Maggie Dietz, That Kind of Happy
Groundhog’s Day has passed and spring has come early. The poet, Maggie Dietz, and I walk from her graduate class in Boston University’s historic Room 222 to Fenway’s most beloved drinking well, Eastern Standard. From the stroll down Bay State Road and Commonwealth Ave to nightfall over old-timey cocktails, we discuss poetry, teaching, book-making, the Midwest, and the poems that come from all of those landscapes imagined and real. Dietz speaks in blank verse, even after a long day of student meetings and workshop.
Dietz’s first book of poems, Perennial Fall, came out in 2006. Her second book, That Kind of Happy, hits the stands on April 6th. In Frost’s essay “The Figure a Poem Makes” he describes poetry as “the happy-sad of the drinking song”. This book (and the body of work at large) takes Frost at his word. Every moment of happiness disappears. Every indulgence—whiskey, Zoloft, one’s first prescription glasses, music, etc.—results, ultimately, in its wearing off. In this book, Dietz’s speakers experience depression, grief of a dying and then dead father, and struggles with infertility as much as they do imagination and dream. Neither of these modes of thinking reconciles the other, but the coexistence of the two leads the reader to understand what the speaker knows all along—“nothing has changed”—in which no transformation takes place, while at the same time, the nothingness itself changes.
In Dietz’s work, form is nature. As in Frost or Hopkins, the ear is that of a lyrebird’s: at once hearing the music in nature and able to respond in the same language. Dietz settles into the booth at Eastern Standard. Over a glass of Malbec, I ask my first poetry professor about the world this book brings to the reader, and her anticipation of this book entering the world.
Lisa Hiton: How did you enter revising and making this book? It seems you have the ear to do it on your own—the writing and revising—how is it you’re able to hear it?
Maggie Dietz: How does anyone?
LH: I’m terrible at it. I feel as though I need one of my poetry mothers to help me keep the poem in its wet-clay state, but I’m not a grad student anymore, so I don’t have them.
MD: I’ve never been like that. Of course I crave feedback, validation; you want someone to look at it and tell you you’ve made something good. To say I’ve never been like that is in fact, not true. When I was a green, young poet in grad school, that anticipation for workshop, the desperation for some kind of validation was there. It’s just hard to remember it. And I have to remind myself of it frequently as a teacher: how hard workshop is for students, and how much they anticipate it and have anxiety about it. Really, a person forgets after a while because your artistic practice—at least mine—starts to have next to nothing to do with other people. So, that workshop model, which does work in ways, and I feel is essential in ways to young poets—being in a room with random people with whom you might disagree fiercely, or who might have strong aesthetic differences, or differences of taste—that’s good for you, when you’re young. But at a certain point, that’s not what you want at all.
LH: One thing I find compelling about the answer is the part of you that wants to say “I never really had that” is evident in your work because of the kind of formalism that you are drawn to because there is such an inner ear about your poetics. You have a poem in there, “Still Falling”, that’s tetrameter with only one line that breaks. And it rhymes. And it’s in tercets.
MD: It’s trochaic.
LH: Right, see, of course it’s nature for you to know it and know its name. I only know the little I do from having had one workshop with you years ago as an undergraduate. That’s where my compass for understanding and hearing this way comes from. Because no one else ever said, for example, part of why you love “Birches” by Robert Frost is because the line that’s most colloquial has all of these spondees in it and it’s the only line that doesn’t fit the pentameter, the blank verse. So I wonder how you ended up having that ear to begin with, at the onset. Because I sense from the work and from you that it’s longstanding, that you’re inner ear has been tuned to this all along.
MD: It’s a tough question. I think it has everything to do with what draws me to poetry. We’ve talked about fiercely intellectual poets and I don’t think of myself at all as an intellectual poet. Not that I think the poems are dumb, it’s just that they’re maybe more driven by sound than by thinking—not thinking, but thought. It comes down to me that poems are made out of words, they’re not made out of ideas. It’s not that I don’t want to have any ideas in my poems. It’s just a confluence of form and content that’s always going to be essential to me. And not just a confluence, but a tension.
At this point in our conversation, Dietz reaches into her purse. She fumbles around until she finds two small magnets. Pieces of an earlier lesson with her graduate students.
