“I’m particularly intrigued by the intersection of words and belief and how books mark and mirror our lives.”
True, False, None of the Above (Cascade Books, Poiema Poetry Series, 2016)
Could you share with us a poem that introduces the work of the book, or one that invites the reader into the world of the book?
This is a book on what it means to write, read, and teach literature in a world that—at turns—rejects, embraces, or shrugs indifferently at the spiritual. And I think the book addresses this in stages, beginning with the opening poem that simply grapples with defining “education.”
On Defining Education_____
_____“Training is everything. The peach was once a bitter almond;
_____cauliflower is nothing but cabbage with a college education.”
Isn’t the seed better,
its tough, hard case
beneath the juice?
Flesh? Just so much puffing up,
skin gone soft with too much rouge.
Better to be tossed out than consumed,
lusted after by the colon.
Or what of that lower-class cabbage
shredded to bits, thrown haphazardly in soups?
Whole, she’s the Cinderella that steals the show
for the truly hungry.
Nobody likes cauliflower
cowering on fine china,
the ugly sister decorated
with a sterling ladle’s worth of cheese.
Please, feel free to confront.
I’m not talking about who you should be
but are. Let’s start with the essence of seed
and see what sprouts from there.
Of course, the book embraces not only the process of teaching, but—more importantly—reading and writing as a path of discovery, a way of learning more about ourselves and the world, a way to confront the reality of our day-to-day struggles and joys. What does this story I’m reading have to do with who I am today? With who you are? What does this poem have to do with how we all interact? With what is happening in the news? Literature encourages us to look more closely and see more clearly ourselves and those like and not like us; to rediscover each day the world around us and the world to come. I like to think of these as “everyday epiphanies.”
What obsessions led you to write your book?
I realized that I’ve been writing for decades about the stories, poems, plays, essays, and films that have so impacted my life and the lives of my students. (In fact, I’ve now been teaching for over twenty-five years at the same state university and just recently taught the daughter of one of my early students. Whoa!) I’m particularly intrigued by the intersection of words and belief and how books mark and mirror our lives.
Can you name one poem that captures the essence of the book or has a meaningful back story to you? What’s the back story?
Because I live in Central Pennsylvania, fracking and the gas industry make headlines often. The 19th-century environmental issues in Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “God’s Grandeur” speak to my students’ Central Pennsylvania reality. When we look together at the problem/ solution structure of this Italian sonnet — where industry sears the earth — we also see local controversies and the desire for something more. In the following poem, I try to capture this yearning for renewal and epiphany. I’ve written more about that here.
And the Topic for Today is Environmentalism. . . .
________________________Teaching “God’s Grandeur”
More politically correct than divine grandeur,
it too flames out in this small Pennsylvania town
where fracking hijacks the headlines. Good reason
and good enough to bring the state students trodding
heavily into a poem piled high with God and earth,
with “responsibilities” they hear each morning
as the gas industry trucks rattle past our windows,
their tired drivers knowing nothing
of iambic pentameter or sestets but much
about food on the table, a steady job.
The freshmen, eager now,
blurt out dilemma, paradox, instress—
and all those other new-sounding ideas
suddenly connected to their lives,
their parents, the sonnet
they think was written last week,
even with its 19th century,
sound-packed syllables they don’t get
until slowing down, thinking.
And so—after playing with light, foil, sound;
the way trade “sears,” “blears,” and “smears”;
and how and why shoes separate us from ground—
we detour to Genesis, Cat Stevens, and a heavy metal rendition
that almost drowns out Hopkins with bass.
All this before rounding the terrain-raked bend
to solution, which is what—they are surprised to discover—
we all most want: the eloquent octet, the bright wings,
the ah! that opens the mind to talk,
at long last, about the holy.
How did you decide on the arrangement and title of your book?
Though sometimes challenging, I actually love the process of spreading all the poems out on the floor and deciding which poem goes where and how the ending of one will best lead into the themes of the one that follows. It’s a giant puzzle, but it’s a thrill when everything comes together and the pieces resonate.
The title emphasizes that teaching—and life, of course!—are not easily categorized into multiple-choice questions and answers. It’s the process of discovery that’s essential.
More specifically, the title stems from the second poem in the collection about a quiz in Time magazine that I essentially flunked.
How Spiritual Are You?
____________–Time magazine quiz, 10/25/04
Tallying twenty True or False
answers to wishy-washy visions, I’m translated
from a poet of faith into
“a practical empiricist lacking self transcendence”
according to a noted psychologist
touted as today’s expert.
I don’t like flunking and try again.
Any room for fudging? To insert faith? Even a seed of the spiritual?
