I first met Martha Zweig at Vermont Studio Center in Johnson, Vermont which is not far from her home in Hardwick, Vermont. She has been widely published in magazines including Prairie Schooner, Poetry, Partisan Review, Green Mountain Review, Poetry Northwest, Sojourner: The Women's Forum, to name, literally, only a few. She won the Vermont Council on the Arts chapbook contest with her Powers, which includes an introduction by editor Hayden Carruth and was favorably reviewed by Donald Hall. Martha earned her Bachelor of Arts and Master of Arts from the University of Michigan. Currently pursuing an M.F.A. at Warren Wilson College in North Carolina, Martha works as an Advocate at the Northeast Kingdom Area Agency on Aging in Hardwick.
Martha was born in Philadelphia and raised in Moorestown, New Jersey where she attended the Quaker Moorestown friends' School. When asked what was an influential memory, Martha replied that she remembers the astonishment and betrayal she felt when her physician father gave her the news of inevitable Death. With characteristic candor, she admits, "Nobody else's death bothers me nearly as much as my own."
OA: I like to start at the beginning, I guess, Martha, when did you start to write poetry?
Martha: Well, when I was a kid, some, my parents thought it was kind of entertaining and sweet if I wrote a poem and things in that vein. Then in high school I got very purple and awful for a while.
OA: You got very what?
Martha: Purple—the color—purple, and awful, for a while. And then in college I wanted to write fiction.
OA: Wait a minute, let me back up a minute—in high school you got…?
Martha: Purple—You know very florid and sentimental and all that—purple.
OA: Oh, of course. Purple.
Martha: And I hadn't really narrowed down to poetry in any sense at that time. I still imagined myself as writing fiction of one kind or another, which I did for a while in college, and I wrote three stories which were pretty good, but I noticed about them that they didn't have plots, didn't have characters and what they really were images, and so gradually I started doing poetry instead and then I never looked back. College was also very helpful because some of the teachers got that purple crap out of me.
OA: Where did you go to college?
Martha: The University of Michigan
OA: And you've been writing since then?
Martha: I had a hiatus of about fifteen years when I was raising my daughter. I got devastated being purged from the revolution and having my husband take off on us and being very poor. In general it was a very alarming time and it wasn't so much that I stopped writing because I wanted to. I was just disheartened in profound ways and that coincided pretty much with the raising of my daughter. Once she was settled in her own life I got to feeling very good about the empty nest and by then I had enough money that I could get a computer. I did some ego work and joined a support group called No Limits for Women Artists which is mostly for visual artists but any kind of artist will do. It was just about magical for me. It's a very disciplined group that works every three weeks on questions of; process, so it didn't matter what anybody's work was and we didn't consider one another's work. It was all about process and it was very, very helpful.
OA: Is that a local group?
Martha: It's a nationwide organization headed up by a woman named Betsy Damon. She's an environmental sculptor and there were, and probably still are, a network of chapters most anywhere.
OA: So now that you are writing again, let's talk about process. Some writers have certain rituals that they go through.
Martha: I guess what starts things for me is a word or two or a bunch of words. I'll be going about my daily life and a little gift of words will happen and I write them down. I've got little notes stashed around the house and, from time to time, I collect those and when I feel I would like to write something, I will go through them until something strikes me. Then words lead into other words and at some point or in some degree a subject matter will gather itself and when there are a few lines, say five or six lines, I'll put it in the computer and when I'm taking writing time, I'll sit down and scan through those fragments until something catches my interest and then I'll bear down on it. It's a question of keeping myself interested which has led to what turns out to be a rather peculiar process: I tend to perfect what's on the page before I go any farther. So if there are two lines, I want them really good before I go on, whether down or up to another line, because otherwise it doesn't hold my interest. I'll switch it off and look at something else. So I have not used what is apparently the more usual process of a prose draft of the whole thing and then a lineated draft of the whole thing and gradual successive drafts of the whole thing. I'm experimenting with doing that right now. I'm not sure how it will work out and I'm going to try it, but it feels very strange.
OA: Was the suggestion made that you should change your process?
