Poets Online Talking About Coffee: Maryann Corbett

How is the coffee in St. Paul?

I might be the last person you should ask about St. Paul coffee in general. On an ordinary day I make do with drip Folger’s at home and distilled sludge at the office. The two coffeehouses nearest home, Trotter’s and Kopplin’s, serve lovely lattes and cappuccinos with charming barista art, but for me their chief usefulness isn’t coffee and pastry. Trotter’s is my favorite place to read, or to hear other people read. I gave my first-ever reading there in 2009, and it remains a nice glow in memory. I hope the Trotter’s reading series has a long life, even though curator Jim Rogers keeps threatening to give it a rest. Both places are superb as venues for chewing the fat with poets.

And do you ever write while at Trotter’s?

I don’t, neither at Trotter’s nor in any other coffeehouse. I know others can write in lively public places; I’ve seen people tapping away at laptops in any number of little coffee shops and pubs. Nina’s even has a sign-up sheet that asks writers to list the published books they’ve worked on there. But conversation distracts me; even music distracts me if it’s a song with lyrics in English. I’m most productive in a quiet house, making notes or stopping at the computer in the midst of mindless household puttering.

Your second collection, Credo for the Checkout Line in Winter, has a wintry theme. How much was this influenced by where you live?

To put it mildly, we have a LOT of winter here. A typical Minnesota winter might be five months long, and I am not a winter-activities fan, so for me the extra homebound time has generated quite a lot of poems. Some are about the emotional freight of the cold and dark themselves (“Confessional Work: Late Advent” and “Express”) and others are about the unending wait for something better (“Rose Catalogue in January” and “Emergences“) or the ambivalence of seasonal celebrations (“Holiday Concert”); and a few are about the surprising beauties of winter (“Northeast Digs Out…”). The weight of so much winter tends to heighten the importance of other seasonal feelings too, which is why the book’s sections are spread out across the year, and why spring, summer, and fall poems like “Airheads”, “Mayday“, “Late Season Day Trip,” and “Chiller” are as important as the winter poems.

But winter does take up a lot of my head space, and even my new book, Mid Evil, which has a very different focus, includes a winter-focused rant.

And what is the focus of Mid Evil?

The title is a two-pronged allusion. It points to the medieval poetry I concentrated on in graduate school and once hoped to teach, and it hints at the phrase “amid evil,” which is the way all of us live, the dark wood we have to find a way through. The poems in the book converse with older literature and with modern riffs on it, like the Tolkien phenomenon. They also talk about ancient and modern ideas about God and nature, and they grapple with problems like ageing, inequality, death and doubt. Mixed in with my own poems are a few translations from Old English, Middle French, and Medieval Latin.

 I’m guessing there are few mentions of coffee in the translations.

Good guess. There’s no coffee there, but there’s a lot that’s surprisingly contemporary, or perhaps I should say timeless. For example, there’s this Old English riddle from the Exeter Book, which might be about an onion, and might be about something else. And another of the riddles is one I felt I had to translate in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.

The Middle French poems are a woman’s take on marriages, good and bad, and the Latin is a lament for the loss of one of the beauties of nature, a bird’s song.

 Was Tolkien an influence?

Yes, along with other influences. His books nudged me in the direction of wanting to study the literature that lay behind them, but they weren’t the only things pushing in that direction. In the Catholic schools of my childhood, there was a nostalgia for medievalia, and that was certainly part of the push, though I didn’t know the extent of it until much later. But the main influence was simply falling in love with the old music of the four-stress alliterative line, the meter of Old English. Not much modern poetry is written in that meter, but I’m fond of it and use it often, not just for translations. I guess an example is in order.

The medial caesuras must make for interesting readings. (As in, out loud.)

I don’t know how other people handle them in reading, but I don’t pause. The alliteration in these lines goes along with the stressed words, and those two together do all the work. The forward motion, the swing of it, is what I love.

 What do you know about the provenance of these medieval poems? How were they recorded?

Everything we know about these poems we know because of manuscript copies. Many of the Old English poems have come down to us in exactly one copy, and that’s true of the riddles I translate; they’re from the Exeter Book, a tenth-century manuscript that preserves the only copies of many of the best-known Old English poems. The poems in Middle French were written by Christine de Pizan in the late fourteenth century. She was one of the most distinguished writers of the period, and many beautifully made copies of her books have survived. In Mid Evil, I’ve translated two poems from her book One Hundred Ballades.