So I had my grad students read the Randall Jarrell essay, “Levels and Opposites”. It’s about, basically, tension in poems. He uses other terms like “dialectical thinking”. I kept thinking, “How do I physically illustrate this thing he’s talking about”. And this is cool. This is a cool thing that can happen in a poem:
She holds the magnets facing each and allows them to attract.
This attraction that clicks. Right. It’s like a good heroic couplet.
Now, Dietz holds the magnets in opposition.
And then there’s this. [The magnets push each other away]. There’s so much energy. [She reverses the magnets]. This has energy, but it closes. [She reverses them again]. And this has an energy that cannot close, that’s always open. To me that’s what Jarrell’s essay is about. And sometimes this happens [The magnets click together]. But what we’re going for is this: [the magnets push each other away]. To me, that happens with sound as much as with anything else.
LH: Because “Still Falling” is the opening poem of the last section of the book, it calls to me that the formalism gets louder and louder as the book moves along. One of the many predicaments I’m obsessed with in this book is the “Lullaby” and “Takedown” There’s this problem for the speaker about “outmaneuvering” grief, or not. And it ends up being a two-way street. There’s an imagined girl in multiple poems—whether it’s a daughter or just a girl—and how that’s related to the speaker by the middle of the book. And those poems are the middle of the book, which is always a hinge, a place where the book takes a turn like a good poem would, With those two poems the imagined girl becomes the speaker again, and not as a mother, and then the book becomes loudly, more formal. “Zoloft” and other poems have that internal bombast—I want to say bombast because there are so many b words in the book—bombastic speech which reminds me, in a way, of Robert Pinsky when he reads aloud. And there are these internal rhymes—it’s like Hopkins too, because there’s the ear and then a transcendence in the poetic balances you build.
MD: (Joking) Of course, I planned that. I was trying to be like Hopkins. I do love Hopkins.
LH: So I guess the question is, if the book becomes more and more formal, or if the speaker recognizes more and more that she can’t out-grieve her grief, then what is the relationship between the ritual of grief and the formal poetic…and/or are they fighting each other also, in a way?
MD: Well, first of all, it’s for you to notice and not me that the book becomes more formal. This is not something I had planned or thought of at all. There are various ways one thinks about organizing the book, but it’s not as if I was saying “now we need to progress” to something more formal. However, while that wasn’t conscious, one of the things I love about poetry and art in general is that it can organize chaos. It’s how I approach form as a means to take things that seem unwieldy and raggy and painful and paradoxical and complicated and give them a physical shape. And not just a physical shape, but a sonic shape. It’s not as simple as order from chaos. There is something deliberate in it. There is something very hungry in that need—to shape something out of some mess. However, I don’t think that a poem like “Still Falling” approaches form in so different a way than “Zoloft”. To me, the poem sort of arrives at or announces its form. And every poem has a form. So whether the form has a name because it’s an old one or whether it just has a shape because it’s a new one, it doesn’t make that much difference to me.
LH: Can you elaborate on the role of naming. This book is interested in naming, very much. So that fact that whether it has a name or not doesn’t matter, that makes me think of your poem “Pluto” in which you console the little champion by saying that whether or not it’s a planet, “none / of [its] neighbors knows [its] name”; but it’s also in dialogue with and becomes a more complex essay when you put “Kempie” next to it—a poem in which a not yet arrived child is imagined, and the speaker says to the unborn: “You’ve got a mother / Kempie, and you’ve got a name.”
MD: Or the little girl, Indu, (from “Slip”) who we must name if we’re to fully imagine her. She has to have a name. I’m saying that. But that’s not a connection I made as I was writing the poems. These are the things you see afterwards. These are the things you see when you’re putting a book together and you’re like, “Oh, I guess it really matters to me whether something has a name or not”.
