Sunday, January 13, 2008

Linescapes: An Interview with Mary Rising Higgins

Mary Rising Higgins is the author of red table(S (La Alameda 1999), oclock (Potes and Poets 2000), )locus TIDES(( (Potes and Poets 2002), Greatest Hits, 1990-2001 (Pudding House 2002), )cliff TIDES(( (Singing Horse 2005), )joule TIDES(( (Singing Horse 2007) and Borderlining: Pieces from R and B (Small Chapbook Project 2007). Her poems have appeared in such magazines and journals as Blue Mesa Review, Cafe Solo, Big Allis, ecopoetics and Central Park, and she recorded poems for Vox Audio. This interview took place in her home in Albuquerque on February 11, 2007, just before her 63rd birthday. Two months after the interview, Mary again became ill from complications of breast cancer and began receiving hospice care. She died on August 26, 2007. Bruce Holsapple and John Tritica

John Tritica: Mary, I would like to start with the question of what you see as differences between red table(S [1999] and )locus TIDES(( [2002] , )cliff TIDES(( [2005], and )joule TIDES(( [2007] . There’s an obvious difference in how the poems look, yet you could take lines from red table(S and find similar lines in )cliff TIDES((. You could recognize the same poet as having written both. Can you address what you see as being the differences?

Mary Rising Higgins: If I think about red tables(S first, that was written while I was still teaching in the public schools full-time. So red table(S was fitted into working life, staying up past midnight with my students’ work, planning new things for them. And I was limited as to when I could write and would begin Friday evenings after dinner. I’d turn on two 5,000 watt neon lights to keep me alert. I’m sure my house glowed for blocks. But I would work late on Friday night, and then I would work as much as I could Saturday and Sunday. That’s how these poems came to be constructed. I couldn’t begin to think of the long poems that make up the TIDES(( trilogy; the process that goes into the work of these books is so utterly different because with them I’m retired, working perhaps three days a week at CNM [a community college in Albuquerque]. So, yes, the work comes out of the same center, but the process out of which the work derives is utterly different.

Bruce Holsapple: What does that mean to you, “comes out of the same center”?

MRH: Well, comes out of my center, a center of being, a center of collecting. Essentially, I have not changed in terms of requiring a certain auditory gesture, as the means by which I enter the poem’s beginning. However, with the TIDES(( series, if I say that I’m going to work a five-hour day and my window opens when I get out of bed in the morning, instead of after a week’s work, late on a Friday night, that’s a very different window from which to begin one’s creative work.

JT: That was 1995?

MRH: Yes, and I did that through the last year, because the needs of students are endless. But when I got to oclock, my life had changed dramatically. I was recovering from experimental treatment for breast cancer; my sister had come to live with me because I needed twenty-four hour care; she had dragged me through the illness. But I was exhausted and embarrassed by the amount of sleep I needed. Actually, oclock began with 9:00 a.m. I was amazed and depressed that I couldn’t even get up at 9:00 a. m. That was the first poem, and suddenly I realized: Write a twenty-four poem series that could embody the way I felt the poem could function. Also, I was fortunate. Peter Ganick, the founder of Potes & Poets Press, happened to read red table(S and sent an e-mail to me saying that whatever I project I was working on, he would publish it. I think I had gotten to the second poem by then, and I was delirious with the sense that, because of the kind of work Peter supported, I could go as far as I was capable with the work in oclock, and I did. In fact, indirectly, he suggested the title for oclock. I sent him the first draft [of the manuscript], and he wanted me to add body to 2 a.m. He did not say anything about how I should add body. 2 a. m. just needed to be able to stand with the other poems, which he called my “clock poems.” I thought, what a perfect title, oclock! I liked the foraging methods employed in working with oclock, so when I moved into the TIDES(( series, they retained elements from oclock. But these poems are each built around a particular letter. I think the first letter I addressed in )locus TIDES(( was “D,” because I love Beverly Dahlen’s work. So I thought that would be a good place to begin. I think “D” is less visual than succeeding works. The dripstone is something that occurs in a cavern, and I thought that was a good metaphor for how the work in that particular poem developed, because it was such slow going. I personally find the poem that works best for me is a poem where I just have to roll up my sleeves and do battle with the beginning. Then, suddenly, it will take off. Dripstone is like that.

