Mari L’Esperance was the 2007 winner of the Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Poetry for her collection, THE DARKENED TEMPLE (published September 2008). Born in Kobe, Japan, she lives and writes in the San Francisco Bay area. She is a two-time Pushcart Prize nominee, a recipient of residency fellowships from Hedgebrook and Dorland Mountain Arts Colony, and a graduate of New York University’s creative writing program.
As a fellow alum of the NYU writing program, jmww contributor Ashlie Kauffman met L’Esperance in California when her book came out. She recently chatted with her online about her thoughts on the lyric (versus narrative or dramatic) form, her writing process and influences, the autobiographical nature of her book (whose central reflections focus on the disappearance of her mother in 1995), and her experiences assembling and promoting it.
Ashlie Kauffman: I was really captivated by your work, mostly because of the very careful lyric structure that you work in. Can you comment on what you think the lyric as a form or structure allows you to do in your writing? Or alternately, why you’re drawn to it?
Mari L’Esperance: Thanks—I’m essentially a lyric poet and it’s the form that most appeals to me in the work of others. The form allows for an intense concentration of sense, sound, and image, as well as the ability to make leaps in the same that don’t feel as possible in other, more expansive forms.
AK: Can you talk about the leaps? I think sometimes in the lyric I think of that turn that’s normally at the end—but I suppose that can come anywhere—as additional “probing,” but I like how you say “leaps” instead. It suggests some kind of opening.
ML’E: Yes, an opening, or a signal to the reader that they’re now being taken in another direction. In my poem “Trying to Carry It,” there’s a leap from the speaker’s rumination on her mother’s disappearance to a deer hunter, and then, in the second verse paragraph, a long rumination on a prisoner of war about to be executed. That’s a lot to bring into a relatively short poem.
AK: I had just turned to that poem again right before getting online. That comparison to the deer hunter really drew me in—and it does seem like an opening in the poem into a very different world, almost as if you could walk into a tunnel through the poem and come out somewhere else, which is what that second stanza/strophe is doing with the prisoner of war.
ML’E: Strophe—now there’s a word I don’t use every day! 🙂
AK: No one uses it! I get very frustrated. But I’ve stopped correcting people 🙂
ML’E: I like your metaphor of a tunnel or passageway, not knowing what it’s going to open out into. Really, reading a poem is like that, not to mention writing one. Those kinds of surprises—feeling like one has been landed in a new country, and without warning—is what I love about the lyric.
AK: Do you ever find that the lyric doesn’t allow you to do certain things you want? Or are there certain ways you’re challenged by it?
ML’E: The challenge for me is mostly around the smallness of the container, one that isn’t appropriate for all material or voices. (I’m trying to imagine Whitman trying to accommodate his poet persona to the short lyric.) But I think the short/shorter lyric form suits me—the person and the poet.
AK: That’s an interesting point about it not being able to contain all things. I have that same struggle when writing, and I’m really only a lyric poet, too. I find myself writing multiple versions of poems, mainly because I can’t fit all of the ideas together that I’m trying to connect.
ML’E: Yes, which is why many poets write essays or memoir—some material demands a larger container.
AK: But I love the compression of it, the intense emotion. It really serves your themes very well, particularly in this book.
ML’E: Yes, the compression, that’s the word I wanted earlier! As for writing multiple versions of the same poem: poets tend to be obsessive characters (I’m certainly one) and I do think we spend our writing lives writing the same poem over and over, in terms of our thematic and aesthetic concerns.
AK: How do you get into writing a poem—into the frame of mind for it? Or how does it happen for you?
ML’E: I can spend weeks, even months, feeling lost, not knowing what to write about. I’ll be aware of “sprouts” of imaginings—images, themes—but don’t do much about them besides ruminate, maybe jot things down, follow this or that thread in my mind. I may write other things during this “lost” period…but when the material finally coheres internally and I think it’s ready to be committed to the page (or screen), I generally start by reading poets whose work is close to me—right now it’s Jane Mead, Allison Benis White, Beth Bachmann—and then see what comes.
AK: I also often have that desire to look at other poets’ work—really to get myself into my emotions, into feeling deeply, which is where I need to write from.
ML’E: Yes, reading other poets seems to get the internal juices flowing and to channel them where they need to go to fuel the nascent poem. I also do a lot of fretting that I’m not writing enough—I wish I were one of those poets who HAS to write all the time. But I’m not.
AK: It’s so hard to find time to write when the “real world” is there.
ML’E: Not only finding the time, but MAKING the time!!!
