Poetry Today features living poets answering questions about poetry and poetics.
Madeleine Wattenberg is the author of I/O (University of Arkansas Press, 2021). Her work appears in places such as Salamander Magazine, The Rumpus, Puerto del Sol, sixth finch, Poetry Daily, and Best New Poets. She is a PhD candidate at the University of Cincinnati and serves as Associate Editor for the Cincinnati Review.
Apart from informing her that not all poems need to rhyme, I don’t think I would tell my younger self anything about being a poet. As a kid, I would find a rock by the sea to serve as a desk and attempt to transcribe the wind. I know a lot about poetry now that I didn’t used to know, but I think that young poet knew something I no longer know—something about that edge where language meets the elements before canon and category and theory. She didn’t have many ideas about poetry, except that her heart felt a little bigger when she wrote it. It’s admittedly a childhood romanticization, but I’m quite a theoretical thinker now and rarely feel that immediacy.
It also turns out that my wind transcription abilities were terrible. I wasn’t, by any definition, naturally gifted. I was lucky to not have anyone point this out to me. I don’t say this to be humble but because I find it really reassuring that there are so many teachers, every poem is a teacher, and when I write now and think all my arrangements are dull, overworked, going nowhere, I know I can seek a new teacher and try again. It’s okay to get there through the work.
One collection I return to for “discovery” is Lo Kwa Mei-en’s The Bees Make Money in the Lion (Cleveland State University Press, 2016), which narrates a (clearly not-so-distant) future mission to colonize mars. Mei-en’s poems probe the boundary of poetic form and subsequently of border, alien, and citizenship—all by using spectacularly intricate abecedarians that spiral through the English alphabet in increasingly complex patterns. This relentless virtuosity calls into question the relationship between English “mastery,” race, gender, and ex/inclusion in the colonizing pastoral project of the United States. By writing sci-fi within rigid form, Mei-en both exemplifies and denies poetry’s systems on and off the page.
It’s really important to consider the ways categories simultaneously render poets (and their subjects) visible and invisible—I’ve learned a lot from poet-critics like Evie Shockley about this process. Her discussion in Renegade Poetics (University of Iowa Press, 2011) about Ed Roberson (another poet everyone should read) was crucial to my understanding of how categories can limit an understanding of what poets are accomplishing in their work at both individual, national, even global levels of reception. Anthologies like Camille Dungey’s Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry (University of George Press, 2009) repair harm caused by reductive categorizations. It shouldn’t be news to anyone that Black poets are integral to eco-poetics. I also think there’s a readerly responsibility to think about how we’re categorizing a text as we approach it and what we may be erasing about the work with the assumptions we bring if we only see it as one thing.
Questions of poetry’s purpose overwhelm me because the answers feel multi-directional, personal, political, necessary. Instead, I’m going to pivot to one particular concern and the poets who have helped me think through it: who or even what gets to constitute an “I”—and what are the boundaries suggested by the “I” too? I ask this question where poetry meets environmental justice. How can the poem’s “I” be a body amongst bodies, both human and nonhuman? They’re questions connected to the legacy of humanism and its limited idea of what constitutes the “human,” but also the permeable boundaries of an “I” and where it lives in this phase of environmental crisis. Luckily, there are many poets to assist with this thinking. From its cover art to polyphonic use of “I” and “i,” Canisia Lubrin’s The Dysgraphxst (Penguin, 2020) offers a proliferation of Black subjectivities and selves that refuse a singular shape: in her words, “what was human once / must be human again.” I am obsessed with the lichen-like typographical strategies that Brenda Hillman uses in Extra Hidden Life, among the Days (Wesleyan University Press, 2018), as well as her reaching “~i~”. I also turn to Oliver Baez Bendorf’s wonderful Advantages of Being Evergreen (Cleveland State University Press, 2019), his use of collective voice, his incorporation of animal imagery to decenter the human eye and re-conceptualize masculinity. I suppose I’m saying that one of poetry’s purposes is to expose, to imagine alternatives to, the received concepts and definitions harbored by language that are used to normalize systemic violence.
I revise under the constant duress of knowing that any decision I make requires discarding a hundred other options, whether it’s placing a comma or a poem in a collection. (I certainly don’t advise revising with this in mind, but I can’t seem to rid myself of it!) For this reason, nothing about the arrangement of I/O felt necessary. In retrospect, it now seems that nothing could be moved—but more in the way a bunch of popsicles might melt and refreeze after congealing together. I can’t see a way to separate them anymore.
