Mary Austin Speaker: National Poetry Month
We would like to learn a bit more about you. What is important to you? What are some of your likes and dislikes?
Generosity is important to me. I am always battling my own selfishness. This is, I think, apart from being one of humanity’s biggest struggles, always the most important challenge I encounter in my work as a teacher, designer & mother. I try to offer as much of my own experience of the world to the classroom or design project I’m engaged with, and at the same time remember to learn from my students, the authors I work with, and my son (he’s almost three and reminds me of the super-drama of being human every day). I relish reciprocal relationships, as well as the massively imbalanced ones (like mother, teacher, constituent) that require a difficult grace to inhabit. I try to be generous as a citizen, too—to see outside my own point of view so that I can take others (both human and nonhuman) into account, too, when I make decisions, and grapple with my utter failure to do so on many, many occasions.
What kinds of things inspire you to write poems?
I am very interested in the roles we play—mother, father, child, authority, criminal, saint, citizen, worker, commuter, stranger—and how these interact with the roles we carry around in our heads—saint, mistress, cowboy, spy, astronaut, witch, hero, priest, etc. There is this tension between our ordinary (yet dramatic and powerful) lives and the lives of those who occupy the heroic or protagonist roles of our movies, our novels, our myths. We see ourselves in them, even when there is this sizable gulf, because we share something important with them. We are all trying to accomplish something, trying to get somewhere. We struggle in our private ways. I am also very interested in how time works on a geologic scale, and how humans have moved into the villain role when it comes to the history of the earth. How do we come back from that? Is that why we have so many fantasy movies about a single person saving the entire world? Are our notions of saving the world or redeeming ourselves appropriate or even useful for the situation we find ourselves in today? I often find myself writing against the heroic myth in order to grapple with those roles in a more thoughtful and complicated way than your average blockbuster.
Do you maintain a daily writing schedule? How long does it take you to write a poem?
I wish I maintained a daily writing schedule! I am not quite disciplined enough for that, but I do keep a low-stakes journal going at all times, and I keep files for separate months so that I can keep track of who I was from month to month, what moved me or upset me, what I was inspired by or what thread I picked up from a book that I wanted to preserve. I usually get a poem or so out of each of those monthly files.
You have a book, The Bridge, published from Shearsman Books earlier this year. What can you tell us about this book? Did you have a process for assembling poems for this collection?
I wrote each of those poems when I did have a daily writing practice. I was living in New York City, and knew I would be moving away, so during my last year there I chose to write a poem each time I crossed the Manhattan Bridge on the Q train during my daily commute. I wrote one on the way to work, and one on the way home, and I never let myself get out of this task for about six months. I accumulated quite a bit of work, so this book is a selection from that period. The Manhattan Bridge is my favorite place in New York— it’s the only place I frequented where you can see long distances—several miles over the East river, all the way to the Statue of Liberty and Governor’s Island, with Staten Island in the distance, and the Verrazano Bridge. It feels very grand in a way unlike the rest of my experience of New York.
How did you come up with the title for your book?
The title is a nod to Hart Crane’s 1930 book, The Bridge, which he wrote about the Brooklyn Bridge, New York’s far more storied bridge over the East River. Crane’s book is full of super high diction and very lofty ideals (some of which I entirely agree with, some of which seem a little dated now), and those feel appropriate for the Brooklyn Bridge. The Manhattan Bridge is a workhorse—less pretty and graceful than the Brooklyn Bridge, but it carries its passengers by train, which is swiftest and in some ways most brutal method of getting from place to place in New York—it’s unbelievable that the subway system works as well as it does, and it comes from a very deep commitment to the sustainability of a large-scale city with millions of residents. I think of the Manhattan Bridge as being inextricably linked to the faith that New Yorkers have to have in humanity simply to get from place to place every day. I wish everyone had such a deep and abiding commitment to the well-being of their fellow citizens. But that is why I love cities so much: the forced reckoning with each other that comes along with living in them.
How did you decide which poem would go first? How did you figure out the order for your poems?
The first two or three poems in the book are the first I wrote in the series. After that I mixed it up a bit for quality, and I tried to alternate between the poems I wrote in the morning and those I wrote in the evening. The composition of the poems felt ritualistic in a way I wanted the book to reflect.
You have participated in several different reading series. How do you feel about giving poetry readings?
I think that poets, if they want to be heard, owe it to their audience to read their work well, in a way that acknowledges the listeners in the room and intentionally engages with them. I was terrified of speaking in public for a long time, but when the opportunity to curate the Reading Between A & B series was offered to me, I couldn’t turn it down, and had to learn how to introduce the readers, which took some practice and a lot of effort but came to be one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. I do think any reader benefits from a well-thought-out introduction that serves to prime the audience to listen to that poet at that time, and honors their efforts.
You teach poetry, in addition to book design. Could you share a couple of common areas in which many of your students need improvement?
I think the only area where my students miss some opportunities is in their subject matter. Self expression is the bedrock of poetry, but it is not always poetry’s richest subject matter. So many subjects (time, the environment, money, debt, citizenship, etc.) demand a poetic way of seeing, but I often see these subjects passed over for “how I’m feeling right now.” I guess I would just always encourage people to seek to connect those moments to a bigger picture.
If you could write a poem about only one thing for the rest of your life, what would that one thing be?
Being human. It’s the only thing I’ve ever written about.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on completing a collection that’s several years in the works, called The Universe Is Shaped Like a Saddle, which features poems about cowboys and astronauts—not so much specific people as the archetypal versions of these characters we have aging in our heads. They are the heroes of yesterday, and I think Americans can particularly relate to how that feels, even if it’s a very flawed feeling. I’m also working on a series of “necropastoral” poems that try to reckon with the possibility of having determined our own extinction on earth and are a little like dark lullabies. These poems may wind up finding a place in The Universe is Shaped Like a Saddle. The cowboy crumbles into the desert; the astronaut must, finally, give up flight. It all feels to me very much a part of the same story.
Mary Austin Speaker is a poet and book designer. Her first full-length collection, Ceremony, was selected by Matthea Harvey as winner of the 2012 Slope Editions book prize and was published in February 2013. Her second book, The Bridge, was published in January 2016 by Shearsman Books. She is the author of several chapbooks, including Necropastorals (Beyond Repair 2016). She founded the Triptych Reading series in New York City and curated the Reading Between A and B series for several years. With Chris Martin and Sam Gould, she edits SOCIETY, a publication project about poetry and power due to debut their first books in 2016. She lives in Minneapolis.