Cate Marvin was born in Washington, DC but spent her adolescent years in Potomac, MD, where she was a consistently subpar student, and a generally miserable human being. She discovered that she did in fact enjoy learning when she began attending Marlboro College in Vermont, a small, progressive school that happily still exists in all of its original hippie splendor. After earning graduate degrees in literature and creative writing from the Universities of Houston, Iowa, and Cincinnati, she moved to New York, where she currently teaches at the College of Staten Island, CUNY.
Cate’s books include World’s Tallest Disaster and Fragment of the Head of a Queen, both published by Sarabande, and Oracle, which W.W. Norton published this spring. Her turn-ons are late nights, kissing a smoker (if he’s her boyfriend), shellfish, and recycling. Turnoffs include allergies, Lotto tickets (and especially those people who hold up the line at convenience stores to gamble), high heels, excuses, email spam, and arbitrary enjambment. She presently resides in an apartment above a ravioli factory in Maplewood, NJ, with her daughter, Lucia Drew Marvin, age six.
The Rumpus: Great guests keep this Late Nite mom-and-pop operation humming along. On that note, here to boost tonight’s Nielsen Rating is a brilliantly talented poet. I’m so grateful that she’s gracing us with her presence. Please give a warm welcome to the courageous and sassy and recently Guggenheimed Cate Marvin. Cate, come on out here!
Cate Marvin: Hey Dave. Is it okay if I call you Dave? Or do you prefer David?
Rumpus: Dave it is. Did they take care of you back in the green room, I hope? Give you some snacks?
Marvin: Plenty of libations. Do you mind if I smoke my electronic cigarette?
Rumpus: Sure, vape away. Isn’t that what the kids call it?
Marvin: It’s thanks to the e-cig that I quit a 35-year smoking habit. Yes, that’s right, Dave, I started when I was 15. I can see you’re having difficulty with the math.
Rumpus: You think I’d be doing this show if I could do math?
Marvin: Or I am… Let me check… That’s a 30-year habit.
Rumpus: Meh, screw math. You’re here to talk about Oracle, your incredible new book. How does it feel to publish a book? What does the aftermath feel like?
Marvin: You know, it takes so goddamn long to write a book that it doesn’t feel real at all once the thing comes out. It feels to me like it was almost written by a different person. And in some ways I am loath to associate myself with it.
Rumpus: Would you rather not talk about it? Hell, we can talk about something else if it suits you. Croquet. Marsupials. Recycling. Taylor Swift vs. Katy Perry. Whatever you want!
Marvin: Marsupials are fascinating. That mother pocket being pretty gross but awfully handy to the transportation of an infant.
Rumpus: Oh, I’m big into marsupials. You have no idea.
Marvin: I’m happy to talk about whatever you’d like.
Rumpus: Hey, you know what this show’s like… If we get started on the marsupial thing we’ll be here forever. This koala video is the tip of a YouTube iceberg. Let’s talk about your book.
Marvin: It seems like a lot of people think that publishing a book equals instant happiness. Like, having a sudden marsupial pocket might have made me instantly happy because I wouldn’t have needed a stroller back when I had an infant.
But it’s a strange experience to see your book separate and out in the world without you. It’s very much like having a kid who’s going around talking about you and you have no idea what he or she is saying about you. Or maybe you do know, but you’re not sure how it’s being HEARD.
Rumpus: It makes sense that the pleasure might be fleeting. Probably you wrote a lot of these poems years ago, right?
Marvin: I started writing the poems in Oracle back in 2007. I finished them in 2014. I can’t write well about any experience unless it’s very much in my rearview mirror. As such, I don’t tend to draw from lived experience until it’s at least three to five years in retrospect. I need a great deal of distance from said experience before I’m able to view it objectively in order to see how it might be transformed through the lens of poetry.
Rumpus: That’s a good timeframe because you want your audience to hunger for the new work. A similar period of time passed between World’s Tallest Disaster and Fragment of the Head of a Queen.
