(This interview was first published on Scene360. November, 2004. )
Maureen Seaton is the author of Venus Examines Her Breast; Little Ice Age; Furious Cooking, winner of the Iowa Poetry Prize and the Lambda Literary Award; Fear of Subways, winner of the Eighth Mountain Poetry Prize; and The Sea Among The Cupboards, winner of the Capricorn Award. She is the co-author, with Denise Duhamel, of Exquisite Politics, Oyl, and Little Novels. She is the co-editor, with Denise Duhamel and David Trinidad, of Saints of Hysteria: A Half-Century of Collaborative American Poetry, forthcoming, Soft Skull Press. She is the co-collaborator, with Niki Nolin, on “Literal Drift” and “Chaosity,” and the forthcoming “Cave of the Time-Stream,” web-based hypermedia collages. Maureen is the recipient of an NEA fellowship, an Illinois Arts Council grant, and two Pushcarts. Currently, she is Director of Creative Writing at the University of Miami in Coral Gables, FL.
The idea for this interview was conceptualized at Havana Harry, Maureen (and Neil’s) favorite Cuban restaurant in the republican heart of Coral Gables, which is, disreputably, the best Cuban food in town. Over Harry’s Chicken (which is breast of chicken smothered with guacamole, sour cream, and cheddar cheese), served with black beans, rice, and overcooked plantains we discussed the importance of well-cooked plantains and the legalization of same sex-marriage. We also spoke about her work as a poet, her concept of the transliminal, her love of literary collage and collaboration, her experiences as a mother, teacher, and mentor; and the 18 months she spent taking care of her dying mother in Jensen Beach, Florida, and Pinckneyville, IL.
Throughout her mother’s illness, Maureen kept a journal filled with random clippings, found text, furious self-portraits, found objects, and images, as well as hand written lists written by her mother. Much of the raw material for this journal, with its gorgeous purple crushed velvet cover, would eventually become her latest collection of poems, Venus Examines Her Breast.
I asked Maureen and she has agreed to share some of her private journal with us because I believe it is important to see the process of making poetry just as much as seeing and/or reading the final product itself. This is the making of poetry, behind the scenes. Where meaning is made and/or found in and out of chaos. An extraordinary human being, Maureen Seaton is a friend, mentor, and dazzling poet.
Furious Cooking: An Interview with Maureen Seaton
I. The Kitchen Cabinet
N: Before we discuss my favorite book of yours, Furious Cooking, I’d like to give readers a sense of what’s cooking in your kitchen now and what’s stored in your cabinets. Who are/were your mentors? What makes you tick and what ticks you off?
M: I only furiously cooked once and that was the time a whole chicken went flying across the kitchen covered with marinade and aimed at my lover. After that I gave up marinating. A poem came out of that evening, of course. I brought the poem to the house of a friend who had invited me to dinner with her and her partner. It was the only time I ever wrote a poem for an occasion. My lover loved to tell the story of that chicken, the way it ended up wedged beneath the door of the dishwasher. I rarely cook the entire body of an animal now. If it looks like someone’s body, I can’t eat it. I’m not a vegetarian. If I didn’t like meat so much, though, I would be. My cabinets are filled with tuna and sardines in case there’s another hurricane in Florida and my mentors have been few and mostly among my peers. Marilyn Hacker, a non-vegetarian, has been there for me for years. Deborah Digges and Mark Cox were good mentors in grad school. You’re my mentor now, Neil.
N: Will you talk about the politics of Furious Cooking. Give the readers some background because I think it’s important in the context of all your work and, possibly, your motivation as a writer.
M: Regarding the politics (or religion) of Furious Cooking: it’s about redemption for sinners, like a lot of what I write, but the kind of sinners who go on sinning. The redemption is from silence. Into the noise of loving. It’s also about putting another voice out there that doesn’t think certain things are ok: like war for profit. My motivation as a writer is to make my own existence so palatable that my daughters and my students and my friends will want to stay alive with me.
N: Women, throughout history, have been silenced, by men and by the church. In Furious Cooking, you’ve constructed a narrative space where women are recast as empowered, transformative beings, even as witches and healers, who rise up to reclaim their literary voice and rightful place in the world. Talk to me about this space and the triggering event for this book.
