When The Pipes Inspired the Poets: A conversation with the Boiler House Poets Collective
In November of 2015, a dynamic group of poets convened in MASS MoCA (Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art) studios, some of which overlooked the old boiler house building, for a week-long intensive. The eponymous boiler house is left over from Sprague Electric Company, the former factory campus the museum now inhabits.
The bonds the poets forged during that week were so strong that they’ve returned each year (except for the first pandemic year of 2020) to continue writing, working, and growing together. Some poets left the group; others since joined. But as the collective itself evolves, the focus is always on the work. I was lucky enough to attend the reading they did of their work at MASSMoCA during their 2022 session, which was the inspiration for requesting this interview. Poets Joanne Corey, Ann Dernier, Merrill Douglas, Jessica Dubey, Hope Jordan, Marilyn McCabe, and Kay Morgan answered interview questions about their unique collective.
The Rumpus: Can you tell me a little about that first session?
Ann Dernier: That first year we organized an “unsanctioned” reading in the Boiler House, and videotaped it. That day, in what had been the former boiler room of the Sprague Electric Company, our voices, mixed with the recording component of Stephen Vitiello’s “All Those Vanished Engines” merged us with MASS MoCA and we became The Boiler House Poets.
Marilyn McCabe: The Boiler House held a magic, as it turned out, for all of us, with its sound installation clanging and pinging in the background, sun slanting through the pipes, pigeon feathers drifting, an occasional passerby pausing to listen.
Kay Morgan: That [reading] was the moment that the Boiler House Poets became a reality.
Dernier: The museum itself is partly why I returned year after year. The ever-changing installations helped to electrify the very thing we writers were endeavoring: to channel our own voices.
Many of the original poets created ekphrastic poems born from the galleries; responses to Louise Bourgeois, Titus Kaphar, Anselm Kiefer, Sol LeWitt. There is an atmospheric charge in that place, like a live wire. I wanted to be a part of it again and again.
Morgan: I shared a big studio with Gail DiMaggio and I can’t write this without mentioning the fantastic view of the Airstream Trailer installation which really became a touchstone for me in writing and thinking about the American dream. It is titled “All Utopias Fell,” by Michael Oatman.
Joanne Corey: Because most of our evenings were unstructured [that first year], we took to reading a selection of our poems for each other after dinner. It was the first time I had ever read more than three poems of mine at a time. It was so much fun! We learned a lot about each other’s lives through the poems and our conversations over those evenings. There was a lot of laughter, too.
Rumpus: How is a day working at the retreat different than a typical day set aside to focus on your work?
McCabe: It is incredibly inspiring to know that everyone around me is (theoretically) hard at work on their ambitions for the week, so out of that creative milieu I’m generally far more productive and focused there than a typical day. Also, it became my practice after that first retreat to do a group project, so I also think hard to come up with something I can engage everyone in. I made a video of each poet reading next to a piece in the museum that had inspired a poem that week, a soundscape using everyone’s voice speaking and singing a word that had significance for them, a videopoem based on an exquisite corpse we generated over the week. Those projects really pushed me out of my comfort zone and into some creative tinkering.
Hope Jordan: There’s really no such thing as a typical day set aside for my writing. I have a full-time job and a family, and I spend a great deal of my energy on those. In a typical week I can steal an hour or two for my writing. At the retreat, I could spend all day every day writing and it was absolutely glorious. I never had to think about making dinner or doing my job. I could focus just on what I wanted to write.
Jessica Dubey: Home is a cacophony of distractions. The beauty of having several continuous days dedicated to the art of writing is that the only distractions are ones that feed my writer’s soul. The first half of the day is what I make of it. I can plant myself in my studio and devote time to writing or editing. I can spend it at the MASS MoCA galleries, taking in new art or reexploring long-term exhibits. I have the town of North Adams to inspire and the Clark Museum as well. It’s up to me how I utilize this time. The rest of the day I’m with the group, critiquing poems, talking shop, or catching up on the lives of these amazing women who I’ve gotten to know over the last several years. Every minute is stimulating and inspiring.
Dernier: The excited pressure of having work upcoming in the afternoon workshop is the best difference.
Rumpus: How has being a member of the collective changed your process?
Corey: While I had written a few ekphrastic poems prior to our first residency, my interest and involvement with ekphrastic work has multiplied because of the BHPC. Several of our members, including Kyle Laws and Gail DiMaggio, have been an inspiration to me to pursue more ekphrastic work. With Kyle’s example and encouragement, I’ve taken part in The Ekphrastic Review Challenge series and had some poems chosen for publication. Also, I’ve recently assembled a chapbook manuscript of MASS MoCA ekphrastic poems and there are a number of ekphrastic poems in my full-length manuscript that centers on the North Adams area, its history, and my personal and family ties there.
My use of space in my work has been enhanced by being a BHPC member. In our initial year as a workshop-in-residence, convened as a collaboration between The Studios at MASS MoCA and Jeffrey Levine of Tupelo Press, we had an illuminating session led by Cassandra Cleghorn on the use of space in poems. Inspired by that and the example of BHPC poets Ann Denier and Jessica Dubey, I have continued to develop my skills in using spacing as an expressive technique in my work.
One of the things I love about the Boiler House Poets Collective is the opportunity to create collaborative works, such as “Avalon,” the videopoem Marilyn mentioned. It was accepted by the REELpoetry/Houston TX 2023 festival.
Merrill Douglas: The luxury of spending many hours alone at a desk while on retreat reminded me how important it is to be able to experiment, write badly, make false starts, take risks, etc. When writing time is limited, I feel pressure to produce something that seems “finished.” That’s not a good way to go at things! I think one needs (or at least I need) room to stretch out and mess around when working on poems. I get that on a retreat.