LH: This book also has at least two explicit death figures also, who aren’t named, but who are known by their proximity to the speaker. One being the killdeer bird and one being the father figure. And also, there’s a grandfather who shows up in “Are We there Yet”. And they don’t have names, but they have names in a different way because all of us have a constellation that forms around “grandpa” or “father”—we know a version of that. I think of names a lot in relation to death, I think because of my mother. My middle name is her father’s name and I never met him. And I don’t know the sound of his voice, and I don’t know what he looked like, and I don’t know what he smelled like, and things like that which, as a child, I didn’t really understand what that meant to my mom or to me. Or what it couldn’t mean to me. My brother looks more like him now which I think sometimes haunts her in a way that we can’t really understand yet. The role of naming seems, in this book, important at the level of human agency more than nature. That nature—our only capacity as poets, if not as humans, is to be able to articulate or draw whatever we can see or feel or experience; it’s part of our goal as a species. It’s different than other species for better and for worse. But nature is able to do this without naming. It’s very silent. I hate spring. I hate it so much. I had a conversation once with Jorie Graham about this. She said that in winter you’re the thing in motion. And then spring comes along loudly and goes about its business with such precision. I mean, birds are chirping, but they’re not translating for you.
MD: Yes, spring doesn’t say, “It’s spring”.
LH: The question buried in this is: how does ars poetica relate to naming? Is it the chirping we’re able to do?
MD: It’s complicated. I think Richard Wilbur says something about—“the poet utters the names of things, or poetry is the act of naming”. I love the way that sounds; I don’t actually believe it. Although there’s something to it: within a poem and within a life, to give something a name…is to create an identity that’s otherwise unimaginable. And whether I was aware of it or not, it’s something that I was thinking about over many years. There are a lot of years that separate some of these poems that seek to name usually someone—it’s an act of acknowledgement. It’s a hopeful act. It’s an act of conjuring. That something becomes more real or more physical because it has a name. And for better or for worse, I’m a poet who’s connected to and integrated with and writing about the physical world. It doesn’t mean the world of the mind or imagination doesn’t come in. I mean do I wish I would never write a poem about another goddamned bird. Yeah. But the killdeer—kills me. I could not stop thinking about that bird. And what it does. And how weird it is. And how weird listening to it is. And after a while, despite my resistance to writing about animals—you know the second somebody tells you you do a thing, like you name things…or after my first book I had a radio interview and the host said to me “you write a lot about dead or dying animals” and I almost choked on my own tongue because it was like I was supposed to say something to that, and I should have been able to, but it had never occurred to me. We can do what we can do. We can work with what we can work with. Something about what’s actually here is what appeals to me. And I think that has to do with the question of naming. Physical things have names. And abstract things have names, but they’re loose names and they’re big names.
LH: In the book you name things that are imagined. Indu isn’t real to the speaker. Kempie isn’t yet real to the speaker. But they’re conjured for the speaker. I read the book and I think of Frost as an inheritance of yours. And one thing I don’t think the American public knows much of in regards to Frost are poems like “Out Out—” and “Home Burial”—those eerier poems. “Downtown” has that in it. There’s this imagined person—an imagined granddaughter of someone who inherits a necklace that the speaker sees in a shop window and isn’t yet purchased and the speaker says “I already miss her”. The speaker is able in that way to name these imagined figures by saying that: I already miss her. She’s conjured and intimate to the imaginer. Even though that character doesn’t have a name, there’s an impulse to bring her into a reality.
MD: In Poetryland, time is flexible. The line between reality and imagination, or reality and dream, or imagination and dream is blurred. And so, there’s a kind of magic to be able to write about someone with a name who doesn’t exist. Some physical object that is a figment of ones imagination or a fragment of a dream. In the process it’s not something I’m conscious of, but then you realize what your obsessions are. Some place where time is flexible, where substance is flexible, where there’s a physicality, but it’s in fact vapor—this obviously appeals to me.
LH: That’s also true of your first book. The elegiac tone is different in this book because there’s more actualized death, and there’s more actualized balm for it, which can mean drugs, or music, or singing—the singing serves a different dose than the other items in the litany of things we do to make ourselves happy, as it were…
I think “Zoloft” is a great American poem. I hope people will understand in due time how and why to teach it. There are poems that are really beautiful and musical that are in trend with whatever content might be important or magnificent in a given moment in the history of any culture, but when I encounter a poem like “Zoloft”, I have to deal with—the thing that makes poetry the most manipulative of all the arts is that I have to deal with myself as the “I” in that poem. When has putting glasses on made me see sharper. And when has that made me remember a younger self and realize that I hadn’t actually changed. That I had a device do that for me. And how many of us are walking around with depression, anxiety, and the like, which Zoloft doesn’t resolve, but rather serves as a cover-up. Perhaps that’s supremely American. But it’s one of the truest things we’ll have to deal with is becoming that “I”.