Marvin: Ideally, I’d like to get a book out every five years. But the past two books took a lot longer to write, as both became much more elaborate in their making as they progressed. I would say it is true of both books that I didn’t know they were what I’d end up writing. And the fact that Oracle was so long in the making had everything to do with becoming a mother.
Rumpus: Well, you’ve been parenting and holding a full-time job and running things at VIDA, so that makes sense. But Oracle displays you at the height of your powers. The poems are slightly looser, in my view, than the earlier work, and more daring with regard to subject matter and voice. Does that sound right?
Marvin: That is right. Looser and more daring. Because I was less able to self-censor when I was drafting.
Rumpus: Because of the parenting? Because time was so short?
Marvin: Many reasons:
- I was exhausted. So when I’d write, I would do it when I was actually really inspired. It would be a poem I couldn’t NOT write. And then I was so tired I didn’t really worry about what people might think.
- I didn’t care anymore and I was being spat up on all the time. I held myself in far lower esteem. As a result, I wasn’t as interested in protecting myself, or as worried about unsavory creating personas that might ultimately represent me.
- I only had time to write the poems I wanted to write. I could see the fact that I was, as a human being, disposable. I needed to serve my poems as they wished to be served.
- Because life became a lot more scary and a lot funnier, I think I actually ended up showing much more of my TRUE self in those poems.
As such, Oracle is a far more personal book than my first two.
Rumpus: Well that comes with maturity, I suppose… that lack of self-censorship, the senses sharpened by life changes, etc. Hey, let’s take a look at one of the poems you flagged for us. “High School as a Dead Girl,” which the audience can link to here. This covers all the emotional subjects of the book… sex, death, the past, and particularly the harshness of high school. Was this one of the first poems you wrote for the book?
Marvin: Yes. I wrote it after traveling through China with colleagues on an academic tour provided by the College of Staten Island, my “institutional home” of several years. We visited a high school in Suzhou, and it hit me that HIGH SCHOOL, in its universal application, would serve as an interesting metaphor/situation upon which to base a poem.
Rumpus: I admire the controlled pacing and turns of perception. There’s something about the form of the poem that embodies the high school experience.
Marvin: I had a very bad high school experience myself.
Rumpus: Tell us about it.
Marvin: The main thing about high school is that it’s your launching pad. And, as Petrarch says, “I never wish to sing as I used to, for I was not understood, wherefore I was scorned, and one can be miserable in a pleasant place.” And to start off as a failure, an acknowledged failure, provides an interesting vantage. But “High School as a Dead Girl” is primarily about the cruelty of high school, how it is deeply CONFIRMED that you are a loser if you don’t fit in, by both your teachers and your peers. So the poem is about origin, and I did in fact actually have a high school teacher shame me in class, in the tenth grade, and SAY, “Yes, Cate, some of us are intending to go to college.”
Rumpus: Man or woman teacher?
Marvin: A female teacher. Spanish class.
Rumpus: What was your response?
Marvin: You know what’s funny? I was such a very poor student at the time. But I had a real sense of outrage, so much so that I went to the principal and reported the incident. I remember thinking that it was such a low and damning thing for her to say, and that another person with lower self-esteem might feel really humiliated and demolished by this teacher’s words. But now I realize the person I was defending was in fact me.
Marvin: I also confronted this teacher in person. I remember it very clearly: she told me, “Shape up or ship out.” Now I don’t blame her. Because I realize she was trying to give me a wake-up call. But she hadn’t of needed to be such a bitch!
Rumpus: I notice an important quality in this poem and a lot of your poems, actually. You put a great deal of value on a really sharp, punchy first line that is self-contained—and often funny and lyrical. In this case, the line is “High School was us and we. We learned our grammar there.” My ear catches the alliteration of “was,” “we,” and “We,” and all the “r” sounds in the second half of that line.
Marvin: In that poem I came up with the first line and it kind of delighted me… because we do in fact “learn our grammar there.” Which is kind of like learning how to throw a ball when it comes to writing. It makes us who we are. It forms our language. And being a VERY bad high school student, a failure really, it was wonderfully ironic for me to make that kind of statement in a POEM. Given the high falutin’ things poems are.
