“Writing is part of the process of discovering the world inside and around us.”
Transplant, Transport, Transubstantiation (Wipf & Stock, 2018) (re-issue)
Could you tell us a bit about your growing up and your path to becoming a writer?
I was fortunate to grow up in a family that values the arts. My aunt, after whom I was named, was an artist and traveled the world in her VW camper. She would take me with her out into the countryside, set up an easel, and—while she was painting a field of corn or the hills of southern Ohio, she’d assign me the task of writing a story or poem.
My father, after his health forced him into early retirement, became an accomplished photographer. Often, he would encourage my creativity by welcoming me into his world of images. My mother, although not an artist herself, was an avid reader and art enthusiast; she would type up my childhood stories and poems into small “books.” At every turn, I was made to feel that writing and reading were valuable, necessary, and enjoyable activities. Never were these considered a waste of time.
As a young child and as a teenager, I worked diligently on stories and poems, submitting these to church and school contests. I carried a notebook or a library book with me everywhere. As an undergraduate college student, I took as many creative writing classes as I could and worked on the student literary journal. I went on to receive my MA with a creative thesis, working with novelist Sena Naslund, at The University of Louisville, and an MFA in Poetry at Cornell, where I studied with A. R. Ammons, Robert Morgan, Ken McClane, and Phyllis Janowitz. For the past twenty-eight years I have had the privilege of working with my own students—including young poets, fiction writers, and essayists—at Lock Haven University. And, of course, I continue to read and write.
How do you decorate your writing space?
With windows. I often write on my back sun porch, looking out on the world.
What is the relationship between your ethics and your aesthetics? How does your form, content, and style as a writer reflect who you are and are trying to be as a person?
How I see the world and how I process what I witness very much affects what and how I write. That being said, I am intrigued by point of view and how that influences the ways we interpret experience. Much of my writing has to do with looking at the world from different angles. Sometimes, that involves looking through the lens of various genres. (I write poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction, and children’s literature.) Sometimes it involves blurring the lines between genres. For example, in Transplant, Transport, Transubstantiation, I experiment with prose poems (“Seagulls”), travel poems, concrete poems (“Ribs” and “Tongue”), a long series of poems on body parts, poetic responses to an Anglican theological exam, free verse, as well as fixed form, lyrical, and narrative poetry. In short, I am a workaholic who enjoys experimenting with different styles, forms, topics, and perspectives.
How does my work reflect who I am and am trying to be as a person? As Joan Didion famously explained, “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.” To me, as for many authors, writing is part of the process of discovering the world inside and around us. Our subject matter is wide! For example, some of my books focus on the body, current events, baseball, fairy tales, Pennsylvania, travel, identity, faith, the teaching of writing and literature—and that’s just for starters. I don’t plan on stopping any time soon.
Could you share with us a poem from your book? Perhaps one that introduces the work of the book, or that invites the reader into the world of the book?
Here is the opening poem in the collection.
____________________“It’s as safe as traveling to work…”
____________________–a cardiologist before performing a transplant
The first night of the blizzard
that stranger inched into Ohio.
Halfway through he skidded
into our snow-spackled lives.
His heart is buried
in my father,
who is buried.
This is the hole
in the stranger, in my
father, in my own
cracked chest, hail cupped in its cavity,
the aorta beginning to freeze.
the weather preaches white
lies: fields blank of roads,
a curve straightened,
the even light of sky.
Tonight the breeze is all
from the clouds. Nothing
in this treacherous state.
Our wheels spin,
their rhythm: a breath
that pulls us
then stalls. The law
of the body, of the state,
cannot replace the chain
reaction, jack-knifed lives,
hope piling into hope.
The man and his heart,
cold on an icy road,
warmed us for weeks
while winter, a clear blue thing,
Why did you choose this poem?
My father had his first heart attack at the age of 39. After surviving ten cardiac arrests, he died following a transplant when he was 65. A good part of my early years until right before I was married were spent not knowing if or for how long he would survive his latest episode. For years, my father waited for a heart donor.
