Mary Austin Speaker is the author of the chapbooks The Bridge (Push Press 2011); 20 Love Poems for 10 Months (Ugly Duckling Presse 2012); a play, I Am You This Morning You Are Me Tonight, written in collaboration with her husband, poet Chris Martin; and Ceremony, winner of the 2012 Slope Editions book prize. She co-founded the Triptych poetry reading series in New York City in 2008 and curated the Reading Between A&B series for several years. New poems have recently appeared in epiphany; Boston Review; Lungfull; Jubilat; Forklift, Ohio; and elsewhere, and her critical work can be found in Pleiades, The Claudius App, and Painted Bride Quarterly. She lives in Iowa City, where she operates a tiny design studio.
1 - How did your first book or chapbook change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
Before I was published by a press, I self-published two "chaplets"— between five and ten poems bound together into a book. I am a book designer by trade, and I wanted to distribute something of my work, so I made these little editions. One was called In The End There Were Thousands of Cowboys (about a cowboy), and the other was called Abandoning the Firmament (about an astronaut). I was for a long time writing about archetypes. I was interested in the narrative shadows that can be cast by a profession, especially those professions we regard as necessarily heroic. I wanted to disturb that notion. These poems haven't been collected yet, but I'm working on a third manuscript called The Universe Is Shaped Like A Saddle that contains those poems and perhaps a suite of poems about a soldier. The chaplets both sold out fairly quickly, which gave me a boost of confidence about approaching publishers, and then my friend J Grabowski, one half of Push Press, suggested publishing a suite of the poems I'd been writing while I was on the Manhattan Bridge between Brooklyn and Manhattan. Big Bell, a wonderful journal that Push Press publishes out of San Francisco, had published a few of the Bridge poems and liked them very much. I was thrilled to have Push get behind the work— they've published Cedar Sigo, Patrick James Dunagan, Micah Ballard, Jason Morriss. Their books tend to be handmade and very beautiful. It was a great big gift to be published by Push, and I was very pleased to find that lots of people wanted the chapbook and several strangers contacted me to purchase copies after hearing about it or hearing me read from it. The opportunity to correspond with people I knew only through my poetry was really enlivening. It seemed like that book touched a lot of people, and that felt a little bit like I'd been waiting for it to happen my entire life. That came out in October of 2011, and sold out fairly quickly as well. The next chapbook, 20 Love Poems for 10 Months, was published by Ugly Duckling Presse about a year later, which you have reviewed. This was the first time a really visible literary press had ever published my poems, and it felt very serious. My husband Chris Martin published a chapbook with UDP in the same season, so that was a great cause for celebration. We both love the look of Ugly Duckling Presse books— I remember first encountering their work at a Whitney Biennial and thinking, wow, books can look like this? I couldn't be happier to be included in their catalog. My editor there, Katherine Bogden, designed the cover with the type treatment I had submitted for the title in place, and she was wonderfully open to collaborating with me on the design. My first full length collection, Ceremony, won the Slope Editions book prize and is due out next month. I don't think my life will be very different, but I'm very thankful to be participating in the larger conversation about poetry by dint of having published a full-length book. It's been great to hear people respond to the chapbooks, and I can't wait to hear what people have to say about the full-length.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I was just as dedicated to fiction as I was to poetry for a few years, but I found I didn't have the patience for revising short stories (nor did I have particularly good ideas for fiction). And I think the fiction I'm drawn to tends to be darker— southern gothic writers like Flannery O'Connor, absurdist contemporary writers like Amanda Davis and George Saunders. It's hard to make room for joy in there, to examine it and hold it up to the light. Poetry suits my temperament and attention span better, but I do occasionally write essays. Some subjects lend themselves to greater length, more strenuous research, and the long and winding path that essays can take. I'm a great admirer of Eula Biss, Nick Flynn, Claudia Rankine, John Jeremiah Sullivan, and hope to stick to one subject long enough to publish essays more frequently.
