Poetry Life and Times – An Interview With Marie Marshall – Poet
by Robin Ouzman Hislop Editor of Poetry Life and Times
Bio – Marie Marshall (3rd person)
MM is a middle-aged Anglo-Scottish author, poet, and editor, who says little about herself, preferring to let her writing speak. She has had three novels published, two of which are for the young adult / older children readerships. Both of her collections of poetry are currently in publication. Naked in the Sea (2010) in its 2nd imprint, is available in e-book form direct from publishers P’kaboo and in Kindle version on Amazon; the 1st imprint may still be available in print, if you enquire at Masque Publishing of Littlehampton. I am not a fish, nominated for the 2013 T S Eliot Prize, may be bought direct from publishers Oversteps Books. Marie has had well over two hundred poems published in magazines, anthologies, etc., but has not submitted anything since 2013. The most unusual places in which her poetry has appeared are on the wall of a café in Wales, pinned to trees in Scottish woodland, and etched into an African drum in New Orleans Museum of Art.
Robin. Hi Marie, welcome aboard PLT, we’re so glad you agreed to do this interview.
Marie. It’s kind of you to invite me.
Robin. I first became aware of your work as a poet, when I discovered you were a Co-Editor of Richard Vallance’s Anthology of Sonnets, The Phoenix Rising from the Ashes. It’s going back a bit but how did that come about?
Marie. Richard and I go back further than that. Somewhere in 2007 or 2008 I submitted some sonnets to Sonnetto Poesia, the magazine that Richard edited. At the time I was eating, breathing, dreaming in iambic pentameter, using the sonnet form to sharpen up the technical power of my writing. Anyhow, Richard was so enthusiastic about my sonnets that I believe he included some in an issue of the magazine without running them by the other members of the editorial team. Not long after that he asked me to become an associate editor of Sonnetto Poesia, and shortly after that an associate editor of Canadian Zen Haiku. I served in that capacity for about three or four years until Richard decided to retire.
The Phoenix Rising from the Ashes was Richard’s ‘swan song’, and in fact the amount of hard work he put into it was unbelievable. I was amongst those drafted in as part of the editorial team, and as such didn’t do much more than anyone else on the team. Somehow I fell into the role of reining in some of the hyperbole in the introductory text to the anthology, rewriting much of it, and at the end Richard wanted to reward me by raising my status to something like co-Editor. However, I hadn’t done nearly enough work to justify that, so we settled on ‘Deputy Editor’ – I made the proviso that I would only accept that title if everyone else on the team agreed. I don’t think anyone objected.
I’m proud of the anthology – I made sure that copes were lodged at the Scottish Poetry Library and the National Library of Scotland, both in Edinburgh. It’s good. It’s not perfect, but it’s good.
Robin. Ah, yes, I remember Sonnetto Poesia and Canadian Zen Haiku. I monitored the latter for some years on line and enjoyed working with Richard in my contribution of the Spanish chapter to that anthology. In fact, we’ve published a Sonnet of yours from that anthology here at PLT, Closing Time at Laugharne. Pronounced ‘larn’ to rhyme with yarn, that boozy Celt at the Boathouse, I loved the imagery.
Marie. I’m glad I’m a poet and can get away with calling someone a boozy Celt.
Robin. You’re not only an editor of your own online poetry periodical (thezenspace.wordpress.com) but a translator, novelist, essayist, and poet; would you give the reader a little background to these activities.
Marie. First off, I don’t erect any significant ‘Chinese walls’ between them. I write, I deal in words, end of. Perhaps the editorship of the zen space is the odd one out, a little anyway, because there I’m dealing with other people’s words, not my own. It all started when I sent in a haibun to an e-zine that specialised in such things. I got an email back from the editor in which he expressed a wish to publish my submission, but he wanted to tinker with the words. Now, normally that’s an acceptable prerogative of an editor, but in the case of something as in-the-moment as a haibun, I resisted. He got shirty. I asked him if he knew of the principle of mono no aware, and of the origin of haiku and such like in Zen. He said no he didn’t, and in any case all of a sudden he wasn’t going to publish my stuff after all. Well, having exposed his ignorance, I decided to start my own haiku e-quarterly. You might think I would be bound to seed it with my own work, but in fact I don’t. Leaving aside the buzz of reading through people’s work and putting a quarterly Showcase together, the main selfish reason I keep it going is so that I can still hang out a virtual shingle saying ‘Editor’.