M: The triggering event, literally, of Furious Cooking was a drive-by shooting a few blocks from my daughter’s school in Chicago. There were a lot of teenagers murdering teenagers in the early to mid-nineties in Chicago. How could that happen? A society that can’t protect its kids—I don’t know. It got me thinking about culpability, and then I got into the feminist history of the witch burnings in Europe and worked on a project with a couple of visual artists I knew. We did some stenciling, actually, some graffiti. I had written “The Red Hills” in Ucross, Wyoming in 1987. It was the oldest poem in the book. There was a lot of bloodshed in that book. There was a lot of anger at the usual powers. I tried to express the anger in the arts projects and in a long performance piece I produced at the time with about twenty other women. I hoped the poems wouldn’t be so angry that they lost their punch. I succeeded about half the time, maybe.
N: Can you talk about these women, these martyrs?
M: I don’t think I can talk about women being martyrs right now, not this week after the election. It’s still too fresh. Let’s just say that I was raised to want to be a martyr for Christ. I used to run my bath water really hot in case someone ever wanted to boil me in oil. I used to pray that they wouldn’t tear my breasts off. I thought I could stand arrows, but not rape; beheading, not fire. I thought about it a lot. In my wildest scenarios, I never dreamed Christ would come after me, but it sure looks that way, (after the election) doesn’t it? Maybe all that training will pay off.
N: Talk to me about the Malleus Maleficarum (link/pop-up to poem?). What is this document and how did it change your life and inform your poetry?
M: “The Malleus Maleficarum or The Witch’s Hammer was a comprehensive witch hunter’s handbook mandated by Innocent VIII and written by Dominican inquisitors Heinrich Kramer and James Spreger. It was first published in Germany in 1486 and quickly spread throughout Europe, second only to the bible in sales until the publication of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress in 1678. It was divided into three sections: the devil and his witches, how witches cast spells, and legal procedures for trying witches.”
That’s the note I included in Furious Cooking. You can buy a copy of the Malleus for yourself, you know. It’s worse than chilling. I don’t know how to describe its inhumanity. It’s part of a legacy kept hidden from little Catholics and from women. It’s what can happen when ignorant people are manipulated by fear. 99% of the witch trials, torture, and executions occurred outside European cities. Millions of people, mostly women, were exterminated for heresy, midwifery, oh, and flying and kissing the devil’s butt. It was a way for the Catholic Church to acquire land and power.
N: Tell us the story of the woman in “After Sinead O’Connor Appears on Saturday Night Live, the Pope.”
M: Late one night the three of us, artists and writers, were stenciling a hooded figure symbolizing a woman subverting the dominant culture on the sidewalk in Andersonville, IL. We had just sprayed it on when a young woman walked up to us and asked what we were doing and were we from a church group or something. Kind of an interesting spin, we thought. We told her we were just artists working on a project for anti-violence and she came closer to us and said, pointing to the sidewalk, “Is that for me then?” She had bruises all over her face and said she had been beaten up the night before by her boyfriend. We told her it was and she started crying. We knew we were on to something. That was our first night out.
N: The opening poem in Furious Cooking, “The Red Hills,” ends with the line “In the
darkness we are all holy.” Maureen, are we all holy, yet? If not in darkness, will we ever be?
M: I wrote that line many years ago and holiness is still an attractive idea to me. You know a holy person when you meet one. And you honor parts of people who have gotten holier with age. Like my Dad, who recently had this ability to listen to me rag on him because he’s a Republican and, if I would have let him, he would have hugged me (I wasn’t feeling holy enough). It’s pretty dark now, I think, let’s see how we all look under black light.
II. Sexual Reorientation
N: I think it’s important that readers know you’re a lesbian and that being a homosexual gives you (and me) special powers. Discuss the differences (if you think there are differences) between being born gay and/or becoming (or choosing) to be gay.
M: I was born just to the queer side of the middle of that continuum you hear about, the one where some people are born undeniably straight and some undeniably homo and there are all energies in flux in between, and some can go either way and they can traverse the continuum easily as they go through life (well, they could if they weren’t afraid of being murdered, for instance, or afraid of societal hatred, that sort of thing). I think I was born with a queer orientation, maybe as a bisexual (I was aware of all kinds of crushes in my teens, well, two kinds), then when I got old enough to finally step into my own shoes (comfortable shoes) (in my mid-thirties), I exercised my preference for women. That might explain me, maybe not. I’m a lesbian now, of that I’m certain. I also think of myself as a femme. I tried being a butch once and I kept waiting for my lover to flip me over and she never did. We’re good friends now, of course. Your special powers are quite apparent, Neil. I see them orbiting your head. Mine are buried in the sand at the end of my street, under the east pole of the volleyball net, growing fins.
