Interview with Cate Marvin
Interviewed by Melissa Studdard
Your poems are a stunning and utterly unique blend of technical formality and gruff, raw subject matter. I could recognize a Cate Marvin poem anywhere. To what life and literary influences and experiences do you attribute the flourishing of your style?
I know a lot people pooh-pooh the writer-as-teacher gig, but I can’t help but think much of the development of my work, especially with regard to the confluence of high and low dictions, comes out of teaching poetry. I don’t regard my job as interfering with my writing, though my literary production would certainly increase if my course load were reduced. Any given semester, I teach a huge range of poets and poetic traditions, whether it be in a workshop geared toward English majors, or a Sophomore class that serves as an introduction to poetry as a genre. I always change up the reading material of my courses to some extent, mostly to keep things interesting for myself, but especially when I sense I’ve become a bit too comfy with my own notion of aesthetics. So, for example, I taught an American Poetry course a few semesters ago that followed a poetic trajectory fairly unfamiliar to me, more along the lines of Williams, the Beats, the New York School, Postmodernists, etc. I think it’s important as a reader to develop and hone the ability to apply yourself to any text, whether it’s in line with your own personal aesthetics or not. Also, I’m continually reintroduced to all of the greatest hits (beginning with folks as early as Spenser and Wyatt, up through the Modernist traditions, and closing with more mainstream contemporaries). Reading poems in the classroom is a collaborative effort, and it helps me to understand texts from multiple perspectives. Some of my students didn’t find Eliot’s “Prufrock” especially moving, and basically accused him of throwing himself a pity party. And they had a point. Ultimately, the discourse in my classes is high and low, because we meet these poems as careful readers and regular folk. I teach at a commuter school in Staten Island; the majority of its students come from large families and hold down lots of responsibilities (they often have multiple jobs / siblings / children / parents to care for) in addition to their course work. It’s really exciting to see how poetic discourse plays out in a classroom with students who have as a focus so many practical concerns coupled with pretty sophisticated ways of understanding the larger world. And then there’s the laboratory aspect of the workshop! In which we get to build all kinds of monsters! Just the sheer making of these things, these poems, is so hands on and practical. And you can learn so much about the many different ways in which language can express fundamentally human concerns. In this regard, the teaching of literature and writing doesn’t seem esoteric to me at all. Indeed, it can be rather grueling. And it forces me to reconsider what a poem can be. For this reason, along with the fact that I had a child six years ago, I’ve moved toward making poems that are less compressed and more openly flawed.
You’ve spoken of how you find apostrophe, or what you refer to as “intimate address,” to be an effective rhetorical strategy, and I’ve also noticed that you employ a significant number of conceits in your two collections, The World’s Tallest Disaster and Fragment of the Head of a Queen. What attracts you to these specific poetic devices?
One of the things I really value in any literature I read is the use of the figurative, and I am especially drawn to creating elaborate systems in my own work. Metaphor is for me an organic approach to the layering of meaning— I often think of development of the figurative in terms of sea coral, which slowly and delicately accretes to take on larger and more complex shapes. When I was younger, I spent a lot of time chipping away at poems. While writing my last two books, I was far more focused on growing the poems to the extent that they changed very dramatically from initial drafts to final products. For the same reasons I would rather read a book than watch a movie, I try to employ the figurative and the concrete so as to allow readers to independently visualize and interpret the material of the poem, make their own decisions, and come to their own conclusions. This is what makes the act of writing collaborative. Even though writing is a solitary undertaking in the practical sense, no work of literature can come alive without its reader. This is obvious, but it bears repeating.
A review of your work in Publishers Weekly referred to you as a “postmodern Plath," and this has not been an infrequent comparison. How do you feel about being likened to Plath, and how has it impacted your conception of your own poetics? Has the comparison affected your trajectory as a poet?
