POETRY FLASH: OCTOBER 2018: www.poetryflash.org
Maurya Simon has published ten full-length books of poetry, each one of them unique. She lived in Bangalore, South India as a Fulbright/Indo-American Fellow. She was awarded a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship in poetry in 1999. Her awards include a University Award from The Academy of American Poets, and the Celia B. Wagner and Lucille Medwick Memorial Awards from the Poetry Society of America. Simon has been a Fellow at Hawthornden Castle in Edinburgh, Scotland, as well as a Fellow at the Baltic Centre for Writers and Translators in Visby, Sweden and a Visiting Artist at the American Academy in Rome.
Her poems have appeared in numerous literary magazines and journals, including: The New Yorker, Poetry, TriQuarterly, The Kenyon Review, The Gettysburg Review, The Georgia Review, Grand Street, Agni, Ploughshares, Shenandoah, The Los Angeles Times Book Review, Calyx, New England Review, and in more than two hundred and fifty additional literary magazines and journals. Her poetry has also been collected in more than two dozen anthologies. She is a Professor Emeritus and a Professor of the Graduate Division in the Creative Writing Department at the University of California, Riverside, and she lives in Mt. Baldy, in the Angeles National Forest of the San Gabriel Mountains, in southern California.
Her most recent book, The Wilderness: New and Selected Poems, 1980-2006, appeared this year from Red Hen Press, complete with beautiful color illustrations of her ekphrastic “Weavers Series” poems, reproduced from the original paintings by Simon’s mother, Baila Goldenthal.
Interviewer: My first question for you, Maurya, given your many awards and impressive list of credits, is why you are not better known?
Simon: That’s a question I’ve not been asked before, but that’s been hinted at. I think it’s partly because I really avoid the limelight. I’m basically an introvert and I’m terrible at self-promotion. In addition, from 2009 to 2016, I was seriously ill and I faded from the poetry scene. It’s hard to reclaim that space, to get back into the swing of things.
Interviewer: Well, I had to ask, because your work is so accomplished that I was astonished I hadn’t heard of you.
Simon: I’m just a lousy self-promoter. Really, I’d rather clean up the dogs’ mess at the back of our house than put myself out there. Well, this is an exaggeration, and I always love any gathering of fellow lovers of poetry and literature. I think younger poets are brilliant at promotion, with all their expertise with social media, etc… but I’m really the opposite.
Interviewer: Let’s talk a little bit about your recent book. The Wilderness. You have poems from so many different books, with such different styles and focuses. Talk to me a little bit about your journey—how you selected what you did, and what you’d like people to know about this book.
Simon: I think it’s important for people to know that I really tried to go on a different journey with every book, not just thematically, but also in terms of the shapes and sounds and craftmanship of the poems. While there are certainly specific themes that run through all of my books, I really tried to explore new areas of myself and the world with every subsequent book, and because it’s boring to repeat things I already know. I do think writing is an act of discovery.
Interviewer: I certainly think you’ve been successful with that. There is great variety in the book. Your voice really changes from book to book, and I enjoy that.
Simon: Thank you. I think that the book that really varies the most is The Raindrop’s Gospel: The Trials of St. Jerome and St. Paula, in which I composed long narrative poems. I think of myself as a lyric poet, and though these poems are still lyrical, their narrative form is a real departure. The part of writing that book that I loved most was doing its research. It was just fabulous to read, in translation of course, St. Jerome’s letters from sixteen hundred years ago. St. Paula’s letters to him are all lost to us, but you can discern what she said to Jerome from his responses. It’s a fascinating love story, and one that the Catholic Church doesn’t acknowledge, or perhaps de-emphasizes. I think I found my voice anew with that book.
Interviewer: I think I was also particularly drawn to your poems about India.
Simon: I think those poems begin to reflect a kind of spiritual quest. I don’t know if that’s what you’re drawn to, Meryl, and/or perhaps to some of the exotic South Indian locales. When I went to India the first time in 1971, it was very different than it is today, almost 50 years later. It was extremely poor; there was no way to escape seeing horrible suffering every day.
I went back to India last January and I was astounded at how much more affluent the country is now. You no longer see corpses lying on the street, and that was commonplace when I was there in 1971. I think part of the power of that earlier experience for me was to confront the human deprivation and suffering that we’re largely protected from encountering in America. We don’t see lepers walking down the street, nor people so destitute that they’re naked, diseased, and utterly forsaken.
I was 20 when I first went to India. I was shocked there into an awareness beyond my comfort zone, beyond my middle-class American upbringing, and that changed me profoundly. My book, The Golden Labyrinth, and some of the India poems that made their way into other books, reflect that inner turmoil. At the same time, India is a country steeped in the sacred, so it’s a place where you see different religious cultures ubiquitously engaged in the daily offices of the spiritual life, which is quite moving. And it’s a place where you have these incredible juxtapositions of beauty and horror, and of great wealth and great poverty, side by side. While in India, I was continually assaulted by truths about the world that we’re pretty much sheltered from in America.
Interviewer: When you came back from India, you were still in your twenties. Tell me a little about your journey through the world from then on. Actually, let’s start further back, because you grew up partially in Europe, didn’t you?
Simon: Yes, we lived and traveled in Europe from the time I was four till I was about eight, about three-and-a-half years. My parents were completely disillusioned with the fifties’ Eisenhower years in post-war America. My dad had been a friend of James Baldwin in New York, and when Baldwin went off to Europe, my dad really wanted to follow him. It took us a few years to do so. My dad was a veteran and a musician and composer, and he thought he could teach music at Army schools in France and Germany when we needed money, which he did. So, off we went (in 1955) and we had this great life in Europe for several years. My sister and I didn’t attend school, but we learned about European history, art, and science by going to cathedrals and museums and monuments. We learned to read by devouring Tin Tin and Archie comic books. We had a wonderful and unconventional education. My sister and I both spoke French by the time we left. I spoke a little Italian, too. We lived for a year in Fontaine le Port, in Maurice Chevalier’s summer house.
