Relationscape: A Conversation between Maya Jewell Zeller and Laura Read

In the autumn, we asked two poets, Maya Jewell Zeller and Laura Read, to discuss the role that natural and urban landscapes play in their work. 

Maya: My work is certainly intertwined with landscape, so much so that long before graduate school, when I was a complete amateur, writing about trees and rivers and using a lot of geology images in my poems, my friend Rachel Mehl (with whom I have regularly traded work over the years) gave me a challenge: she said I had to write some poems which had no nature in them. Her aim was a good one–to get me not to use the natural world as a crutch in my poems, to make it work as an image or vehicle rather than only as a subject. I can’t remember what poems resulted from the exercise, but I have never let the point of it go. I always check my work to see why I’m using the natural image: is it because it’s “pretty,” and an easy fallback; is it the subject, and if so, why; or is it just a default? These are good questions to ask myself during the revision process.

That said, landscape forms the foundation of my work because it forms a kind of foundation for my interest in the world. For example, when I visit a place, I’m not concerned so much with the city culture as I am with what the land is doing, less intrigued with the people than I am with what kinds of plants are native to the area. That’s not to say the culture and people aren’t important. It’s just that in order to understand those things, I have to first know the land. You see that in my earlier work especially–a study of the natural cycles of the earth, and a progression to how those processes help a person understand her own body, and then her relationships with others.

Laura: Unlike Maya, I do not love “nature”. I mean, I think it’s pretty, but I prefer to look at it through a window! My mom used to pay me a nickel for each time I rode my bike around the block just so I would stop reading and go outside. And I don’t think I or my work inhabits an urban landscape really either as I don’t think of Spokane as “urban,” though I suppose it is. But I have noticed that many of my poems have place names as titles (this is linked to another personal struggle of mine–the title!). For example, the poems in my chapbook, The Chewbacca on Hollywood Boulevard Reminds Me of You, often refer to specific places in Spokane. In my longer manuscript, I have one poem called “Wyoming,” one called “In Paris Women Walk in the Dark,” and another “We Move to a House Where He Never Lived.” So these poems are about places I was going, houses I remember, the way I felt in these places, and the way these places now seem to contain those feelings and those times. So if I think of landscape as place, I would say I am greatly influenced by it. I love to find poems by going back to places I haven’t been to in a long time. It’s like hearing a forgotten song on the radio.

Maya: I think when Northwest poets are asked about landscape and place, it’s hard not to think of Richard Hugo and his Triggering Towns, of Gary Snyder and that whole group. Maybe that’s where you stumble, Laura. But you’re right–your poems in Chewbacca certainly have a “home” in Spokane, and Washington state at large. I think of the poem “Menlo,” in which the speaker dreams of leaving her relationscape (I just made that word up; it’s a combination of relationship and landscape; it’s a noun which means “the location where a relationship takes place, and which defines the relationship in terms of its past norms”–according to that definition, leaving a relationscape could also mean re-defining the relationship. This is exactly what the speaker aims to do in her new location). Taking her lover with her to Menlo for her job interview, where they would invent new lives–she teaching “in the school with the desks/swept back for summer,” he “spend[ing]/ lunches frying up fish,” the speaker hopes that she and her boyfriend can become different people, that their relationship might survive in default (6-7, 18-19). But the hollow images of the place confirm what she already knows. Your poem closes on images of the forest trees “cropped like cancered/ heads. . . leaves/ shaking, their eyes full of owls” (31-32, 35-36). The landscape in the end reveals the speaker’s internal state, and confirms her own wisdom: the relationship is doomed. So you may not be reveling in the natural world, or even in “place,” but you’re certainly using it as a tool to explore human connection and disconnection.

Laura: I like your new word, Maya! And I really like your interpretation of my poem. I didn’t understand it as well until you articulated it, and this surprised me–I never quite believed it when I heard writers say that they didn’t know what their poems or their characters were doing. And your observations on landscape seem true of your work as well. One of my favorite poems from your book Rust Fish is “Clarissa.” This poem references landscape, but as its title announces, it is actually a portrait of a person, and the landscape is what characterizes her–“At Clarissa’s the potbellied pigs were pets, / cradled or ridden by toddlers.” And there’s a chicken in the kitchen and the porch is “mossy,” so damp it blends with the water. There’s a blurring between the land and the house, and Clarissa seems to be between them as well. Then at the end, when it floods, and Clarissa watches “the sofa / she’d been born on” float by, you see how the natural world has overpowered this other landscape, how fragile her home was, how easily destroyed. The last two lines create such a great image: “A raccoon was sort of stuck on it, she said. / It was the strangest thing I ever saw.” I read this as nature attaching itself to the human, an animal in the very place she was born. And I think this is about poverty too, from the details of the house and the couch, and to me this suggests how much less protected the poor are from the violence of nature and even from its dirt, as the first line establishes: “Mean boys teased Clarissa for her smell.” So I guess in your work, or at least in this poem in particular, landscape is a mirror for the people who live there. I think Clarissa is the raccoon, the pig, the chicken, just like the porch is also the water. But maybe this isn’t what you meant? I guess my response is two-pronged: I’m talking about landscape but also about authorial intention and reader response.