Rumpus: I don’t want to digress too much from this poem, but talk a bit about how you go about writing that first line that packs so much lyrical power. Here are a few examples… I think they say a lot about your signature style:
“Memory in Plain English”: “We were very drunk and not very merry.”
“Epistle, Many Pronged”: “Mortification, I’ve known your corpse lips.”
“Let the Day Perish”: “I was meaner than a flimsy dollar the change machine refuses.”
“Slaughter and Wisteria”: “I don’t like to be tickled, and I don’t wear panties.”
Marvin: As for openings to poems, you really want the first line, the first few lines, to throw something up in the air in order to provide the reader suspense. Because you want your reader to wonder about where it’s all going to fall, or how things will fall out.
I’m really glad you noticed “Slaughter and Wisteria.” Because those opening lines are supposed to be really funny.
Rumpus: I love it… it’s a real attention-getter. Who isn’t going to keep reading after that? My favorite opening line is this, from the title poem “Oracle”: “Dead girls don’t go the dying route to get known.”
Marvin: You want the opening line, and every line, to be as powerful as the entire poem. To really punch the reader.
Rumpus: That line from “Oracle” is like a flurry of punches. I hear seven stresses in it. Knocks me out… or at least slaps me to attention.
Marvin: I don’t know if much about my writing, in the process of it, is conscious. I think I’m intuitively working toward trying to get the poem right. That said, I myself hate being bored, so I work very hard to not bore my reader.
Rumpus: In this day and age, it’s important to snatch our attention away from devices and children and texts, etc. So I like how you call us to order in these first lines.
Marvin: Well, we’re more than a little fucked as poets, given how little time our readers have to give us. But I also believe it is imperative not to waste the reader’s time. It’s not like you’re just HANGING OUT having coffee with your reader. You are putting on a SHOW.
Because everyone’s time is precious. The reader’s too.
Rumpus: You consider yourself a dramatic poet then?
Marvin: Hell, yeah, I’m a dramatic poet!
Rumpus: Are the speakers in your poems all poses, like Eliot’s Prufrock or Plath’s Lady Lazarus?
Marvin: I would say that, yes, the speakers in my poems are “all poses.” How else would I be able to assume the form of a true self? I’m with Eliot on this one. The extinction of personality, and all that biz.
Rumpus: And yet you’ve said that the poems in Oracle cut closer to the true you.
Marvin: I would say that Oracle lets it all hang out a bit more. And so the boundary between the artifice of the confessional and the real gets a little more hairy. And I like to court that kind of tension.
Rumpus: I’m also wondering if this is the same speaker/persona in all these poems in Oracle. Actually, would you say that all three of your books feature her?
Marvin: With the exception of a few poems—in my second book that would be “All My Wives”—in the voice of an evil man—and “High School: Industrial Arts”—another evil man who is the class teacher—I think consider ALL of my poems in ALL three books as being voiced by the same speaker.
Rumpus: I think I read somewhere that you referred to the three books as a triptych. So I had a feeling we were encountering the same character at different stages of her life. It’s a hell of a project, creating that kind of doppelganger, allowing her to grow, over time, into three-dimensions.
Marvin: I am hoping I may be done with her. But I won’t be able to tell until I’ve started the next book.
Rumpus: In equal parts she’s morbid, depressed, sassy, and funny.
Marvin: Yeah, I see her very clearly as someone much like me but other than me. A sort of distilled version. But someone who could not function or breathe in this world.
Rumpus: So a less capable alter ego.
Marvin: I always think that I wouldn’t necessary want to end up in a cab with her. As an actual person in this world, I am way less troubled than the speaker of my poems. But my speaker is far more “capable” than I could ever be. She owns her shit.
Rumpus: I have another question for you.
Rumpus: What part of your process produces your lyrical effects? For example, in “High School as a Dead Girl” there’s tons of alliteration and consonance and repetition and slant rhyme. You often prioritize sound-sense over logic. Does that happen in the fury of an initial draft, or do you revise in that direction later?
