In The Field: Conversations With Our Contributors—Marjorie Stelmach
Your poem “The Late Accommodations” from Volume 23 is an account of driving down a highway at dusk and witnessing a mare “moving through gauzy grasses.” Did you have some ‘aha’ moment to write a poem when you saw this? How did King Lear come into this poem? Are you a big Shakespeare fan?
I’m glad you chose this poem for Water~Stone Review because its origin and development are clear to me, and that’s not always the case.
Let me begin by confessing that, although I’m a believer in ‘aha’ moments, for me they seldom come in the course of my daily living; rather, they come in the course of writing. I store things up and then, starting with nothing much besides a kind of faith in the generosity of the enterprise of poetry, I give the poem its head (horses again) and hope it takes me somewhere worth going. “The Late Accommodations” is a good example of that.
“Late Accommodations”begins with an epigraph “The human eye can discern 500 shades of gray.” Gray is often associated with an absence of color. In the poem, vision is obscured; images blend and blur into each other. This was something that readers raved about when selecting your poem. You certainly seem like it to me, but do you consider yourself a visual or sensory writer? How do you make sense of images and give them meaning with language?
This poem began with the epigraph. I’m an obsessive collector of images, quotations, odd bits of knowledge. I highlight every book I read, transfer the highlighted passages to thick brown spiral notebooks bought specifically for that purpose and after a time I excerpt the most promising quotations to a computer file. Finally, I excerpt that file to a second file of “starting points.” Then I draft. In other words, I sift and sift and sift for those rare nuggets of gold that might have poetic potential.
Images work a little differently, although that process too requires a sieve. This time, the task is mostly left to my subconscious mind. If an image strikes me and lingers in memory long enough to sift itself down to a nugget of value, I know I can rely on it to rise when I need it. That horse, for example. Not only did her sudden beauty catch my eye as I drove the Missouri backroads, she came with accessories: a weathered fence, a windbreak of poplars, and a dusk changing shades so fast my words couldn’t keep up. I consciously stored away the visual and emotional experience, but I left that horse there in the mist to ripen (horses don’t ripen, but you know what I mean).
Later I read in a book on photography that the mind can see 500 shades of grey, and right on cue, the image of the horse appeared. Such pairings of fact or phrase with visual images of personal experience seem to happen all the time. The trick is to notice that they are happening and to start writing. (I’m seeing that horse in the mist as I write this response.)
As for Shakespeare, well, he’s Shakespeare. Who doesn’t love him? The year after I retired from teaching, I set myself the task of reading all the plays in order along with commentary. King Lear had been my favorite since college and, though I taught Macbeth and Othello for years and love them dearly, the staying power of Lear for me was unassailable. Both Cordelia’s death and the scene on the heath were especially poignant because I was caring for parents with dementia, and I knew my next grief was imminent. As a bonus, when you steep yourself in Shakespeare’s language and a scholarly study tells you that “cerements” is of Shakespearean coinage, you write it down in your brown spiral notebook.
This, then, is one of those times when a poem opens and invites you in. All you need to do is record your passage through its realm and feel grateful for the aha moments along the way. And then, of course, you edit it for two years.
You’ve published six collections of poetry, including your most recent collection, Walking the Mist (Ashland Poetry Press, 2021). In her praise of your book, Barbara Crooker says that your poems “resonate with images so perfect, they make me want to stand up and cheer.” What is something you’d love for readers to know about this collection?
First, that Barbara Crooker is a generous reader, not to mention a superb poet. Perhaps it’s worth noting that the task of shaping the poems in Walking the Mist into a book gave me trouble. Despite the four parts I ended up with, it is, I think, a triptych considering loss and grief in three different voices. The central panel (made up of parts 2 and 3) follows the years of my mother’s decline and death due to Alzheimer’s, my father’s parallel decline and death due to hurt and anger and age, and, in the aftermath, the course of my own grieving. In lyric tradition, these poems are written in first person but there’s no need to employ the convention of “the persona.” It’s my voice.