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
It depends on the piece. Usually the longer poems demand more rigorous editorial attention. The shorter (1-2 pages) pieces tend to emerge more or less fully formed, but I'll usually go back and tweak linebreaks and word choice to bring out the music and meter. I wrote the entirety of 20 Love Poems for 10 Months in the back of a car over a period of two weeks. It was edited a little bit, but those poems maintained, for the most part, their original shape.
4 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
I write both ways. 20 Love Poems was conceived as fully-formed project before I began it. I woke up with the type design for the title in my head and decided I had to write 20 poems to go with the design. These were given to my husband, Chris, on the night he proposed to me. It was all very romantic. That said, 20 Love Poems was folded into Ceremony, which is comprised largely of poems I wrote at very different times and collected into a book later, once recognizable sections began to cohere (20 Love Poems appears as a section called To Inhabit). Most of those poems (with the exception of the section You Can Have It All, which originated as varations of a cut-up letter) seemed like one-offs, but then I began to notice commonalities and discovered I had finally written a body of work that thematically held together. I wrote another book in one fell swoop—The Bridge chapbook is part of a larger group of poems I wrote when I was living in New York and knew I'd be leaving that city after about ten years. I decided I wanted to commemorate my time there somehow. I was struggling with a dedicated writing schedule, and having just moved in with Chris, who has a fantastically disciplined work ethic when it comes to writing, I was inspired to write a poem each time I crossed the Manhattan Bridge, which I did on the subway each time I went to work and each time I came home. This meant I accumulated a lot of poems very quickly, and because the poems were written in the same space, at roughly the same times of day, the imagery from poem to poem binds the group together. And I chose a form that used the same first and last line, so formally the poems are very similar also.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I do enjoy giving readings. For many years I ran a reading series in New York, and after about three years of doing that I finally lost my nervousness about speaking in front of people, and began to really appreciate the work that some poets put into performing their work. I don't mean performing in the sense of being demonstrative, I mean performing in the sense of being concerned with reading the poems well. Sometimes this means providing some helpful context for the poems, sometimes this means simply reading the poems with a voice that is so deliberately quiet and determined that the entire room pays attention. Kate Greenstreet reads this way, as does Katherine Pierce. You can hear a pin drop when they read. Chris is a fantastic reader— he often gives his audience multiple inroads to his work before he begins a piece, and this makes the audience comfortable, welcomed. I think it's important to extend yourself to your audience. It builds community.
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
Those are all such big questions! I think each writer has his or her own set of concerns. I'm interested in how national identity affects our individual notions of civilization, and how narrative comprises the nature of our national identity. I'm also interested in what an animal is, and how our sense of togetherness shifts as we move from city to city to country and back and what we leave in our wake. What are we together with? How does togetherness happen and what can it do? I'm definitely more interested in the social than the personal, but the personal will always be my conduit to the social, so I do like to address both in my poems.
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
I think poets are well suited to address social phenomena, and I think many have done so with more grace and room for mystery than prose allows. I don't necessarily think it's our responsibility to do so, but that's certainly where my interest lies. I do think poetry can be considered a barometer of the moral conditions of a culture at a given moment, so I think about that when I'm writing. I want to offer my readers complexity and depth. Walt Whitman, George Oppen, Hart Crane, Muriel Rukeyser and Gwendolyn Brooks all directed a great deal of their attention to social phenomena. That is the poetry that I want to emulate (why not aim terribly high?). I'm very interested in poets who work that way today— Anna Moschovakis, Kevin Prufer and Dana Ward come to mind, each of them exploring in earnest some not quite understood social phenomenon. None of these poets approach poetry with a predetermined message. They are not didactic. Their work leaves the reader with big, generative questions and a feeling of having experienced something very complex with the writer— this is I think the mark of great poetry. This may surprise you given that you've read only my love poems, but I think a great deal of social phenomena is rooted in love and its antithesis. Who doesn't want to be loved?
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I wouldn't say essential, but it's certainly helpful. Editors can offer an eye toward consistency from poem to poem that I'm not likely to bring to my own work. Evan White at Slope was wonderful to work with in this respect.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Don't let yourself off the hook. Write when you say you're going to write.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between writing and design work? What do you see as the appeal?
