The Poetic Ear Can’t Go Out of Style: A Conversation with Mary Jo Salter

Mary Jo Salter’s ninth poetry collection Zoom Rooms was recently published by Alfred A. Knopf. The book contains poems about the protean nature of memory, the impact of digital life on our relationship to reality, the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on human interaction, and the complexity of both generational and literary inheritance, among other subjects. Noted in The New York Review of Books as “one of America’s most accomplished formalists,” and praised in The New York Times as a poet “driven to confront the inexplicable,” Salter has received numerous honors for her work, including a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Lamont Poetry Prize, and a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship. She teaches in the Johns Hopkins University Writing Seminars and serves as an editor of The Norton Anthology of Poetry. I corresponded with Salter about her process in writing Zoom Rooms, her passion for ekphrastic poetry, her experience as a teacher and mentor to young writers, her time as an undergraduate studying with Elizabeth Bishop at Harvard, and more.

CD: What are some ways in which Zoom Rooms strikes you as different from your previous collections, in terms of content and arrangement, and what are some continuities that you see between Zoom Rooms and those earlier books? Related to this, are there any specific ways in which you use elements of poetic form in Zoom Rooms, such as rhyme and meter, that feel distinct from how you’ve engaged with form in your other books?

MJS: I think I see more continuities than changes. My previous book The Surveyors contains at its center a crown of sonnets, which means, of course, that the last line of each sonnet is repeated as the first line of the next. That seemed appropriate for a poem that attempts to “survey” and loop together some of the key moments of my life thus far. I did something formally similar in Zoom Rooms by putting the title poem, a sonnet sequence, at the center. But this time it’s not a crown. Until a surprise stanza-enjambment at the end, I wanted the sonnets about Zoom meetings to be self-contained, even isolated, the way we virtual humans appear on a Zoom call. Why has the sonnet endured for many centuries? Partly because reading one of them takes about the time we usually have in life itself to think of one thing, develop it, turn its assumptions around, and set it down for further thought later. That said, I enjoyed writing some freer, less traditionally formal poems in this book. Even when employing rhyme and meter, I’ve grown more and more interested over the years in the effects of rhyming without a scheme, or across stanzas, or employing off rhyme, or light rhyme. Light rhyme, as some readers will know, involves rhyming a stressed syllable with an unstressed one. For example, the first poem of the book ends with the rhyme “active” and “to live.”  That conveys, I hope, an unsettled feeling about life even as it satisfies the ear.

CD: A number of compelling ekphrastic poems appear throughout the collection, including poems about artwork by Carlo Crivelli, John Singer Sargent, Josse Lieferinxe, Giotto di Bondone, and William Bailey. Your previous books also feature a bounty of ekphrastic poetry. What draws you to write about works of visual art, and do you see any connection between your passion for the formal elements of poetry and your interest in ekphrasis?

MJS: I suppose it all begins with the fact that my mother was a painter and took me to museums from a young age. Throughout my life, the experience of looking at artwork—and I generally respond more to painting than to sculpture, though I’ve written about both—has been a command to slow down, much akin to reading and writing poetry. I’m a Type A personality, sometimes almost manic in my drive to get things done, and yet I recognize a deep need not merely to skim the surface of the day but to get immersed in just one thing, for as many minutes or hours as it takes. Also, although I’ve never been a fiction writer, I read fiction more than anything else, and I crave narrative. For me, the lyric impulse to celebrate a single square of unmoving canvas is inextricable from an impulse to tell the story of some imagined action that lies dormant within it. In Zoom Rooms, that tendency is probably most on view in the poem about Sargent’s painting “My Dining Room.”  There’s a set table and a chair pulled out from it. Are the diners about to come or have they left? Does Sargent the social being want them there, or does Sargent the solitary artist want them gone?  In any case, I never fool myself that words can convey what paintings convey wordlessly. I write words out of respect for wordlessness, and this is something I feel about music as well.

