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Midwestern Gothic staffer Jamie Monville talked with acclaimed poet Marianne Boruch about working in different genres, the influences teaching has on her work, visiting a cadaver lab for inspiration, and more.
(Photo credit: Will Dunlap)
Jamie Monville: What’s your connection to the Midwest?
Marianne Boruch: My mother’s family—named Taylor and Jones—has been in the Midwest for several generations. My father’s parents were Polish Catholics—that’s the Boruch in there—coming as immigrants in the early 20th century to Chicago. So both my parents were born in Illinois. Chicago was where I was born as well. And I didn’t leave the state for any serious amount of time until graduate school at UMass.
JM: You have taught at Universities in Taiwan and Maine, but continue to find your way back to the Midwest. What is it about the region brings you back, and how has the Midwest inspired your writing?
MB: The honest fact is that if you are seeking a teaching job, you can’t really call the shots on where that will be. There’s a pretty small window of opportunity on this, especially at the start. We went to Taiwan (Tunghai University) because my husband wanted to continue studying Chinese. Mainland China simply wasn’t open yet, at least for individuals in 1979. I had just gotten my MFA, and he was ABD in English, so we both applied to teach in the Republic of China. That was a fascinating experience. My first full-time American teaching job was at the University of Maine at Farmington—then, the so-called “undiscovered Maine”—a last-minute appointment, and great good luck. We were living in Madison, Wisconsin just before that–wonderful town—and both teaching part-time.
Eventually, yes, as you say above, I did find my “way back to the Midwest” via my job at Purdue, and have been here ever since. Unlike a lot of my colleagues and friends on the East coast then, the Midwest didn’t scare me. I like driving in a car, great calming expanses opening up all around, the sweep of bean and corn fields. I joked with people in Maine before I left: all these trees in the way, you just can’t see a thing!
I like the Midwest. I like how everyone doesn’t even think about region very much. The place doesn’t underscore and applaud itself. We just get on with things without a caption to it. Seems totally sane to me. You can just live your life and think your thoughts. Bravo to the secret life, and the fact that no one cares about us!
JM: How has teaching influenced your writing, if it has? How is teaching at Purdue different than teaching in Maine, Taiwan, or any of the other places where you have been a fellow or visiting professor?
MB: Teaching influences one’s poetry and fiction—and nonfiction too—in both obvious and subtle ways. You simply have less time to write, of course. But it’s balanced by how interesting the exchange in class and in conferences really is, how much you learn. I mean, if you’re called on to explain something, you have to find words for it. To do that, you have to consider and reconsider. It’s good for the brain. What a privilege really, to get paid to talk about poetry in public, for god’s sake. How crazy is that? I’m grateful I live in this little unlikely cube of history where such a mad thing is possible. I don’t imagine it will go on forever.
And teaching is teaching, wherever you are, though with my Chinese students in Taiwan, there were passionate responses I never expected. When I taught Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” for instance, they were immensely perplexed by his self-absorption, even as a dramatic device. It seemed shocking, utter braggadocio, or worse. They thought more in terms of the group. Individual nerve seemed a selfish, suspect concept to them. That was very instructive to me. But if I think about it now, it’s a bit like the standard self-effacing Midwestern temperament, but writ very large.
JM: Your latest collection of poetry, Cadaver, Speak, is said to have been inspired by both life study drawing and work in a cadaver lab. What drew you to these two things, and the cadaver lab in particular?
MB: I had applied to for an opportunity Purdue wisely offers its faculty—a fellowship for “the study of a second discipline.” If awarded such a thing, I’d be relieved of my teaching for a term to study something on campus. I had heard that the successful applications were in areas where one jumped not only departments, but whole schools. The idea was to get as far as possible from one’s usual habit of thought and focus of “research.” I figured the Gross Human Anatomy class in Indiana University’s School of Medicine division on Purdue’s campus was a pretty daring leap. I added the Life Drawing course in Art and Design for symmetry—bodies living and dead, I suppose.
But as I’ve gotten older, these issues concerning the body have grown more personal, of course—friends and family stricken, and lost. So I was already thinking a lot about the body and the many threats to it, how fragile we are. Plus, as a poet, I wanted to put myself in an odd place, to surprise myself, to experience something for which I had no agenda or preconceived notions. I wanted to go blank and see what would happen. And the anatomist James Walker, the artist Grace Benedict generously said yes, I could be underfoot in their classes for a full semester. Still, one applies to such things with little hope of success. I was as taken aback as anyone that the Provost’s office said sure, okay, now do it.
JM: What surprised you about the cadaver lab? What moved you?
MB: Are you kidding? Pretty much everything surprised me, and so much moved me. The first day seeing “spinal cords” magic-marker marked on a white plastic bucket, or the stillness of the four bodies of those formerly alive and kind enough to lend them to us. The many things the students and the teacher said. My own speechlessness—so much beyond words. Well, it’s all in the book—Cadaver, Speak—finally out last spring. Copper Canyon did such a beautiful job with it.
