Conversation with Maya Marshall (Part 1)

“Tenderness is the impulse to protect what you know you could destroy,” is an early line in Maya Marshall’s debut full-length poetry collection, All the Blood Involved in Love. Tenderness—gentleness, affection—also a sensitivity to pain. With immense care Marshall hollows out a world of tenderness in three acts, shifting across black motherhood and daughterhood, our choices and their costs, love we sink to the bottom of. 

I first met Marshall at poetry readings in Chicago, where she has taught at Northwestern and Loyola University. She holds fellowships from MacDowell and Cave Canem and her writing has been published in Boston Review, Crazyhorse, Best New Poets, and elsewhere. Currently, she teaches at Emory University and has accepted an assistant professorship at Adelphi University. She is also the co-founder of underbelly, a journal on the “tender and brutal” process of poetic revision.

We spoke in July, about a month after the publication of All the Blood, on the female mosquito, demythifying artists, and feeling attentively.

What has been your favorite response or reaction to your book so far? Has there been a specific response that really surprised you?

I was really pleased to be seen and named Southern. I’ve moved quite a lot in my life. And it’s true for me as it is for other people that home is a vexed notion. So having a Southern writer see me, recognize and name me as Southern was a joy.

A friend of mine told me that my book is like me: patient, intense, tender, and wry.

What are some of the ways you’ve celebrated yourself during this time?

I can’t say that I have done a lot of celebrating myself privately. I have had the joy of reading with poet friends to launch the book, and my beloveds have feted me in some delightful one-on-one hangs. And there have been surprising and joyful moments. For instance, my father and I were emptying out my last apartment while I was making the move into my partner’s house. When we arrived at the apartment the box of my author copies was on the doorstep, so I was able to share the moment of opening the box with him.

I have a practice of writing myself letters once a year for my birthday, which is in January. In the letter, which I refer to occasionally throughout the year, I write what I’m proud of and what I’m grateful for about myself and my behaviors. So this year, I was able to acknowledge the relationships, the study, the practice, and the determination that it took for me to make this book.

When did you start writing these letters to yourself?

When I was sixteen. So twenty-two years ago.

Do you ever read the old ones?

I don’t know where the one is from when I was sixteen. But I saw one from twenty-two the other day and I was like aww babe. Oh, bless your heart. I mean my goals haven’t changed that much but I’ve achieved them mostly which is pretty amazing to see. My voice is not majorly different but my confidence is greater. My acceptance of self is deeper—if I’m to learn anything from the version at twenty-five and the version at thirty-five.

Do you find yourself writing them to yourself in a pure and direct way? If I’m writing a letter to someone else I might try to make the language a certain way. Do you find yourself doing that?

I kind of think of it as a team-rearing activity. I’m like ‘hey future self—here’s what we’re doing. Like I need you to help me out, make sure she’s good.’ So yeah, I address myself as I would a friend that I love but with more direct expectations. I’m asking you to do this thing. I’m so proud of you for having done this thing. This is a subject I’m interested in lately. I ask as you approach this relationship–that is different from ones you have patterns in–that you do these things to protect it. So it’s not at all flowery right? There’s no like, fooling myself into thinking I’m somebody else. I mean to say that the voice one uses in a journal and to themselves is separate. It has some different motives than the voice one uses to persuade someone whose inner thoughts they don’t have access to.

Are there any other ways that you would like to be described? You said you were happy to be recognized as a Southern writer. Are there other things you would like to be described as?

That I would like to add to my list of adjectives? I mean I’m not sure it’s any of my business. The way that people describe my book or my persona as a writer in the world is really about their perception. I would like to believe I’m not being perceived, which is not the case. I don’t want to curate how I’m perceived outside of the work that I do. If the question is something like, how do you describe a writer you admire and do you want your book to be described that way, then I would like to be described as honest and generative and interested in the beauty in everyday things.

Starting at the beginning of All the Blood Involved in Love, with the epigraph, “Memory is a mosquito, pregnant again, and out for blood.” A perfect choice that has many threads as Gayl Jones also had storytelling built into her maternal relationships and is maybe an extreme example of the literal blood involved in love. I would love to hear what her words mean to you and what went into your choice to use a quote from Jones at the beginning of your book.