N: How has your sexual orientation transformed and/or informed your creative life?
M: I’ve created hundreds of poems. Every one of them has a name: Piggy and Bob and Ricardo and Swamp Girl, to list a few. I believe I wrote them all with the muse or in partnership with the poems themselves, that everything I do happens in a synergy of relationship. That may be a queer way of thinking. It seems unstraight, at the least. The people I love have informed, transformed, chloroformed and deformed my creative life. Women are better at loving me than men are, on the whole. They like me with hairy pits, for one thing. Less grooming gives me time for more writing. (That will be gross to almost everyone but lesbians—see how lucky I am?)
N: What can’t you write about? If you can’t say now, then when?
M: Ha ha. (not laughing)
N: If you could be any animal, what planet would you like to visit first?
M: Ha ha. (laughing)
N: Is it true you like ham?
M: Only when it’s time-released.
III. Literary Collage
N: Readers of your latest book, Venus Examines Her Breast, may or may not know you are a literary collagist. What is literary collage?
M: Literary collage is to the poem what visual collage is to the painting (think of Picasso gluing a piece of oilcloth onto one of his still life’s in the early 20th century—or Joseph Cornell’s boxes): there’s disrupted narrative, there’s found text glued into original text, there’s completely found text, there might be graphics, there might be recipes, songs, prose mixed in with verse, but the biggest thing is disruption of the linear, of the expected narrative. It’s great fun to write and it totally disarms readers because we’re so used to reading linearly. It’s like having to look at a whole quilt made up of dozens of smaller parts, but up close, moving from piece to piece, not getting the big picture until we can back away from the quilt and see the entire gorgeous work. Yet each part is amazing in itself as well. The reading of literary collage requires exercising the mind in a new way—it causes anxiety at first, but then excitement as the mind becomes engaged, yay! This can take a while. Patience and open-mindedness highly recommended.
N: Why do you choose to write using collage techniques and how does collage inform and/or heighten your writing?
M: I truly, this is so cliché, did not CHOOSE to use collage techniques. They just kind of happened because my poems were getting bored with themselves. Yeah yeah yeah my poems would say and I too would start to nod off. Furthermore, I was raising two children (by myself, cliché #2) and had very little time to accomplish more than bits and bites of text. I could either kill myself for not having enough time and energy to write a terza rima, or I could take those fragments, move them around, glue them together, and see if my mind could follow the leaps. Lastly (not sure if this is cliché yet or not), I bought my first computer in 1994 and could more easily maneuver text. Voila: collage was born into my household.
N: What does collage mean to your process as a writer, as a teacher, as a human being?
M: It’s been fabulous. I adore the process of cutting and pasting. I adore its postmodern insinuations: that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts; that the mind, free to make its own associations, will rise to the realms of imagination and critical thinking; that there is no one truth to which we must bow—that every single reader will forge a meaning for her/himself from the text, which is generous and organic, not dictating. I love that! I love giving my students the tools to make literary collage. In one semester I can open up a world to them that they’ve intuitively been waiting for their entire lives—truly, with many, this is the case. As human being, I’m better for every poem I’ve written, I think. Collage is democratic and reflects for me personally the ideals of the country I was born to care for. All this from the French word “to glue,” you ask? Only if you believe.
N: Venus Examines Her Breast is a collection of collage poems mostly using non-traditional forms. However, your book is framed by two poems, “Pilgrimage to Bethlehem Steel” and “Venus Examines Her Breast,” which were constructed line-by-line and put into couplets, which does not necessarily follow the tradition of literary collage. Talk to me about
your process behind these poems and how you came to place them where you did in your book.
