Poetry Spotlight: Maggie Dietz

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Poet Maggie Dietz is one of Memorious‘s first contributors, having appeared in Issue 1, and the University of Chicago Press has just released her second collection, That Kind of Happy. The collection manages to feel deeply personal without being limited to the interior concerns of just one self. Dietz’s gaze is alertly trained on the wide world, and her speaker’s entanglement in it—its strangers, links on globalization’s unwieldy, unjust social chain, its hillsides and music and hospital rooms.  “Mankind cannot bear much Reality,” Eliot wrote, but Dietz’s poetry seeks it, passionately.

Dietz is the author of a previous collection, Perennial Fall, winner of the Jane Kenyon Award and a Wisconsin Library Association Literary Award. She is the recipient of a Grolier Poetry Prize, a George Bennett Fellowship at Phillips Exeter Academy, and fellowships from the New Hampshire State Council on the Arts and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts. With Robert Pinsky, she coedited the anthologies Americans’ Favorite Poems (1999), Poems to Read (2002), and An Invitation to Poetry (2004). She teaches at Boston University and the University of Massachusetts Lowell.

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“Kempie” is one of the poems in the book I loved immediately on first reading. It’s eerie and wonderful the way you shadow-puppet childhood snapshots and leave the reader to figure out that these are just wishful imaginings, for the time being (if I’m reading right.) I love the metrical/maternal certainty of the ending: “You’ve got a mother, / Kempie, and you’ve got a name.” But I have to admit: I’m baffled by the poem’s first sentence! Would it ruin things if you were to give me a few clues here?

“When I was like you no one/spoke to me…” The poem presents the problem of how to speak to a person who doesn’t exist. Maybe that is helpful? The line break may offer a clue as well. I guess I don’t mind it’s being mysterious, although it’s never my intention to baffle anybody. The distinction between mystery and befuddlement is something I bring up often with my students—the one being desirable, the other not so much.

Probably my favorite “move” here is the tempering of longing with sharpness and sass (“Remember / when you didn’t have the croup? / I stayed up all night making steam. / Remember when you didn’t win / the spelling bee? / We were so proud.”) There’s what you could call a Syzmborskan resilience-by-humor in there. Were those negations—we didn’t, you didn’t— there in early drafts, or did they come later? 

Those “Remember when you didn’t…” formulations were part of my initial thinking about the poem, the kind of almost subconscious writing that happens before anything is written down. I guess there’s a dream-as-wish-fulfillment thing happening there. It’s as if those things—the croup, the spelling bee—both did and didn’t happen. This poem and much of the book take up dream and imagination as equally real and sometimes more significant that what we call “real life.” In her essay “Against Sincerity,” Louise Glück examines the distinction between what is actual and what is true. I love that essay. The statements “I stayed up all night making steam” and “We were so proud” mean to be true.

In “Thin Ice,” your lines  “The frozen river’s like a place / in me I mustn’t go”makes me think of Frost. What is your favorite Frost poem, and why?

I have several—“‘Out, Out—,’” “Directive,” “An Old Man’s Winter Night,”—and Frost has been important to me, and influential. “Home Burial” is the poem that above all others feels endlessly complex and difficult. Frost never read that poem aloud—there’s no recording of it—because he said it was too sad. There’s nothing quite like listening to students who’ve encountered the poem for the first time discuss it: the initial impulse to take a side (the husband, the wife) usually dissipates, and the talk turns to different ways of grieving. I won’t write an essay about it here, but I’ll say that what amazes me most about the poem (beyond the brilliance of the conversation fitted so naturally to blank verse) is the physicality of it. There’s the movement on the staircase, of course, but most striking to me is the moment when the wife, Amy, recounts to her husband the act of his having dug (“With your own hand—how could you?”) their child’s grave:

Making the gravel leap and leap in air,
Leap up, like that, like that, and land so lightly
And run back down the mound beside the hole.

You can hear her mounting anger there, and also understand that she is physically mimicking the act of digging. It’s as if she demonstrates the catharsis her husband may have experienced in that physical action without understanding it’s possible that’s what it was.

