Interview with Marjorie Stelmach

image001Marjorie Stelmach’s 7th volume of poems, The Angel of Absolute Zero, is upcoming in 2022 from Cascade. Her work has appeared in American Literary Review, Gettysburg Review, Hudson Review, Image, Notre Dame Review, Poet Lore, Prairie Schooner, and others. She is the winner of the 2017 Pangaea Prize

Robert Evory: Your book, Walking the Mist, published in February of 2021 by Ashland Poetry Press, begins with the sequence of poems that won the 2017 Pangaea Prize. You have called them the “Irish Poems” in emails to me before. I wonder if you can give us some background on the book and what your connection is to Ireland. Can you tell us how you shape a manuscript and what you look for in your work to be those first poems to start off a book?

Marjorie Stelmach: I would love to claim an ancient, ancestral connection to Ireland, but the sequence that begins Walking the Mist, came of a single three-week visit with a fellow-poet and her husband, an Irish musician and painter, who were living in a small village in the Wicklow Hills. With my generous hosts, I traveled the Wicklow backroads, visited Dublin, and toured Counties Cork, Kerry, Clare, and Galway. I was given, in addition, enough solitude to scrawl draft after draft of the poems in the sequence. Then, I spent almost thirty years trying to shape those poems into some kind of narrative that would capture the power of that three-week period of wondrous dislocation from my life.

About the shaping of the manuscript as a whole: Walking the Mist is a book about grief, surveying a lifetime of accumulating losses that culminated in the recent loss of my parents. I suppose the “theme” of the Irish poems should have occurred to me earlier. I was in Ireland, after all, partially to work my way through a loss, but when, years later, I found Fernando Pessoa’s beautiful quotation, “And as for the mother who rocks a dead child in her arms, we all rock a dead child in our arms,” it came like a lighting strike. This was where the Irish poems belonged, in a larger book about grief. The epigraph cast over the persona of the Irish poems a much wider wisdom than my own. I was, after that, able to weave Pessoa’s voice through the whole book by way of epigraphs from Pessoa’s Book of Disquiet.

RE: There are many places where the body blends with other elements in your work: For example, in “The Burren” the stony landscape becomes the bulges and crevasse of a body, “How easily the burren breaks / along the fault lines of the human eye, / bulking into breast or buttock, blading / into scapula, clavicle, rib.” What role does the body plays in the theme of your work: is it something that feels foreign or is it a broader connection or something else?

MS: For me, the Irish landscape seemed filled with living beings moving in a different scale of time, or perhaps I had been reduced to a more elemental being, myself. Who knows? The fault-line of my human eye kept the visual world trembling, waking me to the precarious nature of my own small certainties. The fact that this inner disturbance and realignment is hard to write about is exactly what I loved about writing about it. I loved knowing while I scratched away at my drafts that I was not even scratching the surface. The body, I think, is often off-kilter when we travel, and adds a dis-ease to our encounters allowing them to take on a new significance. I needed that. I’m pretty attached to knowing. I read books. I study stuff. I look for answers so insistently that I have to be reminded that the reason I have the questions in the first place derives from my sense that my body already knows. My task is to try to track down that knowledge and thumbtack it with words accurate enough to re-trigger the original mystery.

RE: One thing that I find most fascinating is your ability to transport the reader across time. In “Not Far From Lisdoonvarna” we are considering the enduring beauty of a woman and the human understanding/devotion to faith, history, and marriage, then within a few lines you take us through eons of history where lichen splits stone and metals, and the air turns from caustic to something more breathable to humans. To consider that scope of time, to me, decenters the human experience in favor of elements that are more long lasting. The poem questions the human value systems as it dips into elements of inhumanism in the sense that it switches, as Robinson Jeffers defines it, “from man to not-man.” Is there a philosophy, a perspective, you want readers to consider in this poem or your work in general? Also, feel free to talk about craft as it pertains to references of a billion years of environmental history.  

MS: “. . . decenters the human experience in favor of elements that are more long-lasting.”

You have expressed what I’m after in my work so well in your question! Thank you. This ‘decentering’ also connects, of course, with the body. We carry time inside us, coded in ways we can’t begin to decode. By trying to make meaning of the little piece of time we individually carry, and, of course, failing, we tend to maintain a microscopic view, which isn’t, perhaps, the best thing for producing a clear-eyed vision. There is, I believe, a larger text, but that requires the occasional shift to the telescope or to imagination or prayer. I try to shift back and forth, if possible, from the personal to the cosmic – which brings with it a sense of vertigo.

But that’s a good thing. I am in love with the vastness of this whole enterprise and feel such gratitude to have been allowed, for the splinter of a nanosecond that is my life, to participate in whatever this is. I even love that at times my life feels completely meaningless, because it reminds me that Meaning itself must be beyond immense. That’s where awe comes in and leaves me laughing out loud at how little I know.

So, what can I do? I can only pick up my pencil again and stubbornly try to crack the code from another angle.

RE: You have published six volumes of poems and have published work in many top-level journals. Is there an outlook you have or advice you can give our readers when it comes to submitting to literary journals and sending manuscripts to presses for publication? There are so many of each now, how do you decide where to submit and how do you decide work is ready?

