Sunday, February 7, 2016

Chapbook Chat: Janet MacFadyen Discusses In the Provincelands

In the Provincelands

Author: Janet MacFadyen

PublisherSlate Roof Press

Publication date: 2012

The Future Melts by Janet MacFadyen

You could hold it in your mouth
like chocolate.
What comes of this is desire, and if you taste it
what comes is plenty, it is so sweet.
Then what comes
is that point of stillness inside the body.
That is why cats are so liquid.
That is why the leaf
floats down and down in the warm air though it is fall,
and thoughts slow like a train
coming to a halt in the middle of a cornfield,
at night, in October, leaves glinting on the ground.
You could get off here in the darkness with the
others, quietly talking and looking up at the stars,
whose light has traveled from so far away
and so long ago.

originally appeared in The Daily Hampshire Gazette

*   *   *   *   *

Janet MacFadyen is the author of three works of poetry, including her Slate Roof Press chapbook, In the Provincelands, a full-length work, A Newfoundland Journal (Killick Press), and an earlier chapbook In Defense of Stones (Heatherstone Press). A Pushcart Prize nominee, she has published widely, including in Poetry, The Atlantic, The Southern Poetry Review, Rosebud, and Malahat, and is forthcoming in Crannóg. Janet has held a seven-month residential fellowship at the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center, as well as writing residencies at Cill Rialaig (County Kerry, Ireland), and at the Fowler and C-Scape dune shacks in Provincetown. She lives in woods of Shutesbury, MA, with her husband, the photographer Stephen Schmidt.

Author's LinkedIn profile:

Slate Roof Press Collective Facebook page:

*   *   *   *   *

[This interview was conducted via email in February 2016.]

Please tell us a little bit about your chapbook.

JM: In the Provincelands is the fruit of my work with Slate Roof Press, a small western Massachusetts publishing collective established in 2004. Somewhat like Alice James, or Sixteen Rivers in San Francisco, collective members work for several years before, during, and after the publication of their chapbooks. The poems are vetted by the collective in advance (these days we run an annual chapbook contest). Also we are fortunate to have a wonderful letterpress printer as a permanent member, who works with each of us in the production of the book. I don't think I'm exaggerating when I say my chapbook is a beautiful object. In addition to the special papers and hand-sewn binding, the cover has a die-cut sliver moon, which grows to a full moon on the fly leaf and title page, behind which is a full-color impressionistic photo, shown here:

Photo credit: Stephen Schmidt 

You mentioned to me earlier about the themes of the book, “…food, the body, animals, and merging of self/confusion of self.” Having read in your speaker bio for the 2015 Massachusetts Poetry Festival that you were dubbed the Vegetable Queen of Poetry, I had to smile when you told me you identify with root vegetables sometimes more so than you do with being human, which I think I see reflected in your poem “Fetch” (, the last poem on the page.) Could you expand on some of the themes of the chapbook a bit more for us? And I’m curious, about your title Vegetable Queen of Poetry, and especially curious: Why root vegetables?

JM:I have never fully disentangled from the sense that vegetables are not so different from people. If you look at DNA, we share much of our genomes with vegetables and are a lot more closely connected to a cabbage than we might wish to think. But I also am playing out an old family drama in my poems set in the kitchen, where I watched the food getting chopped, diced, boiled, roasted; and witnessed the power that women wielded there (I grew up in the 50s, when the kitchen was a female domain). It seems to me a grotesque system that nature has put into place, where we must eat other living plants and animals in order to remain alive. So I have always wanted to know why: why, in order for some people to prosper, do others have to be destroyed? Why are some people in charge, and others under the boot? "Fetch," "For a Dog," "Your mission," "Through the Eye of a Potato," and "Night of the Mushroom" all explore these ideas in one fashion or another.

Tying into the above, much of my early and middle life I spent trying to escape depression and underlying feelings that I did not have a right to live — I was underground, underfoot. I have mostly thrown the depression off, but many of my poems still start in the dirt. I may approach the subject with humor or whimsy (as in "Through the Eye of a Potato"), but the subject itself is not funny. So when you ask Why root vegetables?, the answer is because they are tough-skinned, live in dirt, and survive the winter; humans consign them to the dust of cellars, but they still sprout and grow furiously. They are also rib-sticking food; you might not describe them as delicious, but they will keep you alive if you are starving.