I have a question about the poem “Another Day, Another Dolor,” which includes the lines

we angled in to hear if he’d say something
wise—and he did he said ‘I guess
you’re wondering why I called this meeting’

Why no comma in “he did he said”?  (I love the rush the commalessness creates.) Was there ever a comma? Did anyone ever suggest one? Tell me the story of this comma-lack.

The absence of commas imitates, I suppose, the breathlessness of story-telling in a poem that is a conversational retelling of several family anecdotes. There are some commas in the poem, but many of them, those that would introduce dialogue, for instance, I left out. Denise Levertov likens punctuation to a score for the reader’s breath, and I’m with her on that. The omission you mention is probably the boldest one (in terms of ignoring grammatical rules), and that has to do with momentum for me. If someone had suggested I stick a comma there, I’d have ignored them. But I don’t remember that happening.

I’d like to quote from Marie Howe’s poem “Pain” (from What The Living Do):

… a day came when he said, Marie,
you know how we’ve been waiting for the big pain to come?

I think it’s here. I think this is it.
I think it’s been here all along.

And he did take the morphine, and he died the next week.

The 90%-iamb “he did” is satisfyingly percussive, of course, but I’m wondering if (you think) both of you were drawn to the assertion of “he DID” as defiance toward, in each case, a deathbed?

That’s a powerful Howe poem. Hmmm….it’s hard for me to see or hear defiance in it. I hear anapests in her construction with the “ands,” and a sense of acquiescence in the sonic echo there, a rhythm of attrition: “and he did…and he died.”

In my poem “he did he said” is more iambic (“and he did he said ‘I guess / you’re wondering why I called this meeting.’”) If there’s defiance in the assertion, I think it’s the speaker’s defiance: an insistence on humor as a kind of wisdom, maybe even especially in the darkest and most serious moments. Is humor in the face of death a kind of defiance? Yes—I’d not thought of it that way, not in the “Rage, rage against the dying of the light” sense. Another way to look at it is that humor is a way to accept and acknowledge death without making the people who have to go on living discomfited. There’s wisdom in that—a kind of wisdom only the dying have access to—and, as I’ve experienced it, tremendous generosity.

I first read the poem “Zoloft” in Threepenny, and was so excited when I learned it would be part of a new book. I got glasses for the first time a year ago, and was stunned like your speaker, for whom: “where the branches had been a blur / of fire, now there were scalloped oak leaves.” That stanza begins “it was October and I could see the edges / of everything” and adds, “It was wonderful. It made me / horribly sad.” This contradictory emotional simultaneity feels *true*, but I’m wondering why it’s true. Is it that the rush of heightened awareness of one’s sensory environment is unavoidably paired with the poignancy of not being able to hold on to it? Or am I just projecting?

I’m glad it feels true to you, and I don’t think you’re projecting. But I do think it’s an impulse to try to align one’s own experience with the experience of a poem—to summon or recall some parallel or similar if not life experience then emotional circumstance. Your association—having gotten glasses—seems only natural. People seek solidarity in art even if there’s not so direct a connection.

I wasn’t thinking of Keats and negative capability when I wrote the poem, but it’s always knocking around up there and it’s what you’re describing, I think, in pointing to the simultaneity of opposing emotions. Paradox is often at the center of truth, because nothing is ever as simple as it seems, and two truths can seem to contradict each other. Kids even understand this. Not long ago my daughter looked up from what she was doing and said, “Mom, you know that yeah-no feeling?”

I can only guess what readers might draw from that stanza: the rush you mention and its connection to loss, a sense of what one’s missed, of what one doesn’t get to keep, a sense of the fragility of the body, the reliance on technology as we age, the notion that the world’s available beauty can be veiled to some of us. And perhaps things I can’t imagine as well. If some readers find something true there, as you say you have, than the poem has done its job. What more can we hope for?

Interviewer Sarah Green is a reader for Memorious and the author of the chapbook Skeleton Evenings (Finishing Line Press) and the poetry collection Earth Science (421 Atlanta).

For original poetry, fiction, art song, art, and more interviews, please visit our magazine at www.memorious.org.

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1 Comment

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One response to “Poetry Spotlight: Maggie Dietz

  1. Gorgeous poem and really insightful commentary on it, enjoyed it immensely.

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