LIDIA VIANU -- MARY MICHAELS
I aim for absolute clarity
Interview with MARY MICHAELS (born 17 August 1946), British poet
Published in LIDIA VIANU, Desperado Essay-Interviews, Editura Universitatii din Bucuresti, 2006
LIDIA VIANU: Your poetry is both warm and impersonal. Your life is your life and your poems are another world. Is poetry meant to be a diary today, or a record of emotions whose reality must not be revealed? How much of your life do you put in your poems?
MARY MICHAELS: In one sense a lot of my life goes into my poems – in a very concentrated form (poetry is a very concentrated form of writing). All my work starts in lived experience; waking experience, the experience of a dream, very occasionally (as in Gymnopédie and The Traveller) the experience of another work of art. More precisely, each poem starts with an event which carries some kind of emotional charge and significance. The event usually catches me unawares and in writing the poem I attempt to catch its significance by giving it form in words. At the same time, however, as soon as I begin to focus on it, the experience moves into the realm of the impersonal, almost the public, ‘out there’ beyond me, detached from myself.
If the collection of poems does in the end constitute a sort of record or diary it is a very haphazard one: I have no such project or plan (I don’t even ‘write every day’ as many poets say they do). Each poem, to me, is a discrete entity. Paradoxically, in view of your sense of emotions being hidden, it is the emotional charge that I try to re-create but I feel I can only do so by re-creating the event.
LV. Could you reveal a few major coordinates of your life, such as education, profession, family? What have you studied, what do you do for a living? Do you have children? What do you think is the axis of your life?
MM. I come from a lower middle class London family: small business people on both sides. My mother worked as costings clerk: my father was a shop-worker who started up his own grocery when I was very small. I was only the second person in my extended family to go on to higher education after secondary school. I took a BA at Bristol University, on a modular degree course covering Philosophy, Theology and the History of Art. Subsequently, while working, I took a professional qualification in librarianship and after another long interval an M.A. in Existential Psychology. I have done a large number of different jobs; teaching, training, working as a publisher’s representative, as an administrator in a charity and then in a small firm, librarian and information officer in charities and, most recently, a long stint as a legal librarian. By contrast I have lived with the same partner in the same London house for many years. I have no children.
Rather than describing it as revolving round an axis I think I see my life as the traveling of a circuit around various fixed points; family, friends, paid work, writing and so on, each requiring attention, in differing amounts at different times. But writing is certainly very important.
LV. Why did you choose poetry? Have you also tried fiction or any other kind of writing?
MM. In lyric poetry you can say a great deal in very few words. I like the compression of the form. I have written some short monologues of which one has been published and one broadcast and some other prose pieces that fall between genres; they could be radio plays for several voices or texts for the page. These are fictional; I make up the voices. But in general, I don’t think I have a story-spinning imagination and I certainly don’t have the ability to tolerate uncertainty that the writing of a full length novel would require.
I have also written poetry reviews and occasional pieces on other women poets and visual artists. And, of course, a lot of academic essays (having been a student three times).
LV. In one of your poems you talk about Australia. Are you related to that country in any way? The poem Conversation mentions a dead brother. Was he real? Is your poetry close to fact or do you prefer to imagine situations for emotions that happened in a very private environment, which you would rather not reveal?
MM. Three sets of cousins on my mother’s side emigrated to Australia shortly after marriage and had their families there. But the reference in Conversation is to the fact that the death of my only brother, at the age of 32, took place in that country. My one visit to Australia was following this. The poem sprang out of a series of dreams I had over the subsequent few months. The Ice Land came from another dream.
As I’ve already said, poems for me always start in lived experience; I never ‘make things up’. In fact the suspicion that I might be beginning to ‘make it up’ as I write accounts for many a sheet of paper being consigned to the waste bin. My aim is to capture the experience as accurately as I can.
Once the poem begins to take form, however, it begins to make its own demands; in terms of rhythm, and of what I can only describe as its sculptural or architectural shape. So then the task is to find the words that will meet these demands without sacrificing accuracy.
LV. The poem Candle is a delicate and deep investigation of the near-sleep, the verge of sleep, as you call it. Your whole poetry has a tenderness that can be associated with the surrender to sleep. You write lines starving for the protection of the peaceful night, when all you can do is feed on your sensibility. Is emotion the core of your writing, or do you see your poetry as centered upon imagination of incidents, of stories, of characters?
MM. It is the emotional charge of an event that furnishes the incident and characters of the poem and pushes it to completion and I can’t separate out the one from the other.
I do think Candle however, could be taken as an analogy for the kind of
half-focused attention that has to be paid to experience in order to write; something between inward looking and inward listening.
LV. A poem like Late resorts to the universe of very familiar gestures, such as putting up clothes to dry upon a line in the evening. Your words are all familiar and shy. Your voice is both delicate and penetrating. Do you see yourself as a bold sensibility? Are your poems bold?
MM. I think they are often bold in manner and sometimes in matter. I aim for absolute clarity and that can be startling.
Late presents a familiar action in what was, to me, an unfamiliar place; a rather remote village in southern Spain. It was the first time I had lived in a Mediterranean country and I was enraptured by the quality of the colours and the light.
LV. The Square is a poem about the need for power, the power to bring the pigeons down, to stop their flight, and, implicitly, to start it when the poet wants. Have you ever dreamed about flying? Would it be very wrong for me to say that your poems are all like short flights which end on the ground only because the bird/poet has to rest before the next trip?