AK: Who are your other influences, poetry-wise?
ML’E: Influences: so many, so many. And not only poetic. I’ve loved the work of many poets, teachers and others: Phil Levine, Jane Mead (one of my earliest teachers, before grad school)… Brenda Hillman’s DEATH TRACTATES, which I first encountered as a graduate student, blew me away—I think it’s her best book, to this day. My poetics have been influenced by many things, including poets: my Japanese heritage is a huge one; also Stanley Kunitz, William Stafford, Jean Valentine…it feels like a disservice to name because I end up leaving so many out. And I’m a big believer in dreams and the unconscious and how those influence our art.
AK: DEATH TRACTATES also influenced me a lot—I discovered Brenda Hillman while at NYU as well.
ML’E: I bought my copy at the NYU bookstore—what a coincidence!
AK: I really was betting you would name Elizabeth Bishop.
ML’E: Funny, I admire Bishop, but I don’t LOVE her work. I can see why you’d draw that conclusion, though. There are flavors of her style in my poems (the restraint and the image-driven aspect)…
AK: Yes I always think of her as a master of restraint and compression—and images.
ML’E: That’s for sure… In fact, I now want to read her again after this conversation.
AK: “Blown roses” in your poem “The Night Garden” is an image Bishop used in her poem “The Fish”—I only know that because I used it subconsciously in a poem once, several years after I had done an intense study of her work.
ML’E: Isn’t that funny how phrases and fragments from other poets find their way under our skin, lying hidden, yet charged and accessible at any moment? I was completely unconscious of “blown roses” being Bishop’s. Oops. Do I owe her a belated credit?
AK: Though you are actually describing “blown roses” and she is describing a fish.
ML’E: That’s right—the literal versus the metaphoric.
AK: I think three words or less don’t need credited 😉
AK: You mentioned Japan. In terms of the themes you’re exploring in your book, how does that sensibility influence you or allow you to explore them—particularly in terms of this book containing many elegiac poems? This also connects to my wondering about how lyric structure serves your themes…
ML’E: Yes…my mother was Japanese (born and raised) and taught me much about Japanese culture and the arts. I visit Japan as often as I’m able—every other year or so—and it’s a place that is very close to my heart… The Japanese value sadness—in fact, beauty and sadness go hand in hand. Films and stories have indeterminate, often sad endings, which can frustrate many Westerners. I think this intrinsic valuing of sadness and beauty, combined, is what fuels many of the poems in my book. And the Japanese are also stoic and value endurance, accepting what life has handed to them…which, on a collective level, has been a hindrance to them as a nation. But this endurance and acceptance are part of my poetic sensibility.
AK: That’s so illuminating. I hadn’t thought of that, but it’s something that almost seems key to poetry.
ML’E: Lyric structure provides necessary containment for difficult material. And there are those leaps again—so necessary to relieve internal pressure at critical points in the poem.
AK: That makes me almost think of the lyric structure and writing a lyric poem as getting on an exercise machine…
ML’E: Ha! 🙂
AK: …something that allows the release or working out of experience and emotion.
ML’E: Yes… I can see the connection. But it’s not just for the release with the poem; it’s to transform the material into a symbolic other, something new. It’s like alchemy, really, the gestation and writing of the lyric, or any poem, for that matter. But mostly with the lyric (in my view).
AK: You also mentioned dreams and the unconscious as influences…can you talk about that at all?
ML’E: We all dream and we all have an unconscious, where dreams reside. Often I wonder where some of my poems come from (the unconscious or whatever one likes to call that mysterious, unknowable otherworld), and sometimes it feels more clear (remembered dreams, actual waking life experiences, readings, films, memories, etc). There’s a confluence of elements that occurs under pressure—images and impulses from the unconscious, images and prompts from the conscious life, the body—at a particular time and in a particular way that make the poem possible. Dreams are raw material for poems, but also teach us much about our internal life.
AK: That’s interesting—I almost had the experience reading your book as if there was both the world and the otherworld in it. There’s this expression of the real and the unreal, or I mean to say, the real and the invisible. “The Night Garden” deals with that—the ending phrase, “what we cannot know.”
ML’E: I love that, Ashlie—that’s exactly what I appreciate about the best poems—when the world as we know it and an unknowable otherworld (the invisible) come together in language and image.
AK: That’s a great way to put it.
ML’E: Yes, “The Night Garden” pretty directly addresses the unconscious or the unknowable otherworld.