I wrote my first poem in Paris, and I think that’s when I decided to be a poet. Such a vocation seemed possible to me, even at the age of five. One day we were walking down the Champs Élysées, and there happened to be a royal wedding for which the city had cleared the whole avenue. The spectacle was like a fairytale—with white horses and a gilt carriage, the bride and groom dressed sumptuously—and my five-year old self thought it was magical. And when we went back to our dark, cramped apartment, I wrote a poem about the wedding as a way to hold onto that experience. I thought “This is how I can keep this. I can preserve this experience forever, if I write it down.” That poem was a talisman for me, a seed, for I felt I suddenly had this power to preserve something beautiful and momentous and illuminating—like fireflies in a jar or bees in amber.
Interviewer: So how did your journey evolve from there?
Simon: Well, both in Paris and back in the States, my parents had a group of Bohemian friends—artists, dancers, musicians, and writers—including musicians from north and south India. My father had a lifelong love of Indian music and he wrote his PhD dissertation on South Indian devotional (bhakti) music. So, as children, my sister and I were constantly surrounded by fascinating people. And as much as I loved science, being around artists and writers and actors and singers made me think that the creative life was the only life I could have.
So fast forward, we came back from Europe, we ended up in Southern California, where we lived, for the most part, a very bourgeoise life in Hermosa Beach. But I was blessed because my parents loved to read. They had amassed poetry books by Dylan Thomas, and Dickinson, Tagore, and Whitman, and I loved going through their bookshelves. I think I read Leaves of Grass probably 200 times by the time I was ten. I had no idea what he was talking about most of the time, but the music of his language hypnotized me, so that was an important influence.
Then I had wonderful teachers along the way. I had a high school teacher, James Van Wagoner, who was a poet himself and who nurtured me—and poet Mark Jarman, who was a year behind me. Van Wagoner saw something in us and gave us special assignments. He assigned us specific poets to study, and he gave us difficult writing assignments, both analytically and creatively. I was a painfully shy student, so shy, that it wasn’t until I was in graduate school that I raised my hand in a classroom for the first time. And if someone called on me in class, God forbid! So, having someone in high school who believed in me made all the difference.
Then in college I had some terrific teachers, Richard Tillinghast and Robert Grenier at Cal, then at Pitzer College I studied with Bert Myers, who was an amazing teacher and poet, and with Robert Mezey—both were such excellent mentors. Mezey taught me about prosody and how to scan a poem, and he gave me the traditional toolbox of poetic craft, which is indispensable.
Bert expanded my awareness of American poets, and opened up the world of international poetry for me—I just hadn’t previously known about these vital and amazing and essential poets—Naomi Replansky, Louise Bogan, Matsuo Bashō, Yosa Buson, Osip Mandelstam, Anna Akhmatova, Czesław Miłosz, Anna Swir, Gabriela Mistral, Octavio Paz, Pablo Neruda, Fernando Pessoa. I’d never previously heard of these poets and Meyers profoundly extended my knowledge of the broader world of poetry.
I had Bert Myers as my professor during the last year before he died; he’d contracted lung cancer. Amazingly, he asked me to take over his class, towards the end, which I think is the greatest honor anyone ever bestowed on me.
Then I had Charles Wright as my professor in graduate school, and he was another incredible mentor. He gave me permission to investigate and explore the sacred in my work, perhaps because he does this so brilliantly in his own work. Not many American poets were (or are) exploring what’s sacred in our lives—and I think of Charles Wright as a great questing, spiritual poet.
Interviewer: That is one of the things I love in your work, the openness to the spiritual in everyday life, no matter what the form or where you are. That seems to be a really important thread for you and is very meaningful in your work. So, tell me now a little bit about your first book, and how that happened. How it came to be published.
Simon: I really owe my first book to Charles Wright who was my advisor in grad school at UC Irvine. He supervised my book-length manuscript that was my master’s thesis. When I’d completed it, he said, “Well, I think you need to revise it five or ten more times, and then send it to Copper Canyon Press. If you like, after you’ve done this, I’ll write a little note to Sam Hamill [the editor at Copper Canyon Press] suggesting that he read it.” So that’s what happened: I spent two or three more years revising the manuscript for The Enchanted Room, and then, eventually, it was published in 1986, when I was thirty-five years old.
I lucked out. I’ve had a lot of different publishers. I never felt I was a prominent enough poet to try a big New York publishing house. But the literary presses are really the heart blood of poetry. They are so vital to the richness and diversity of contemporary American poetry.
Interviewer: Before we move on to talk about The Wilderness, tell me a little about your family.
Simon: I have a wonderful family, and it includes my husband, whom I met in India in my twenties, and my two grown daughters, of whom I’m extremely proud. One works with terminal cancer patients at the City of Hope Medical Center, which is probably one of the hardest jobs in the world. The other is a public defender who’s currently preparing for her first death penalty case and trial. Both daughters are remarkable young women. And it’s interesting to me that their careers are as far from poetry as it’s possible to get.
Interviewer: That is really exciting, Maurya. I want to finish up with a few words about The Wilderness. Red Hen press did such a beautiful job on this book, including these lovely full-color reproductions for the ekphrastic Weavers paintings by Baila Goldenthal on which your poems are based. Very few publishers would make that commitment for a book of poems. How did that come about?
Simon: My friend and colleague, Peggy Shumaker, who also came out with her New and Selected Poems this year, Cairn, also composed a series of ekphrastic poems based on the art of an Alaskan artist, Keslar Woodward. It was a deeply collaborative effort, and she felt very strongly that there was no way to print the poems without including the Woodward paintings, and I felt strongly that I couldn’t include the Weaver’s poems in my book without the Goldenthal’s art upon which they were based—the art facing the poems. We went together to Mark Cull [publisher] and Kate Gale [editor] of Red Hen Press, and we said, “Please, our New & Selected books really must include the art that engendered these poems.” And Mark said, “Let me think about it…,” and then, ultimately, he said yes. So, again, I was very lucky.