Martha: For a while I've been wishing that it were easier to write something longer. What I typically write is rather short and I think it occurred to me that the way to lengthen was to work from a prose draft where you would have a whole lot of stuff and you would be cutting down rather than building up. Before I went to Warren Wilson, I just decided to try it. Immediately I felt utterly discouraged with it. I thought, "I don't want to have anything to do with this possible poem anymore." But I did start to lineate it a little bit and there it sits in stage one. It's already quite a lot longer than anything I would ordinarily write and I'm pretty cool, what the hell, it can't hurt to have more alternative ways of being. If one skill is good, then two skills are better, assuming that you don't lose the first one, and there's no reason that I should lose the first one.
OA: It seems that the trend in many workshops is to break away from narrative and denseness in writing poetry.
Martha: I'm not fond of narrative. I almost never like to read it except for Albert Goldbarth who I think is just wonderful. The thing that I have this draft of is not narrative but it certainly is dense. I also wrote a prose-poem once, one prose-poem that had been lying around in my head for maybe fifteen years about an incident that actually happened which seemed to me to have to be a fiction which I was not writing. Then, after all these years it occurred to me, "I know that that is—it's a prose-poem." I wrote it down and it was. I haven't done another one since.
OA: I'm not sure I could tell what a prose-poem is.
Martha: I like to see in prose-poetry the form of prose, unlineated sentences, but language is heightened and weird. There is a weirdness to the events or phenomena described. It's not naturalistic.
OA: Can you think of someone who is noted for prose-poems?
Martha: Edson, Russell Edson is the famous practitioner and he's the only one I know of.
OA: Can you think of any poets that have influenced your own writing?
Martha: I'm told all the time that I am in the lineage of Berryman. I read Berryman many, many years ago, The Dream Songs. From time to time I try reading The Dream Songs again. I find them very hard going, but when I can get it, they're great fun. I know I don't have an easy time with Berryman's poems so I guess it's hard for me to feel in the lineage, but I recognize what people mean. It's a way that words kind of tumble together syntactically for their own sake or for the sake of a voice that enjoys doing that. Other poets that I love like Hopkins and Dylan Thomas were also doing stuff with verbiage and funny syntax, but I don't do that with al of my poems and some people find it highly irritating when I do do it. It's very difficult for me to be simple, I guess because I will get a glint in my eye and pursue either a bizarre subject matter or a voice that has a character to it that isn't simple or whatever. Something real, real plain and limpid like Jane Kenyon is almost impossible for me, but I am curious about it and I would like to be able to do it.
OA: I love the way your poems sound and the rhythms; the way they roll off my tongue and I wallow in the way the words flow, but, occasionally after I have thoroughly enjoyed the sensuality of its language and its wonderful meter, I get to the end of the poem and exclaim, "God, I love this poem—but, what does it mean?"
Martha: Well, it does mean something. In fact, one of the difficulties I have is that all of my poems are just absolutely transparently clear to me and so when It comes to revision, it's hard for me to know what to do. The kind of criticism that helps me the most is where somebody can pick out particular words that cause them the particular confusion. And this happens with some frequency. For instance, there are unintended puns in what I have on the page which lead someone to read in a meaning that I hadn't even considered, but which I can see as soon as it is pointed out. I get blinded by my own conception of the poem so that I often can't see alternate ways of reading a word or a phrase. Sometimes you want the puns. You want all the different meanings. But sometimes you don't, and if somebody can point that out, I can say, "Oh, yes," and change it very quickly. A lot harder for me is the kind of total re-working that again I am trying out on a particular poem, just as a way of broadening my skills and having more at my what-passes-as command. It's better to know more ways of doing things, I guess, than just one or two, but it's very difficult revising the poem. I just went through the feeling that it was totally out of control and had lost its initial impulse, although I think I got it back finally before I submitted the revision. Also a feeling that one revision just leads to another and there are dozens of them, and I just keep going and going, like the Energizer bunny. I have no idea why one sold ever stop revising. Which is odd, because I certainly have a feeling when poem is finished, but once I start a total revision I feel like this can of worms happens.
OA: What about the question of meaning? I have a personal need to understand what it is that is being said in a poem.
Martha: I think that's perfectly reasonable.
OA: Sometimes the language of a poem or the rhythms, the sounds are so enthralling that I really don't care what it means, or I like to think that I know what it means when I really don't.
