Jeredith Merrin is the author of two poetry collections—Shift (a finalist for Lambda Poetry Book Award) and Bat Ode. Her current poetry manuscript CUP is finished and circulating. She's published a book of criticism, An Enabling Humility: Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop and the Uses of Tradition. Her essays and reviews on Moore, Bishop, Randall Jarrell, Billy Collins, John Clare, Kenneth Koch and others have appeared in The Southern Review and elsewhere, and her poems may be found in such journals as The Hudson Review, Ploughshares, The Paris Review, Slate, The Southern Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, and The Yale Review.
This interview was conducted through email by Interview Editor April Hanks. She said of the process, “Jeredith was so sweet and wonderful to work with! I love her poetry, which feels extremely personal and honest. I particularly enjoy 'Moving' and 'Big Sister' from her first collection, Shift.” In this interview she discusses inspiration, jazz music, and women in the literary world.
Superstition Review: How do your poems take shape? At what point during the composing process do you decide on a form?
Jeredith Merrin: No particular point. You could say the poem and I sit down and decide together, over a cup of coffee. Each poem is an occasion, and each occasion has its own form. One love poem in Shift, for example, kept to a secret rule of least one “o” in every line, and the title poem surprised me by coming out quickly in slant-rhyme triplets! Working on my second collection, Bat Ode, I was writing a lot of couplets—non-metrical, conversational, mostly slant-rhymed couplets. (I adopted/adapted this form from my partner, the poet Diane Furtney.) Each poem in that book, of course, still has its particular rhythms and rhymes. Working in such a relaxed form somehow helped me widen the focus—from my immediate family to a broader circle of social observation. My current manuscript incorporates all kinds of forms: free-verse poems, a prose poem, a haiku, some work in meter and rhyme, and a sequence of 10-line poems with 10 syllables per line.
SR: Several of the poems in Shift refer to the Berkeley area. In what ways does location inspire or affect your work?
JM: Well, I wouldn't describe myself as a poet of a particular location, a “Berkeley poet” or a “California poet.” I've lived in Oregon, Ohio, Canada… On the other hand, I'm a visual poet, and in that sense location is everything. When I was in San Francisco, I had to get in the particular way the light glints off old metal fire escapes in that cool, ocean city. When my partner and I lived in Ohio I had to get in limestone court houses, pie shops, and the small-town corner of “Fourth & Main.” Here in Arizona, I've got new poems with palm trees, scorpions, and lots of granite chips! You asked about Berkeley, specifically, though. Berkeley was a place/time that, for me, meant the possibility of CHANGE. I'd been a poor single mother, teaching composition at a small college, grading papers constantly in coffee shops, pausing now and then to draft a poem on a napkin. After a few years of teaching composition and completing my English M.A. (mostly in Anglo-Saxon, Chaucer, and early Renaissance poets such as Thomas Wyatt), I was admitted to U.C. Berkeley's Ph.D. program. I'd also just met someone remarkable, and (after having been divorced twice) found myself happily involved with a woman, another writer. Amazing: I was in love again, in a new way. I was in a new place where everything (even writing books!) seemed possible.
SR: I found the Blackmail section of Shift incredibly powerful because it felt so personal. How much of your writing is inspired by things that happen in your own life?
JM: Thank you. And the answer would be: all of it. Some of my poems, like most of those early ones in Shift, are, as I've said, intensely personal, domestic lyrics. Others are more interested in the wider world of people, creatures, ideas—the world outside the self. But anything you make is, of course, jolted by your own experience—memories, fresh information, pleasures, pains… All art is autobiographical, as Picasso said, just before he added, “and there is no such thing as autobiographical art.” Then there is so much else that goes into the making of any particular kind of artwork—dance, architecture, painting, poetry…
SR: One of your poems, “Lisa Reading” says, “And now I am thinking how reading, like college, becomes for some an endless preparation for lives they will not live.” How does this line reflect or reject your own feelings about reading?
