Enjoy reading this interesting interview with featured poet,Marie Kane.
LF: You have multiple sclerosis and write about it frequently. What came first--poetry or disability? Can you tell us about how you see yourself? Your poetry?
MK: Multiple sclerosis is an autoimmune disease that causes T cells in the immune system to attack the myelin sheath covering nerves in the central nervous system—the brain, spinal cord, and optic nerve. The damaged myelin forms scar tissue (sclerosis), which gives the disease its name. Nerve impulses traveling to and from the brain and spinal cord are distorted or interrupted, producing a wide variety of symptoms. There is no definitive cause, and no known cure.
I was diagnosed with relapsing remitting multiple sclerosis in 1991 when I was 39. But, I’ve been writing since I was nine—so writing came first! In February of 1991, I lost partial sight in my left eye; I thought my contact had damaged it. My optometrist could find no cause for harm from my contact, so he sent me to an ophthalmologist (associated with Wills Eye Hospital) who informed me that my eyesight loss was most likely due to either a brain tumor or multiple sclerosis. Great options! Over the course of the next three months, I endured physical tests, field of vision tests, x-rays, blood tests, MRIs, and a spinal tap. After all of that, my doctors (neurologist, ophthalmologist, my general practitioner, oncologist, exercise physiologist) determined that I had multiple sclerosis. I resolved that I would never write about this diagnosis. Why would I want to hang that shingle on my literary house? Better to ‘disembody’ my writing, mask the lagging leg and its brace, bending spine, increased dependency on my husband, to hide MS by never mentioning it. Hey—if I didn’t write about it, then it was not important to the poet—or person— I was.
But how could I not write about what made me so angry—and terrified? My life as an energetic mom and teacher, a high school girls’ track coach, a runner who trained and competed in 10K road races, was about to become vastly different. At first, I coped with the physical problems well, but as the disease worsened, and I was diagnosed with Secondary Progressive MS in 2004 the questions—what would happen to me, my family, the job I loved, and my writing—became paramount. I had no good answers to those questions. So, my writing began to answer them, which only partially explains why I write of MS. The other reason is that I forgave myself. I knew that while poetry could not remake the past, bring back my other, ‘whole’ self, this new self—with quad cane, walker, scooter, leg brace, rampant spasticity, double vision, numbing fatigue—could enable me, encourage me, challenge me to write about what all of this means.
I want my poetry—all of it—to broadcast a robust, resentful, angry, funny, loving, forgiving, and even a triumphant note toward life and disability, and all that is found between. Writing is one escape from the challenge of living life, and living it with MS.
LF: How does MS impact your poetry? Are those poems different or are similar to poetry that does not concern MS? Are there problems that MS poems present that other poems do not—or vice versa?
MK: First, I have to say that since my diagnosis in 1991, this disease impacts every poem I write. A poem may not directly concern MS, but because of it, my writing has taken on a new filter, a new mountaintop from which to more clearly view the valley. MS has clarified my poetry.
One gradual change MS has caused in my poetry is to narrow my choice of setting. I am a poet of locale—I usually do not write about fanciful settings. My range is prescribed by the places that accommodate drivable distances for my husband, and terrain that is navigable by my scooter. So the setting of many of my more recent poems concerns my home or front and back yards. A small setting can open worlds to explore, even if only from a bench out back or the seat on front porch.
I aim for the impossible in all of my writing: originality and economy in language with words that are agile, rhythmic, and energetic; clarity in the connections being made, but a subtlety in the way they connect; an honest voice, even if the poem itself concerns dishonesty or; and a true effort to engage the reader’s sympathies and emotions without employing emotionally-charged methodology. Basically, my goal is to write lively poetry that comments on the world we live in and is enhanced by a unique and knowing tone, original metaphor, and taut energy. I haven’t even mentioned a poet’s other concerns—white space, the poem’s purposeful use of punctuation, repetition, rhyme, sections or stanza breaks, line breaks, or poetic devices, They need to be addressed also.