JT: Beginning with oclock, the TIDES(( series develops a 8 ½ by 11 inch format. Why do you think that larger page format evolved, or at least is conducive to your work?

MRH: It started accidentally. I was toying with the idea of the arbitrary rectangle of the page and thinking about how a visual artist would approach that rectangle. That has to be addressed in the publication of one’s work. There have to be margins. You can only deal with certain perimeters. Editors and publishers don’t care to pursue the complexity of work that escapes those perimeters. So I started out seeing what I could do with the 8 ½ by 11 rectangle, leaving margins on all sides that would be appropriate for publication. And I simply became so comfortable with the page size that, even though I wanted to break the work down at different points for a smaller page, it just wasn’t conducive to the work that evolved in the larger format. Though it would be glib to say that the poems are built for the page, in fact I became enamored of doing everything I could think of to the page with the poem’s lines in the large format. So, it didn’t start out intentionally but now I’ve become rather intentional about it.

BH: You shift from a more traditional poetry, flush left, in red table(S and in oclock that boundary disappears. There’s a floating element involved. After you finish oclock, you turn to the abecedarium? So initially you have a frame you’re hanging things in, but then it becomes wide open. What tensions hold the work together after that?

MRH: I think in the TIDES(( series there are certain components in the way the work is built that hold the poems together. I collect words over time that begin with the letter, usually words I hadn’t heard or seen used in a particular way in text before. I mean, I had this clipboard, and I arbitrarily put twenty-six pages in it, and I carried it around with me. Do you really want to know about these things? Okay. I also had notes to myself about what I was going to look for. I was going to look for writers, words, and things I didn’t know enough about.

BH: Did you know the subjects?

MRH: Oh, not at all. The subjects were going to come out of the words collected, come out of dictionary meditations, meditations on the writing of the poets.

BH: You were going to invent?

MRH: Well, with language, one is never going to invent whole-cloth, because language creates the cloth. I feel so constrained within the language itself, and wanted to create an homage to text, as I’m working because of its beauty, because of its social-civil qualities, the conscience of language, the function of language, how one can construct a life out of the questions that language can present. So while I love that term, “whole-cloth,” I’m very much caught in the conundrum and quandaries of language itself, as we all are.
The shapes in TIDES(( become increasingly affected by the shape of the letters historically or currently. When all of those things are put together, the poems take on discreteness. I have to say, I get exhausted easily now, particularly over the last year. I’ve entered a re-diagnosis for the cancer. I’ve really been scrambling to stay on top of my work. But when I lie down at night, I always keep my journal next to me—it has a pillow—I’ve only taught one poetry workshop, but the students laughed so much when I began talking about my process. They thought I was really too weird for words. But actually it comes out of Denise Levertov’s poem “Writing in the Dark.” Here was a woman who had a full life, ran a household, and so when she thought of things in the night, she’d better get it down. I notch the page. I do not open my eyes. I can lay the journal down; I can pick it back up; I can find the notch and proceed, but I imagine how the poems are going to look on the page. That’s how I construct the forms. If it is the twelfth letter in the alphabet, it’s going to be a twelve-page poem. Now if it’s the second letter, of course it’s not going to be two pages, it’s going to be a multiple of two. If it’s the 26th letter, it will be a divisor. It’s a fabulous way to construct the poem as you wish. You have arbitrary boundaries to work within, but they’re nourishing and beautiful because they’re only about tethering the work on the page.

JT: So there’s an interplay between improvisation and structure?

