Michele Pizarro Harman Interview, with Julie Brooks Barbour
I find it interesting that these poems are set inside or around individual living spaces. Could you talk about your use of the domestic setting in these pieces?
As I write, I try not to reflect on the writing during that first draft especially, because I find that each poem is its own Rorschach blot narrative on any given image or thought, and there are many things I wouldn't say if I consciously thought first about saying them. That's part of the excitement of poetry, I think, that reflection and the surprising revelations.
What comes to mind first is the fact that these are all interiors. Interior design, as a concept, seems a useful metaphor for thought itself, of the way we “decorate” our minds, our inner spaces. For me, this quickly also becomes a domestic consideration.
Thinking of the protagonists here, what goes on inside their heads is paramount, and the primary point of interest for me. For the Samantha Stevens character, and for those unfamiliar with the character, her exterior is polished, is 1963-Americana modern and is the perfect picture of a beautiful, effectively-domesticated 1960's housewife.
My interest is in the vast discrepancy between what is seen (her exterior(s)) and what is. What looked like a “perfect wife” was the perfect wife in the exterior definition society placed onto her, including the submissive role, the tidy house, “the Kentucky bluegrass for the lawn, hollyhocks and rose-colored coneflowers under the front window,” the “Puritan-pine cane-back chairs with dark teal, velvet seats, and a full-wool mossy carpet,” all the perfect exterior details of the concrete life, the girl child and the boy child, the dinner on the table at five, the stocked liquor cabinet, and the wife's willingness to host the spouse's boss at a moment's notice with an elegant feast, that dedication to her spouse's career advancement, all that tyranny of the exterior; and yet, there's a world more going on in her mind than simply all that. Part of the interest of her particular character is that she was also fiercely loyal and dedicated to the marriage itself, an interior consideration; however, in so many other ways, her interior is something altogether antithetical to the “perfect wife” scenario as it was prescribed at the time.
I do think the feminine-in-or-out-of-marriage piece is the part that speaks to me in both of the characters in these poems. I watched that cultural, Ovidian shift from a child's point of view, that shift from 1960's housewife (Samantha) to 1970's single mother and/or single woman (Mary, and, think of her name, an iconic one), and seeing our own mothers navigate that ambiguity and the confusion of roles that followed and still, I believe, baffles, largely defined and defines my own life experiences.
Speaking, of course, from the point of view of my/our own culture, maybe there has always been this marital and/or gender negotiation in many ways, but I do think this became a particular point of confusion during the 1950's, poignantly chronicled by Plath, especially, when advances in technology began to simplify the wife's domestic role with the invention of washers, dryers, microwaves, canned goods, cake mixes, and vacuum cleaners, to name just a few. No longer did it take hours to change a single diaper (including washing the diaper, bleaching it and drying it). No longer does it take eight hours every day to clean the house, do the laundry, and feed the children, though, of course, it still can and does depending on many variables, but this among other things began to open up possibilities for women's time.
Ironically, the modern advances have created their own breed of difficulties by posing the question: what then is a wife, a mother, a woman, a marriage? What is a woman's role when the basics are not eradicated but potentially, dramatically simplified? We can do so much more, intellectually for example, but all of these pockets of time, these shifting expectations, shifting rules and roles, can muddle the definition and architecture of marriage, the expectations on both sides; and, in many ways, each couple is forced to reinvent the wheel in its own way. Some do this with more success than others.
Are these poems part of a larger sequence or project?
Yes, they are scattered throughout my full-length manuscript. And, I also have them separated out into their own 16-page chapbook manuscript titled Gramarye.
I’m very interested in your discussion of women’s roles in marriage and home, but also the idea of appearance, of exteriors and interiors. How does this idea thread its way through the other poems in this project?
At the literal level, Samantha's exterior describes the “perfect wife” image. In this way, she's the 1960's Donna Reed; she's a re-envisioning of television's perfect wife of the 50's.
But, there's a radical difference in the two women: something's brewing under the surface in this 60's incarnation. The exterior gives no indication of the literal powers beneath the surface. This perfect wife has the power to destroy the world with a single, activated wish. As well, in the Mary character, there's a “perfect” exterior and yet underneath, a woman unwilling to take on society's idea of “normal” for a woman of her age, place and time.
So, on the literal level in the poems, there's a storm of, an accumulation of physical details, of exteriors which give no indication of what lurks beneath, much like the snowdrifts in the Minnesota poems.
On the personal level, I find that, naturally, people tend to carry completed attribute score cards based on others' exteriors. This shorthand allows people to manage their worlds. It allows them to steer clear of potentially unsafe situations, to make quick decisions about their environments so as not to feel overwhelmed with the multitude of details that constitute even one human being. This shorthand can be useful when efficiency is the goal or when safety is a priority; this shorthand is also one of the symptoms of a society of people too efficient, too busy, and possibly too afraid to see each other.
