The Rumpus Poetry Book Club chats with Meghan O’Rourke about her poetry collection Once.
This is an edited transcript of the Poetry Book Club discussion with Meghan O’Rourke. Every month The Rumpus Poetry Book Club hosts a discussion online with the club members and the author, and we post an edited version online as an interview. You can read the unedited discussion here. To learn how you can become a member of The Rumpus Poetry Book Club click here.
Gaby: We’re so excited to have you here tonight
Meghan: Hi, I’m very glad to be here!
Brian S: Shall we dive right in? You’re up Gaby!
Gaby: we’ve been talking all about the book and have so many thoughts and questions. You should feel free to answer as you like, go on tangents, sing all of it.
One of the reasons I chose this book is because I’m really interested in the idea of the stories we choose to tell (and not tell) and how we choose to tell them. This book is so interesting and shocking to me because it takes a subject we think we know and challenges our notion of both the story itself and our expectations as readers.
Mark: Aha. That’s where everyone’s been hiding.
Gaby: Would you start by talking about what it was like to write two books that are seemingly about similar things and also completely different?
Meghan: Sure. I’m glad to hear you think of Once in those terms.
Gaby: I sure do. I think it’s a super subversive book
Brandon: Does any one poem come to mind in this regard Gaby?
Gaby: Let me Meghan start up and then I do have a poem I’d like to talk about in those terms. If that’s cool…
Meghan: So, after my mother died, I found it very hard to write poetry. I had been writing many of the poems that are in the book – I think the whole first section except “Elegy;” “Hill without Scar” had been written. “Preparation” had been drafted but I couldn’t finish it. Same with “Once,” the first poem. Both poems were poems I couldn’t end since in a sense they were about anticipation of something that hadn’t happened. So I started writing prose as a way of occupying myself – of telling myself a story in order to live.
Brandon: “My Life as a Subject” come to mind right away?
We’re gonna get to Didion up in here.
Meghan: 🙂 I loved that you referenced that line in Didion because it’s one I tink about all the time. Anyway, the prose of what became The Long Goodbye (TLG) was totally different from poems – the sentence was like a guy rope that kept me safe.
Writing poems, by contrast, felt like going into chasms or crevices. So I didn’t write them for a while.
The difference when I went back to what would become Once – to writing poetry – is that there is so much more room to be elliptical, to subvert, to question your own habit of story-telling, to in some sense make the impulse to story tell your subject in a way that it couldn’t be in TLG (or wasn’t).
Mark: Was “Twenty First Century Fireworks,” which is about the loss of youth, a before or after poem, a statement of contemplating the loss in advance or a distillation of it afterwards?
Meghan: That was a before poem. My mother was sick for 2.5 years and the first summer of her diagnosis I thought she was going to die. A lot of that first section was written then.
It suddenly seemed like the world had this kind of black behind all its colors and that interested me, poetically. I think Im very interested in what seem like simple perceptions, memories, but in the end aren’t at all simple, or enduring, or fixed.
adrienne: One of my favorite poems in the collection is “My Mother.” I see why it’s placed in Section III as opposed to Sections I or II. I was wondering, though, if there was a reason for it being right in the middle of Section III. Also wondered how you saw it in relation to “My Aunts” (which I also really loved). Did you write these poems around the same time?
Gaby: did your relationship to the sentence change or become more clear to you during this time? How do sentences function differently in poems and prose…do they for you? I love this word anticipation and wonder if sentences in poems and prose create or deal with anticipation in different ways.
Mark: I ask because I have a sense of you holding the subject in some poems at a distance, as through a telescope by the wrong end
Brandon: I mentioned that on the list serve, that the first section felt like a cycle, a complete project, from diagnosis to loss, while the other sections felt like playing on the same ideas but not in a linear fashion.
Gaby: That’s like Bishop’s amazing line, “I liked the place; I liked the idea of the place,” which is also very Didion.
Mark: Bishop and Didion. Are we ready to dive into all that?
Gaby: Let’s hold onto that horse? 🙂
Meghan, this is when folks start to get excited and you just pick and choose and go at the best pace for you.
Meghan: Mark, Brandon – yes – I think in “Diagnosis” I try to get that feeling of utter shock/numbness – one of the most universal feelings in the world , which nonetheless feels so shocking when you experience it for the first time.
I like it. just wish i could type faster
Mark: Meghan, I don’t mean the distance in a cold or unfeeling way, but a beginning to come to terms with it, the impending loss, the sense of your own mortality looming.
Meghan: Adrienne, I wrote “My Aunts” first. It came in response to a Zagajewski poem “My Aunts” … I needed to find a way back to poetry, and imitating a poem I loved seemed the safest (and most productive) way.
