Certainty is the cage that keeps us safe from curiosity. I've been released from the cage. I am the songbird and I am flying for the window. I know it's closed but I plan on breaking through. – Charlie Coté, Jr. (1987-2005)

Friday, March 11, 2011

The Sweet That Matters: An Interview with Poet Marie-Elizabeth Mali

From Marie-Elizabeth Mali’s website:

Marie-Elizabeth Mali was born and raised in New York City, with frequent trips to Venezuela and Sweden where most of her family lives. She received her MFA from Sarah Lawrence College in 2009. She graduated Summa Cum Laude from Pacific College of Oriental Medicine in San Diego in 1998 with a Master of Traditional Oriental Medicine degree. She graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Oberlin College in 1989 with a B.A. in East Asian Studies.

Her first book of poetry, Steady, My Gaze, was published by Tebot Bach Press in 2011. Tebot Bach is Welch for "little teapot" and the organization is dedicated to strengthening community, promoting literacy, and broadening the audience for poetry by demonstrating through readings, workshops, and publications, the power of poetry to transform human experience.

She is a co-curator for louderARTS: the Reading Series and Page Meets Stage, both in New York City. Before receiving her MFA in poetry from Sarah Lawrence College, she practiced Traditional Chinese Medicine. Her work has appeared in Calyx, Poet Lore, and RATTLE, among others.

I first met Marie-Elizabeth at the Sarah Lawrence College Summer Writers Seminar and remember her reading a stunning pantoum that subsequently appeared in LUMINA, Volume 7, 2008, called “A Good Night's Rest.” Since then we see each other yearly at the Palm Beach Poetry Festival, and even dance the salsa. Well, she dances the salsa and I try not to look too much like an idiot.

Here’s a recent e-mail exchange about her book, poems “attuned to the sensual and the sacred”, to quote Kim Addonizio’s comment on Steady, My Gaze. To me, these poems transform what’s known to the unexpected inevitabilities that we all seem to know, but didn’t know we’d known, if only we pay closer attention. That’s the occasion of this collection. So let’s see what we discover now in conversation with Marie-Elizabeth Mali.

CC: In one of the epigraphs for the book, you quote Carl Jung: “who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakens.” Writing poetry is the closest I come to this, though I think it’s so easy to delude ourselves. I think about Stephen Dobyns’ book Best Words, Best Order, and his essay on the jester he keeps at his writing desk. How were you able to keep your gaze steady and not get caught up in the distractions of publication, performance, and pleasing others? Hey, three Ps. I’m usually not that organized.

MEM: Ha! I love it when a poet asks questions.

It’s an ongoing struggle for me. I have to turn my gaze away again and again from all the glittering, compelling, beautiful distractions outside. In terms of this book, some of it was written during my MFA program, so the nature of the program, and the sheer level of coursework, provided a helpful structure to keep me focused and turned inward. Post-MFA, it’s harder for me to knuckle down as regularly, but creating structure through things like NaPoWriMo (writing 30 poems in 30 days in April) and the occasional generative workshop, helps. And then there are days when I spend three hours on Facebook and wonder where the poems went.

CC: I love the surprise of the prologue and epilogue, the way the book comes full circle. In fact, the book does have a number of cycles. I’m interested in how the prologue and epilogue represent two aspects of self. How did each poem convey its own meaning and what did you discover in the process of translation? Did you write the prologue or epilogue first?

MEM: I wrote the prologue first, which is a poem in Spanish called “Hambrienta.” It was written during a fantastic Latin American poetry class at Sarah Lawrence in which we read and translated Latin American poets’ work and wrote our own poems in Spanish. This was one of the few poems I wrote in Spanish that I kept. It was written in frustration over some of the more hyper-intellectual work we were reading, which helped me get to an emotional core that I’m always trying to find when I write.

The epilogue is the translation of “Hambrienta” (“Hungry”), which I felt was necessary to include in order to allow non-Spanish speakers into the poem. I discovered that it’s very hard to translate one’s own work and that it’s a better poem in the original language! The two poems represent two aspects of myself in that I’ve navigated these languages my whole life, which formed me as a person who constantly seeks connection across traditional lines of division.

