On Not Being Poetry's Daddy: Marianne Morris in Conversation (Part 2 of 2)
This is Part 2 of my conversation with Marianne Morris (part 1 is here). We discuss Cambridge (where Marianne went to undergraduate and graduate school), Marianne's writing practice, Chinese Medicine, studying abroad in Iran, and feminism.
SW: When did you find your first poetry crew?
MM: At Cambridge, as an undergrad. There were poetry magazines and poets around during my first year, but it was all very tepid, ordinary work, I thought. But then I met the self-professed "avant-garde" poets, and started to get my head around how to destroy the language I had become more accustomed to writing with. There were a lot of readings, a lot of poets visiting from Europe and America, and that broadened my vision. There were problems, too, of course, although I wasn’t really aware of them at the time. I was in a bubble of work.
Do you want to talk about the problematics of that scene?
SW: Only if you do!
MM: Well, I wrote my PhD about it so it’s not a secret that it was so fucked up.
There’s the absurd gender imbalance, for a start. It’s better now, largely due to recent graduates like Connie Scozzaro and Caitlin Doherty and Laura Kilbride, but when I was a student there, we didn’t talk about feminism, or the blatant patriarchy of the University and of academia, or of Cambridge’s own peculiar poetic lineage. I often say, wishing it was a joke, that I discovered feminism in my late 20s. When I talked to my younger sister about it, excitedly raging about the brilliance of Luce Irigaray, she was kind of like, yeah… we did that in our first year at UCL. I felt like I must have been such an idiot, reading Freud with enthusiasm, valorizing Pound, failing to read Mina Loy… Gender studies was not written into the curriculum then. Not that that excuses me.
SW: What did you write about in your PhD?
MM: Very broadly, a poetic tendency toward a fetishization of otherness, as opposed to like, the subject of the first person being the point from which all information is generated. With regards to the Iraq war, there was a lot of poetry written in Cambridge, including mine, that featured the Other Body, the body of war, the Iraqi body, the Afghan body. It seemed like a fetishization rather than a genuine attempt to think through those crises. The word media comes from it being a mediation of what’s happening, right? So there’s a bias and it’s like, whose interests are being fulfilled? I was trying to look at this brick wall that I had hit in lyric and my own voice and my own speech because I felt this kind of social poetic pressure to negate it in favor of worse disasters than my own life. It makes sense, ethically. But also, it doesn’t. I wanted to know how I could come back to poetry without losing track of the world around me. Neither, like, piously trying to negate my own experience. Does that make sense?
SW: What was difficult about coming to that realization, within your PhD?
MM: Once I started attacking the question, it seemed very easily to fall apart. Also my advisor, John Hall, was very attuned to the sensitivities of these questions, so we had very productive conversations. I started doing some analysis of the language used in news media and looking to see where it showed up in poetry too, and how affective language creates an emotional response, which in that context, in a way, is a form of entertainment. In the context of news media, responses of fear or disgust are a product, you’re either buying or soliciting that emotion. There were a number of ways that I tried to get through it. One of the ways was through writing poems on a typewriter. I was arguing that the physicality and the noise of the typewriter, of using such an unwieldy machine to work, separates you from the voice in your head that’s saying “I’m the voice of poetry, write what I say” so it’s a little bit more of an unmediated expression, and also things like rhyme and internal rhyme and meter would come out more because there’s this staccato audio accompaniment to the writing process. Through my experiments, the craft of poetry became much more important than the ideology. But I think that the nature of being a poet is that you’re always working to bust through a brick wall. You’re always working to make something new. Right?
SW: Definitely. Some people don’t have a problem writing the same way for an extended period of time but I think there’s a lot of poets who encounter that need to shift to something else in order to sustain their practice.
MM: I get really stale very quickly and I get bored with myself very quickly, like, if my thinking isn’t progressing through my poetry I get very frustrated.
SW: How do you support that need that you have, to be able to shift into something different when you become bored writing a particular style of poetry?
MM: Not sure! Right now I feel very stuck, poetically! Not sure. Reading is really important. Writing, theoretically, is important. Having the time to do that though… that’s not always available. I guess I’m questioning my poetic work now because I’m learning in a completely different field [Chinese medicine] and it’s odd because, ironically, it’s my poetry that led me to this field. I realized that there was an engagement with others that I was seeking that it wasn’t possible to have through poetry.
SW: It seems like there are so many different angles that you could take with it. If your acupuncture practice sustains your poetry, does that also mean that it’s a form of literature?
MM: Some of the aspects of acupuncture are very poetic. The names of the points are often very beautiful. Like “the lesser ocean”, “the sea of blood.” There’s even a “hidden rabbit.” There’s a series of points called “Window of the Sky” points because they affect your sensory apparatus, so window to the sky being your eyes, ears, nose, mouth. I’ll often start to write a poem now and too much technical language will creep in and suddenly I’m writing a poem about an organ and I’m in TCM language and not really in the poem. I’m hoping that it will naturally find its own way of making itself part of my poetic language but right now they’re two separate things. It is a very creative discipline. I don’t know if it’s literary but it’s definitely a creative practice because there are so many tools to use. So that’s exciting. But I am missing poetry. I need poetry. I think people need poetry. People need art.
SW: Why do you need poetry?
MM: It reminds me of what’s important, it refreshes my senses, it takes me out of my own mind—which—everyone needs that! Art challenges you to see your own thought processes and question them, it changes how you think about things. Also—and I know that there is this argument about whether or not art should be beautiful and blah blah but I like art that’s beautiful and I like to be elevated by it. And I like how poetry is its own language. Poetry is a way that I can communicate something not faithful, not accurate, not authentic, but… what I mean. Outside of expectation and sense and what’s "right."