M: I had two older poems that fit the themes of my book—death, dying, and more dying and death—and they were written in my old, pre-collage days. (That’s collage, not college.) I wanted to use them badly, so I “framed” the rest of the book with them, as you noticed. I’m not sure if I was thinking of starting and ending with poems that were more reader-friendly—they were lyric-narratives and somewhat linear at least—kind of asking my readers to trust me as they plunged into the brackish waters of my collage pieces. The final poem, “Venus Examines Her Breast,” was written about my mother when she had first survived the cancer that eventually killed her. It reminded me of the end of that sweet lesbian film (?) where a dog that has died early in the movie breaks free from the ice-encrusted earth and goes tearing across the field. You know, resurrection, lesbian-style.
N: How did keeping a journal while caring for your mother help you when you wrote the poems that eventually became Venus Examines Her Breast?
M: Certainly, one reason Venus is so fragmented is the subject matter—a terrible prolonged death (my mother had both bone cancer and Alzheimer’s). Actually, I didn’t expect to find poems in the journal later on. I kept it as a survival tactic. It usually takes me two to three years to write a book of poems. For those years I happened to be caregiving and grieving. In other words, at the end, it was all the raw material I had. Venus is pure elegy. Collaging the text from the journal (and afterward) enabled me to conceptualize the death and the dying process in dozens of ways so that I, and the reader, would not feel totally pulverized by such a relentless song. I really had no idea there was a book there at first. But I’m a poet. It’s what I do.
N: Have you ever considered writing a memoir?
M: Sure. But if you think I need time to write a poem, let me tell you how much I need to write prose! I’m excruciatingly slow because of a near-fatal perfectionism.
N: Isn’t your work, in Gloria Anzaldúa’s words, a form of autohistoria, a poetic memoir, an altar of words? Talk to me a little about the personal in your work. How personal do you get? How much of what we read is Maureen Seaton?
M: When I write I use everything I think about the world or find in the world. I’m most interested in the how of using it. Or: I trust whatever it is I think so I don’t have to think about it very much. Everything is filtered through the personal, and the personal is filtered through the imagination, everything fictionalized in the wordplay, each poem is a world. It’s no good to me unless it reveals me to me and the world to me and makes me want to keep on in the world. So it has to have mystery so there’s fascination and hope and wonder. And nothing is more mysterious to me than the deeply personal and the way the mind ticks and the heart works. And all the things going on around the mind and the heart, that micro universe. I love the inclusiveness of collage writing. Here is a stanza of what I saw one night on my way to Etta’s house in Oak Park. Here is a stanza about the red building in Chicago that lost a window that killed a woman. Here is the method of glass-blowing practiced at Ox-Bow in Saugituck, Michigan. Put them all together and somehow, in some amazing way, there’s a path. And light.
N: At Havana Harry’s we spoke about narrative layers and transliminal spaces. I think your definition of these two concepts will help readers understand your work and, at the same time, the power and beauty of literary collage.
M: Well, you said we should have had a tape recorder that night! What DID we say about narrative layers? Something about the kinds of poems we like occurring in parallel spaces all at once? Complexity? Layers of meaning? At least three? Did we say three layers? Were we talking about meaning? I don’t think so. Maybe . We were trying to describe the imagination, perhaps? I have no definition! We were riffing. We were ecstatic for a moment. That was before the election, right? Right. (The night of the election!) I can talk about the transliminal a little better than narrative layers at the moment. We’re seatbelted for four years of transliminal. A time between horizons. Transliminal to me means a time when the next horizon hasn’t yet appeared and you’re pulling yourself through the desert on your belly with little water and lots of sand up your nose. It requires incredible strength and a great reliance on others of like mind. It’s right before, it’s transition in the birthing process, it’s terrifying. It is truly the chaos before creation.
N: “You’re Babylon And I’m Brazil:” how was it constructed? How did the “narrative” come together out of the chaos?
M: There was one semester while my Mom was dying when two teaching jobs overlapped for me. One day I was walking down Wabash in Chicago from one school to the other less than a mile away. Poet and fellow teacher Bin Ramke had stopped me at the first school and we’d talked for about fifteen minutes. That’s about how long before I arrived at the same exact spot that a woman was killed by a window flying out of the red building. (Niki calls it the orange building.) I was swimming in chaos those months. It was my milieu, something perhaps only another caregiver for the dying can fully understand. The poem was constructed from fragments that I wrote with my classes that semester. At the beginning of every workshop we’d all write for five minutes. At the end of the semester I had many fragments. “You’re Babylon and I’m Brazil” was a line I wrote with my class in response to an exercise on metaphor. “You’re ____________ and I’m ____________.” We all marked which ones were our favorites and my students liked “You’re Babylon and I’m Brazil” the best of all my metaphors, so I used it as the title of my poem. Bin published it a year later. I’m not sure if he knew he might have saved my life.