CD: Your use of ekphrasis in the poem “Mule Team and Poster,” based on the Walker Evans photograph of the same name, is particularly intriguing. Not only do you engage with Evans’s photo, but you add an additional layer of nuance by evoking the work of another poet, Donald Justice, who has also written about the photo. Would you elaborate for us on the notion that, to quote from the beginning of your poem, “words change the image,” and vice versa?

MJS: Such a smart question. Yes, I was struck at first by the fact that on the poster in Evans’s photograph, the words loom so large and yet are so far from meaning anything to us now. SILAS GREEN SHOW—I mean, what’s that? And those dancing girls! It’s the Depression; what is there to dance about? Then you have those lugubrious mules, so incapable of dancing, the only living creatures on hand to read the poster, but they can’t read. Evans’s image of this wall with mules in front of it would be an austerely beautiful composition even if the poster contained no words, but the words definitely change the image by making it more ironic. I’m playing with the fact that my words, my poem, will change the image from what you, the reader, see in the photograph. That would be true even if Donald Justice hadn’t already written a marvelous poem about this photograph, but now my poem, like a poster, has been pasted on top of his. Yet his remains perfectly legible. Mine is really a poem about looking and then looking again to see something else. The double-take is a technique I now recognize as cropping up frequently in my poetry over the years, though I never intended to make it one.

CD: Another theme that you explore in the book is the mercurial nature of memory. We see this in “Hat Day,” when the speaker invents a memory after seeing herself in a decades-old photo, and in “The Fortune Cookie,” a poem that probes, among many things, the propagation of family lore. Other poems, including “Last Words” and “Forgetting Names,” examine memory loss in the context of aging. Would you share some thoughts with us about how you view the relationship between language and memory?

MJS: Again, I’ll start with proximate causes. The dementia my father experienced in his last years, which coincided partly with the writing of this book, certainly made me think more about memory. Bigger picture: I’ve always been aware that, as writers go, my long-term memory is sub-standard.  Even in my sharpest state, I’ve lost a lot of concrete details that might teach me something about life, and I’m always grateful to old friends and to my brothers for remembering scenes I don’t. But I don’t despair entirely. There’s something cleansing and clarifying about having to ask yourself: Why does this particular scene or image, among millions of other possible ones I might remember, endure for me?  That is, I’ve developed a taste for locating key moments or images in the past and discovering, in the process of writing, how they ask me to think and feel. The particular kind of dementia that afflicted my father made him speak in garbled language, as in “Last Words,” where I start misusing words myself. It is haunting to surmise that he was having thoughts that may not have been gibberish, that they may have been verbally sensible to him while meaning nothing—or worse, something ludicrous—to the rest of us. Add to that, then, our knowledge that our best efforts at employing language—our best poems, say—are likely to be forgotten by others, and essentially, that means we are forgotten as well.

CD: In the collection’s titular poem “Zoom Rooms,” a sonnet sequence that occupies the second section of the book, you examine how COVID-19 has impacted socialization. Among the large number of contemporary poems that have come out of the pandemic, “Zoom Rooms” strikes me as the most memorable, incisive, and artful one that I have yet encountered. In what way do you see the sequence acting as a thematic anchor for the rest of the book, and would you talk about the richly complex relationship between form and content in the poem?

MJS: I’m very grateful you liked it. Choosing the sonnet form for the reasons I’ve already mentioned, I also wanted to use that traditional form in an ironic way through incorporating the cyberbabble, if that’s a word, of our moment. The first line of the poem addresses my readers in those capitalized terms: “Followers and Friends and Participants.” I’m constantly rebelling against—and alas, using—words that advertisers and influencers hijack and make unusable in their previous contexts. For example, who can use the word “influencer” in a pre-internet way anymore? Partly the poem is a lament about passively fitting the self into a technology, rather than finding ways for the technology to fit the self. The poem implicitly acknowledges our admirable human ability to adapt. I’m truly grateful I could teach classes or attend a memorial service on Zoom. Yet the poem is also about our less admirable ability to throw out the habits of the past.  Take the habit of actually seeing people in person. I must be one of millions who found themselves shy and even a bit scared to be out in the world after lockdown. Scared not of contagion but of the human encounter itself, even of speaking mere pleasantries that cost me nothing. The hardest thing in writing the poem—which I should add was mostly fun to write during an unfun time—was that I had no idea, when I started it in October 2020, how Covid would unfold in the future, no sense of whether we’d have a vaccine or eventually stop wearing masks. All of those concerns seep into the book’s final poem “A Letter to Leena” as well. I decided to be hopeful.