At the same time, my other poems —fully half of the chapbook — explore journeys through dreamscapes or landscapes in which I am either disoriented or — amazingly and gratefully — grounded in my own body, in love with the world, my mate, and myself. I am 63 years old but in some fundamental fashion I still don't know who I am, or where I am. I find it completely disorienting to walk around in this world as if I belonged here, as if it made sense for us to be here, on this piece of rock flying through space. I have a hard time calling one's dream life at night "false," compared to the waking life, which most everyone would consider to be "true." Or at least, the waking life is so amazing and bizarre if you really look at things, that it does not seem so very different from dreams.

You also said that you used to play the flute. Ezra Pound once wrote:
Poets who are not interested in music are, or become, bad poets. I would almost say that poets should never be too long out of touch with musicians. Poets would will not study music are defective. (Literary Essays of Ezra Pound, New Directions Publishing, pg 437)
What impact to you think being a musician has had on the way you write and/or read poetry? What are your thoughts on what Pound said?

JM: Ooof, Pound is awfully judgmental in the quote above. I have read and heard poetry that was not based in musicality and took its punch from voice or integrity. For example, Adrian Oktenberg's The Bosnia Elegies do not strike me as being musical, but her book brought me to a full stop into an understanding of war that no other poet has done for me—and she achieved this by being so amazingly blunt and unwavering about what happened in that conflict. However, I do believe musical resonances in poetry exponentially expand its impact, and can take a poem that reads like gibberish and give it some wild integrity apart from meaning. My poems oftentimes start with a semiconscious rhythm, though not necessarily from music; it can be the thump and thud of boulders in a current of water, something that's under my skin that becomes audible, and I'll think: what's trying to surface, what's trying to be heard?

The other sonic devise that is really important to me is the breath, and how the line follows the impulse of the breath. In my poems focused on journey I wanted the lines to roll in one after the other like breakers ("Florida Revisited" or "In the Provincelands (I)", both of which appear in Sweet.)

I did play the flute when I was younger, but I was too shy to perform so I turned to writing, an easier art to do in solitude. The flute brought me a visceral sense of creating a complete musical phrase, of using your breath to propel an idea, melody, or tone to fruition. Added to this, as a teenager I believed the flute would bring home my absent father; it had a siren song quality about it that I thought no one could withstand, not even the hard rock of my father. Something of that feeling of loss gets translated into my poetry via the incantatory sound of words and lines.

You’ve got a full length book out, A Newfoundland Journal (Killick Press), as well as third, In Defense of Stones (Heatherstone Press). For In the Provincelands, what drew you to the chapbook form? If I understand correctly, some of the poems took years to write. What’s the oldest piece in the book? the newest? How did you know you had chapbook? Was it difficult to integrate the poems?

JM: I don't actually favor either form, the chapbook or full-length work. I think they are haphazard categories, and what matters is whether the length fits the material. In my case, I joined the Slate Roof collective when I had two potential manuscripts in process — one was A Newfoundland Journal, a short work by full-length standards which I considered trimming in order to publish it via Slate Roof. But I was glad when I got the offer for a full book from Killick Press in St. John's, Newfoundland. The other manuscript could also have been full-length, but the process of putting out the chapbook forced me into choosing poems that I felt were both my best work and fit together in some intuitive way. I wanted the chapbook to be a showcase of what I could do and possibly be a teaser for a later, longer work; it didn't matter to me if the poems were old or new. I have worked the same material over and over in my life with newer work sometimes gaining insight that wasn't to be had earlier, and older work sometimes nailing an issue in a way that I could not recreate now.

My chapbook In the Provincelands alternates between the "in the dirt" food poems, which can be stanzaic, and more surreal, free-flowing dreamscape or journey poems; and I have had that same oscillation now for forty years. If I am lucky enough to have a poem that lives on past me after I die, no one will care whether I wrote it early or late in life. Out of the 20 poems, eight of them were old, with "Your mission" being the oldest; about the same number were new at the time of joining Slate Roof (the newest being "Fetch" and the two title poems). "The Luna Moth" I began in the 90s, radically rewrote it in 2011, and published it in 2012. Does that make it an old poem or a new poem? It only matters when people try to judge whether an artist's career is on the ascendency or descendency, with some kind of an assumption that only the new work matters. But to me, we are simply following our life's outflowing, and our work reflects that flow.

What is one of your favorite poems in the book, or one that is important to you? Why is it a favorite (or important)? How did it come to be?