MRH: The work is highly structured. It isn’t just numbers of pages. It’s structured in terms of line, how many syllables there will be in the line. For example, “Dearest L” in )cliff TIDES((, the lines are governed by the twelve-syllable line. I permit a thirteenth syllable simply because I don’t want the line to become sing song. I will permit an eleven-syllable line. But “Following L,” if I remember correctly, is twelve pages in twelve-syllable lines for the twelfth letter. However, the improvisational, and sometimes the stochastic, enters.

JT: It gave you, within that imposed form, a freedom. It generated the material, if you will.

MRH: Absolutely it helps generate the material, and as soon as I sense that it’s getting dead on its feet, change is called for. That’s when I will add, subtract, or bend a shape so that it looks more fluid.

JT: It’s far from “anything goes.”

MRH: It is never anything goes. Why? Because I think that when one deludes oneself into thinking “anything goes,” in fact we’re governed unconsciously by our sentiments, or orientations, and whatever is going on in our lives. Certainly these things are occurring in my work, but the work is always that homage to text, and how text functions, as a serious component for connecting us.

JT: Which contemporary poets—in the last twenty, thirty years—do you see your work fitting in with?

MRH: I think my work fits wherever there are women whose work pushes the envelope of how the poem has been written or appeared, say, within the last ten, twenty years. Lyn Hejinian and Susan Howe are the two primary poets who let me see that I could write a poem about whatever and however I needed. During a two month writing retreat at the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation, in ’89 and 91, I was able to spend time with their work. I started the poem “Transitions for Eurydice” in Taos. That poem came directly from reading Howe’s Defenestration of Prague. That was the poem through which I began methods I use when writing now. It’s the longest one in red table(S, and has elements of collage and disjunction that are more about mid to late 20th century. You know, one has to write that way. Our lives are that way. Everything we are presented with is that way.

BH: Are there other poets in the concrete tradition that you call upon for inspiration—or do you understand yourself to work within the tradition of concrete poetry?

MRH: Not at all. I don’t understand myself as working with a tradition of concrete poetry. Why? The word and the letters with which I am working always take precedence over the form. The form generates out of language. Actually, I’m not terribly fond of concrete poetry. I’d like to think that, if my work were pushed flush left, it would work certainly as well as it does when it takes various forms on the page. So that takes me out of that tradition I think.

BH: You’re using the page more like Charles Olson and Susan Howe, for example, use the page?

MRH: I would say so, yes, and when I do enter engagement with visual form, it’s affected by historical or current shapes for the letter the poem builds around. Or, it has to do with an emphasis on the dynamics of the poem, a way of opening the line, so that the reader can have a gap or perhaps be drawn in a dynamic way toward the next line. It isn’t about, okay, this poem is going to look like that shape from nature. It’s never about that. I always can go back to the letter out of which the poem is deriving—or it is about sound and movement in the poem. Linescape, really.

JT: Speaking of movement makes me think of the structure of the TIDES(( trilogy. How did you conceive of that structure?

MRH: I had an opportunity for a three-day retreat at Abiquiu, NM, Ghost Ranch, and I wanted to construct a series that I could learn through, which I could grow with as a poet, where I could engage in an homage to those women poets whose work encouraged me to think about new ways that women have been writing since the 1970s, and I thought that an abecedarium was absolutely the right path for a poet to take. It’s endlessly interesting. Certainly in childhood I remember falling asleep by going through ideas having to do with the alphabet. Did you? It’s a marvelous way to set up going anywhere for any length of time about any topic. And so the original working title for the TIDES(( series was Driving from the Shoulders. This was never intended to be mainstream work, you know, right up on the road. Also I was thinking of the shoulders of women who had come before me. I am still working on a last triptych that addresses letters Y, A, and V. Just recently I’ve begun to think, even if that poem takes me a year, it will be fine, because what’s my intention with that long poem? It is to do as many things as possible that I have not done, to read and become aware of things that I have not become aware of, that can help to generate a poem.

