Mary Jo Salter’s eight books of poetry span a life: childhood, adolescence, motherhood, and so on. And now the latest, The Surveyors, creates a kaleidoscope of humor, heartache, and tenderness.
Amidst weighty topics such as caring for aging parents and acknowledging mortality are sharp, precise images. In “Moon-Breath,” a woman lies in bed remembering the feeling of waking up for the school bus when it’s still dark. In “Today’s Specials,” a woman attending a high school reunion sees a list of people in her class who have died in the wall.
Salter chooses classic structure and form to convey her message while delving into new autobiographical territory.
In September, Salter and I talked on the phone about the process of writing a new book, writing about the domestic as a feminist act, and how her title poem came from someone else’s dream.
The Rumpus: What was your process for writing The Surveyors? Did it differ from the writing of the other books?
Mary Jo Salter: In most ways, the process was the same. Throughout my career, I seem to be producing a book of poems every four years, and my writing practice is slow but steady. But I go in spurts. There’ll be a period where I’m taking notes and then there will be a period where I’m obsessed.
The most interesting case, from my own perspective, is the poem “The Surveyors,” which is the title poem. I knew I wanted to write the poem for several years and took some notes, but I don’t really remember writing the poem, and it’s one of the longest poems I’ve ever written. I was so immersed in it that I can’t really see myself sitting at my desk. I can’t even see myself getting up to get a cup of coffee. I’m sure this is common to many poets, but when it finally came after a couple years of thinking about it, it came in a great big rush.
Rumpus: So did it come to you in a day or multiple days?
Salter: Oh, multiple days, because it was a series of sonnets. There’s a young poet, Matthew Yeager, who wrote me a letter, which I use as an epigraph for the poem. He said that he had a dream about my poem “The Surveyors.” He described it and asked, Does this poem exist? Well, in fact, he had made it up. It was in his head. I would have never written the poem had he not written me that letter, and it’s the first time in my life that anything like that happened. As a student, I would get an assignment, but this is quite different. My struggle and pleasure was trying to figure out how the title and poem he’d given me would unfold if I had written it. I knew pretty early that that poem would be the center of the book and would be the title. It was one of the last things that was completed.
Rumpus: In 2001, you described this moment where you’re about to write a poem as an “uneasy though happy feeling.” I’m interested in that moment, particularly in relation to you describing the trance like experience of writing the poem. What does that sensation mean to you?
Salter: For me, that trance-like beginning of a poem comes out of an experience that is like a dream, and yet I remember very few dreams of my own. I know there are plenty of poets who remember their dreams and they describe their impetus for writing a poem as dreamlike, so I don’t think it’s either or. For me, it’s as if I blocked out the memory of anything I was dreaming and I come awake to an idea that is like a dream. The process may, in the end, look rather rational. I am a relatively rational being and I like to create order in poems. I like meter, I like rhyme, but ultimately I don’t know where the poems come from, and I feel, at least in the beginning, that I’m taking dictation from my own dream that I don’t remember.
Rumpus: So where does the uneasiness come from?
Salter: The uneasiness is partly about the being equal to what begins as a formless feeling. There’s an uneasiness that’s based in the material and then there’s a psychological uneasiness. All writers feel this, not just poets. We know in advance that we’re not going be able to reproduce in its wonderful fullness the thing that’s in our heads; we’re going to get some corner of it. We’re going to do the best we can, but we already know it’s beyond us. It’s a bit like walking into a big bookstore. It’s the bookstore of your brain, and you know you’re never going to read all those books. It makes you happy you’re in the bookstore, and you’re nervous because you know you’re never going to read all those books. So the nervousness is also happy. Once I get going writing poetry is one of the happiest things I do, but it is also fraught with all of these anxieties.
Rumpus: My favorite poem in your book was “Moon-Breath.” I read in a Poetry Daily interview in which you said you often feel “on guard” when you’re writing poems about female domesticity, and you’re wary of portraying women as only mothers or only homemakers. “Moon-Breath” is from the perspective of a woman and it’s set in a kitchen, there’s ample cooking imagery, and I’m wondering how that wariness about portraying female domesticity has grown over your career. How you go about approaching this topic now?
Salter: You say part of it is set in a kitchen, and certainly mentally it is, but in my own head this is all set in bed in the dark, and is about waking up. The moon reminds the speaker, which is clearly me, of cooking, of fish. The next image of soap is also domestic, but it wasn’t consciously about being female to me, even though where I end up is I am a girl on a yellow school bus.
One answer to your question may be there are poems in that which one’s identity as a female or a mother, or whatever else distinguishes yourself as a human being, is front and center. A poem like “Pastry Level” forefronts domesticity, because I’m remembering my daughter and her growing up and how tall she was when she as four years old. The risk there is that if you’re not a parent then maybe you don’t care. A poem like “Moon-Breath” is more about being older than about being female. It’s about remembering. There’s the image of the sliver of soap in the dish. The speaker has lived a long time but can remember clearly what it felt like to be a kid in the first moments of the morning, and that it may still be dark as you look for the school bus.