Something I love knowing about mosquitos is that it is the female that feeds on blood, that hunts for it. They need a blood meal to produce eggs. A thing I am turning around in my book is that blood is essential in love, is the bitter in the sweet, is sweet in and of itself. Jones’s words name the mother as memory and her ability to bring life to fruition as part of the natural, predatorial need for blood. Jones’s words are about an inability to dispose of the past, about the need to feed on it for sustenance and to produce something/someone new. Those sentiments—the past is never past/ if you forget history you’re doomed to recreate it, there is nothing new under the sun, life is cyclical, nature is indifferent—are crucial to the themes of the book. There is an underlying fear of recreating pain in offspring and/or in being compelled by nature to hunt for blood by motherhood that is central to the primary question in the book: Why don’t you parent a little?

I was talking to my teacher. She sat down next to me in her yellow leather chair at the circular table in her office and said, “I was reading last night and I think this is for you.” I had been reading Corrigedora, Jones’s debut novel, examining womanhood, sexuality, and the psychological residue of slavery, and talking for months about my awe at black women’s survival and about how choosing not to have a child is a choice you make not only for yourself but for your mother and her mother. I talked about how I wanted to honor my mom, and how I wanted freedom from her, how I wanted this book to be a monument to her in a way—is that something a monument can do, prove a shift in a dynamic? So when my teacher came across the quotation in an interview Gayl Jones had done with Michael Harper, it was my good fortune.

Choosing not to have a child is a choice you’re making for your mother and her mother. But also choosing to have one, it’s the same thing. Can a child be a monument? I don’t know.

I mean sort of, right? The danger then is putting any narrative on that person who comes out of you, who is their own person. Which takes us back to that Gayl Jones line. We don’t get away from it.

It’s a constant shift of dynamics. The baby comes out of you, the dynamic has shifted. The baby grows up a little bit, the dynamic shifts again.

We make up all sorts of narratives because of what we assume our roles as children or as parents require of us and communication is something that we have to be intentional about as each person ages because our roles shift and kind of invert somewhere around the middle age.

There’s this idea/image throughout All the Blood of wasted potential and rot, whether it’s our decaying bodies or relationships, the American rot of archaic ideas about our bodies and our relationships, but there’s also a sweetness, a healing bruise. Can you speak to this dynamic and your strategies for recognizing the sweetness in your own life?

I love the notion of strategies for recognizing sweetness. In my life, I have tried to remove things that make it hard for me to feel attentively. I have for the past few years had a walking practice and a practice of taking snapshots of fauna, flora, throughways, and pathways from various modes of travel: walking, running, driving, cycling. It’s a practice of noticing my surroundings, of noticing how my body feels, of capturing a bit of what my eye can see, and of appreciating the quotidian. That means also acknowledging disrepair in the everyday.

Someone asked me recently what’s taking my attention lately. Simultaneity. I’m in the busiest year of my life; it’s full of things I’ve worked my life to achieve, to practice, to commit to. And I’m happy and full and well and deeply loved. It’s also a year during which I’m watching my love battle cancer. It is a year of continued illness for the nation, continued dismantling of freedoms for black people, for women. It’s perhaps the last habitable summer and a year of water shortage and storms that will only get worse. It’s maybe the last summer where interstate travel isn’t interrupted by the state or its vigilantes asking for women’s papers. It is also the year that the John Webb space telescope shows us just how vast the cosmos are. It’s all happening at once, nature is indifferent, and still my household is having living room dance parties. Nothing is all one thing.

For a lot of years, I thought nothing exists without its opposite, after all there are laws to the universe: for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. There are cycles, that means the good always comes with the bad. I see rot and sweetness as being linked, think of the peach. Think of love when it becomes extreme or disgruntled.

Check out Part 2 of Molly’s interview with Maya in Issue 76.

Vagabond City Literary Journal

Founded in 2013, we are a literary journal dedicated to publishing outsider literature. We publish art, prose, reviews, and interviews from marginalized creators.