by Eilis O’Neal
Editor-in-Chief Eilis O’Neal spoke with contributor Mary Moore this winter. Mary is the author of the collections Flicker, Eating the Light, The Book of Snow, and Amanda and the Man Soul. She was the second prize winner of Nimrod’s 2017 Pablo Neruda Prize for Poetry, and her poetry has appeared in Nimrod, Georgia Review, Prairie Schooner, Poetry, and New Letters.
Q: Many of the poems in the collection that won second place in Nimrod’s Pablo Neruda Prize for Poetry, and one of the poems that will be in our Spring 2018 issue, Let Us Gather: Diversity and the Arts, play with ideas of things that are more than one thing: chimera, part-human beasts, shape-shifting moths. What brought you to this theme/inspired you to write these poems?
A: The themes of monstrosity and hybridity came to me in both emotional and intellectual ways. They initially filtered through the persona/character of Amanda who plays major roles in two of the Nimrod poems and in my forthcoming chapbook, Amanda and the Man Soul. Amanda had existed in poems for quite a few years, usually linked to resistance or surrender to female stereotypes, and I had heard of the vanishing twin syndrome through various media: one of a pair of twins dies in utero, and the dead twin’s DNA or actual tissue becomes incorporated in the viable twin’s body. About two years ago, when I began writing more Amanda, I made one of those intuitive leaps and put Amanda together with that biological/genetic condition. I’m not sure why: I was an only child who, throughout childhood, longed for a sister, and I also always felt like what I’d now call an outlier, someone who didn’t fit anywhere. I had already portrayed Amanda as such a person. I’m not sure why I felt that way: I was physically awkward, too emotional, not able to handle aggression: I always knew that something was wrong with me. My native country must be the isolation that difference creates. Once Amanda met the vanishing twin syndrome, I immediately knew that she would see her body, which contained DNA from another body, as monstrous and hybrid. The poetic/fictional vision also drew on my background as a Renaissance scholar: I knew and had taught Jeffrey Cohen’s Monster Theory, which posits that monstrosity is not an essential, natural condition, but a culturally inflected projection of disowned traits onto people who already differ from others, and I also knew post-colonial theory: both theoretical paradigms consider hybridity, one as a trait of monstrosity, the other as a result of colonizing cultures melding with native cultures. Finally, on the, simplest level, if Amanda is already “two,” images of fusion, duality, and hybridity are a “natural.” Other hybrids, “monsters” such as the many-eyed butterfly and the manticore, are part of the menagerie she is.
Q: You mention feeling isolated as a child. Did you write as a child/teenager, and did that help? If not, when did you begin writing?
A: As I kid, I wrote a few poems for my mother, rhymed verselets; I just found one given to her as a Christmas thing. It didn’t catch on then, and while I took a creative writing class as an undergraduate more than half a life-time ago, I didn’t begin writing seriously until after I’d had my daughter. I wonder if in some way having a child, that ultimate and sweetest creation, authorized me to write.
Q: What’s your writing process like?
A: Off-the-wall except in its regularity. Sometimes I literally look out my window and write what I see. I keep journals of beautiful or surprising words and phrases that I’ve read or overheard including inspiring phrases from other poets; I brainstorm random lists of words, and start a poem using them; start a poem from another poem that didn’t work out too well; go out on the porch and write what I see and hear; write notes and descriptive drafts when I travel. When I have a current obsession, I stumble on and also keep an eye out for objects or events related to it. Most of my poems start from description. Far from being impersonal, description is always tainted with the writer’s voice, ear, word choice. On first drafts, I allow myself to go anywhere that sound, metaphor or image takes me until I exhaust whatever it was that set me off. I keep everything, but use whatever strikes me as surprising or new or at least engaging and write another draft from or inside that. Lately, I’ve begun totally rewriting poems in entirely different directions than the first draft suggested. With all this in mind, I’d say that it’s associative, really like jazz improv, but then once I get something resembling a draft of a poem I like, I revise, and revise, and revise. What makes it a poem is the revision; what makes it exciting is the drafting and the new insights that emerge during deep revision. I have critiquers I rely on—especially my dear friend Art Stringer—an incredibly fine poet––and a “secret” Facebook group of women poets I consider very good, some of whom I’ve met recently and some I’ve been friends with for years. I have some poems that have taken 20 years to come to fruition and some that came to me almost fully formed: “On My Mother’s Suicide” which came out in Georgia Review last year and went into my last full-length book, Flicker (2016 Dogfish Head award winner) came to me like that from riffing on paired words with similar sounds and dissimilar meanings.
