Good morning again.
I have so many poets I wanted to interview that I’m going to have to scramble to get them all in. Too many worthy subjects…
(Update: the kind wizard behind the curtain at Best American Poetry just extended my week blogging to get to them all. Thank you, Benevolent Wizard!).
Today is Cate Marvin.
I can’t remember exactly when I met Cate: a misty recollection--something about us sitting on a bar banquette maybe 12 years ago, with Kevin Prufer as a vaguely alarmed buffer wedged between. I do remember deciding I was going to actively befriend Cate in the most full contact way possible. I loved her attitude. I loved her sunglasses and her “This Is What A Feminist Looks Like” t-shirt. In the face of my determination, her resistance was futile.
But before the person, I loved the poems: Cate’s dense, sinuously interwoven stanza structures. The precise, often formal syntax pushed up against subjects full of surprise, startling observations, and dramatic energy. I loved the changeling tension between her poems’ black humor and vulnerability.
Cate’s first book, World’s Tallest Disaster, announced one of those voices you feel is suddenly thrust upon you fully formed, like a late 20th century Athena popped up whole from Zeus’s brain-splitting headache. Cate’s forthcoming collection, Oracle, due from Norton in early 2015, takes that undeniable quality of voice and sends it into hyper drive. Can’t wait to have it in hand.
The following was done in the moments between trying to finish the long lists of things we’re both on deadline for. Cate and I share the attention disorder of habitual over-committers:
Cate, you are known in the poetry world for what some have called “The Marvin Death Stare.” I know your daughter Lucia has inherited this, too. Actually, Lucia’s death stare is even more intense than yours, which is a disconcerting thing to see on the face of an adorable kindergartner.
Where does the death stare come from? How many generations of death-starers are there in your family?
What you refer to as “The Marvin Death Stare” is actually descended from the VanKirk family line. My daughter and I got it from my mother, who can freeze you out with a single look that’ll make your very blood cells tremble. She used to shoot it at me when I was a kid to let me know I'd fucked up. After a while I began to think it was funny. When she tries to use it on me now, I just laugh.
But now that I think about it, my father is capable of giving a pretty evil stare himself. And that makes me recall the very appalling and deadly stare of his mother, which I'd later see in the eyes of my cousin's daughter. So I guess it is in fact genetic.
Half the time, I’m not even aware I'm giving the death stare. I'm probably just in a state of concentration, trying to remember which groceries I need to get. I guess my face takes on that look when I'm concentrating, even when dwelling on the mundane.
It comes in handy, however, if I want to kill someone with a look, someone I deeply despise, and the latest someone was a kid at a birthday party my daughter went to. She was watching my daughter (who was admittedly acting like a total freak) and turned to her friend to mutter, "She's WEIRD." Overhearing this, I focused hard on this child and tried to pour molten lava over her through beaming rays of hate from my eyes. The kid did end up looking a little uncomfortable.
It became apparent that my daughter had inherited the death stare before the age of two. She gave one of her daycare teachers THE LOOK, and then actually rolled her eyes. Total stink-eye. I couldn't believe it. I would have been embarrassed if I hadn’t felt so proud.
This takes me to another thing I wanted to ask you about, i.e. intensity—there’s a dude who a few years back admonished both you and me for turning what he saw as Plath’s influence in our work into a kind of (insert sneer) competency. He was using us an example of writers whose work is promoted by the MFA universe, which is apparently populated by zombies. I got the sneaky feeling he doesn’t like our poems.
As for myself, whatever else anyone may fairly say sucks about my work, stylistically, thematically, I don’t have much in common with Plath, other than having been born with the same set of parts, a willingness to own anger as a thing human beings feel occasionally, and a female subject position that is sometimes apparent in my work. I’m gonna say it’s a superficial comparison.
But you, Cate Marvin, do recognize Plath’s influence, especially in your forthcoming book Oracle (due from Norton is 2015). You’re definitely having a chat with Sylvia in this next book.
Beyond irritation, how do you respond to the suggestion that we’re both boiled-down Plath made safe for academia?
You know I think that being compared to Plath is a compliment, and I think she would have admired the certain stringency in your work. But you're too pokey and too interested in the daily to be readily compared to Plath. It's funny to find you and me (and Plath!) boiled down in a statement, because this is just the sort of thing you see happen all the time to Sexton and Plath. (Though I am proud to boiled down with you, Erin, in any literary pot, and perhaps this is a recipe Carl could attempt one of these days.)
Now, if you are going to make those kinds of statements, you might just want to sit down and read the work, and maybe think a little bit harder, because it is straight-up obvious that while Plath and Sexton are working some similar angles (along with the other Confessionals) they are VERY DIFFERENT writers. They both get slammed. Plath "strong-arms" the reader. Sexton is "indecent." Basically, these ladies are not very lady-like, and so it seems their work somehow doesn't deserve to be read outside the context of their lives and/or gets thrown into some kind of moral stink-tank where people get their knickers in a twist because someone's writing toward a newness some don't wish to recognize or comprehend.