Martha: Well, I'll tell you, I did have this really bizarre experience at the residency for Warren Wilson. I learned that reading for craft is some wholly other kind of reading than any reading I've ever done in my life. There was this poem by Lucie Brock-Broido, a very strange poem, and the lecturer was going to skip it and I asked the lecturer if, before he skipped it, he would just give me a clue as to what it was about, because I had no idea, and it turned out that the lecturer had no idea either, and neither did anybody else in the room, but we went through it reading for craft and it was very rewarding. I mean it was really neat. It wasn't as though one understood it by the time we were done reading for craft. We got all the way through it and still no one understood it, but a whole lot of cool stuff had happened. It was amazing. So there's a sense in which you're right. Another time that it happens is when a poem that I read is what I call "uncanny." There's a little poem by Philip Larkin that I just ran into and had in my annotation that I have no idea what it means but it just makes my hair stand on end with a sense of encapsulating something very, very large and important. It's the poem called "Days," where we start out with this stupid question of "What are days for?" and a bunch of rhetorical questions and rhetorical answers for about six lines and then it says to resolve the question, "The priest and the doctor in their long coats running over the fields," and to me that just goes, "Bleahh," and I have no idea what that's about, so it's uncanny, and I like that. I would like very much to be able to do that, but it has something to do with rhetoric, I think, and something to do with simplicity, and I'm not there, not there yet.
OA: Let me ask you about some specifics now, Martha. How about "This Work"? Are you using a lot of symbolism? Is the moss a symbol for something else or does the stone have another meaning?
Martha: No, what I had in mind with this poem was something about a state of things early, early in nature before differentiation has happened, when things could be anything and so some kind of process or effort, something has to happen that things become what they become rather than something else. I like biological and scientific stuff, and tissue differentiation has always seemed utterly mysterious to me. From time to time I ask people who are biologists, and so far they keep saying that nobody knows how it happens. You have a bunch of cells and on the right-hand side they develop into one kind of cell and on the other side they develop into another kind of cell, and what is it that makes them become one and no the other when they're the same thing to begin with? Something like that, a sort of a nascent place or process where possibilities are and they must be physical. I'm an atheist. The possibilities must be physical, but "How could they be?", and so forth, is what was going on there. The poem wants to be about a male and I don't really know why, but at the moment, I'm guessing that this process of being sort of passive and undifferentiated in nature is something that stereotypically seems normal for a female so it is creepier or more strange if the character is male. I have a thing about salamanders anyway from when I was a kid at camp. I hated being at camp. I was blown away by salamanders. There is an aura to them for me that comes from my childhood. They sort of rescued me from camp; as miserable as I was, I might find a salamander. To me it's very pleasant and magical to be in the hands of a salamander.
OA: But the "cold, orange" hands of the salamander… mysterious, Martha. Let's talk about "Body."
Martha: "Body" is fun. I like "Body." I use those way-over, indented lines. The indentations aren't over to the same place on the right; they're just below where they would be if they were on the same line as the line above them, but dropped down. The purpose of that is for emphasis. This is a very "punny" poem for me. "Taken" as perhaps take it away, steal it, steal the body from the water to her own or "taken on" in the ordinary sense. A pun on "body" as "lake or pond" but also in the sense of actually being the body of a creature like the witch. "Overlook" which is one of those words that almost has a meaning plus its opposite meaning, an oxymoron, where you overlook something and don't see it or you overlook something and you are looking down on it from a height. "Other light, advice from other light," there's probably some Quakerism in that Quakers believe in the inner light, so for Quakers, God speaks to you, our very own personal self, in your very own personal voice without any intermediary at all. So, "light" in the sense of when one has an opinion or has a view by one's light; "By my light, the war in Bosnia is a bunch of crap"—or whatever—light in that sense as well as the stars. I like to have stresses at the beginning of lines. People sometimes think it's real weird to end a line with the article "a." the reason that I like to do that is to get a stress on the beginning of the next line—"A witch has taken a/ body of water. /Our /houses suddenly overlook her/ round harbors." It's looking to the beginning of the line. There's also the sense of the natural world being full of possibilities that are other than what is manifest and witchy in that way. It's truesome and it's bad and it's… nature is inhabited by the capacity to become something else in this poem very quickly although you wouldn't notice anything different. The witch is going to…I mean god knows what those stars are telling her, good lord…she kind of mucks around there in the weeds.
