Mary B. Moore Interview, with Nicelle Davis
I was privileged to see these poems undergo a revision. I noticed that a large part of your revision process is to compress—to cut the poems until only the bone of meaning is left. How do you know when a poem is “done?” In your opinion, is a poem ever “done?”
To answer this, I have to discuss my writing process itself, which relies on almost equally discovery and revision. In revision, I first deepen and expand and only then contract or cut to the “bone” as you so nicely put it. My poetry often starts from a total lack of topic, from sitting with the blank screen or a blank page for minutes until words arise. I may write from what is “in front of me”—actually out a window in my study or more metaphorically from an image or object or phrase experienced in recent days that seems to draw my energies. I sometimes assign myself a topic but not often. I discard ten starts for every one I take up and expand, so even the process of starting a poem can be very laborious for me. (See my response below.) Rarely, a poem pops up almost whole, and, when this happens, the poem sometimes begins from a phrase that I have messed with repeatedly without getting anything that I wanted to pursue. Such poems often feel like gifts from the universe, but they probably come from a largely unconscious process of accrual: it’s as if that phrase or worded image begins to attract words and energies around it beneath my rational mind, and the poem seems to emerge fully fleshed. These often feel done with only minor polishing. Regardless of the source or lack thereof of the impulse towards a poem, the actual poem begins with words that name images in a way that seems to promise some kind of discovery.
So revision practically IS my writing process. Once I have something that I want to play with, revision becomes a way of going deeper into the language, into the words and images. I sometimes imagine this stage of writing as literally “going in” to the spaces between words, gently pushing aside the initial assumptions and tugging and nudging open, exposing other implications. An example is the end of the poem “The Cliffs of Difference,” where the idea of “brimming over” and “spilling not falling” came early but the sense of being “on the verge of” the self came out only as I played with the image of skin, boundaries, difference. Some poems feel finished and even perfected at some stage—not that they are “perfect,” but that they get at the things I had discovered while working. Some never feel finished. “Finishing,” having concluded—not necessarily reaching something like a closing couplet––feels like a sense of closure, a sense that the metaphorical idea has worked itself out, come clear and been expressed.
Do you find more pleasure in the raw writing experience or the revision process?
Writing a whole new poem seems the most painful and difficult part of the work to me. Because I usually work intuitively rather than beginning with a rationally selected topic or theme, a new poem usually means a pretty unformed, sometimes dull, and sometimes weird beast. Perhaps I start with a kind of autonomic writing—not exactly automatic, but writing that keys into what I see or have just seen, into a flow of language in my mind. I then struggle to avoid several pitfalls: to avoid bum-tripping myself about dullness but rather allow something to unfold from humble beginnings; to find a structure in the unformed—not necessarily a received poetic form but a rhetorical or metaphoric structure; and to respect and use the language energies in the weird word or turn of phrase without creating an incomprehensible mess. I throw away work when these struggles fail. Recently, after years of starting all my poems on the screen, I’ve begun writing some new poems on very thick paper with a fountain pen. This doesn’t make the resulting new poems better but it does slow me down, enhance my mindfulness, and enable me to listen to what unfolds.
I often write in series, which oddly enough, this poem you are publishing is not. (Two of these were written some years ago on trips “home” from West Virginia, and two more written recently. These are insider/outsider poems, poems of longing and exile, I think.) The series poems, once I have found a beginning, develop themes and accrue new resonance as they emerge, and once begun, they carry me along for weeks and months. Such poems always unfold during revision too and the very presence of them in my mind makes me happy.
Perhaps because my writing process depends on mindfulness, I do not write well out of raw emotion but rather I try to write regularly, and, when I can, spend two-four hours at a time working. I believe in “suiting up,” practicing poetry in the same way you practice meditation. When nothing new seems promising, I work on revision.
I have also recently begun working with a local critiquing group here in Huntington but had not done that for years. They help me hone new work when I am brave enough to show it and help control my tendency to emphasize sound over meaning, to include extraneous images without understanding their connection to the whole, and to overdo play with syntax.
Your poem beautifully ends with the line “Whatever I see I want to eat and be.” I too, feel this way about California. It seems to be the home of light and life, but I feel it is often overlooked as a center for literature and art. What would you say to the person who “hates” the west coast? What west coast writings and visuals would you direct them to in order to persuade them to love the golden state?
Interesting question! It seems to me that nature is the key to loving California: Monterey pines, rocky coastlines, Lake Tahoe, Mount Shasta, the stunning and infrequently traveled Siskiyous in the far north, the tropical beaches of Southern California. In my view, it’s the key to so much about California, including poetry.
