In The Field: Conversations With Our Contributors—Marie-Elizabeth Mali

by Jul 1, 2024

Coral underwater with orange fish.

Your poem, “Mirror,” studies the fascination with underwater life—particularly brain coral—during a first dive. What prompted you to set this poem down on paper?

Since that initial dive in Bonaire, in December, 2000, I’ve wanted to describe the wonder I felt at directly experiencing the underwater world at depth for the first time.

Visiting a world that doesn’t center around the human helped me put my typical hang-ups into perspective. It felt liberating to be reminded that there’s a whole world out there beyond my daily concerns.

To witness directly how certain shapes and colors, like the lobes and folds of the brain, are replicated in nature, further freed me.

This felt like something worth attempting to put into language!

You use a wave-like structure throughout the lines of this piece, in what mimics ocean waves. When did this develop in the poem’s creation?

As I revised the poem and broke it into stanzas, something still didn’t feel quite right about it. 

It felt like the structure looked too static for the subject.

In later drafts, I experimented with how the poem flowed on the page. 

When I hit on this wave-like structure, it finally felt like the structure supported the poem’s ability to convey the direct experience of being underwater, gently rocking in the depths.

You capture the feeling of this landscape with the phrase, “I peered through a mask/at the alien and familiar world,” and there are ties to objects familiar to the reader (broccoli, lightning bolts) that help us understand this world many of us have never seen. What is it like to write about animals and places that exist, but at the same time feel so distant from what we know? Do you find that you tend to be more descriptive for the reader’s sake?

When I went underwater for the first time on that dive, I was struck by the way nature repeats certain colors and patterns across worlds. 

It felt both familiar and unfamiliar, personal and utterly impersonal.

I wanted to bridge that experience for the reader by describing the experience of seeing the macrocosm of nature operating in the fractal microcosm of shapes and colors by linking what happened in my mind in that moment to common metaphoric leaps we make on land when we encounter one thing that resembles another, but is also completely different.

Ultimately, I believe everything is connected.

While the underwater world can feel distant and different from our daily lived experience on land, by describing it in the way I did in this poem, I hope to subtly influence the reader in experiencing that oneness and connectedness, since, “We protect what we love,” as Jacques Cousteau so brilliantly observed, and the ocean needs protecting at this time.

You also use ocean analogies and settings when writing other pieces. What draws you to the ocean in your writing?

On land, it’s easy to forget that other worlds exist right here, on this planet, including living creatures that have personalities, desires, and fears just like us.

As someone who is fascinated by the underwater world, I naturally gravitate toward creating metaphoric connections between the experiences I have there and our life on land.

In this way, I hope to expand my, and the reader’s, perspective to allow life to be more mysterious and complex than our typical black-and-white thinking tends to have us believe.

What other themes do you discover you return to in your writing? What themes do you want to still explore?

In a world fixated on difference, separation, and categorization, I return again and again to themes of connection and relatedness that, on further examination and inquiry—as happens when probing the unknown in a poem—can dissolve our differences at a deeper level than we typically perceive with our conscious minds.

I still want to explore themes around how to allow the full range of emotion and experience—light and dark, good and (apparently) evil—to coexist and inform one another, since our tendency is to privilege one over the other and negatively judge what we don’t like and what doesn’t feel good or comforting to us. 

It is in understanding and allowing contrasts to exist that we can open our minds and develop more compassion.

What authors have influenced your writing? Are there books you return to for inspiration?

Mark Doty has hugely influenced my writing, especially his ability to keep expanding a description until the deeper revelation offered by his initial draw toward that image or subject is revealed. I just love the way his mind works and how he perceives the world.

Kim Addonizio’s work has also been a big influence on me, as I relate to her quest to fully face life, and her own—often conflicting, sometimes self-destructive—drives with compassion and humor.

I return to Mark Doty’s Atlantis, and Addonizio’s Tell Me and What Is This Thing Called Love, for inspiration, and other poems I find gorgeously descriptive, as well as deeply feeling and human, that hit me in the heart and guts, or open my mind in some new way.

What are you working on now?

While I’ve been sending out the manuscript in which “Mirror” appears, seeking publication, I’ve been working more on honing my prose. 

I want to eventually gather these scattered writings into a book of stories and essays that explore the themes I outlined above, in service of my work as a speaker and a mentor to high-achieving women who want to expand themselves, their minds, and their lives beyond the conditioning they were born into and raised with.

And yet, I find myself returning to poetry when I’m struck by an image or an experience that’s hard to encompass in prose. So, while the poems are coming more slowly these days, with longer gaps in between, they’re still my North Star.


Marie-Elizabeth Mali is the author of one book of poetry, Steady, My Gaze (Tebot Bach, 2011) and co-editor with Annie Finch of the anthology Villanelles (Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets, 2012). Her work has appeared in Poet Lore, RATTLE, and the New Ohio Review, among others. She is the host of the Relationship Alchemy podcast and a two-time TEDx speaker who helps women communicate more effectively and transform patterns of thinking and behavior that get in the way of love, connection, and success in relationships and business. She is also an underwater photographer who has a thing for sharks.

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