OA: The line after the "other light" with its Quaker reference is "and she shakes her weeds…" Is there a Shaker reference there too?
Martha: Yeah, could be, I suppose and "re-examination" and "weeds" may be as mourning, the veils of mourning. "Weeds," in any case, something completely feminine. You would never have a man in weeds, you know, unless he was dead. Men, in our society at least, are not the ones to be bothered with mourning; perhaps they might wear an armband but nothing that would severely curtail their life the way widow's weeds or even black dresses do.
OA: I'm not even sure I remember ever hearing the term "widow's weeds." Do you sit and read the dictionary, Martha?
Martha: No, I am a great reader, I always was, and things just kind of stick for me. Words are like prickleburs. They just get in my hair and they stay there and I remember them, they lodge. It's just some kind of a thing about me and words, although I do experience problems with vocabulary, and I am constantly resorting to the thesaurus. I'm pawing through it all the time and I wonder, "Does anybody else have to do this?"
OA: Let's talk about my favorite, "Ward's Field." You make it look so easy, it's so flowing and it's so filled with what Czselaw Milosz refers to as tendresse, a quality of tenderness, but more.
Martha: This one comes straight from life which is not usual for me. In fact, the summer when my daughter graduated from high school and was therefore going to be taking off for parts unknown, we went across the road to the Wards' field one evening and just walked there and that was what it was like. It was a poem that kind of did, pretty much, come, although I had a very long, difficult time with the beginning. That was hard to get and I think that the lineation of the "fireflies," breaking the "hints" up, was hard to arrive at. And then I had doubts about whether "howmany times" with "how many" as one word, how that would go over. But I guess it has gone over okay. I haven't heard anybody object to it. And what I meant by that is that a "howmany" is a kind of a time, a kind of occasion. It's an adjective. When something happens such that you catch your breath and wonder if such a thing will ever happen again in your life, that's a "howmany" time. And then—I don't know how clear this is, but at the end there, in that same phrase, what I had in mind is also one of those things that you yell at a child when you're exasperated or angry. "How many times have I got to tell you?"
OA: I was wondering about the placement of the word "keep" toward the end of the first stanza.
Martha: That was done for emphasis. I want the eye to drop down, I don't want you to travel all the way back to the left hand margin and then across to where "keep" is and therefore, have a very big pause. It's for emphasis. It's to isolate that word and emphasize it and make you sort of sit on it a bit. For a while, I had "Keep your wits about you, child." It took a while to see that "keeping wits about you" was much more interesting than "keeping your wits about you."
OA: I just love this poem. I think it's perfect. I can honestly say that it is one of my all-time favorites.
OA: Was there anything more that you wanted to say about "Ward's Field"?
Martha: Well, one of my nicknames for my daughter was always "the bat," so that's one reason that the bat it at large.
OA: I was intrigued by the name of the poem "Ward's Field." I wondered if it was indeed the name of a particular place, based on a real-life experience. There is the play on words, t hat a ward is someone in our charge and there is the hint of reward. Martha: No, that's the field that belonged to Clarence Ward who just died this month. I never knew him very well, but he was a nice man and you could go walking and skiing in his fields. When I write a poem, I don't see any reason for not calling things by their right name. It's helpful to me …if it matters to me what this real thing was, then I'm going to be able to be in touch with what mattered about it much better if I call it by its true name rather than by some made-up name. There is a poem of mine in which I used an incident that is so real and so embarrassing to the person involved that I wouldn't want the poem to appear or to be read in this town. That's a problem that you don't really run into very often. Why the hell not? It is Ward's field. There is another poem of mine in which I use my daughter's name, Sierra.
OA: Yes, it's in our book Powers, isn't it? Isn't that "Right Name" thing a Buddhist concept? Which leads me to another comment about your poetry—that you have this wonderful, almost Buddhist quality about it—that you have this acceptance of life with its limitations at the same time still celebrating it, a calm sense of involvement-detachment sort of.
Martha: Well, I guess I don't know, I'm not very familiar with Buddhism. I've read two or three things but I'm still in the state of ignorance that it seems to me that anything they say can mean anything you want it to, although I'm sure that that's not true for a person who sincerely professes it. I guess the phrase that I like or what I would like to be applicable to me is what Robert Frost said about having a lover's quarrel with the world. I guess some of my poems are sometimes serene. Like this one is a very serene poem, but others are very violent and mean to be—so I guess, "acceptance" feels funny to me. I don't recognize it; I could recognize "lover's quarrel" a little more easily, although there's not much of a quarrel in "Ward's field."
