I write because I desire to connect with others meaningfully: An online interview with Marilyn Kay Basel
Dupur Mitra: How would you describe contemporary poetry today?
Marilyn Kay Basel: I see at least two streams of poetry these days. One stems from what I have called the poetocracy–accomplished poets, celebrated, widely published and taught in literature courses, on demand for readings here and abroad, the Rolling Stones of literature, names we knew from early adulthood that keep giving us their best: W.S. Merwin, William Stafford, Galway Kinnell, Maya Angelou, Maxine Kumin, Margaret Atwood, and many others. I want to make clear that I have not the slightest disrespect for the poetocracy by the use of that term. Geyser-fed by comparison, home-grown, largely uncelebrated yet phenomenally astonishing in form and content, made instantly available on the internet, more intrepid in size and shape than poems designed for a three-by six page, is the other stream.
I respect both. We marvel at the Stone’s ability to maintain integrity of voice over the long haul, and we thrill at the new mileage newer poets are achieving with words combined in unpredictable ways. After all these centuries of art, surely it has all been said before–yet poets in both streams keep us listening eagerly by proving that expectation completely wrong.
The most interesting poetry being written today wounds some literary tradition, as Amy Lowell said years ago. It also presents the complete actual present as Gertrude Stein said, and reaches for global relevance as seen in the longer works of T.S. Eliot. Most poetry written today is influenced by film techniques, strong images, fluid pacing, jump cuts, magical realism, clarity about the human condition partnered with affirmations of resilient hope, and desire for peace as seen in the as yet largely unpublished work of Carolyn Srygley-Moore.
Contemporary writers I know are doing something unique with language, saying what cannot be said any other way, saying what no one else has said. These include Dom Gabrielli, whose book The Parallel Body frees itself from the cult of personality that was left to us by the confessional poets to examine instead the way we think about writing. Also notable is Jonathan Heimarck, whose has revived rhymed metrics with ever surprisingly and seemingly effortless results, moderating some of the culture shock between our literary age and the past. Kushal Podar excels at the compact image and emotional resonance uncommon in poets his age. Aad de Gids draws vocabulary from many languages and cultural experiences to write a world-class stream of consciousness poetry many have compared to a thrill ride.
These have not yet become household names among those who love to read, because they are published online. Before electronic communications, a poet became known through publishing in literary magazines that could represent just a fraction of the important poetry being written. Since the 70s critics have been asking if a truly spectacular voice arises in American poetry, how will we know it? There was such an obstacle course of submission and rejection to break through to achieve the celebrity it takes to be noticed by major publishers. Academic communities had fewer and fewer positions to offer creative writers. Thus a fraction of the great writing accomplished in our generation made it into print.
Now poets can publish instantly to the internet, and even fewer voices are being brought to us by publishing houses, who seldom read unsolicited works. Poets more than ever have to show commercial promise to be printed. Should marketing have such an influence on what we read? I find the most fascinating writing on (of all places) facebook where I can see instantly phenomenal works being produced daily by more poets than I have time to savor.
Dupur Mitra: When did you start writing?
Marilyn Kay Basel: In grade school I volunteered to put into words what my class wanted to add to the school newspaper. My work still shows fascination with interesting facts and information, and how we know what we think we know, the limits of observation, how the limits of expression can be expanded.
My poetry writing started with a few bad rhymes and became sassy free verse that won honorable mention in a local competition for high school writers. One long poem I wrote in high school–sort of a “Nights in White Satin” fantasy poem–vanished after I let someone borrow my only manuscript. I took workshops with Diane Wakoski and many amazing students including Sam Mills, Lee Upton, Ron Mieczkowski, and Rosa Maria Arenas, at Michigan State University. After completing the Master of Fine Arts in poetry program at Bowling Green State University, I taught poetry, writing, humanities, and literature before writing for reference books. When traumatic experiences interrupted my career, I left writing–even spoken language–for about twelve years, and only gradually returned to poetry writing. The second time I started writing poetry as a daily activity I was in my forties.
Dupur Mitra: Why do you write poetry?
Marilyn Kay Basel: I write because I desire to connect with others meaningfully through verbal communication, and desire to make something that will live on when I’m absent. It is irrepressible.
Dupur Mitra: How long does it take you to write a poem?
