Wendy Cannella: This Fierce Life:
An Interview with Laura McCullough
WC: In his article “Ode to Joisey” (New York Times: April 27, 2003), Robert Strauss talks about the great many accomplished poets to emerge from the Garden State. I wonder what it is about New Jersey that breeds poetry, or maybe even embodies it. Much of your work seems to try to get at the heart of this place. Are you Jersey born and raised?
LM: I was born in Jersey City, in the Margaret Hague, the women’s hospital that the infamous Irish Mayor Hague built, grew up in suburbia, a little town called Colonia, not too far from Perth Amboy, and my family would drive to the wooded parts north many weekends when I was a child. Big old station wagon; parents smoking in the front; 70s music blaring from the radio; us kids bouncing around in what we called ‘the way back,’ the big open luggage area of a wagon. My dad called this vehicle “The Big Bird.” I hate high speed driving, but I have to say, as a child driving on the Garden State Parkway with my family, I loved it, imagining all kinds of people living in the woods and hollows, imagining myself camping out there in the strange wilderness of it. I spent a long time in the Pine Barrens, and I love the strange sweet tannin smell of the Piney woods at dusk. A very special unique scent. I have nostalgic feelings for the area. I now live in central Jersey at the top of The Jersey Shore. It’s Bruce Springsteen land. Not far from Asbury Park. My heart breaks here regularly.
WC: Breaks over the unlikely beauty of the place? I’m thinking of William Carlos Williams’ poem “Between Walls” and how, in an alley “where nothing will grow” he discovers the fragments of a broken green bottle shining there.
LM: That’s such potent image, isn’t it? And yes, there is unlikely beauty here, as there is, if we look sideways, everywhere, I think. The ruins of Asbury Park, as I’ve written about in JERSEY MERCY in a number of poems, are very beautiful for example; the natural and human made oddities of the wrack line, trash, the lost or discarded; lonely train tracks on a foggy mornings. There is so much about the place but it’s not what breaks my heart. People do. Faces. Longing, hope, despair, so many conditions seem to roll off people palpably. Like contrails of emotion. And I literally broke my heart here, having had a heart attack this October. I think my heart cracked open from several years of grief and loss around me. That’s bled into the poems certainly. My new manuscript, FEED, deals with grief very directly.
WC: What strikes me about your work is its capacity to identify those ‘contrails of emotion.’ Your poems often deeply envision scenes in the lives of others—Mark Doty calls it your “psychic hidden camera.” How do you find your way into these viewpoints?
LM: Mark Doty is one of the most empathic poets writing today, his work full of both self-compassion and deep regard for others in all of our broken glory. He consistently reinvents himself as a poet, too. Which is all to avoid answering this question, as I am not sure how to. I observe, listen, feel very intently and always have. Half my life’s riches have been because of this. The other half—grief, sorrow—has been because of this. I am only learning now how to not let every stray emotion of others’ enter me. Everyone’s life seems a compressed container of conflicting urges, contingencies, desires, drives, the ever playing loops of our existential wounds and the complexes we develop in response to them, the gradual, if we are lucky, movement toward stepping out of these karmic gerbil spinning wheels toward something like grace. That brings me back to Mark Doty, who I think is a writer who embodies this struggle in his work and in his life. In my own, I am simply trying to know what I can know, forgive what I should, forbear what I must, serve as I can. My poems are a practice in this larger effort.
WC: There are places in your latest book, Jersey Mercy, where I need to fire up my Urban Dictionary, is your poetic language a kind of overheard speech or an invented music?
LM: Oh, that excites me some. It makes me hope I channeled some of the real language of real people in one place on the planet. Maybe. I have always loved language issues: speech acts, jargon, dialects, idiom, slang. I hear them as music. And music was a big part of this book, and the development of music and multimedia components as companions to some of these poems is in the works now.
WC: That music seems like a life support for Mercy, the ‘main character’ in the collection. There is a kind of joie de vivre that resonates from her in even the most ragged of situations. Who is she?
LM: Mercy represents both something of my girlhood and something of many of the young women here within twenty miles, who don’t come from the moneyed class, who want to make something of their lives, who feel driven by passion and both internal and external music, and yet face great barriers—partly in themselves and partly from the culture and class and lack of opportunity. I love Mercy and her hopes and fears. I love the relationship between grace and mercy. I love the music and arts scene here.
WC: What does life look like after Jersey Mercy?
LM: Well, there are some events being planned for Jersey Mercy as fundraisers for Light of Day Foundation, which raises money for research into Parkinsons and ALS, and so I hope JM’s life morphs into something else. It is an homage to this place I call home.
WC: Where is your new work headed?