JT: My next question is part statement, but it gives you full-range to respond, and disagree if you want. But I think in “waive SHIFT” [in cliff TIDES((] there’s an innovative approach to the placement of words on the page; in particular, I’m thinking of page fifty-six and fifty-seven where it’s almost like we’re looking at a mirror of some sort. There are dancing figures of language there:

Would you comment on how you worked out the visual design of the text and how the visual design impacts on the significance of the poem?

MRH: W is a beautiful letter. It’s very organic and here I’m focused on elements of its shape, so page fifty-six gives the reader an almost cubist perspective on “W”, but on page fifty-seven I’m focused on elements of shapeliness and brush stroke—I do like to give a brush stroke appearance, even to ancient letter glyphs. So that’s what was going on in my head. Though I don’t expect the reader to come away with what I intend, but rather the reader, entering the work, will come away with what the reader is able and willing to carry away.

JT: I wonder, though, about when you look at, say, page sixty-three, if we’re reading from left to right, there are a number of ways you can read this. Have you scored this in a particular way? You don’t offer instruction to the reader.

MRH: No, I wouldn’t presume to do that. Now if I were reading this for an audience, absolutely I would score it. When reading I want the text to come through in as straight forward a fashion as possible. Also, I don’t want to become caught up in an alternative reading. I don’t want to become lost in it (as my eyesight is no longer the greatest). But for the reader, my hope would be to approach this work as a viewer approaches an abstract painting, for example, or a listener approaches a piece of contemporary classical music. And that is, in the energies that you bring to the work, what do you carry away with you this time? And my hope would be that a reader who actually would come to this page two or three times would leave with something slightly different—perhaps quite different—each of those times.

JT: In that sense, who would be an ideal reader, if you could create a profile?

MRH: Well, it would be a reader somewhat like myself and the people with whom I have close relationships who are addicted to poetry; people who love to read contemporary poetry and contemporary writers. It would not be the reader who wants to be told what to think, or is reading to escape. It has to be a reader who will create meaning in an autonomous fashion—you know, without being dominated by authorial aspects, but would rather go into the work as a kind of adventure and take away what is possible, and actually become excited by how the work changes as you begin reading across lines, or in reverse, as opposed to straight down along the lines. That is when the work begins to breathe with you, I think. For poetry to work rhythmic knots of meaning begin to function in new intense ways—you breathe with poetry. It isn’t like prose that lies there on the page telling about something and taking you somewhere (in the more expected popular prose, at least.)

BH: So would you “allow” a reader to take whatever they wanted to from your poems? Could they come up with any possible interpretation?

MRH: Why not? If I go to a dance production, for example, I am looking for new vocabulary in that dance work. I’m not a dancer. I don’t know what I’m “supposed to be” looking for. But I am looking for movement, motions, steps, and what I take away with me, I love. Why couldn’t a reader approach the page as I approach dance, jazz, or contemporary classical music? trusting the beauty and surprise?

BH: But I think you’re also saying that your poems are meaning-based. Doesn’t that involve intention?

MRH: Oh, yes, they are meaning-based! And when I read them aloud, I follow what I think is the most standard way of reading the work, so that someone in the audience who would not read it, but is willing to listen will come way with something fresh and new and be able to say, as people sometimes do, “Well, it sounds good.” [Laughs.] “I wasn’t sure what it meant, but I like the way it sounded!” .

JT: So would you say that a reader has to grant you a certain amount of semantic excess?

MRH: Yes, I think anyone who came to this work in a prescribed way would be disappointed or become confused, would be actually quite frustrated.

JT: Yes, I’ve been there. Not for long, but I know the feeling.

BH: What would you tell that reader?

MRH: To go inward and to permit the work to mean differently, creatively each time he or she approaches it.

BH: So in some way your poetry is about the meaning-making process itself?

