Mary Ann Samyn: Licking River Review interview, March 2019
You mentioned in your interview with Kelly Moffett that you “write poem by poem (and within poems: line by line)”. I noticed that some lines can both be taken by themselves, but also fit into the entire poem. One that stood out to me was, "I escaped my mother's blue" in Rooms by the Sea, which I read as a complete thought. Can you describe the way that writing line by line affects your poems as a whole?
Writing line by line means I walk away a lot. I listen again, or longer, or deeper. Silence is part of it. An active part. I really enjoy the process.
Can you explain what a writing day is like for you? How do you keep yourself focused?
Every day is a writing day in the sense that every day I try to pay attention. I don’t have writing days as a novelist might. Hours and hours at the computer or whatever. Writing a poem could never be like that for me; being a poet never could. It is not just sitting down to write; rather, it’s a way of moving through the world, attending to it. Just so far this morning—it’s 8:35 on a Tuesday and I’m at home in Michigan—so many moments to notice: a lovely tangerine-colored sunrise (“oh!” I said to my dog); a slippery patch on the back steps; a memory of my dad; this interview. So many things. Everyone has a morning like this; it’s just my job—it’s in my nature—to take note. So that’s what a writing day looks like. Just a regular day. And then, sometimes, these noticings come to mind as a line, and that’s what I write down. The music of the day. I listen a little more. If there’s more music, I write it. If there’s not, I continue just being in the world, best I can. Teaching, or going to a committee meeting, or walking the dog, or making dinner. These things go on. As does writing. Alongside, always.
You mention in an interview that to revise you “listen at the poem. Like you’d listen at a door. Or a seashell. I usually finish a poem not in one sitting, exactly, but during one period of time in my life. It’s difficult to return much later. I’m not the same listener.” How have you changed over time as a listener?
I’ve changed as anyone does! To listen to a different day is to listen differently. That just how it goes.
I noticed that in many of your poetry collections you use quite different methods of organizing your poems into parts. Rooms by the Sea is divided into 3 parts, in Air, Light, Dust, Distance it is divided into 4, Beauty Breaks in has a poem called Part 2: but isn’t divided into parts, and My Life in Heaven has 9 parts not denoted by number but by lines of poetry. I wondered how you decided on the number and the themes for each part. What did you see as the organizing principle for each part in Air, Light, Dust, Shadow, Distance? How do you choose the order of your poems?
The poems in most of my books are arranged in the order that I wrote them. Again: when I pay attention is how I pay attention and who and what I pay attention to. The day provides the why as well. And the poems record that. And it’s not progress exactly (not better or worse), but there is a sense of one day and the next. Of the recent books, Beauty Breaks In is not ordered that way but rather alphabetically by poem title. That book is about shock, stuckness, trying-as-I-might-ness, marital love and sorrow, so alphabetically seemed most accurate. Not sequential progress of day after day so much as look up what you need, as we do with the dictionary or encyclopedia. Enter anywhere.
You mentioned in your interview with Kelly Moffett that you know the difference between pauses in writing and the endings of writing: “A quiet comes down and feels more final (as opposed to the lulls that are always part of writing—the seemingly “not writing” that is of course so crucial”. Can you say more about the difference between the two?
Not really! I think, over time, one just gets adept at knowing an opening, knowing an ending. It’s like knowing conversational cues. We just do.
In the poem “Suppose We Make that Assumption”, there is a line, “—So how did Emily Dickinson bake bread?”. Do you find it helpful to learn about other poets’ lives and strategies? Are there any strategies you’ve learned from other poets that help you write?
I’ve never really researched other poets’ lives other than reading, as everyone does, the little bio notes in anthologies. When I wrote that line about Dickinson, I was saying that being a poet is really just being a person. No more and no less. It’s not only in how people do so-called extraordinary things, like writing poems (though that’s super ordinary, actually…), that we know them, but also in how they do everyday things, like baking bread, that they show who they are. And, to my mind, the daily things are more interesting. When I love someone, I like to know their habits. What did you have for dinner?, I ask. What are you up to today? After my dad had a stroke and could no longer speak and also certainly now that he has died, one of things I miss most is talking to him, which I did most every day, just about what he was eating, doing, reading, thinking about. I love those so-called little things. It’s no surprise my poems are full of them.
