Marilyn McCabe is a widely pubished poet living just outside the blue line. She's the recipient of two New York State Council on the Arts Individual Artist grants. In addition to conducting writing workshops, she maintains a weekly blog, which is nothing short of elegant and well-considered meditations on all aspects of the writing life, samples of her work, including videopoems. https://marilynonaroll.wordpress.com/]
The Glass Factory (The Word Works, 2016)
Perpetual Motion (The Word Works, 2012)
Rugged Grace (Finishing Line Press, 2011)
And chapbooks written with Elaine Handley and Mary Shartle
Notes from the Fire Tower: Three Poets on the Adirondacks
Glacial Erratica: Three Poets on the Adirondacks, II
Rick: You have so many settings in your work.
Marilyn: I'm very interested in landscape, and the human connection to the landscapes of our history, or our proclivity. My dad was from Lilly, Pennsylvania, in the old Johnstown flood area. My memories are from infrequent trips up there as a very young child, but there's something about that dark landscape out there that stuck, even in my little third-grader brain. I'm originally from outside of Philadelphia, and then in fourth grade, moved to Glens Falls. My connection is actually to this landscape of upstate New York, even though my birth place was Delaware River bottomland.
I think the reason I'm a writer is because I notice things. So my earliest memories, not only of the Alleghenies, but of Philadelphia, were the fact that there were worms in the garden, and the feeling of tomato plant leaves, and turkey vultures, and pheasants in the underbrush. Those things keep my attention to this day. My eye is often on the sky. My husband and I, we go for bike rides, and I say, "Oh, did you see the eagles? Did you see the bluebird?" He's like, "No, I did not see any of those things. Will you stop making this stuff up?" When he rides he's staring down at the road. When I ride, I'm looking up and looking around.
But I think that writers are naturally detail suckers, don't you think?
Rick: In Glass Factory, you're paying attention to the night, to the night sounds and other sensations. Do darkness and light affect you in different ways?
Marilyn: I am interested in light and the effects of light and shadows. When night falls, I'm happy to be inside. But I feel bad about not paying more attention to what the stars are doing, and where the moon's at. But of course the imagery that I'm using isn't necessarily in response to what the thing is doing to me, the moon and the stars and whatever, but rather whatever else it is that I'm thinking about, and how those images can be used to bring attention to this other concern.
I think that's what poetry does. It talks about the thing you can't talk about through the thing you can.
Rick: You have considerable literary investment with the [Adirondack] area. Do you consider yourself a regional writer?
Marilyn: In the first three books that I did in collaboration with Mary Sanders Shartle and Elaine Handley, we deliberately set out to write about our region, and it was a useful exercise for me to find my way into other themes.
But I no longer consider myself to be a regional writer. Although, as I said, I'm deeply interested in landscape and the connection between the human spirit and the landscape. So, I've switched 'region' for being a 'wanderer of the world' in my poetry, thinking about connectivity in a larger way. Which is not to say that I don't use imagery that I gather around me every day, but just that I'm not that concerned about speaking about this particular place.
I'm using any number of things – place, or bird, or time of day – as a springing off point to wherever my thinking and feeling is going. Because otherwise you're just writing a poem about a bluebird, and that's nice, but that's not my ambition. That poem about the plateau in Norway, for example ("Hardangervidda Plateau, Norway" in Glass Factory), describes what I saw there but also implies something about the impossibility of time, and our limited understanding of time. I was thinking about that because this place is so forbidding, and so end-of-the-world feeling, that I was, in my head, falling off the end of the world into the fourth dimension of time, and the concept of time had been on my mind anyway. This place allowed me to talk about it.
I offer workshops at the Hyde Museum twice a year to generate new work. What I'm trying to get people to do is to lose themselves, their conscious selves, in the paintings we're looking at, and to let whatever concerns are inside them arise out of a direct response to what they're seeing, without worrying about being clever, or thoughtful. That's what I'm always trying to do with my poems. Let whatever is deep inside me at the moment come forth, in my looking at whatever I'm looking at.
Rick: Would it be appropriate to characterize your process as beginning from a state of mindlessness?