MRH: It is about that and that is my homage to text. I can remember reading things as a child and having no clue what they meant, but knowing, trusting the text, knowing that if I let it go and returned to it later—even if I had to wait a year, it would begin to mean for me.

JT: It’s also giving one’s self over to the reading process?

MRH: Yes, deep reading is a process. Also, I would say there is sometimes disjunction between auditory elements and textual elements in the work and that is on purpose, because there is sometimes a joy in the music of the syntax that is not necessarily the same as the meaning of those words in the labyrinth of their construction.

BH: So there is a multiplicity of approaches and there are layers that you work from?

MRH: Each poem is highly layered, I feel. Any word in conjunction or disjunction with another word is going to refer and refer and refer, if you just go back into the clause.

JT: To what extent are these poems verbal meditations, as opposed to silent meditations?

MRH: What a great question! I will confess, they are primarily silent meditations, but when I stumble, when I just don’t know what word to place next, I begin speaking aloud, whatever those lines should be, to know what has to come next. One thing I avoid is a loose, limp line. I want a tight line.

BH: How do you determine whether the line is tight or limp?

MRH: I think of the tight line as one made with no unnecessary word, with rhythmic tensions at the level of the syllable.

JT: If I could chime in here—as you state in the “afterword” to )cliff TIDES((, there are “rhythm knots.” There has to be tension. Where there’s a syllabic structure sometimes, there’s a very strong rhythm, and the rhythm holds it together.

MRH: Yes, rhythm holds it together, and if I think, oh, this could be a line of prose, something will be deleted. I’m sure other poets could argue that some of my lines are prose-like, but always I’m looking for tension, and that does make the work exhausting, especially for a reader who comes to the poem for escape. One thing I have to say is that I do not write so that you can remember something you forgot, like from some earlier point in your life. I mean, a reader may be reminded of something in their life, but I do not write a narrative poem that reminds us of events, a middle class nostalgic towpath along what might or might not have taken place in the lives of most Americans one knows around life or death or birth or divorce…those things we like to be reminded of, an escapist reading.

BH: And what is it that irritates you so about that approach?

MRH: It isn’t that it irritates me. It’s that if I want that approach I could simply get in my car, drive to a bookstore and find books waiting on the shelves. I don’t want to do what I’ve seen done before. Someone could argue, oh I’ve seen work just like yours. But no one has done that in relation to my work. My feeling is, I started writing poetry too late to spend time writing like someone else.

JT: That’s a key point. You didn’t start writing until you were thirty-nine years old.

MRH: Right, my first poem unfolded finally when I was thirty-nine.

JT: Some twenty-four year ago, but that’s not that long, and you didn’t have the apprenticeship some have in their twenties and thirties.

MRH: Right, I think the apprenticeship was served differently.

JT: What happened took place much more intensely and there are some fifteen years between when you write your first poem and when you retired from being a schoolteacher.

BH: What is the transition? What are the recognitions that go into being “innovative?” Where does Lee Bartlett’s class at the University of New Mexico enter into this?

MRH: I should be honest about my beginning, eclectic reading. As a child I read whatever I could get my hands on. When I was eleven, I happened by accident on a Wordsworth poem. That is where I first discovered the difference I look for between poetry and prose. Of course, I was reading poems voraciously when I went into Lee Bartlett’s poetry workshop. I was reading contemporary poets. I was reading New Mexico poets, a lot of John Ashbery—I loved Ashbery—he is my favorite poet all the way through red table(S and probably appears in numerous disguises from poem to poem. I hadn’t read anyone whose work I liked as much. Then I was introduced to the Language Poets, I think in 1983-84. Somehow I got into the graduate poetry-writing workshop with Lee Bartlett and Lee was just so open to a highly creative point of view. During one class he said, it doesn’t matter what you say, as long as you can put it into a philosophical construct. He said many things that felt perfect for me, because I knew I’d have to write poetry in some ways unlike what I’d already read. I’ll tell you, I was by necessity a sleeper in class—I’d been working all day—and if it wasn’t exciting, I was dozing. But when Lee brought in the Language poets (in the first issue of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E), what I heard led me to think, oh, this is new—like “news that stays news.” And I could try to write a poem that might be read with serious attention to its content! And right off, you’ve got a higher number of women than any place else, and women are not objectified or marginalized, but an integral part of articulating Language Poetry. And I felt, okay, now I can address a poem at the scale I felt a poem should be addressed. I had just read Bachelard’s The Poetics of Reverie for another class. And that was not about the means by which I would write a poem, just as if I were a painter, I could not paint trees as I remember particular trees from childhood. Suddenly, all right, the poem could disjunctive, about the functions of language itself. The poem could occupy a larger scale and from varied perspectives.

