Margin: Exploring Modern Magical Realism

P O E T   I N T E R V I E W
Glimpsing All That Lies Beneath
h e r m i n e   m e i n h a r d ,   o r g a n i c   p r a c t i t i o n e r   o f   d u e n d e

BY TAMARA KAYE SELLMAN

Members of my staff and I frequently discuss childlike wonder as a feature of the magical realist narrator's point of view. Being able to engage a subject with a fresh perspective is not quite enough; it's the act of re-encountering the world with the same, unperturbed awe you experienced as a child that gives magical realism much of its essence. But to write in a way that captures this re-encounter with the world is no simple feat. At what point can anyone, as an adult, strip away adult perceptions, biases, education and the like to re-engage the material world as if it were pure and brand new?

But some artists can, and do, approach the world through this challenging lens. Hermine Meinhard, one of Tupelo Press's leading poets for 2004 (joining the likes of Ilya Kaminsky), seems to have a particular affinity for capturing the essence of what it is to experience the world through a child's eyes. Her book, Bright Turquoise Umbrella is a lovely collection of challenging poems. Not challenging in their literary complexity, but challenging because they aim to go deeper, more viscerally, to capture experience at the split-second it occurs.

I met Hermine at the AWP Conference in Chicago. She's a tiny, delicate woman, which made the reading of her poetry even more powerful for me. Her subjects are, in many cases, larger than life (such as the lumberjack figure), and the moods she evinces are not merely rich in sensory detail, but undeniably violent or otherwise loaded with an emotional intensity that isn't easy to define with a first read.

Hermine and I enjoyed a recent opportunity to discuss her book. At press time, she was coming off a midwestern tour (Chicago, Madison and Milwaukee) where I feel certain her work was greatly appreciated for the power pulsing beneath the simplicity of her words.—TKS

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Tamara Kaye Sellman: How does it feel to have your work compared to Kafka, Gabriel García Márquez and Fra Angelico?

Hermine Meinhard: Of course it’s thrilling, and I thank Brooks Haxton for comparing my work with Kafka’s and Fra Angelico’s. But also, thinking about their art helped me learn more about my own.

I started looking at reproductions of Fra Angelico’s frescoes. I love the idea of frescoes (they are painted directly onto wet plaster) because that’s the effect I aim for . . . images as fresh as when consciousness first encounters them.

I experience his images as both transparent and vivid, still and moving, concrete and otherworldly, and profoundly grounded in their own reality. These qualities all speak to me of what I work toward.

Kafka: Of course, insects are important in Bright Turquoise Umbrella, the narrator identifies with them, they are sympathetic. And the notion of transformation, and extreme transformation, is important to me. And the soul hidden among the detritus and routines of civilization . . .

Gabriel García Márquez: This comparison I made. García Márquez has been a vital influence in terms of what is possible in writing and is one of the reasons I’ve felt free to go my own way as a writer. When I thought about how to present Bright Turquoise Umbrella to potential readers, and of other writers I might compare myself to, his name came up immediately.

I see García Márquez as connected to the earth in the most radical way, in such a way that he is able to draw on the unconscious of the earth and to reveal its workings like no one else.

TKS: Are you still on the staff at 3rd bed? How has the experience of working in literary publishing affected your work as a writer?

HM: Yes, I am one of the poetry editors (my co-poetry editor is Andrea Baker). Reading work that is new and percolating and just coming alive all across the country stimulates, though not necessarily in expected ways, some of what I’m doing as a writer. It may make me listen differently or help me enter into the innards of a poem more deeply or remind me how wild it is possible to be . . .

TKS: From whom have you learned the craft of poetry? Teachers, inspiring poets, books . . .

HM: In the mid to late 1980s I worked with the poet Ruth Danon. She was the one who taught me how to open to my imagination. That was the big thing for me. Before then, I had all these ideas about writing which were mainly restrictive and inhibiting. Ruth has a very unusual approach to teaching (which I’ve used as the model for my teaching). It involves improvisational exercises that use constraints much as an acting improvisation would, and has the effect of both freeing and pulling a writer down into her own material. It was a revelation.