I did want to honor my resistance to chronological narrative without being unforgiving toward my reader. A long epistolary sequence became the scaffolding that I fit other poems around. I wanted the last poems to revise the beginning and the beginning to revise the end. I discarded section numbers and titles but kept most of the poems with a younger speaker at the beginning of the collection for some grounding. Epigraphs offer a central idea for each section, but I’m not sure I’d keep them if I were to do it again. My ideal book would function as a spinning circle rather than something with a front and a back.=
Luckily, my next collection is developing as several long poems, which will reduce the number of decisions I need to make in its organization. It’s about industrial food production, water systems, and algae—so the ordering will follow a cause-and-effect logic more than I/O as it traces environmental connections. Each poem already exists in multiple versions. I do think bold revision rewards. It may end up being a book that is just several revisions of one long poem.
FOR MY READERS
The largest compliment is when a reader is compelled to stop reading what I’ve written to go write something of their own.
Experiences don’t have to be resolved before they’re worth sharing, and I hope this is something readers can take away about their own experiences and stories too. It was important for me to not impose narrative or closure in I/O where I felt there was none—memory is always under construction, unfinished, repetitive, and so I think poems can be too. I also encounter readers who are focused on and sometimes frustrated by, understanding. I consider poems as ongoing experiments that begin with the writing but continue with the reader. One large theme in the collection is transformation, both scientific and mythic. I/O is full of juxtapositions as the speaker attempts to make sense of her experiences. What sense or agency does the language of science offer? What about the language of myth? Or family? And when are they useless? The title refers to the Io from Greek myth, but also to I and other, input and output, iodine, eye, and owe. The male beloveds ended up blurring together—I became much more interested in what women owe and can offer each other as they navigate patriarchy.
Readers also don’t have to take anything from the collection—I’m grateful for their willingness to be part of its experiment.
Victoria Kennefick is a poet, writer and teacher from Shanagarry, Co. Cork now based in Co. Kerry, Ireland. She holds a doctorate in English from University College Cork and studied at Emory University and Georgia College and State University as part of a Fulbright Scholarship. Her pamphlet, White Whale (Southword Editions, 2015), won the Munster Literature Centre Fool for Poetry Chapbook Competition and the Saboteur Award for Best Poetry Pamphlet. Her work has appeared in Poetry, The Poetry Review, PN Review, Poetry Ireland Review, The Stinging Fly, Poetry News, Prelude, Copper Nickel, The Irish Times, Ambit, bath magg, Banshee and elsewhere. She won the 2013 Red Line Book Festival Poetry Prize and many of her poems have also been anthologized and broadcast on national radio stations. A recipient of a Next Generation Artist Award from the Arts Council of Ireland, she has also received bursaries from Kerry County Council and Words Ireland. She was a co-host of the Unlaunched Books Podcast and is on the committee of Listowel Writers’ Week, Ireland’s longest-running literary festival. Her new collection is Eat or We Both Starve (Carcanet Press, 2021).
In response to a questionnaire in Horizon in 1946, Robert Graves said, “To be a poet is a condition, not a profession.” This resonates with me, especially when I finally sit down at my desk, having bribed, cajoled and fought with myself to get there, not to mention with my little one who isn’t always so convinced by her mother’s desire to write, and wonder why I do it. No one is waiting for my poems. The world will turn just fine without them and really, there are more than enough books (there are never enough books!). So why do I do it? What has this practice, and it is a practice, taught me?
I have written since I was seven years old. I realized early on that books were a portal into other people’s thoughts and I was so curious about other people. I couldn’t believe there was so much available to me through reading. All this knowledge! All this intrigue! I was drawn to poetry because that was where writers seemed to be at their most open and honest. Reading a poem was like a shot of truth in the arm, truth in a world where children are often lied to and distracted away from the more existential, scary elements of life. This is necessary to a degree, but I was like a tiny, tireless detective, I knew there were elements of life hidden from me, particularly in relation to death and sex, and I was determined to find out all about them regardless of my age—I had to know everything. I investigated and found the answers to some of my questions, but I discovered even more questions, bigger questions, deeper questions. I saw that poets were, and are, the communicators of the soul, of the emotional inner life. My people! They thought like me! They questioned like me! They hurt like me! They wanted to kiss words like me! It was a relief, honestly, to find this community.