N: Would you consider this poem a transliminal space and/or representation of transliminal poetics?
M: Yes for the poet. Yes for the child who was holding the hand of the dead woman and walked away without a scratch. No for the woman killed by the window. Or yes, depending.
N: It’s impossible to interview you without mentioning your work with long time collaborator, the poet Denise Duhamel and, more recently, the visual artist, Niki Nolan. What I would like to know is how collaboration with these and other artists has advanced (or detracted) from your personal aesthetic?
M: I’ve been writing with Denise for about fifteen years—yikes! I LOVE collaborating. I love love love it. We’ve influenced each other’s styles unconsciously, I’m sure, although I don’t know if I can say exactly how. Writing with someone else makes you bolder. As a team you can get pretty outrageous. So we must have helped each other grow as individuals. She’s doing some risky stuff right now as we speak. And I kind of went off the deep end a while ago, experimenting with my solo work. We always experimented with the content of our collabs. We tend to experiment more, individually, with structure. My collaborations with Niki are different because we keep our impulses pretty separate—she does the visuals and I do the writing. She’s a computer genius as well as a fine artist. I’ve learned so much from working with Niki—the patience of the painter, the fine eye of the photographer, unique ways of seeing she brings to her digital images. I wish I could do that!! But I can’t, at least not this time around. I have photoshop! Never used it. Working with Niki is next best. I adore what’s happening in cyberspace right now—words and images flying around. Niki has knowledge of the technology. I have a sense of the aesthetics of it, but no know-how. We’re a good team in lots of ways. We like the same food, just like Denise and I do. That’s crucial. If both collaborators eat ham, it helps. Or olives.
N: What is that magic that occurs when two or three poets get together and create a piece of writing with a uniform voice? Are the poets mimicking each other or is there a deeper undercurrent that the collaborators are tapping into?
M: Maybe the muse. Just waiting for a couple of ripe collaborators to come along and tap the well, the spine, the cistern, the minds of the goddesses and gods. That third voice, a little bit you, a little bit me—then, who’s that? It feels that way when you write solo too, don’t you think: you and the poem, then: Hey, who’s that? Someone comes in while you’re gazing at your cat. I used to think it was James Wright. Then I thought it was Black Elk. You would probably say it was Hambone.
N: Damn right!
N: But is it a merging of voices, of spirits, of purpose, or is it just dumb luck?
M: With another poet or writer or artist it’s just upped, that’s all, the energy goes up a notch, sometimes way up. I think when two poets really click they’re not mimicking each other, they kind of came that way—with similar sensibilities, although they might also be trying to make each other happy—you know, if I write this, Denise will just love it. Something I might not have written alone in a room with my computer on a Saturday morning. The uniform voice thing: yeah, sometimes that really comes through, but I don’t ever think of it as the goal. It’s ok when it happens, but it’s just as ok when it doesn’t. Two voices shimmering beside each other. Sometimes they coalesce, sometimes they retain their separate sounds and shapes.
N: Wanting more from the text is something we spoke about over Harry’s chicken. Sometimes, you said, you get the feeling text just isn’t enough and that when you write you feel like you want to take off, let the words fly. Does collaborating with visual artists bring you the satisfaction you’re looking for?
M: I do sometimes feel as if text keeps me too grounded. I love to dance and I think if I were a better dancer I’d have the same desire to fly away physically, leave the dance floor and just go. When I’m writing really fast that happens to me sometimes. One of those magical mysterious things—I sure do go somewhere else (into the imagination!), but when I look at the page or the computer screen—words, that’s it (although lately I’m thinking more about the negative space). How can I show the flying? So, yes, that’s why I love the digital world. I get tremendous joy seeing my words (anybody’s words) do something fluid in virtual land. It’s not exactly what I sense is really happening when I experience the off-the-page-ness of a poem in process, but it’s good. It’s really good. Still: “In a sheet of paper is contained the Infinite,” wrote Lu Chi (300 A.D.). And poet and teacher Muriel Rukeyser was fond of asking her students exactly where a poem exists, what is it made of? Where is the poem, she would ask. I love questions like that, I love all the possible answers.