________“completely unaware of things going on around me”?
________“I love the blooming of flowers . . . as much as seeing an old friend”?
Though I scan and re-scan, all I can check with confidence
is the final slot—the quizmaster’s definition of extreme?—
“I believe miracles happen.”
A half-dozen more statements I rationalize as “sometimes,”
insulted by society’s synonyms of “spiritual” and “spacey.”
As a poet, I should be used to this
but gain no points from that either.
A sidebar promises to explain a “God gene”
inherent in some of us—a cultural twist on predestination
that leaves me unable to select the first square:
________“I often feel so connected to the people around me
________that it is like there is no separation between us.”
Where is the “stranger in a strange land” line?
Where is the question, “Do you believe
in one God, the Father Almighty…?”
What were the final poems you wrote and how did those affect your sense that the book was complete?
I forget which famous poet said this, but when writing a collection of poetry, the book itself is the final poem. There came a point in putting this book together where I stopped thinking of a group of individual poems and instead focused on that “final” poem, which is the entire book. Thus, in revision, I felt I needed a few transitional pieces that would best bridge themes from one work to another. At the time, I was teaching Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, and I remember writing and adding a poem on this that helped link other poems.
I also realized, after putting the entire collection together, that a number of my earlier poems (which I had not yet gathered into a book) suddenly fit very well in this collection. For example, interspersed with poems that respond to specific texts are poems on connected themes: living in an unsafe world, struggles of faith and doubt, my mother’s move to an assisted living facility, my father-in-law’s stroke, raising teens, natural disasters and how they affect our lives, aging, and so on—all issues that obviously also appear in literature. (I am still finding a few earlier poems that I wish I had included. One is “The Night I Hitchhiked Past Walt Whitman.” I wrote it in my twenties and forgot about it, but its humor would have fit very well in True, False, None of the Above. Ah, well.)
There also were poems that I liked but that no longer added to this “final poem that is the book.” And so I took those out.
Did you read straight through your book out loud during the revision process or while finalizing revisions? If so, how was your experience of the poems different? How were your ideas about their individual meanings changed?
Yes. Revising is a long process for me, and in revising a book, I always go back and start reading from the beginning. I also am a very aural poet; the way the poem sounds aloud is particularly important to me, and I revise with that in mind. In reading out loud, I got a better sense if poems were too similar sound-wise and if I needed either to remove a poem or reconsider its placement. The same is true for the numerous humorous poems in True, False, None of the Above. Reading these aloud helped me decide on placement (and, I admit, not take myself too seriously).
Looking at individual poems in context of the entire book does affect the revision process. The poems need to be able both to stand alone and to work with the others. I confess that in rereading this way, I did come across one poem and suddenly thought, “I have no idea what I was thinking when I wrote this one.” And so out went that poem as well!
Describe your writing practice or process for your book. Do you have a favorite prompt or revision strategy? What is it?
For this particular book, the starting point for many pieces was a quote from literature that became the poem’s epigraph. Here are some examples:
“I like to play euchre. He likes to play Eucharist.”-Robert Frost on T.S. Eliot
“Then she had gone and had the beautiful name, Joy, changed. . . . .” –“Good Country People,” Flannery O’Connor
“I never dared be radical when young for fear it would make me conservative when old.” -Robert Frost
“…the tempest in my mind doth from my senses take all feeling else save what beats there.”-King Lear, William Shakespeare
“One may smile, and smile, and be a villain.”-Hamlet, William Shakespeare
“Memory takes a lot of poetic license.”-The Glass Menagerie, Tennessee Williams
“For there was never yet philosopher/ That could endure the toothache patiently. . . .” –Much Ado About Nothing, William Shakespeare
But there also are poems without an epigraph that respond to Gwendolyn Brooks, John Updike, Lucille Clifton, Virginia Woolf, and many, many others.
What has the editorial and production experience with the press who picked up your book been like? To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your book?
True, False, None of the Above is my tenth collection of poetry and the first time that I have worked with an editor who took the time to go through the book poem by poem and line by line. What an interesting and very helpful experience this was. D. S. Martin, the series editor, is an insightful reader, and his suggestions indeed made the book stronger.
I also love working with the designers at Wipf and Stock (the parent company). Mike Surber took my idea of a broken pencil and ran with it. The cover speaks perfectly to the tensions within the poems, and the backdrop of ethereal clouds and a school-like grid underscores important themes and questions in the collection. I couldn’t have asked for a better cover for this particular book.
Could you describe the chapbooks you’ve written in chronological order?
One of my mentors at Cornell, Robert Morgan, once told me that the chapbook is his favorite form. I can see why he said this. The chapbook really allows you to focus on a tight series of poems. Most of my chapbooks were written—from day one—as a series. Let me explain.
