gender and Cultural Critique, among others. Her book, Waiting for a Warm Body to Fill It, will be released in April 2008 through Cinnamon Press.

1 comment:

Nick Maslin said...

The poem is
A plank laid over the lion's den.

Pig Island Letters 9 - James K Baxter.

...hmm, another plank...