I’m a native Californian who actually lived there most of my life, and even though I’m aware of the alleged predominance of the East in publishing and the fine arts, I never had a sense of cultural deprivation nor am I aware of my publishing prospects having suffered from being on the Left Coast. (I moved to West Virginia for a tenure-track teaching job when I was 48.) During my 20’s, 30’s and 40’s, I found a rich environment for poetry both in Sonoma County and in Sacramento, especially the latter, where I spent the most years as an adult, from 1976-1995. Since I’m not a contemporary literature or creative writing specialist academically, since I have been teaching four classes a semester or the equivalent in administrative releases for the last fifteen years, and since I divide my writing and reading time between scholarship (Renaissance poetry, primarily) and my own poetry, I may not be the best person to answer this question impersonally and broadly, but I can address the poets whose work I know.
Sacramento and Davis have a thriving poetry scene, with some well known poets who people don’t realize live there (Dennis Schmitz and Sandy McPherson come to mind) and with some great poets barely known or largely unknown outside the region. Northern California poets I know are deeply engaged with natural imagery and place, are playing both with received forms and with free-verse, and often manifest a strong Buddhist current—a heritage from the Beats as well as a reflection of the current movement on both Coasts towards Buddhism among leftish intellectuals and artists. They attend to the ear, make a non-metrical music, eschew obscurity in favor of clarity, and manifest a sense of natural and/or spiritual energies at work in humans and in the world. Like any poetry scene, a wide range of tones and styles flourish: some people are markedly political; some are very Beat; some tend towards the confessional lyric; others mix the aesthetic with the gritty.
There is also a heritage of California poetry but I have worked only with one major figure—ironically, thanks to an M.A. student here in West Virginia: the powerful 20th century poet Robinson Jeffers. He takes up, in an idiosyncratic and rough-hewn voice, the violence and power of the Northern California landscape in the 20’s and 30’s when there was still plenty of forested land. He evokes Classical literature in form and topic. And of course Gary Snyder, who used to teach at U.C. Davis where I got my Ph.D., is a working poet of prodigious output and international fame. Sacramento writers have always seemed to me to be working away in their studies and garages and apartments, producing great work no one will know about for another 50 years. I know little about the current San Francisco or Southern California poetry scene but I constantly see poems from California poets of all regions in nationally known journals.
What’s not to love?
What new poetry projects do you have in the works?
I have a manuscript that I have been refining that collects several series of poems and many others in a structure that I think (but would never claim to be sure of) expresses something like an elegiac movement—from war and family deaths, through the metaphorical deaths of human objectification and colonization, towards resolution in nature—the only resolution I know. It is called Ashes, Air. I also have a second manuscript Skins which needs far more revision and which contains several poems that use loosely rhymed couplets to represent personae from the Renaissance and earlier. The latter poems revel in anachronistic juxtapositions which may be one reason that none of them have found their readers so far. While I am on sabbatical until August 2011, I am focusing on writing new work with no theme or topic in mind as well as on revising recent poems. The latest new poems seem to involve embodiment, particularly the edges of bodies, the contents of awareness, and the false dichotomy between in and out, self and other––or that is my reading of them, since this trend began with discoveries rather than with conscious choices of topic. At least one of these poems seems powerful to me. Like all of us, I am sure I over-mine my insights at times, thinking that some element of a good poem has the power to seed a whole cluster of other poems. My struggle is to allow the unexpected, the new.
California, as your poem points out, is home to the renegade, the cultish, and dangerously beautiful. Why do you think the west coast draws this type of personality?
My poem actually was an attempt to answer this in a metaphoric sense: it’s the landscape, the earthquakes, the wild and rocky Pacific coast, the Rim of Fire. California’s beauty both affirms and threatens life, in ways that natural features such as the Andreas fault and the volcanic caldera under Yellowstone National Park illustrate. At the same time, the word “cult” has both the spiritual connotation of a way of worship and the punning reference to “culture”: places that are hot-beds of belief are also hot-beds of cultural innovation—hence my reference to Greece. Both the world-changing research of the University of California campuses and the technological innovations of Silicon Valley suggest this Promethean element of California. (It began as an accident that fire underlay a lot of imagery in this paragraph, but I noticed it, and then began enhancing it.) There is both creation and destruction in California—Vishnu. Sadly, the virtual genocide of California’s native American tribes—read Ishi In Two Worlds: The Biography of the Last Wild Indian in North America by Theodora Kroeber for a heart-breaking story of the death of a man and his culture––also manifests the violence of settlement in the State and throughout the Northwest.