Translating is a very, very minor string to my bow. I have a reasonable knowledge of French. I have translated a little of Gérard de Nerval and Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle. I have written some parallel poems in English and French, English and Scots, and even had a shot at translating something from Welsh. My main influence was the late Vera Rich, who seemed to appreciate my skill as a poet. We worked a little together, and she passed on to me her principles of reproducing not only sense, register, voice, and so on, but the actual metric structure of the original. I can tell you that’s not an easy skill, but Vera had it in spades! Just before she died, she had passed her first draft of her translation of Ivan Franko’s Death of Cain over to me to read through and comment on. I had made a list of queries and suggestions for her when I learned of her death. Her first draft is blogged somewhere, but I have been wanting to put together a re-edited version for some time – I had questions for her about her choices of words in some places, when compared to other versions and to the original words in Ukrainian, but of course these will never be answered now. Anyhow, her influence is very strong for me, even though I do so very little translation.
Robin. I remember very well reading the translation, it seems to me a pity you’ve buried it from publication over a comparatively small detail, when a few footnotes would have sufficed and who knows perhaps get an answer from that, but sorry to interrupt.
Marie. No, the questions I had for her were much more than one ‘comparatively small’ detail. And in any case, Vera herself still had to check with her academic source in the Ukraine, but passed away before she could do so. I may do something public with it in May 2016, which is the centenary of Ivan Franko’s death, but anything I might do would be entirely without authorisation. We’ll see.
Anyhow, I’m intrigued that you call me an essayist. I suppose that we’re all essayists these days, given the universality of the blog, and I do put the occasional essay on the blog section of my web site. I have touched on aspects of English grammar, taxonomy, whether ‘modern literature’ exists, art graffiti, and I have written reviews. So maybe I’m an essayist of sorts.
I don’t know what to say about my being a novelist and a poet. These are the most obvious of my activities, so perhaps they need the least saying about them! I’m actually best known in Scotland as a writer of macabre short stories, but that’s another thing entirely.
Robin. Now comes the star pin question, take it or leave it: as you are a bit of a mystery – don’t get me wrong, I think it’s cool a writer shrouds herself in a bit of mystery – but you did start writing very late in life, and with incredible success from the start, which is unusual. What started that?
Marie. There are a number of questions hiding in there! Two at least. I’ll deal with the last one first – what started me writing? You’re right, of course, I started writing when I was already in my late forties. One day I was reading stuff on a web site – I have absolutely no recollection why, or how I came to be on that page – that was touting itself as ‘erotic writing’. Short stories. Most of them were dire, just an excuse to ‘talk dirty’, any plot in them was simply a set-up for a graphic sex-scene, nothing there that one could dignify with the term ‘literary merit’. I said to myself “I could do better than that!” and so I got on my keyboard and did just that. My principle was that the story should carry sex, be sexy, rather than be an excuse for sex. It worked, it worked well, but before long the story took over from the erotic content, and – bingo! – I found out I was a mainstream author.
Now, why do I have this shroud of mystery about me? The answer is, I’m afraid, rather prosaic. I have a number of psychological problems which make me severely agoraphobic, almost a recluse. I am painfully shy about speaking in public, about being the centre of attention, about being photographed, and so on. So making a virtue out of a necessity, I have turned this into a mystique, made it a selling point, made it an essentially part of Marie Marshall the author and the product.
Robin. Despite your other pursuits, it seems to me you feature mostly as a poet. So let me jump in at the deep end with you with a question framed in two parts: What are the qualities you think are needed to give birth to a poet; and how does the theme of any poem develop in your mind?
Marie. Neither of these is particularly simple to answer. I could say this: that the essential quality needed in a poet is an almost total disregard for what everyone else says poetry is. Along with that, a total disregard for the sanctity of language. Of course that won’t do for most people, they’ll find it an unsatisfactory answer; but to me, unless you have something like these essentials in your nature, you will write poetry that is clearly dictated by the rules, by the form – and don’t forget that ‘free verse’ is a form too – rather than letting the form carry what you want to say.