MM. The Square is certainly about power; the revolutionary power of the person who deliberately contravenes the rules of the authoritarian city (‘no one is allowed to feed the pigeons here’); the power of the birds themselves (who can push themselves up and down against the force of gravity) and the power of the dream realm in which I can experience myself as a man, with no sense of incongruity. It was originally published as the final piece in a group of poems about pigeons, which – sometimes light-heartedly – encapsulated the contradictory feelings they arouse in city dwellers, some of whom want to feed them and others to have them shot.
I cannot ever remember flying in my dreams: my recurrent dreams are more prosaic – missing a bus or train, sitting an exam for which I’ve not prepared, standing up to read my poems to an audience and finding I haven’t got them with me.
I am interested in your analogy ‘the poems as short flights’; I have never thought of it that way before.
LV. Continuity is a half-sad, half-funny (in precisely that order) poem about the monotony and the precious peace, at the same time, of everyday gestures, such as tying an apron in the kitchen. Your poems deal with what is apparently a small universe of small gestures, but the halo of tenderness of your lines is all-pervading. When you write, does sensibility or does wit come first?
MM. The poem starts with an indefinable inkling of something.
LV. Unrealized is an indirect love poem. Oblique yet very intense. Shy, mostly. You do not rip love open in your lines, you prefer gazing at it from the distance of your soul high up, while your body crawls helplessly on the floor of life. In short, you are very much a meditative poet. Do you ever write for the sake of mere poignant emotion, before having had time to filter it into a thought?
MM. I think of Unrealized as an erotic poem, rather than a love poem. And perhaps the word is sly rather than shy! The title plays on the two possible meanings of unrealized; something that’s not apprehended and something that hasn’t actually come to pass.
Yes, I am sometimes tempted to write from immediate emotion but those pieces always feel false and I don’t finish them.
LV. The Tin is a sad admission of creeping age. Your mother comes first and your heart aches. Laughter, which is mentioned obsessively, hides tears. This is not the first time the poem hides its topic. You are secretive in what you write. Would it be poetry if you stated your emotions plainly? Is it more that an inherent strategy of poetry? Are you usually careful not to be found out in your poems?
MM. Strangely, I feel that I am at my most self-revealing in my writing. But I am said to be a very private person and I suppose it would be unlikely for that habit of being not to carry over into what I do.
LV. In Music you say:
but I see everything.
This is a splendid description of the way you communicate with your readers. Too much decoding of your lines would smash their charm. What do you think of dry, deconstructing criticism, that treats the text as a pretext for witty analysis? What kind of criticism do you favour?
MM. I read hardly any literary criticism. When I have done so I have usually been surprised by it and found it quite distant from my experience as a writer and a reader. I have always preferred just to read books, think about them and then read them again. This led me to part company with literature as an academic study in my first year of University.
I do however believe it is possible for criticism to illuminate a writer’s work so that the reader can come into a closer relationship with it. The book Imagining Characters by A.S. Byatt and Ingrid Sodre (which deals with a selection of twentieth century British and American novels) does that. However I know that the approach this book takes is not fashionable. I don’t at all like the idea of using other people’s writing to demonstrate one’s own cleverness though I understand the temptation.
LV. Sea Road ends with the sentence ‘I am ready to walk the sea.’ Flying, walking waters. Your mind certainly hungers after forbidden realms. At the end of this interview, do you place yourself in any literary context? Could you mention a number of literary friends? Would you accept being called a Desperado poet?
MM. I meet regularly with two groups of friends for discussion of work in progress; Frances Presley and Brian Docherty; Sara Boyes, Barbara Zanditon and Katherine Gallagher, all of whom write in very different ways.
I think the voice of my poetry is British (as opposed to North American), female and twentieth (moving into twenty-first) century. That is the broad context. I have tended to see my aesthetic as modernist (which is not, of course, avant-garde).
In the sense of the dictionary definition of Desperado, ‘one ready for any deed of lawlessness or violence’, I cannot see myself this way. But I can relate to the way you use the word in the context of contemporary literature. I am aware that my work differs from the discursive mode of mainstream British poetry, and seems to move at a tangent to the habitual expectations of readers. For instance, I have always been concerned to create a body of work in which poems do not repeat each other; it has come as a surprise to find that the resultant variety is not always regarded as a virtue. Similarly I use some metrical devices but am not interested in metre as such; at the same time am not dogmatically bound to free verse – I don’t feel I have to eliminate a rhyme if one should happen to pop up. And in some of my most recent pieces I find myself midway between poem and prose.
A reviewer recently wrote of The Shape of the Rock;
‘One has a sense of Michaels persistently starting over; no one poem predicts the next either in content or prosody; just as one is tempted to place her as the cool-eyed empiricist (consider the deliberately prosaic Callé de Jesus the stripped of all decoration Lade Halt...) one runs up against her myth-making in The Traveller, a piece... as clear-eyed as her unlyrical observations, but leaving the reader in little doubt that something lies outside the bare bones of the facts... Lineation and stanza groupings are equally unfixed from poem to poem... Perhaps this is a function of her relative unformedness as a poet or perhaps (as I suspect) it is a conscious choice... If so, that reflects a courageous aesthetic but a tough one to live up to.’ (Peter Armstrong, Other Poetry, II/23, 2003)
That seems to suggest a certain reckless lawlessness, doesn’t it?