Interviewer: So, what’s next?
Simon: Well, after the Poetry Flash reading on September 30th, I have a month-long residency at the American Academy in Rome, and I’ll be there most of November.
Interviewer: That sounds great. I look forward to the September reading at East Bay Book Sellers.
Interview by Dominique McCafferty with Maurya Simon (May 2009)
DM: According to my notes, you’ve lived in Italy, France, England, and India. You’ve lived all over Europe and in South Asia.
MS: Yes, I’ve been around. I was born in 1950 in New York, but my parents moved to California when I was an infant. I’ve spent most of my life in California, both in Northern and Southern California.
In 1955, when I was four, my parents decided to leave America, being fed up with the crass materialism of the conservative Eisenhower era, and they yearned to see the rich cultural treasures of Europe. (They were also deeply in debt, and they figured they’d return to a financial clean slate in the States, if they took a European “sabbatical” for a few years. It worked, too.) They took me and my sister Tamara with them, and we lived in several different countries in Europe for nearly four years. These were post-war times, so the dollar was very strong. I remember that my father taught periodically in American Army-base schools and he also gave private piano and violin lessons, so we were able to get by fairly decently living a kind of itinerant gypsy life.
That was a wonderful time in my life, very formative. My parents often entertained friends who were writers and artists, so it seemed unavoidable that I would yearn for the creative life. My sister and I were surrounded by colorful role models, people who were exciting and passionate about their art—our house was filled on weekends with music, delicious meals, with dancing, and with riveting conversations about books, culture, and politics.
DM: I think that’s wonderful.
MS: It really was.
DM: Will you tell us a little more about your parents, talk about their work?
MS: Of course. My mother’s name is Baila Goldenthal, and she’s a visual artist living in Los Angeles. The artwork on the covers of three of my books is hers. She created a wonderful painting series of “Weavers,” eighteen of them. The paintings are quite spiritual and seem as if they were painted during medieval times. The cover of my 2004 book, Ghost Orchid, includes one of the paintings from that series.
My mother and I have recently had a beautiful limited-edition ekphrastic book published. (“Ekphrastic” is a Greek word that refers to poems based on works of visual art.) It includes sixteen of my mother’s “Weavers” paintings (painted from 1989-1994), and sixteen poems that I wrote in response to the paintings. It was published by Jean Gillingwators and Anna Aquitela who run an impressive limited-edition letterpress endeavor, Blackbird Press in Upland, California. They’ve published some gorgeous books, including my favorite, “Beauty,” by poet B.H Fairchild.
My father’s name is Robert Leopold Simon. (His middle name was given by his parents in honor of the eminent composer—a relative—Leopold Godowsky.) My father’s a retired ethnomusicologist and composer. He taught at Cal Poly Pomona for many years, where he established a World Music program, trained the first Mariachi band on campus, and taught with great éclat and imagination. His students adored him. These days, he’s composing music.
DM: You have a sister, too?
MS: Yes, I do. My older sister, Tamara Ambroson, actually began as an extremely talented concert pianist and visual artist, but then circumstances forced her to take a more practical route, unlike me, and she went back to school to become an OB/GYN Nurse Practitioner. She works for Planned Parenthood now, and she’s living and working in Orange County. But she’s married to a concert violinist!
DM: A concert violinist with a rich sounding violin: I can only imagine. As for your own work as a poet, do you recall when you first began writing on your own?
MS: I began writing poems when I was five or six. I still remember my inaugural poem. It was pretty bad, but it was probably the first one my parents praised. I remember why I wrote it. We were living in Paris then, near the Bois de Boulogne park, and there was a wedding procession that was going down this really big boulevard, probably the Champs-Elysees. It looked like a fairytale had come alive to me. There was a gold gilt carriage with six white horses, and the bride looked like a princess. There were men dressed up in livery, in a velvet brocade, as if they were part of a Renaissance pageant. There were grooms throwing rose petals. It was so magical. I loved fairytales as a child, and I felt transfixed and transformed by what was taking place. And so, I decided to write down this experience as a poem. I think it was also my attempt at stopping time, at preserving or suspending time. And as I was writing the poem, I really was aware that I was trying to preserve something memorable in language. I wanted to save this spectacle I’d seen, that had been so awe-inspiring and breathtakingly beautiful. So, yes, I do remember when I started writing, and I’ve been writing ever since.
DM: Did you write mostly poems, or did you write in other genres as well?
MS: Poems and short stories, but primarily poems.
DM: I’m wondering, too, why you felt drawn to poetry? Why do you think you write poems and not, for example, novels? Do you know why, or is it a mystery?
MS: I do know why. I think it was partly because my father was a musician and my mother was a visual artist. I was also very much seduced by the creative life because of the milieu in which my family moved, for I was surrounded by artists, musicians, dancers, and actors, and intellectuals. But I remember that I really wanted to find my own niche. I intentionally didn’t want to compete with my parents. Even though I’d studied violin from the time I was four, and I grew up in my mother’s studio and became pretty proficient as a visual artist as well, I really felt that I would be competing if I went into those areas. And so, I thought about what was left. I couldn’t dance, I couldn’t act, and I was never going to be a great violinist. And then I thought that perhaps I could write. It was really a conscious decision on my part.