Usually what comes to me initially is a handful of words, a way of describing something – a sight, a sound, a feeling – that is distinctive. I remember them, or write them down, and then I see what grows around them. Sometimes this only results in a few lines. At other times it develops into an extended theme, with recurring tropes in a whole series of poems. Sometimes I write about something that is obsessing me; I think my ‘Veronica Franco’ poems are like that.
I think the only reason I’m best known as a poet is because I have set myself the task of writing something vaguely poetical, if only a fragment, every day. In fact, as I said before, I don’t really draw a distinction between writing poetry and writing anything else. In fact one prominent review of my first novel, Lupa, makes a point of saying that it is no surprise to learn that I’m a poet, as my prose is ‘full of passion and rhythm’
Robin. I’d like to ask you more questions about the Veronica Franco poems, but I’ll return to that later. Nowadays, perhaps because of the media and population increase in the world, more poetry is being written than ever before and fame cannot be again what it was. Do you think the poet and poetry in general play any particular role in the modern world, can they influence the course of events, for example. I call to mind WH Auden, who did much to diminish the myth of poetry, insomuch he claimed just that, the creations of the poet could not really influence the course of affairs in the world’s history. So perhaps the trend in modern poetry is just towards stylistics rather than any realistic view of crisis in the human condition.
Marie. Still, if we poets all jumped up and down at the same time, we could tumble the castles of the powerful.
Let’s face it, Robin, there is more of everything out there these days. It’s the world we live in. I am currently preparing an essay on ‘cultural appropriation’ in which I say “the walls are down”. Maybe you’re right, maybe Auden is right. But on the other hand, look at poetry after Auden. Dylan Thomas devised a poetic radio drama that became as popular as any work of literature; Allen Ginsberg delivered a slap to America’s face with ‘Howl’; Bob Dylan’s songs caught the imagination of a generation; Gil Scott-Heron was in the vanguard of Black Consciousness; John Cooper-Clarke’s sarky piss-takes on petty-bourgeois life, sink estates, and trends, are now household stuff… What I’m saying is that poets can still emerge. How far that emergence can be an influence I don’t know. Maybe Bob Dylan’s major influence was not on his own 1960s generation, but on the conservative backlash and consolidation! We live in a time where power has a grip of steel, and perhaps it would take more than a poet to break that grip now; but should that happen, there will be another Rouget de Lisle to provide the stirring accompaniment, of that I’m sure.
As for stylistics, let me ask you whether what I’m doing is merely stylistics. Another question – do you believe that poetry should deal exclusively with the human condition? Is that what poetry is for?
Robin. I’m saying that stylistics is a trend asked for in contemporary poetry and given priority over context. I mean by concerning the crisis of the human condition that nowadays more than ever the nature of consciousness, existence and reality is more enigmatic than before and should be given a context or at least an emergent voiced image, if that’s what poetry can do.
Marie. Asked for by whom and given priority by whom, I wonder. I also wonder whether I’m the right person to ask about the general human condition etc.. What I write is deeply personal, even the inconsequential bits of froth I write are personal, so if I have a perspective on the human condition it is based right here, in the experience of being me. Right here is also where I explore consciousness, existence, and reality. Things outside me have an existence of their own that does not depend on how I see them. I quarrel with the notion of rationality, with the notion that we are rational beings, because when we exercise this ‘rationality’ we perceive things – let’s say the laws of the universe – as being just so, not because that’s the way they are, but because that’s who we are. They’re not just filtered through our physical senses, but they’re filtered through our human-ness.
Robin. Again, I appreciate your comments about spontaneous use and growth of language in the development of poetics, but do you think linguistic theory has any bearing on poetics? There’s been a trend in contemporary philosophy to make linguistics central to inquiry and some poets adhere to such theorists as muse to their work in language, famously, Chomsky, Derrida, Wittgenstein etc., Do you have any special views on the relationship of linguistics to poetics either for or against?
Marie. Linguists study how language is used. Poets use it.
Robin. But I would say they implicate a world view that the poet who follows derives from. Perhaps also what I’m getting at is language itself, put basically, some thinkers hold language is central to the mind, whilst others hold that it fades.
Marie. It doesn’t fade. It slips through your fingers.