Marvin: The initial draft was SLOPPY. I’d read the earlier version of that poem sometimes, at poetry readings, and the audience responded with enthusiasm. So I knew I had something in that poem. Then I had to go over it VERY carefully to retool it, rebuild its sound structure. I’m always looking at every single line and trying to think about how I can make it sound like something no one has ever written or spoken before. As I said earlier, I think of each line as micro to the macro… ultimately, each line kind of has to be a poem unto itself.
Rumpus: If I’m not mistaken, Theodore Roethke said something similar… that every line of a poem should be a poem. You’ve got very high standards for the line.
Marvin: I wanted the sound-drive for that poem to be really tumultuous. So much so that the pull of it would suck the reader down. To give the sense of the inevitable. Which was fitting for the subject matter, because we all have to go to high school, day after day, whether we like it or not—or unless we weren’t smart enough to realize we could have dropped out and gotten a GED and then attended college. I am literally sickened by slack lines.
Rumpus: So no prose poems from you on the horizon?
Marvin: WE HAVE THE LINE!!! We have enjambment! We have all these great tools not available to prose writers, and it’s a GIFT.
Rumpus: Uh, maybe we move on to another topic. Where did you get your morbid sense of humor?
Marvin: I picked it up at the mall.
Rumpus: The humor, which is black humor, I guess, allows you to cover taboo subjects like suicide or sex or death. Stuff most of us would like to write about but haven’t found a way to get there. Your brand of humor maps a path into and out of those topics.
Marvin: Don’t you have to have a sense of humor if you’re going to survive? It’s the primary thing that helps us cope with tragedy. Oh, and it’s also so NOT FUNNY.
Rumpus: Right. It’s both.
Marvin: But Plath was a huge help to me, once I finally understood how much she was able to ENJOY the darkness. And that you don’t need to read her and think, “Oh, shit. We’re all doomed.” She is very, very funny.
Rumpus: Yes… “Daddy” and “Lady Lazarus” are creepy and comic. Especially “Lady Lazarus.” But that often gets overlooked!
Marvin: Way too often. But the joke is not on Plath. It’s on the reader who is taking her at face value. And in that way, she delivers a certain punishment upon the person who doesn’t “get it.”
Rumpus: I like your use of that word, “punishment.”
Marvin: And that’s what makes her poems feel like inside jokes. Like she’s talking directly to YOU as the reader. I really hope to create that kind of intimacy and relationship with the readers of my poems. It’s the simple-minded who are punished. Because the person who gets it KNOWS what it’s like to be misconstrued. Same with Eliot! Same with Stevens!
Rumpus: You extend that tradition, from Eliot to Plath, so skillfully it’s eerie. Plath revered Eliot.
Rumpus. Your speaker sounds like some kind of weird Eliot-Plath love child. Orphaned, of course.
Marvin: I do think of my speaker as an orphan.
Rumpus: Maybe kind of like Ally Sheedy’s character in The Breakfast Club.
Marvin: But not a nail-biter. You can’t scratch someone if you bite your nails. And a lot more glorious, I like to think. Maybe more like the subject of Stevens’s “To the One of Fictive Music.”
Rumpus: “Sister and mother and diviner love…”
Marvin: I think good poems operate on multiple levels. They can be read literally and simply. But good poems also have a lot of winks in them, winks at certain readers who are paying attention. A lot like most good comedy.
Rumpus: As you know, Cate, we like to delve into the personal lives of our guests. Care to play a little game we’ve devised just for you?
Marvin: Sure thing, Dave.
Rumpus: I’m going to read a list of three things, and you rank them in order of preference. Use whatever criteria you want to when you’re ranking them.
Rumpus: First one is tough. Ready?
Rumpus: Cigarettes, alcohol, coffee.
Marvin: Alcohol, coffee, cigarettes.
Rumpus: Great. “Prufrock,” “The Waste Land,” “The Four Quartets.”
Marvin: My criteria are in order of the things I could least do without.
Rumpus: Got it.
Marvin: “Prufrock,” “Preludes,” “Waste Land.”
Rumpus: Nice. How about this one? Puppy love, true love, tough love.
