This is the forty-sixth interview in the “Where are we now?” series. Please take a moment to peruse the INTRODUCTION AND INDEX to this series.
Interview with Jeanne Murray Walker
Poet, Playwright, Professor
10 April 2011
IA: Please tell us about your poetry. What topics tend to recur in your work? How have these changed over the period of time represented by your seven collections of poetry?
JMW: My poems are collected in books that have appeared fairly regularly every four or five years since 1980. I suppose I've always been haunted by death. After a five year illness, my father died when I was thirteen. And my brother died three years later, when I was sixteen.
But each of my seven books is a collection that centers on whatever issue was preoccupying me at the time I was writing. The first book, for example, explores the kind of questions young people ask. Who am I? What is a self? What is a home and how can I make a home for myself in the world? Many of the poems in that book talk in terms of architecture, the structure of a house. In my third book I wrote about the astonishing fact of childbirth and the challenges and boredom involved in nurturing another human being. By the time I wrote my fifth book, I was fascinated by narrative and delving into the mystery of community. How on earth do we stay connected to one another? Why are we often so lonely? How is it possible to express the silly joy of real connection?
I write to sort out and solve problems, human problems, ones we all have to deal with sooner or later. I write to try to harness this fleeting consciousness, this reality that we think of as ourselves. It's about trying to make sense of what I experience-- love and children and death and illness and suffering.
IA: Your poems tend to have tight, well-controlled stanzas through which a conversational, colloquial voice charges with astonishing intensity. This seems to me to be a particularly relevant approach for this moment in literary history: we need form, we need control, and yet we need the passionate expression of a burning spirit. Am I describing something you see in your own work?
JMW: I’m a big believer in the tool kit. I was lucky enough to have mentors who insisted that a poet should read and reread the tradition, going all the way back to the Greeks and Romans and Beowulf. Early on I composed verse in iambic pentameter, trying to develop a more subtle ear. I’ve always done exercises based on the kinds of metaphor that show up in Shakespeare and Trahern and Sidney and other early modern poets. Within the last several years I’ve written about fifty sonnets as a way of exploring the line as a unit that a poet can play against the English sentence. To write a sonnet is to take up the challenge to say something significant in a small space. I sometimes spend several hours tracing patterns in a poem by circling and drawing lines between similar sounds. This contributes to ear training. I teach in a low residency MFA Program and encourage my students to do this kind of work, too. Oboists spend thousands of hours rehearsing and so do ballerinas and base ball players. Can you imagine someone picking up a Strad and trying to play the Mendolssohn Violin Concerto without practicing?
After all the practice, a writer has to hope she will be given something significant to say. And sometimes we are. On this subject, I’m sticking with the crowd that believes in the Spirit, as Milton called it, or in Coleridge’s Unconscious or in the Muses. My job is to hone my skills and then, like a kite, to try to catch the wind.
There’s a great deal at stake these days. Particularly now that American society has gone mad with speed and so much of our communication is either trivial or selling something, we are in desperate need of poetry. Poetry reminds us of life and death issues.
IA: What other specific techniques do you use?
JMW: I’ll try any technique I think will work. I’m reading and learning from other writers all the time.
IA: What theories inform your work?
JMW: I don’t write mainly in order to express myself. I’m more like a carpenter who wants to create well made objects. I’d like to craft poems like Emily Dickinson’s that can be read by successive generations, who will find them intriguing.
I would like to be clear. But as Dickinson pointed out, “success in circuit lies.” In poetry, being clear almost always involves metaphor and leaps of logic. No wonder. Human consciousness is so subtle and difficult to document, it involves such inversions and unpredictable twists. And what we’re trying to write about is what it feels like to be a human living in the late twenty and early twenty-first century.
IA: You have often spoken on PBS, on the radio, at colleges, universities, workshops, conferences, and retreats…. What is the common thread that runs through your public speaking engagements? What are the most important messages that we need to hear right now about poetry, literature, the arts, and the life of faith?
JMW: Americans work long hours and consume stuff and the rest of our waking hours we watch TV or spend on social networking. That’s part of the reason America is experiencing a crisis of the imagination. Any real imaginative activity arises out of silence and thought and deep reflection. But we live lives of constant and often frenetic activity. Motion and speed and noise leave very little space for our imaginations. Even believers—those of us who profess faith in God—don’t know very well how to be quiet. Ours is an active faith—working at shelters, traveling to do missions abroad, serving on committees. There’s nothing wrong with that. Far from it. My question, though, is how much practice do we have at paying attention and, at a deep level, listening? Our imaginations come alive in that kind of stillness.