I loved Plath back when it was very unfashionable to do so, and there was a period of time during which I was certainly obsessed. I still regard her as one of the most important poets of the twentieth century. There’s so much you can learn from her as far as technique is concerned, from syntax to punctuation, from the image to the line. I also think she’s hilarious. I am not interested in whether or not she was a “likeable” person. I should note that I swore off reading her in any depth long ago because I worried that her influence had become a bit too pernicious. It was never that I consciously imitated her; rather, a realization that she’d permeated my work came to me years later as a bit of a surprise. She’s certainly insidious, but that’s entirely due to the fact she’s got mad props. However, I think you’ll find that the comparison between Plath and any contemporary female poet is shorthand for deeming the content and style of their poems a bit (too) “aggressive.” I owe as much to Stevens as I do to Plath, if not more. I have a nearly carnal regard toward Stevens’ intellect and lyricism. I have a habit of bringing his Collected when I fly. It sucks to get stuck in Chicago in the winter and have to wait five hours for a delayed flight, but if you’ve taken the precaution of bringing Stevens’ Collected with you, you’ll have plenty of time to reread Harmonium. In fact, I was working for years on a long poem in conversation with Stevens that never made it into Oracle. Plath becomes, for a moment, a focal point in the book because of a figure that plays out its underlying narrative, a suicide, otherwise known as “the dead girl.” Like Plath, I’m very interested in what’s fatal to women in our culture, specifically with regard to their artistic production. Actually, it’d be fair to say I’m obsessed with what’s fatal to women in our culture across the board. It sounds like I’m saying that the very nature of Plath’s work is obsessive, which it is, and so am I, but I believe that all poetry is by necessity obsessive, from Petrarch to Pessoa and beyond. That said, having my work compared to Plath’s affects my writing in no way whatsoever.
You are the founder and president of VIDA, an organization whose mission is “to increase critical attention to contemporary women’s writing as well as further transparency around gender equality issues in contemporary literary culture.” What are some of VIDA’s success stories regarding its mission, and how do you hope to see VIDA fulfill its goals in coming years?
What I personally regard as VIDA’s successes aren’t outwardly visible, nor are they very interesting. I love that we’ve established ourselves as a nonprofit, that we’ve managed to get some meager financial footing in the past few years, and that we’ve grown our Board of Directors to better represent the many different perspectives of female writers. These are all major accomplishments to my mind. And that we’ve somehow, as a group of widely disparate voices, managed to work together and sustain the organization in terms of its daily function over five years strikes me as nothing less than miraculous. Every year we try to challenge ourselves by trying out new approaches, especially with regard to the VIDA Count. Last year, we grew our count to include what we call “the larger literary landscape,” in order to verify whether some of the smaller significant literary journals demonstrated less of a bias toward male writers. This year, we’ve moved our attention to focus more closely on the representation of the literary voices of women writers of color.
Oracle, your new collection, is almost here. Lucky readers! How does Oracle fit into or expand your oeuvre? What did you learn about your work as a whole and this collection’s place within it when compiling the poems?
Oracle wasn’t the book I was planning to write. It kind grew out from under me, in fits and starts, and it wasn’t until I finally gathered the poems I’d been writing in my spare time (over several years) that I realized I had a manuscript. It’s a lot more irreverent and vicious, candid and intimate, than my earlier work with regard to both form and content. I am pretty certain this is due to my having a child when I began the actual writing of the book. Partly due to fatigue, and partly due to newly shuffled priorities, I did not feel the need to apply certain filters, create specific codes, or weed out various sentiments and complaints that I would have been certain to edit out of my earlier work. I do think of Oracle as the third part of what I’ve come to regard as a triptych. World’s Tallest Disaster, my first book, was written in my twenties and deals with unrequited love. It’s hard for to me read it nowadays with any seriousness because it seems almost embarrassingly naïve. Fragment of the Head of a Queen, a far meaner book in my opinion, claws its way out of some kind of awful wreckage to address marriage, divorce, self-destruction, and stalled attempts at rebirth. So it’s no surprise that we find the speaker of Oracle contemplating motherhood, aging, and death. I’m honestly not sure where else to take that speaker now. I would say that something’s got to change, and that I’m interested in moving in a different direction, but one thing I’ve learned through writing these books is that they write themselves, and they will not be denied their entrance into the world.