I wish I could tell my younger poet that this is enough, that being a poet is a condition. It isn’t about getting published, or winning awards, or being recognized, it is about turning up every day to the page, giving it time because it is important to you. And someday, what you write might be important to others too, though that is secondary. I would tell myself; you are not strange, your brain isn’t broken, you’re just a poet. That is all. Be that. But don’t be just that. Don’t let that obsession distract you from trying different things, or from being in your body. Poetry isn’t an escape; it is a channel. I was very afraid of my body’s perceived weaknesses, so I spent a lot of time avoiding that and writing instead. It felt good to write, and I got attention for it—positive attention from adults, which I craved. Teachers liked it. It very quickly became ‘my thing,’ just as running fast was another’s ‘thing,’ and drawing horses was another’s. I embraced this identity and internalized it. I practiced writing poems throughout childhood, adolescence and early adulthood.
Then I forgot, I forgot and got distracted by boys, academia and my father’s illness. I got distracted until my father died. And then I never needed poetry more. Those muscles I had built up over all those years flexed again, got stronger. I started to submit my writing to publications, because why not? I was already in such pain, more didn’t matter. Rejection didn’t matter and so writing and reading poetry regularly became part of my life again. I felt better. My people! And my world opened, I stepped in, and I kept walking.
I have recently started weight training—something, as a self-confessed weakling—I never thought possible for me. Surprise, I love it! Surprise, my trainer speaks about weightlifting in the same way I speak about poetry. I attend many alternative practitioners for various ailments. They all make me feel better. Surprise, my craniosacral therapist speaks about craniosacral therapy in the same way I talk about poetry! This is what I have learned, for whatever reason—accident of birth, influence of others, affirmations, natural inclinations—we are drawn to certain practices. The more we engage with these practices, the more we grow, the more we progress, the more we write, or lift weights, or draw horses or whatever. The trick is finding that something that excites and motivates you.
So, why? Why do I go to my desk? Because it expands my world, because it channels and calms my loud, insistent, melancholy, hyperactive brain. It is a medium for focus and flow. Find that, dear reader, find that and follow it!
In 1987, Poetry Ireland Review published an article titled, “Who is Ireland’s Most Neglected Poet—A Survey.” Though the introduction to the article states confidently that they put the question to ‘a wide range of Irish poets—of both sexes and several generations,’ while the latter appears to be true, the former is most certainly not. Out of the twenty-two respondents, precisely zero were women. Each of these respondents picked one or two poets to champion. Out of their choices, precisely zero were women. I can’t imagine what it must have been like to be a woman poet at this time and feel so extraordinarily excluded from this discourse and, ironically, neglected in every possible sense. And when I think of the women poets in Ireland writing at this time, in the 1980s – Eavan Boland, Eileán Ní Chuilleanáin, Medbh McGuckian, Catherine Walsh, Vona Groake, Mary Dorcey, and what foremothers they may have selected, exposing readers to a world of female perspectives, I am angry at this unforgivable omission, one of many before, and unfortunately since, but not surprised.
Fortunately, Poetry Ireland Review, now under the editorship of Colette Bryce, endeavors to be a diverse, open space for writers of all identities and backgrounds in Ireland and beyond. It, like many other spaces, has become more aware of those voices that have traditionally been side-lined and ignored. But this lacuna in the history of Irish poetry is still vast. This year, David Wheatley and Ailbhe Darcy, both poets and academics, edited an essential new volume, A History of Irish Women’s Poetry (Cambridge University Press, 2021) which attempts to address this neglect and erasure. There are countless women poets in this volume who are more than worthy of our consideration. Mary Dorcey (born 1950) deserves particular attention I think being the first woman to write and speak to support LGBTQIA+ Rights in Ireland in her own name. She has published six collections of poetry with Salmon Poetry, as well as a novel, a novella and a short story collection.