My parents also had a great library. They were avid readers. That was another influence, I think. I remember one of their books–it was a really big, oversize facsimile copy of one of the early editions of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. It had wonderful illustrations, including (as a frontispiece) that famous etching of Walt Whitman in which he’s wearing this straw hat on his head, tilted at a rakish angle, and a big blowsy shirt, and he’s got his hands on his hips, and a jocular expression on his face. I must have been seven or eight when I started reading Leaves of Grass. I didn’t understand very much of it, of course, but I felt something mystifying and powerful in those poems. And their music was hypnotic to me.
So, I started reading poetry, fairly sophisticated poetry, at a very young age. I loved nursery rhymes, too. I memorized hundreds of nursery rhymes. Even today I can rattle off scores of them. I think it was the music of the nursery rhymes that drew me in. We were living in London at the time, and my mother bought a lot of nursery rhyme books. I think her intention was to try to encourage and entice my sister and me to learn how to read. (She also gave us American comic books and Tin Tin comic books in French.)
I love the musicality of the rhymes. I think kids are naturally drawn towards the sounds of poetry, the music of poetry. I certainly was, going back to the very earliest time in my life when I was aware of poetry (although I didn’t think of nursery rhymes as poems). If there was ever a time when I fell in love with poetry, it was then. That was when I was three or four years old.
DM: Nursery rhymes are wonderful. My mother raised my sister and me on nursery rhymes as well.
MS: They’re like animated songs. Some of them are funny, and others are strange
DM: Even as a child, I remember thinking some of them were bizarre in the telling.
MS: Yes, they are intriguing. I think they especially made an impression on me because I was introduced to them while we were living in England. Most of them go back to the nineteenth century, the eighteenth, or earlier, and so I became aware of the fact that previous people (and especially children from earlier times) and from similar cultures inhabited a very different world. This was a world where there were chimney sweepers, and orphans, kids who had to sing for their suppers, and where young beggars lived in the streets. I first became aware of history through nursery rhymes.
DM: When did your family return to California?
MS: We returned after a roughly three-year spell in Europe, in 1959, and we lived in Los Angeles, across the street from where Marilyn Monroe had lived, when she was still “Norma Jean.” By the way, I have a quick, funny anecdote about our return to America and my schooling. As a young child, I wasn’t educated in institutions, for my parents weren’t happy with the schools in Europe. I attended a Catholic school in France, and because I was a really painfully shy child, I was overwhelmed by suddenly being in class with all these French kids, and not knowing much French myself. Plus, the nuns wore these huge (old-fashioned) habits that terrified me and they reeked of garlic. That school experience was traumatic for me, and I just wept all day, so my mother took me out of that school.
Earlier my parents enrolled my sister and me in a U.S. army-base school in Frankfurt, Germany, which I hated, and so (after the French school fiascos), my parents finally decided they would just teach us at home. Consequently, my mother taught us to read, and we learned math, architecture, art, and history by visiting museums, ancient monuments, and great cathedrals. We learned about European history through art and architecture. It was great. But then when we came back to Los Angeles (I was in third grade at the time), I was given my first IQ test and I flunked it. Well, the principal called my mother and said, “Mrs. Simon, I’m really sorry, but we think your daughter is retarded.” We didn’t use such terms as “developmentally disabled” then. He just said, “We think your daughter is retarded and she’ll have to be placed in a special class.”
DM: How did your mother react to this?
MS: My mother burst out laughing. She said, “Well… why?” And he said, “She didn’t pass the IQ test.” So, my mother said, “Just give me an IQ textbook, and I’ll do some practice tests with her. She can take it again, and I’m sure she’ll be fine.”
Never mind that I could talk about Leonardo da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa,” or about the work of Rembrandt and Michelangelo with some knowledge and a little expertise. That didn’t count!
DM: I’m relieved as you tell this story because I suffered through a similar struggle. And as a first grader I flatly refused to take their IQ test.
MS: Good for you!
DM: Yes, I folded my arms in complete defiance. They took me to my mother who was waiting in the lobby and said, “Mrs. McCafferty, we’d like to test your daughter but she refuses to answer the questions.” I love to think that my six-year-old self was protecting me. And to this day I despise that sort of thing. It’s interesting. I would never put a child through an IQ testify own, or somebody else’s child.
MS: Oh, I know. Those tests are ridiculous. And they’re culturally narrow, and (when I was a child) they used to solely reference Caucasian kids, with no inclusiveness of kids from other ethnicities and backgrounds, such as the children of immigrants, or developmentally disabled children.
DM: Setting aside that awful experience with the principal, what were some of your more memorable, treasured experiences in school?
MS: I attended Nora Sterry Elementary School in L.A., and because we lived in a Japanese-American neighborhood, most of the teachers and kids at the school were Asian. (Singer Judy Collins also attended this school.) Every child in every class had a 3-foot by 3-foot garden plot, which was wonderful! I grew my vegetables so that they made a portrait of the Mona Lisa. Then, in 1960, after we moved to Hermosa Beach, I had a terrific teacher named Mrs. Strange.
MS: Yes, and she loved her name. She was this dynamic, charismatic person who was able to imbue educating children with joy. I think she really influenced me because she found so much joy in teaching. She was able to pass this excitement for learning on to her students. I don’t know that I remember any academic subjects, specifically, that took my fancy. I just remember how exciting learning was with Mrs. Strange, and that finding out about the larger world could be a joyous experience, even if it was hard work, but it could still be a pleasurable process.
DM: What about your teachers in junior high and high school?
MS: I remember quite a few teachers from my high school. We were still living in
Hermosa Beach then, but I attend Redondo Union High School in Redondo Beach.
DM: Oh really? So, your family moved from Los Angeles to Hermosa Beach?
MS: Yes, I went to elementary school in Los Angeles and then we moved to Hermosa Beach, which was more affordable at the time. This is the irony: my parents didn’t have much money then, and so we couldn’t afford to live in LA. So, instead, we moved to this lovely, old, two-storey house in Hermosa Beach, and the house was located less than a block from the beach. We could afford that! Isn’t that absurd?