Dubey: Being part of the BHPC has made me accountable to work hard throughout the year and show up ready to contribute. Every poet who I’ve had the pleasure of sharing this time with is a poet worthy of respect and admiration. There is a tremendous level of creativity and talent amongst its ranks. From day one I’ve wanted to prove to myself that I deserved to be there.
Morgan: The intensity of Boiler House has taught me to listen more carefully to feedback and to appreciate revision instead of resisting it. It has also forced me to clarify my intention in my poems.
Dernier: I am able to confront issues faster. When I’m working alone at my desk and write a line that is too romantic or too remote, I can hear all the probable comments of those fellow poets.
One year we each had the opportunity to workshop an entire collection or chapbook of in-progress poems with the group. I recorded the group’s responses to my collection on my iPhone, knowing I would not be able to digest it all at once. I have listened to that recording many times. Those generous, hard-core responses help me back into the work.
The continuity of our years together has made the difference too. I know if I can just get myself and my jotted-down poems to North Adams, there is hope. Time folds. We get right back to work. We know how to help each other. We dive in. If something is thorny, confusing or worse, I hear about it. I could not ask for better readers.
Rumpus: Is there a specific line or set of lines that changed through discussion and feedback at one of the sessions that you would be willing to share?
Jordan: I had drafted a poem called “Song for My Grandchildren” and it ended with “Bloom, bloom, bloom.” The members of the group suggested I end it with “Sing, sing, sing,” to make it resonate more with the title and subject of the poem. That made a lot of sense to me. I ended up with “Sing, bloom, sing,” which felt just right to me.
Morgan: In just about every poem I’ve ever written, I have needed to “to cut the connective tissue,” and “get rid of the last two lines.” I am finally internalizing that as I revise!
Inevitably in a workshop session, someone voices an opinion about a line or a phrase, or the structure of the poem and someone else will immediately contradict and say they like it the way it is. That is the nature of the workshop beast, and in the final analysis, it’s up to the writer to decide what to do.
Rumpus: Has being a part of the collective helped you take more risks in your work? Would you be willing to share a specific example?
McCabe: I would never have done those group projects without a group of people I trusted to go on the adventure with me. I was always just kind of feeling my way along, so I would propose an outline of a plan, and the group would just say, “Okay, we’re in!” What a gift.
Corey: Definitely! I grew up near North Adams and attended high school there, so I thought I’d try to write a chapbook about the area and my relationship with it. The chapbook grew into a full-length collection, which I showed to BHPC. They thought I could do better, so I re-conceptualized it and presented it again to the group in a year in which we decided to workshop manuscripts instead of individual poems. Because of those discussions, I tore apart the manuscript, re-imagined, and assembled a third major revision, which I am currently submitting to publishers. It is definitely stronger than anything I would have been able to assemble without their counsel and encouragement. They helped me to take the risk of major revision rather than abandoning the project.
Morgan: For me, it’s just been an inspiration to send out my work more and to see myself as a “real” poet. In the last couple of years, I have taken more risks in terms of writing about some of the more painful parts of my past. I was married for ten years to an abusive husband. Below is a poem I wrote in a class I took with Tracy Brimhall in 2020, focused on The Body.
After Seeing Titian
I thought of you as a bison of a man
and I your blow-up plastic doll
used and squashed flat.
The obligatory you called it
after breakfast in bed.
I had no Titian to paint me
with a circlet of flowers in my hair
a long white dress, stark contrast
to your furred body. As hooves
dug into my shins and you bucked
and galloped across the bed,
lightning bolts flashed, thunder
boomed all around the field of sheets.
I never saw cupids fly across the ceiling
bows and arrows at the ready
only the digital clock
red numbers changing
with every minute that passed.
I grabbed your horn,
then closed my eyes.
after Titian, The Rape of Europa
Dernier: [For me] it all began with Sol LeWitt. I can only describe it as an epiphany in the multi-floor gallery of LeWitt’s “Wall Drawing Retrospective.”
I knew LeWitt wrote “how-to” instructions, and an artist collective created and installed the actual work, but I didn’t know his instructions read like this one:
Within a circle, draw 10,000 black straight lines and 10,000 black not straight lines. All lines are randomly spaced and equally distributed.
LeWitt embraced intentional vagueness. He provided space for interpretation. He set an expiration date, requiring that the walls be painted over at the end of an exhibition. Impermanence was a part of the art. (Returning to the museum year after year and being confronted by massive, elaborate installations; well, honestly, taking a risk in a poem didn’t seem like a very big challenge.) That day, in that space I wanted to embrace vagueness, to allow for varying interpretations and to anticipate impermanence. I was in the presence of those enormous tents of Francesco Clemente’s “Encampment,” Marco Ramirez Erre’s orange jumpsuits in “Them & Us,” and Jenny Holzer’s over-sized redacted detainee documents in “Deeper Look.”
At the center of this residency is the shared experience of the museum and its ever-changing contents. We were ready for anything any one of us tried. We were already on that same page.
What we share at MASS MoCA involves so much more than poems and art and conversation. It is the confluence of inclusive, expressive, impermanent, visionary, passionate yawps. Shout it over the rooftops. It is thrilling!
Installation photo supplied and used with permission from MASSMoCA
Left to right: Kay Morgan, Wendy Stewart, Joanne Corey, Jessica Dubey, Kyle Laws, Marilyn McCabe, Merrill Douglas, Hope Jordan (kneeling)
Photo supplied by Marilyn McCabe