LM: I have just finished a full length manuscript called FEED about my mother’s sudden death and the rocking of long term marriage, and I’m working on a collection called FALLEN KINGDOMS which is also about the upending of marriage. I am married and raising children with another poet, and two artists struggling to become ourselves and manifest our singular voices as writers has been both nourishing and also quite painful at times. I recently had a heart attack, a mild one, which is clearly a somatic metaphor for dealing with a broken heart. In FALLEN KINGDOMS I am trying to enact what I am learning about the ways we persevere, change, stand in, and grow inside of suffering. I’ve been working on a memoir for a few years, which keeps taking different form—write 50k words, ditch 25k; write another 40k, ditch 30k—that sort of thing. It’s finally finding its concern and is called MY LIFE IN OTHER PEOPLE’S CLOTHES. It uses thrift stores and off the grid shopping as the backdrop for a lot of the essay/chapters, but it is really about empathy and also about finding one’s essential self. Finally, I have recently completed a novel, GLASS & SLEEP, a contemporary revisioning of Somerset Maughm’s THE PAINTED VEIL, but set in Atlantic City and Taiwan. The main character is a cocktail waitress.
WC: Were you ever a cocktail waitress yourself?
LM: I was a telemarketer, a McDonald’s cashier, a short order cook, a Dunkin’ Donuts waitress, and a bank teller before getting a job as a server in the Ram’s Head Inn outside Atlantic City during college. I was not pretty enough or thin enough to be a cocktail waitress in the casinos though one particularly poor winter, when I lived without heat, I had an opportunity to audition as a stripper/dancer. I got as far as the corner before turning around. I was hungry and cold most of that winter, but it was an important choice as my life might have gone very differently. Later in life, I was a management specialist and budget analyst for Atlantic County Government. I also ran a small hobby organic farm and raised endangered breeds of domestic farm animals with my husband, the writer Michael Broek. I spent one summer learning how to plow behind a draft horse. It was a powerful experience. Every job I have ever had taught me something. I got fired, for example, from the bank teller job for talking too long to the old people who came in. I wasn’t cut out for ignoring people. I loved them, and they wanted so much to chat. I was a bad, bad teller. Worst short order cook ever.
WC: So much heartache and grief informs your new work. You once wrote that Stephen Dunn’s poems ‘storify the familial landscape.’ Is that what you hope to do in your own writing, create ‘an intersection of biography and aesthetics’?
LM: No, I can’t say that. And in fact, a lot of my work concerns the intersection of the personal and the global–science, economics, linguistics. I tend to think in analogs, which isn’t precisely about metaphor, but may be metaphoric in affect. This is to this, as that is to that is really my dominant perceptual mode. In FEED, the new manuscript, I work with the analogy form overtly, but it is a foundational aspect of how I unravel the world and move toward meaning-making. I’m working on a poem right now about phyto-remediation in urban landscapes. I’m trying to talk about marriage, but don’t know how, and marriage is boring, but the matters of what plants we love, how we write about them in different generations, which plants can be used to absorb toxins from the soil, how much a plant can bear before being poisoned itself, and what we do with chemical laden plant matter after the fact all fascinate me and seemed to be a way for me to consider long marriage and the work involved. In an unpublished manuscript that placed as a finalist in a few contests, MOLECULARITY & THE SCIENCE OF LIGHT, I was very interested in food science, chemistry, and the physics of light in relation to economics and class issues. In my book, SPEECH ACTS, I explored sensuality vis a vis linguistics. In my newest manuscript, FEED, space and time are the scientific concerns. And marine science and oceanography figure into a lot of my work. I started out in college as a marine biology major, and I’m a bit of a science geek. Cognitive science, cosmology, physics, and the ways the sciences come into confluence with philosophic and spiritual narrative and queries interests me. Hilda Raz, poet and former editor of Prairie Schooner said to me once that at least in my earlier poems, people would not realize I am an intellectual, but the relationship between the sensual and the cerebral is a part of my perceptual bent: the commingling of reason and emotion. Now, I realize I haven’t used the word aesthetics at all, though it was in your question. Each of my books is very different from the others; it may be a failing, actually, but I don’t think I have a signature aesthetic. The music of rhetorical strategies and syntactical units, cadences and percussions, sonics, and more and more, compression of images and image rhyming are aesthetic gestures. I struggle with the line and the purpose of the line: how to orchestrate rhythm, for example, without forgoing enjambed resonances, and I spend a lot of time pouring poem drafts in and out of form trying to find the suitable compression or expansions in relation to content.
WC: It sounds like you become possessed by a burning need to probe a problem and then locate the right genre for that particular exploration—be it poetry, memoir, fiction. Is that an accurate description of your creative process, or how would you describe what happens?