I’m curious as a writer if you wrote that poem before or after your father died, if you remember.
MD: I wrote it after my father died. But I had been writing it for years. And I couldn’t understand how to make it into something. And then the weird thing happened. I’d been thinking about that poem. And of course my dad paid for my first pair of glasses. And these things, they effect you profoundly. There you go, it’s on a loop, it’s in some notes, it’s in a notebook. And my dad died. Still notes. Still can’t do anything with it. And this is frequently how I work, but not always. Sometimes, something happens almost at a go, although I’m an insane reviser, which is part of why things take me a really long time. This one just stewed and stewed and simmered and simmered. I might have had a line or two here or there. But the marathon bombings happened and those guys actually blew up the actual LensCrafters store where I got my first glasses. And I had these notes. It’s terrible, but that event was the thing that prompted it to become this poem, ultimately. There was this new thing that had everything to do with a sense of safety or a sense of reality, a sense of what can happen and what can’t, a sense of how we respond to things, a sense of tragedy, a sense of larger cultural tragedy against ones own personal struggle. And so, the bombing is very small in the poem, but it opens the poem, and I hate to say that it was that, but then I wrote it.
LH: What’s your process in putting a book together?
MD: When you have an order that’s not quite right, it’s like a thorn in your foot. You know something’s not right. Sometimes you need someone to pull it out for you. That’s happened to me with both my books. There’s a point where you get so nearsighted you can’t see what the book is actually doing. But then once you’ve arranged it as it is, it starts to have this inevitability, like it was always going to be arranged that way. Of course that’s not true—the inevitability. I’m far away from having been in the midst of that now, and yet, it was as tough as anything. The biggest decision for me was to begin with “Zoloft”, which was not my idea—I thought it was kind of weird to put the title poem first—and then to end with “Anywhere Elsewhere”, which is kind of a weird imagination or dreamscape or dramatic poem, kind of someone else speaking…it’s just a weird poem, and the ending is, to me, ambiguous. I had had a different poem at the end of the book that’s not even in the book at all anymore, and that move was toward a kind of present-ness or redemption, which was in fact too easy. It killed me to take it out because it was personally important to me, but there it went. And it would be a different book if it were there, especially at the end.
LH: I think if the book had been even been called something different, like Anywhere Elsewhere, it would be a different book. One of the things I find so subtle and stunning and intellectual about the book is when it can go from a poem called “Zoloft” to realize: “but who wants to be that kind of happy?” That’s when you turn from the earth—that horizontal axis—all the way upward toward God. And of course, later in the book, after the father’s death happens, we get a poem where the speaker wonders who God is, and of course, ends up deciding that God must be a bird. Of course it’s a bird. It’s that killdeer. And the killdeer has already died in the book. There’s not a question in this. I just think it’s genius. It’s very difficult to ask questions when the poems so clearly exist for their purpose.
There are poems in both of your books that are irreverent toward nature. In “Zoloft”, we get “that sham”. “November” opens: “Show’s over folks. And didn’t October do / a bang-up job?” Can you talk about your impulse toward that tone?
MD: I think the celebration of nature has to also embrace how much it can suck. And how pissed off it can make us. It happens poem by poem. I’m not on to anything. I’m waiting to write the next poem. And when you start to stick them altogether you see: that’s a thing I think about, or, that’s a thing I do. It scares me to think about being the one to insist on or find those things.
Todd [Hearon, Dietz’ husband] calls this impulse my “winter voice”, but includes poems that aren’t about winter, but that I write during the winter. I write much more in winter than I do in summer. I have a grumpiness. I am grumpy…about many things. It’s one of the things I think poetry can be, is grumpy. I don’t think that grumpy has to be at the expense of beauty, I say in this one poem, and I didn’t mean it as an ars poetica, but “it’s not beauty I’m after”—it’s not, it’s something else.
LH: If you knew what it were, you’d be done writing.
MD: Yes…God isn’t elsewhere to me. God’s at the axis—access—right. It’s not as easy as horizontal or vertical, Whitman or Dickinson; it’s right there at the crux.
LH: One thing I felt greatly when reading this book was Frost’s essay, “The Figure a Poem Makes”. This book is invested in what is exhilarating and sad at the same time. That seems like one of the truest sentiments in these pages, which is articulated and written about and felt so eloquently. In the essay, Frost says that a poem is like “the happy-sad of the drinking song”. My first question is: is Frost important to you?