It's a common criticism of our culture and one reason why art itself is seen, here, as a radical brewing beneath the surface and not as a complex and essential expression of the depths of one individual. It's a way to shred the scorecard and ask that the viewer or reader begin at ground zero and build from there slowly and painstakingly, that the one approaching the individual or the individual piece of art enter into the experience with the assumption that he/she's nothing to go on, with the willingness to initially and temporarily suspend preconceptions and assumptions in order to be willing to be taken by the hand down another's path to see what and how someone else has seen.
There is a radical subversiveness to art, especially in the insistence on not forgetting the individual in the united front.
Art is an unveiling of that which is hidden in everyday discourse. It's interesting to me that there's a Picasso in the Stevens' home and a Miro in Mary's. These paintings have their own literal interiors (literally, the art is interior to the frames, and the world is outside those bounds) – as well, each stands in for the interior world its maker brought out into the exterior world which finds itself in the interior of each character's personal space like a play within a play as is each character's (interior) life within the (exterior) life.
Exteriors allow one to fit in, to survive in the current surroundings. They protect. They hide, as in camouflage, all that needs to be hidden to survive. One might look and act a certain way to keep the position or the marriage, or life itself, a way so different from the true self, the interior, the imagination, which brings to mind the other Stevens, the insurance man with a head full of tigers in red weather, that life of the mind which can find no acceptable exterior daily expression; and, whether art is an acceptable expression depends on (the red wheelbarrow) so many things, so much context.
If one finds oneself there, employing camouflage as a way of life, and one is lucky enough to be in a society or situation in which other choices are available, perhaps there is a choice to be made. Or, you could say that, either way, a choice is made: sometimes the choice means choosing to stay alive, given the circumstances, sometimes the choice is merely to keep the external situation stable, and sometimes, again, if one is lucky enough to live in a society or time or place which allows it, the choice is to attempt to make the daily reality an expression of the particulars of the dream.
Engaging with art, a metaphorical “walking a mile in someone else's shoes,” may turn out to be, like Stevens' red weather (the two Stevens' aligned by name; and, coincidentally, the Mary Richards character lived, first, on Weatherly Avenue) a Dorothy's-red-slippers experience, in which the shoes morph to your feet and take you home, commonalities found, a communicative connection made.
after Bewitched, First Episode
Samantha begins her offer of proof: a sudden flame for his lighter, a floating ashtray, an old-fashioned instantly sloshing in his glass, a straw on demand. All in all, the idea that his wife’s a witch is merely an irritant, a bit of glare filtering down through the water. As long as she refrains from using her gift, like a fisherman with award-winning instincts and no license to fish, or a master craftsman with no materials but feathers and wax, this undersea-like dream will float along brightly as a lanternfish using counter-illumination, temporarily surviving by camouflaging itself against the pure fire of the sun.
Landscaping & Interior Decorating
Darrin's chosen 1164 Morning Glory Circle. Endora says, we live on wind and a sparkle of stars; but, Samantha has one patent-leather foot planted neatly in each world. Endora and Sam go see. The house sits unlandscaped and empty, and so, they begin the instant transformation: Kentucky bluegrass for the lawn, hollyhocks and rose-colored coneflowers under the front window, white pine window boxes upstairs overlooking, maybe, a willow or ash. Finally, cerulean and white-striped cotton awnings, and, inside: cerise-striped side chairs, a low, blond-oak coffee table, side table, and an overstuffed couch in sand. A modest, chocolate-oak buffet for the brandy and glasses. Puritan-pine cane-back chairs with dark teal, velvet seats, and a full-wool mossy carpet throughout, quiet as the unmoved fly on the wall, the floor's fibers already dense and alive with secrets, the said and the unsaid wide-row planted under four steel-black heels.
First Episode II
after The Mary Tyler Moore Show
Looking out from Mary’s apartment, beyond the plate glass, the inevitable snow moon in crushed velvet. Sleep-ridden white-plastic bits collude and spin and fall in white satin. And fall. Fit for Degas. To: sapphire craters. Maybe. To a landing sentient with possibility. Phyllis begs, join me in rocket-fire, in black ash. Everything is soft out in Heaven’s blue-blazing fiery dream. Frozen and singed: Mother’s news. Soft seems even the balcony rail, possibly ungraspable as a radiator. Bill arrives with a basket of winter roses. Peachy. Gently as she would a seer’s crystal, careful not to tip it and swathed in black, Mary divines the possibilities. The impinging buds are limpid as his scarf snaked over the sofa serving for a coat tree. The furniture has all arrived. Bill disappears. The room is safe as a secret garden. Everyone out but Mary.