I interviewed Marilyn Kallet, poet, translator and author of seventeen books, who is the Nancy Moore Goslee Professor of English at the University of Tennessee and teaches at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts in Auvillar, France.
Leslie: Your poetry/translation work involves dreamwork, vision-questing, ethnic writing and Surrealism. Can you describe the key qualities of these areas, please.
The hallmark of Surrealism is a love of dreams and automatic writing. The four books of Eluard’s poetry that comprise Last Love Poems were later compositions, during a time when Eluard cared more about communicating than about wild forays into dreams. He was a preeminent love poet. His later poems resemble Neruda‘s more than those of the Dadaists. His graceful and ardent love poetry still informs everything that I do. Péret, on the other hand, was a Trickster and an uncompromising Surrealist. He kept me on my toes, as I never knew from one line to the next which way he was going. And I recently co-edited and co-translated a book of contemporary poetry by Parisian poet Chantal Bizzini, Disenchanted City, also published by Black Widow Press. It is poetry of the city, of the one who strolls through Paris and knows every intimate corner.
I teach a course on writing poetry from dreams, which I began in 1984, when I was pregnant with my daughter Heather. I think the hormones inspired strange dreams. This is my favourite class to teach, as the work is always surprising.
Leslie: What have been your deepest insights, researching and writing within this genre?
Marilyn: What I’ve learned from Paul Eluard is that poems about grief need to be stripped down to the essential emotion. Decorative language has no place in such poetry.
I’ve learned so much from teaching Dreamworks that I have promised my husband I will write a book about that after I retire. I’ve learned that Jung was right about using what he called “active imagination” to explore dreams, to dream further, and to create more resonant art. I’ve learned that healing work takes place in dreams, especially when dreamers faithfully write down the dreams in a disciplined manner. I’ve learned that the mess and the darkness and the monsters in dreams can become a poet’s friends. Best friends!
Leslie: Who are the writers/visionaries you admire and why?
Marilyn: I continue to read and teach the work of Brenda Hillman, Yusef Komunyakaa, Sharon Olds, Robert Hass, Marie Howe, and Lucille Clifton. All of these poets are brave, daring, visceral, inventive. Each has added new insights and new forms to the cannon of American poetry. I love Hillman for her playfulness and her activism; Komunyakaa for his visceral, sinewy language and insights into war and race; Olds for her honesty; Hass for his brilliant insights into rhythm in non-traditional verse; Marie Howe for her Whitmanesque long lines; and Clifton (may she rest in peace) for her songs, accessibility, and writing on child-abuse and race in America. All of these writers have been my mentors, both in person at Squaw Valley Community of Writers, and on their pages.
Leslie: How do your poems begin, grow and develop?
Marilyn: Poems can be born in all kinds of ways. Usually mine start with a line or phrase; I take down rough drafts in white heat and then edit for weeks and months afterward. One recent poem, “What Power Has Love?” took eight years to complete. The poem wanted a new ending and I had to return to it until the real ending came forward. This poem will appear in J Journal this spring; the magazine issues from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. Some poems fall into place quickly, within days or weeks, but even those take editing. “Moth Light, ” for example, was written when I was challenged by someone on Facebook to write about the moment when my husband turned the oven on to get rid of the moths that were living inside. This poem will appear in the spring issue of the online magazine, Still: the Journal (an Appalachian magazine).
Leslie: What methods do you use to make language choices when writing/editing your work?
Marilyn: I read the poems aloud, over and over, and usually the language will tell me what to do. Performing the poems, embodying them, teaches me more about what the poems mean and want, and how to edit them. Luckily, I have an old friend and editor, Julia Demmin, in Amherst, Mass, who reads everything I write. She makes good suggestions at the level of syllables.
Leslie: Writers need to venture into the dark – how does your writing/translation/seminar work do that?
Marilyn: Every poem is a breaking silence poem, though some offer more of that feeling of breaking a taboo of silence than others. I’ve written many erotic songs and love poems about attraction and love for men who are not my husband. Several have recently been published online and in the print anthology by Plume magazine. Danny Lawless is one of the great editors of contemporary poetry. His editing is fearless, and he encourages risk and formal agility in all the poets he publishes. As a poet, I do not permit the censor to have an impact on my work. Luckily my husband Lou Gross is a confident guy; he even performs my work to show me how it should be done.