BH: This was your chance to walk the blank, so to speak?

MRH: Yes, I had kept journals and toyed with lines, but only as I considered visual work. I wanted to become a photographer, but that’s a whole other story! I couldn’t become a photographer after I purchased a house where the water was too hot to use for all the darkroom equipment I had purchased. (And the water heater was not up to code and I had no way of changing that.) Well, thank goodness, what a relief! I had already become so tired of all the chemicals. Poetry has no polluting chemicals that must be carefully recycled! It is so clean! [W. C.] Williams thought about becoming a visual artist—as did I. Well, you have all that equipment and set it up, and I’m tired by then. Poetry is not like that. The more one writes, the more one wants to write. So it was a great gift that the water temperature at this little house was over ninety degrees and nothing could fix that. You have to have water at sixty-two degrees max, if you want to process a good black and white print. And I was fortunate to get into Lee Bartlett’s class, so I said to myself, I will just stick with this, give it a try. I was teaching fifth-graders in public school and my mind needed something outside of the classroom.

JT: In )locus TIDES((, there’s a poem called “rotations of N,” and I love the first line: “day bridge event phase you try telling[.]” Here is my sense of your work: although there is almost never a linear narrative, nevertheless I still feel that you tell bits and pieces of stories. And there is still some biographical hook. Earlier you were talking about the process of meaning making. I think it’s related.

MRH: Language becomes a highly experiential medium at times.

BH: How do you mean language becomes an “experiential medium?”

MRH: How one articulates an experience actually modifies that experience. Yet these are words. I’m thinking of Wittgenstein’s remark that language is contiguous with nothing. But we fit into language, and language fits with us. So, indeed, my work is extremely experiential: “day bridge event phase you try telling[.]” I mean we know that when we tell an event we leave out so much and put in some things. Later we might remember things that we put in and forget completely the things we left out. I’m exaggerating, perhaps. But the experiential components of language are profound in terms of what’s provided by and what we must provide to language, if we address the world through it.

JT: I feel that once you go beneath the structured surface of your poems, there’s a code that becomes intimate. I don’t think it depends on you as a personality, ever, but that code enriches my reading.

MRH: I’m glad to hear that. Move to page sixty-four, the last page of “rotations of N” [in )locus TIDES((], because there’s a quote by Anne Noggle, the photographer, who used her face and body as part of what she was depicting. I heard her say on a PBS television program: “Who will look into my face and find me there?” What does the face tell us about the self? What does the word self mean in her question? It becomes exquisitely layered.

JT: And that’s, I think, how the philosophical concept of identity comes out in your work, and so it strikes me that although your work is philosophical and difficult, if a reader persists, she will find points of connection, a kind of intimacy, if you can learn that code.

MRH: Yes, I think it’s a process, an experiential process with language, where word by word I’m carefully building a line that engages, as often as it can, with the experiential components of language in a fresh way. I don’t have opportunities often to talk about my work, so forgive me for sounding naïve, but I would posit that, for most of us, the concept of self is quite delusional, you know, how we use that word, what the word means to us. Those are profound words: me, self, I. How do they mean? That this quote would come from a photographer who devoted her medium to self-portrait and who then asks this question—I loved hearing that.

