The Writer’s Hot Seat: Fred Marchant

15 December 2017 on Blog, Poetry, The Writer's Hot Seat   Tags:

Barnstorm reader Katie Brunero recently talked with poet Fred Marchant about his new collection of poetry, Said Not Said, guidance for new poets, technique versus craft, and the best revision advice he's ever received. Said Not Said was published by Graywolf Press in May 2017. Marchant is also the author of The Looking House and Full Moon Boat, both published by Graywolf Press. House on Water, House in Air, a new and selected collection was published by Dedalus Press in Dublin, Ireland, and his first book, Tipping Point, won the 1993 Word Works Washington Prize in poetry. He is also an Emeritus Professor of English and the Founding Director of the Suffolk University Poetry Center in Boston. He continues to teach in a wide variety of workshop settings.

Brunero: In preparation for the publication of “Said Not Said” you wrote on your website: “In some way each [poetry collection] has been for me a parting of the veil, an effort to embody and enact a sense of discovery . . .” I take this to mean you desire your form to both provoke and perform the moment of revelation. In what ways do you see your form creating your content, versus your content creating your form? Do you see one process occurring more often than the other in your work?

Marchant: What a really fine question and perplexing aspect of the process. The strict answer is that I honestly don't know which comes first or which comes first more often. I do think you capture the issue perfectly in the sense that I hope the formal aspects of the poem both "provoke and perform the moment of revelation." Not always sure there is a revelation in the ordinary (content) sense, but I hope the forms help reveal of the nature of the human predicament at hand, and perhaps the bewilderment that comes with it, too.


Think about this execution, is what I am asking myself to do. Think hard and clearly about it.  What is it and what is the meaning of it, or more accurately, what can I possibly say about it. It is not exactly a song I am singing here, but an imaginative effort to look—to stare and stare, as Elizabeth Bishop might say—at what I could see.

And the "revelation" that came was that second stanza's "soft glow of sacrifice" and the sense that this was a ritual killing of a brutal dictator was like the ritual or religious killing of a goat in sacrifice. In fact, he seemed not as smart as your ordinary goat. Caught in the grip of history, and the whole thing tightening on him, this goat suddenly realizes he should run, but of course, he cannot.

Back to the formal question: Stanza 2 is also an honest response to the demands of The Sender. Who or what is The Sender I leave up to the reader to decide or name. Among other things it is what sends you into the world to write poems about distinctly unpoetic human behavior. But in addition, now some time later, I can see that the deep indent of the second stanza has the strangest and really pleasing visual resonance for me. These look like steps, granite blocks even. Steps down from on high where The Sender lives to where humans butcher each other. Could be the steps up and down from an altar too.

And so with the sense of hindsight, I start to see why it felt right to indent that second stanza so deeply. So much of what this book is "about" is an effort to respond to those matters in experience that seem so beyond words as to reduce one to silence. And of course that is to say one could sing as well as do some deliberate reasoning, maybe do both together. I hope this poem does in fact do both, but it is a troubled thought that begins this poem.

It has a cousin in the opening lines of "Psalm," where the speaker wonders what good there is in fixating on lines coming down the page. In a way, this formal device—the deeply indented second stanza—helps in this poem to articulate that there is something worthwhile in attending to such a linguistic design.

Brunero: What guidance might you give a beginning poetry student on how to clear the “slush of opinion and tradition, pride and prejudice, appearance and delusion” (Marchant qtd. Thoreau) and come to the rock bottom of certain knowledge? Perhaps this is a question better left to metaphysics, but I’m interested, as a crafter, how do you know when you’ve landed a “truth” worth keeping? Is there anything, beyond feeling (famously untrustworthy), which you use as a guide?

Marchant: It is a great remark by Thoreau, and I never get tired of imagining clearing the slush aside. Of course, there is always a new layer of slush to deal with, but that doesn't change the nature of the enterprise, which is to get to whatever rock bottom there is.

No, I don't think this is only a metaphysical question. You are right to say that it is, and I would add that it is an aesthetic question as well, a "craft" question. Here I am reminded of Seamus Heaney's essay "From Feeling into Words." Here is the relevant passage:

"I think technique is different from craft. Craft is what you learn from other verse. Craft is the skill of making. . . Learning the craft is learning to turn the windlass at the well of poetry. Usually you begin by dropping the bucket halfway down the shaft and winding up a taking of air. You are miming the real thing until one day the chain draws unexpectedly tight and you have dipped into waters that will continue to entice you back. You’ll have broken the skin on the pool of yourself."

I think we all--as we walk through the world--encounter so much of that slush Thoreau mentions. It builds up in the soul, and the work of art always seems to me to be give us materials that help us scrape it away. In this also I am reminded that of Blake and his remark about "the doors of perception." Windex those windows and we might see the infinite.

