Read or listen to three poems from Marie Elizabeth Mali in the November issue and then enjoy this interview where she talks about current projects, snakes in the bedroom, and pacing because timing is everything.
1. How many “Town of” poems have you written? Â Where else can we find them?
I’ve written three and you’ve got two of them. The third is still on my computer. There may be more to come, especially since I’ve been writing poems with some weird and surreal imagery a la HBO’s “Carnivale” lately. I think the “Town of” poems would mesh nicely with that theme. Maybe there’s a chapbook on the way.
2. If you wanted to roleplay in the bedroom as an animal, which animal would you be?
Well, as you can probably tell, I find snakes pretty sexy. I remember having one draped around my neck and arms as a 12 year-old at a gala at the New Orleans zoo and the crowd of adults parting quickly for me as I walked around. I liked the feeling of power I had in that moment, the smoothness of the snake’s skin, that cool texture, the rippling I could feel through its skin, and the knowledge that if it decided to, it could crush me.
Also, I once witnessed 3 large snakes getting it on in the middle of a walkway on a hotel’s grounds. A whole group of us stood transfixed until they were done. It was hot! That experience inspired the ending of “The Town of Snakes.” So, I want to roleplay in the bedroom as a snake, but with one person at a time.
3. I noticed in all three of your poems that there is no defined shape, just a tower of lines instead of rooms of stanzas. Â What made you choose to create these poems without white space? Â Would the poems be more or less effective if broken up into tercets/quatrains?
Pacing. “Octopus Attack” in particular seemed to need to tumble down the page given that the speaker is Â agitated and traumatized. To break into stanzas and allow the reader to pause felt potentially too tidy for that particular poem. I also wanted the “Town of” poems to move quickly and not give the reader too much time to pause and assimilate what’s happening, since in those poems I’m creating an alternate reality. I want the reader to feel a little breathless by the end of these poems.
One of my teachers, Thomas Lux, told us that after x number of books of writing in stanzas he suddenly stopped and all his poems since that moment have primarily lacked stanza breaks. His publisher gave him grief about it at first, because it made for a shorter book than usual, but he stuck to his guns. He saw no reason any longer to break a poem into stanzas unless the poem itself really calls for that. Stephen Dobyns also warned me against writing in couplets and tercets for decorative reasons. It has to fit the sense and motion of the poem, the speaker’s voice. I guess their ideas rubbed off on me, especially with respect to these three poems.
4. How has graduate school affected your writing?
I gained more knowledge about why I make certain choices in my work and learned to interrogate those choices more stringently so that more of each poem’s ultimate form and sound would be consciously chosen.
Working with Marie Howe taught me to feel more deeply into the emotional core of the poem and to bring that core to light. Working with Suzanne Gardinier really opened up my ear to how my poems want to sound, to finding my own inventive way of using words. Before her, I focused much more on what the poem was about rather than how to say it. Learning scansion transformed my work, as did working with Jeffrey McDaniel who pushed me to free up my imagination, to come up with more surreal metaphors and imagery. My work has since become more imaginative, more leaping, and less adherent to my own story, though I still do write personal, narrative poems.
For me, graduate school was a necessary incubation period in which I learned to play this language instrument; it was the practice room in which I played scales for hours every day so that I could emerge able to improvise and hit the notes I want to hit more strongly and clearly than before.
5. If you were a civil employee in “The Town of Broken Bones”, what would your position be?
If I couldn’t be mayor, I’d want to be cast-maker. Then I’d really be at the center of things, which, as an only child, appeals to me.
6. What is your favorite mindless activity?
Wow. Is anything ever mindless? I guess watching movies or TV shows, usually rented from Netflix, as well as seeing what friends are up to on Facebook. But playing last night with five seven week-old kittens for 4 1/2 hours while drinking wine with my neighbors (they’re fostering a mama and litter that a friend rescued from the street) was more mind-clearing and relaxing than any movie. Baths with sea salt and essential oils also rock.