Marilyn: Or a self-lessness. I don't start there consciously. It's more of a larger ambition for what I'd like to be doing. Not to say that I do it on a regular basis, but it is what I strive for.
Rick: What's the role of memory?
Marilyn: Well, as I spoke about again and again in Glass Factory, I think memory is who we are. We're nothing, we're not a being in the world without our memory of the world.
My goal is to make as good use of my memory as I can. So trying to be a magpie, trying to be a crow about my memory, and collecting shiny things.
Rick: What kinds of things do you not pay attention to if it's about noticing? I assume if you're riding your bike and your husband's looking at the road, and you're looking at the sky, you're not interested in roads.
Marilyn: Yeah, I'm not that interested in roads. I don't write much about the urban scene. I don't write a whole lot about people. I don't find them jumping off points for my imagination, which was why I was an unsuccessful novelist.
Rick: How much is other people's feedback important to your writing process?
Marilyn: Rare nowadays. Yeah, very rare. As I said, I'm happy to read my poetry anywhere, but I no longer seek a lot of input.
Rick: Why do you read?
Marilyn: I find reading, in part, a useful editing tool. You can feel how words are flying or plummeting when you read them out loud to an audience, in a different way than when you just read them out loud in the quiet of your own studio. And when I am enjoying a poem, I enjoy reading it aloud, hope that other people are enjoying it too, and enjoy it while other people enjoy it.
Rick: There are several the poems in Glass Factorywhere I'm not quite sure if it's a celebration or . . .
Marilyn: Much of Glass Factory came about as I was dealing with my mother, she's 98 now, and this was taking place as her ability to live independently was clearly compromised. So all of my thinking at that time was about how age confuses us in the world, and how the world confuses age. And the absence of control as we age, and our trying to manage in the world, and the absence of control I had as a child, as a child of this woman who is being compromised by her age and her ability. My being able to see clearly her situation without a child's eyes, but with a cool assessor's eyes. It was all about those perspectives for me.
The other thing for me I kept being aware of was who the 'I' was in any situation with regard to my mother: was it the 'I' in the moment, or was the 'I' fearing my own aging? Or was it the empathic 'I' of me looking at this woman whom I know quite well. It's very tricky, very tricky to move through that journey.
Rick: What's the dominant issue in your struggle with, or happy to engage with, in Perpetual Motion?
Marilyn: I'm very interested in science. I was reading about time as a construct and I was also thinking about fate. I’m a lifelong atheist, but nevertheless interested that we have this persistent need to have something that feels larger than we are. And so a lot of the poems in Perpetual Motion came about thinking about those things.
Writing is an attempt to move out of the loneliness of being an individual, to some degree I would think. Otherwise why express? I mean, I could just sit in my chair and look at the woods.
Rick: Maybe it's a twisted cry in the dark.
Marilyn: Could be. But, again, a cry in the dark suggests that there's someone to hear it. And as an atheist from way back I can't assume that if anybody other than another person.
Rick: You think there's such a thing as a universal reader?
Marilyn: Yeah. We're all humans with a human experience.
What I'm working on right now actually is thinking about human communication, how inadequate language is to actual communication.
Rick: What are you reading now?
Marilyn: I am struggling mightily with essays by Marilynne Robinson. She's also a profound reader and thinker about the mystery of human thought and theology, all things that interest me. I mean, I'm relatively intelligent, I have a pretty good grasp of the English language, but, I don't have any idea of what she is talking about. So I'm crawling through that book, trying to grasp her ideas. I know she's got something interesting to say, but at the moment I can't quite get at it. And I'm reading poems from the latest Cortland Review. I just started one of those Sue Grafton mystery novels, just because I'm on vacation.
Oh, and I'm also reading a book about language, a book about the origin of language which is very interesting. I was an anthropology major, so some of that still informs my reading. This is a book called Every Word is a Bird We Teach to Sing, and it's by a guy who is autistic, and so comes at language as, as he puts it, a foreigner, sort of, himself. And he's only found his way to be comfortable with language as a translator. Very interesting.