JM: My favorite poems vary, but "Through the Eye of a Potato" is — at the moment — the most important poem to me because it most directly expresses the issues I described earlier in the second question above, about feeling buried, about my right to live and grow. It is told through the point of view of a potato, and I read it as a call to arms, as a liberation poem, a resurrection poem about potential rebirth. (The birth is not actual because in 2012, at the time I published the chapbook, I did not understand the roots of my depression as well as I do now.) Like "The Luna Moth," its genesis was decades ago, and it took about 10 years to get it into shape, with its final form happening only in 2012.

Through the Eye of a Potato

Lying there in a black furrow I saw
how sunlight lit the hard earth, stroked the brown
wrinkled face of my grandfather dozing beneath me.
Sooner or later his head would flower: already

he loved burlap and brown paper bags and in my greening
I mimicked him, brushing marl and peat from a dozen eyes.
I sensed an uprising out of everything dark
and underfoot, and possibly out of my own heart

if only I knew how to see. My grandfather wheezed.
He said, "Study it, girl, it's there for the taking."
I copied his dusty squint, lying motionless by the hour
until rain burst open the green heart of the ground,

and I knew I loved water and round,
ugly things: puffballs and toads grunting in litters.
Everything living was demanding its right
to grow round and fat and put down roots.

My grandfather drilled frilly corkscrews in fields and in
my mind, reeled out vine after vine of pale fuzzy
leaves until he was wreathed in them like a happy
harvesting god. And though I was full to bursting,

I knew nothing of the blossoms that on moonless nights
potatoes dream of, clustered together in clods of dirt—
and nothing at all of roots, except how to hold tight
to my grandfather as he tightened his grip on the earth.

You were a poetry finalist in the 5th Annual Contest with your poetic sequence "Five Ghazals from a Provincetown Dune Shack." Please tell us a bit about writing in form. Do you do it frequently? Were these poems experimentation with the ghazal or do you write in that form often? Tell us a bit about the deviations from the standard form that you took in some of the ghazals in "Five Ghazals from a Provincetown Dune Shack."

JM: I don't frequently write in forms, though I am drawn to internal and end rhymes, and use them whenever they present themselves. However — now I will contradict what I said earlier about working the same material over and over — in 2011 I started a totally new collection inspired by ghazals and drawn from many years of keeping trip journals. The core poems came into being after a residency in a Provincetown dune shack. There I rode out a powerful October storm — the rain and sand blew sideways, a window flew open in the night, the walls vibrated as if the shack was about to take off, and the woodstove howled like a banshee from wind across its vent pipe. And there was no road out — only a three-quarter-mile footpath over open dunes to get to town. I thought I was going to die. The experience galvanized me in a way hard to describe. I had been reading Robert Bly's ghazals, Aga Shahid Ali, and Allen Ginsberg, but Bly's 12-syllable triplets were etched in my mind. (Classic ghazals use 18-syllable couplets, but both formats work out to 36 syllables per stanza.) I now have a full-length manuscript of what I dub "American" ghazals," which do not employ the refrain nor the repeating word at the end of each stanza, but do feature stanzas which stand thematically and emotively alone — with greater or lesser intuitive leaps between them. Some of my poems are quite narrative and others much more leapy; some are more true and others less so to the conventions of the ghazal. I have used the poet's signature in the ultimate stanza when it moved me to do so, and overall I tried to remain true to the ghazal's implied dialog between the speaker and some external presence (lover, spirit, reader, friend); and the key elements of longing and intoxication.

What poets did you look to for inspiration?

JM: Aracelis Girmay is currently the poet whose work I return to when a poem-in-progress is too directive or constrained; or if my tendency to tie up the ending in a pretty bow has gotten the better of me. I love how her work just unfurls in this glorious stream of ideas and images so grounded in physicality. Her poems have helped unblock me numerous times. Audre Lorde and Adrian Oktenberg (mentioned above) also have influenced me in giving me courage to speak out and in my slow evolution towards the more political writing that I am doing now. Oh, who else? Robert Bly influenced me hugely in recent years, as has Allen Ginsberg. Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Elizabeth Bishop, Seamus Heaney, and Walt Whitman were old influences. Blake and Keats. I return to all of them.

What are you working on now?

JM: I view my chapbook as a preliminary, veiled exploration into power dynamics, both the survival of the fittest imposed by nature, and power dynamics imposed by human society. I am currently working on this theme with much more clarity in a full length manuscript (different from the manuscript of ghazals described above). A lot of the new poems start in the dirt, but my dream is to have them fly by the end.

No comments:

Post a Comment

If your comment doesn't appear right away, it's because it's awaiting approval: To reduce spam, all comments to posts that were created over a month ago are reviewed first before being displayed.