OA: How about "Nazi of Nurture"?
Martha: That's a fun poem, that's another one from family. I wrote it at Vermont Studio Center when I was in this group with this older guy who seemed like a very nice fellow but he would just carry on about his wife and his marriage and his story was, at great lengths, that he was trying to get his wife to do all these things that she needed to do to be liberated—un huh—it suggested to me this phony liberation: you're supposed to accept exactly what the man says because it's in his interest, only it's being represented as your liberation, which is a crock, and it reminded me very much of my father. I called my father "Nazi of Nurture" for a long time because he is very commanding and at the same time utterly convinced that everything he wants is for your welfare in order that you may grow and flower in your very most, best flowering kind of a way. This is a kind of vengeful poem. Whenever you cross my father, he does this thing, he tucks his chin in and sulks. It's about flinging this slogan in the poor old man's face, and I hope, I'm not sure, but I hope that in the sixth stanza, "It distracts me from you/ for the rest of our lives/ & to no great loss"—I hope that there's a bit of a twinge there of grief, that this is all we can do, or all I can do is have this slogan instead of a person, and then get off that, get off that quickly, and back to how plesant it is to have this little slogan to fling in the old man's face.
OA: Let's talk about "Moon, Mother, Clown." I wish our readers could hear you read this poem. I was very moved when you read it in Johnson.
Martha: One of the things that is problematical in my poetry is that it frequently happens that if I have somebody else read a poem of mine cold, somebody who hasn't heard me read it, it's just nothing like what it sounds like to me, and I just don't know what do do about it, I am at a loss. So, be that as it may, my poems pretty much always have very pronounced rhythms for me and come trippingly from my tongue and so it's a surprise when that doesn't seem to happen for others, which is probably why some traditions have regular meters. This poem comes from, literally, my mother's descent into death, but it's not from real incident the way that "Ward's Field" is. This whole circus image has nothing to do with my mother, nor does acrobatics. None of that has anything to do with her biographically although she was crippled with osteoporosis before she died. I suppose the way I got from her real life to this circus stuff is because she was real big on make-up—hair, clothes, make-up, being a hostess, going to the charity ball, all this kind of stuff which I absolutely threw out the window, and she and I fought to the death over this and she lost. But the "look I still prance the ruffly lake in your paint, true face" is as if I had indeed become what she wanted me to become and put on the paint which the clown figure makes tolerable for me. I can relate to growing up to be a clown a lot better than I can relate to growing up to be a fine lady. The "hi hi" at the end of the first stanza is not my mother at all; that's my mother-in-law who was a Polish immigrant after the war and I loved her very much too. In her way of speech she greeted you, "Hi hi," as a compound, not the way an American would say "Hi." It didn't feel at all bad to me to put in a poem about my love for my own mother something which arises biiographically in my love for my mother-in-law. It didn't bother me a bit. There may also be something in here from my daughter who did gymnastics for a while until she hurt her back.
OA: How long did it take you to write this poem?
Martha: This was long-labored. I think the first stanza was easy and I think it sat there with that first stanza for a long time. It was hard for me to weave in enough reality so that you could tell what was going on—in with the form and fantasy of it. So "bitter old moonbone," is that clunky? I don't know. The fourth stanza, "pinch, moon hump and cripple" is that literal stuff from the end of my mother's life. And I guess I became happy with the poem when we got down to that "seven oceans,/ every blessed bright salt drop." The last line made me happy. It was hard for me—"my babies head-over-heels all the black-and-glitter"—it was hard for me to decide that a line could go out that long. But it did with "prance the ruffly lake in your paint, true face" also. I get hung up on forms, about questions of form sometimes where I just geet scared of some kind of formal anomaly that's happening. I'm trying to…some of this is compulsive. I've had a sort of three stanza thing for a while; one of the things that I have tried to do is break out of the three stanzas. One critic told me that I ought to let a poem just wander all over the page. I couldn't do that! It's a superstitious thing. I always found it very problematical.
OA: Let's look at "Mother's Things" which is out of the three stanza mold.