LM: Burning and possession seem apt, though I am sorry to admit that. I do become fixated, and ruminate a long time on things. I still struggle with manuscripts I have set aside as unsuccessful, trying to figure out a new way to cast something that still holds potency for me. Here is a very small example. I am trying to bring a new project of poems to form–meaning there are about fifty drafts that I keep revising, and none of which has been sent into the world yet. I’m getting close to having many of them done, and I know I’m close to having them done because a new phrase has entered my mind–Honey & Shark–and it comes in and out of my head dozens of times a day. I have an interest in honey, which is like wine or olive oil, cultivated, varietal, and I am following the OCEARCH tagged shark project which tracks them around the globe, and I don’t know why these two subjects go together or what they might be analogies for, but the fact that I am feeling this drive to work and to go inside and muck around in their subject areas tells me the FALLEN KINGDOMS poems are close to having fulfilled whatever they were doing for me psychically and aesthetically.
WC: Which genre was your first love?
LM: I read science fiction as a kid. Sucked it up like jello. Asimov. Pohl. Heinlein. Then in my teens, Lord of the Rings–I was such a geek, I read the series 13 times. My mom read poetry to us every night though. She loved poetry.
WC: The appearance of Jersey Mercy marks 10 years since your first collection of poems appeared. How has your work changed in that time?
LM: Wow. That’s something I didn’t realize. I have an MFA in fiction, and I have felt largely like a poetry poser. I’ve published a few dozen short stories, novel excerpts, and lyric essays, but my two novels and my memoir haven’t attracted an agent, and I seem driven to write poetry. Maybe this anniversary will allow me to claim being a poet instead of a poser.
WC: Your poems often move fast—with forward thrust and a good deal of verve. How do you keep a poem’s initial energy as you revise?
LM: Sometimes I don’t. The phyto-remediation poem I mentioned doesn’t have a single line from its original draft. It keeps morphing out of itself, shedding skin as I, hopefully, get closer to what the poem is trying to tell me. I don’t know what the music of that one will end up like at all. It’s all wonky right now.
WC: Is it important to you that you approach the page fearlessly? Are there any topics you consider off limits?
LM: Well, to be honest, I don’t really understand the question. Life is brutal and terrifying. It’s important to go to bed in the dark and be able to sleep even though you know this and to be able to get up and brave the day with the least amount of bitterness and anxiety and the most compassion and forgiveness you can. “The page” is just life, so what is “off limits” in life? I think the real issue is about audience. What can a poem bear and how to orchestrate something that renders the material that I have access to or am obsessed by in such a way that it is interesting, compelling, and or empathetically opening to a reader. The “truth” in terms of facts is often boring. It is when they are poured through the sieve of a sensibility that they become essentialized. This is what I think we love of poetry–that the poet’s mind becomes a lens through which our experience is turned into a laser, and we know something we couldn’t or didn’t until our mind (as reader) came into confluence with the mind of the writer. And truth becomes larger. So what is off limits? How can anything be off limits? For every private shame or grief we have, we come to know that sorrow is universal. And it is how we move toward adulthood, and the terrible wisdom or elderhood, something I think we are lacking actually, and sorely in need of. Those who have stood in their pain and not buckled or become embittered and still can see joy and delight–the awful beauty (because, actually, I think beauty is always likely)–the paradoxical conditionalities of our living, we need them to show us it is possible to see the broken green glass in our days.
WC: Li-Young Lee has said the minute he wakes up in the morning he begins to ‘read the world for its poetic state.’ Do you feel similarly? What rises to meet you in the world, where do you find poetry?
LM: I love that, and adore him as a poet and as a poetic being. I call this seeing sideways or getting slidey. Going horizontal, and seeing the underarchitecture of things around you, or seeing the red petticoat peeking out from beneath the skirt of the world. Thinking in analog is not exactly about thinking; it’s feeling as a verb the vibrations of people and place. A lifted plane of birds from a tree, shifting across a slab of sky, the Max Richter DVD seemingly orchestrating their flight, or the ‘knowing’ you get before the phone pings and someone you love is in your mind before they are coming through your technology. It’s the ocean as a mother, a lake as your body, the rain as despair or hope depending on the other augers of the day.
WC: Who do you live to read? What most beloved dog-eared and sun-faded book on your shelf still speaks to you?
LM: I like being in relationships with other poets and writers. One of the pleasures of teaching in the Sierra Nevada Low-residency MFA program and teaching in the South Jersey Annual Poetry and Prose conference (I’ve taught there for a dozen years, I think), actually of teaching anywhere, is being with people trying to do this work–aesthetics and perception–and talking about our strategies and obsessions. So I love actively working writers and those friendships affect my work–and there are too many to name. Right now I would say Larry Levis and Jack Gilbert hold me up a lot and also offer hope for me as a person and as a poet. And I edited an anthology of essays on Stephen Dunn, so for a very long time, his voice was the predominant one in my head. I am reading Afaa Michael Weaver. Wise and beautiful and measured.