So, if my aim is to achieve the goals above, writing about MS isn’t any more challenging than writing a poem that concerns anything else.
LF: Are these MS poems for you? Others with disabilities? Those without disability? Who are your other poems written for? To?
MK: I have to give a cop-out response—it depends on the poem. On one hand, my poems are always for myself—and the reader. By the end of the poem, I hope to understand, or to realize, something new about the disease’s impact on me or others, or some new insight for myself, loved ones, nature. Often, that realization doesn’t occur until I surprise myself with where the poem is headed and how it finds its way to this ‘conclusion.’ I appreciate that Ralph Waldo Emerson believed, “Good writing is a kind of skating which carries off the performer where he would not go.” or Robert Frost, who noted that, “I have never started a poem yet whose end I knew. Writing a poem is discovering.”
So, if I agree with Emerson and Frost that writing is a process of “discovery” and it “leads me where [I] would not go,” then there is an inherent challenge, even danger, in writing a poem. The poem’s ending place may be somewhere to avoid, to not realize –or, what if the words lead me to a painful conclusion—or to nowhere? What if there is no “discovery”? What if, after numerous revisions, the poem still goes nowhere, says nothing, reveals nothing? The ending doesn’t satisfy, hits no mark, or doesn’t, like a diver, enter the water cleanly, with no splash?
For the first scenario, the poem goes places you don’t want to go—either accept it, or put the poem aside until you are ready for what the poem perceives.
In the other case, I say, ‘Wait.” Perhaps the poem isn’t ripe enough, or complete enough, or you are not the poet you need to be yet to bring it to fruition. Set it aside; perhaps you’ll find it someday and see the potential that can be reached with your newer self.
Not all of one’s poems can be rescued. But keep your fitful starts and finishes. You never know if someday your words will speak to you.
LF: You were a high school English and Creative Writing teacher for over twenty years. How does that affect your poetry?
MK: I enjoyed teaching any class in the English curriculum, but Creative Writing was my favorite class to teach. Being a writer and teaching teenagers how to write poetry and fiction fit my teaching curve.
I began to teach the class in the 70’s, when I knew next to nothing about how to teach students to produce a solid poem or short story. I only knew how I went about doing so. My classes in college didn’t instruct me concerning the methodology of teaching kids how to write creatively and well. Pity my poor first classes I taught! I was enthusiastic for sure, but my methods of instruction lacked, shall we say, thoroughness and depth of knowledge.
So, I winged it; I used methods that I had found successful in my own writing such as drafting, the value of revisions, sharing your work, reading it aloud, keeping a journal, having paper and a pen with you always. (Frequent Complaint: “Why do we have to write so much in here?” One student’s response, “Because this is a writing class, dummy.”)
The kids chafed under my insistence that they share their work, participate in writing workshop group, write multiple drafts with a quick turn around, and present their final draft to their group or the class. But when they did, they saw their writing greatly improve
My own writing was greatly affected; as I honed the writing process for my students, I did the same for myself. Teaching the writing of poetry showed me the many ways to improve a poem: revision crafts a poem, sharing work is prime, letting go of a ‘favorite line’ often improves the poem, and a myriad of other things.
I encouraged my students to send their work out for publication. Their poems began to be published in magazines for young people, win prizes, and give them an advantage with college acceptance.
Of course, going to grad school for an MA in English Education and Creative Writing, taking the University of New Hampshire’s summer writing seminar, attending Dr. Chris Bursk’s Master Poetry Class beginning in 1998 and continue to this spring, honed my own writing and better prepared me to teach the craft of writing to others.
LF: You write primarily in free verse. What can you tell us about that?
MK: My first poems rhymed and were awful. They were predictable, not thought-out, and caused the poem to rely more on rhyme than meaning.