In rereading your manuscript, I see that landscape is a unifying element. What other themes hold the collection together. I’m very interested in Robert Frost’s idea of the collection itself working as a poem.

Maya: You mention an important distinction, Laura: authorial intention and reader response. In the poem “Clarissa,” which you explicate nicely, you’re right: I think of landscape as not just a mirror for the characters, but as a house. What I mean to say is that it doesn’t just reflect, or take on a projection. Instead, as you point out, there is a blurring of the domestic and wild, as the flood waters and floating trees come onto the deck, and the chicken walks around the kitchen. This kind of nature-and-human-dwelling-intertwining happens in a lot of work I admire, too; I think of Melissa Kwasny especially, in her collection Thistle, or even in the novel Housekeeping, by Marilynne Robinson.  There is a connection between the processes of earth and humans, and it’s not perceived so much as violence by the characters in the poems and the novel, but more as restructuring. It’s interesting, though, that you would say the poor are less “protected.” That’s true when you view the situation through the lens of a civilized world, but if you look at it, say, through the eyes of Ruth’s aunt Sylvie in Housekeeping, it’s not about being protected from nature (though it would be very easy to argue that the children need protection). She’d worry more about being consumed by society. Anyway, I’m not trying to wax all literary-critic on you. I just meant to say that the authorial intent and the reader response is key, and that I’m glad you brought it up.

And you also bring up the idea of making a poetry book collection function “as a poem.” I think this is related, because it furthers the idea of authorial intent. As poets, we don’t always think like novelists. We aren’t necessarily setting out any kind of plot line or developing a character so we can have that person overcome internal and external struggles. But a lot of these things happen in collections of poetry, anyway, especially those which are trying to establish what we call narrative arc. And it seems like this is getting more and more popular, and that it’s being acknowledged in discussion: I was reading the most recent issue of Poets& Writers the other day (Jan/Feb. 2011), in which they did their annual “debut poets roundup,” and the poet Shira Dentz was talking about how a “significant criterion for poetry books these days is that they be project-based–the poetry equivalent of a novel” (60). She goes on to say that “this is unfortunate because not everyone works like this” (60). On some level, I agree with her. If the author’s intent is to make a book-length narrative out of poems, with the whole thing becoming one continuous story, that’s great. I think readers respond well to this kind of project because we as humans love to hear a good story. We’re programmed for narrative, and we’re conditioned to it–through our popular media (television in particular) as well as through our history of orality and literacy. But a collection of poems can also have a different kind of intent, say, to lyrically celebrate or question a subject (without developing a character). It’s tricky, though, because you have to appeal on some level to an audience if you want to continue to publish. I’d say Rust Fish is somewhere between the two; it’s part lyric, part narrative. Lyric-narrative.

Your chapbook The Chewbacca on Hollywood Boulevard Reminds Me of You works like an extended narrative, with one consistent speaker throughout. But I know this is not the only way you construct your collections. Will you talk a little about how you conceive of your chapbook versus your full-length collection? Is the speaker the same; do you have similar or different goals? This is a fun thread of conversation! It’s good to talk like this, about how to conceptualize book projects.

Laura: I agree with what Shira Dentz said about how the new trend toward the narrative arc can be unfortunate because I think poets write poem by poem, and while some poems may be thematically linked, others may be less so but still belong in a collection of the poet’s work. On the other hand, as a writer, I enjoyed the narrative arc’s benefits as I was composing my chapbook because my ideas for poems came more easily and quickly. I was telling a story about a relationship, so I had several poems which established the initial attraction and then when I felt it was time to show some of the danger and pain in the relationship, a whole other set of ideas came to me. This is why I was able to write the chapbook over a series of weeks—I just kept thinking of what should come next and each small detail became its own poem. For example, I needed a poem which showed the man getting fired as a way to indicate the tone shift in the collection, and this poem is called “86” because he worked in a restaurant before he himself was 86’d. It’s a small poem about one night, about going out drinking and eating pancakes, but it also pushes the larger plot forward. I loved the constant flow of ideas I experienced when writing this because I hate it when I don’t have any ideas for poems–and when I do have ideas and no time to write—but I hate the no ideas more. I like to have a poem in my pocket, so to speak, something to chew on, a line to come back to in my mind while I’m putting the kids to bed or driving—the promise of the poem is sweet.