Marvin: True love, puppy love, tough love. In order of preference.
Rumpus: I just lost a bet on that one. I’d guessed you were a ringer for tough love.
Marvin: True love, true love, true love. Naw.
Rumpus: Good! How about this: Basho, Sappho, Bono.
Marvin: Sappho, Li Po, Basho.
Rumpus: Bono kicked off the list. Okay then. Ghandi, Blondie, candy.
Marvin: Blondie, candy, Ghandi.
Rumpus: Do you like to dance? Is Blondie a band that makes you sprint to the dance floor and shake up some real estate?
Marvin: I mean, Ghandi was great and all, but there’s a reason I take Plath over Rich.
Rumpus: We’ve got a new Twitter intern who’s gonna quote you on that, I bet.
Marvin: I love to dance, especially to eighties music. I spent much of my college years dancing, poorly and drunkenly, at parties.
Rumpus: To what? Men without Hats? Run-DMC? Dexys Midnight Runners? Share more please.
Marvin: But it’s all duende, no? I may be a bad dancer, but I feel it. NONE OF THE ABOVE.
Rumpus: Kajagoogoo? The Bangles?
Marvin: In the beginning: Duran Duran and the Cars. Later, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, etc. In college, the Cure, Roxy Music, Bowie.
Rumpus: An eclectic mix.
Marvin: I love Morrissey. I like Blonde Redhead, Tricky, Beck.
Rumpus: On to a few more rankings. How about sobriety, poetry, or Broetry?
Marvin: What the fuck is Broetry? Two of these words do not belong here.
Rumpus: Oh boy, Cate. Oh boy.
Rumpus: Take a look here.
Marvin: Yawn. I mean, whatever. I’m more interested in sniffing my own armpits.
Rumpus: Okay, here’s a throwback: Solid Gold, The Love Boat, Fantasy Island!
Marvin: Oh my God. Well, Fantasy Island first. Then The Love Boat. Then Solid Gold. But I love them all.
Rumpus: Me too, though my ranking is Love Boat, Solid Gold, Fantasy Island. Of course, at the age of twelve I was in awe of the Solid Gold Dancers.
Marvin: I only wish there was a 24-hour channel for Solid Gold Dancers. Perhaps then I could reach Paradise.
Rumpus: Let’s do it! It could be a joint VIDA/Rumpus broadcasting venture.
Here’s a spinoff question, sort of: Captain Ahab, Captain Stubing, Captain Morgan.
Marvin: Captain Morgan, Stubing, Ahab.
Rumpus: Isn’t Stubing sexy?
Marvin: He’s congenial.
Rumpus: I’m telling you, there’s something about bald men. Never underestimate ’em.
Marvin: My boyfriend is bald. Balding. He would prefer I say “balding.”
Rumpus: Am I right?
Marvin: You are SOOOO right. At least in the case of my boyfriend. Big yes.
Rumpus: Let me ask a few more questions about Oracle. Your poems have quite a bit of dramatic flair, to say the least. They also seem to have a strong epistolary quality… like they’re often directed to a single listener. It gives us, the audience, a strange voyeuristic sense as we listen in to the private lives of two characters. Am I on the right track here?
Marvin: You are.
Rumpus: Can you talk about that more? Your preference for the private utterance? Or semi-private?
Marvin: I think a lot about the intimate address. It’s a very powerful choice for rhetoric in a poem. It’s not all private; it just seems private. Really, it simply tilts things in favor of the speaker. The speaker is engaged in what SEEMS to be a dialogue. It is not. The reader feels—and is convinced—she or he is eavesdropping on an intimate, private exchange. Yet, it is neither private, in fact, nor is it an actual exchange. It’s a performance. And the reader is convinced of its “authenticity” because of the rhetorical situation. The reader can also take sides. They can relate, and align, with the speaker. Or they can feel they are being spoken against or at.
Rumpus: Yeah, that speaker wields incredible control over the language and situation.
Marvin: It depends on the reader. It’s all about control. Control is a central issue for the speaker of my poems.
Rumpus: I like that answer a lot. I hope all the whippersnapper MFA poets out there are paying attention. One last question for you.