CD: You write frequently in this collection about how our digital world has added new complexity to the relationship between artifice and reality in human life. What do you think are some of the specific challenges faced by poets coming of age in this digital context? What other differences do you see in today’s literary landscape as compared to the one in which you emerged as a poet?

MJS: The artifice/reality question that digital life poses is perhaps the most interesting question in my writing life, or even, sometimes, my life as a human. What is it to be human, and how will that identity be changed by the tools we humans continue to make? I started becoming obsessed with this question in the early 2000’s, as seen in the title poem of my book A Phone Call to the Future. I returned to it in the title poem of The Surveyors five years ago, where I asked, “What’s with this glee/ we humans feel, enabling the posthuman? /Doubtless we’ll come to singularity/ with our machines, but why must we be glad?” I talked recently with a brilliant artificial intelligence specialist who has been working on making computers able to write passable poetry. “Think of what time you could save if you didn’t have to write poems on your own,” he told me. “You could collaborate with the machine and save time for other things you want to do.” He was perfectly serious! And he listened respectfully, I must say, when I told him that writing poems is what I want to take time to do for the rest of my life. I can’t help wondering whether, in years to come, the rights of machines will seem more pressing to machine-enhanced humans than the rights of women or other disadvantaged groups for which we advocate today. That question will impact poetry. What real-life experiences will poetry-writing-machines seek to share in a poem?  If we could time-travel to the 22nd century, would our brains understand the machine-poems at all?

As for today’s literary landscape, I can only participate up to a point because I don’t do any social media. I know I’d be addicted within a day. I may miss some of what’s going on this minute, but it’s the only way I can keep sane. I do eagerly keep up with new work and new writers, in my own way.

CD: Related to the question above, in your many years as a professor and mentor to young writers, have you noticed any significant changes in the way that poetry, creative writing, and literature are taught in academic settings? Have you observed any notable differences in student writing over time, as far as form and content, that you believe might be related to the digital nature of contemporary life?

MJS: Yes and yes. Two years ago, just before lockdown, an undergraduate brought a poem to my workshop that was done in the form of something posted on Instagram, including comments others posted. There were apparently about a dozen jokes within it about social media tropes, and everyone was laughing with appreciation. Not being on Instagram myself, I understood not one sentence of my student’s poem. In fact, there were no sentences! Even after various cultural references, like song lyrics I didn’t recognize, were explained to me, I still couldn’t understand. The experience was funny and not funny. I love the fact that new forms make possible some new and potentially great art, and I am a constant reader and beneficiary of online forums and websites for poetry. But beyond that I’m not equipped. My students, in turn, are amused by my limitations while also respecting the fact that my generation possesses a lifetime of reading not just the new thing but certain beloved books over and over, until we’ve practically memorized them. Being assigned the memorization and recitation of poems in the classroom is not only enjoyable for most students, but it’s probably the single best way to develop a poetic ear. The poetic ear can’t go out of style, as long as poems are written.

CD: The fourth section of the book comprises a long poem titled “Island Diaries,” in which you place Robinson Crusoe and Prospero on an island at the same time. The poem converses in salient ways with Elizabeth Bishop’s “Crusoe in England.” Following “Island Diaries,” you mention Bishop directly by name in a poem titled “Fruitcake,” which opens the book’s fifth section. You studied with Bishop in college, and you have discussed the experience in previous interviews. In what ways do you see “Island Diaries” as an extension of and/or response to “Crusoe in England,” and what are some of the most lasting ways, personal and artistic, in which Bishop has influenced you?