BH: What role does self have in your work? What is the “concept of self” for you?

MRH: It is a permeable, modified, always changing center, and that is why I use, for example, the “I” not the tall “I”. I think the look of I, as opposed to the capital, is particularly important. I have a definition of self, but it’s spiritual. The self is a medium through which all the unknowable source of all that is and is not explores the manifest and non-manifest multiplicities of reality. That sounds too metaphysical. But if I wrap my head around that, how self constitutes, well, what is not possible? What is possible? The range is endless. Where are we?

BH: I notice a politic and an acute awareness of what nature “does”—the walks, the observations—in your poetry, so there’s a political aesthetic in your work.

MRH: Yes, the political does enter. I can’t seem to avoid it. Yes, it permeates.

JT: In what way do feminist strategies in constructing meaning enter in?

MRH: I think if we thumbed through all the TIDES(( books we would find very few male pronouns. Part of this is reactionary; I mean, you can guess I’m sure that as a girl I didn’t read a book that had feminine pronouns unless it was something like Little Women or The Five Little Peppers And How They Grew. And I grew out of those books rather quickly. So the really important things I read always had male pronouns, and my work sometimes compensates in response to that. What else would you ask about that?

JT: One feminist strategy is to upset traditional patriarchal expectations and hierarchies of meaning…

MRH: Absolutely. I’m always exploring how language functions. I avoid didacticism. If the reader is willing to re-enter the work, some poems can be repaginated—as the source pages of )cliff TIDES(( indicate—some poems can be read in reverse or from various entry points. Often there are opportunities to go in a different direction, by virtue of the fact that there might be two columns or a letter shape in a different font and shade that drifts behind the main text. There are fonts co-existing with one another. It isn’t that one must dominate the other, and the reader can choose to read them separately or contiguously. So there are choices.

JT: In “O Canvas” [in )cliff TIDES((] another example is the different voices?

MRH: Oh, Ophelia, Orithyia, Ona, the North Wind, yes! These are based on visual art and literature. If we look at page sixty-five, “O figure,” there’s Ophelia talking to Hamlet (and herself). She drowns herself, then realizes things could have been quite different. She takes on strength; yes, it’s a feminist engagement with Ophelia’s ghost. She becomes assertively no nonsense. And Orithyia becomes another figure, from mythology, who is carried off by the North Wind. I have to add that the epigraph by Rochelle Owens is wonderful: “On the bus she hobbles/ in golden stirrups.” That makes anything possible. Some epigraphs must be placed in the poem after the first draft is well completed because they’re constraining, but this was an epigraph that I wanted right up front because the image was so nourishing for me. When Ophelia becomes mixed with Lady Mac Beth on page sixty-seven I need that encouragement. [She reads.]

my own river hem scarves about my feet
                                     on days I am worn
                                   jewel shards mirror in
                                  long-lipped shadows lit
                                        you see yourself
                                      orchid scent spackled
                                                                                                a foiling length
                                                                              I kiss the sword blade blood groove
                                                                                           tang and pommel ring

                                                                             invite me

She becomes, I think, intimidating, as she begins to realize her power, as opposed to the Ophelia who drowns herself.

BH: What you said about a reader taking anything they want from the text earlier, I understand that you allow that process, but I also hear you speaking in fairly “intentional” ways about what you’ve expressed, so in some ways you have an agenda. If a reader doesn’t follow that agenda, fine, but you propose to let anyone to read what they want, yet connecting the writer and the reader—as you phrased it earlier—would again broach the problem of intention in poetry.

