An Interview with Maura Stanton

Winner of the 1975 Yale Younger Poets Award, the 2003 Michigan Literary Award, and two NEA fellowships, Maura Stanton has published five books of poems (Snow on Snow, Cries of Swimmers, Tales of the Supernatural, Life among the Trolls, and Glacier Wine), three short story collections (The Country I Come From, Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling!, and Cities in the Sea), and one novel (Molly Companion). Her work has appeared in a number of publications including The Best American Poetry, Third Coast, Ploughshares, TriQuarterly, The New Yorker, The Antioch Review, The Paris Review, The Chicago Review, and River Styx. She is currently a professor of creative writing at Indiana University, Bloomington. Our email correspondence began in December of 2006, and continued into the new year.

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As I read your work, both prose and poetry, I’m struck by the intimate and tenuous relationship of your speakers to the world(s) in which they locate themselves. For example, in “The Courthouse” which appears in Life Among the Trolls, you write:

  I still dream about that damp courthouse,
  The lightless corridors, the little office
  I was assigned to type in, the black robes
  Of the judges swishing against their pants.
  Sometimes my fingers stiffened on the keys
  When I heard the jail door clang; I forgot
  Which side was which, who was prisoner
  Who was free…

Your speakers often seem to restructure their universes by re-envisioning them; at the end of this particular poem, the speaker “escapes” though a skylight using a dream rope. Do you see reverie as a function in your work, and if so, how? I’m thinking, not only of speakers’ relationships to the past or future, but, more specifically, of a narrator’s connections to a present world (or worlds).

Imagination is for me the most vital element in poetry and prose, and that comes out of reverie. I grew up as the oldest of nine children in a happy, noisy, boisterous family. I loved to play games with my brothers and sisters—we didn’t need outsiders much—but I also developed the ability not to be where I really was, sometimes through reading, sometimes through daydreaming. I could sit at the end of the couch, with the TV blaring, and the baby fussing, and my siblings rushing about, and hear none of it, I would be so absorbed in my book. I might be sitting at the table eating my chili and oyster crackers on Saturday night in Peoria, Illinois, but I’d also be climbing that dream-rope, trying to get away. I knew where I wanted to go: Europe! My parents had been there so it was a real place. Both of my parents had served in the army during WWII. My mother was a nurse and my father was a medic. They’d met in London, and married in Paris. My mother had an engraved invitation to tea at Buckingham Palace. She’d met the King and Princess Elizabeth. I was always balancing that dream world where my parents had actually lived for several years with the read world of the Midwest in the 1950’s where I sometimes felt imprisoned.

What were some of the first books that transported you from the Midwest of the 50’s?

I loved fairy tales by Hans Christian Andersen and the Grimm Brothers and Charles Perrault. The Sea Fairies by L. Frank Baum, the author of The Wizard of Oz, was my favorite book when I was a kid. It’s about an ordinary girl named Trot who goes down into the sea to visit the Queen of the Mermaids and has lots of adventures. The book itself was old—it belonged to one of my father’s cousins—and illustrated, and I loved the pictures and drawings as well as the story. But after I left home it disappeared. My sisters and I looked all over the house one Christmas, and we couldn’t find it. So I wrote a short story “The Sea Fairies” in order to recover it. Fairy Tale imagery runs through a lot of my poetry and fiction. My poem “The Village of the Mermaids” was inspired by Paul Delvaux’s wonderful surreal painting of that name. In Tales of the Supernatural I tried to balance the real and the unreal by dividing the book into two parts. I’m still searching for ways of mixing the fantastic into the ordinary and vice versa.

Many authors work exclusively in poetry or prose, but you seem to work regularly in both genres.

I’ve always written in both genres. I was admitted to the Iowa Writers Workshop in both poetry and fiction, and took as many fiction workshops as I did poetry workshops. My thesis was poetry, because I had to type it myself. I usually write poetry for several months, switch to fiction for a while, then go back to poetry. Pressure seems to build up when I’m working in one genre, so it feels great to be able to switch over to the other. Bits of imagery, ancedotes, emotions, characters, settings and words that don’t get used up in writing fiction spill into the poetry and vice-versa. I’ve just finished a book of prose poems. I’d written a few prose poems before, but never explored the form so intensely. I love being a poet and a fiction writer at the same time!