Another element of the State’s history that I tend to forget, however, is that it was a colonial possession of Mexico, and that, as a destination for migration in the late nineteenth century and early 20th century, California was imagined as an earthly paradise. In one sense, California’s history re-enacts the country’s colonization—the New World too was send as Edenic. But California is doubly post-colonial: the Mexican colonial structure was displace under American colonization. Yet that earlier colonization leaves its traces in place names, the Missions, and the presence of a vital and rich Latino population. Like other post-colonial cultures, California is both enriched by and suffers from liminal and hybrid elements. It’s as if this complex but rich history invited the cultural diversity that provides such a fertile environment for change there. Finally, California has a deep connection to Asian cultures, due perhaps to the Gold rush and to its location, which continues to influence its culture and spirituality. Maybe California is where East and West meet. If so, resistance to things Californian is resistance to change, to globalization, and to the fertility that such forces bring about.
I have to add a word on Appalachia, where I now live and teach, which is inspiring and inspiriting in a very different way than Northern California. It is also the site of an incredibly rich and undervalued literature that continues to flower here in hollows and small towns, and in Huntington through university reading series, creative writing classes, and the work of established and new writers.
Five for California
1 Why California Has Cults
Along I-80 the low-slung scrub-oaks, gnarled,
crook-limbed, knotted––arguments this way
and that against linearity’s rule––
zig-zag up creases on puma-gold slopes.
The soil’s stiff as sun-dried linen––
nobody’s toga. Inhospitable?
The dry heat coaxes oak’s wine-cask-smell
out of living trees; pine’s dark teal, distaff
to the blond ground, makes medicine
of dill, eucalyptus, thyme. Mouths water.
Eyes widen; feet tingle. The dry land chafes
you into feeling. The Greeks too were gifted
with wine grapes not far from cliffs uplifted
from sea-bed. There too, earth danced underfoot.
2 San Francisco Bay
White hooded death's head angel, aminitas,
and apricot-colored chanterelle, say "Eat."
But the Pomos, who lived here first, knew
both poisonous and edible crops grew
like Newfoundland sheep-wool on wet weather.
The fog fed redwoods, kingly trees, which feathered
place's cap. But whether in full sun or fog-bound,
the Bay from air is weird: squid-bodied,
both urban- and wild-sided now. Its troth
to earth, not man, is clear. It breathes truths
like the light house on Nuevo Año spit
which says: here's beauty's bedrock; watch out.
Imagine it at second sight: What could Drake think
of rhododendrons and trees whose wood is pink?
3 The Cliffs of Difference
The Pacific cliffs jut out, then stop, distinct;
air replaces ground; premises go:
You’re abandoned on the continent’s rim.
Look over, and verbena, bush lupine––
liminal edgers, hangers-on––evoke
gravity, hand-holds, foot-holds. You can
almost imagine falling as flying.
The edges urge it. Vertigo argues
you already are falling, and weakens
your knees like fear and desire; but the rocks’
tumble and glint, jumble of edges rip
even light. Stand, then, on the rim of difference––
wind-blown, light-fringed, in suspense––feel
your skin again, at the verge of you:
Brim over, spilling not falling.
4 Rocks and Boxes
You almost can’t tell the jetties’ man-made
blocks of rock from the tumble-wheel rocks
erosion cracks off cliffs. They are not boxes,
but fractured like sea-water the green black
stands of cypress look to break, cantilevered,
never level. And knowing who sees or is
seen who speaks or is spoken gets tricky
at the rookery of lady-slippers,
yellow-bearded irises, and blue-eyed grass
on that hill nettled with light, among
thistles and straw flowers, where we watch
the sea. Winged things––surfeit flies, seed hulls,
mist beads off the sea––settle on arms, thighs.
Two cabbage-white butterflies change places
in air, dance in loose spirals––land on me,
on you. Like pairs of petals, just touching,
each set of wings vibrates. Earth, air, sea touch
all day touching us. Our skins worn thin
by earth’s iterative love, we are not boxes.
5 Highway One
We drive Highway One, the Pacific's unstable
mooring North. The truth is beauty's edible.
The Monterey cypress's Bonzai look––
the trunk buttressed like Chartres, elbowed, crooked;
the teal-black limb-tiers wind-flattened––makes my mouth
water, my breasts tingle, as if I were
glutton and lover, greedy to eat
and be eaten, join and be joined to
rocks, trees, cliffs. The cliffs are vows: to leap
only if winged, to look only if eyed,
to yield only what can yield to bliss or loss.
The artichoke fields look like rows of ferns;
the horsetail ferns look like flutes with bristles.
Whatever I see I want to eat and be.