DM: You couldn’t even begin to dream of doing that now.
MS: Oh no, never. Oh, but it was great. I learned how to body surf quite well. I tried surfing on a (Dewey Weber) long board, too, but I was terrible at it. But during those years I really lived at the beach and in the ocean. I spent most of my time swimming and bicycling and just being outdoors. It was a very healthy life, although nobody wore sunscreen in those days, so my skin is really messed up now. I was overexposed, something I regret now.
DM: I don’t notice, Maurya.
MS: Oh, well I do!
DM: How old were you when you moved to Hermosa Beach?
MS: I was around eight years old when we moved there. And we lived there until I was seventeen. I started college at U.C. Berkeley when I was seventeen.
DM: Before we move on to your experiences at U.C. Berkeley, I was hoping you would talk about some of your influential high school teachers.
MS: That’s right. When I was living in Hermosa, I went to Redondo Union High School, and I had three teachers there who deeply influenced me. One was a fine English teacher named James Van Wagoner, who loved poetry and was a poet. At Redondo High, there were a number of kids who were lovers of literature, and one was a student poet named Mark Jarman, who was in the class below mine, and he was another protégé of Jim Van Wagoner’s. Mark became a terrific poet. (I think he still has a book of poems of mine by T.S. Eliot that I loaned him in high school.)
DM: Oh, that’s amazing. Mark Jarman is also listed on the Academy of American Poets website.
MS: Yes, he’s deservedly become quite well known. Mark Jarman was a junior when I was a senior. He now teaches literature and poetry at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. Mark Jarman’s an amazing poet. Mr. Van Wagoner took aside several promising students, like me and Mark, and under his tutelage we thrived. (Neal Snidow, a brilliant memoirist, was another student of his.) Mr. Van Wagoner knew both Mark and I loved poetry, and so he would give us both special assignments, and even separate (more demanding) exams. He also loaned us many fine poetry volumes and anthologies to read that he took from his own library. He believed in us, in our talent and potential as writers: this was important.
DM: Aren’t those wonderful teachers, the kind that lavish you with books?
MS: Yes, absolutely! He was great that way, Mr. Van Wagoner. And then there was a phenomenal journalism teacher, whom we privately called “The Great White Bird.” That was Miss Sinsabaugh. She was an elderly lady even then, but she loved and respected young people so much, and she demanded a lot from her students. We simply revered her. We were sure to do our work because we all wanted her affirmation, her approval.
Another of my most influential teachers, Mrs. Blakeney, seemed as if she harkened from another era; she was “the maiden” (read “virgin”) teacher. She was unmarried and quite strict and formal. She seemed both virtuous and rigid. But I adored her because she knew Latin so well. I knew she was brilliant and probably should have been teaching college, and not at a mediocre high school. I think I was fortunate to study Latin. I was pretty good at it, though it wasn’t my strongest subject. But I think it’s aided me as a writer, in that I learned the roots and relationships of words. I’ve always really loved digging up the etymologies of words.
I do want to mention a few other teachers because they were so crucial. Do we have a few more minutes to spend on this topic?
DM: Of course. It seems like the perfect question to ask you, really. You’ve had so many wonderful teachers. Most of us are lucky to have one or two.
MS: Oh, I know it. Well, this particular teacher was so crucial in my development as a poet, and this was when I was studying at Berkeley. His name is Richard Tillinghast. He’s published a number of poetry volumes, travel books, and essay collections. He’s also recently retired from the University of Michigan. He had a huge effect on my writing because he took it seriously. He was a wonderful mentor to me, and we’re still friends, though he lives in Ireland now.
DM: And what was it like studying at Berkeley during those years you attended?
MS: I attended U.C. Berkeley towards the end of the sixties, and the beginning of the seventies, so it was an extremely tumultuous time to be there. It was both intense and exciting, for young people then felt empowered to change the status quo. Actually, I arrived on campus right after the free speech movement of the early and mid-nineteen-sixties at Cal. And it was both an alarming and exhilarating time because, politically, there was so much going on, due to the anti-Vietnam War protests and the brutal police reactions to them. The campus was a kind of cauldron of political, social, and cultural activity. It became increasingly difficult to go to my classes because there were so many boycotts and strikes, and so much on-campus political turmoil. There were times when I felt conflicted because I sometimes had to cross picket lines in order to attend my classes. Most of the issues that protesters were addressing I felt sympathetic towards, and I actively supported, but I also loved attending my classes. So, I was really torn. I ended up joining the marches and demonstrations about half the time I was on campus, and I spent the other half of my time trying to be a conscientious student.
It was a wonderful place to go to school, partly because it was the sixties, and there was so much going on culturally. It was the beginning of the feminist and black power movements, and the Chicano and Gay Rights movements. It was a time when young people felt they really could change the world, that we could bring about lasting political transformations and significant social change.
But I loved my classes, too. I sat in on a class with Angela Davis, and she was brilliantly and fiercely inspiring. I also attended several riveting and highly entertaining lectures by famed anthropologist Alan Dundes, who taught much sought-after courses in folklore. The Cal campus was crawling with academic and cultural celebrities. I remember one day walking into the Student Union and there was B.B. King. He was giving a talk, but there were only about five people present, because someone had failed to advertise the event. After the talk, I walked up and thanked him, and he said, “Would you please show me around Berkeley, young lady?” And so, I spent the afternoon walking up and down Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley with B.B. King! We had lunch at a local café, too, and he was a wonderful raconteur and gentleman.
DM: What a neat story!
MS: Yes, memorable things like that would happen often in Berkeley, experiences that were serendipitous, unexpected, and mind-boggling, as we’d say back then!
I remember another time when one of my heroes, folk singer and activist Pete Seeger, was performing on campus, and again, there were just a handful of people present. I talked with him at length afterwards, as well. It was one of the highlights of my college years.
