Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The Writer's Notebook featuring Marjorie Manwaring

Thank you, Crab Creek Review editors, for asking me to participate in the Writer’s Notebook.

I wrote the first draft of the poem “You Ask About the Letting Go” over six years ago, worked on revisions for about a year, and then, in frustration, let it lie fallow for about 3-1/2 years. I wasn’t sure it was ever going to go anywhere. Then I started working on it again last year while at a residency at the Whiteley Center. I think the long period of time away from the piece was helpful; it provided me with a certain detachment I hadn’t had before and allowed me to go in and make some “surgical” changes that were needed.

I hadn’t looked at old versions of the poem in some time. But because I’m a pack rat—computer-wise and otherwise (though I’m trying to change my ways!) I had copies of every draft on my hard disk, the earlier ones transferred over from a long since departed computer, and with a few mouse clicks I had the history of the poem before me. (I save a poem with a new version number each time I make substantial changes to it. I find that makes it easier for me to take risks in revisions, because I can “always go back to the way it was.”)

It surprised me that the first line of the poem as it stands now was unchanged from the 2002 version. Early first lines are often “throw-aways” for me—just placeholders that allow me get to where I really want to be. I suspect the line in this poem might have been one of those rare ones that floats into my head unexpectedly and becomes a kind of obsession.

I was in graduate school in 2002 and had been immersing myself in the work of H.D. (Hilda Doolittle). I had originally been attracted to her because of her early poems like “Sea Rose” and “Garden.” I soon realized that while her Imagist work was what she was most known for (“Oread” is her most anthologized poem), her life’s work went way beyond the “no excesses” mantra of Imagism and was informed by her fascination with, among other things, alchemy, mythology, psychoanalysis (she was actually a patient of Sigmund Freud!), and the “re-visioning” of myths and religious stories (“Helen” and the long poem Trilogy are two examples). Friends described H.D. as intense and prone to trances, and she details some of these experiences in Notes on Thoughts and Vision. H.D. was able to access liminal states, what I’ve also seen referred to as “borderlines,” “the wild zone, and “the marginal world.” She once wrote in a letter, “I seem a very between-worlds person.” (Friedman, Penelope’s Web)

I think it’s likely that this notion of “in-between states” influenced “You Ask About the Letting Go.” I like to think that maybe some of the “re-visioning” I’d seen in the writings of H.D. and other poets like Adrienne Rich, Hélène Cixous, and Anne Carson may have influenced how I went about tackling the subject matter of the poem—I knew the scene I wanted to set the poem in, but I didn’t want the voice to be the expected voice.

In terms of the poem’s form, my comfort zone was narrative poetry, but I was reading poets who were writing in fragments, whose words carried mystery and gained cumulative associations when used in circular and repetitive ways. My hope is that some of what was intriguing and pleasurable to me in reading those works managed to find its way into this poem.

Friedman, Susan Stanford. Penelope’s Web: Gender, Modernity, H.D.’s Fiction. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 1990.

Web sites:
www.mmanwaring.com (includes information on how to get a copy of Marjorie’s chapbook Magic Word)

www.dmqreview.com (the DMQ Review, an online poetry and art journal)


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