That reminds me of what Campbell McGrath wrote about the prose poem. He said, “What grows in that place is possessed of a beauty all its own, ramshackle and unexpected.” What advantages or disadvantages did you discover while working so intensely with prose poems, and how long have you been working on this manuscript?

Prose poems seem to come out of nowhere, and they always used to surprise me. I never planned to write them, they just happened. But a few months ago, while I was doing my T’ai Chi, I thought about an empty bird’s egg shell that I’d found on my lawn the day before, and as I moved my arms—one movement is called “bird flaps its wings”—I imagined making myself small and going into the egg shell. And it occurred to me that I could go into lots of different things and see what they were like in the interior. When I finished my exercises I sat down to write, and I found myself not only inside the egg shell, but inside the little box of the prose poem. And I realized that inside that little box I was absolutely free to do anything! I went into the egg shell. The next day I went into some cotton candy. Then I went into my peak flow meter. I decided I would write 60 prose poems for my birthday over the next few months, and I did. I’m calling the group Interiors: 60 Artless Comix.

I felt a lot of energy while I was writing them. Maybe Dante felt that way when he decided to use the Italian vernacular instead of Latin for his voyage through hell to heaven. One inspiration for me was Edward Lear. I love his nonsense recipes for Amblongus Pie, Crumbobblious Cutlets and Gosky Patties. Last year I read some of Lear’s journals and travel writings, and a biography. I think his subversive spirit got under my skin. He was officially a landscape painter, but his big landscapes are dull. His little sketches and nonsense verse and his parodies of his friend Tennyson are full of joy and imagination.

Among his other sketches, Lear created “A fantastic biography of Edward Lear.” How would a “fantastic biography of Maura Stanton” read?

Fantastic Biography of Maura Stanton

Born a mouse, raised a cat, she made a pair of wings out of old
Venetian blinds and glued them on with pancake batter.

It seems like the prose poem offers you a sort of infinite—rather than limited—space, or a kind of interiority with room for travel. I wonder if you’d talk a bit about Bachelard’s work, The Poetics of Space; when we’ve talked in the past, you’ve noted its importance to you.

Corners, closets, chests, chambers. . . that’s what I responded to in Bachelard. I remember knocking on walls and checking for loose tiles when I was growing up, even though finding a secret room in a brand-new bungalow in central Illinois wasn’t very likely. But when I was in sixth grade we moved into an old farmhouse on the edge of the suburbs. Now I had a stairwell with a gun rack, real wood paneling, a fireplace, an attic, a scary unfinished cellar and rats under the sink. It was wonderful. There had to be a secret room though I never found it. So I felt a shock of recognition when I read The Poetics of Space. Bachelard conjures the power of interior spaces.

What difference do you find between your creative engagement as a reader and creative engagement as a writer? As an instructor of writing, do you think of teaching as a creative act?

I think reading and writing are both creative acts. I’ve always loved the description in the opening of Jane Eyre when Jane pulls the red curtains shut and settles into the window-seat. She’s hidden away with her romantic book about birds. She can read the words or look at the mysterious pictures, or she can raise her eyes and look out at “a scene of wet lawn and storm beat shrub.” The exterior and the interior are perfectly meshed in that hidden place. But note that it’s a hidden place with a window as well as a book. And of course the narrative can’t begin until Jane steps out of that space.

The classroom is another kind of space, both physical and mental. The physical space is simply the four walls, maybe some windows, the seminar table or the rows of desks, but the mental space is a web of thought and talk. Sometimes the web is intricate and brilliant, and everyone contributes their shiny strands, and you end up with something surprising and new; other times it’s just dull, slack string.

When you were a student, who were your mentors? And what peers, if any, helped you to shape your work?