My education wasn’t just academic. It was also an education in how to be an activist, both a social and political activist. It was certainly an education in drug taking, too. I took my share of illicit drugs in those days, as well, and to my own detriment, I think. And I certainly had a rigorous sexual education at Cal, this being the era of “free love.” (But we won’t go into that rhapsodic phase of my life now.) Of course, college for any person is a time to come into your own, to discover who you are as a person, and I think that time of self-exploration and identity-seeking partially explained my willingness to take drugs. And in the late sixties and early seventies, taking drugs was seen as a mind-expanding act. The whole culture of drug taking has now changed dramatically, especially among middle class people. Perhaps it’s now more about escapism?
The other great thing about being at U.C. Berkeley was that I met so many talented and fascinating students who harkened from all over California, including students from small farming towns across the state. I remember how difficult it was for those particular students (who came from rural communities) to negotiate getting an education amid what was happening, culturally and politically, both on campus and in the wider world.
DM: What was your major in college?
MS: I started off as an entomology major.
MS: Yes, I think it was a strangely adverse reaction to (or rebellion against) my lifelong and extensive exposure to the arts. I also love insects.
DM: I would have loved to have studied entomology as well. I just think bugs are so damned fascinating.
MS: Aren’t they great? They’re absolutely incredible.
DM: I hadn’t even considered the possibility when I was an undergraduate. I was so immersed in literature myself.
MS: Oh, I know. Well, I did take classes for about a year and a half in the sciences—biology, botany, entomology, and physics–but I found myself writing poems about insects, rather than studying their morphology and taxonomy, for instance. But I knew all along I’d have to leave the bugs behind, academically, because I loved literature even more than insects, and I excelled in all of my English classes. I must have changed my major to English in my sophomore year.
I had some wonderful teachers at Berkeley, but there were so many literary stars whom I missed. I regret that I didn’t study with the Polish poet and (later) Nobel Laureate, Czeslaw Milosz. I was so clueless in some ways. I didn’t know how to find out whom I should be working with. There were several poets with whom I would have loved to study, but I didn’t realize they were at Cal when I was. I think Robert Haas was on campus at that time. I know the fine poet, Josephine Miles, was also at Cal then. I’d heard that she was a terrific poet and teacher, and yet I didn’t take a class with her! I often think that if only someone had nudged me in the right direction, I might have learned so much more than I had. I wasn’t assertive enough as a student to take advantage of those opportunities. I was passive in that regard. I’m embarrassed to admit that Cal’s enormous library terrified me, so I rarely used it.
DM: You were shy?
MS: I was shy. And I regret those missed opportunities. Certainly, I had other great opportunities. I became an avid hiker; I was utterly hooked on hiking. I took lots and lots of walks in Tilden Park. I went to the Esalen Institute in Big Sur during my spring break in 1969, where I attended an historic music festival. Just a few hundred people attended it. I sat cross-legged in the grass, just yards from the performers, listening to Joan Baez, Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, Joni Mitchell, Mimi Fariña, the Incredible String Band, the Flying Burrito Brothers, and John Sebastian.
DM: You’ve been to some really beautiful places.
MS: Yes, I’ve been lucky. I feel blessed that I’ve been able to travel as an adult, and to travel as a child, when my view of the world was forming. I’ve been beyond fortunate.
DM: And then to be surrounded by so many interesting people.
MS: I was very lucky to be at Berkeley, too, and to be there at that historical moment, as difficult as it was. And then I went to India in my senior year, another great stroke of luck.
DM: On a Fulbright Fellowship, correct?
MS: Yes and no. Twenty years later, in 1990, I went back to the subcontinent on a Fulbright, but I first went to India with my parents, during what would have been my senior year of college, and it was a fabulous experience. I also met my future husband, Robert Falk, there. He was in the Peace Corp at the time. My original plan was to finish up my BA at Berkeley when I returned from India. But having met Robert, and given that he was finishing up his stint with the Peace Corp and was soon returning to graduate school (in Asian Studies) at the University of Pennsylvania, I felt compelled to move to Philadelphia to be with him. Or propelled. I went back to Berkeley initially, after my time in South India, but I missed him terribly, so I decided I’d postpone finishing my B.A. Love trumped continuing my education.
And while in Philadelphia I worked for NASA. I had earlier worked for NASA (with its White Mountain Research Station) as a work-student at U.C. Berkeley. There, I’d worked with a group of scientists who trained and sent the first monkeys (pig-tailed macaques) up into space. And because I had that work-study position at Berkeley, I was able to get a job with NASA in Philadelphia, this time working with a group of scientists who were sending plants into space to study the effects of zero gravity on plant growth. So, I again found myself working with some brilliant and eccentric NASA folks for a while, and then Robert and I got married. That winter of 1974, we had our first daughter, Naomi (whom I gave birth to at home). And things kept coming up that prevented me from going back to school. I’d actually applied to Bryn Mawr and Swarthmore Colleges, and I was accepted to both, but the catch was that I was accepted with full scholarships which were available to me only after I completed my first year, and we just couldn’t afford paying that “first” year of tuition. Thus, I wasn’t able to finish my BA for almost ten years.
When we moved back to California three years later, and after I’d had my second daughter, Leah, I got accepted to Pitzer College (in Claremont, CA) and there I finished my degree in 1980. Attending Pitzer was a richly rewarding experience, not only because I was an older student, but also because at Pitzer I studied under two brilliant and profoundly influential professors, medievalist and social historian, Barry Sanders, and the poet, Bert Meyers. Both men were amazing teachers and were instrumental in my continuing growth as a writer. Barry Sanders encouraged me to be a poet, even while he was a tough critic and a demanding reader. He invited prominent and compelling writers to Pitzer, including: Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, Tillie Olson, Gerald Stern, William Gass, Maxine Hong Kingston, and Grace Paley. Bert Meyers was equally important to my education as a poet. He introduced me to a dazzling array of Latin American, Asian, American, and European poets whose work I’d not yet encountered. Here’s a short list of the many poets who were beloved to Bert: Zbigniew Herbert, Witslawa Syzmborska, Paul Celan, Osip Mandelstam, Marina Tsvetaeva, Naomi Replansky, Anna Akhmatova, Octavio Paz, Julio Cortazar, Fernando Pessoa, Tu Fu, Issa, and Bashō. And Bert had the deepest love and reverence for Emily Dickinson’s work, an admiration that I’d not yet encountered from an English professor.