My first semester at Sarah Lawrence I took a craft class with Brooks Haxton and that, too, was enormously important. Practicing iambic pentameter, writing a sonnet, considering the effect of line lengths and breaks, of high and low diction, of dramatic structure. This was a laboratory in which my formal knowledge and instincts were developed. My understanding of formal possibilities came from here.

Both Ruth and Brooks have a deep, thoughtful intelligence and a kindness to match their intelligence, which I think is what made them such superb teachers.

Other writers who have been important to me: Sappho and the Chinese poets (the simplicity of their language, particularly, and a wisdom that comes from direct observation); Virginia Woolf (her unveiling of the interior life and the rhythmical quality of her sentences); William Blake (his visionary poems and ability to write from the viewpoint of a child in Songs of Innocence); Tomasz Salamun (again, the visionary, nonrational, but total-sense-making of his poems . . . the life of the objects in his poems); Alice Notley (The Descent of Alette and Disobedience especially were important to me . . . both have an epic quality. And I admire tremendously her ability to go her own way as a writer. That takes courage or perhaps, stubbornness. I’d like to think I have some of both); Gabriel García Márquez, of course . . .

TKS: Do you write other forms besides poetry (fiction, nonfiction, etc)?

HM: I do like to tell stories. Some of my work straddles the boundary between poetry and fiction: about half the poems in Bright Turquoise Umbrella are prose poems. It’s a form I particularly enjoy. The longer prose poems, “Flying,” “Guatemala” and “The Messengers” are structural pillars of the book.

TKS: When did you first decide you wanted to write poetry?

HM: At the beginning I was trying to write fiction and in the midst of that began to make these little prose poems. But I had to be told that’s what they were . . . I had no idea. In fact, “A Piece of Lightning” was one of the very first. I sat up and wrote it down in the middle of the night. That was in 1987, so you see how far back some of the work in the book goes!

TKS: What do you have in the works right now?

HM: I’ve been working on a series of little poems that appear to be set in an Eastern European country in the midst of war, perhaps in the early part of the last century or a little before.

I say appear to be because I’ve taken the material as it comes to me and can’t be certain about it. They’re snapshots of people’s lives.

TKS: Are you teaching right now? Do you teach/have you taught poetry?

HM: I teach poetry at the New York Writers Workshop at the Jewish Community Center in Manhattan. I also teach “Foundations of the Creative Process,” which is the introductory class for creative writing majors, at New York University’s McGhee Division.

There is a lot of germination and cross-fertilization between writing and teaching. They are similar in the way they engage all my faculties so deeply. And there is also the fact that I make up exercises for each class that may work for me as well as the students. One can’t always predict how that will happen. Recently, finding ourselves in a nursery school room at the JCC (we often get placed there and I like the atmosphere!), we noticed a set of beautiful blocks. I decided to drop the exercise I had planned and instead we intuitively built together what turned out to be a strange surreal city and used that to write from. The students wrote wonderful pieces. Usually I don’t write with them, but felt moved to that day and continued on my own after class, and did wind up with a new poem.

The exercises are to help people learn to write into the unknown. I have a knack for helping people connect to the unconscious . . . it’s what people tend to come to me for.

At NYU, working similarly, I help new writers connect to their own individual processes as writers, which means mostly, I think, learning to let go and allow the material to arise.

This past summer I taught at NYU and this fall I’ll be back at the JCC. Next June 11-18, I will be running a week-long poetry retreat at the Il Chiostro villas in Tuscany on a working farm ten minutes from Siena, an hour from Florence, and would be happy to provide details to any of your readers!

TKS: How many times do you revise a poem? How long does it take for you to bring a poem from concept to final state?

HM: Most of the work—or perhaps I should say, the hardest part of it—is getting the language onto the page. I’m always working to find ways into the unconscious, whether it’s by jotting down dreams, streams of thought, observations, taking notes from texts that interest me, stealing language from other poets or working with prompts or spurs (the poem called “The Shoes” started out with pictures of shoes cut out from a catalog; “Lullaby” started with note-taking from a field guide to the insects). At a certain point, language starts to form, as if magnetic iron filings, into a particular shape, and I see the beginning of a poem. I see correspondence between lines on different pages and sense how they might work together.

