Sunday Jul 14

MaliMarie-Elizabeth Marie-Elizabeth Mali is the author of Steady, My Gaze (Tebot Bach, 2011) and co-editor, with Annie Finch, of the anthology, Villanelles (Everyman's Library Pocket Poets, 2012). She serves as co-curator for Page Meets Stage in New York City, and her work has appeared in CalyxPoet Lore, and RATTLE, among others. For more information, please visit here

Marie-Elizabeth, you are the co-curator for Page Meets Stage, a reading series at the Bowery Poetry Club created by Taylor Mali. The monthly series brings together a poet more known for work on the page with a poet more known for work on the stage to read back and forth, poem for poem. It’s co-produced by Words Worth Ink and Blue Flower Arts, and the readings benefit Bowery Arts and Science, the educational wing of the Bowery Poetry Club. <Page Meets Stage>. As one who is interested in juxtaposition and what it might yield, I wonder what you have learned about the relationship between poetry’s oral traditions and its life on the printed page.  Many have the impression that the work of performance poets, when it appears on the page, is often non-musical, nonchalantly-crafted, and somehow lesser (because it depends on a human voice to activate it) than the work of poets who write primarily for readers rather than audience members.  What do you think about this; is there any truth to this notion?

Because we don’t want anyone to feel embarrassed, we always choose “page” poets who read well and “stage” poets who write well for Page Meets Stage, which allows the conversation that arises between the poems to be focused on the work itself and how it comes alive when shared with an audience.

I think the criticism of performance poetry as non-musical is mostly ungrounded. After all, the earliest poetry was oral, passed down through the ages by performers who memorized long chains of rhyming verse before they ever got codified by being written down. Accomplished performance poets today might stress the music of their lines as they compose and revise them more than many free-verse-oriented “page” poets since their work is first experienced by ear, and musical lines are easier to memorize. A lot of performance poetry is also influenced by hip hop. That said, just like “page” poets, there are sloppier performance poets, usually beginners, who value the content (story) of the poem over the craft of writing it. But they usually get over that notion as they progress in the field, often by emulating their prize-winning idols who are amazing writers, such as Rachel McKibbens, Buddy Wakefield, and Anis Mojgani, until they find their own voices.

In my own writing, how the poem sounds out loud is as important as how it reads on the page. I read my poems out loud as I revise, tightening them for musical effect and emotional resonance. That said, I’m definitely more of a “page” poet than a “stage” poet. I think the reputation of performance poets is changing, largely because of people who have successfully bridged “stage” and “page,” such as Patricia Smith, Jeffrey McDaniel, Tyehimba Jess, Patrick Rosal, and Jamaal May. All of them have performance poetry backgrounds and write gorgeous poems on the page. The first four teach creative writing at the college level, and Jamaal May recently graduated from the Warren Wilson MFA program and is the current Stadler Fellow at Bucknell University. The first four have read for Page Meets Stage in the past—Jeffrey McDaniel represented the page—and Jamaal May will read for us in April 2013, when he will represent the stage and Marilyn Nelson will represent the page.


You have a non-traditional educational background for a poet, with a Master of Traditional Oriental Medicine degree and a B.A. in East Asian Studies.  What things from your interest and practice in Chinese medicine find their way onto the page in your poetry?  Does it reveal itself in any tangible ways you can see?

Though I’ve written a few poems directly influenced by Chinese Medicine, or about some aspect of my work with clients, I’d say the main way that my background manifests itself in my work is in the quality of my attention and the way my mind works. As Chinese Medicine practitioners, we’re taught that everything is connected; for example, an eye problem can reveal something going on with the liver energy system, as can the quality of one’s fingernails and how much one experiences anger or depression. We tend to view life in an interconnected way, not taking anything that shows up for granted. I think that this worldview comes through in my work.


Last year, you published your first book of poetry, Steady, My Gaze, which was published by Tebot Bach Press. Tebot Bach is a small press 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. <Tebot Bach>  Given your various interests and the energy you expend in creating a poetry community, this seems like a good marriage.  How has the publication of the book changed your life?

I accepted Tebot Bach’s offer of publication precisely because their mission felt very close to home. At the time I was still co-curating louderARTS: the Reading Series, which also has as its mission one of strengthening community through the writing and performing of poetry and also strives to bring the craft of writing poetry to people who might not otherwise have easy access.