DM: Maurya, I’m wondering if we can switch gears and talk about your recent collection of poems, Ghost Orchid. It was nominated for a National Book Award, such a lovely honor!
MS: Thank you. And, in fact, what happened was completely unexpected. Usually a publisher nominates a book they’ve published in a given year from each category: fiction, non-fiction, poetry, biography, and children’s literature. And my publisher actually apologized and said, “We’d like to nominate your book but it’s kind of expensive and we’d have to pay for you to go to New York, and we don’t have the money. Is that okay?” And I said, “Sure, that’s fine.” And then a few months later he called me again and said, “The head of The National Book Award judging committee just called me and said that the judges want to nominate your book.”
MS: So that was a real honor. It’s very unusual, I imagine.
DM: Yes, how wonderful for you!
MS: I sent them some additional copies of my book. Yes, it was a really nice affirmation of my work. Being a poet can be depressing sometimes, because poetry isn’t on the radar and isn’t important to most Americans. It’s a shame, because reading poetry can help us endure sorrow and suffering, as well as make us laugh or be introspective, and intensely experience other joys and unexpected insights. Poetry can show us how to understand what seems incomprehensible in our lives.
DM: When making selections for the poetry section at the library, I feel terrible passing up what look like so many wonderful collections of poetry. They’re poets who haven’t had a chance to build up an audience. But we have a limited budget. Sometimes what I’ll do is I’ll read one or two of the poems from the volumes I don’t choose, if only to honor their efforts.
MS: Oh, that’s wonderful that you do that. But you know, this ubiquitous lack of funding and respect for poetry is partly because it’s taught poorly in schools more often than not, and I think young people get scared of it, as if it was this difficult, erudite conundrum. It’s off-putting, how most teachers teach poetry. It makes students feel intellectually inadequate, which is too bad. Though maybe attitudes towards poetry, at least in the community, are changing now, to some degree, what with poetry slams and performance poetry. But how poetry’s taught in most schools is unfortunate, especially because young kids love language. They love rhymes and puns and metaphors, and they love what feels genuine and true, so there’s no reason why children can’t love poetry the way they love to sing or dance.
DM: Yes, there’s the musicality of poetry that you mentioned earlier.
Out of curiosity, Maurya, what have you been reading lately?
MS: What I’ve been reading? Endless student papers, first and foremost.
DM: Incidentally, I love to read several books at once, but a friend of mine recently said that her reading is too fractured when she has several books going at the same time.
MS: Hmm. But you know, I don’t do that with a book that I’m really engaged by. I put everything else down, and I only read that book until I’m done. I want to be fully immersed in it, devoured by it.
DM: Ah, lovely.
MS: I’m doing that right now with Ian McEwan’s novel Saturday. He’s such a fine writer, I think. And the book is certainly one that’s relevant, and urgently about our current times. The entire story takes place in one day—in the same way that Ulysses and Mrs. Dalloway occur on a single day. The book is about a neurosurgeon; it’s a day in the life of a neurosurgeon. It’s also the day of the largest anti-Gulf War protest march in England and in Europe. It takes place around the time when the UN was doing investigations to determine whether or not Saddam Hussein had developed weapons of mass destruction, and it was very clear that we were on the verge of declaring war against Iraq. So, there’s this important political aspect to this novel because the protagonist is having these debates with a co-worker and with his daughter about the morality of the Iraq War. It’s a wonderful and haunting novel, and I haven’t wanted to read anything else this past week. I don’t have much time these days, but I’ve been reading it at night before I go to sleep. I don’t want anything else to distract me. Even when I’m not reading the book, I want to think
about it and have images and scenes in the novel surface in my mind, and I want to relish them, dwell on them.
I don’t know if you ever do that?
DM: Oh, yes. If it’s something that really speaks to me. I’m thinking of one book in particular by Paula Sharp called, I Loved You All.
MS: I Loved You All?
DM: Yes, and everything else I’d been doing up until then came to a screeching halt, and I was just reading that book. Ahab’s Wife was another one.
MS: It’s great when that happens. You get so involved. And that’s what really good writing does– it transports you, and you dwell within that other place as much as you can imaginatively.
DM: The worlds they create are so real. You could almost swear by this.
MS: It’s the illusionary but lasting magic of literature, I think, to allow us to imagine others’ lives and to thereby teach us greater compassion and empathy. The true power of literature lies in its transformative aspects and agencies.
DM: Who are some of your favorite poets?
MS: I remember telling you that I grew up in a house where my parents loved books, and that there were several volumes of poetry in their library: Leaves of Grass and books by Dylan Thomas, A.E. Houseman, Emily Dickinson, and Robert Frost. I read these poets with my breath held and my heart thumping hard in my chest.
DM: And do you read a lot of poetry in your spare time?