Marvin: Because she can’t control shit. Go!
Rumpus: Wordsworth called poems “emotions recollected in tranquility.” I sense you have a different definition, or might radically revise Wordsworth’s. Complete the sentence: Cate Marvin’s poems are “emotions recollected in… blank.”
Marvin: Okay, this was obviously a really important thing for Wordsworth. Really super important. He wanted, needed to be in a space to pull back all the things that moved him into that space at which he sat idle. Maybe he wouldn’t have felt this way if he had TV or the Internet. But his notion does serve an idea of what poetry is meant to do. I think my poems would be more likely: “Emotional recollections eating away at the very foundation of my sense of self and the world.”
Rumpus: Bravo to you for updating this idea for us. That definition gets to the heart of your work… dead seriousness mingling with the somewhat comic.
Okay, Cate Marvin, are you ready for your Three Obstructions assignment? Do you have any masochistic inclinations? I know your poetic avatar does.
Marvin: Har har. I’m more than ready. Bring it.
Rumpus: That’s the right attitude. You should’ve seen Zapruder when I offered him the challenge. His knees wobbled like an old man’s!
Marvin: Zapruder’s got a soft touch. I deal with intense and wary undergrads on a daily basis. They are dying to see me collapse. Every day. So have at it.
Rumpus: My pleasure.
1. Your first two books contain sonnets. Oracle doesn’t, so I feel like you owe us one. Write a sonnet.
2. The poem must incorporate information from this article.
3. The poem must make at least one Love Boat reference.
Marvin: Do I have to write this right now? Because that is NOT happening, dude.
Rumpus: That’s a far cry from “Bring it,” Marvin. Have we rattled you?
Marvin: By the way, none of books contain sonnets. Maybe “Mugshot,” but it’s a ghost sonnet and does not rhyme.
Rumpus: No sonnets? Well then you really owe us one. Off with you.
Honey Dog Love Poem
Like those ice ages so long before I don’t
or can’t understand, and can’t stand because
they don’t involve us, I wonder what I won’t
or wouldn’t do for you, a face that once was
above all and ever a face I’d crash my face
toward, like a fist fight, like a Long Island Iced
tea, that’s how fucked up and what a head case
you must be for me to like you like I do. Nice,
is that for me? I love best putting my hand
there, your cock, your knee, now do me please.
I’ll be your tide, you’re my sand, and
let’s honkey down this boardwalk, seize
our bodies in fits, sneeze up spinning rides
I don’t because I do: now let’s us capsize.
Rumpus: Well? Whaddya think?
Marvin: I was scared shitless at this assignment. I haven’t written a poem for months, really. I’ve been living my sad old life instead. Then I thought about what you were asking me to do. And I just decided to do it. But I’m so mad in love with my boyfriend, it was easy enough to whip up a poem for him.
Rumpus: Hooray for true love. This is the first time I’ve seen you rhyme at the ends of your lines. When was the last time you did that, or wrote a sonnet?
Marvin: I rhyme at the ends of my lines all the time, Dave. But it’s true I’ve never before written a “successful” sonnet. NEVER. For some reason, and maybe it’s because I’ve been teaching Denis Johnson, this poem somehow fell into place. While I wouldn’t necessarily put this poem in a book, I don’t mind putting my name to it.
Rumpus: I especially like “a face I’d crash my face toward” and “let’s honkey down this boardwalk.”
Marvin: This poem is overcome with abstractions. That is, to my mind, a major flaw. However, the sonics are in place, and they serve the poem’s emotions. It’s got some meager power, and it means what it says. Would I like to write a better poem? Yes. And I will. That is, if I’m not run over by a bus tomorrow.
Rumpus: Hey, don’t get hit by a bus. We’d never recover.
Cate, thanks so much for being with us tonight. You were an awesome guest. Enjoy the rest of your summer.
Marvin: Weather’s been a bitch this year, and she owes us a break. Happy summer, everyone!
Stay tuned for Episode #12 of The Rumpus Late Nite Poetry Show, with guest January Gill O’Neil.