But I never read the piece you're quoting from. It doesn't actually bother me a whole lot, if at all. I mean: who cares? I guess I have to admit I'm not interested in defending myself from what I guess is maybe an attack, and this is not due to laziness, but rather because I ALWAYS find the whole MFA PROGRAM = BAD conversation really pointless. This is what I think of MFA programs: THANK GOD THEY EXIST. I was a secretary for a year and a half after college, had zero time to write, and was so grateful after that to spend a few years in a place that valued my work and existed as a space specifically created to nurture writers.
I think the term "confessional" is lobbed against women writers in a very predictable manner. If you write something "personal" and it happens to be from a female perspective, it's somehow not "art." Go read Sexton's amazing poem "For John, Who Begs Me Not to Inquire Further." She makes a clean argument, and levels the ground: "My kitchen, your kitchen."
I wasn't aware I'd been boiling down Plath into a "competency." Maybe I have been! All I know if I'm trying to write the best poems I can write. They're not all going to be good. I mean, come on. I'm doing my best here! And I hope my work will continue to test itself and transform over the next few decades as I finish out this here life. I think the thing a poet can most hope for is to be challenged by his/her/their work. I try to be open to what comes, and not worry about the fashions and criticisms that surround me (the living, breathing me)-- as such, I read mostly dead poets. Which may be why I did not know this guy cared about me so much as to detest me. Le sigh.
The truth is I’ve held off from reading Plath deeply over the past decade or more because I’ve recognized that she’s an all too substantial influence on my work. However, there are poems in my forthcoming book, Oracle, that pay homage to her. Some of this is due to a congruence of events that occurred over the past couple of years. First, I went to a Plath Symposium of the U of Indiana in the fall of 2012, and it was thrilling. I felt very connected to her, and to those who love her work. Second, I was teaching her work during the time the Steubenville rape case was so prominent. It then so happened I was asked by the Academy of American Poets to write a poem for the 50th anniversary of Plath’s death. I had a lot of mixed feelings about doing this. But in the end I came to (I hope!) weave together her narrative with the Steubenville case, because I think the scene in The Bell Jar in which Esther is nearly raped feels very contemporary. Oracle also houses a suicide, that of a girl who has been sexually compromised (though this narrative very much lurks at the baseline of the book). Finally, there are poems in the book that I like to think would have cracked Sylvia Plath up. She was one funny motherfucker.
Leaving aside the fact that you just referred to my poems as “pokey,” (LEAVING THIS ASIDE, CATE), I imagine he would say his critique wasn’t intended to be personal. But it does hit me as lazy, in that too many critics feel comfortable having a frame of reference for all of about five to ten women poets throughout history in total. And to actually know Cate Marvin is to like Cate Marvin, of this I feel certain.
Though, it is true, when we first met back in the day, it was me who hit you amiss. (I won’t bring up the touchy subject of the AWP sternum jabbing incident again, though I have Mark Bibbins as a witness if it comes to a deposition). You definitely found me to be an acquired taste.
I find a number of my good female friendships in poetry have started with this thankfully short-lived but wary dynamic. Do you think the business of poetry and publishing pits women against one another? Why or why not?
For the record, I never poked you. You and Bibbins made that shit up. I was raised as way too much of a WASP to even consider touching a stranger, much less poke them in the sternum. (Even while drunk at a bar at AWP.)
But it is true I did not care for you at one time. And that's because people told me you didn't like me! And I was threatened by you, saw you as a rival after you got a job over me, and I really needed to get over myself to recognize that you and I actually had quite a bit in common.
I suspect women can be inclined to hate one another in the manner they hate themselves. I mean, is it not obvious that we are trained to hate ourselves? I used to have the luxury of time to spend a great deal of it depressed, and I would solemnly slog over to Walgreens to buy a stack of women's magazines and a pack of smokes. Then I'd spend the evening reading through these magazines and feel even worse about myself and my entire fucking life. I stopped reading these mags at some point, mostly because they no longer published good articles (it used to be you could find great articles by super smart women on topics like skin creams-- I always loved to see language artfully weave itself around these seemingly inconsequential matters).
So, even prior to having my baby, I opted out. I had this reckoning with myself as a woman in her thirties, and I made myself come to grips with the fact that vanity would not serve me well into my future as an older woman. It had come time for me to recognize I would no longer be the __________ -iest woman in the room. And when women compete with one another we do not serve to improve our situation.