I love her poem, “Return” for its beautiful description of same-sex love as two women meet and embrace at the train station in defiance of an outside world that is still shocked by their attraction and public display of affection, “…- the aggrieved faces/ such a fuss–/for a woman!” So lightly and deftly done, it highlights the ridiculousness, and viciousness, of small-town Irish homophobia. I have been inspired by Dorcey’s authenticity, luminosity and the color she brings to personal, yet universal representations of love, loss, grief and inequality. I particularly enjoy this quote from her I came across in Studi irlandesi. A Journal of Irish Studies (2015), where she discusses how pain can be used as an instrument for discovery and creation:
In general, most artists would agree that the lens that sharpens perception most is the one of sorrow and regret. Because when you’re happy, you are absorbed in it. If you are looking back at a joyful experience, it’s a little more blurred. But [when people] tell you about some deep injury, loss and grief, they discover a surgical precision, a vividness, and color. I think that pain is an instrument to be used, like a surgeon’s scalpel: it makes the best cut, and it opens a wider door to something, a window into a deeper element of emotion and experience. (Mary Dorcey, “Interview”)
So many wonderful contemporary Irish women poets wield that scalpel with great effect—I urge you to seek out the work of Ailbhe Darcy, Martina Evans, Caitríona O’Reilly, Tara Bergin, Sinéad Morrissey, Elaine Feeney, Vona Groarke, Colette Bryce, Leontia Flynn, Moyra Donaldson, Rita Ann Higgins, Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, Doireann Ní Ghríofa, Aoife Lyall, Aifric McGlinchy, Audrey Molloy, Miriam Gamble, Aifric MacAodha, Julie Morrissy, Annemarie Ní Churreáin, Ailbhe Ní Ghearbhuigh, Moya Cannon, Jessica Traynor, Christine Murray, Eleanor Hooker, Leeanne Quinn, Paula Meehan, Liz Quirke, Emily Cooper, Chiamaka Enyi-Amadi, Racheal Hegarty, Leanne O’Sullivan, Felicia Olusanya (FeliSpeaks), Rosamund Taylor, Kathy D’Arcy, Jess Mc Kinny, Eva Griffin, Alice Kinsella, Nidhi Zak/Aria Eipe, Mary Noonan, Roísín Kelly, Mary O’Donnell, Breda Wall Ryan, Dimitra Xidous, Maeve O’Sullivan… GO!
The poet, Dorothy Molloy, is also mentioned in A History of Irish Women’s Poetry. Her debut collection, Hare Soup (Faber, 2004), landed dramatically, though tragically Molloy died just weeks before its publication. There have been three posthumous collections since, Gethsemane Day (Faber, 2006), Long Distance Swimmer (Salmon, 2009) and The Poems of Dorothy Molloy (Faber, 2019). I had read a few of Molloy’s poems as a younger poet, and was certainly struck by them, but had my head turned by the Americans like Plath and Sexton. Molloy was much closer to home and therefore dangerous somehow. It was the Irish poet, academic, critic and editor, John McAuliffe who recommended I read her again, just as I was finishing up the edits for my first poetry collection, Eat or We Both Starve (Carcanet, 2021). And I did. I was so taken aback by our similarities. It was uncanny, unsettling, and thrilling to see how my words chimed with hers. I found this particularly the case with her second posthumous collection, Gethsemane Day which begins with a poem “Barbie” with these as its opening lines, “I made a doll with plasticine/ and spit; a witless,/empty-headed thing.” One of the poems in my collection, “Doll Game,” also describes Barbie in the first few lines, “I enjoyed nodding/my Barbie’s heads vigorously/so the toggle allowing them to bow/broke each moulded neck./The sound of the crack reassuring.” They are not the same, but clearly the echo of Molloy’s words found their way, by some strange alchemy, into mine.
Molloy can change tone and register with such skill and ease, being deliberately and effectively shouty in some poems, “Philomena McGillycuddy Comes Unstuck” for example, “When she was big and strong and hairy,/she was like the Virgin Mary…,” and then impressively delicate and lithe in others, as in “Dog-kite,” “Now she’s a comet,/dammit,/all wag-tail/and bright eye./I see her whizz/between the stars…” The poet and critic, Martina Evans, notes in her review of The Poems of Dorothy Molloy in The Irish Times that, “however high they fly, Molloy’s poems are always earthed.” Indeed, Molloy’s philosophy can be summed up by the notes she made in her final notebook which Evans’ also cites, “… one essential thing… for my voice to ring out… use… every available second… God’s energy in me… go deeper… connect to the universe with my feet…” Do read Dorothy Molloy, her energy still lives—fierce, brilliant, brave and funny—in her incredible poems.