Martha: That is a poem also about her death. The ashes are her actual ashes which I have in a glass carafe which is very nice. It's really nice to have your mother in a jar—I just can't tell you. It really is nice and it feels very affectionate. This poem arose from something that I did with a friend. We sent each other, I think, five words, and the game was to make a poem using the five words that you received from the other person. This is the one that I made from Cora's five words. Carafe was one of her words, armature also, I didn't even know what it meant. Premonition, tamper, and camisole were the others and it was an interesting thing to do. It fed right into this process that I have, where the poem starts from words. It was very liberating to use someone else's words because they didn't carry with them any content that I felt responsible to. Like if something happens in life and a word comes to mind, its very difficult for me to unhook the word from the situation in which it arose. So these words came naked to me and some of them are words that I would never have used; I wold never have used the words carafe or camisole and I probably wouldn't have used premonition because I don't get Latinate very often. Tamper I could have used. Armature I would never use; I didn't even know what it meant. So that was neat; it was a whole lot of fun to do. Then we tried to do it again but the problem was that I broke the chain because Cora sent me her words embedded in a sort of a text such that I coldn't tell which words she meant to be her words. I felt embarrassed about that and didn't ask her. It was stupid and by the time we got it straightened out, you know, the moment had passed, but I recommend it as something to do.
OA: Let's talk about "Taking Her On."
Martha: This is an important poem for me because it has to do with the personification of my "writer-self" and how to make friends with her or how to deal with her. Basically not believing in your "poet-self," not believing that you're a poet because you've got to clean the cat-box or go to work or whatever, all the things that prevent you from believing that you're a poet. So this is a very brave poem in which I take her on, the poet, and I say, "Look here, I don't care if I have trashed you all the time, you're going to be there when I want you and you're going to do this thing." So I'm not going to be guilty about this any more. I'm not going to wring my hands. I'm not going to let this poet intimidate me and we're going to make friends substantially on my terms as a whole person. This poet is going to perform for me. She's going to look at the maple stems and do something about them. It's kind of a reverse of the usual way that I have felt, "Oh dear, I haven't written and I'm not using my gift. I haven't written in fifteen years." This poem takes a different stance, a stance that I need to remind myself of from time to time. I don't know how much of that is apparent to anyone else. This is a sort of a therapy poem. I very rarely do therapy poems but this is oen or at least that's how I had it in mind. Now how somebody else takes it … you had sent me one question about whether it was important for me to be understood. Well, not really, it's important that … I like something to be understood. If what you understand of a poem is the opposite of what I had in mind, then I'm very unhappy and I feel like I ought to change something. If what you understand is something that is just different, then the next question is, "Well, is your reading congenial?" And sometimes it is. It wouldn't bother me if somebody saw that witch from "Body" here. That would be all right, or somebody in a dream or a memory; that all right. It's sufficiently self-indulgent to be writing poems about writing, and this one particularly, that it wouldn't bother me a whole lot if you missed that.
OA: I think that that happens a lot. For example, there's a book that came out recently that is concerned with contemporary poets and their comments on their poems written about writing. Many of the poems would not have struck me as poems about writing the first time I read them. After I read the commentaries, it made perfect sense that the poems were about writing but the initial reading without the commentary made perfect sense too—on a different level.
Martha: I don't really write poems for other people. I like to be published, I like to be admired. I take criticism and use it when I can and I am pleased if someone is moved by one of my poems, but that's all gravy. The real transaction for me is happening between me and the subject matter of the poem in a very literal way so this poem, for me, is really to the maple stems. What I think of poems as being or doing is they're like verbal caresses. Like if you have a cat or a baby, and you give it twenty nicknames. Poems are like that; a poem is a nickname that I give to something in the world and once that has happened, the transaction is complete. Nobody ever has to read it. I like it when people read it but the thing that's happening is that I have billed and cooed at whatever I'm billing and cooing at, which really doesn't have much to do with anybody else unless they are the subject of the poem, like my father or my mother or my daughter. Even then, you know, "Ward's Field" is quite a lot about the fireflies and the bats and the trailer up the road.
OA: I don't know if it's fair for me to ask you the hard question.
Martha: Go right ahead. Not that I'll know.
OA: Okay. In this world with its pain and homelessness and threat of nuclear doom and all that, why write poetry?