My first chapbook, Nightrider to Edinburgh (Amelia Chapbook Award) chronicles riding the night train to Edinburgh, then experiencing the city from sunrise until midnight.
How to Fit God into a Poem (1993 Painted Bride Chapbook Winner), which also won Cornell’s Chasen Award for a series, playfully examines both the humanity and divinity of Christ. Thus, the series contains such poems as “God Trick-or-Treating,” “God on a Tightrope,” and “God and Hide-and-Seek.” Some of these poems later appeared in my full-length collection Weeknights at the Cathedral (WordTech, 2006).
Ecclesia (Franciscan University Press, 1997) was written as a poetic response to an Anglican theological exam my husband was taking when he briefly attended seminary. During a reading, I sometimes dare the students to write a poetic response to their own school exams. Try it and see what happens!
In 1993, my father died after an unsuccessful heart transplant. I focused on this in my full-length collection Transplant, Transport, Transubstantiation (2004 Yellowglen Prize). First, however, I wrote the series (and chapbook) Body Parts (Anamnesis Press, 1999). For an entire summer after my father’s death, I carried around Grey’s Anatomy and wrote about kidneys, spleens, livers, toes, and—yes—hearts. I was amazed at how metaphorical this medical text is, and as I explored with new insight the various organs and parts of the body, the intersection of body and soul became even more central to my writing.
When The Wood Clacks Out Your Name: Baseball Poems (2001 Redgreene Press Chapbook Winner) also was written as a poetic series, this one on various aspects of baseball. I am the great-grandniece of Branch Rickey, the general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers who helped break the color barrier by signing Jackie Robinson. I also live in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, home of the Little League World Series. When my husband and I were first married, we lived in a duplex that overlooked a ball field, and so I would sit in the backyard, watch the game, and write poems about baseball. I expanded this chapbook later for the children’s book Rules of the Game: Baseball Poems (Word Song, 2009).
Finally, I’m excited to say that my newest chapbook, Wives’ Tales, is forthcoming this fall from Seven Kitchens Press. The first section, “The Tales,” responds to various fairy tales; the second section, “The Wives,” is told from the point of view of the wives of famous men named Peter. Interestingly enough, I originally included these poems in my first full-length book, Perpendicular As I (1994 Sandstone Book Award), but decided to leave them out for the sake of the book’s overall themes. Here they are—finally—in their own separate collection.
What are you working on now?
In addition to writing essays, I am doing some final edits on my first short story collection, What She Was Saying, due out in early 2017 from Fomite Press. And, of course, I’m writing poems.
If you could choose another artistic path (painting, music, dance, etc.) what would it be and why?
Oh, I would love to do all of these! My aunt was and my daughter is an artist, so I live vicariously through their work. My father became a photographer after his heart condition forced him into early retirement. I am especially clumsy, and I can’t carry a tune, so dance and music are out, but I wish….
How has your writing and writing practiced evolved?
I write poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction, and children’s literature. I also teach full-time at a state university and am a wife and mother, so I typically fit in my writing during winter and summer “breaks.” Still, I find that my brain is always writing; the wheels are churning even when the hand isn’t jotting down the words. Although I don’t get to write twice a week as I did in the past, I get almost as much actually written.
What’s the title for a book you haven’t written yet?
I keep a running list of possible titles for upcoming books. It’s a secret. 🙂
What advice would you offer to students interested in creative writing?
The obvious ones: read, read, read; write, write, write. Too many students want to become “a writer” without actually reading or writing. In my workshops, I emphasize the interconnection of both.
Whose work helped you in the writing of this book?
True, False, None of the Above is dedicated to all my teachers and all my students, as well as to my husband, Gary R. Hafer (also a teacher, reader, and writer). The most obvious inspirations, however, are all the authors who inspired poems within the book.
What other question would you like to be asked?
I give readings and workshops across the country. Feel free to contact me here!
What question would you like to ask future writers featured at Speaking of Marvels?
I would love to see how they respond to these same intriguing questions.
Sage Graduate Fellow of Cornell University (MFA) and Professor of English and Creative Writing at Lock Haven University, Marjorie Maddox has published eleven collections of poetry—including True, False, None of the Above (Poiema Poetry Series); Local News from Someplace Else (Wipf and Stock); Transplant, Transport, Transubstantiation, (Yellowglen Prize); and Perpendicular As I (Sandstone Book Award); the forthcoming Wives’ Tales (Seven Kitchens Press)—the short story collection What She Was Saying (Fomite, 2017), and over 450 stories, essays, and poems in journals and anthologies. Co-editor of Common Wealth: Contemporary Poets on Pennsylvania (PSU Press), she also has published two children’s books with several forthcoming.