I’ve just been thumbing through the black binder of poems that I wrote while I was a student at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop from 1969 through 1972. I’m struck by their violence and surrealism. My brother’s birthday had been drawn second or third in the famous television lottery and he was shipped off to Vietnam while I got to go to graduate school because I was a woman. I felt anguished and guilty. So the war haunts my poetry, especially that first year, sometimes directly, sometimes erupting through the imagery—but what’s funny is that I don’t remember being conscious of that back then. The war was the background to everything, it was in the air we breathed, so nobody thought, Oh, I’m writing an anti-war poem—it just came out naturally in the imagery. Only now can I see what a powerful force it was in my work. And I also see imitations of Auden, of Robert Bly, of Henri Michaux, of Sylvia Plath, collage poems using lines from Celine or Emily Dickinson, poems about WWII. . . .no two poems are alike, I was struggling to find a voice and I was influenced by everything I read and by my teachers and peers. Norman Dubie was in my first workshop, and his wonderful Alehouse Sonnets appeared on the worksheet. I admired his craft and sense of history. He was a genius, the real thing. Jane Shore, who later introduced me to the work of Elizabeth Bishop, was writing wonderful fresh inventive poems full of wit and imagination. Tom Lux came to Iowa my second year. My surrealism was dark and agonized. His was breathtaking and funny and I learned a lot from him. I admired Michael Ryan’s seriousness and his belief in the power of poetry to change the world. Albert Goldbarth had an amazing natural voice, full of invention and passion. Barrett Watten’s intriguing philosophical work got me thinking about post-modernism and language poetry before I’d ever heard the terms. Richard Cecil was in the Ph.D program. He started writing strong, funny poetry at Iowa and became my husband and my best critic. And I was lucky to have terrific teachers—George Starbuck, Marvin Bell, Richard Hugo, Kathy Fraser, Donald Justice, and Galway Kinnell. And those are only the poets—I was also in the Fiction workshop at Iowa. Richard Yates was a strong influence.

Do you think of writing as a political act?

Sometimes I’ll be filled with passion about some news event or issue, and I’ll sit down and deliberately write what I think of as a political poem. It may or may not work. It might relieve my feelings, but it will only work as a poem if I pull up something surprising and genuine from the action of reverie and transform my subject in some unexpected way.

Most often the political comes in sideways. It’s subversive and subtle, an exploration of the psychic we all share, or of the power systems we all struggle against.

You mention that while you were at Iowa you struggled with finding your own voice. I imagine many young writers, and perhaps especially writers in MFA programs (where they’re surrounded by peer influences), experience this sort of struggle. At what point did that struggle subside a bit for you?

Struggling is the wrong word—that’s a cliché that slipped past me—struggling sounds like a swimmer who might go under, and what I felt as a young writer wasn’t fear, it was joy and delight. Striving, that’s it. I was striving to find my voice. Control of craft, command of the period style (or styles), and confidence in ones own personal vision—those are the three elements that make up a voice. I guess I could call them the three C’s. Iowa introduced me to the period style—I discovered the work of Sylvia Plath (I’d never heard of her before I went to Iowa but George Starbuck said I looked just like her so I went out and bought a copy of Ariel) and James Tate (he’d recently won the Yale Younger Poets Award so everyone checked out his thesis in the library) and Alan Dugan and Louise Gluck (I loved her glamorous photo in Paul Carroll’s The Young American Poets, a very influential anthology for my generation though only 6 of the 54 poets were women) and Bill Knott and Robert Lowell and Donald Justice and dozens of others. Iowa allowed me to explore and experiment and discover what I wanted to say and how I wanted to say it. It was the place where I began to practice my craft. It was a place where I developed good writing habits for the future.

You won the Yale Younger Prize for your first collection, Snow On Snow. When did you begin that collection and how was it (or was it?) related to the manuscript you wrote in graduate school?

My thesis at Iowa was called “Executions & Other Details.” I stayed on one more year at Iowa, then taught for a year in Cortland, New York, and another year in Richmond, Virginia. So the manuscript that Stanley Kunitz selected for the Yale was three years past my thesis, and mostly new poems. The manuscript was called “A Few Picnics in Illinois” when I sent it to the Yale. Stanley didn’t care for that title, and asked me to find another. I remember going through the manuscript and making a list of all the phrases and images that might make a good title for a book. Finally I hit on “snow on snow,” the final three words of a poem called “Going Back” that I wrote in Cortland, a town where it never seemed to stop snowing. “Snow on snow” chimed with all the other images of snow that ran through the poems. Stanley liked it. In his wonderful introduction to my book he calls me “a poet of snow and flame.” Hans Christian Andersen has a fairy tale called “The Snow Queen” that I’ve always loved. And how perfect, it’s snowing here today in Indiana as we finish this interview!

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