When I had my kid, I was forced to give up my customary evenings of indulgent melancholy. And it was at that time that I saw myself in a larger context, and that context was WOMEN. I saw I had way more in common with women, everywhere I went, as they too were dealing with trying to get the goddamned car-seat snapped into the stroller, they too were sleepless and raccoon-eyed and covered with spit-up . . . and I got over myself. I recognized that the female poets I was most threatened by were exactly the ones with whom I wanted to be in conversation. So, yeah, in that way, I guess, I came to love other women because I finally made peace with myself. I no longer had the time or energy to inwardly project the deep-seated loathing that’s continually funneled through all of us by the media.
Yet I think we're now living and writing in a time in which women just are not as interested in bringing one another down. That we recognize we all have to deal with the same shit, and that by sticking together and talking about it we have a real shot at making the changes we want to see actually happen.
Speaking of women’s magazines, despite you having chucked in the patriarchy's gym towel, you really are the most idiosyncratically stylish woman I know. With the sparkle clogs and boots and the leather jackets and the hyper animated socks paired with really excellent jewelry.
How do you square this with your feminism? Why don’t you do as many other women intellectuals in academia and buy boxy, faux Guatemalan jackets at Chico’s that make your hips look disproportionately wide and be done with it?
Are you, to use the phrase of the moment, a bad feminist?
One of the nice things about being a “woman” is the fact we have so many options available to us as far as fashion is concerned. It’s for this reason I love having a daughter. She really has fun expressing herself through her clothes. And she is an outrageous dresser.
It is part of my feminism – on a purely personal level – that makes me uncomfortable with the idea of wearing skirts, dresses, and any clothes that are “revealing.” I don’t want my body on display. It makes me uncomfortable to attract attention that way. Like I said, that’s just me.
[*Heteronormative Statement Warning*] My boyfriend recently told me he’d like to see me in something other than jeans. Later, he made a suggestion that implied he’d like to see me wear a skirt. And I reacted kind of violently, telling him (true to our times, in a text message): “Okay, I need you to understand something. I don't wear skirts because I don't like them. I don't like wearing them. I don't own any. I don't want to own any. If it's my legs you want to see, you can see them whenever you like in private.”
Then I realized I was being really unnecessarily cranky, so I followed up by saying: “Okay, why don't you show me what you have in mind? I'll try to be open to your ideas.”
And here’s why I love this guy. He says in response: “I don't give a shit what you wear. More teasing than anything. I'll wear the skirt if I can find a nice one.”
I can’t help but appreciate a man who refuses to take his “masculinity” too seriously.
Now, Erin, you’re going to think I’m cranky (and you know how I tend to get cranky about these matters) when I say it is in fact bad feminism to criticize women for shopping at Chico’s. My mom likes to shop there, and there are tons of super badass female academics I know who rock those clothes. So I won’t lower myself, Erin, by taking a cheap shot at that particular genre of fashion, especially because I rather admire it. Wearing clothes that don’t aggressively flatter the body in the way that’s expected strikes me as quite a natural choice. Plus, I’ve been known to shop at Chico’s.
There. I said it.
But there have been times when I have thought that I might want to consider dressing differently, as if it might be in my best interest to consider donning a sort of disguise, so as to be more respected in the workplace. Because I tend to wear a pretty “young” look (jeans, and more jeans): because, yeah, these are the clothes in which I feel most like myself.
The fact is, I’m not terribly imaginative when it comes to fashion. A friend of mine once opened my closet and, on seeing about twenty pairs of matching black clogs, said, “I’m worried about you.” I say, figure out what works for you and buy twenty pairs of it. Buy it in varying shades so no one suspects that you just can’t be bothered to do your laundry.
Simplicity is the key. My first fashion idol was Batgirl. She of the black suit and red hair. All covered up, but shapely, and not to be messed with. Nothing frivolous about her.
Though one thing I love about poets is despite how serious they are about their words, they love THINGS. Show me a poet who doesn’t have some odd collection of brik-a-brac, whether it’s books, jewelry, or furniture. Poets are all about thingyness. We love most the details. And I love that about us.
As for being “good” or “bad”—don’t binaries suck? What’s so goddamn great about Literature is that it resists such categories, as does humanity, inherently.
Feminism? I think one is strongest in their sense of FEMINISM when s/h/ze allows his/her/their idea of it to take different shapes, that is, is willing to allow it to be redefined in conversation with others. The meaning must be shared and, thus, continually altered, to retain meaning. That’s what keeps it alive and necessary for me as just another person trying to navigate this fucked up world on a day-to-day basis.
Wow. That is an incredibly smart, nuanced response, Cate. The only thing I can say at this point is:
HAHAAHAHA, YOU SHOP AT CHICOS!!!
Thank you, Cate Marvin; this has been a very edifying conversation.
I don’t even know who’s up tomorrow. I think Dana Levin. So please tune in because Dana always has a lot of interesting opinions to share.