Robin. To take up the question of translation in poetry, apart from your very modest comments on your own work in the area, I’d be interested to hear your views. Say, despite the fact that the translator is using and deriving directly from the text of another’s work, she nevertheless brings to it something the other didn’t put into it. To quote a well known example of Robert Lowell’s translation of the work originally attributed to Sappho and then to Catullus “The one who stands before you” in which he claimed the translation was his own poem. What is your opinion about translation in poetics in particular?
Marie. I think I stand with Barthes on the whole issue of creative process. It extends beyond the work of the originator right to the final reader (in the case of poetry). Thus the work of the translator is undeniably creative in its own right, yes; but I feel we have to give credit to a translator for her aim, which is to convey as much of the original as she can, given that the work is being filtered through a whole different cultural medium, if you see what I mean.
Robin. Context depends entirely on the reader?
Marie. Let me speak from experience for a minute or two. When I translated de Nerval’s ‘El Desdichado’, for example – and I can tell you it wasn’t easy! – I had several things in mind. I was very familiar with the poem, but mainly because when I was little my family had a record of Donald Swann’s quirky version set to music. I loved it, although I didn’t really begin to understand it until I had learned French. Even then so much of the poem, with its classical references and so on, is highly symbolical. I guess to really know what it’s all about, it would be necessary to go back and live in de Nerval’s head. That’s impossible, of course, so what I had to do – or so it felt to me – was to try to give, as near as I could, the same imagery rendered as directly as possible into English, and let it remain as arcane to readers as the original did to me. I also wanted to attempt to use a comparable structure or rhythm and rhyme, or assonance or slant rhyme where I couldn’t wrestle a direct rhyme into submission, to stay as close as possible there too. Actually, to be honest, I had the rhythm and stresses of Donald Swann’s musical version in my head, and I think he (and I) mugged the metre in a couple of places, but so what! I’ll give it to you here. Caveat – I don’t hold this out as a great work of art or scholarship, and I know that other translators (Richard, for example, who is a better scholar of French than I am) disagree with my treatment.
Oh, by the way, one thing that has always struck me is the affinity of some of de Nerval’s imagery with the Marseilles Tarot. Just chucking that fact in apropos nothing.
I am the man of shade, bereaved, inconsolate,
The Prince of Aquitaine, with my keep overthrown;
My only star is dead, and my zodiac’d lute
Blazoned now anew with black Melancholy’s sun.
In the night of the tomb, you who granted me peace,
Give me back Pausilippe, the Italian brine,
The flower that brought such joy to my heart, shorn of ease,
Or the rose-arch’s column enwrapped with grapevine.
Am I Love or Sun-god? Lousignan or Biron?
My temples reddened still by kisses from the Queen,
Here by the Siren’s sea-cave pool I had a dream…
As a conqueror twice, I have crossed Acheron,
Modulating in turn, on the Orphean lyre,
All the sighs of the Saint, and the elf-maiden’s cry!
So what am I doing here, bearing in mind my aim? Is this as much, or even more, my own creativity as de Nerval’s? And here’s another question for you – where is the poetry actually happening in any case? Let me draw an analogy: Marcel Duchamp seemingly withdrew from art and spent his days becoming a chess master, but all the time he was working on the masterpiece Étants donnés, which was only put on display after his death, and which you look at like a peep show – where was or is is the art happening?
Robin. Now you’re asking me, I thought I was asking you, to be frank I think the translation and the original poem are two poems and two poets and the reader has to live with it. Are there any writers, artists, poets in particular who have influenced your development as a poet and if so, how and why?
Marie. That isn’t as easy a question as it seems. I almost wish I had never read any poetry, so that I could be sure my own poems were totally fresh and original. However, I can’t live in a vacuum, so I can’t write in a vacuum.
I don’t think I can name any one other poet in that way. However, if I identify with any artistic movement, I would say it is twentieth-century expressionism.
