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An Interview with Mary Jo Salter [by Aspen Matis]

Mary Jo Salter profile
Mary Jo
Salter is the author of eight poetry collections including A Kiss in Space, Open Shutters, Nothing by Design, and A Phone Call to the Future. Her most recent book of poems, The Surveyors, invites readers to evaluate and ponder the way things have turned out—for the poems’ speakers, and for us all—in this new century. In a tone of ironic wonderment in the face of life’s surprises, the collection reveals both puzzlement and acceptance.

I had the pleasure of corresponding with Ms. Salter via email about the radical nature of unexaggerated truth, the 17th century poets who inspire her, and the foresight and brilliance of the rare reliable critic. We also discussed her newest book-in-progress, Zoom Rooms.

Mary Jo SalterWhat is the most radical thing a poet can do in her work?

Tell the truth. I don’t mean “tell the facts,” of course; poetry isn’t reportage. What I love about my favorite poets, what makes them “radical,” is that they neither bury their emotions (though they might profit from reticence or obliquity as a style) nor, even worse, exaggerate them. They dare to speak truly about human experience—or some personal subset of experience—by means of the genuineness of their emotional register. I’m impatient with writers who profess to be overcome by joy or outrage or despair in the face of relatively minor daily events. On the other hand, I love the way some of our greatest poets elevate daily detail itself, the in-the-moment weight of being alive, to the point of bringing us to laughter (Larkin) or goosebumps (Dickinson) or tears. Elizabeth Bishop, an emotionally reticent poet, is a master of this weighted dailiness—think of what she makes, in “Sestina,” of an almanac and a teakettle and some buttons that look like tears.

You’ve served as an assistant editor for the Atlantic Monthly, as the poetry editor of The New Republic, and you were a co-editor of the fourth, fifth, and sixth editions of The Norton Anthology of Poetry. What was the most gratifying aspect of these editorial positions for you? What did you enjoy most about these jobs? Was there a common thread, a vein of gold each shared?

As a young slush-pile reader at The Atlantic, I wasn’t allowed to make decisions on my own; those were up to the poetry editor, the late Peter Davison. The happiest moment in my two years of opening envelopes at The Atlantic was in discovering some luminous poems by the self-described “late bloomer” Amy Clampitt, who had just started publishing a little. Peter did publish her, then and afterward. My writing her a fan letter (I was 24, she was 59) led to one of my richest literary friendships, which lasted for Amy’s final 15 years. I’ve edited two editions of her work and still serve as one of her literary executors, and I feel she is still present in some way every day of my life.

Being sole poetry editor at The New Republic was more challenging. But it was good aesthetic training to make independent choices for those three years. I gave up that job because of the demands of co-editing the Norton Anthology. And that experience—from 1992, when I started reading for the fourth edition, to the publication of the sixth edition in 2018—is too vast to encompass here. I’ll just say that it was an honor to be along for the ride with my co-editors Margaret Ferguson and Jon Stallworthy, and upon Jon’s death, Tim Kendall. They were modest souls, despite their erudition, and our literary taste was shared to such a degree that we could good-naturedly take each other’s suggestions. It was a given that we mere humans couldn’t possibly arrive at a definitive canon. Being humbled by that fact was actually freeing.

What 17th and 18th century poets do you read? And what has their work awakened in you?

What a wonderful question! It just so happens that I spend a lot of my mental life in the 17th century. No poet has brought me more pleasure than Shakespeare (though my main attachment is to the plays), and then the 17th also includes Donne, Milton, and Herbert. I wrote my master’s thesis at Cambridge about Herbert, and an epigraph by him appears as an opening to my first book. I wrote a play once about Milton meeting Galileo (an encounter which actually happened), and I’ve slipped a scene from Paradise Lost into the title poem of my most recent book, The Surveyors. This is what happens to my literary crushes, I guess: they become characters in my work.

The affinity I feel with the 17th century extends to Dutch paintings of the period (I can think of at least four poems I’ve written about them). Maybe my answer here relates to your first question. I feel that the best artistic work of the 17th century tells the truth—from the hyper-realist still lifes to the low-rent tavern scenes to the warmly humanist portraits. That truth extends to the amusingly vulgar love poems of Donne, or to that side of Shakespeare that invents Falstaff or the “rude mechanicals.” It’s an era that is formally ingenious, a brainy feature that delights me. And yet the era aspires to purity of feeling, which finds no better exemplar than in Herbert. His feeling of inadequacy before the splendors of God’s creation is sincere, but the self-demanding craft by which he becomes a “creator” is, to me, almost super-humanly perfect.

Are there any reliable critics? If so, who, and why is his or her perspective useful? If no, why not?

Certainly there are reliable critics. You may rely upon their values, even if you disagree ultimately with a particular judgment. Great poetry critics aren’t always practitioners, but most of my favorites are. No poem Wordsworth ever wrote was better than his prose preface to the Lyrical Ballads: he uncannily anticipated our sensationalist age, and the small, quiet, but necessary role poetry could play in counteracting it. Closer to our own time, nobody’s criticism seems better than Auden’s—not merely the witty, epigrammatic essays in The Dyer’s Hand (which Joseph Brodsky rightly said should be every poet’s Bible) but the insights he embeds in poems. Auden’s elegies for Yeats and for MacNeice are disquisitions on why art matters, but not more than existence; and his long prose poem at the end of The Sea and the Mirror, in which Caliban sounds more like Henry James, does the same.

What are you working on now? What creative pursuits most excite you, today?

I have a sonnet sequence about our current techno-human pandemic age that is the title poem of my forthcoming collection of poems, Zoom Rooms. I have no aptitude for science, but the history of science fascinates me, and projections about its future even more. What I’m trying to do is to write poems that might last a while, by means of addressing universal human concerns; and yet I feel compelled to engage with the speedily changing, cyborgian flavor of contemporary life. Our descendants may find it more interesting to read poems that were written by machine-learning machines than by old-fashioned humans. I was about to say “we’ll see”—but we won’t. We’ll just have to keep on writing.

February 18, 2021

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November 26, 2020

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