Now as for knowing when one has landed a truth worth keeping? That is a harder one. I do or have learned to be less trusting of Truths or Truth or anything like that with a capital letter at the start. I think more pragmatically I guess. I don't worry if a truth is an ultimate one, but I do hope I catch a glimpse of enough of a truth now and again. Maybe it is my lingering sense that poetry—as Frost said—might just offer us a momentary stay against confusion. I like that acknowledgement of the momentary!

But you ask too if there is anything more trustworthy than feeling. Again, I admit I don't know if there is anything beyond feeling. In fact, for me, the project of art and poetry in particular seems to be an effort to know what one actually feels, all that complexity of feeling. One of the great makers of slush is the willingness and desire perhaps to simplify feelings so as to make them more manageable. But maybe the work of art is to enrich our sense of the complexity of feeling, and perhaps that complexity is more trustworthy, not as an idea, but as an experience, as a way of knowing what it is we are experiencing.

An example: The whole opening suite of poems about my sister Pat and her long experience of schizophrenia. The effort of that first section is to honor the complexity of feeling, mine and what I could discern of hers, too.

Brunero: What are some of the best revision advice you’ve received?

Lord knows I have needed and been so grateful for revision advice, both within individual poems and in the macro design of books. But I think the more useful kind of revision advice I can share with you is more about learning to honor one's own idiosyncratic writing process. So many of my writing friends have been my teachers in this, including David Rivard, your professor. But I will go back a while to William Stafford, a poet from the Pacific Northwest, and a great writing teacher. He has an essay "A Way of Writing" that became really important to me when I began to write poetry in earnest.  The first sentence will illustrate:

A writer is not so much someone who has something to say as he is someone who has found a process that will bring about new things he would not have thought of if he had not started to say them.

Now to my mind there is in this sentence a faith in writing itself, in the wayward motions of mind that writing can follow, and trust that in their unpredictability the process of writing will surprise you. Starting to say something gives you the place from which you can see things that you'd like to say, and would not have ever seen them had you not started the process. In short, he was pointing out the value of writing itself, not good writing, but writing itself. I could write poorly and try to discover what it was I was trying to say, and by writing poorly, I was doing the work of writing! All those really lousy drafts were my allies and friends not my failures.

Brunero: In poems like “Cement Mixer” when sense breaks down—often in the face of the incomprehensible or unjust—all that’s left is music. How would you describe your relationship with the sonic side of poetry? Do you have any practical tips for the “tin ear?”

Marchant: Oh, how I love this question! Thank you for asking it, Katie. Yes, I do have a practical tip or two. Sometimes it's really helpful to listen to poetry in a language you do not know well or much about. Just to hear what happens in pure sonic terms. This was the case for me when I first heard some Vietnamese poets twenty five years ago. I loved the sound of the poetry as sound. Yes, it was new and exotic and had a whole lot of American history attached to it for me, but still it was a revelation to me especially in how poetry can establish a webwork of echoes that not exactly rhymes, but a kind of sonic platform that gives here and there with stress, but sustains the whole project, sustains the feeling.

And that is perhaps the greater tip for the tin ear. Sound is a guide to feeling, and feeling is a guide to sound in poetry. It is the same as when I listen to music. Perhaps it is "purer" than poetry and its emphasis on language, but still in both official music and in the music of poetry what we are experiencing are arrangements of sound that tap into or otherwise generate or illuminate a feeling, a complex of feelings.

And you are so right that scat language of Slim Gaillard in "Cement Mixer" to my ear is the music of survival in the face of what the world and life brings you to.

Brunero: In your experience as a teacher, what are the most common ways graduate student poetry goes wrong? Were there any underdeveloped areas in your early poetry and what helped you identify and strengthen these weaknesses?

Marchant: It's a hard question to answer, Katie. In one way, I don't think of folks going wrong in the practice of their art. What I said above about valuing one's so called failures is something I believe in deeply. But maybe I can best answer this question if I see it through the lens of the developmental issues of the writer as writer. Whew, that is too abstract. What I mean is that cluster of thoughts and feelings around the question of whether one is or really is a poet. The self-doubt, the corrosive self-criticism, the protective armors we put on, all that comes with the territory and needs to be examined and if you will give its due, but not over-valued.

I'll put it this way: The identity question of whether or not one is a poet is a dangerous one. Better to assume you are a poet and let the identity question go at that; then you can pay attention to the practice of the art, the real labor of it, and the more than occasional joys within it. For me, it was never easy—for a lot of reasons—to think of myself as an artist, but I so wanted to be and thought of myself as a poet. Self-contradiction galore. Paradox even. It took me many years to bring poetry, the actual thing itself, closer to the center of my inner solar system. Sometimes it slips out of its spot, but those are the times that I turn to other artists whose work I know and love to help get me re-established in the right relationship to poetry.

In fact, writing these notes to you is helping me do just that, right now. One can go "wrong" by somehow jostling the practice of the art out of its rightful spot in your life. It happens, but the good news is that you wake up the next day, and you start over again. It feels sometimes that poetry has been waiting a long time for me at the crossroads, and I am just finally catching up to it. Okay, then so be it. We begin again there and then.



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