It’s difficult to measure poetry’s potential. I think it is infinite, but then I would as a poet, a reader, and a teacher of poetry! Poetry has changed and enriched my life, giving it meaning and purpose. So, perhaps on an individual level it has the power to be transformative for those who are open to it—who want to engage with it, or who need to experience it whatever the reason. For example, many people discover poetry as they get older having been turned off it at school, and others find such solace and comfort from reciting poems they learned as children. There are very few lives poetry hasn’t touched in some way—when a baby is welcomed into the world, at weddings, in sickness and heartache, in death. It is so useful, as well as being aesthetically satisfying and interesting. It is a way of thinking, a revolutionary act, a set of instructions, a word machine. It’s an intensely private act and, conversely, incredibly public and often universal in its expression. As Sylvia Plath said, “it is as if my heart put on a face and walked into the world.”
In Adrienne Rich’s rather ominously titled 1993 essay, “Someone Is Writing a Poem,” Rich argues that poetry is “an exchange of electrical currents through language.” She references a poem by Lynn Emmanuel, “The Planet Krypton” about a mother and her daughter watching a nuclear-bomb test on television and maintains that the poem “would be mere ‘message’ and forgettable without the poem’s visual fury, its extraordinary leaps of sound and image.” Rich asserts then that in choosing to write about this violent, traumatic event so beautifully Emmanuel has chosen to create in the face of annihilation, has privileged language over destruction, “She can’t remain a spectator, hypnotized by the gorgeousness of a destructive force launched far beyond her control. She can feel the old primary appetites for destruction and creation within her; she chooses for creation and for language.” See, I told you. Infinite.
ABOUT Eat or We Both Starve
Eat or We Both Starve was a long time in the making. While I write quickly in short bursts and always feel such a sense of elation when I have completed the first draft of a new poem, the revision process takes time. I leave the poem to settle, sometimes for a day or two, often for much, much longer. When I come back to it, I realize just how much work I have to do, often cutting out unnecessary or repetitive words or images, letting it find its form, reworking line-breaks and punctuation. I found that revising the manuscript followed this method, in that you have to be ruthless and cut out the poems that don’t fit, then rearrange them, and sometimes throw them up in the air and see where they land! You can’t rush it, I’ve tried! The poems need to speak to one another, find their place. Some fight if they are on opposite pages. Others get on like a house on fire and tell a whole new story—if that’s how the reader engages with the collection, sequentially. You must be prepared for the reader to read the collection straight through like this, or to skip around and explore the book that way. I found the arc of Eat or We Both Starve came once the order of the poems revealed themselves, with the help of my editor, John McAuliffe. I learned so much by observing how he worked through the poems as an experienced practitioner with many books under his belt (his Selected Poems (Gallery Press) will be launched in November of this year).
I am currently working on my second collection, and for now at least, the structure is very clear to me. I think I am much more aware now of the poems being part of a ‘body’ even as I write them—separate, yes, but also forming part of something bigger when combined. I didn’t really have an awareness of that when I started writing poetry, I focused on the poems individually and eventually saw the themes, narratives, images, and techniques that emerged. Revision is a journey though, and nothing works better than time, time, and patience. I practice this every day, even though it goes against my nature. Poetry has taught me that too. Wait, then wait a little longer. It’s worth it.
FOR MY READERS
What do we hope for when we write a collection? That they will read it. Even better to facilitate the reader “connect[ing] to the universe with [their] feet,” in poems that contain “God’s energy,” as Dorothy Molloy would have it. The poems in Eat or We Both Starve (Carcanet, 2021) grapple with a multitude of confusions, trying to hang on to sense, looking for patterns of meaning, exerting some kind of control. The growing body is as good a place as any to practice the art of control, and so it became the central subject of my first book.
The poems in Eat or We Both Starve concern this struggle—growing up to die, the grief at losing loved ones, the battle against constant change in childhood and young adulthood, the shock of physical development, not to mention the chaos and uncertainty of our collective futures—and the poems do what they can in containing and explaining these existential concerns. It’s my survival strategy; that and what Joy Harjo suggests in her brilliant poem “The World Ends Here,” “… laughing and crying, eating of the last sweet bite.” I want readers to join me, and “dig in” as my poem “Hunger Strikes Victoria Kennefick” suggests. The book, more than anything, is an invitation.
I know that readers have responded to the book positively. It has resonated with their experience of the body, grief, consumption and sexuality. That, of course, has been a great joy. For others, I know it is a little intense, perhaps even gross or disgusting in parts. Too much, maybe! But I am used to that, and the poems engage with this experience on so many levels too. For a poet, to be read at all is an achievement, especially when poetry gets such little room and attention when compared to fiction and non-fiction. In many respects, what the reader thinks is none of my business, though I am delighted and genuinely honored when readers share their observations—it is wonderful!