Martha: Well, writing poetry certainly doesn't help, even good political poetry. There is some and I've written some. It doesn't help and it's an illusion to think that it does. We do lots of things that don't help. For everything that we do that does help, we do a whole lot more that doesn't.
OA: What if I differed with you on that? Maybe writing poetry does make the world a better place. I think it does.
Martha: If it doesn't, it does so in such a diluted way as not to matter. You know— people need homes and people need money, people need refuge from their oppressors and the need is so great, it is so acute, it is so dreadful that whatever a poem may do about changing the mind of one person—I mean, how much can it change their mind? How much will they then really do differently? And when did they…you know, you've got to be hard-nosed about this. When exactly, and in what way, did the effect actually trickle down to anyone's real benefit who was in acute need in the first place. I don't think very much. That's just the truth of it. I've been in the revolution such as it was, such as it may become, and worked very hard to write good political poetry, accomplished some. I read a poem about racism to the Democratic Party up in Burlington in October that knocked their socks off, by god, and I was pleased to see that, but I don't think that that reading, effective as it was in terms of being a reading, does anything, really accomplishes anything, about racism. It's like it's the caress, it's the gesture, it's the salute, it's the whatever that I do that's part of my response to racism. You know, one just makes gestures. One does those things. Once in a while, there may be poems that become anthems, slogans…slogans are poems. Slogans are great sometimes. No Justice, No Peace—great! Now that's a lot more effective than a poem; people will say it; it's short. They do say it—No Justice—you know you've got to get that syncopation right—No JUSTice (pause)—NO PEACE. That's the best new slogan in years and that's much more directly effective. It brings people into the streets and it makes them strong and your average, even your very good, poem-on-the-page doesn't do that. And even No Justice, No Peace, let's boil that down and follow it and see who actually is better off for that, except the person who said it. You say it and you're immediately better off. Does that really get anybody a house? That set of words? I don't think so. If it doesn’t, well, maybe a couple of people. Not much.
OA: Martha, Martha, you're so harsh.
Martha: Well, I think that you have to be because it's very much too easy to tell yourself that you're doing more for the suffering in the world than you are.
OA: But, on the other hand, you are doing—on a hands-on, day to day basis—your part.
Martha: I fill ou the benefit papers for people, in my job, and they get more money than they would without me. That's true, but it's not very satisfying because it doesn't challenge the system.
OA: Martha, I was hoping for a "Rah, Rah Poetry" cheer here at the end. A lot of people that I know that write feel, that, in the big picture, that it reallly doesn't matter. Maybe that's true, but I like to think that… I have friends who write—and write beautifully and write movingly—and I think they write in a way that, little by little, changes the world and I do think we need poetry.
Martha (Musing): Well, we need poetry…we need poetry…?? I need poetry! I need poetry! Rah. Rah! It is very subversive. Poetry tells the truth. Poetry says things that cannot be uttered in polite conversation and that's not because they are necessarily politically radical things although they may be. It's because conversation, polite conversation is not allowed to say anything that matters—ever. Because as soon as something matters, there's trouble. There's trouble. It's like, oh, I'm thinking of how in chemistry sometimes you've got a solution of some thing and you drop something else in it and that circle immediately widens out of the drop as all the other stuff flees to the edges. That's what happens when you say something that matters anywhere—In polite company people are horrified; nobody knows how to deal with it. Even women, we like to think that women can say things that matter to each other, and they certainly can more than men can but, even so, the things that women say are full of cliché and pieties of one kind and another. Poetry is really the only way in which true things can be said. I could never say to my daughter, and I'm on very intimate terms with my daughter, I could never say to her "Ward's Field." I would cry and she would be embarrassed, but having it in the shape of a poem creates … it's something almost theatrical. It sets up the arena in which we will pretend…we're all going to pretend that this is not a real utterance, okay? It's a poem; it's not something that people really say. We're all going to pretend that, and later, to ourselves, in the privacy of our own home, in our "little, dark closet full of spiders," we can allow, we can admit to ourselves, "yes, that's real. That's the right name for that and we've always known it—I've known this all my life. Yeah, that's the name of that tune." Nothing to apologize for.
OA: Nice save, Martha. And thanks for talking to us.
Originally published in Art One, Vol. 2, No. 1, Summer 1996.