JM: Let's see. That poem, one of my first published poems, is a kind of meditation on the “other worlds” offered by reading, which was such an important part of my life and of my daughter's life when we were living alone together, in poverty. It was very beautiful to see her sitting at one end of our large sofa (the single piece of decent furniture I'd purchased)—Lisa engaged in what reading was to her, while I was sitting at the other end, engaged in what reading was for me: both of us dreaming, and yearning. I was studying to become a writer and also a teacher, to make a living, a better life. As to the sentence you quote: I've known a lot of people who seem to stay on and on in college, somewhat aimlessly. I mean the poem in no way to be a condemnation of reading, or of readers. (And, apropos readers, allow me to make a pitch for Changing Hands Bookstore, that landmark Tempe resource which was founded by members of my extended family.)
SR: Many of the poems in Shift and Bat Ode have dedications. When you write these poems, do you write with the person in mind or do you dedicate it after it is written? Please explain.
JM: Yes. I've written with a person in mind; hence the dedication when the poem is finished.
SR: You recently retired from being a professor at The Ohio State University. There you won many teaching awards, such as “Graduate Professor of the Year.” Could you explain what you learned about writing from your years as a professor?
JM: I'd have to say it was reading which taught me the most about writing—years and years of staying up late, reading poems with which I lived in secret conversation. What I learned from being a professor (besides, hopefully, how to orchestrate or choreograph goings-on in a classroom) was how to listen to my students, who taught me many things, including how best to teach them. People learn best (as small children learn to read from their parents) in an atmosphere of affection. Assault them with knowledge and they retreat behind walls like a city under siege. There has to be human warmth (un-smarmy, un-condescending warmth), with some real exchange of pleasure.
SR: Even though you have retired from being a professor, you continue to speak at conferences and workshops. In what ways do you find it important to help developing poets?
JM: I want to encourage and spend time with anyone who wants to pay attention to human experience and make something beautiful in words.
SR: In a statement with How a Poem Happens, you said, “If you know exactly where you are going you are bored, and probably also boring.” What roles do spontaneity and, conversely, direction have in your writing process?
JM: Yes, that's on Brian Bodeur's interesting website, where he asks each poet he interviews to talk about how one particular poem (he picks the poem) came into being. And your question is also interesting—and complicated. The “direction” I think for me is mostly in the preparedness. You have this toolbox for poetry because you've studied the craft, so you know that if a line seems to want to “go metrical” you can do that, and you know rhetorical patterns of repetition, and so on. It's not really a conscious effort, because you've internalized these things that help the poem more or less spontaneously evolve. The revision process uses the same toolbox, but it's more consciously directed; you're stepping back a bit to assess the work. But the end product should seem natural and unlabored, for sure—as Elizabeth Bishop once wrote, “fresh as paint.” Your question about spontaneity also reminds me that Bishop once listed what she liked in poetry: “Accuracy, Spontaneity, and Mystery.”
SR: I read that you enjoy jazz music. As a fellow jazz lover, I was wondering what you think jazz and poetry have in common.
JM: Hmm. We could go with that last quotation, don't you think? “Accuracy, Spontaneity, and Mystery.” I love the vocals of Anita O'Day and the cool jazz piano of Bill Evans more than I can say. I'm writing these answers at home, in response to your e-mailed questions (and with Milt Jackson [vibes] and Sonny Stitt [alto sax] in the background), but when we meet in person, I'm going to ask about your favorite jazz musicians!
SR: Throughout your career you have published poetry, essays, and literary criticism. Please explain the approach you take when writing poetry versus nonfiction.
JM: I read and re-read and take many pages of notes before I write a critical essay or chapter or review. I spend more time taking walks when I'm working on a poem. Questions keep assembling and re-assembling, in both cases.
SR: According to An Enabling Humility, you began studying Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Bishop at the beginning of your graduate career. What got you interested in these women?