It took a long time to see that the poem needed to be balanced by one about My Mother. That poem was written late – I read the ms. and felt that strangely my mother was missing from it – because I tend to get interested in poetry in sensations, “the hum of thoughts evaded in teh mind” as Steven put it. so I never had much about her as a character. I wanted to write an elegy that had some kind of energy to it, even a lightness at moments
adrienne: that is beautiful and moving–your answer. thank you.
Meghan: I put it near the end because it was a poem I couldn’t have written earlier, in that section that Mark described – i like that description, Mark. Yes, very much a kind of distance in those poems: the distance of knowing something is going to happen but not knowing when – still believing IF, even.
Brandon, yes, the other sections are less linear, more intuitive, perhaps…
It was a tricky book to organize. At times I thought I had two different books. But some stubborn part of me wanted all the poems together – thought they belonged together.
Gaby: What does intuitive mean for you? We talk about this idea a lot when we talk about poems and I’m always interested in how unique it is for each poet (sometimes for each poem!).
Meghan: Believing “in the IF” I think is what I mean: the way we all live, sort of imagining it might never end, until there’s a rupture, a tear in the fabric. And then there is that OH.
Gaby: You may have just answered it
Yeah, that is kind of my process. A lot of …. hmm…. hmmm… ok.
I guess by intuitive I meant w/r/t those section that there was no story line in TIME the way there is in the first section.
Gaby: Is there a formal intuition that comes from an understanding of craft. Is there a more…emotional intuition. Right (just reading your comment)
Meghan: I had to find some other way of making the poems connect – or seeing how they connected, if they do. There is a formal intuition, absolutely, and I regard it as the writer’s job to train that intution as intensely as possible – by reading, rereading, musing.
And then there is an emotional intuition that maybe you start with, maybe that’s why you are a writer, that’s what you have to work with… and you can then refine it through attention.
I used to think, in college, that I couldn’t be a poet because I had read that James Merrill knew the last line of each of his poems before he wrote it. I had no clue what mine were. Then I realized – that’s another form of intuition.
Mark: Was there any tussle with the editor over those other sections, thinking this should have a narrative cohesion rather than the ultimate intuitive one? Not knowing the last line but knowing there this way there was a path out, or path in?
Meghan: My editor really didn’t make any suggestions about ordering, but I kept fussing with the order till the very last minute. I saw how to make it – well, a more ORDERLY book – by leaving out poems, writing more about illness. But I wanted to capture a series of ruptures and if it wre too orderly it couldn’t do so. Or so it seemed to me.
I had this vision that Merrill was like a mathematician – seeing all the steps. And it scared me until one day I saw some of Shelley’s drafts. And I realized that all order has chaos behind it, or just on the other side of it. There’s always the chance that you can’t find the shape that you are looking for. Even if you are more formally minded poet, or – a poet drawn more to regular forms, able to work in them as nimbly as Merrill was.
Gaby: I’m interested in this issue in terms of this book because it is so beautifully wrought that one could initially see it as cool (this is similar in Didion) and that is (to me) its first level of brilliance: we have to immediately come to terms with our expectations of what a story “like this” or poems “like these” sound like. So we are immediately culpable and also aware of our predilection for voyeurism. This is a deeply vulnerable book but (to me) the greatest vulnerability is how naked the mind is here…how willing it is to let itself be seen working and struggling with the act of making something. It’s really amazing to me.
Meghan: Thank you….
Gaby: I hope that’s even slightly clear
Meghan: That’s so interesting, Gaby, because I worried the poems were just these emotional messes on the page.
I don’t usually write poems that hew so closely to fact. So for me writing some of these was deeply uncomfortable, and I think I resorted to beauty or music as a way of being comfortable.
Brian S: It’s a scary place to go sometimes, Factland.
Meghan: God, yeah.
Gaby: Right. You allow the poems to be inherently dramatic and moving instead of melodramatic, so it is a true risk and emotional in the most uncomfortable and rewarding ways
Meghan: I prefer makebelieve to reality, always have – and I guess I am glad these poems are uncomfortable, because I didn’t want them to be *pretty* or to have neat endings.
Endings were hard.
Brandon: The thought of voyeurism never really occurred to me, but in an age when we so naturally expose our lives in so many ways
Meghan: I think endings are a location for voyeurism – it’s where we get “payoff” or think about payoff.
Gaby: that’s great. I’m stealing that.
Meghan: One of the issues in writing this kind of story – if I can say that there is a “this kind of story” – is that you’re so utterly aware how ordinary it is. Yet the experience is extraordinary. So how do you negotiate that tension, as a writer?
Brian S: Is it voyeurism or exhibitionism? I worry that I move too much toward the latter in my own work.
Meghan: Oh, Brian, that is a topic for a long night in a bar, I think.
Brian S: But in part that’s because I’m never quite convinced that anyone wants to hear my stories.
Meghan: yes, I relate, Brian – that is why I never wanted to write “true” poems.