MS: Good question! So much of the submission process is a slog. The rest, I’m afraid, is largely luck and timing. You have to take a deep breath and DO IT.  Then, you have to keep track of what you’ve done, what comes of it, what to do next. I guess I look for patterns as to who accepts what, but even that’s not much help. “It’s a mystery of faith,” as the nuns say every time someone asks a really good question.

If you try to publish poetry you have to be bad at math. On my best days (few, far between) a magazine accepts a poem, which thrills me every time. But it also means four others are back in my ready-to-mail-out file. Meanwhile, my baby-drafts file gets fatter, and each baby clammers for attention. Which means editing. Which is hard work.

Don’t get me wrong, I love the editing. Which means that when I’m immersed in editing, I neglect the submitting. Which is where guilt comes in handy. Shouldn’t I have something to show for all this obsessive scribbling? Yes, says my work ethic. Then, it’s back to submitting. And re-submitting. And re-editing. And re-submitting. All that rejection! It’s no life for a poem! But somehow it’s a pretty good life for a poet. I don’t know how to stop with the baby drafts, so I have to convince myself someday they’ll leave home. 

Where to send? I have my dream publications, of course, but I know many of these journals are out of reach. Don’t get me wrong; I do reach, and sometimes it pays off. The fact that some magazines I greatly admire have taken my work absolutely shocks me every time. And when I get poems back, I think, Yeah, they’re right. These suck. I should make them better. Which means I’m back to editing.

(If you count the fragments in this answer that begin with “which,” you’ll get a sense of how recursive this process feels to me.)

RE: You have a wonderful interview in the Water Stone Review. In it you say you are working on a  “series of poems focused on artists in old age, more specifically, trying to identify how earlier life events manifest in a final drawing / painting / sculpture.” You can tell us more on that project if you like but I am also wondering if working from a theme is something you do often that helps you sit down to write or do you also have writing time that is undirected by an intentional theme. 

MS: After Walking the Mist was accepted, for the first time I was actively seeking a “project.” I did end up writing a whole book centered on angels once, but that was sort of an accident. They just kept flying through. Mostly, I sit down to write with a piece of language on the top of the page that lets me begin. The poem I described writing for Water-Stone Review details that process, but to put it simply, I follow a jotted fact or thought or observation to see where it wants to go. Often it goes somewhere interesting. Still, there are times when a poet feels at a dead end.

After Walking the Mist, I promised myself I would stop writing about grief. Surely there were other topics, right? I had written a few random ekphrastic poems, and that had allowed me a concrete place to start. Besides, I love art and have little real knowledge of art history, so I could dive in without expectation and see what came of it.

I started with painters I was most drawn to and quickly discovered it was their late work that fascinated me, the changes that occurred in their work due to frailty, or fame and its expectations, or the diminishment of their mental or visual faculties, or a world falling apart around them, or depression or grief or anger at seeing the world pass them by. The commonality was that they kept on working. When I saw that thread, I had my project.

It has really been fun, offering lots of variety: research, the challenge of finding an entry point for each artist, constructing the poems to reflect something of the artist’s sensibility (grids for Agnes Martin, series for Georgia O’Keefe, boxes for Cornell) or to find a voice to express Matisse’s struggles with faith, Hopper’s ugly treatment of his wife, Hokusai’s wish to pass on his techniques, Joan Mitchell’s stubborn refusal to compromise with abstract impressionism, and so forth). And so: forth. We’ll see what happens.  

RE: Do you see an evolution in your poetry? Has it changed over the years? If so, or maybe even if not, are there writers, artist, experiences, or other media are an influence on you?

MS: The content certainly change as I am drawn to different subjects through my reading (science, art, the environment, angels, figures of faith, travel, biographies).  I also like to experiment with forms (long forms, sequences, various formal structures). If I am imitating myself, I give myself an assignment or two to break out. But mostly, as you seemed to intuit, I return to first loves: Rilke, Wordsworth, Yeats, Dickinson, George Herbert, Elliot, Frost, Walcott, Bishop, Charles Wright – that’s plenty.) They always teach me.

As to changing over the years, someone, can’t recall who, said that anything you do seriously enough for long enough, you get better at. I hope I’ve gotten better.

RE: How have covid restrictions affected you personally and your writing?

MS: This is such a hard question to answer. My outlook has changed during these past years of viewing life through the lens of global fear and suffering. The solitude that I have always loved and been comfortable with wears a different face these days. Others for whom loneliness was already a burden—what must this be for them? And for those whom death has touched most closely, I can only wish them strength as we emerge from this dark period. As for the traits that have surfaced in our society as we confront what we can’t understand or master, well, they are not all pretty. I’ve learned that it isn’t easy to maintain an awareness of how much pain there is around you and at the same time leave space for joy. It takes conscious choice, not a trait I thought I would have to develop. But I do believe in that larger view I try to keep present in my poetry, and that helps. Poetry helps. It always has.

RE: Do you have other creative outlets beyond writing or what do you do for fun?

MS: I love just being with my husband. Such luck! We walk together, cook together, complain about politics together. Reading widely is essential to us both. I can’t imagine a day without several hours of reading. Travel used to be part of my life, but I suspect that’s over for a time. I do miss my friends and former students with whom I used to meet frequently, and, not a fan of zoom, I’m looking forward to those first catch-up sessions. I hope soon.