MD: Yes. That essay is very important to me. “Directive” is important to me. “Home Burial” is important to me. “Out, Out—” is important to me.
You were my student. We read Frost together. He remains an important figure to me. He was a fierce genius, a problematic human being—as we all are, but Frost in ways that make you wonder about his role as a husband and a father, but that’s not pertinent to me as a writer, his biography. It’s of interest, but not important…
LH: Why do you think “Directive” is a poem that poets love? It seems under-read by the public compared to other Frost poems. But poets love it and reference it.
MD: I think in that poem Frost reveals the capacity for—every time I think of a word like “strangeness” or “imagination” it goes to hell. Frost said—and I think this is after the fact—that that poem was his answer to T.S. Eliot. That everybody could just sort of shut up about Modernism. He could do it if he wanted. I don’t know the exact chronology, but my gut is that because of people’s response to that poem, Frost decided to say that. I find Frost’s work rivetingly intellectual. But that poem is intellectual on its surface in the way that some of the other poems are intellectual behind a veil. “Directive” is more symbolic. It’s about being lost. The speaker is talking about himself, and you the reader, or whoever the hell you is, and ghosts. So it’s doing something very different than the Frost of “Mending Wall”. Although, “He moves in darkness as it seems to me”…No Frost poem is as easy as it seems on the surface, but “Directive” is palpably different.
LH: Do you feel that way about other poets?
[There is a long, thoughtful, pause]
LH: Do you feel that way, for example, about Bishop?
MD: Yeah. A poem like “At the Fishhouses” in its scope and vision and just the use of pronouns…it’s really different than, say, “Going to the Bakery” which is so…Yeah I think many poets have their moments—even poets we consider intellectually difficult like Stevens—when the work is somehow more stringent. It feels like there’s more at stake, whatever that is. As a reader, we sense that the ante has been upped in certain poems. So, yeah. And if Frost wrote all “Directives” and if Bishop wrote all “At the Fishhouses”, our heads would explode. There has to be some modulation. This is part of the thinking that goes into making a book. Although, you’re not thinking about that as you’re writing individual poems. There has to be some release and relief. Not that you have to insert a limerick, but the modulation is important—in different ways on different planes. It’s not something that poets think about when they’re writing. But it is delivered in a book.
LH: There does seem to be an increasing popularity in the project book and in identity poetics. It’s really exciting. But I also think it’s like anything else—it has complexities that we haven’t yet examined. As in: I want to be my multiplicities. I don’t only want to be a lesbian poet. Or a Jewish poet. Or a white woman poet. Or any single thing.
MD: The danger in those siphoned off identities is that it becomes automatic. That it becomes something that generates itself. And that’s where the line between politics and art hovers. And it’s not that politics can’t enter art, of course. It’s that there’s still got to be art anyway.
LH: That Kind of Happy is a missing American scripture. It’s difficult to ask questions because I think the book speaks for itself.
MD: I recognize what’s in the book. I have some things to say about depression, infertility, and losing a parent, etc. There are certain things that the book approaches more than once, but I didn’t set out to write a book about any of those things. And what I have to say about those things is the poems. So it’s hard… Do I want someone to ask me about my personal experience with depression? No. Here: here are the poems. It’s the tough thing about an interview versus a review. A review calls it how someone else sees it. And an interview asks you to qualify, quantify, analyze, and engage with your work in a way that a reader would and it’s really hard to be your own reader. You are your own reader in a way when you revise. But it’s in such an intimate way that it almost hurts. So to talk about process is more comfortable than content. As soon as you start explaining the poems you’re robbing them of what they do.
LH: What has to happen for you to even be in the space of writing? Winter might be a helpful place to start. Do you know why winter?
MD: I’m from Wisconsin. Winter was a time where you have to engage your mind or you’ll lose your mind. The ways you can engage your body become limited. The ways that you can stimulate yourself or entertain yourself—they soon become treacherously boring. So in a way, it’s brain training. As a kid, winter was a time when there was a lot of pressure on my imagination to be my companion. I think that’s been true, too, in my adult life. I’ve had to train myself to write when I’m given time to write. It’s very hard for me. It’s in part why the book took me ten years. I spend a lot of time waiting. And it’s hard for me to write sometimes. I want to garden and walk and play with my kids. I find a lot of days very distracting. I used to only write at night. When I was younger I used to only write at night when everyone else was asleep. Obviously I can’t do that now. I have to wake up at 6:00 a.m. and give my kids breakfast. In a way it’s been good for me. I used to tell myself that I couldn’t do it. I had to just do it how it came to me. But I have learned that I can if I have to. But have to is a big category.