MJS: The wildest gamble I took in this book was writing “Island Diaries.” The only conventional thing about it is that it’s written in blank verse. I had already written about Robinson Crusoe, and alluded admiringly to Elizabeth Bishop’s “Crusoe in England,” in a sestina called “Crusoe’s Footprint” a decade ago. But I couldn’t get Crusoe out of my head. I’ve long been fascinated not only by Defoe’s novel but all of the great spinoffs from it, in fiction and verse, from J.M. Coetzee’s Foe to Muriel Spark’s Robinson to Derek Walcott’s “Crusoe’s Journal” to Bishop’s great long poem. There’s something about the challenge of self-sufficiency—and my own certainty that I’d die if left alone on any island—that has a dreamlike potency. Also, for a writer, the thought than one’s island life might go unwitnessed and forever unread by others is alarming. “Island Diaries” came to me as I was teaching The Tempest. I suddenly had a vision of Crusoe running behind Prospero on the sand, trying to make a new friend, and laughed out loud at the thought. What emerged from splicing these two guys from two different centuries into one poem was amusing but also, at its heart, dead serious. I see the poem as a validation of the reality of art, a confirmation of the fact that characters we meet in books are for some of us “real life.” I’m glad I didn’t understand until I finished writing the poem that Crusoe, the practical one, and Prospero, the dreamer, are both versions of myself, and that their need for both solitude and sociability was my own condition at the time, moored on an island called The Pandemic.

Thanks for noticing that the poem linking Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Bishop, “Fruitcake,” was placed right after “Island Diaries.” Though “Fruitcake” was written first, I wanted to acknowledge a friendship between women writers after the unlikely meeting of Shakespeare and Defoe. It would take me pages and pages to detail the ways in which Bishop has influenced me. I was so lucky to have walked into her classroom at the age of twenty. She was one of the most truthful poets I’ve ever read. She never said a thing she didn’t mean, or dressed up true feelings to make them more poetic. For all the terrible pain she endured in her life, she never lost the genuineness of her wit and humor. The fact that I’m still laughing at some of the things she wrote—look again at her poem “House Guest,” where the host says, “Please! Take our money! Smile!”—is deeply comforting.

CD: You have often probed the topic of gender in your work, particularly with regard to differences in male and female experience, and you do so again in this collection. I am thinking especially of “Man-Barbies,” a poem about your daughters playing with Ken dolls, and “Scrabble,” a poem in which a man and woman enact the tensions in their relationship during a game of Scrabble. Are there any specific poets that have influenced your approach to examining gender and sexuality on the page, and do you see any significant changes over time in terms of how you have engaged with these subjects?

MJS: To be frank, I think I could have and should have written more about gender in my career so far. Some years ago I wrote a little poem called “A Woman’s Tale,” which sketches two scenes from my own life. In one of the scenes,  I am young and single, and an admirer on the street harasses me, and in the other, I am married and nine months pregnant, and a man laughs in my face because, to him, I clearly look ridiculous. I almost didn’t publish this poem, wondering if it was too slight. Yet once I did publish it, several female readers told me they saw their own disturbing experience in it. I didn’t address gender roles much, at least on the page, until a decade ago, when I was in the process of divorce after a thirty-year marriage. My book Nothing by Design came largely out of that, and it was freeing. I’m happy to say that book also shows the upside of marriage. For example, it contains a long poem about William Blake, titled “Lost Originals,” that makes a special place for his wife Catherine. As for models in writing about gender roles, Jane Shore, another one of my college teachers, comes to mind. Jane is a wonderful poet who is still a friend, and she has been a brave and sometimes sharply funny commentator on that subject. She has also been one of the ideal readers in my head for years.

