Read Part 1 of the interview here.
“Anatomy of a Fish Hook” is one of my favorites. There’s this tension between the lovers but it’s also quite a sexy poem. How do you go about starting to write an intimate scene? What sort of language do you find yourself gravitating toward the most when writing them?
Thank you. It is a bit of a sexy poem. I hesitated to include it in the book because it’s the only one of its type and it has less of the direct language of the others. But it’s a book about various types of love and sexual love is important in it. Indirectness is part of what makes a successful intimate scene possible. The heat of suggestion and the control of intimation and gradual movement can create sensuality. One doesn’t want to surprise the kitty. To answer your question, though, I try not to write intimate scenes. That day I felt compelled to. I really enjoyed writing this poem because it began as an exercise.
It’s a negative image of the poem “Mosquito Mother” by Henri Cole. A negative image is a practice in which the poet takes every word in someone else’s poem and writes the opposite of that word. That is to say, write the opposite of “a” the opposite of “mosquito,” etc. You can preserve the parts of speech or not, you can preserve the number of syllables to the line or not, you can preserve the cadence or not. And then you revise the new block of text to make sense. I added a step by making a word bank with the parts of a fish hook because I wanted an extended metaphor in the world of the poem—that connected the emotional space of the poem, feeling desirous and trapped— to be emulated by the language of the poem. I don’t always write like this. I was at a residency and I had time.
Fifteen years ago, I would write explicitly about sex, probably to make myself feel free or less ashamed. Now I gravitate toward the language of suggestion to get at or reproduce the type of intimacy in the moment. It helps me to choose analogous language from a different process, fishing, for example. But it could be hiking too, or yoga, or driving.
How has your relationship to yourself and the text changed since you wrote the abstract
for your thesis?
I genuinely do not remember the abstract for my thesis. My relationship to myself has changed in that I have greater confidence in my abilities, and I think of myself first when I think of who and how to love. That means I’ve begun to treat my writing as a mechanical and artistic endeavor rather than as a way to try and make some external rendering of myself. I am separate from my poems.
Was that shift something that happened naturally over time?
I think I stopped treating poems like they were journal entries and started treating them like they’re made objects, which they are. Sure my life informs my aesthetic, the things that I’m interested in exploring in writing, but the cultural identity I’d built up around wanting to be a writer when I was twenty five or whatever was mostly to convince myself to keep writing and now I recognize being writer is just being a person who has a particular set of tools that they use to create a piece of writing. And so that’s what I do, I don’t feel as compelled to identify as deeply with the idea of being a writer as with the practice of it.
You’ve said Audre Lorde is your second poet after your mother. How have her words impacted you at different points in your life, from young girlhood to the wilds of your thirties?
The wilds of my thirties! Love that phrase. An advantage to reading all of the biographical and autobiographical work, writing a chapter of a biography about her when I was in undergrad, and watching the films about her life and work is that I have become more able to see her as a woman rather than a myth. Part of that ability is just the benefits of age.
Can you speak more on that idea of seeing her as more than a myth? Has that happened with other writers you admire?
I mean Audre Lorde legitimately wrote a biomythography and turned herself into a myth. And since she passed away in 1992, she’s become this sort of beacon and really powerful resource for black, queer women specifically. But it really does help to be able to hold that she was just a regular woman who had parties at her house, and had bad breakups and had children who were impacted by her fame and her relationships and choices. And that makes her feel real and able to be emulated as a craftsperson, as a speaker, as a teacher.
Are there other writers for whom I feel that attention, affinity, for the person I see them being? I look to and respect and I think have a realistic view of Nikky Finney, and Evie Shockley, and peer writers who are only five or ten years older and established. I look at Tarfia Faizullah and Destiny Birdsong and think, ah here are these people embodying the ideologies that proceed them in the packaging of their books. And here are these people who have real bodies and who are active in teaching spaces and who are protective of their personal lives as separate from their creative work. And those are things that are also actionable and things that are worth emulating because I can see them as real.
There’s a way that we like to deify people who seem distant because of time or because of status and I feel like through paying attention to a lot of Audre Lorde’s work I’ve disabused myself of that practice.
How, if at all, does teaching affect your writing practice?
First, it reminds me to focus on the basics. Second, it asks that I use the time I have efficiently. The days are just packed. Teaching requires that I make and hold clear boundaries and that I do what I can to replenish my resources during the semester.
What have you gained from being honest with people? Where do you find validation?
I get a clear and centered sense of self and position by being honest with other people. My honesty doesn’t guarantee honesty in return, but it seems to increase reciprocity. Honesty allows me to be vulnerable, in measured ways, and that makes me feel more alive, more myself, more able to make things. I find validation as a writer/poet/artist in having the people whose work I respect see and name skill in my writing. I feel grateful when people I don’t know see themselves in my writing.
Who are some of the newer people, writers, artists you find yourself in conversation with in your writing these days? What do those conversations look like?
I have been isolated lately. Or, really, I have redirected my attention. I have been reading older rather than younger. But your question is “newer” not “younger.” Some folks I have been attentive to lately: Hayan Charara, Camille Dungy, Warsan Shire, Ed Roberson, Yusef Kommunyakaa.
I’m also working in lots of capacities all the time. Because of my jobs, my reading list is pretty much predetermined. So if I’m gonna read something that’s not on that list it’s like all right you’ve got fifteen minutes every morning for two weeks to read The Book of Delights or whatever. Like I was building a Sealey Challenge list, and I was like, really Marshall? Are you really gonna read thirty books that are not for work? Maybe start with a smaller goal. So pedagogically I am not isolated, I just have to be really intentional with my attention.
Are you a good reader? A fast reader?
I don’t think good and fast are mutually exclusive. I think you can be a good reader and read really slowly.
I say good, good is not really what I mean. You have to read a lot for work so it’s difficult to read for pleasure all the time.
I love reading though. It’s like my favorite thing. It was when I was a kid and now it’s something I really enjoy that is also my work.
So it’s easy for you to focus on it.
I read a lot if that’s the question. I read closely. I read quickly when I’m reading something that doesn’t require that I work on it. You know the same way that I watch The Witcher because it’s just like good fantasy and it’s fun. Doesn’t require much from me. It’s hard not to read culturally into it, but…
Have you read the books?
No. I would…Oh my gosh, I was talking to my future sister-in-law and she was like, Maya I’m telling you, the way to deal with the apocalypse is just to go and read like trashy romance novels that you get at the grocery store. I was like, yo, my plan for my future is to get readers from the drugstore on a lanyard and just read really thick mystery novels that I get at the grocery store and wear parachute pants and I’m so looking forward to it.
Wow. The dream.
She was like, get your Angela Lansbury on.