JM: Thanks for having a look at that book! Well, I'd actually read some of Moore's and most of Bishop's work by 1980 when I went to Berkeley. (Bishop died in 1979.) At that moment in American academic circles, each was undervalued, I felt—not only by what was then known as “patriarchal” (mainstream male) criticism, but also by the new feminist critics. Bishop was adored by poets (Robert Lowell & friends), yet treated in predominantly male academic circles as a literary lightweight, a nice little describer of Nature; Moore was marginalized as an old-maidish eccentric, nowhere near as important as her male contemporaries. Early on at Berkeley I attended a women's reading group at which a well-known feminist critic remarked that Moore and Bishop both wrote “to please men.” Well, that was certainly mis-information! Moore wrote, as she indicated (by putting her words in the mouth of an elephant [!] in her early poem “Melancthon”), to “please/no one but myself.” So I began An Enabling Humility as a kind of champion of female poets who were important to me, each for her particular invention and courage. Moore was a collector who showed me a lot about making a poetic “gathering.” Bishop was closer to my heart, you could say, since many of her interests or writerly obsessions were also mine: How can you get psychological complexities into simple language? What can you cook up from staple ingredients such as personal sorrow, close physical observation, and a willingness to be amused? How can external description also work as description of internal life?
SR: “Family Reunion” has become very popular and is one of your best-known poems. What about this poem do you think makes it stand out to people?
JM: Well, I think people recognize the “modern family” aspect of that poem—that it's both sad and funny: all the divorces, and trying to keep straight relations such as “The divorcing daughter's child, who is/the step-nephew of the ex-husband's/adopted son.” Hopefully, too, there's something strange as well about the poem—it ends quite a ways from where it begins.
SR: Describe your current writing space.
JM: I like that question. Writers always want to know about these very physical circumstances, don't they? Where do you sit when you write, and what kind of pen or laptop do you use? At ASU's Desert Nights, Rising Stars conference this February, another poet saw that I was searching for a pen to take a note at someone's talk and he handed me one of his special pens with a big grin: “You'll love writing with these.” About 12 years ago, at an artist's colony, instead of bringing along a computer, I rented locally a big red IBM Selectric typewriter. I wrote so assertively on that huge, noisy machine! Right now, in our new retirement townhome, I have a nice new desk in our shared study where I mostly comment on student work. But I write, for the most part, on my little green netbook in bed, or perched on a stool (red!) at the large vanity counter in my bathroom.
SR: There have been rumors of several upcoming works from you. What can we expect to see from you soon?
JM: Well, my current poetry manuscript is called CUP, which has to do with how the world looks from the vantage of age. I had, of course, no choice in this matter (!), but wanted to look around at the terrain with curiosity, and without sanctimonious religiosity or existential mournfulness. The lyrics in the book are wide-ranging—What to make of 9/11? How does long-time, eccentric affection for certain artists (Margot Fonteyn, John Clare, George Harrison) inform late-life reflection? But I am especially interested in this new book (as the dream-poem that begins the collection suggests) in “the children”—how childhood abuse and suffering hobble a life, and how we variously fail and succeed at protecting our young. One section is devoted to my own forgiving and gorgeously vital child, who recently underwent treatment for cancer, and is now recovered. This manuscript, in an earlier version and under a different title, has been a finalist in half a dozen national book contests—twice a finalist in the National Poetry Series. Now, the updated version is circulating. Like everyone else, I hope for a publisher.
SR: In An Enabling Humility, you question how women poets enable their writing in a male-dominated literary culture. As a female poet yourself, how do you enable your own writing within this culture?
JM: The culture has changed somewhat, but it's still an issue, isn't it?—in the work place (as we see in the furor about the important new book Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg); in the home; and in the writing world. For all my longtime feminist commitment, I've been, as I see in retrospect, naïve about the sexual politics of the poetry world. Bishop once said she thought she'd have written more if she were a man. I think I feel that way, too. Certainly, for women of my generation who were subtly (and not-so-subtly) trained in submission and timidity, there have been internal as well as external obstacles. And not just for my generation, as I think your question suggests, April. So, how do you enable your writing as a woman? You try to shape your life in a way that's conducive. I live with a brilliant person, who is also my best critic. I've written not only on Moore and Bishop but on other poets (male as well as female) in order to learn from their work and think through my own position as a writer, my own aesthetics. I've tried, still try daily, to overcome my fears. I was shy and afraid of teaching, for example—but I did that. You do one thing; then maybe you can do another. And, hopefully, the next women in line can do more.