Continuing the Back to the Future blog book tour, here’s an interview with Mary Alexandra Agner, author of The Doors of the Body (Mayapple Press). You can read her poems “Apparition,” “Ua Huli Ka Ia (Hawaiian Lullaby),” “The Godmother Limit,” “World Enough, and Time,” and “The Eight-Fold Year” online.
1. I love the way you give voice to women we’ve encountered in literature and folktales, with an edge that brings them to life in ways their original authors would most likely not have intended. It seems subversive (which is a compliment, coming from me). What made you decide to do this?
I like telling stories. Initially I believed everyone when they told me that poems can’t tell real stories, meaning long, involved ones like prose does, and so I tried to tell stories that would fit in the size of a lyric poem. This meant I had to set up the background of the story and characters quickly, and torquing existing, well-known stories enabled me to do that.
As for the subversive aspect, all I can posit is that I am an angry person who wants to refuse the stereotypes about myself that have been imposed on me. I understand the function of stereotypes in a fight-or-be-eaten
situation but in the contemporary world we more often blind ourselves to the person or situation in front of us by reducing them to a set of assumptions.
Maybe Cinderella did want to go to the ball and gush about dresses and swoon into some man’s arms, never having to worry about money or cooking, but I doubt those desires are the only ones that sum up her hopes and dreams.
(I’d like to note that, after writing a 20K word novella-in-verse and being in the middle of a 65K word novel-in-verse, I no longer listen to people who, like me initially, managed to forget about Homer and Beowolf.)
2. In the first (title) poem of your book, “The Doors of the Body,” you allude to (borrow from) the myth of Inanna’s descent to the underworld (whom you reference explicitly in a later poem dealing with a different part of that cycle). I probably wouldn’t have recognized the source myth without having recently dipped back into Clarissa Pinkola Estes’s book Women Who Run with the Wolves. How important do you think it is that the reader recognize the allusion, or do you think that recognizing it might even detract from the reader’s emotional experience of the poem (by making it less an encounter with an archetypal feature of the psyche and more an intellectual exercise)?
I’d prefer the reader to understand the starting point of the poem in order to fully appreciate the trajectory. However, it has been my own experience, both as a reader and a receiver-of-readers’-comments, that it is the internally consistent world that makes the largest impression.
I have read poems and felt left out of them because I knew there was a story being alluded to that I did not know, but if the poem allows me to make up my own interpretation of what that story is and the poem builds off of my made-up understanding, then I will enjoy the poem.
3. Poems aren’t like children: we can play favorites. Which is yours?
Willa Cather’s “Dedicatory,” Catherine Carter’s “The Stingrays,” Alison Hawthorne Deming’s “Mt. Lemmon, Steward Observatory 1990,” Eve Langley’s “Native-born,” Nancy Willard’s “Night Light,” Kenneth Slessor’s “Five Bells,” Eleanor Wilner’s “Cuneiform,” Sara Henderson Hay’s “The Witch,” “The Valorous Acts of Mary Ambree,” anything by Judith Wright, everything by Abbie Huston Evans.
4. If you could choose any woman, dead or alive, to be your mentor, who would it be? Or, if you feel yourself past the point of desiring or needing a mentor, whom would you have over to tea? (For the latter, no need to limit yourself to one…have a party!)
I’d like to talk with Rachel Carson about bridging the schism between writing and science. I’d like to argue with Allie Sheldon, even if I lost. I wish that I had been able to listen to Grace Hopper or Mary Somerville or Elizabeth Barrett Browning speak.
I would like to know, since women are stereotypically (sarcasm) considered the holders of memory and wisdom, why we forget that we have strong foremothers. We did a great job with fairy tales, why not these? Oh, perhaps that’s the answer to your first question.
5. I detect a strong whiff of the transgressive in your poems, of women refusing to accept the limitations placed on them by patriarchy. What’s your relationship with feminism, and where do you hope to see the women’s movement go in the future?
I don’t think men are inherently better than women. I think everyone needs to believe that.
I would like every choice to be valid, not just those that follow a stereotype nor those that (currently) completely overturn one.
For me this has always been a personal struggle. Every interaction I have with men or women, inside or outside of work, I work to show them this is the truth.
6. Your poems feature a strong (but flexible) metrical element. How intently have you studied prosody?
I read poetry for the music. I believe that part of what differentiates poetry from prose is music: repetition is integral to the meaning being conveyed. This repetition can exist on any level: consonance, assonance, meter, rhyme, anaphora, refrain, and so on.
7. What are your future plans for writing? Will you continue to give voice to dead women, or are you cooking up a different dish?
I don’t think I’ll ever stop inhabiting the voices of dead women; there is so much to remember. Right now I’m in the midst of revising my novel (in verse) which tells the story of the woman who defeated Cyrus the Great of Persia. You don’t get more dead than that.
I’m also at work on a manuscript inspired by Shakespeare’s plays, one poem per play, and that includes many poems that don’t personify women.
Next fall, my chapbook The Scientific Method will be published by Parallel Press and while that does have dead women (scientists) in it, it also has a paean to the Navier-Stokes Equation and a lullaby for a dead spacecraft.