My longer manuscript that I’m still working on is called Instructions for My Mother’s Funeral. This book also has an arc but it was not planned ahead of time. As I began to assemble the poems I’d written the last few years, I noticed that, like many poets’ early books, there was an autobiographical and also chronological story that the poems collectively told. So I organized the sections so the first one has more poems about childhood, the second about adolescence, and the third about adulthood. And there’s a theme that many of the poems in all three sections come back to—the influence of the mother, especially in the absence of the father. Often, particularly in section 2, this connection (and disconnection) must be inferred, but I think it’s there. Or at least I hope it is! And it’s the father who has died in the book, and the mother is not dying, yet she is dying in the speaker’s psyche, or she must die for the speaker to move into adulthood—which psychologist says we have to kill our mothers? Is this Freudian? Not sure. But maybe we don’t have to kill them—just write a book of poems about them instead! 🙂

I know you’re publishing your first book this spring, Maya, and you have another one in the works. Can you talk a little about how your books are organized?

Maya: So I don’t ramble on too long, I’ll talk just about my first book, coming out April 1. Rust Fish is a version of my MFA thesis, The Rust Fish, which I completed in 2007. Since then, I’ve been tweaking the manuscript and sending it to various presses. The collection really started to coalesce in the summer of 2006 when three friends and I were finishing up a small poem critique workshop, drinking wine and talking about our thesis projects. Two of my friends had already arrived at titles for their poetry collections, and it freaked me out. I realized I needed to get serious. I went home that night, and, high on wine and good conversation, began to really conceptualize of my poetry as a cohesive body of work. At that point, I had maybe thirty pages of poems that felt right together (I later swapped out most of those first thirty pages). Having grown up in salmon country—my brother built his own smoke house, makes his own brine, catches, cuts into strips, smokes, and cans his own salmon—many of my poems already had fish in them, or at least dealt with the themes of fish, rivers, water. I began to make a list of words and themes that recurred, and finally arrived at The Rust Fish. But I had a problem: there was no title poem. For some reason, I believed at the time that I needed a title poem, so I set out to write one. I was up half the night writing poem after poem, each titled “The Rust Fish,” trying to hit on one I felt could anchor a collection. What I ended up with was five poems, each with a run-in title, each containing threads of my other poems’ themes. It occurred to me that these five poems could all be in the collection, each opening a section of the book, like little nets holding in their separate schools of fish, with the idea of the amorphous “rust fish” culling everything together. The collection really came together organically after that. Of course, I rearranged and revised it several times during that year before the defense, but ultimately, it was that night of discovering the title and subsequent wild writing which provided the basic structure for the narrative to take shape. That narrative is centered around a female speaker. Generally speaking, the book chronicles that speaker’s tentative relationship with humans versus her comfortable loyalty to the natural/animal world. Through the experiences of this girl, the reader comes to understand a parallel between femininity and nature, especially as each are exploited by humankind (if we put a critical lens on the book, I guess you could say it dallies in Ecofeminism, though as the author I’m not sure it’s my place to assign critical lenses. I certainly wasn’t thinking of criticism when I was writing the poems). In the end, the girl “grows up,” finds love, and has to in some way make her peace with being “civilized,” with living in an urban landscape with a man who grew up in a much different world. The worlds of metal and water collide–and that theme of oxidation, of things morphing, retaining something of the old and yet becoming something new, remains.

Maya Jewell Zeller grew up in rural areas of the Pacific Northwest. She has been a high school teacher, cross country and track coach, an editor, a college professor, and most recently, a mother. Maya’s book, Rust Fish, is due out in April 2011 from Lost Horse Press. Individual poems have won awards from The Florida Review and Crab Orchard Review, and can be found recently in Rattle, High Desert Journal, Camas, Mississippi Review, The Spoon River Poetry Review, and elsewhere. In Fall 2008, Maya was the writer-in-residence in the H.J. Andrews Experimental Forest; in summer 2010, she was an afternoon faculty member at the Port Townsend Writers’ Conference, where she will teach again in 2011. Maya lives in Spokane with her husband and daughter, and teaches English at Gonzaga University. Check out her new blog here.

Laura Read earned her M.F.A in Creative Writing from Eastern Washington University in 1997 and has been teaching composition, literature, and creative writing at Spokane Falls Community College since 1998. She currently serves as the coordinator for the Learning Communities program, as co-advisor of SFCC’s creative arts magazine, The Wire Harp, and as co-host of the Beacon Hill Reading Series, readings by local authors held at Spokane Community College.  Laura is also a practicing poet and has published her poems in a variety of journals, most recently in Rattle, The Mississippi Review, The Cincinnati Review, The Bellingham Review, and Prairie Schooner. Her chapbook, The Chewbacca on Hollywood Boulevard Reminds Me of You, won the 2010 Floating Bridge Press Chapbook Award, and her collection of poems, Instructions for My Mother’s Funeral, is a finalist for the 2011 Kathryn A. Morton Prize in Poetry from Sarabande Books and was third runner-up for the 2011 A. Poulin Jr. Poetry Prize from Boa Press.

Both poets will be teaching afternoon workshops as part of the 2011 Port Townsend Writers’ Conference.