It’s probably useful to say too that I worked and taught my whole adult life, and writing always occurred evenings and weekends, and once I became a professor, in the early morning, on weekends, or over breaks. I’m retired now and I actually GET to write every day, and I do it.
Q: Who are the authors you find yourself returning to, who have played a role in your own development as a writer?
A: Wow. So many and quite disparate. Galway Kinnell—Book of Nightmares is the best long poem of the latter half of the 20th century––Brooks, Elizabeth Bishop, Jorie Graham, Neruda, Marianne Moore, Rilke, Donne, George Herbert, Hopkins, Dickinson, Shakespeare, Madeline DeFrees, Mona Van Duyn, and more. Of immediate contemporaries, I’m enjoying Albert Goldbarth, Melissa Range, Donald Revell, Jericho Brown, Moira Egan, Dan Beachy Quick, and Caki Wilkinson. I read my poet friends, wonderful poets with books by small presses, who mostly are not nationally known: Art Stringer, Jane Blue, Susan Kelly DeWitt, Victoria Dalke, Mary Zeppa, Diane Hueter Warner, Noel Crook, Beth Copeland, Sarah A. Chavez, and more. Contrary to what some curmudgeons say, I find a lot of great poetry being written right now. I think “my” poets have in common the love of image, word-play, and an obsession with the sacred, even if they profane it as I do, and they have wonderful ears. Notice that while some of these poets are formalists, I’m firmly in between: I sometimes write free verse, and sometimes I rhyme, but don’t do meter, though I might some day . . . or not.
Q: Do you have any tips for beginning writers?
A: Please write because you love the act of it, the serenity or mania or insanity of it, and the discoveries you make about words and things, and about yourself as you write, not “for” publication. You must love the doing of it so much that you can tolerate, have the courage to persist in the face of indifference, incomprehension, and rejection; see Mona Van Duyn’s wonderful poem, “The Vision Test,” about the Department of Motor Vehicles clerk who laughed her ass off when Van Duyn gave her profession as poet. And if you love it, you can consciously prepare yourself by observing the world around you and reading voraciously in the best poetry. I’ve sometimes thought some people do all this naturally, and become great poets without trying. Good poetry is chock full of things, not abstractions, so if you do need to try, start by becoming a sense-addict. See, hear, closely observe people’s voices, inflections, body language: look at, listen to, sense everything: streets, cars, people, animals, birds, plants, rocks, weather, cars, bugs, buses, anchovies, tomatoes, turtles. Love food. Be Neruda, who wrote a loving poem about a tarantula. Be Denise Levertov, who said, “O Taste and Be.” Develop a vocabulary of living creatures and objects—literally, I mean: know their names. These are your materials, your marble, your paints, your instruments and notes. Be John Muir. As to reading, if you’re unguided by teachers, pick up the great contemporary journals, Poetry, Prairie Schooner, Nimrod, The Cincinnati Review, Crazy Horse, Nellie, The Georgia Review, The Southern Review, Birmingham Poetry Review, and the many other long-standing, respected journals. Read them cover to cover. See what you like. Use the library and the used book stores to pick up books by the poets you discover in the journals and books by the older dead poets you know about and may have taken as models—my list above is a pretty damn good one, though reflecting my life, age, education. Analyze a few poems you love; see how they work structurally, formally, how they make ear music and word play, and find their patterns of image and metaphors. Notice how the parts of their poems connect, or don’t. Acquire these traits, learn these skills. Try to invite the spirit of play to infuse your drafts, and write, write, write for play, to be serious, to learn new twists and squiggles of words. Discover, surprise yourself. Always revise, start again, start again, edit, revise, edit. If an editor gives you the rare gift of feedback, use it. If you’re lucky, maybe you can find at least one person who knows more, has more skills than you do, and who will read your work. Be open. Persist.
Q: When will Amanda and the Man Soul be out? And what else are you working on now?
I’m working on random new poems and also obsessing poetically on the twinned and the monstrous, or seemingly monstrous, through a full-length book called Chimera, which will include the Nimrod poems, some more Amanda, and related work on art, the family, and on what I see as monsters of various kinds. At least that’s what I think it is right now. Putting a book together is also a process of discovery.
Eilis O’Neal is Nimrod‘s Editor-in-Chief. She is also the author of the young adult fantasy novel The False Princess.