CC: In the section called “O Three-Eyed Lord,” the last octet (“Mantra”) revisits the first (“Chant”). Talk about that cycle, its concerns and what you were trying to puzzle out in the writing.

MEM: I was deep into the study of Kashmir Shaivism at the time, trying to puzzle out this question of non-dualism: how God can be everything (not just IN everything but BE everything) and how there can be such apparent evil in the world. It’s a philosophy that’s not for sissies, or for those who want a comforting father-figure-type of God to lean on. The sheer hugeness of its implications blows my mind, which led to this section of poems grappling with death, war, rape, meanness. The last poem in the section revisits the first because my great aunt died shortly after my cat did, so I found myself chanting the mantra referenced in the poems again in honor of her. It felt different, and yet the same, and provided a way to bring the section full-circle.

CC: The five years of marriage cycle in the section “I Celebrate the Husband” also interests me, how it reveals the complexities of married life, and how close contact with the other, in this case, the husband, deepens your gaze and helps you awaken, if you let it. I take it that this marriage provoked a fair amount of anxiety for the speaker of those poems given past experiences revealed in the collection, but she realizes that love is a great healer. What would you say about all that?

MEM: I’d say your reading of it is right on! I came to marriage late, at 39 years old, once I realized that I wanted to grow in ways that would probably only happen if I committed myself to opening to a relationship without being able to ditch it as easily as I did before when I got bored, hurt, or went through any of the typical tough phases any relationship goes through over time.

Within a couple of months after our wedding, I experienced an unexpected loss of “filter,” in that the horrible things done to women all over the world that show up in the news on a daily basis felt like they were happening to me. I had to work for months to distinguish my experience and my man from “women’s experiences” and “men.” The poem “Newly Wed” came out of that “loss of filter” time. That period of time exposed a level of gender anger I had not previously reached in my inner work, I think because I had never committed to a man that deeply before, so it hadn’t been forced to the surface. So, yes, marriage has provoked “a fair amount of anxiety” for me and the speaker of these poems, and a fair amount of awakening and healing as well.

CC: In the “Second Year of Marriage”, I love how the magnanimous “let it be” is immediately subverted in the next line: “Later, we fight...” How do you think about conflict, not only in marriage, but in the making of poems, or being human for that matter?

MEM: Every time I think I’ve gained some kind of equanimity or wisdom, something usually happens to show me how little I’ve actually internalized, how easily my veneer of acceptance can be blown. Hence the subversion in that poem of the speaker’s magnanimity with the reality of the simple things that trip us up on a daily basis. Those contradictions, for me, form a lot of what it is to be human, as well as the acceptance of being a bundle of contradictions, which allows for more relaxation with it all while recognizing how ridiculous I am most of the time. I think from that place true compassion and magnanimity can arise, not the bullshit I’m-going-to-help-you-or-bear-with-you-because-I’m-so-magnanimous-and-wise type of compassion, which isn’t really compassion anyway.

As for the making of poems, I think the most interesting poems have some kind of tension in them, whether within the speaker, the content, or on the level of language and form. I’m wary of poems that seem to absolutely know what they’re talking about, that impart some wisdom without revealing the hard-won nature of that wisdom, without revealing the complexity of the human being behind the pretty surface of the smart ideas.

CC: Can you talk about the ambivalences in “Fifth Year of Marriage”, the work of enlightenment “when no one’s leaving/clothes on the floor...” and the “giving up of every story...”? This last poem of that cycle has a bite to it, a sting.

MEM: I was thrilled when that poem came out, just before the deadline for final changes to the book, because I feel it gets to the core of how I see marriage as a mirror of the journey of awakening: that waking up involves letting go of EVERY story about oneself and the world, which is almost impossible, given these gorgeous minds we have that live to create story. Nothing reveals one’s stories faster than living in close proximity to another human governed by his/her different stories. Hence the power of ashram/monastery for the monk, and marriage for the householder, if one approaches it with that intention.

CC: As you know, we both like to dance, and you write several poems about how this is tied to the speaker’s cultural identity. I’m thinking of “Origins” and “Ain’t Nobody’s Business.” What does the clave mean to you? And I agree, it’s the sweet that matters, not the wrapper, although the wrapper can be sweet too. I’m guessing you didn’t always think so.