The Dreamworks poetry workshop helps students to explore their dreams in poetry, to get to know the monsters and murky places. To embody the unknown, and to “own” it for the space of the work. Many painters and visual artists also take my class. We use artwork often to help us understand the dreams and to probe them. We laugh a lot and do theatre exercises to rescue dreamers from the scariest parts of their dreams.
I am lucky to still be a professor at the University of Tennessee, after more than 30 years. I try to embody what I teach. I often perform my dream poems for my students. “No Makeup” includes a fragment of a dream that deepens the poem. That poem, written in Marie Howe’s workshop at Squaw Valley in 2000, has become a signature poem, an anti-censorship poem. It can be found in Packing Light: New and Selected Poems, from Black Widow Press, reprinted from Circe, After Hours, BkMk Press.
Leslie: What continues to inspire your work?
Marilyn: Every spring I teach a poetry workshop for the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts in Auvillar, which is in Southwest France, on the Garonne River. This May will be my eighth year of leading the workshop, “O Taste & See: Writing the Senses in Deep France.” Poets attend from all over the world, many are former students at the University of Tennessee.
There’s nothing in Auvillar that’s not poetry. The roses grow to be the size of a child’s head, and their perfume laces the air. The bullfrogs keep the river humming. And the people are kind and loving. You can’t get a bad meal or a bad bottle of wine. As you can tell, my motives for teaching there are mixed!
My last book of poems, The Love That Moves Me, begins in Auvillar, travels the world, including Hawaii, Indiana, Tennessee, and Heaven and Hell. Auvillar is mostly heaven! Here’s the opening poem from The Love That Moves Me followed by another, fairly recent, poem:
I Want You Here
So badly my fingertips ache
roses droop against the thorns
the green light of the Garonne
stuns my eyes
I talk to dogs to my chair
listen at the neighbor’s door
The old stones of the village are too smooth
The stubble of your chin would do
I want you here so badly
I can taste your salt
I’ll find a place or two for your mouth
listen hard to your tongue
we’ll coo like mad doves
become ballads legends
climb to the centre ville
devour the first May cherries
at home in each other
beneath the blue sheet
(From The Love That Moves Me, Black Widow Press, 2013)
In the dry summer field at nightfall,
fireflies rise like sparks.
Imagine the presence of ghosts
flickering, the ghosts of young friends,
your father nearest in the distance.
This time they carry no sorrow,
no remorse, their presence is so light.
Childhood comes to you,
memories of your street in lamplight,
holding those last moments before bed,
with a blossom of the hand
letting them go. Lightness returns,
an airy motion over the ground
you remember from Ring Around the Rosie.
If you stay, the fireflies become fireflies
again, not part of your stories,
as unaware of you as sleep, being
beautiful and quiet all around you.
(From Packing Light: New and Selected Poems, Black Widow Press, 2009)
Marilyn: And for any of your readers who might like to write with me in Southwest France, here’s the link: http://www.vcca.com/main/node/572 I’ll be happy to talk with writers about this program, and to help them navigate the fees (there are discounts that are not listed). My email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
ABOUT LESLIE TATE’S BOOKS:
- Heaven’s Rage is a memoir and a collection of lyrical essays. In brief: ‘Heaven’s Rage is an imaginative autobiography. Reporting on feelings people don’t usually own up to, Leslie Tate explores addiction, cross-dressing and the hidden sides of families. Writing lyrically, he brings together stories of bullying, childhood dreams, thwarted creativity and late-life illness, discovering at their core the transformative power of words to rewire the brain and reconnect with life. “A Robin Red breast in a Cage / Puts all Heaven in a Rage” – William Blake. You can read more about/buy Heaven’s Rage here.
- Purple is a coming-of-age novel, a portrait of modern love and a family saga. Set in the North of England, it follows the story of shy ingénue Matthew Lavender living through the wildness of the 60s and his grandmother Mary, born into a traditional working-class family. Both are innocents who have to learn more about long-term love and commitment, earning their independence through a series of revealing and closely-observed relationships. Purple is the first part of the Lavender Blues trilogy. You can read more about/buy Purple here.
- Blue tells the story of Richard and Vanessa Lavender, who join a 90s feminist collective sharing childcare, political activism and open relationships. Boosted by their ‘wider network’ they take secondary partners, throw parties and observe the dance of relationships amongst their friends. But finding a balance between power and restraint, and handling shared love, proves difficult… Blue is the second part of the Lavender Blues trilogy. You can read more about/buy Blue here.