Gaby: I had the urge to “like” this. My God. What is the world becoming.
Thelma: “My Life as a Ruler” pretty much astounds me, that imperial voice–at first–and then, later, how it moves toward (I think) greater benevolence.
Meghan: Thank you Thelma. I am partial to that poem. It was written from a complicated place – I felt after Halflife that in all my poems the speaker got to be, essentially, virtuous.
A virtuous seer!
Living in America in 2006 (when I started writing these poems), I wanted to write from a position of complicity. When my mother got sick, that idea of complicity got even more interesting, on a personal level.
Mark: Benevolent is not the first word that comes to mind, not with that last line.
Meghan: As a healthy daughter of a sick mother you feel a certain…. strangeness.
Yes, that ruler is not benevolent, I would say. But I would say I was trying to find (in a strange way) some compassion for the cruel. I wondered what it would be like to try to do that, as an act of mind. was it corrupt? was it … titillating? was it illuminating?
After all we all (I think all) have some cruelty in us, some impulses in that direction.
Mark: It fits with the sense of coolness that’s been mentioned (although I don’t believe that’s the right word, although I have noTe” surgical cool –Bishop and Plath penciled in the back flyleaves). In reaction to some of the less direct poems (less directly about your mother).
Brian S: Does some of that coolness come from your discomfort with writing factual poems in general?
Thelma: Thought maybe the poem came from the flip side of being powerless over your mom’s death. And Mark, I had that sense at the end of ultimate redemption somehow, how everything nourishes everything (but I’m sipping gin here) …
Meghan: You know, I sometimes wonder whether men ever get called cool, or just women. I’ve heard it about Louise Gluck too. Just a side note -something i think about. I mean, male poetry…
Gaby: I actively used that word because of that. I think it’s a really interesting issue
I think about it as well.
Meghan: Oh, definitely Thelma. I wrote it at the lowest moment in the period of her illness, a few weeks after we realized she was going to die, no more to be done. I don’t really think of all my poems as being cool – “Extraneous,” for example, doesn’t seem cool.
Mark: We had a bit of a chat about that on the listserv. Perhaps men just tend to do better work when they’re stuck in the anger phase of loss. And I want to qualify or better replace the word cool. The calm implied by the holiday joke about the “Three Wise Women.” Calm in crisis, or a capability for that.
Meghan: Or preparation… it’s interesting, I worried that they would seem too nostalgic. maybe that’s where some kind of remove comes in. But no, I think it’s that for better or for worse there’s an issue of control while writing. I become so interested in style that the lines become agents of their own being, rather than some emotional overflow.
This no doubt is why I couldn’t write poems immediately after my mother’s death.
Well, yeah. Ophelia speaking to the Court is angry, I think. But in a coded, highly stylized way.
Mark: But then she’s Ophelia giving her lord as good as she gets.
Meghan: Mark there is so much to think about there – I’m very interested in female anger, and the ways it gets responded to in the culture.
Indeed, Mark! She gets her own back. I could go on about this – a very interesting study of crying babies in which when people were told the baby was a boy, they said he was angry; when told it was a girl, they said she was scared.
So writing from a position of anger or vulnerability becomes, I htink, very charged for a female writer, each in its own way.
Brian S: I haven’t seen that study, but I can’t say I’m surprised by it.
Gaby: Right. I think coding is very important to this work. In the midst of other questions I’d love to hear about that and the idea of storytelling.
Brandon: Much is made of men burying emotion but women bury outbursts
Meghan: To go back to what you said about male writers and anger – what about Plath? I think those are the best poems of anger I’ve ever read.
And there’s a kind of coolness to work by her rough contemporary Merwin by comparison – that poem about not spending time with a father, say, which is wrenching, but in a studied way. I can’t remember the title – had anesthesia two weeks ago and it has wrecked my brain.
Brian S: This may be changing a bit, but I think there’s something to the idea that when men write about personal emotion at all, they get a huge amount of credit for it while women get cast as overly sentimental if they do it.
Meghan: It’s interesting to think about. Coding, well… To me a great pleasure of poetry is its codedness, the way it gets to play with arcs and evasions and yet still mean, still give pleasure, still demand us to recognize ourselves in it.
Mark: I want to suggest fineness instead of cool, in the simple and delicate choices of word and line and stanza. Again, maybe I’m being a pig but I have this image of working at these poems with a loup and some fine tool whereas men would tend to swing a hammer at it (which I think is just restating what you said about Merwin and Plath while I was typing.
Meghan: So much in our lives today is conveyed in a language that purports to be “direct” or “lucid” or is blatantly transactional. This is not how I experience the world internally.
So poetry is a translation of intensities that I live with – intensities of perception, say, intensities of memory, of the experience of being an involuntary captive in our own minds. I love how it can use metaphor and shadows to illuminate…
Mark: the involuntary captive…:”there is no one else but you, the voices in my head”
Brian S: “the experience of being an involuntary captive in our own minds”
That’s awesome. I think I’m going to steal that at some point.