Poem background: It was my first year of teaching at a state university in Pennsylvania. I was in Ohio visiting my parents over my “spring break” when blizzard warnings began flashing across television screens. I hurried back to Pennsylvania, arriving just before the “Blizzard of 93” hit fast and furiously. An organ donor in Ohio died in a car accident, and his heart was rushed to the hospital for my father. For days, I could not get back to Ohio. Snow was chest-deep; two dozen states were buried in white, their highways completely shut down.
Although the transplant itself took hold, my father’s blood eventually became infected. Desperate, doctors amputated his legs and some fingers. At the end, they could not save him. To this day, I think of that stranger’s heart buried inside my father, who is buried.
Because it begins the collection, “Treacherous Driving” introduces many of the themes that follow: the transplant itself, the body, intersection of the medical and spiritual, danger, hope, fear, grief, travel, early marriage (mine and later my mother’s when she remarried), teaching, others’ tragedies—including the Flight 800 plane crash from my community that killed 16 students and 5 chaperones. Driving/traveling, as the epigraph alludes, becomes treacherous on many levels, the promise of safety slippery in this sometimes dangerous world.
What obsessions led you to write your book?
After my father’s heart transplant, I became particularly obsessed with all things medical, even carrying around Gray’s Anatomy for an entire summer while writing the long series “Body Parts,” which includes 34 sometimes funny, sometimes serious poems on kidneys, lungs, hearts, spleens, and other parts of the body. Here are two examples:
A miniature stingray, it glides only inside its bone cage,
slate-gray and shiny,
sliding about its domain, inhaling
anything within breath: the wind,
whispers, wild weeping, the way
a man walks through the winter
air toward a frozen pond,
a pole, a cigarette.
He looks down through the hole
in the ice and sees the stingray, or its memory,
circling the dark cold
of his body. What does it take to breathe
in or out? To keep
the poisonous spine swishing
in such chilly waters about the heart?
And here’s another, lighter one:
The shuffling-off-to-Buffalo, toboggan ride slide,
do-not-pass-go short slope to the stomach;
the tunnel of swallows and masticated morsels
bound for the belly, the bowels, and the bowl
on days when everything (boiled, spoiled, or fried)
in the choking world goes down,
the right way.
The intersection of body and spirit remains a central focus of my work.
How did you decide on the arrangement and title of your book?
The book begins with my father receiving his heart (“Treacherous Driving”) and ends with a poem about finding, years later, an answering machine tape, which my mother had saved in a drawer and labeled “Dad’s voice.”
Tape of My Dead Father’s Voice from an Old Answering Machine
He keeps telling me he’s not at home,
that he’ll reply soon. He doesn’t know
he’s lying, that what’s hiding between the space
of words is space he’s gone to. He repeats his name,
which is not the name I call him. I call him now,
hear only the unanswerable space answer. Home
is always where we’ve left, the space that means “before.”
I know to keep his voice rewinding until the space
of now begins to answer. At the tone, I can’t find a home
for how all space rewinds. Lying, I repeat that I am fine,
take out the home he was, and leave my name.
I think this particular poem, and the repetition of words that it employs, emphasizes the haunting and sometimes invisible grief of those who have lost a loved one, particularly if that loss has happened bit by bit over a span of many years.
As for the title of the collection, the poem (vs. book) “Transplant, Transport, Transubstantiation” has for its catalyst a news story about a man whose job it is to transport via airplane a suitcase of eyes and skin to transplant recipients. It imagines his spouse anxiously waiting at home, as well as recipients hopefully expectant in other countries. Perhaps one of the oldest pieces in the collection, the poem helps connect transplant poems, travel/transportation poems, and transubstantiation (body/spirit, theological) poems.
Which poems in your book have the most meaningful back stories to you?