I’ve become more adept at using rhyme in my poetry, but I still prefer free verse. I absolutely see the value of rhyme that is polished and original—it encourages the writer to rise to the challenge of using rhyme well, establishes structure and rhythm in the poem, and creates harmony within the poem. It also carries on the grand tradition of rhyming poetry as with Wordsworth, Shakespeare, Frost, and Dickinson. (Both Frost and Dickinson used off [or slant rhyme] or at times used it irregularly.)
If I use rhyme, I sometimes use slant rhyme, (also called off rhyme, or prosody) Examples would be:
Park- start (a true rhyme would be ‘park’ and ‘stark’) Deep- creek (a true rhyme would be ‘deep’ and ‘sleep’) Wake- great (a true rhyme would be ‘wake’ and ‘take’)
The vowel sound is the same, but the end consonant sound is different.
Free verse has become more accepted since Ezra Pound began the style in the early 20th century, Although Robert Frost said that writing in free verse was “like playing tennis without a net.” I value the form.
I don’t rhyme often and when I choose to, I make it as good as it can be. I pay great attention to rhythm and sound in my poems.
LF: What poets or movements have influenced your writing?
MK: I have always adored the poetry of Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, and Robert Frost. Later poets I came to appreciate are Edna St. Vincent Millay, Theodore Roethke, Sharon Olds, Mark Strand, Ann Sexton, Gregory Orr, Pablo Neruda, Elizabeth Bishop, Galway Kinnell, and Adrienne Rich. There are too many great poets to mention! Presently, I’m reading poetry by Christopher Bursk, Pamela Perkins-Frederick, Hayden Saunier, and Elizabeth Rivers—all Bucks or Montgomery County poets. Many of my poems can be labeled ‘confessional’ poetry; verse that deals with subject matter that previously had not been openly discussed in poetry. The poet writes personally of private experiences and feelings about topics such as death, trauma, depression, and relationships, rather than the abstract—the contemporary world, current events. or something that does not affect the poet personally. (Although I maintain that the entire world affects us personally.) As a confessional poet, I make sure to do more than record emotions on paper; I use all I know of the craft of writing. My poems must adhere to what I believe makes a good poem, even as they may deal with something at stake emotionally. I am drawn to poetry that doesn’t have or give easy answers, but also poetry that doesn’t present itself emotionally with bang, clash, and roar, but offers no solutions or thoughtfulness about those feelings or situation. Many readers think that confessional poetry helps remove that ‘emotional monkey’ off the writer’s back. That to write about a personal experience once is to close the door on it, wipe one’s hands of it. “Well, I dealt with that one!” Nothing could be further from the truth. I have found that with every passing, day, week month, year, my reactions to life evolve or change entirely. I’m still writing of MS, even though I’ve shown symptoms for twenty-seven years; I’m still writing of my childhood and of places I visited years ago. I’ve changed, so the emotional reaction changes also. I offer no apologies at being designated at times a confessional poet. Those poems are some of my strongest, have won the most honors, and are the most published of all of my work. I am also labeled a narrative poet in that my poems often tell a story. But, I want my narrative to serve a larger purpose—use the story to elucidate an important and often universal conclusion.
LF: What are you working on now?
MK: At present, I’m working on poetry that fits the themes of the Master Poetry class I’m taking with Dr. Christopher Bursk this upcoming semester at Bucks County Community College. They are: epistolary (letter) poems, poems that concern dreams, and poetry that includes or concerns movies and television.
My husband, Stephen Millner, and I are putting the final touches on a book that contains my poetry and his art. For the past three years, I’ve written poems about the goddess Persephone, her mother, Demeter, and her abductor, Hades. My husband, a mixed media and collage artist at present has an extensive portfolio. In looking through his art, I found pieces that would compliment the Persephone poems. The book, Persephone’s Truth, should be out in a few months.
Thank you, Lynn, for inviting me to answer these questions and read at Newtown Bookstore!