Most of the work is to get to that point. Then there is the shaping of the poem, how I want it to look on the page. And I experiment with that. But I’m not a heavy reviser in terms of the language. My sense has always been that once it’s there, it’s there.

How long does it take me? Sometimes (not usually) it can take a half hour . . . and sometimes it takes years.

You used the phrase from concept to final state. I guess it’s important to say here that I never start with a concept. The work for me is to first generate language and from that comes poems.

TKS: What do you do with poems you start but can’t seem to finish?

HM: I put them in a file folder. I have several such folders with material that I look back at from time to time.

TKS: Please give me a sentence or two addressing the significance of these recurring themes in Bright Turquoise Umbrella.

(HM responds)

animals ~ Animals are magical for me (though I didn’t spend, as Elizabeth Bishop did, a large chunk of my childhood in the country). Also, the first section of the book is written from a child’s perspective. Small children often feel more connected to animals than to adults, especially parents, whose behavior can seem inexplicable and frightening.

leaves/sun ~ Leaves, wind, the sun, the ocean, all the elements play a crucial role in the story. This is surprising in that I made a decision early on not to try to write about nature because I couldn’t without becoming sentimental. Looking back now, I see how important the elements are in the book, in the child’s life, as solace and companions, but they snuck in without my realizing it.

fruit ~ Yes, food often appears in my poems . . . and fruit—peaches, apples, strawberries, oranges. Certainly this has something to do with nourishment of various kinds—spiritual and emotional—though I’m loathe to overinterpret. I like the objects to be just what they are in themselves, in their full and simple beauty.

parents ~ See above (in animals)

shame ~ In the story one knows there is something hidden, for the most part not directly addressed. I would argue, though, that it is a complex of very strong emotions that’s under the surface of which shame is just one piece.

TKS: Describe your experience working with Tupelo Press, from your initial submission to them to the final product.

HM: I was elated (needless to say!) when I got word in 2002 that Tupelo Press would publish Bright Turquoise Umbrella. I’d sent the manuscript some months before, having just added the fourth section (the first versions of the manuscript included only the first three sections). The press, with its strong, varied and unusual voices, felt like a very good fit for my work, and I was thrilled with how beautiful the books were. The book was slated for publication in spring 2004.

I’ve learned so much. A lot of the work for me was finding ways to talk about Bright Turquoise Umbrella, to be used in both publicity and sales, not something I’ve had to think about before, but obviously crucial for a book. It was a good process, including weekends of holing up in my apartment with pad and pen and brainstorming and scribbling.. This was important, that I could begin to see the work objectively, to present it as something separate from me to help give it a life in the world. (Maybe the analogy has been overdone, but I wondered if it was something like learning to let go of your grown-up children.)

A friend had proposed the title “Bright Turquoise Umbrella” and I liked it. It’s a strong visual image; it’s the title of a poem in the second section which draws together a number of the key images and themes: animals, food, the ocean, the body, an unexpected meeting. And there’s a vividness in the poem that I like. So it was a strong contender for a cover image. But what the Tupelo artist did with it is much more interesting than what I was thinking, a kind of shimmering coming-up-off-the-page quality that I just love. And with the umbrella (a beach umbrella) seeming to be coming right out of the water . . .

TKS: I find it interesting that some of your poems are quiet, crystalline moments with little implicit movement, and yet they leave readers buzzing with an unspoken tension. I think of poetry instructors who are constantly advocating the need for an axis, transition, nucleus or other apparent change in a a poem in order to give it movement. You seem to break these rules well. How do you do it, or are you aware you are doing it at all?

HM: Many of the poems are generated by a movement inward. It’s a quiet movement, but it has its own dynamism, and I think the dynamism is connected to the questions that are implicit. I’m not interested in tying things up but in presenting moments of awareness, of complex feeling.

TKS: Your work is a good example, at least to me, of free verse with form imposed upon it. There are single lines that stand alone purposefully, there are small prose poems that are stitched together to make a single poem. And there are surprising line breaks, enjambments and breaks between stanzas. People tend to think that free verse is free of form, but your efforts make it clear that conscious decisions about form are a large part of your creative effort. How do you arrive at these decisions of form?

