In The Field: Conversations With Our Contributors—Maria Zoccola
The following interview was conducted between contributor Maria Zoccola and assistant poetry editor Trisha Daigle discussing Maria’s poem “self-portrait as god” in Volume 24 and Maria’s work. The featured image, I SURRENDER, was created by Genesis TRAMAINE and included as a panel in 2019 at the Paul Robeson Gallery on Rutgers University.
I was immediately drawn to your poem “self-portrait as god” in Volume 24. It takes a certain amount of pluck to pull off a poem where the speaker takes the voice of god. What works for me in this poem though is that god takes on sorrow and regret. There is a humility to it. Art has often bestowed god with human emotions, but rarely do we see god as frail and uncertain. What was the motivation behind this poem? What made you decide to write as god?
In the poem, the concept of god swerves dramatically between God as creator to the creating god inside the human animal. It blurs; it blends until the two are a single entity of anxiety and regret, a consciousness that expands and collapses under and through the weight of in/determinism. At the core of the poem, I needed the speaker—this being that is sometimes mortal and sometimes not—to accept blame. To hold that blame inside them.
You are kind of on fire right now. Recently, you won a Dogwood Award, and your short story, “We Hold Our Treasures, We Bury Them” was a Best of the Net finalist. On your website you have listed 19 forthcoming publications for 2022, including a set of Helen of Troy poems that will appear in the Kenyon Review. Tell me a little about these poems. What was the inspiration behind Helen of Troy?
Oh, thank you so much for asking! I’m pretty jazzed about the Helen project. I’m a total Iliad nerd, and about a year ago I started writing persona poems in the voices of women from the epic—I had an Andromache poem in a recent issue of Grain, for example, and there’s an Iphigenia poem forthcoming from Salt Hill. I hadn’t touched Helen, though. She didn’t excite me the way the others did; there was no sense of doom about her, no scythe waiting just offscreen. She bounces through the Trojan War in safe luxury and then goes home with her former husband to resume the throne of Sparta. Isn’t there something just a little bit maddening about that? Aren’t you kind of on the side of the other gals, the ones who finish their run slain or enslaved?
But I finally sat down—grudgingly—to try a Helen poem. And completely shocked myself, because what came out on the page was this hilarious, disaffected housewife, this stifled, cliff-edge woman grasping for agency in a world that was not Bronze-Age Greece but instead the hills of my own Tennessee in the early nineties. It was like all the lights in the house turned on at once. I knew her, and I knew following her voice was going to be the work of more than just a poem or two. I’m maybe two-thirds of the way through a full-length manuscript now, and getting to share Helen poems with some of my favorite journals has been immensely validating. Other people are hearing her voice now, too.
A lot of your poems deal with transmutation and fantastical creatures. I think a lot of poets go through this shedding of skin, this molding an identity that feels more true to them than their old selves. I’ve heard that a lot of writers’ first books/early work lean toward coming of age, or young heroes’ journeys. Does this feel true for you? Are your new poems similar in style?
Fantasy and mythology allow us to take hold of emotions and concepts too enormous or amorphous to nail down in our own lives and begin to understand them in a way that is both outside and inside the realities of our lived experiences. Abandonment, grief, longing, even coming of age—these are high-stakes themes that feel differently to us when examined through the familiar or surprising rhythms of folklore, of known entities. Cooler to the touch, perhaps. Consumed in a way that doesn’t scar the throat going down. Sometimes the catgut emotions of real life vibrate too fast to hear the music within them. You’re too close to the canvas; all you see is paint splatter. For me, at least, the fantastical allows me to step back and see the way the brushstrokes line up to create art.
Speaking of new work, what are you writing these days? Or are you working on any big projects?
Helen is taking up most of my poetry brain these days, but I’ve also been starting to explore through my work what it means to be a girl raised by and in Memphis and the Mississippi Delta. It’s an enormous set of questions, and there are a thousand ways to get at the answers, some that hurt and some that heal.
All of your poems are written without capital letters. Is this simply a stylistic choice?
Fiction writing feels to me like marching into the world, like declaring myself into a microphone. Poetry feels so very different. Poetry feels like whispering, like passing notes under a desk, like drawing letters in ocean foam that run together and dissolve. The lowercase is a way of keeping that feeling even on the page.
I used to manage a wonderful nonprofit program that put creative writing workshops into public middle schools. Emotions are huge when you’re twelve. They’re all-consuming. When they got too big to fit inside a single body, I’d head out to the hallway with the young writer so we could sit on the floor with our backs against the cinderblock wall. Feet thudded past. Announcements blared overhead. Doors slammed. And the two of us kept talking quietly underneath it all, on the ground, our hearts in our hands. Lowercase feels like that.
Who are some of your favorite writers, poets, thinkers?
To keep the Iliad theme, I’ll start with Alice Oswald! Memorial is all-consuming. Anne Carson, of course. I had the privilege as a college freshman to take a class with Natasha Trethewey, and even after a whole semester of sitting two desks away from her in the workshop circle, I was still so in awe that I never got up the courage to ask her to sign my copy of Native Guard. The head of the creative writing department was Jericho Brown, and somehow I did find the courage to ask for his signature on Please. In a completely different genre, I’ve devoured everything Naomi Novik has ever written and am in agony waiting for her next book.
I’m always curious about a writer’s process. What does your process look like? From where do you draw inspiration?
Someday I’m actually going to learn how to write, and then I won’t have to figure it out all over again from scratch each time I turn the page in my notebook.
Maria Zoccola is a queer Southern writer with deep roots in the Mississippi Delta. She has writing degrees from Emory University and Falmouth University. Her work has previously appeared or is forthcoming in Ploughshares, The Iowa Review, The Massachusetts Review, Salamander, and elsewhere. You can learn more about her and her work at her website.