It’s amazing to me that it’s now possible for anyone to see images of these books online, with a few clicks of a mouse. Not many years ago, only specialists ever saw such books. One had to travel to spend precious hours with a manuscript, or arrange to purchase a microfilm copy from a research library and then spend days bent over a microfilm reader. Working with the manuscript itself in a rare book room was, and still is, quite a ritual. There’s a poem in the new book about my one experience of that.

Have you experimented with translating your contemporary poems into Old English?

It hadn’t occurred to me. And the audience would be very small, since no one is growing up as a native speaker of Old English these days. (I hope you can hear the smile in that last sentence.)

The things I do like to experiment with are all the kinds of poetic form in modern English. Like a lot of formal poets, I probably breathe iambic pentameter, so I try to get away from it every so often. I enjoy using unusual ancient meters like sapphics or classical hexameters, and I like to try newly invented forms like the fib, a counted-syllable pattern.

Like your poem “Fibs for a Construction Zone“, recently published in Berfrois. I think that poem would genuinely sound great read over a hip-hop beat.

That’s an interesting idea, though it ought to be read by someone who really understands hip-hop.

I think in my heart I believe in the page, or the screen, more deeply than I believe in oral performance. Of course I give readings—we all have to–and I love recording, and I try to make the recordings and the performances the best they can be. I’m lucky in this, because my husband is an enthusiastic amateur sound man and has some good equipment, and he’s very generous about helping me record (and lecturing me about my mic technique). But there are things only the page can do, even if a poem is formatted simply. The page is better at conveying line breaks, or rhymes that are far apart or that don’t chime strongly. Lines in syllabics and lines that are heavily enjambed are a lot easier to understand as lines when they come in via the eye rather than the ear. The page gives you a second chance at “hearing,” and many more second chances. I know this is an uncool opinion, so I like remembering that Larkin shared it.

 And Larkin, of course, was the coolest librarian of them all.

And by all the accounts I’ve read, he was good at what he did. I, being an indexing manager as part of the day job, honor and bow to librarians. But Larkin is a model in another important way, besides having written poems that will last. He seems to have made peace with fitting his writing into the margins of his nine-to-five life, which is what most of us have to do. He wasn’t thrilled about it (unlike Wallace Stevens, for example, who apparently liked his prestigious position at The Hartford). Larkin wrote tellingly about his frustrations in the poem “Toads,” lamenting that he wasn’t “courageous enough/ To shout, Stuff your pension!” It’s interesting to me that he also pointed to the pension, in his Paris Review interview, as a reason for continuing in the library job even when he had reached the point of being able to support himself by poetry, fairly late in his life. But in the same poem, he faced up to the “something sufficiently toadlike” in all of us who would like to have both security and freedom and who have to find a balance.

Of course what Larkin left out of that balance was family. I think most of us would rather not leave that out. It was my excuse for not writing at all for thirty years, with the result that I’m now trying to make up for lost time.

 But you do have thirty years of material, as it were.

More, actually. The missing thirty years are my grown-up life, and there are childhood experiences still to be mined, which I’ve begun to do in Mid Evil. I see those experiences differently now that I’ve passed through the years of actively mothering. The passage from that intensity of parenting to children’s independence prompted a big piece of my first book, Breath Control. I started writing again in the process of navigating that passage; I’ve written about that, and about how much I owe to fellow poet Anna George Meek, in this essay. My father’s decline and death from Alzheimer’s, my sister’s death from cancer, and my mother’s toll of losses leading up to her death have all triggered poems that stretched across the first two books. The third book, as I’ve said, is organized around older literature and what its study has meant to me. Going forward, I’ve been trying to open out, to concentrate less on the emotional hothouse of family and more on the larger world. But the two are never truly disentangled.

 

Maryann Corbett is the author of three books of poetry and two chapbooks. Her most recent book, Mid Evil, won the Richard Wilbur Award and is just out from the University of Evansville Press. Her work has appeared in a range of anthologies from the randy Hot Sonnets to the reverent Imago Dei, and in a like range of journals including both Christianity and Literature and The Shit Creek Review. Her poems have been featured on Poetry Daily, Verse Daily, The Writer's Almanac, and American Life in Poetry. Recent work appears in Barrow Street, Rattle, Think Journal, and Southwest Review and is forthcoming in Asheville Poetry Review, among others. Her web site is at maryanncorbett.com.

 

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