CD: In “A Letter to Leena,” while lamenting the troubled world that your granddaughter’s generation has inherited, you write: “Yet I hardly tried at all / to make this old world better; // what I made was dinner / and poems, when I could.” The fact that you put “dinner” first invites readers to reflect on the utility of art (Auden’s assertion that “poetry makes nothing happen” comes to mind), and also on the challenge of making art amidst life’s daily demands. Would you elaborate further on these ideas both in the context of poetry as an art form and your own life as a poet?

MJS: I’m glad you asked about Auden. He’s certainly behind “Island Diaries” as well. I have a passion for his long poem “The Sea and the Mirror,” which is about The Tempest, and I almost didn’t dare write my own version of Prospero. There’s no modern poet who has been more important to me than Auden, and he is everywhere as a model in “A Letter to Leena.” Auden excelled at epistolary poems, he often wrote in the trimeter I employed in my poem to Leena, and yes, he liked to show in poems the pressure that world events put on personal ones. Yet he was careful not to claim too much for poetry. I wrote “A Letter to Leena” just after the murder of George Floyd brought protestors to the streets, and right in the middle of Covid. Trump was in the background as well. What the poem asks is whether these troubles are just our current ones or whether, along with climate change, they add up to a uniquely urgent, existential challenge. Will the world even last as long as my grandchild’s life expectancy? Making dinner is absolutely necessary—let’s live while we can—and living is way more important than making poems. On the other hand, I’m saying those things in a poem, the last poem in the book, which means I’m not giving up on art. To make art, sometimes you have to be undomestic and skip making dinner. We’re back to gender roles, though plenty of men make dinner. As a mature woman writing to a baby girl, I suppose what I’m saying is this: Don’t only make dinner. Aspire, empathize, be decent.

CD: You have certainly set a good example for Leena in making much more than dinner throughout your career as a poet, editor, essayist, playwright, lyricist, and professor. It has been a pleasure to converse with you about your work, and I know that I speak for the entire editorial team at Literary Matters, and for many of our readers, when I say that the release of Zoom Rooms marks a thrilling event in contemporary poetry.

 

Mary Jo Salter was born in 1954 in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and grew up there, in Detroit, and in Baltimore. She is the author of nine books of poetry published by Knopf, including Zoom Rooms (2022), The Surveyors (2017), and A Phone Call to the Future (2008). Her book Nothing by Design was recipient of the 2015 Poets’ Prize. She is a co-editor of three editions of The Norton Anthology of Poetry and is editor of the Selected Poems of Amy Clampitt. Salter is Krieger-Eisenhower Professor in The Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University.

Caitlin Doyle

Caitlin Doyle

Caitlin Doyle is poet and educator whose work has appeared in The Guardian, The Atlantic, The Yale Review, Boston Review, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Best New Poets, and elsewhere. Her work has also been featured through the PBS NewsHour Online Poetry Series, Poetry Daily, and American Life in Poetry. She has received fellowships through the Yaddo Colony, the MacDowell Colony, and the James Merrill House Writer-In-Residence Program, among others. Caitlin earned a PhD from the University of Cincinnati, where she served as Associate Editor of The Cincinnati Review. She currently teaches as Visiting Assistant Professor of English and Writer-In-Residence ast Washington & Jefferson College.
Caitlin Doyle

Author: Caitlin Doyle

Caitlin Doyle is poet and educator whose work has appeared in The Guardian, The Atlantic, The Yale Review, Boston Review, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Best New Poets, and elsewhere. Her work has also been featured through the PBS NewsHour Online Poetry Series, Poetry Daily, and American Life in Poetry. She has received fellowships through the Yaddo Colony, the MacDowell Colony, and the James Merrill House Writer-In-Residence Program, among others. Caitlin earned a PhD from the University of Cincinnati, where she served as Associate Editor of The Cincinnati Review. She currently teaches as Visiting Assistant Professor of English and Writer-In-Residence ast Washington & Jefferson College.