MRH: I suppose one could read this without ever realizing that speaker is Ophelia. I can also imagine someone thinking it’s about me. But that’s neither here nor there. “O Canvas” may have taken on more precision because of the shapeliness of O and the literary figures, Ophelia and Orithyia. However, I’m not a particularly didactic person. My intention is to facilitate meaning for the reader; I respect a reader’s ability to come to this text and get things from it that I wasn’t aware were there. Why was I not aware? Because I am working with language, which is so rich and continuously beyond me. I trust that if I write a line and you read that line, you can bring more, or certainly differently, to that line than I bring, and can leave with more than I got out while writing it. Because I think that happens often for writers, don’t you think? But I do have hope that I could write a line and you could go away with more than I ever thought about for that line, by virtue of the richness that you bring to it.

JT: Is it wrong for me to think because of its circular form, that it’s a feminine letter?

MRH: It’s a feminine letter and to entitle it “O Canvas” I was thinking actually of images. These take shape in feminist “sub-poems.” Orithyia becomes almost dangerous. She might have been carried off by the North Wind, but she has the last word. She will let go of everything except who she has become through challenge and time. Yes.

JT: And there is anti-war discourse in your work.

MRH: There is. Yes, in “O Canvas,” right here, it so happened, while I was working on it, on page seventy-four, fighter planes from Kirtland [Air-Force Base] flew over—they were deafening—I mean, yard birds were actually knocked off their perches, knocked to the ground by the fighter planes going overhead. So the date and time is here.

fighter planes explode high thin air above
gray cloudcover housing for distributed world
this afternoon though not yet will I cut my throat
while small yellowed hailstones roof tin snare clatter
high desert sleet wet air smelling of seasalt and
shell fish or blood mixed with tears just before
swallowing as disfigured doves and sparrows
shoot up to scatter struggling for balance

Of course that quote, “not yet will I cut my throat” comes from Oppen. But yes, disfigured doves because they’ve been eating everything we have in our environment, so they’ve got strange faces, beaks disfigured. It’s quite a literal “snapshot” of what happened. That is pointed out in the source page.

BH: And to some extent, your whole approach is a political stance?

MRH: It cannot be avoided if one is going to be innovative. The very act of innovating is a political act. John and I had a conversation yesterday, and it awakened me to the fact that I despair at the beginning of the 21st century, that we are embroiled in this “pre-emptive strike” war. What a grief! And sometimes when I’m writing, because I’m engaging that experiential language, the overtly political just comes in and takes over.

JT: You incorporate various elements of what you term “Newzak.”

MRH: Late 20th century it was “Newzak.” With the current administration, it’s become “Newsblast.” The news is no longer something you could listen to in an elevator. It used to be you could do a task with the news on in the background; you weren’t suddenly caught up in something horrifying. Perhaps one should have been caught up that way. I wasn’t that sensitive. But now I have to very careful, and I notice most of my friends express a common concern about how and when they listen to the news, because it so very, very sad and dark and full of grief.


Blogger Geof Huth said...

Mary Rising Higgins makes clear her separation from the concrete poets, and the differences between her and the concretists is clear, yet I think she misses the point. Concrete poetry was only marginally interested in reproducing shapes in nature. Their forms were organic to the poems, rather than mimics of organic forms. What separates Rising Higgins from the concrete poets--and she almost got this right--is that she is interested in richer, semantic text, whereas the concretists depended on simpler, visually semantic text for their effects.

Rising Higgins, however, sits firmly with the broader tradition of visual poetry, which began with syntax and which still employs syntax from time to time. In the history of visual poetry, she is clearly in the long tradition of pattern poetry (or shaped verse), where syntactic text is incorporated into shapes of various kinds.

Her shapes are more evocative and complex than those originally employed in pattern poetry, including both directly "meaningful" shapes along with more abstract ones. But the complexity of shapes is more common in today's shaped verse: see John Hollander's work in this area (tho a bit staid) and, particularly, that of David Daniels.

Clearly, Mary Higgins Clark was a visual poet, one combining the tendencies of language poetry with those of the most ancient strain of visual poetry.

Thanks for the read. It is too bad her life was so short.


9:53 AM  

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