Perennial Fall came out in April 2006. I had already been trying to get pregnant for a while. There was a stretch of time that was almost two years in which I wrote no poem except for “Kempie”. That was all I had. That was all I had to say. I don’t know what that had to do with. Some of it had to do with the book had come out, I felt tapped. I was completely focused on this other thing in my life that I thought I couldn’t understand my life without. And then I did get pregnant after various interventions. And then I had two babies on the same day. There were a lot of impediments. All of this to say I wrote about half the book over seven years and then I wrote the other half in a very concentrated period of time. I didn’t even know it was possible I could do that. I had so much lost a sense of concentrated work. It was very heartening and good for me to realize that it was in there and that some of the things that I thought were excuses were in fact not. That I could go a little bit easy on myself. Some of the poems that I wrote in that period of time came from old notes and some were out of nowhere from scratch. For me it’s always a process. I envy those poets who once in a while something comes that’s almost there at birth. For me it’s very, very much about work. I’m also a hater. I scrap a lot.
LH: One of the many things that’s potent in the book are the poems about those things that are so hard for people to talk about. But now there is this speaker who is helping us live them instead of having to talk about it.
MD: Yeah. It’s sort of why we make art.
LH: One of the other things we talked about a bit: the exciting and complicated thing about identity politics in the poetry of this moment is that you have to be your identity so aggressively that it often excludes people versus…I feel…so attached to some of these poems because I’m newly a lesbian. What infertility may or may not mean to me in my lifetime is so different than what was ingrained in me as a kid. And what does that mean just as a gendered experience before even my sexuality are questions that this book raised that I hadn’t articulated to myself in quite the way your speaker(s) have been able to.
MD: It doesn’t have to be a gay woman who writes about not being able to get pregnant.
LH: Right it just has to be…what it’s like to say I keep missing you to the child that hasn’t come and might never come. That’s a universal predicament. One that women (especially) feel at different moments in their lives based on their own age, fertility, sexuality, desires to have a family or not, and more broadly, gender and societal pressure, is something this book is able to do without announcing these are my identity politics.
MD: To hear you say that means a lot to me because if I have any principle as a poet, it’s the Keats paradigm principle. You make of your life a paradigm. You offer something from your experience. And it doesn’t have to be in articulating in art what happened to you; it can be understood even if there’s not a direct connection to the reader’s life. My students like to use the word “relatable”. First of all, I don’t even know if it’s a word. Second of all, it seems…pathos is not relatability.
You access universality through specificity. You access originality through specificity. It’s not to say there’s no room for abstraction or improvisation. In terms of communicating an experience that is based on your experience, and hoping that someone can receive it in a way other than narcissism—which is always the fear, always the fear—many of my poems come out of my own experience—all poems do in a way—even if they’re not confessional, but one of the reasons why the book took me so long one of the reasons I scrapped so many poems, is that restraint is essential to me. A kind of restraint that sometimes hides itself in grumpiness. It’s one thing to grumpy out loud. It’s another thing to be sappy out loud. You can kind of do the one and not the other.
LH: It makes me more present in reading than I am in my own reality. I don’t think every artist feels that way, but I seem to be in that Richard Powers camp of, sometimes, a made suspension of disbelief functions more profoundly for me than my day-to-day life. That’s intensely hard to reconcile. This book made me feel more present in my reality than my reality did. The book taught me how to hear it.
MD: As much as the book engages the physical world, it engages an inner life. Again, there’s an axis there. Who knows? I’m very nervous. One great thing about being a poet is that, regardless, not that many people are going to read this. But some people are. I’m at the point where it’s so close it hurts a bit. It feels like an exposure that I’m not sure I signed up for, but of course I did. You make the book. It’s hard not to feel a little shy or trepidatious. Or terrified. Or sick.