Both side panels (parts 1 and 4) do employ personas. Section one was begun maybe thirty years ago with individual poems drafted on a trip to Ireland. I couldn’t make them jell, and I couldn’t let them go. The key was handed to me by Fernando Pessoa: “And as for the mother who rocks a dead child in her arms,” he writes, “we all rock a dead child in our arms.” This was an aha moment, a gift that allowed me to gather the drafts and edit them around the story of a young woman, not me, who travels to Ireland to mourn the loss of a child and, as Pessoa reminds us, the child that she herself had been. His beautiful lines from The Book of Disquiet and The Keeper of Sheep followed me into part 4 where they serve as epigraphs, and it is out of the sensibility of his voice—a wiser and more meditative voice than I could have found without him—that I fashioned poems examining the large questions grief leads us to when we begin to grieve our own life and its certain loss.
Writers tend to write what haunts or obsesses them. What are some themes/topics that are important to your writing, or tend to show up a lot in your work?
My first volume of poems was titled A History of Disappearance. The poems in it had come from an attempt to gather and give meaning to losses I had been too young to understand when they occurred. David Ignatow, who chose my manuscript for publication, wrote in his introduction that this was “a prayerful book.” That took me by surprise, but he was right and I’m still working that territory, trying to find meaning in loss, seeking answers that, if they exist, exist beyond me.
What we have to lose in life is quite simply everything. In my work, I want to touch and handle and tongue and taste and bless as much of that everything as I can. I think the large answers are everywhere to be found. But time is short in its gorgeous unfoldings and relentless ongoingness. We aren’t here long, but, with good fortune, long enough to build a self, perhaps a soul. And then, too soon, we have to learn how to let it all go.
I’m not conscious of these motivations as I write, so what I just wrote above seems a mite highfalutin’, but when a poem seems right to me, it is invariably because it shapes a meaning new (to me) about time and loss and gratitude.
On a lighter note, I also love to write about critters—from octopuses to angels.
What craft element challenges you the most in your writing? How do you approach it? What is your quirk as a writer?
Two craft elements come to mind:
I’m obsessed with the sound of words. More and more I trust sound to choose my words. I feel what number of syllables, what vowel or consonant sounds, what stress patterns are needed — not after I’ve written what I mean to say, but in order to find out what I mean to say. Weird, I guess. But true.
I’ve also grown attached to a personal “Rule of Threes.” For a poem to feel worth working on for as long as I work on a poem, I like to approach from at least three directions hoping for an intersection in their future—like Cordelia’s death and the word “cerements” intersecting with the image of a horse at twilight and with that fortuitous fact about the 500 shades of gray. When and if those three roads meet in a draft, I feel as if I might have a poem on my hands.
As for quirks, well, I fight excessive dashes and colons. And is it a quirk or a craft element to edit a draft for two to ten years before I pronounce it finished? Oh, and I’m lousy at titles – which is one reason it’s nice to have a few trusted readers who point out the glaringly stupid ones to me.
What projects are you working on right now?
I’ve been working on a series of poems focused on artists in old age, more specifically, trying to identify how earlier life events manifest in a final drawing / painting / sculpture. I’m having fun with the research and with trying out different structures and points of view. For example, I used a triptych for Michelangelo’s third Pieta, a sestina spoken in the voice of Berthe Morisot, Hokusai offering advice to a student on “How To Paint Like Hokusai,” a museum visit that surprises the (invented) viewer with Agnes Martin’s tiny deathbed ink drawing. There are twelve so far. I may do these for the rest of my life. But that’s today. Yesterday, I wanted to burn the lot of them. Ah, Poetry.
Marjorie Stelmach has published six volumes of poems, most recently Walking the Mist, which was published in 2021 from Ashland Poetry Press. Her first book, Night Drawings, received the Marianne Moore Prize from Helicon Nine Editions. She was awarded the 2016 Chad Walsh Poetry Prize from The Beloit Poetry Journal. Her work has appeared in Arts & Letters, Boulevard, Cave Wall, Florida Review, Gettysburg Review, Hudson Review, Image, The Iowa Review, Miramar, New Letters, Notre Dame Review, Prairie Schooner and The Sow’s Ear Poetry Review, among others.