Gaby: I said cool and I’d like to keep it. So omit it for Mark but keep it for me. Because I don’t think the poems are cool at all but I do think the word is very charged (clearly) and there’s something to that charge that the poems work into, something about our perceptions of poetry and loss that the poems require me at least to interrogate.
It goes directly to the notion of culpability you talked about.
Mel: do you identify more as poet or as a prose writer?
Meghan: And to me there is great value in that – I loved writing The Long Goodbye – I thought a lot about its art, its artifices. (Some people seem to believe memoirs are just transcripts of events, but that is not how I thought of it.) But certain demands come with writing prose – or did come with writing this kind of book, since its legibility mattered to me.
Yes, I’m happy to talk about “cool” because clearly it is how the story registers on some level. And that’s interesting. and there is a kind of shaping remove, a refusal, at work in these poems. Culpability and cool – yes. That might be the hinge. The book really began with the poem “My Life as a subject,” a poem I didn’t understand for a long time.
Gaby: And I think this is a book that also challenges perception of gender in really interesting ways.
I love that poem. That is a fierce fucking poem; the duality of the word subject. Just as the title has meaning on multiple levels
Meghan: The occasion for it was coming to a place where I just couldn’t deal with the fact of being a citizen in a country that also had Guantanamo. It seemed to me that HAD to resonate on a personal level, for an individual speaker – a subject – in ways that I was not interrogating as a day-to-day citizen. But as you see the poem had to make its own speculative reality, to invent its own imaginative subject, in a way, to become larger than that one event….
Thanks Gaby! yes, I liked that pun. I wanted to call the book that, but because the first book also had “LIFE” in the title I didn’t.
I take back the word “pun.” It’s really a doubleness.
Gaby: Hee hee. Yes. It’s a hall of mirrors, this book. I’ve been doing all this research on knights and it follows the forest journey so closely, all the dualities and ways of looking at oneself and (mis)perceiving oneself.
Meghan: in re gender – I wonder how people read the gender of the speaker of “My Life as a Ruler.”
Whoops just wrote “My Life as a Mirror.” Up next?
Thelma: As female–as in the Queen of Swords.
Meghan: Gaby! I meant to tell you – Robert Pogue Harrison is an undercurrent in The Long Goodbye. I love love love his book The Dominion of the Dead.
Gaby: WAIT!!!! Seriously?!?!?
Meghan: and in this book Once too.
Yes! Now I have ordered Forests and it just arrived. Sitting here next to me.
Gaby: I had no idea when I wrote that. I’m exactly referencing him when I talk about this forest journey.
That’s amazing. It will melt your brain
Brian S: I actually read that poem, not genderless, but with the gender as malleable depending on the section.
Mark: Thelma I thought about that a lot and I think it is whatever we project into it.
Meghan: Well, I am fascinated by the quest. I have always wanted to write a female quest epic.
Gaby: In the best way. Well. You’ll see. The way mirrors work in the book is so medieval.
I would read that seventy times and then start again.
Brian S: I also had to look up the word faience.
Meghan: I like that word – my father is an egyptologist and there is a lot of faience in that wing.
That wing of the museum, I mean.
Those sequences are the heart of the book, I think, because they are the place where the model for telling and retelling and corrupting the story get most fully expressed.
Meghan: Since as we tell a story we corrupt it, I think. That’s why I wanted so much book-ending, too – “Once” and “Still,” “My Aunts” and “My Mother,” etc.
Gaby: Oh my gosh. the model of telling. This is so important.
Meghan: And also as we tell a story we become – I think – complicit in some way, insistent on OUR version.
Gaby: RIGHT. We OWN it. Which is impossible
and makes it karaoke
Meghan: So how to not do that? When I conceived of “My Life as a Subject,” I thought of it as a kind of amphora – an old greek jug – with a mural on it. but what we had now to read were just the fragments of the jug, of the mural’s narrative – not the whole narrative.
Gaby: alienating to the one who writes it…insert the word “Me. Gabrielle Calvocoressi”
Meghan: Well, one of my ongoing fantasies is to write books under other names. Genderless ones.
My Life as a Lurker might also be a fun one.
Brian S: I think that’s the hour. Thanks so much for a wonderful chat and a terrific collection of poems.
Meghan: Thank you all so much for having me! It went by in a flash.
Gaby: So amazing. Thanks everyone!! And thank you so much, Meghan.
Brandon: Thanks Meghan!
Thelma: Yes, thank you!
Brandon: Bye everyone!
Mark: Night all
Gaby: See you all next month in the chat!
Mark: Thanks to Meghan and the board for another wonderful selection.
Brian S: Thanks to everyone for joining in tonight.