I get a real sense of place and landscape within your poetry, particularly in Air, Light, Dust, Shadow, Distance. In an interview, you mention the “landscape that takes the shape called Mary Ann against the physical backdrop called Michigan.” Do you think that your writing changes depending on where you are physically? Do you think the landscape of your poetry and your internal landscape change with the physical landscape?
Yes and no. Wherever I go, I go with. I’m always writing Mary Ann-ness; there’s nothing else to write about. But, yes, sure, the images in my poems, the references might shift. The sky in West Virginia is different from the sky in Michigan, that’s for sure. But I’m still the one attending to it.
In an interview, you mention your identification with Victorian women; “Maybe a heroine in a Victorian novel? Someone who walks out and back. Plays the piano better than I do. Can sew way better. The rustling of my dress… I think I’d like that. And waiting, by windows, or seashores. I think I could do it; I do it already.” You also mention that your poetry is like an articulation of yourself and your identity—saying that the poem “better sound like me.” How does this feminine image affect your poetry? Are there aspects of Victorian femininity you do not identify with?
How does this feminine image affect my poetry? Nicely! Everything is complicated, but I like it. No sense revising the distant past. Enough said!
Throughout your books you seem to associate ‘girlhood’ with different ideas. In some, girlhood seems to be associated with mechanical puppetry, sometimes with saints, sometime with desire, and sometimes with nature—for instance, the recurring image of deer in Air, Light, Dust, Shadow, Distance. How do you think your views on ‘girlhood’ may have changed over time?
It’s all of these things, all the time, all at once, thank goodness! I remember it fondly; it stays with me, still. I don’t think our younger selves ever really leave us. And that’s a sweetness, often. I can see my girl-self in little ways every day; in my own eyes, for instance. I can see childhood in other people, too. It’s a good thing, that vulnerability. And it makes it easier to feel compassion, I find, for others.
In the poem “A Waiting Around Feeling” you write “Then deer, two does, one who is fine with looking. Sometimes I too am tired of my defenses.” What lowers your defenses in these moments? Do you find you write more often during these moments?
I’m not particularly good at defenses. Alas! Or, luckily. Hard sometimes, in the moment, but good overall, probably. I do best when my defenses are down. Not my common sense. That’s different, and necessary. But defenses. Those were invented—often for good cause. But they can outlive their usefulness.
In lines like, "The guitar riff I've always wanted to be" in “Let’s Be Serious Now,” I can see an intense affinity with music. What music has influenced your poetry and how?
I don’t usually listen to music other than the music of the poem when I’m doing on-the-page writing, but I do listen to music during my day, during those periods of writing-but-not-yet-on-the-page. Right now I’m listening to Greta Van Fleet a lot. Also, Linda Ronstadt, Chet Baker, Boz Scaggs, Eva Cassidy. Always stuff from the 70s. I like a lot of different kinds of music. People might be surprised if they drove with me; I change the radio station a lot and I like to be surprised. I don’t have playlists or whatever. As with the day, I like to see what comes. In any case, I don’t think there are direct links between the music I listen to and my poetry, but a poetic line is a musical line, so there’s that… It’s so important, as a poet, to train in listening. Your ear matters, first and foremost—
Do you have a specific type of audience that you would like to address?
I hope that whoever might like, or be helped by, or find comfort or humor or joy in my work finds their way to reading my poems. It usually happens like that, I think. We do find what we need. Often by not looking.
What do you wish you had been told when you first started writing poetry?
Writing is like picking apples from a tree. It’s fun and delicious and sometimes you get to climb up pretty high. It’s also seasonal; waiting is part of it. Maybe someone could have told me earlier. But, on second thought, it’s best I got there myself.
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