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Coming Into Language: An Interview with Margaret Ray

There’s a lot of moving between past & present in this book, and a lot of talking to or talking for things that can’t talk back (a “younger self,” “Sweet fears,” etc.) What role do you see those voices playing in this collection?

I wrote about this a bit (about my poem “Reader, I Married Him”) for Poetry Society of America’s “In Their Own Words” series… one of the hardest things for me, sometimes, is to extend compassion to my past self, to that younger version of me I usually think of as incredibly foolish, or preoccupied with all the wrong things, especially things I just unthinkingly absorbed from the version of the world I grew up in. Now I have some language for what I didn’t see or could only (sometimes) instinctually feel back then, so some of these poems are acts of both seeing and language-ing those things I couldn't see or didn’t have words for (and therefore couldn’t quite make out in the fog of youth) at the time.
And of course thinking this way informs my constant worries as I move about the world: what can’t I see NOW that I’ll find ways to be ashamed of in the future, or wish I had been able to tell this version of myself?
On anxiety and shame which come up a lot here in the conversational poems: I tend to wear my anxiety as a kind of talisman, though I know intellectually that’s not how it works. My anxiety likes to whisper to me that it can keep me and my loved ones safe: if I just worry enough about something, maybe I can prevent it, it says. I finally realized I needed a poem addressing my fears and worries (“Along for the Ride”), to tell them it’s ok, I know they’re trying to protect me, but they can let me move a little further away from them… I do a lot of talking in my head (which is exhausting, but I don’t know how else to be!), having whole conversations with myself or imagined versions of other people, so these poems came out of those voices.

How do you see the “Wanda” poems working across the book?

The Wanda poems came about for several reasons… The very last poem in the book (“At a Distance”) is one of the first of these poems I wrote, at the Kenyon Review Writers’ Workshop, in response to a wonderful prompt from the poet Linda Gregerson. For a long time, it was alone in the manuscript, and always felt like a one-off; I was worried for a while I might have to cut it. But the more I worked on this collection, the heavier it got with various forms of grief. At some point, I realized that that weird one-off poem in third person about this character named Wanda could be the doorway through which I could let some joy and wonder back into the collection. I knew I wanted a tonal or emotional counterweight, and then I remembered Wanda was already here. She is, at worst, a kind of aspirational alter-ego, at best, an invented 21st century patron saint of curiosity and wonder.

There are some other trains of thought or patterns in this book, too. Could you talk about the meat / fruit / knives?

Probably because I didn’t spend too much time thinking about it before, embarrassingly, I didn’t realize until I was well into adulthood that the Garden of Eden myth is a metaphor for growing up or coming into language. So that is the train of thought that brings a lot of the fruit and garden imagery into the poems, especially around the poems of divorce or some kind of new understanding about the world. The knives are a way to fight back against the idea of a “mean world” (“mean world” is a term from media-studies that describes the worldview someone who watched, for example, too much Law and Order could develop: the idea that stranger danger is everywhere, etc. etc.). I think the kitchen knife is a beautiful object precisely because it is a tool of making and creation in cooking (which I love to do), especially in ways that are also acts of care for loved ones. But obviously knives are also incredibly dangerous if used inexpertly or maliciously. But there’s so much in the world like that: too much of a thing or that thing used in bad faith, you get damage….but just the right amount or used in the right way, you get creation or care, evidence of love for other people and love for the world.

What are some books that really informed your thinking and writing in Good Grief, the Ground?

I could list books that I re-read for a long time, but I’ll try to keep this list to books that either thematically or formally or in some other intangible way inspired some of the poems in this book because I was reading or revisiting them while I did much of the writingthere’s a little fiction in here too, since I read even more fiction than I do poetry. I’ll give you a narrowed-down list of 20…

  • Diane Seuss’s Four Legged Girl, Still Life with Two Dead Peacocks and a Girl, and Frank: Sonnets
  • Vievee Francis’s Forest Primeval
  • Jennifer Chang’s Some Say the Lark
  • Ross Gay’s Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude
  • Ada Limón’s The Carrying
  • Natalie Shapero’s Popular Longing
  • Carrie Fountian’s Burn Lake and The Life
  • Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems
  • Louise Glück’s Poems 1962-2012
  • Traci Brimhall’s Come Slumberless to the Land of Nod
  • Marianne Moore’s Complete Poems
  • Gwendelyn Brooks’ Selected Poems
  • Carl Phillips’ Wild is the Wind
  • Brenda Shaughnessy’s So Much Synth
  • Dorianne Laux’s Only as the Day is Long
  • Mary Ruefle’s Madness, Rack, and Honey
  • Alexandra Kleeman’s You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine
  • Iris Murdoch’s Under the Net
  • Helen De Witt’s The Last Samurai
  • Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels
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