MS: Actually, I don’t read poetry day and night. I mean, I do read a good deal of poetry for my classes: both a wide range of great poets’ work and my students’ work. But one of the reasons why I don’t read a lot of poetry in my leisure time is because I read volumes of it during the academic year. I read dozens of Masters Theses, which are book-length works of poetry. And then the undergraduate seniors at U.C. Riverside have their theses. I usually have ten students a year with whom I work on compiling a manuscript of poetry. And then I have poet friends and colleagues from across the country who send me either new books that are in- progress and upon which they’d like feedback, or new books that are soon to be published, for which they want me to write a blurb. So, between the academic work I undertake, and the work of my friends and colleagues across the country, there are probably twenty or thirty books of poems that I read each year. So, no, I don’t often seek out additional poetry, unless I’m teaching a new poetry course or judging a poetry contest or competition, such as the Kate & Kingsley Tufts Awards. If I read a review in a poetry magazine, or someone says, “Wow, I just read this poet from Arkansas,” then I’ll look for her book. But, otherwise, no. I think that often, when I’m reading poetry, I’m reading it quite critically, which is all right, but it detracts from the pure pleasure of enjoying a poem’s musical dance, its intellectual trajectory and imagistic richness. I’m all too often reading poetry more analytically than for the simple pleasure of it. Whereas, when I read fiction, or non-fiction, for that matter, I read it for the sheer pleasure, and I’m not so critical. I may be analytical about the content, but not about the crafting of the prose. It’s a different kind of endeavor for me: reading sentences (prose), as opposed to reading lines (poetry).
There are a couple books of poetry that I’ve read and enjoyed of late. One is a book by Chris Abani, Dog Woman. It’s his new-ish book of poetry. I have bought but haven’t yet read Jack Gilbert’s new book, Refusing Heaven. He’s only written three books. He’s in his seventies, I think, so every time he publishes a book, it’s an event.
DM: Though he’s not written hundreds of books, he has stayed focused. It reminds me of the story my poetry professor Larry Kramer (from Cal State San Bernardino) told me about Donald Justice, where one day he asked Donald Justice how his poems were coming along, and Justice replied, “Well, I have been working on two.”
MS: On two?
DM: Yes. And Justice’s words really made an impression on Larry. He said he got the feeling he’d been working on those two poems for a long time.
MS: I greatly admire Donald Justice’s poetry. He hasn’t produced many books, though he’s a masterful contemporary poet. Philip Larkin and Elizabeth Bishop also didn’t publish many volumes, but if you look at Bishop’s work, or Larkin’s or Justice’s work, you see how astoundingly well-crafted their poems are. A poem, I think, really gains a lot from that kind of meticulous attention paid over time.
On the other hand, Allen Ginsberg was famous for his “first thought, best thought” dictum, for claiming that he never revised. Whatever came out of the bard was what he published. Actually, there are Ginsberg scholars who have said that, having looked at some of his manuscript drafts, it’s obvious that he did indeed revise.
Many people think that a poem has to flow spontaneously from the soul, from the heart, but appearing to be spontaneous is part of the craftsmanship of the poem: it’s the poet’s job to imbue the poem with a sense of spontaneity or urgency, and he or she can only do so by working on it intensively and with great skill. It doesn’t mean, if a poem is much labored over, that it isn’t going to feel somehow natural and spoken with ease. Actually, I think the best poems, the great poems, are those that have a sense of inevitability about them, as if writ in stone. They had to be written that way; they couldn’t exist otherwise.
DM: Do you associate yourself with a particular school of poets, Maurya?
MS: No, I don’t. I think I have an affinity with the imagists like Hilda Doolittle, Ezra Pound, and Amy Lowell, but in a very contemporary way. I think I’ve always been acutely visually oriented as a poet. That’s probably due to being the daughter of an artist, and partly because I love the world. I love looking at the world. But it’s not just my affinity for the visual that makes me align myself with the imagists. I think it’s also that I see in poetry how certain images can be recharged. They’re extremely powerful. They can be so resonant. I guess I equate them with metaphors. I think these two aspects of poetry, the metaphoric use of language and compelling visual imagery, make the most brilliant poems what they are. As well as being powerful emotional vehicles. But other than having a kinship with the imagists, there is no school with which I identify. I’m not a neo-formalist, though I like to write formal verse sometimes. I’m not a surrealist, though I love the surreal and magical realism. I’m not a post-modernist, though I’ve written a number of experimental poems. I just write poems.
And I like to think that I’m ever evolving as a poet, too. I believe that as soon as I start having an easily identifiable style or aesthetic, then it’s time to move on, for it means that I’ve ceased to push myself and grow. I feel if I’m repeating what I know how to do, then it’s time to take another approach. I’m often therefore pushing myself to take imaginative or technical risks that I haven’t taken before.
DM: Do you have any advice for writers, budding or otherwise?
MS: As a teacher, I work with so many people who want to be published, and I think it’s a perfectly fine goal, but it seems, ultimately, that it’s much less satisfying than the actual writing process. When you get published, it’s a kind of validation that you have what it takes. And of course, there’s a huge range, in terms of the quality of the publication in which your work appears. One may be happy to be published in an obscure literary magazine, or one may say, “I will not consider myself successful until I’ve published a poem, or an article, or a story, in The New Yorker or in Poetry magazine.”
Ultimately, I think what’s most gratifying is writing something that you yourself find to be profoundly interesting and deeply moving.
DM: Yours are such generous words. I’ve read a lot of interviews where well-established writers are critical of those writers who want so badly to be published. And I think, “Well, you’re published!”
MS: That’s right. I think it’s hypocritical. Everyone wants validation for what they’re doing. Everyone needs that stamp of approval. So, it’s perfectly natural to want to be published.
DM: My, that is so kind of you!
MS: Well, I think it’s true. Don’t you?
DM: I do.
MS: I think people see it as an ego trip, and it isn’t that at all. We all want to be seen, to be acknowledged as existing. It’s the same kind of impulse as the child has in kindergarten who makes a painting, and when she gets home, she wants to have it hung on the refrigerator. It’s a recognition of what you’ve done, an expression of who you are.
And, it’s not only that for me, for I also want to hear what you have to say. Your ideas are important for me to hear, for me to think about, mull over. The more distinctive voices I have arguing intelligently inside my mind, the better.