Marilyn Kay Basel: I worked on Letters to Rilke, my responses to Rilke’s works, for more than twenty years–and still want to revise it, to make the ending stronger. Other poems are begun and finished in a few hours. Writing on computer since 2010 allows much faster composition because I edit so much out as I write.
Dupur Mitra: How do you write your poems?
Marilyn Kay Basel: The heart-work poems that seek some wisdom or breakthrough take longer. I start with fragments, notes, thinking about form and listening to the music of the words when bringing it together. This process might take many days, weeks, months. In the past two years the kernel of a poem occurs as something I hear, it comes with a sense of how to enter and leave it, and then I go to the keyboard to fine tune it. Then there is much paring down to the essential. The series poems are easiest. My 2012 series Anomaly Almanac followed my home gardening experiences during a year of erratic weather. A poem’s inner life teaches me what its pattern needs to be, and then I pare away what does not have to be there. The result may look effortless but never is.
Dupur Mitra: Where do your ideas come from?
Marilyn Kay Basel: I believe as many do that there is one abiding Spirit that unites us all. All people, all cultures, all life, all times. Even if we resist, it continues alongside us trying to guide, revive, and heal. I believe all creative art is in keeping with that life-giving creative force that made all that exists, all that we see, all that we will become.
It is a powerful act to make something that would not exist apart from our shaping it into something useful or meaningful. That is the underlying inner life of a poem, to have and express meaning in some unpredictable way that is worth sharing with others.
The subject matter for me is usually interpersonal–something I feel strongly needs to be said, in order to connect with others. The patterns and images are spurred by nature more than imagination, but imagination finds the final form.
Dupur Mitra: Where do you get your ideas for poems?
Marilyn Kay Basel: I read that a Native American clay jar painter was asked, How do you know what design to paint? She replied something like, if you have no vision of what to paint, you are not a painter. If you hear poems inside you, or see poems around you, inspiration can come from anywhere, a strong emotion, an observation, a provoking thought. When inner urgency finds its clarity in images or spoken rhythms I can get started.
Dupur Mitra: Do you get inspiration from your readers?
Marilyn Kay Basel: Readers are the other half of the writing experience. Of course it is encouraging when someone reads my poem and says “that connects with me” or admires the way I have used words and space. But I kept writing even when I did not have feedback. It may be decades before a reader with the perfect ear for my work finds it.
Poetry is always a conversation. Of course one is inspired by the achievements and discoveries of other poets to launch one’s own. Someone has responded positively to our writing and we find courage to continue. One also learns from how friends achieve progress in their lives through art, how they cope with loss and success, and these become inspirations, too.
Dupur Mitra: Can you read me one of your poems about school?
Marilyn Kay Basel: I don’t have many about school.
Dupur Mitra: How long does it take you to write a poem?
Marilyn Kay Basel: One of my first published poems was compiled from fragments I had jotted into notebooks during my early twenties. I was gleaning the notebooks for material and saw how these three fragments could work together for Calliope, a small magazine produced at Roger Williams College (now not in print) that wanted poems on the theme of the number three. So I arranged them on the page in sequence and then tweaked the spacing to add a concrete spatial dimension to the words. The result was called “3 on Dark Water.”
3 on Dark Water
a catfish lunges
for lilly roots
that space between us–
you are wing, I am wing
looking for a lost bird
heart cannot follow
how quickly the sky heals!
The fragments might have taken hours to write as I sat listening, searching my heart, over blank paper, several years apart. The composition took about an hour to recognize they could work as a composite. The spacing took about five minutes.
Dupur Mitra: What was the first poem you wrote?
Marilyn Kay Basel: Long lost, and that’s a good thing.
Dupur Mitra: What’s your favourite poem that you’ve written? Do you illustrate your own poems?
Marilyn Kay Basel: My favorite poem by me so far is “Multiple Skies, for Tim Green” written shortly after I received the gift of my MacBook. I found Tim Green’s poetry after looking up a magazine he edits, and was inspired by his line that the sky we see is a new sky, every time.
Multiple Skies, for Tim Green
As you suspect,
the sky is something new. Every time.
And it is old at the same time, each
new moment stacked back to back
on the next like book pages.
When you look up
that is not tonight’s sky you see.
It is multiple millions of skies, depending on
how far from us each star happens to be,
how long it has been since its light left home
to just now some light years later
land on your upturned face.