The publication of the book changed my life in that I’ve been able to share my work with more people and have begun to do more readings, which I love doing. Seeing those poems go out in the world also freed me to write the new poems that got a bit hung up in the ethers while these poems still needed a home.


You’ve also co-edited, with another Poetry Congeries contributor, Annie Finch, an anthology that I can’t wait to get my hands on, Villanelles (published by Everyman’s Pocket Poets series). Tell us about how this book came together.  Why did the two of you think such an anthology was necessary?  What about the form is so attractive to you?  Does it have to do with the fact that it is a form well-suited to reading aloud, with its musicality and repetition, its almost song-like qualities?

Annie and I were introduced by Patricia Smith at AWP, in Chicago in 2009. This anthology was a dream of Annie’s for many years, and I turned out to be the right partner to help bring it into being. The villanelle has its roots in folk song, and we believe it is a terrific form for our times, being a form of the people, as compared to the sonnet, which was originally a courtly form written by elites. Its musicality appeals to me, and the fact that it’s difficult to do well, so most poets only write one or two outstanding ones in their entire poetic career. We made a point of including villanelles written by performance poets, experimental poets, formalists, as well as free verse poets in order to express the range of styles and subjects that lend themselves to this form. It’s a fantastic collection and we’re thrilled that it’s out!


Two of the poems published in this month’s Congeries, “Fin” and “Triggerfish,” seem related to an additional interest of yours, underwater photography (examples of Marie-Elizabeth’s photos can be found at her web site).

Yes, they are. I’m an avid diver and underwater photographer and am working on a project that will combine photos and poems into a book that I hope will encourage people to fall in love with the ocean and its critters in the way that I have, or at least part of the way, since I’m so over-the-top about them at this point.


Is there a question that no one’s ever asked you that you wish to answer?

Yes. And the answer is five times, three of them in the water.


A Grapple of Sparrows
For Lara Logan

On the sidewalk, a tumbleweed
of feathers nip and grip one another,
a silent grapple of sparrows.

Soon obvious which one’s male,
he pins the twist of her to the ground,
bites her neck until she holds still,

before the kerfuffle of wings begins again.
They skitter across the concrete,
fall off the curb to land under a car.

A woman asks, Are they fighting
or mating? Not much difference to her
either way, I reply. I keep watching

for five minutes, maybe ten, the longest
I’ve stopped for a New York street show
in years. A girl asks her mom

what the birds are doing, and she says,
It’s spring, honey, they’re doing
what birds do in spring.

Still, the mating looks like fighting to me,
the female’s head torqued, her bulging eyes
and gaped beak, the male’s claws around her

like rope, his beak wielded like a knife,
his wings a thump-tick of lust, the slight
weight of him enough to hold her down.


From my upper jaw to your middle ear,
the same bone. Our heads share an identical

nerve-lattice. Gilled embryos in the womb, both.
You think I’m the blood-hungriest predator.

Look in the mirror. You wear my teeth
to seem tough, grind my cartilage

to feed your stupid myths. I give my fins
for your vanity-soup, spiraling down

into the black when you toss my finless,
living body back. If only you tasted better.

Did you know my skin’s current-sensing cells
became your inner ear, your balance-gel?

You imagine the oceans safer without slash-sharp,
gorgeous, deadly undulation, but every system

needs an apex. Watch me hunt, surrounded
by remora and pilot fish. You breathe, drink,

eat like everyone else. Wait. You’ll see.
Something bigger always comes.


Thin, with an extendable
warning-lance on its head,
maroon blotches with a vertical
yellow stripe when it swims alone,
white dots on a dun background
when it sees me see it. As I lift
my camera, it fans its little tail
to put a coral head between us.
When I catch up again, it turns
to face me, lance extended, lower lip
jutted in a permanent under-bite.
I was a pouty child, in need of more
than my parents could muster,
my mother a mimic octopus
in the perfect shape of mother,
my father a tired flounder wanting
only to rest at night in the sand.
Not much room for this hungry
daughter, changeable and nervous
as a triggerfish. I used to crawl
through a hoop-and-cloth tunnel
into my closet, sit in the dark
and listen to myself breathe.
Maybe that’s why I love to dive,
why I crave that buoyant,
watery embrace, the sound
of breath in my ears, the pursuit
of untamed creatures that swim away.