Sunday May 26

AndersonMaggie Maggie Anderson is the author of five books of poems including Dear All, Windfall: New and Selected Poems, A Space Filled with Moving, and Cold Comfort. Anderson has also co-edited several poetry anthologies, including A Gathering of Poets and Learning by Heart: Contemporary American Poetry About School. Her awards include two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, as well as fellowships from the Ohio, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania councils on the arts. She served as the director of the Northeast Ohio MFA in Creative Writing (NEOMFA) from 2006-2009. The founding director of the Wick Poetry Center and of the Wick Poetry Series of the Kent State University Press, Anderson is Professor Emerita of English at Kent State University and now lives in Asheville, North Carolina. You can visit her web site to learn more about Maggie and her upcoming readings here

Maggie Anderson Interview with John Hoppenthaler


Maggie, your life in letters and teaching has been so long and rich that I hardly know where to begin. I guess we should start with the work that’s represented here.

Two of these poems, by the time this interview is live, will have appeared in your most recent volume of poems, Dear All, published by Four Way Books. I believe this is your first book since Windfall: New and Selected Poems (U of Pittsburgh P, 2000), and the first since your retirement from Kent University and as Director of the Wick Poetry Center there. It seems like a long time. Can you speak to the process of writing the book and how the changes (which include moving to just outside of Asheville, NC) going on in your life during these years inform the collection?

Well, yes, this book has been a long time coming. I am usually a slow writer, but this book took much, much longer than my others. Lots of reasons: primarily, the work I was doing at Kent State until my retirement was wholly absorbing so I had, literally, no time to write. I was surprised to discover, however, that after I retired and moved to North Carolina, there were in fact pieces of poems—and sometimes even whole poems—lying around in notebooks from those years. Certainly, the time and space to write I’ve had here has helped greatly in bringing Dear All, to completion. I also think that, perhaps, I needed to be the age I am now (I just turned 69) to write it. I did not know enough to write this book when I was younger.

You’ve been quoted as saying, “I like the margins, the spaces between, the possibility of moving back and forth between the public and the private world,” and this book seems to be doing just that. What about the negotiations that take place in those spaces is so conducive to poetry for you? Maybe I’m trying to answer my own question, but it seems maybe it has to do with lines from “The Thing You Can’t Forget,” the impulse toward “turning our relentless narratives / into a story we can live with.” The last stanza of “How It Is with Me Now” seems to speak to this space as well.

I appreciate this question. Living in the margins for much of my life (as a woman, as a lesbian, and as a poet with deep roots in Appalachia) I have come to (or have had to) understand the possibilities that can come from living on the edges, with little side trips to the mainstream from time to time. I resist binaries of any kind, so I like to move (write) in the interstices. Yes, the poems you mention speak to that in-between place—between the public and the private concerns I have and am witness to, as well as to the “inside” and “outside” distinctions sometimes made about poems.

I was immediately taken with the political pulse that runs through the new book and the poems represented here. We have been living, and continue to live, in challenging and troubling times. I’ve just taught Hemingway’s “Big Two-Hearted River” again and was struck by Nick Adams’ need to reboot, heal and rebuild in the face of physical and psychological trauma. So many of us need this these days, it would seem. Many of the poems you’re writing seem to be representations of your own manner of looking for stasis, of slowing things down to allow process and reflection to do its potentially healing work. The last lines of “Cleaning the Guns” seem, in this light, Hemingwayesque to me: But I did like cleaning the guns, / all the tiny parts—heavier than they looked— / & the necessary precision, the art of it.”

This probably relates to your previous question. The “political” pulse in my recent poems has been inherent in my work all along I think, but in Dear All, I have tried to weave the personal and the political through different poems more overtly along the arc of the book. We witness the world from wherever we are standing, and our own personal (often early) experiences with violence and fear are a crucial part of how we write now, in the uncertainty and terror that constitute our current world. And yes, I did want to think about the experience of “Cleaning the Guns.” Doing this with my uncle, at least in the beginning, was not something I was fearful of. I came to see it as something like art in its precision and also in its undertow of danger.

In an email you recently sent me, you write of “Abecedarian with Attention Surplus Disorder,” “The Abecedarian is a bit unusual for me but the insanity of the times has sent my poems off in strange and stranger directions.” Can you tell us why you think this may be so? I really found myself engaged with the way this poem provides a formal container (of sorts) that tries to hold the “insanity” in check but, ultimately, fails to do so as we are left with “Zany dancing in zero gravity from now on.”

Well, I don’t often write poems in set forms so that was unusual in itself. I had been reading some abecedarians by other poets (Harryette Mullen in particular), and I admired the energy these poems can generate. Once I started playing around with the form, I realized that it was quite accommodating to the state of my mind since the last presidential election. To go back to the personal and the political again, this poem is a fairly accurate representation of the state of my mind in these times, when “bad stuff is happening to everyone eventually.”