MEM: Yes, you’re getting to some of my core stuff here, that feeling of invisibility I’ve had much of my life, in terms of feeling largely Latina on the inside and looking largely Swedish on the outside (and not having a name that places me clearly in one culture or the other). The clave is my heartbeat, and for years I wished people could see that beyond the dance floor. Many of the poems in the first section of the book reflect that struggle to accept my cultural mixture and to not expect that I wouldn’t be “seen” because the wrapper and sweet weren’t an obvious fit.

CC: Going back to “Origins”, you write about marginalia, and I can’t help thinking that this book might be the marginalia in the book you call life. Maybe that’s poetry. Marginalia on life, though that sounds so trivial. Talk about how you meant this word.

MEM: I meant that word much in the way you interpreted it and as metaphor for my having grown up among three cultures, feeling literally “in the margin,” looking from the outside at people who seemed to be squarely embodied within the text of their singular cultural perspectives. A luxury I could never have. Now I’m grateful for my perspective, given that it probably made me a more adaptable person and a poet, but as a child I didn’t know it was a good thing, given that I simply wanted to fit in somewhere.

CC: The entire book represents a spiritual quest, at least at some level. I’m thinking in particular of “The Questions Themselves” and the Silent Retreat cycle near the end of the book. That last cycle, by the way, reminded me of Lucille Clifton’s "Ten Oxherding Pictures." Has she been an influence? What is the Tao of Marie-Elizabeth?

MEM: Yes, it does, in that my life is basically spiritually oriented and I wrote the book. I prefer the word “journey” to “quest,” in that “quest” feels a bit too effortful for where I’m at these days with it all (which is not to say my spiritual journey hasn’t been full of effort in the past).

I love Clifton’s work but I wouldn’t say she’s been a direct influence. Though I have certainly gained strength from the directness with which she expressed her truth and her willingness to name what needs to be seen with such craft and skill.

I love that: “the Tao of Marie-Elizabeth.” Hmm, I’d have to say it’s about looking into life as best I can toward some deeper truth than this conglomeration of likes and dislikes I call me.

CC: Who inspires and influences you as a writer and what are you currently reading?

MEM: Mark Doty has inspired me for a long time, the often non-dual way he sees the world (Read the poem, “A Display of Mackerel”) and the beautiful language with which he brings the world to life on the page. Marie Howe, Nick Flynn, Patricia Smith, and Kim Addonizio, too. I want to be smacked in the gut by a poem and theirs do that to me.

I’m currently enthralled with Keetje Kuipers’ first book, Beautiful in the Mouth, Ada Limón’s latest book, Sharks in the Rivers, and Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s latest book, Lucky Fish. I love their gorgeous, lush use of language and their enormous, deeply feeling hearts. I read almost a book a day of poetry, so it’s a bit much to list here, but in the last five days I’ve read The Requited Distance by Rachel Eliza Griffiths, World’s Tallest Disaster by Cate Marvin, The Invention of the Kaleidoscope by Paisley Rekdal, Ghost Letters by Richard McCann, Sleeping with the Dictionary by Harryette Mullen, and re-read Carpathia by Cecilia Woloch for an interview I’m doing with her for my blog (http://memali.posterous.com).

CC: In “Stuck in Traffic on the Henry Hudson Parkway at Sunset,” you describe sights that might drop you to your knees. I’ve seen some of your underwater photographs and must say they come close to doing that for me. Can you talk a bit about your photography, and where we can see some of those pictures? How does photography influence your writing?

MEM: Thank you, Charlie, I appreciate hearing that! I’ve got two recent underwater photo albums up at Phanfare: http://memali.phanfare.com/

I’ve been shooting underwater for several years but took an underwater photo course in Turks and Caicos last summer that really moved my work forward. The album from that trip is on Flickr: http://bit.ly/dZ7lAs

Cryptic Teardrop Crab at Night, Photo by Marie-Elizabeth Mali, Used with Permission

I love the oceanic world. It’s so complex and utterly different from our land-based world (though we influence it, unfortunately rarely for the better). I feel privileged to be able to visit and document the amazing creatures down there. I don’t see a direct link between my photography and writing yet, except perhaps in this impulse to share what I see, whether through image or word, in the hopes to perhaps move another person to pause and feel.