AK: Almost how the symbols of language allow meaning to come through, but we don’t really know if we’re getting all of it—it’s like we just sense it. That’s what I love about these poems centering on your mother and her disappearance, and the acceptance of that—almost like religious faith. Trust in the world.
ML’E: Yes, so much of writing the poem—and you may experience this, too—is sensing rather than knowing. And trusting. I do think that I’ve had to do a lot of acceptance around my mother’s still-unresolved disappearance (she went missing in 1995, while I was at NYU) and have faith that something beyond me is unfolding as it should. That trust you’ve mentioned…that’s “accepting”!
AK: Your poem “What’s Possible” says this in a really beautiful way, as well: “How does one go back/to repair the bridge? I don’t know. Listen:/The rain keeps falling the way it has to./The begonias make the exact shape/they were meant to make. Such possibility.”
ML’E: I wrote that poem in workshop at NYU and a couple of people commented that the ending was confusing. But it felt right to me, and so I kept it. I have no regrets.
AK: Wow, I’m impressed that you were able to include a poem from then. Are the poems in the book from a wide time period?
ML’E: Yes, very wide—about a third were written in grad school, the rest after. There were several years when I wasn’t writing at all—I was dealing with my mother’s situation, which was completely consuming—psychically, emotionally, and practically—and also returned to graduate school. So it was some years before I could begin to turn my attention again to poem making with any kind of focus. It’s been a journey!
AK: What was it like to assemble the book—especially in terms of working with poems from a range of various years? What did that process entail?
ML’E: That’s an excellent question. I was very aware that I wanted the collection to have a particular shape, a “narrative arc,” if you will. With this in mind, choosing and arranging the poems was largely an intuitive process and took me a couple of days, with a few tweaks here and there in the weeks that followed. The three sections can be described thusly: the first is a circling or gathering, featuring poems that address traumatic loss from personal, cultural, and historic perspectives. The poems in the second section take the reader down into the depths of the speaker’s experience of traumatic loss and focus on the central theme. Finally, the third section relieves the intensity and pressure of the second section with poems that embody a sense of emergence and release. Taking the manuscript as a whole, there’s (to me) a sense of having descended into the underworld and then returned to some semblance of hope by book’s end.
AK: The structuring you’re describing points perfectly to why I had that feeling of there being an otherworld in the book. And I had noticed how you didn’t just place all of the poems about your mother and her disappearance together, and was curious about that. And I like how you say you began with the “circling.” It really helps establish themes—and also tone.
ML’E: The material isn’t easy to take in and needed to be approached obliquely—this held for me as well when I was writing the poems. Regarding the circling, tonality is important to me—that and pacing.
AK: The poem “Something Coming Apart” stood out for me in that first section in a number of ways. It’s the first of the more personal poems, and is also very understated in how it begins to connect things. That’s similar to what you’re saying I think about how you structured the book—getting into the deeper, more autobiographical material, in the middle of it. The first section of the poem describes a boy building a model airplane, but the boy isn’t identified. It’s not until the middle of the poem, when the boy is older, that we learn there is a connection to the speaker. So I like how you approach the poem’s heart obliquely, as you had put it. Is this a conscious choice for how you delved into the autobiographical material in this poem?
ML’E: Looking back, I think my choice was both conscious and unconscious. I’m often ambivalent about how much “fact” to disclose or not disclose, to tell straight or slant. It creates a palpable tension for me. Overall, I want every poem I write to reach and resonate beyond the merely personal, and this is very conscious.
AK: It’s interesting how that tension you describe comes across in the poem, I think both in the images (the “gull-white” body of the airplane that later in the poem is recalled by the “dreary gulls” circling the parking lot) and also in the very stark statements near the poem’s end: “I lie awake for days,” “Something fails to translate.”
ML’E: Your observation makes me consider the starkness of this poem, the lifelessness and colorlessness embodied in tone and image. This was necessary (although not fully conscious at the time of writing it) to amplify the subject’s state of mind, and the speaker’s in empathy with the subject. The poem has a washed-out, dead, “hospital white” feeling to it, to my mind. It’s interesting to reflect upon this years later.
AK: I do see that feeling in it—the hospital white. It also amplifies the empathy the reader can have…almost like being under florescent lights and being exposed.
ML’E: Yes… that kind of flatness and absence.
AK: Can you talk about the autobiographical nature of the book, in terms of exposure and what you were talking about in terms of wanting the poems to reach and resonate beyond the personal?