The collection as a whole and the heart transplant journey it records are particularly important to me on a very personal level. Transplant, Transport, Transubstantiation is my second full-length book of eleven poetry collections, but perhaps the one to which I feel most connected. I am particularly happy to have it back in print. One of three finalists for the Brittingham and Felix Pollack prizes, the book won the Yellowglen Prize and was published by a small press in 2004. My hope is that these poems may now be introduced to the larger poetry and medical world, particularly to those who have or have known others in similar situations. Here are two poems that speak to this:
The Waiting Room
does not wait patiently
for us, its stucco walls vacant
of the pain we hang upon the gray
and graying we soon become. Between,
we pretend to plan a son’s
baptism, book revisions, a summer life that lives after
this. Your husband wants a liver;
I want a heart that breathes an average rhythm
within my father’s ribs. The others here
won’t fit into our tight, cramped list
of miracles and what we need
to get there. Behind our prayers
the backdrop of another family winning
what they’ve lost, their stuttered cares:
the infection and rejection on our cross.
Bury Our Heart
________Like every other,
this is the year of shifting
sorrows, the thin shadows of land
that slip from countries we’ve left
for fear or want
of finding ourselves
in a handful of dirt.
________Even in sleep,
a warm wonder of birth and loss,
there too the earth’s vibrations,
the leveling of cliffs in eyes we claim.
________The soul is the land
liquid in the lines of veins
that stripe the inner atlas.
It bubbles and flows, smooths
the rough roads, carves out
our caves of refuge,
our weeping echoes.
________Here too, they will find us:
the outcasts, the fugitives,
the lost, the abandoned,
________Oh homeland of sadness,
these dusty bones that could not save.
I have held in my clay hands,
the fine grains of his blood,
bold in my muddy palms;
I have held in my earthen arms
the jagged pot of his pain,
brimming and bitter.
________I have waited
for that open mouth
of the world
to lay him down.
That being said, I feel compelled to add that the book also contains hopeful and humorous pieces. Life, after all, continues to be a mix.
Which poem is the “misfit” in your collection and why?
I’m not sure there are “misfit” poems, but there are pieces that take on different meaning in the context of contemporary society. For example, the final stanza of “After the World Trade Center,” which was written before 9/11 and, of course, Trump’s presidency, ends with this stanza:
Outside and down
the street, the Trump Tower
shadows the sidewalk.
In retrospect, the poem seems a bit prophetic.
To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your book?
I am particularly grateful to the designers at Wipf & Stock for how well they listen to and then implement ideas for cover designs. The image of a surgeon’s hand peeling back a blank page to reveal a world beneath—brilliant! This is my third book for Wipf & Stock. For each, the designer took my cover ideas and ran with them, creating images that not only are eye-catching but also represent well the overall themes of the books. See other covers here.
What are you working on now?
My next collection, tentatively entitled Seeing Things, will focus on memory, psychosis, disease, and their ramifications, as well as explore the ways—on both a personal and national level—we distort or preserve memory, define or alter reality, and see or don’t see those around us.
How do you contend with saturation? The day’s news, the flagged articles, the flagged books, the poetry tweets, the data the data the data. What’s your strategy to navigate your way home?
One way I cope is to write about them, which is what I did in Local News from Someplace Else—a book that responds to headline news and raising children in an unsafe world. But sometimes you just have to get away from all of the busyness of the world. I write best in the mornings. Otherwise, I tend to get overwhelmed by the day’s mundane obligations. In connection to your question, this week I began a poem that starts with the lines
I woke up this morning with poems in my head
but somehow the world got in.
Marjorie Maddox, Sage Graduate Fellow of Cornell University (MFA) and Professor of English and Creative Writing at Lock Haven University, has published eleven collections of poetry—including Transplant, Transport, Transubstantiation (Yellowglen Prize, Wipf & Stock 2018); True, False, None of the Above (Poeima Poetry Series and Illumination Book Award Medalist); Local News from Someplace Else ; Wives’ Tales and Perpendicular As I (Sandstone Book Award)—the short story collection What She Was Saying (Fomite Press); and over 550 stories, essays, and poems in journals and anthologies. The recipient of numerous honors and co-editor of Common Wealth: Contemporary Poets on Pennsylvania (Penn State Press), she also is the author of four children’s books. For more information, please see www.marjoriemaddox.com.
three poems at Poetry Foundation
“Take Note: For Father’s Day, Poets Talk About Writing About Their Dads” (interview about Transplant, Transport, Transubstantiation)
“Learning to Weather” on Verse Daily
Speaking of Marvels interview about True, False, None of the Above