In The Field: Conversations With Our Contributors- Maryann Corbett
In The Field is a blog series devoted to highlighting the writing life and artistic process of our contributors. This week we continue with our series now featuring contributors from our most recent issue, Vo. 21 “Bodies Worth Defending”.
1. Tell us about your poem, “In Code,” in Volume 21. How did it come to be?
For about thirty-five years, I worked for the Office of the Revisor of Statutes, a nonpartisan office of the Minnesota Legislature that drafts bills and publishes the state’s laws. I was hired in 1981, as a newly minted PhD, to help attorneys learn to draft the law in plain English. When I first began working there, I was shocked to discover what tight constraints there are on the syntax patterns and the vocabulary of statutory law. Compared to literary language, it’s like a straitjacket. I got used to it, but I never lost the memory of the initial shock, and that memory is what birthed the poem.
2. What excites you as a writer? What turns you off, makes you turn away or stop reading a piece of writing?
If by “excites” you mean the excitement that starts a poem, I like Kay Ryan’s statement that poems are like pearls: they start with an irritation. A minor irritation may not dictate a poetic form, but I’ve found that genuine anger very often produces sonnets—something about harnessing strong energy, I guess. I enjoy turning the energy of irritation into good sound and giving shape to an argument at the same time.
What turns me off in reading is writing that doesn’t respect the need for appealing sound, writing that’s too plain, that doesn’t surprise me.
3. What craft element challenges you the most in your writing? How do you approach it? What is your quirk as a writer?
I find it very difficult to write real free verse. My quirkiest habit is my need to have a meter in mind before I start writing, and most of my poems end up at least roughly metrical. I’ve said this before: I think of rhyme as a ladder down into the dark of the subconscious and of meter as the underground spring I find there.
4. What books, writers, art, or artists inspire you and your work? Do–or have–you had any mentors in your writing life?
I was a medievalist before I came back to poetry, and the Old and Middle English sources remain a big influence. I’ve done a fair amount of translation of medieval poems; several such pieces are in my third book, Mid Evil, the 2014 Richard Wilbur Award winner.
As for mentors, I’ll always be grateful to Anna George Meek, fellow Twin Cities poet and fellow choral singer. During my first years of returning to poetry, she’d give me rides home from choir and I’d pepper her with all manner of embarassingly basic questions about writing and submitting.
I’m also grateful to the poets who participated in the online poetry discussion board Eratosphere. They gave patient critique to my early work, and they still listen to my kvetching about the vagaries of the writing life. Perhaps Eratosphere is the reason I nearly always begin poems in meter. Perhaps all those years studying older poetry are an even stronger reason.
5. Do you practice any other art forms? If so, do these influence your writing and/or creative process?
For most of my life, I’ve been a choral singer, and most of that singing has been done in church choirs. The language of liturgy and of theology absolutely influences the symbols I think in. “In Code” is an example of that. My love of meter probably has something to do with psalm and hymn texts, too.
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