SW: It’s a series of ruminations.
MM: Sometimes it is. Sometimes it is more direct. It has its own built in failure. Not, “I was trying to say this to this person and I failed and they ended up shouting at me OR they ended up taking what I said as an insult instead of as a compliment OR etcetera." You know that a poem is going to fail because it is just a poem.
SW: It’s something that you feel, it’s that unknown that’s an inevitable part of communication.
MM: Yeah. It’s true, there’s the unknown quality. And just the messiness of thinking and feeling. I’m always amazed by someone who is really able to create something strong that they think and they believe in, because I find that thinking is very messy and knowing what you think is very messy and then putting that into language that is intelligible is… I don’t know how people do that.
SW: It’s decision-making. There still has to be that space where you are making a decision. Say your name as a poet is this, and then years later you go by this. There’s got to be room for being decisive and not, or, never really being sure. I think that’s kind of representative of the human condition in a lot of ways.
MM: It’s good to not be sure. Unless you’re one of those people just ruining their life not making a decision. That seems…
SW: Do you feel like you’re doing that though?
MM: By not making decisions? I have my own decision making process but it’s separate from how I make poetry. Poetry’s where I don’t have to make decisions that will impact my life in that way. The best poetry for me is almost, without a thought. It just comes spilling out. Those are also the poems that I publish very quickly. When it’s right it all happens very quickly. I’ve never edited a poem for a long time. Well, IRAN DOCUMENTS took me fucking for-ever. It was originally a 140-page manuscript and I had all sorts of things that I worked on over and over and I couldn’t ever get it right and then Erin Morrill of Trafficker Press helped me edit it down and cut the slack. It was an agonizing process up until she rescued me.
SW: What made it agonizing?
MM: Mostly because it wasn’t the project that I had hoped it would be. I had wanted to be in Iran for a longer period of time and it didn’t work out with the visa. I had wanted to go and learn some Farsi and maybe work with translations. I did some very minimal work with side-by-side English and Persian translations, but it was hard to find them. I had hoped to be a little more immersed in Persian culture, but in order to get the visa I ended up booking the whole trip with a guide. I did all this work and it was not what I wanted and I had to figure out how to reconcile that. That made it agonizing. It was probably the thing that I worked on the longest, ever. On the whole, I edit very little.
SW: If someone walked away from this interview like, I feel like, “I know who Marianne Morris is.” …
MM: Well, I recently did this very wonderful course at school about medical Qi Gong and Chinese medicine with a teacher called Suzanne Friedman. She died about a month ago. She was a wonderful teacher. She had this process where she asked someone in the class “Who are you?” and the person responded with their name. She said, “No, that’s your name: who are you?” “Well, I’m the daughter of…” “No, that’s your family. Who are you?” and it carried on like this and the point of this exercise was, you can’t ever put who you are into language. It comes back to what I was saying about identity. I’ve never felt fixed by belonging to a place. Sometimes I feel like I’m totally new everyday. Like what happened last week is completely irrelevant and gone.
SW: Your clothing from one day to the next.
MM: Totally! Like, “Who are we going to get today?” So, I like to think that it’s not possible to answer that. But, I’m relieved that it’s not. And poetry is proof of that. For me, it’s a renewing process. I keep coming back to that as an important thing.
SW: It is an important thing!
MM: I still don’t know why though! I feel like everything that I’ve done in my writing for the last few years has been like “don’t get stuck, don’t get stuck!” But maybe it’s just that one of the few things that feels true about purpose and mortality is that humans are on the earth to evolve.
SW: Well, how else would you sustain new ideas and the opening of perspective that allows us to be sophisticated humans if it wasn’t for art spoken from a variety of points to be appreciated.
MM: Yeah. I don’t know how else. Plus I associate that stuck-ness with a political apathy, and I think greed and selfishness come from “stuck.” When you get stuck you become preoccupied with what and who you are, and that becomes more important than what others are. And then start defending what you have, as opposed to looking outwards into discovery, I suppose. And then all sorts of mayhem happens.
SW: I can’t absorb new material and have it impact my poetry practice all at once. There’s some sort of digestive period of rest. That period of not writing or only reading or learning about a completely new field that suddenly shifts the work into the direction of difference.
MM: It’s true, there’s a period of digestion.
That’s like savasana in yoga, where you’re supposed to lay like a corpse and do nothing: you’re using that stillness to let all of the movement of your practice take root in your self. I love that.
SW: I love that too! And then you say thank you!
SW: Do you feel like… you’ve done your PhD and you’ve published a number of books at this point… how many? Do you know?
MM: I think like maybe ten or eleven chapbooks and then one book-book.
SW: Do you feel like you’ve mastered the craft of poetry?
MM: Well, every time I approach that sort of feeling it’s usually just before I enter a new rut and realize that I know absolutely fucking nothing at all. Like, a burst when I’ve written a chapbook where I’m like—I did it! In that flash and triumph of completion that lasts for a week and then it’s over again. So, no! Not at all. If I did really feel like I had mastered it, I think that it would be over. Right? How can you ever master it?
SW: When you say “over,” what’s that mean?
MM: If I felt that I had mastered it, I think that that would be the end of being a poet, like, it has nothing new to teach me, like “I’M YOUR DADDY NOW.”
SW: You don’t want to be my daddy?
MM: I don’t want to be poetry’s daddy.
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...