Part of what the imagination does later in life is it’s linking you not just to who you are now but to all the people you’ve been. I feel times have really changed since I was a young poet. Not many women poets were writing about their children because they didn’t have any. There are so many women now that no matter what our struggles may be, we are openly people who have a domestic life, and to censor that would be the least feminist thing I could do. The one concession I’ve made as I’ve gotten older is that my children are now adults and they’re in their twenties and thirties and so I’m careful about how I write about them. I may write about them as a child, but I’m not going to write about their current struggles because they’re adults and they can do it for themselves. I want to give them some space in a way I didn’t when they were younger.
Rumpus: You say that “Moon-Breath” is a poem that’s about aging. Two of your poems, “Today’s Specials” and “Old Saw,” talk about aging in a way that expresses a degree of anxiety or disorientation, and I’m interested in that as a theme, and what drew you to writing about it in multiple poems.
Salter: Two things. One thing is that my father is ninety-one and is in very poor health and has been throughout the time I’ve been writing this book. I’m very aware of what the end of life looks like in a daily way. It’s right in front of my face. In another way, though, being a generation younger has given me a sense of how lucky I am. Yes, I’m going to a high school reunion where some people have already died, but at the same time I haven’t yet. I feel grateful not only to have the opportunity to be alive but to memorialize people I remember, and give them a moment to celebrate them in some way. I think of this book, for all of its dark awareness of mortality, I think of it as essentially positive. It’s a book that has a lot of gratitude in it.
Rumpus: The last two lines of “Old Saw”—Why did we wake today / On the wrong side of the dead—are so foreboding. I like how clear that anticipation of death and aging is.
Salter: I felt sort of scared to put that in print. To be honest with you, if my father didn’t already have dementia, I probably wouldn’t have published it, because he wouldn’t have understood that I say it out of great sympathy. It’s dark humor but it’s also empathy. The reason I put it in the first person plural is that we’re all headed there. People are going to be annoyed with us that we’re old, and if we’re lucky that’s where we’re headed.
Rumpus: In “A Woman’s Tale,” you do so much bouncing around from time periods in your life, from your current stage in life, to your pregnancy, to being a young woman walking down the street.
Salter: I often juxtapose one thing against another, and when I suddenly remember the two particular men who stopped me on the street in that way I thought, can I really do this? Can I put one stanza about being eighteen and one stanza about being thirty and just get out of it? Just leave the poem and present the two scenes? After I wrote the poem, I realized I’d been influenced by Countee Cullen’s poem “Incident” in which the young man is on the train and he is called the N-word and he says, “I saw the whole of Baltimore / from May until December; / Of all the things that happened there / That’s all that I remember.” The pain that he experienced in that poem is greater than the pain I express in “A Woman’s Tale,” and in fact I have a bit of humor in mine, but in both cases I think there’s a sense of being objectified.
You see yourself as the object of another person’s view and realize you’re not a full person to that person, but then you have to let it go and keep moving.
Rumpus: I was drawn to that poem because being catcalled is such a brief, fleeting moment that it’s hard to pin down what specifically is so jarring about it.
How is it now that your book has come out? How have people been responding?
Salter: What always means a great deal is receiving letters from friends who read the book the minute they got it. One thing that’s been a pleasure about talking with you is that the poems that you think are the central ones of a book are not necessarily the ones that a reader chooses. There’s usually a notion in a poet’s head is that the title poem is the centerpiece and that’s fine, but a book has to belong to the reader. I’m very pleased that these shorter sketch-like poems that you’ve mentioned speak to you. This is part of the pleasure of the poet. We’re writing into the void, and we’re not writing to be bestsellers. Whatever individual responses we get, whether at a reading, by a conversation or a letter, mean the world.
Rumpus: What is one of the most surprising comments you’ve gotten from a reader?
Salter: There was one review that was positive, but this reviewer mentioned my new anti-war poems, and that this seemed to be a departure from my previous work. I’ve been writing about war for a very long time, but that’s not the kind of thing I got the least bit annoyed about, because why should anyone remember all of my work as well as I remember my work?
I would just say that for me this book, among other things, is about war and it’s about the fact that my husband was drafted during Vietnam. It’s about what that did to a life, and I hope that in addition to all the themes that are specific to women in the book, that people will also see the way men in our country have been pressed into wars that they didn’t necessarily have any choice about.
Rumpus: It’s such an interesting moment of gender in the military, especially in terms of the Trump trans ban. How do you think the current political climate will inform your work about war?
Salter: In terms of the trans military ban, I can’t imagine what it’s like to have already served in the military and be told you’re a problem. A number of people have written poems about Trump already, and I salute them. He is so beyond anything we could have imagined and yet, in another way, he has to be seen as a mirror of America. Our country wouldn’t have elected him if he didn’t reflect something in our country. In my view, it’s a negative thing that’s being reflected.
Political poetry is the hardest thing to write because you cannot preach to the converted, and if you’re only seeking to convert, then write an editorial. It has to be oblique, and the last poem in the book, “An Afghan Carpet,” is trying to get at some of these things obliquely. I hope I can write about Trump; he’s too major a force not to be written about.
Author photograph © Marina Levitskaya.