LH: The repeated figure of an imagined girl, who the speaker becomes briefly, has the most similarities with the gone father. Inversion is something I’m interested in in poetics, specifically because of my reading of “Poppies in October” by Sylvia Plath. In the opening stanza, there’s a woman in the ambulance “whose red heart blooms through her coat so astoundingly”, and then by the end of the poem “Oh my god, what am I / That these late mouths should cry open / In a forest of frost, in a dawn of cornflowers!” The crying should be in the ambulance, the blooming should be in the poppies. It’s inverted. This is my impulse. In this book, “I keep missing you” and “I already miss you” should be for the gone figure, but in this book, the sentiment is instead for the figure that is not yet arrived. I’m curious if, in the end, it means something to you about grief, if it means something to you about poetry? Making? Or anything?
MD: We grieve what’s not here. We grieve not only what we’ve lost, but what we can’t have. I don’t mean that in any sort of materialistic sense, so…my father and the imagined girl who keeps coming up, despite my not really realizing it until it became so obvious it was punching me in the face, live in the same place. And that place is in some ways as real to me as this place. And to make it real is to access those people. So, they’re not the same. But, they live together. And there’s some comfort in that for me. The book doesn’t mean to offer comfort or be about comfort. But, I find it there. I don’t know if a reader will and that’s just not up to me. But, comfort’s not the point and it’s not the end.
LH: Of course.
MD: There’s something to the idea of things being a lot bigger than we know. And that idea is at the heart of all poetry.
LH: Do you feel changed by this book?
MD: That’s the kind of thing that doesn’t happen all at once. Maybe over time, in ways imperceptibly. To me, the book is ten years. Of course I’m changed. I don’t know if it’s because of the book, but the book was part of the experience. But I’ll never be able to encounter the book the way someone might who’s reading it altogether as such. I know too much about it. In a way, that’s too bad.
LH: You can’t really see it. I think I’m also interested in the question because the only repeated, exacting, sentence is “Nothing has changed”.
MD: Yes, well, that’s…”nothing has changed” and nothing has changed. Nothing has changed. Nothingness changed. I don’t know that I was thinking that when I wrote that line or repeated that line, and I don’t know that I realized I was repeating that line. These things just happen. But nothing can change. Emptiness can change. Our experience of what isn’t can change. That’s part of the book.
LH: It also relates to the other predicament of imagined and not yet arrived versus the gone. They both end up in empty somehow. And our humanness tries to trick us into it or out of it. Which is a thing I like about both of your books—the dream state. The table with the eye in the wood that blinks. It reminds me of Randall Jarrell’s poem, “90˚ North”.
MD: “90˚ North”. It’s one of my favorite poems in the world.
LH: It really reminds me of that. When did you know you were a poet?
MD: Oh no! Don’t ask me that! What’s horrible about the question is that the answer is awful. It feels like bullshit. When I was five my mom gave me a book. A Child’s Book of Poems, illustrated by Gyo Fujikawa. Honestly, what first interested me most were the illustrations. They were magic to me. There’s a “Wynken, Blynken, and Nod” that shows these three little black kids in a wooden shoe—this Dutch thing!—God I loved the images the stars and the shoe and these three little boys. I always liked books. I always liked sounds. But that book. I still have it. My children have copies. But the original paperback is torn to hell, re-taped, it has my crazy scrawling, it has where I wrote the numbers of the pages of the poems I liked best. So it was the images first. And I couldn’t stop looking at it, then reading it, then asking for it to be read to me. I mean, I still know many of those poems by heart, and I was five. It’s almost forty years later. How does that happen! It feels terrible as an answer. I mean really, it happened because someone gave me a book. That’s pretty good. But I do wince against the [sits up straighter, lifts her nose in the air, and puts on a smarmy voice] “Well, when I was a child, I was very fond of rhyming things and I only ever read the dictionary and I used to make up songs.” But when it boils down to it, it’s because somebody gave me a book. And actually, it’s connected to everything I believe about being a writer—“poet” scares me—being a poet and staying a poet. You can’t do it without books. And it’s never gonna happen without books. Maybe I like that answer better than I thought. It’s not that some teacher praised me…
LH: I didn’t read a poem until I was 18. That was when somebody, as you say, gave me a book. And I didn’t write a poem until the end of college when I ended up in your classroom. But I’m belated to everything. I didn’t even realize I was not straight let alone gay until I was 24 or 25.