I’d be remiss if I didn’t take this opportunity to thank you for the great work you’ve done as a bright star in the constellation of contemporary writers, not only as a poet but as an editor, a critic, a teacher, and a friend and mentor to so many. Looking back on it now, what two or three things seem your most important accomplishments and why?

First, thank you John for these comments. I appreciate your kindness. It’s true that I have been fortunate in having had opportunities in my life as a writer to provide wider possibilities for many different writers, to expand the big tent of poetry a bit. It is difficult to say what particular things are the most important but I can say, first, that working as a kind of “circuit rider” poet in schools, community groups, prisons, and rehabilitation centers in West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Ohio in the 1970s and 1980s was important both to me and to the people I worked with. I learned to teach poetry by trying to teach it to widely divergent groups of people—different ages, different races, and vastly different life experiences. And this teaching did, I think, bring the work and play of poetry to many people who would not have had this experience had I not been there. Quite a few poets of my generation started their poetry “careers” in these kinds of settings, and I think evidence of this can be seen in our work.

I would say also that teaching at Kent State University for twenty years and having had the opportunity to create a poetry center, a book series, and an outreach program there were also of major importance to me and, I think, to others as well. The Wick Poetry Center at Kent State was established in memory of Stan and Tom Wick, the sons of Robert and the late Walter Wick. Their sons died when they were in their teens so the program was, from the outset, a memorial to them. With the advice, consent, and generosity of Robert and Walter, the program has now grown to a nationally and even internationally recognized poetry center. I treasure the experience I had of being an early founder of that center and of directing it for fifteen years.

Lastly, the mentoring of beginning and emerging writers, the intense conversations around tables in small rooms, the discoveries I have been privileged to be “in on” may be the most important work I have done. There is a palpable energy that comes about in a room of people—or two or three people—talking about and trying to write poetry. This energy has been for me the intellectual, political, and spiritual center of my life, and I like to think I have passed that on to others.

I’m led to believe that you’re working on a novel. Is that true? What are you willing to tell us about it? How different to writing poetry do you find the process?

Ah! Rumors abound! Well, it is true that I have been working, since I retired, on a prose book, which appears to be a novel. I don’t know what will ultimately come of this, but I have enjoyed the process so far. When compared to writing poetry, this work has way more words—and pages—to deal with. I have trouble keeping it all in order on the computer! Poems take up a lot less room. On the other hand, I think writing prose has been a way for me to access some materials that I wouldn’t be able to come to through poems. It’s been freeing in a way, and it continues to interest me still after six years. (I am probably even slower at writing prose than at writing poetry!)

We share a number of things as writers. Certainly, some wonderful friends and poets we admire, like Jean Valentine and the late Irene McKinney, among many others. We are both native New Yorkers who ended up, for a spell, in West Virginia and gained so much from our experiences there. Connotation Press, as many know, makes its home in West Virginia, as does Kestrel, the first journal where I served as an editor, and you co-founded Trellis, a poetry journal, with Irene and Winston Fuller while living in WV. So, I’ll just say “West Virginia” and ask you to respond.

Well, even though I was born in New York City and lived there and in northern Jersey until I was thirteen, I was, by heritage, a West Virginian from the get go. My father was from Preston County, West Virginia and my mother from Greene County, Pennsylvania, just across the West Virginia border. They got education and left the region to take their places in what we sometimes call “the outside world.” So, because we visited family in West Virginia every summer, I knew the Appalachian world—and the world of my relatives who worked on the railroad and in the dark kitchens of small towns deep in the hills. I knew these people, and I cared for them. It was an enormous culture shock for me to leave New York and move to West Virginia (which, for my father, was going home). The move introduced me to a brand-new marginality. But in time, I grew to love the West Virginia I found. When I graduated from high school, while so many of my friends were eager to get out, I was happy to stay in the state and attend West Virginia Wesleyan College and West Virginia University. I love West Virginia’s mountains (what’s left of them), and the people who are, for the most part, kind and generous and true. I grieve for what has become of the state in the last fifty years or so. The great union organizer, Mother Jones, after spending some time in West Virginia, addressed a rally of coal miners with these words: “West Virginia! When I get to the other side, I’m going to tell God Almighty about West Virginia.” Me too. And you, John?

My wife is from was West Virginia (she was my student while I attended WVU as a PhD student!), and West Virginia has always been kind to and my work. While I ended up not completing my PhD, what I learned at WVU—from so many great teachers (like my long-time friend Jim Harms and the wonderful fiction writer, Gail Adams)—continues to inform my work. I visit WV regularly, and always feel at home there. And I love getting together with the many writers who put down words from that neck of the woods, terrific folks like Jayne Anne Phillips. Marc Harshman, Mark Brazaitis, Renee Nicholson, Doug Van Gundy, Ann Pancake, Mark DeFoe, and so many more! Yes, me too.