At the moment, a more direct link between word and image is happening with the poem trailers I’ve been making in iMovie and posting to YouTube. There are four there (search for “Steady, My Gaze” and they should come up). I’ve been having a great time choosing images and music for my poems, and it’s made me think about them in a different way. I imagine at some point I’ll end up writing a poem because of an image or piece of music I think would work well with it for a trailer or short film, though I haven’t tried that yet.

CC: Toni Morrison explores the complexities of identity and sexual abuse in The Bluest Eye, and I have to believe you’ve read this book. It became particularly evident to me in the reading of “Quinceañera.” I’m also thinking of the title poem, “Steady, My Gaze” which alludes to the woundings of abuse. Can you reflect on this a bit?

MEM: Yes, I’ve read this book, though it was—ahem—a loooooong time ago in college Women share certain experiences across racial and cultural lines, including ways they are perceived and treated by men (not all men) and I tried to get some of those into these poems. “Newly Wed” runs along those lines, as does “Animal-Subliminal.” I experienced the projections white North American women experience when they travel to other parts of the world (largely due to Hollywood films), in my teens while visiting family in Venezuela, when the boys there were trying out ways to be men, largely modeled on the machismo of their fathers and grandfathers, and it wasn’t the best of situations for me.

“Steady, My Gaze” is an ekphrastic poem in the voice of Frida Kahlo, inspired by her painting, “The Little Deer,” in which her face appears on the body of a deer pierced by nine arrows. I resonate with that image, in terms of how I often experience the world coming at me. And the steadiness of her gaze within that wounding in that painting contributed the title.

CC: There’s a kinship I feel with you given that we’ve both worked in the helping profession. Have you ever read How Can I Help by Ram Dass? I think this book is so sympatico. I could identify with your poem “The Helping Profession”, the weariness that comes with all that need showing up in your office. I think of a line I wrote about Disney's Shrek who’s “green with intrusion” and all he wants to do is hang out in his swamp, but he’s compelled to help. Yet it’s hard not to take the aches of others inside as you point out in “Volunteering with Rescue Workers at the Javits Center.” How might writing be an antidote to this kind of weariness?

MEM: Yes, we read that book in our clinical counseling classes in Chinese Medicine school. It’s such a great book, so useful for anyone drawn to helping/healing work. I think writing is a great antidote to the weariness that can arise from working with others’ suffering. It’s important not to take it on, to find some way to release it between sessions or at the end of the day. Writing (even writing chart notes) can be a way to get it out.

That said, working with others as a massage therapist and acupuncturist for thirteen years was one of the greatest privileges of my life. Those were some of the times when I felt most alive and awake to the raw, gorgeous messiness of being human.

I find journal writing to be an essential way to process things that happen on a day-to-day basis, though I’m no longer in private practice. But I find journaling and writing poetry don’t often happen together for me. Sometimes dumping in a journal can empty me out enough that I can get to the writing of a poem, but they often end up happening at different times.

CC: I’d like to conclude by asking you about the lyrical insights in “The Diver”, namely the perfect thing in life and the paradox of kissing. Maybe you’ll write a collection of poems about diving. Anyway, talk about longing, and teeth.

MEM: Though I’ve never had any success before in corralling my poems toward any kind of coherent project, I’m hoping my next project will be a collection of diving and ocean-related poems combined with underwater photos (hear that, Muse, please?).

There’s a line in that poem, “Maybe the only perfect thing in life is longing.” Really, doesn’t longing get us out of bed in the morning? And what would life be like without sharp teeth on the other side of those kissable lips, reminding us to not to get too complacent, not to go to sleep?


Taylor Mali said...

What a wonderful interview. I particularly like all the hyperlinks you're created, Charlie. You're created a great document for anyone who wants to dig more deeply into how Marie-Elizabeth operates spiritually, artistically, and musically.

Charles Coté said...

Thanks Taylor.