ML’E: The central theme, which I believe is fairly obvious, is the disappearance of my mother (when I was 33 and a student at NYU). But my hope is that the manuscript as a whole, even individual poems, manage to transcend mere autobiography, as reducing it to the fact of my mother’s disappearance would be just that—reductive. I have also concluded (and I’m going to get archetypal here) that the book says something about the devaluation of the feminine in our culture—that the “disappeared mother” also represents the feminine that has been exiled or subsumed in favor of the masculine ethos (in both men and women).
AK: And is the latter part of what you’re saying here part of that palpable tension you described? About when you were writing and assembling the book?
ML’E: The realization about the exiled/devalued feminine came after the book was published, so it was not conscious to me while writing the poems or assembling the manuscript.
AK: And yet it’s very topical of course to so much in current-day life, so perhaps is one of those subconscious influences.
ML’E: I think so…
AK: Did you have any reticence or nervousness when the manuscript was selected for publication and it came time to publish the manuscript, because of it being so autobiographical?
ML’E: Yes, I did have apprehensions and ambivalence, and still do. I’ve always felt that the material is too darkly personal and would scare readers away. This feeling has dissipated somewhat as I’ve received positive responses to the book. But I still carry these feelings, to a degree. I’m not sure that most poetry readers want to descend that far into their psychic depths when reading a book of poetry! But we write what we have to write and hope that the work finds its way into the hands of those who most need it.
AK: I think that’s one of the draws of writing and reading for me is to connect on a really deep level, like that William Carlos Williams quote suggests about men dying every day “for lack/of what is found there,” in poems. It’s from the poem “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower”. I’m reading Cormac McCarthy’s THE ROAD right now and of course question why I’m drawn to such dark things, but I am! Men die for lack of what’s in poems.
ML’E: Cormac McCarthy’s work is an excellent example of how starved our culture is for real depth, for connection with our own disavowed shadow. Instead, we choose vapid entertainment like slash horror and teenage vampire movies (although there’s nothing wrong with “vapid” entertainment now and then—we all need that from time to time) that we can forget as soon as we’ve consumed it.
AK: I think from your poems I get that kind of “connection to my source” experience. And that is the whole “reaching out” exchange between the writer and reader that is so wonderful about actually holding a physical book in your hands.
ML’E: Yes, that one-of-a-kind, intimate relationship one has with the reader, with the poem as a mediating “third.”
AK: There is a line that begins one of your poems, “Book of Ash,” that is close to the line that opens Louise Glück’s book, THE WILD IRIS. This must be a reference to something I’m not familiar with. Your line is “Near the end of my searching/I came to a door.” Hers is, “At the end of my suffering/there was a door.” That line really encapsulates the point of delving into suffering. I found it to be such a profound spot in your manuscript.
ML’E: Yes—I didn’t discover the similarity to Glück’s line until after I’d written the poem; it was something that spoke to me subconsciously, I guess. I subsequently did a bit of tweaking. And the poem loosely references a story I read about Maxine Hong Kingston losing her only book manuscript in the Oakland fire, only to discover it after the fact as a nearly intact ream of white ash where she’d left it.
AK: Now that I re-read it again, I’m amazed at how the reference to Hong Kingston’s manuscript works so well with also carrying the meaning of the mental searching for the mother that characterizes this middle section.
ML’E: Thanks—who knows where poems come from! It’s a mystery to me…
AK: As a side note re: the line, it obviously resonated for me from Glück’s poem so much as well, because I haven’t read that book for at least 10 years—probably 15!
ML’E: That is a totemic poem in that book of hers—I’m sure the feeling is shared by many of her readers.
AK: But it’s amazing how we can “hear” and carry poems in our head for so long.
ML’E: Yes—the ones that matter most!
AK: Can you speak on the experience for you of doing readings as a part of promoting your book? And maybe what’s next for you in terms of book promotion?
ML’E: Ah, readings. They’ve gotten easier with practice (I’ve done about 16 since the book was published—not many by some folks’ standards, but it’s felt like a marathon for this introvert). I’m mulling and toying with new poems, but the transition from the book, which was an intense, long-term project for me (about 12 years) with many peaks and troughs, has been challenging, but things are becoming more clear in that regard. Meanwhile, I’m biting the bullet and getting ready to launch a website in the next few weeks. I’ll read in Lincoln, NE in mid-February as part of a celebration of Prairie Schooner Book Prize winners. And I’m appreciating making connections with poets far and near (including you!), on Facebook and elsewhere—something I’d missed for so long…
For more about Mari, check out Brian Brodeur’s How A Poem Happens.