HM: I am the most extreme practitioner of organic form I know. The form always comes from the material. As I work on a poem, I begin to see or hear it in a particular way—short, fragmented lines in a jagged landscape, or prose paragraphs, or breath-y with lots of space between the lines. The form comes from what the language suggests to me . . . what I think will best support the sense or feeling quality of the poem or the line. So in that sense, form is not at all imposed.

TKS: Stylistically, I notice a natural, conversational repetition to your lines, it’s almost like I am reading the transcript of a confessional with a hypnotherapist. This, to me, is one of the strengths of your work, this ability to use “comfortable” language to discuss “uncomfortable” subjects. Any comments?

HM: I’ve always been drawn as a writer to simpler language. I would like as few impediments as possible between me and the reader. I want to draw readers in. I want to speak plainly.

TKS: I know your work is described as childlike, and while I understand that observation, I wonder if it’s too simplistic. Do you agree with that observation?

HM: The poems in the first section of Bright Turquoise Umbrella are written to reveal the world from a child’s eyes, which see things afresh and, in this account at least, apprehend the mystical connections between things.

But, of course, I’m also telling the story, even as the child grows up, from the viewpoint of the unconscious, as if the self of dreams were telling the story, and that is something that children are closer to than most adults. It has its own particular wisdom that transcends the intelligence of the rational world.

TKS: I think the attention you pay to spareness in language, the inclusion of surprising juxtapositions and folktale-like conventions are not coincidental. How much of this is simply what has evolved naturally from writing and how much of it is your purposeful consciousness about and use of language?

HM: I grew up reading fairy tales, and those structures became part of me. The spareness has to do with leaving space for the reader to enter. I like that kind of address to the reader. And that’s related to my predilection for surprising leaps. I leave out a lot. I like the reader to jump the abyss with me.

TKS: Your poems “breathe” a lot of unspoken subtext. For some readers more naturally inclined to the concrete and accessible, your poems might be a challenge. What is the communicative relationship between a poet and her reader, to you?

HM: As a writer, I’m most interested in the nonrational levels of experience. It is true that people who attempt to parse the poems intellectually are stymied. But the poems aren’t meant to be experienced that way. What I want to do is work viscerally, to find a way to glimpse what is underneath. I’m thinking now of what Don Juan in my dog-eared copy of Journey to Ixtlan referred to as “this awesome mysterious world.” I want to give myself and perhaps my readers a glimpse of that.

TKS: What is your own definition of magical realism?

HM: I think of Lorca’s concept of the duende . . . his quoting Manuel Torres as saying “all that has dark sounds has duende,” and of this notion I have that García Márquez taps into the earth’s unconscious to reveal its inner workings.

TKS: What magical realist writers do you admire most?

HM: García Márquez and Lorca are my guys.

TKS: Do you consider your work magical realism?

HM: A teacher once said I have the ability to dramatize the unconscious. Surrealism and magical realism both draw on the unconscious and I feel connections with both, though I draw on many sources and writers who are not of either school. I think of surrealism as a cerebral counterpoint to magical realism’s earthiness.

TKS: Some people think it’s a bit of a stretch to include poetry under the aegis of magical realism. Your thoughts?

HM: Think of Robert Bly’s book, Leaping Poetry, where he talks about poets like Lorca and Vallejo and their ability to take “a leap from the known part of the mind to the unknown part and back to the known.” I think that is very much the grounding of magical realist writing.

TKS: The subject of abuse is a consistent thread throughout your book. How does using the magical realist perspective help your process of discussing what is generally a subject matter outside many readers’ comfort zones? Some readers might even question whether choosing to render the subject in such a charmed, extraordinary way might be a kind of unnecessary emotional scaffolding. Your thoughts?

HM: The way I’ve written these poems is the way I’m given to write. I’m most interested in exploring awareness from perspectives other than the rational and the purely sensory (though the sensory has its own magic; there is overlap). In this book especially, I was interested in the ways the unconscious makes sense of and transforms experience. It wouldn’t have made sense to write it any other way.

READ three poems by Hermine Meinhard

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