On Not Being Poetry's Daddy: Marianne Morris in Conversation (Part 1 of 2)
This conversation with Marianne Morris took place at Oliveto in Oakland over flourless chocolate cake. Marianne and I first met in New York in 2008. She currently resides in Berkeley, California where she is studying Chinese Medicine. I asked Marianne to participate in this conversation about women poets as part of a larger project that I am working on called Conversations with Women. In our conversation, Marianne talks about growing up in London and Toronto, her first poetry chapbook, going to clubs in London as a teenager, and school uniforms. This is Part 1 of 2.
SW: What’s your earliest memory of writing poetry?
MM: The first poem that I remember writing was when I was ten or eleven. I had this really hilarious little “special” notebook with a picture of Pierrot the clown on the front of it. I think it maybe even said “Poems” in a horrible italic script. My first poem was a poem for my best friend’s sister who I had a huge crush on and the poem’s title was her first name and was all about how she was very waif-like and sad and beautiful. My first poem! Oh god… I think I gave her a copy.
SW: You don’t have the notebook anymore?
MM: I threw out the notebook in my teens and was like, “disgusting!” and my MOM rescued it from the trash. She might have it somewhere. Embarrassing! I think that it even rhymed. It was in 3 or 4 quatrains and it rhymed. It was horrible.
SW: Did you base it on a particular poem? What was the poem influenced by?
MM: Just having a crush. But, after that, I must have thought, “I’m going to try and write poems” because there were other poems in that same notebook and they were all organized into verses and they all rhymed. I must have thought, “This must be how you shift into poetic language, you have constraint and rhyme.”
SW: When did you begin to see yourself as a poet?
MM: I always wrote. I knew that I was a writer and that I wanted to write. When I was sixteen I started making chapbooks to give to friends; some of my friends still have them and they’re all so embarrassing.
SW: What’s so embarrassing about them?
MM: The first one had a close-up picture of my face on the front and it was called “Marianne Toinette”, ha ha, a clever joke about my name. It was all probably about crushes on people that I had. I was reading lots of French poets: it was a little bit Rimbaud/Baudelaire-inspired but I was also into Patti Smith. It was this odd mix of punk and Rimbaud.
SW: When was this?
MM: Like, ’98?
SW: That sounds hip!
MM: I had no sense of it being uncool! I was really into it and I had no sense of what I was doing, really.
SW: Was it something that you talked to your parents about?
MM: I think I gave them a copy. I had a couple pseudonyms for a while. I was distributing things under the pseudonym Nikita Shebitch, that book was called Atmospheric pH7. I think there was a poem in it about jerking off to internet porn and I remember being like “Um, my mom is going to see this.” I gave them to people at school, friends, people I met at clubs. I wasn’t really into performing and I was so shy and I wasn’t starting a press and I wasn’t aware of a scene that I was trying to enter into—I was just doing it. It was fun. Even though I’m now, on reflection, embarrassed.
SW: It sounds like it was a way to give people a little more information about you?
MM: They weren’t very lyric. They were more playful, experiments. I think that it was a lot about learning to write.
SW: Was it a ceremonial thing? Like here’s a token of --?
MM: The only person that I remember giving it to clearly in that sort of way was Katie Jane Garside, the singer of a band called Queen Adreena. It’s interesting to think of my motives back then. I was talking about this with someone recently whose perspective on the making and dissemination of art is that you are giving something of yourself out into the world. I haven’t thought of it in that way so much recently, because I’ve spent such a long time hanging out with a lot of poets and reading at a lot of poetry readings and it’s much more of a social thing.
That was more the spirit that led me to write and make chapbooks when I was younger. This is a thing that I do, I love doing it, I do it all the time. It’s a natural progression to want to fling it around, I suppose. I didn’t really expect anything back. Apart from being famous, obviously. In that teenage way like, “I want to be immortal!” We’re editing that out.
SW: What kinds of clubs did you go to?
MM: I guess kind of glam-rock? Where the boys would be wearing lipstick and eyeliner and the girls would be wearing feather boas and tutus and fishnet tights and PVC spike heels: we started going to clubs at fifteen. It was like a school trip because we would plan all week. Our curfew was midnight. The grown-ups would arrive at the club at eleven, we would have been there from nine. We’d wait around drinking vodka, then have our one-hour of mayhem, then go home just as things were getting interesting. There were no poets around there that I remember.
SW: Hey, you grew up in London but you’re Canadian, right?
MM: Yes, I was born in Toronto and I moved to London when I was eight.
SW: What was that like?
MM: It sucked!
MM: I hated London. The minute we landed I started crying because it was so green. It was so green and raining and lush and I was like “THIS IS DISGUSTING.” We stayed in a hotel the first night that we were there and I remember having eggs for breakfast the first morning and they were inedibly, errantly salty and I thought “This is what eggs are like in England?” I was like, crying into my eggs. That was the beginning of being a foreign weirdo.
In Toronto, I was already socially awkward. In England, in addition to being, that, I was also this weird foreigner who said “eraser” instead of “rubber”.
I actually feel the most at home in California.
SW: What do you remember the most about Toronto?
MM: I don’t have good memories of Toronto. I was bullied in school a lot.
MM: I was brainy when I was really young, which didn’t help. I was considered an advanced student—and some of my teachers would make a fuss about me in class. I might as well have had "Ostracize This" scribbled on my face. But I was also very socially awkward. I was a kind of cowering, scared person and when you walk into the world like that people sense it. My memories of Toronto are kind of nightmare-ish.
SW: What changed for you socially, or at home when you moved to London?
MM: I went to a very strange, unique school in London which was structured like a boarding school but was a day school. There were very strict rules, we were in classes all day, and we were always under the supervision of a teacher. We had these hilarious uniforms with burnt brown sweaters and burnt brown knickerbockers and sleeveless V-neck pullovers and gross beige polyester shirts, hilarious. It was very strict and old-fashioned in a nice way and I felt very safe there because there were no opportunities to be physically bullied, we were always supervised. And we were constantly having our brains stimulated.
SW: Are your parents literary people? Is poetry something that feels accessible for them?
MM: They’ve been very supportive to the extent that my dad has read my PhD. He reads it out loud to my mom while she does the ironing. They even watch videos of my poetry readings online. My mom is really into books about esoteric philosophy and healing and my dad is a voracious reader of mostly history and economics. His favorite poet is John Milton, who is actually one of the poets that I’ve never been able to really figure out.
Sara Wintz was born in Los Angeles and studied literature and writing at Mills College, Oxford University (BA), and Milton Avery Graduate School of the Arts at Bard (MFA). Her first book, Walking Across A Field We Are Focused On At This Time Now (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2012) is an epic poem...