MD: It’s not terrible. It’s a life. It’s an unpredictable life as the best ones are. It has to be a process of discovery. If everything were just delivered to us, that would be terribly boring. You don’t have to have the answer. I guess one of the things I hate about the question is that I do have an answer. I do. And it’s a real answer. But there’s a way I want to not participate in the mythology of the artist—in that [re-enters smarmy poet voice] “from the time I was born, I listened to rhythms; I watched the fan spinning and it reminded me of dactyls!”
LH: But you can appreciate this: As a human who has siblings and now a mother who has kids, your mother could have given that book to all of you, but you’re the one who ended up writing poems.
MD: She gave it to me. I don’t know why…
LH: Well, then she knew you well right away. I think my mom would readily say that she parented my brother and me differently because she knew us as different people just about from the start.
MD: You know what, now that you say that… My sister Kristin, who is a physical therapist, had the book Where the Sidewalk Ends. And I remember thinking that’s her book; that’s not my book. And I liked it and I thought it was funny. But there was William Blake in my A Child’s Book of Poems. Somehow…I liked it [Silverstein]; it wasn’t my book.
LH: How do you think that idea of having a book affects the way you teach?
MD: As I get older, I really don’t want to be the middleman so much anymore. So often as teachers we are. Some people would call it “conduit”. In a way, though, it’s a middleman; it’s an intermediary. That can be important to a point. And then after a while, now you’ve read some, and if this means something to you, you’re never going to stop reading. And that has nothing to do with me. And in that way, the role of the teacher to me is to open a door. You can step through it or not. I want my students to read. Let’s go read stuff. I find more and more that some of my assignments are “you go read that and then write about it”. Teaching is weird. Some days it feels really important. And some days it feels like a joke. You don’t need me at all. And yet, when I think about how much I did actually need my teachers, even though my mom gave me a book when I was five, that wasn’t the end of the story. I had great teachers, but maybe part of what was great about them is that that door was open early for me by chance and I had teachers who opened the next door to the next room.
I have such a reverence for our best teachers. When you ask about my teaching and to turn that lens on myself, I sort of wince. When you’re doing it, it feels like good work. It doesn’t feel momentous. You have no idea really what effect you’re having or will have.
LH: I’m not sure if you asked you when you were teaching me the first week “which of your students from that class will be a poet” that you would have chosen me.
MD: That’s probably right. It became clear. You started to show yourself pretty quickly. In the beginning, you don’t know at all. Even someone who seems to have native talent, you don’t know if it’s dumb luck or what it will be.
LH: I guess we can ask the question differently then: Was there a point where you tried to not be a poet in your young life?
MD: No. I didn’t know poet was a job. I didn’t know until I was in high school that there were poets who were alive. I thought that there were poets—like I knew Sylvia Plath and stuff, but thought, well clearly this must have ended in the sixties. I mean, I didn’t know any poets. My parents didn’t have friends who were poets. It was altogether elsewhere. So, no. Which again is a horrible answer, but it wasn’t with any sense that poetry could go somewhere. It was just something I did.
Dietz and I stroll back out into Boston. Neither of us lives in this city anymore. The nostalgia burgeons as in the blossoms on the magnolia trees lining Comm Ave await April. Dietz and I part ways on BU’s campus. I turn back and watch her stride off. Already, everything that happened in this town from eight years ago until now belongs again to vapor. Which will lift off of the harbor or melt away in the coming week.
Maggie Dietz’s second book, That Kind of Happy, comes out on April 6th, 2016. Dietz teaches at UMass-Lowell and Boston University. She was the poetry editor for Slate from 2004-2012. Dietz served as the director of the Favorite Poem Project, founded by Robert Pinsky, for many years.
Lisa Hiton holds an M.F.A. in poetry from Boston University and an M.Ed. in Arts in Education from Harvard University. Her poems have been published or are forthcoming in Linebreak, The Paris-American, Hayden’s Ferry Review, and LAMBDA Literary among others. Her first book of poems has been a finalist or semi-finalist for the New Issues Poetry Prize, the Brittingham & Felix Pollack Poetry Prize, the Crab Orchard Review first book prize, and the YesYes Books open reading period. She has received the Esther B Kahn Scholarship from 24Pearl Street at the Fine Arts Work Center and two nominations for the Pushcart Prize.