JM: How is Cadaver, Speak different than what you have written before?
MB: My usual drill is what I call my “begging bowl” method—to put out that bowl and see what images drop in. And then work with that, poem by poem. I did fear having a definite “subject” this time—feared it would dilute the mystery and be way too willed for any genuine discovery. I actually took a million notes, for instance—I had to, so much overwhelmed me, both in the lab and in the studio where the drawing class took place. So my method in that book was a bit different. And my “subject” pretty pointed. Even the first half of the book concerns the body in various ways—in visual art, in history and prehistory–those pieces written directly by me and not by my old cadaver as speaker. She takes over the second half, via the title poem.
What I found out was: it doesn’t matter. Once you’re engaged, you still don’t know where things will go and what you will find. And that emptiness, that wanderlust remains the crucial thing no matter how you think you’ve aimed things, or how many notes you’ve made.
JM: While you are best known for your poetry, you have also explored the longer form of the book of essays and memoir. These genres feel like a definite step outside of a potential comfort zone, and yet at the same time these three genres can often have the same veins of curiosity and self-reflection – more so than perhaps straight fiction. How and why did you decide to work in these other forms, and how does your process change in order to accomplish this?
MB: I’ve written essays on poetry for years, often in response to editors who want some thoughts on someone or something. (For instance, one of my first essays—“Dickinson Descending”—was in answer to a request from The Georgia Review to help honor the anniversary of that poet’s death.) And many of my essays started life as lectures at Warren Wilson College’s MFA program where I’ve been lucky to teach on and off since 1988. But I’ve come to value the essay—thought collects in pools, Wallace Stevens tells us. And the paragraph IS a pool, no question. Plus I enter an essay the way I enter poems: not knowing where in the world it will take me. That alone is engaging. And I get to think aloud, on paper, about poetry I love.
The memoir—my me-woir, I like to say—is different. I lived that wild story, and wanted for years to tell it. And did, to friends and family. I finally found a way to write it—and chops up to the task, I hope—using tiny chapters, figuring out the voice. It was great fun though pretty sobering to relive that era which is either vastly maligned and mocked, or idealized beyond recognition. My aim was to show what those years were like for most of us—clueless, inarticulate but often ironic and serious young people, just trying to grow up. So I guess it’s really a we-woir. Or so I like to think. I love to read from this book in public—it’s such fun, since some of it does seem hilarious to me. I don’t get much chance though since when I am asked somewhere, mostly poetry is the main event. Sometimes though, I can sneak it in.
JM: Who are some journalists or writers that have influenced your own work or style?
MB: Essays: still a thrilling book for me—one I reviewed years ago for The Georgia Review when it came out in the 80s—is Robert Hass’ Twentieth Century Pleasures: Prose on Poetry. I remember thinking: wow! You’re allowed write essays this way? Both reading close and thinking personally? It opened the genre for me. And of course, Jarrell’s wonderful essays, Seamus Heaney’s, Flannery O’Connor’s, etc etc.
Poetry: You mean whose love-child am I, or would like to be? You name it. Keats, Blake, Hopkins, Dickinson, Whitman, Williams, Moore, Larkin, Bishop, Lowell, Roethke, early Bly, Berryman.
From the more recent, more contemporary: my teacher in the 70s, James Tate. And Russell Edson, Simic, early Gluck, Ellen Voigt, Adelia Prado… People closer to my own age: Perillo, Hoagland, Brigit Kelly, Carl Phillips, Laura Jensen, Tom Andrews. Well, I could go on and on. As Chicago poet Paul Carroll used to say: it’s a big table.
But I’m not sure about influence, regarding any of the above. That seems awfully presumptuous, and perhaps not flattering at all to them! I just love their work, though it is so varied. It’s defined poetry for me over the years, which is no small thing.
JM: What’s next for you?
MB: I just completed my next collection, which is in manuscript now. We’ll see what happens to that. It’s always kind of a crap shoot. And I’m overdue on another book of essays. I just have to do some hunting and gathering to put that together, hopefully by the end of spring.
Marianne Boruch’s eight poetry collections include Cadaver, Speak (2014) and The Book of Hours (2011), a Kingsley-Tufts Poetry Award winner, both from Copper Canyon Press. She’s also the author of two essay collections, In the Blue Pharmacy (Trinity, 2005) and Poetry’s Old Air (Michigan, 1993), and a memoir, The Glimpse Traveler (Indiana, 2011) about hitchhiking in the early 70s. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, Poetry, London Review of Books, American Poetry Review, The Nation and elsewhere. She’s been awarded fellowships from the NEA and the Guggenheim Foundation, as well as artist residencies at the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Center, Yaddo and the MacDowell Colony, and at Isle Royale, our most isolated national park. A Fulbright/ Visiting Professor in 2012 in Edinburgh, Scotland, she first taught at the University of Maine at Farmington before establishing in 1987 and directing for years Purdue University’s MFA program Creative Writing where she still teaches. Since 1988, she’s also taught in the low residency Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College.