Little Autumn Poem for Bai Juyi

I love how you say everything makes you happy.
Even your loneliness and sorrow give you joy.
To feel the kicked up wind that will bring snow
is a way you have to understand mortality
When I touch your poems this morning,
I am an official of the Tang Dynasty,
overworked with reports and meetings
but still entertaining the public with my sweet poems.
I am wondrously alive in the country of bamboo.
Even though, often, I am anxious and bored, today
I feel only delighted by the purple and yellow dahlias
drooping in my yard, their petals edged with black frost.

Cleaning the Guns

The deer heads were bolted to the wall in my uncles’ houses
stuffed & mounted on a plaque. As a child, I was sure
the body of the animal must be behind the wall, as if
it had just poked its antlers through a curtain. Every fall,
two days off from school for the start of deer season
& then dead deer were hung to cool in back yards
from heavy ropes, their eyes still open.
My uncles were all white men who chewed
Mail Pouch tobacco and spit into coffee cans
& all of them were hunters.
I liked to sit on the cement back porch
with my Uncle Ike & help him clean his guns.
We started with his revolver, then the rifles
& last his shotgun—it took all afternoon.
Ike had a white blanket to put the parts on
so they wouldn’t get lost & old undershirts I cut up
in little pieces to wrap around the rods. Ike was a machinist
on the railroad & he knew parts. He taught me the names
of each one & it was my job to do the final buff.
We talked some and in a while
he might tell me how he got his deer
this year, or another one from some time back—
the one whose head now hangs over the TV set.
Of course, in a few years he taught me to shoot
& I wasn’t bad, but I never went hunting.
Too much trouble I told everyone & by then
I had grown a little scared of him,
but really it was the helplessness
I couldn’t get around. The deer absolutely still, alert,
one shot & death. I couldn’t do that.
But I did like cleaning the guns,
all the tiny parts—heavier than they looked—
& the necessary precision, the art of it.

How It Is with Me Now

I think I could clear a patch of ground
to plant vegetables & I can haul water
if I have to, or shoot a rifle.

Once there was a girl named Destiny who was
with me in the desert. We sat beside a swimming pool
& looked at things. She picked up a tiny stone
to give to me—an eyelash, a mote in the eye.
I held this small overlooked one for a long time,
then set it down among many others. Later
when we came back, we saw that stone right away,
still bright & slick from our touch. It was thin
as an anise seed or splinter & black.

Most of the time now, I am crows in trees—
loud and fiercely voiced. I have come, not back
but deeper in, where I can see more.
From here I can trace the backbone
of the mountains. I can sit in a chair
& talk to no one at all, making this place up
from talk & gristle, too many books,
too far away. This is my country now.
Be with me.

Abecedarian with Attention Surplus Disorder
—Presidential Inauguration 2017

Anyhoo—as I was saying—as I have said so often—

Bad stuff is happening to everyone eventually,

Cancer, concentration, chilblains, civil unrest, capsizing, cold cocking, chatter, cheese, cocoa for Cocoa Puffs, curt, cut, cyst

Deadly stuff—drab, derelict, dust in the wind, dark dawn, sun rising round as an

Egg, fried, golden beneath the perforations of

Fork tines

George Herbert came to Elizabeth Bishop in a vision early in her life – he was holy, she  
          was gay, and then later came the great, gone thing, the seizure’s blue aftermath—

Hospital talk for near death: the hour of sleep (HS)

In life, just sleep-ing and wak-ing, dreamy and innocent, unmoving—inveterate, can’t
          take my eyes off of you

Jeepers. Creepers.

Knock knock. “Where am I? That’s my first question,” Beckett wrote.

Look here now, I am still trying to tell you something, something of

Maximum importance. You are required to watch everything: notice all the little cracks
          in the wall, sidewalk, painting, ceiling, body

Notice this vase of small lilies I have on my desk,

Orange linkages, labial, the light fantastic

Petal-ing down on this paper, this poem

Question: Was it something I said? Was I too queer and far away?

Risperdal, whisperdal, Ritalin recover us, ordering the senses, though, like Rimbaud, I
          prefer the wild disordering—totally Out of Whack

Soupcon of salt, smidgen of coriander, secret ingredient

Tell me yours and I will tell you mine

Unction of useless information, undressed, except for

Vivid shoes, vicarious necktie, venial sins, velour jacket, vervain and varicose socks—

What couture!

X-plicitly ostentatious and unctuous, unconscious, uncharted

Yes! Yes! Have you been listening? Can you hear your heart beat?

Zany dancing in zero gravity from now on

The Thing You Can’t Forget

It won’t let go of your mind,
the over-and-over can’t figure it out,
all the secrets, big nuisance, big excuse.
Impatient, unruly, it chokes the imagination
like kudzu sprawled across the roadsides,
over weaning “mile-a-minute vine,”
vegetation with no brakes on fecundity,
litter after litter it keeps on.
Kudzu roots make an aromatic jelly,
said to cure a tendency to drink,
and the leaves of the kudzu plant
cover over the useless, the derelict
and abandoned. From this we invent topiary,
fantastic shapes of palaces and creatures,
until the mind can catch what
runs away with it and slow it down,
turning our relentless narratives
into a story we can live with.