The imagination allows us to make a new world to replace natural disasters and pedestrian poems and polluted rivers and music that has been created with predictable templates and repetitive architecture and the habitual disregard people have for one another. America needs that kind of “making new” right now. We need people to do more than solve one problem at a time. Many solutions to specific problems create new unforeseen problems. So we need to imagine anew the way God did when he created the world. The imagination—far from being frivolous, far from misleading us—will invent what has never been thought of. It can take the fabric of our current reality and transform it into something entirely different.
But in order to imagine in this profound way, we need to make friends with rest and silence. Remember, in the creation story, God rested. He sat back and paid careful attention to what he had made. He reflected on it for a whole day. And he came to the conclusion that it was good. With that, the writer of Genesis forever linked the act of creation to stillness—to Sabbath—to contemplation—to thoughtfulness, to intentional rest. The truth is, you can only imagine if you know how to be still—because the ability to imagine and create something new arises out of and is followed by solitude and stillness.
IA: You have spent a lot of time in your life as a poetry editor and on editorial boards (first for Christianity and Literature, now for Image): what do you look for when you are selecting poetry for publication?
JMW: I get a kick out of spotting good new poems. I look for what’s immediate but also has staying power. There’s a lot of interesting work these days that runs on voice, that’s all bravado and daring. But if a poem doesn’t go deep, if it doesn’t puzzle and refract the human struggle with loneliness and community, with love and death, then it won’t last.
IA: What other authors are working in North America right now whose work you particularly admire?
JMW: Right now I’m reading a lot of poets in translation. We owe an enormous amount to the people who’ve translated the work of poets like Milosz and Lorca and Neruda and Tomas Transtromer and Kamienska and Amachi and Rumi and Adonis and the dozens of other significant writers in languages other than English.
IA: How do you teach the arts of crafting and interpreting poetry?
JMW: I ask students to pay attention. We all speed-read because most of us read online all the time. If you google a topic and get three hundred hits, you can’t read them all carefully. Fortunately most of what’s written doesn’t even require careful reading.
But reading poetry does. It demands an utterly different kind of attention. It’s not virtual and it’s not speedy. It happens in the body. It’s more like eating a fine meal or like riding a bike than it is like reading online.
The first thing I ask students to do is to read every poem aloud slowly twice. There’s no cheating. Twice. It doesn’t sound hard, but it’s astonishing how few people either can or are willing to do that.
IA: How do you think the arts (your own or others’) are responding to present and potential world-movements, such as postmodernism, the looming “post-human” phase, and the possible artistic effects of the Eastward orientation of economics and Christianity?
JMW: A lot of what’s going on in the world these days seems spectacular and wonderful. What good fortune we have, to be able to buy oodles of books relatively cheaply, to have the opportunity to read good work from so many different cultures! Twenty years ago, much of what we have now wasn’t available. We’re living through a mini-renaissance of food and culture and literature. Who can not notice? Who can remain ungrateful?
And much of what’s happened with fragmentation in postmodernism interests me deeply. It involves juxtapositions within art forms and between them. It’s a little like watching a kalidoscope as it turns, showering the pieces into different patterns which generate new meanings.
On the other hand, I’m concerned about our American addictions to speed and multitasking. Psychologists recently have done experiments to demonstrate that multitasking actually wrecks concentration. The electronic devices that allow us to do everything simultaneously—talk on the phone, use the computer, speak with someone in the room—don’t seem to accomplish much more than make our lives go by faster. Sometimes I wonder if that isn’t paradoxically what we are trying to do: get rid of our lives because it’s so hard to live and make wise choices and to be aware that we’re going to die. Those things are hard to deal with. I sometimes think that these addictions to speed are a form of denial.
I’m also hoping that we can get better in this country at talking to one another in reasonable ways. If democracy is to work, we need to figure out how to discuss politics and religion calmly. Maybe we’re afraid of anyone who doesn’t look or sound like us. Our fear makes us shout at one another. I need to cultivate patience and practice listening, as I think many of us do.