I see design as a heterogenizing force for my own work. I'm happiest when I'm engaging with work that I wouldn't necessarily know about, and design offers me many opportunities to sit with unfamiliar work for long periods of time. Doing this helps me to get new ideas as well as to react toward or against things I encounter as a designer. Sometimes I am profoundly influenced by poetry that I've typeset. For instance, I worked with Jen Bervin on a project that involved creating tiny digital reproductions of Emily Dickinson's fragments. Spending so many hours with Emily Dickinson's voice definitely left an imprint on my writing. I have always appreciated her work, but there was something about seeing her manuscripts that offered me a new way into her voice.
11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
I typically write at night, so my daily routine mostly involves design or review work. I make notes in a notebook whenever I can, especially at readings, and I try to carve out three or four hours of unstructured time one or two evenings per week and this usually gives me enough room to process the bits I've been collecting. I get fidgety when I don't get an evening or two every week.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I read as much as I can. Chris and I have a subscription to Ugly Duckling Presse, so there is always a ready stack of good work nearby. I research— many of my poems are rooted in what I might call nonfiction concerns. I'm interested in tidal patterns, for instance, and primates, and the effects of space travel. I find if I read enough about my interests, little details will work their way into my poems. And I usually have one book on my bedside that I'm reading aloud for a few pages just to hear the sounds of the sentences. Right now it's Virginia Woolf's The Waves.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
St. Augustine grass baking in 90 degree heat. (I grew up primarily in Dallas, Texas.)
14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
Nature is a primary source of inspiration for me. Science has certainly found its way into my poems. Music is something I consider a part of poetry, and I've written a few poems inspired by particular pieces. Visual art is not something you'll find in my work very often (except for film), but I am very engaged with it. I think what some contemporary visual artists are doing is a decade or two ahead of poetry (and many other disciplines), so I guess you could say I try to pay attention and keep up wherever I can.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
There are too many to name! My husband, Chris Martin, is immensely important to my work. He taught me more about the line than anyone. I follow the work of Peter Gizzi, Anna Moschovakis, Eula Biss, Matthea Harvey, John Coletti, Dana Ward, Susan Briante, Farid Matuk, Anne Carson, Macgregor Card, Joseph Massey, Dean Young, Amanda Nadelberg, Brandon Brown, Ted Mathys, Sara Jane Stoner, Matt Hart, Dan Poppick, Margaret Ross, Mary Hickman, Cathy Park Hong, Amy Lawless, Russell Dillon, and many others. See also my answer about the role of the poet in the larger culture (#7). Those are poets I return to over and over again.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Live on the west coast for a little while.
17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
Astronaut or Primatologist.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
Poetry gives me a kind of shiver that nothing else does. Film comes close, but I've never had the stomach for the expense and busywork incurred by making films myself, though I do love to watch them. I've always appreciated that poetry's economy is almost entirely non-monetary, and the ethical, tonal and practical implications this holds for its aesthetics and content.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I'm always in the middle of three or four books at a time, so that's a difficult question. I recently designed Robert Hass's excellent collection of essays, What Light Can Do, and highly recommend that, as well as Dana Ward's new book from Futurepoem, The Crisis of Infinite Worlds, which is really fantastic. But to be a bit more articulate, I think the book I felt the most excited and bewildered by in recent memory was Farid Matuk's This Isa Nice Neighborhood. I reviewed it for Painted Bride Quarterly. As for film, I recently saw Hunger, the British film directed by Steve McQueen, for a second time, and had the good fortune to discuss it afterward with several poets who all had very strong reactions to it. It's just as visually arresting as it is thought provoking, and it's quiet, brutal and beautiful all at once. Its scope feels much larger than the film's narrative. And I am one of those people who absolutely adored The Tree of Life, though I know not everyone liked it. It helps if you're from Texas.
20 - What are you currently working on?
I'm currently working on refining my second book, The Bridge, and finishing a third manuscript, The Universe is Shaped Like a Saddle.
Thank you for the opportunity to speak, rob!
12 or 20 (second series) questions;