This is perhaps easier for infants to grasp,
their connection to consciousness not yet
parsed into perceptions oversimplified
to help them function
in a linear space-time world.
Landing on me all the time
a waterfall of star histories
not to mention histories of darkness
harder to trace and perhaps
even so much farther away.
The man next to me thought
as we stood out there in the dark
when I gently leaned in to his side
that I was thinking of him, not all this.
Is that why I chose letters,
not just incapacity for calculus
the precision of math
not being nearly as fascinating as
the actual complexity of every new moment,
a lifetime of moments
impossible to take in?
Trying to get a grip
on the complete.
Seeking something usefully simple for that,
the written word.
Yes, I illustrate with photos, drawings, and watercolors. I have made some drawings and doodles that I think would make good cover illustrations for my books. I have a publishing company but we lack funds at this time. When I publish editions of my own work online or in print it will include original art.
Dupur Mitra: What is poetry?
Marilyn Kay Basel: Poetry has been defined by many poets already, I am sure to be repeating them in this answer. Ezra Pound said to write poetry is to condense, to pack the most sense and meaning into the fewest words. Poets say what others cannot; what cannot be paraphrased, that is the poetry. Poetry is a mirror and a diving board at the same time. Poetry is the creative Spirit in endless supply. Poetry reaches across vast distances of time space and thought, often bringing the opposites nearer than logic would say they can ever be. Poetry brings all the senses together into one energy. Poetry is the overflow of our inner life that has no limits, a water that brings revival to the soul’s thirsty places. I love what Juan Ramon Jimenez wrote of poetry: “Poetry, like a landscape, like lyrical water, is nothing precise nor defined, nor immutable. Like its sister, music, it has emotion as its rose, and wandering as its star.
“Like an evening sky, in which spiritual colors bear the soul from fantasy to fantasy, poetry must be errant and indecisive, a wellspring of vague beauty, a breeze of sensations.
“Infinite vagueness of forms and tones, in which ideal gardens of roses, flesh, souls, or clouds flourish in unextinguished succession; light of countless nuances, apparition brought by every melody of unknown origin, borne by every wind of the eternal, poetry, a woman of mist, is the indelible essence of life.” (Primeros libres poesia, Madrid, 1959, p.999.)
Poetry is the inner recognition of the inter-connectedness of nature brought into words. Poetry explores what math cannot measure. It is far more than can be said here.
Dupur Mitra: What are your observations about trending of world poetry?
Marilyn Kay Basel: I can reach readers around the world simply by posting to facebook or the internet. I can read my poetry aloud on YouTube and have a continuing audience without waiting to be accepted by an editor into the poetocracy.
Without the internet I would not know of Aad de Gids, Kushal Podar or many other poets in other cultures who write in English in a way that is globally relevant.
Global travel and shipping by plane is easier now than ever. The more our trade activities overlap, the more we contribute to the global economy and to world peace, since people with some interest in your country are less likely to blow it up. This awareness is part of rising generations and our poetry will likely begin in something local and reach for some global common denominator. We see this in all the best literature. It sometimes means we must learn more languages as with T.S. Eliot and Aad de Gids, and sometimes means we must be willing to see our own culture as just one of many valid ways of living, not to be taken for granted by everyone who reads us. Poetry is an important brace in the bridge between cultures that becomes mutual respect and world peace.
Dupur Mitra: Can a world poetry movement improve poetry?
Marilyn Kay Basel: A world poetry movement that would improve poetry would invite poets in every culture to look beyond themselves into the needs of people in other cultures. It would appeal to world leaders to consider non-violent means to effect change when it is needed, and to use genuine negotiation instead of domination as a means of leadership. It would teach respect for diversity and the dignity of all writers no matter how divergent their cultures or styles. It would be founded on what we have in common as human beings, admitting that in our differences we can together make one harmony by including all on equal status with mutual respect, without fear. A world poetry movement would ask poets to reach for the best in themselves not only for their own success but for human rights education within cultures where the arts have not yet found a safe place to grow. The best known American poetry has always contained much awareness of other cultures. The best poetry being written in other countries also has multicultural awareness. Perhaps we should be paying less attention to politicians and more attention to poets as we build the world of peace sought by people in every nation.
Thanks to Dupur Mitra for these great questions, and for providing interviews with so many writers on your copyleft site.