For this installment of 5 (or so) Questions, 9L staffer Ashley Booth interviews Marianne Boruch about memory and the differences when writing poetry vs. prose. Marianne's essay, "Big Sur," an excerpt from her memoir The Glimpse Traveler, appears in the new issue of Ninth Letter, vol. 6, no. 2.
9L: You’ve written poetry and essays about poetry. What prompted your decision to shift your focus to prose and write a memoir?
MARIANNE BORUCH: When I was 20 and took off on that crazy hitchhiking trip west, I had no idea what would happen. That was the point, of course. This was the early 70s when everything struck us as possible, exciting---and it was pretty safe to do such mad things. Part of that was simply being young. But everyone was on the road, it seemed.
Early on in the trip, the shape of the thing began to come clear to me. It became evident that there was, in fact, a real purpose for this journey: to find out what happened to Ned--though I didn't know that at the start. Frances revealed it to me while we stood waiting for the next ride in the middle of nowhere, which is to say, Nebraska--though nowhere could be any place and that state was just in the right place at the right time! I recall distinctly how that news stunned me, how happy I was that suddenly we had a mission of sorts, a purpose. We weren't just mucking about, just sightseeing the whole the way west, California a kind of promised land of the period. No, this was to be an honest-to-god narrative. Even at the time I knew that I had to pay attention now, that I needed to follow this closely because it would have a story shape.
Still, it's been 30 some years in the making, in my head. Finally I felt ready--had the sentence-making machinery oiled up enough, I guess--to manage the narrative, bit by bit, on paper, all its nuts and bolts. And age, whatever its many drawbacks, does give one an overview. I was at MacDowell a couple of years ago, and had completed a poetry manuscript. There was time to spend. So I thought: okay, you start by starting. It was thrilling. I really didn't know how to do it.
9L: What sort of challenges or unexpected difficulties did you face in writing The Glimpse Traveler? How was the process different (or similar) to writing poetry?
MB: Number one: I had to deal with character--Frances, and Woody (who had traveled out there with us, then cut north to Oregon once we got to Sacramento). And myself as a character too. But I guess poetry isn't a totally hopeless apprenticeship for this. We always talk about "the speaker" in a poem, a deeply interior point of view implied in that, an attitude, an emotive and tonal presence. Donald Hall defines poetry as "person inside talking to person inside"--certainly a key element in much of our prose too. But I loved how time stretched out because this was story, how there was space for one thing to lead to another, how we--on this mission now--were moving through real hours and days, howbeit in memory, and had a passionate reason to do so.
But I am addicted to the lyric moment too; I couldn't shake that impulse, not that I wanted to. I purposely wrote in very small chapters--most not much more than a page or two, a bit like a sequence of poems, I realize. I loved zeroing down to end each of those, then picking up what came next, honoring that pause, that break, in the similar way one jumps stanzas or enjambs lines. Stevens wrote that thought collects in pools. And I consider those chapters like that. Along the way, there were hundreds of surprises, some quite disturbing or simply poignant to me. I felt terrible, for instance, when Woody left us to go north once we got to California. I missed him. I was bereft for quite a while. Because then it was just Frances and me, moving toward the ocean, into the Bay area, and then south to Big Sur. And later, our hitching back to Illinois. All that's in the book. But it was hard to give up Woody.
I can say this absolutely: doing the memoir was great, it was free beer! After years of writing poems, engaged in the strange, intensely meticulous focus required for that genre, it seemed a raw new gift, a freedom. Poetry is still it for me, the most beloved and deeply silent and mysterious of arts. But writing this thing, moving through what I keep calling my "me-woir"--a sweet, funny twist on that word that my friend Jane Hamilton blurted out to me--was great fun really, though it wasn't plain and it wasn't simple. I wanted wonder and humor, dark in there too, and certainly a way to go back credibly. It sounds corny to say, but I was eager to get at it, day after day, never knowing exactly what would turn up or who would say what, even though it came from memory. I was so curious because in a profound sense, it had nothing to do with me. Stopping for whatever reason--even for lunch, for supper--was hard. I hated leaving those people on the page. I missed their company. This must be what fiction writers often feel about the worlds they create.
9L: I found it incredibly interesting the way you were working with memory. You were unashamed to admit you were a somewhat unreliable narrator who was not only telling story but also working through memory, what parts we keep or exaggerate. Is this something that manifested itself within the work while you were writing or did you set out to explore memory through your own memories?
MB: By writing about it, I was finding out what really happened. That seems odd to say perhaps. And it was startling to me--since I had lived through the trip. So I needed the feel of that embedded in the narrative, of coming to, trying to figure. It was the most interior, secret layer of the process. How do we know anything? The fact that uncertainty is crucial to any genuine discovery seems to go without saying. The thing is, I've always been completely perplexed at how memory works--or doesn't work--where it stops, stubborn, to go blank. Or then reappears and zeroes in on specific bits. Or has its own idea altogether. The blurring gets me, too. Eliot writes wonderfully about this in his greatest hit essay "Tradition and the Individual Talent," about what he calls the presentness of the past, the pastness of the present. So time itself is multiple and weird, how it moves or doesn't, how we pretend we understand the intricate and unsettling ways we've passed through it--all these questions became more fascinating to me as I wrote myself deeper into my own particular take on that one experience. But we're all unreliable narrators, aren't we? Even my memory, right here, about my writing the thing--I may well be delusional!
9L: Will we ever learn what happened to Ned?
MB: Yes. And in a larger sense, not quite. Any decent poem or narrative resists closure, I think. My hope is that the ending of this story opens, keeps at it into more haunting orbits of thought off-page. Or maybe it's just that after all this time, I still can't shake it myself.
9L: What are you working on right now and in the near future?
Right now, I'm trying to write the first and last sections of a new manuscript of poems I started last year. In fall 2008, I had the dumb luck of a fellowship from Purdue, awarded by the Provost's Office, for "the study a second discipline." I applied to study two, in fact. The first--to participate in the so-called "cadaver lab" at IU's medical school on this campus (Gross Human Anatomy), the second--to take a course in our art department in life drawing. They said yes, so I was relieved of my teaching and in class 18 hours a week that fall. And it was life changing. Probably the most profound experience I've had--after childbirth!
The central section of the book--where my oldest cadaver kicked me out to hold forth herself--is a 32-poem sequence and pretty much completed. But I need to write the rest, just regular old poems now (if poems are EVER "regular"--never, never), not persona pieces, and these will concern all manner of things though the orbit about the body continues. I want to touch on what I learned in the drawing class too, and in my random additional mulling about painting, sculpture, medieval Herbals, Lives of the Saints, etc etc. All this is overwhelming to me, and so totally absorbing (and yes, a bit scary).
The new issue of Ninth Letter (vol. 6, no. 2), featuring "Big Sur" is available now in our webstore.