Robin. Well life doesn’t originate in a vacuum, that’s for sure, though some would disagree. Lets return the Veronica Franco poems, which you describe as your obsession and which we’ve been honoured to feature at PLT with more to come, I trust. I’m intrigued about the relationship with Wooden Mary and her devoted adoration, nay, veneration for the beautiful, brilliant, audacious and defiant (in her period) 16th century Italian courtesan to the nobility, Veronica Franco. Herself a poet in her own right, insomuch as she did actually exist and isn’t just a fictional character. It seems to me that Veronica Franco is not only the epitome of femininity in Wooden Mary’s desires, but an oracle, a muse in fact. And the object is the concept of beauty as defined through the female. I’ve selected a few titles from the series with brief excerpts below, as an outline:
I’m dancing with Veronica
….Our laughter lasts right to her curtsey,
and my stiff bow, taking care
not to break the balsa
of my performed identity….
I’m angry at Veronica because she’s perfect
….it all hangs on you like art, like Versace, like the exactitude of nature….
….making out of me only an artisan perfection, not that of a genius….
Lament of Maria Maresciallo at the funeral of Veronica Franco
….Tintoretto and Titian worshipped you, you know,
and your lover the Saint, he adored you;
but I was your sister, the only initiate of Berenice,
I wandered your depth and breadth, nave and aisle,
danced in your wake, walking on water by your magic, ….
Veronica to Wooden Mary.
@WoodenMary I’m sleeping, child
let me be, I’m no better
for the gold paint you splash
on my memory, and yet I know
you iconize my thumbprint
on a glass
Unlock the shrine and let me out,
I’ve faded, and never was that angel
of your imagination;
there’s no gold here, let alone oranges,
I’m away – and so’s my saint,
for what it’s worth –
to God knows where
Marie. I don’t know if there was an actual question in there, Robin, but I wouldn’t quarrel with your basic interpretation of what I’m doing in this particular series of poems.
Robin. Ok, but what I’m trying to extricate here is your comment on your obsession as specific to this aesthetic concept of beauty.
Marie. Look at her portrait, the one by Tintoretto. She’s beautiful (where is the beauty happening?). But don’t forget that her beauty has been commodified. Everything that is beautiful, elegant, admirable, accomplished about her is on sale. But it does exist in its own right. To ‘Wooden Mary’, to Maria di Legno, to me, this beauty is appreciable but only partly accessible, my love alone can’t buy it. All Wooden Mary can do is write poems about her, share some occasional intimacies that have nothing to do with the world of male power and economic power she is suffered to inhabit, but are set aside from it. I am writing about the effect that this beauty has on Wooden Mary, yes, and the first and most obvious effect is that it makes Wooden Mary write! At the same time, I am using Veronica’s perspective to question the way we see such things, to cock a small snook at that male world. In one of the poems, where Veronica and Wooden Mary visit my home city of Dundee, I give Veronica her freedom to question how we view pornography, to be the spokeswoman for an alternative view, while Wooden Mary tut-tuts in the background.
Robin. Well thank you very much for hosting with PLT Marie, it’s truly appreciated, may I ask as a closure any tips you might have for aspiring and despairing poets and if you would include a poem of your own selection.
Marie. Thank you for having me, Robin. I hope I haven’t come across as too po-faced. If I have, slap me now.
Robin. Sounds like an authentic Marie to me
Marie. About advice to poets – I don’t think I have ever read any advice from a poet that I felt was appropriate, so I shy from giving it. I could volunteer some small stuff, such as how redundant I feel simile is, but that’s just a personal thing.
As a farewell, here’s ‘Big moments in Jazz, version2’
When Bird and Miles woke up to find
a hundred flowers blooming in a motel room
and some doghouse man, maybe Mr. PC,
pizzicatoed so far up the fingerboard
he played the tailpiece right to the spike
Smith and McGriff and McDuff
functioned their function as a ternary star
so it pricked them in their gravity
wet Harlem streets yellowed-out in the low sun
as Frank O’Hara hastily scribbled in
a thumbed gumshoe book braving the loft
where Lady Day blued through the haze
and Trane and Pharaoh blew weird
a devot of the Sun Ra sect vacationing on earth
took a thread from Joe Zawinul’s hat
unravelled and reravelled it saying
‘we’re having a ball’ and the rest of us
snapped our fingerpops saying ‘wow’ and ‘cool’
and calling each other ‘man’ far too much
while Ra himself stepped on the cracks
and dared the bears
most often only realizing it was a day
oh such a day when it was all gone
and later-day eyes looked so sideways at us
like we had our coats buttoned up wrong
or had gone out in the rain without shoes
Poetry Life & Times