This is such a beautiful book (How They Fell). I’m not sure how to begin, so I guess I’ll start with the beginning, or the opening poem, in which you say that you were born in one country but will die in another. You were born in Scotland? And the first section of the book, “all that green” are memories of Scotland?
Yes, I was born in Aberfeldy, Scotland and grew up in Oban on the West Coast of Scotland. I went to Oban High School and then to St. Andrews University. I also spent some time in Vienna between high school and university (see the poem “Vienna, Spring, 1962”). Yyes, many of the poems in the first section (“All That Green”) are about my growing up in Scotland, with some non-Scottish ones as well. In 1965 I came to the USA and have taught for almost 30 years at Smith College. And yes, I will die in another country. The experiences of each culture have contributed to my work.
How has your Scottish heritage influenced your poetry?
Scots, like the Irish, are a poetic race. The soft colors, the hard edges, the diffidence of the people all contribute to my poetical thinking. I was lucky to have some very great teachers, including the poet Iain Crichton Smith. At St. Andrews, I was secretary of the Literary Society which hosted, among others, the poet Hugh MacDiarmid, a man about whom I later wrote my doctoral dissertation at NYU. My very first publication was in “The Phoenix”, the poetry magazine at St. Andrews, in 1964. Therefore, yes, Scotland and its poetry are in my genes.
Is the status and role of a poet different in Scotland than it is in the U.S.?
It may sound traitorous for a Scot, but I think that poets get more respect here in the USA. They (some of them at least) certainly get more money.
The middle section of the book, “passage,” takes on a mythic tone. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about the choice to write experience as myth?
The middle section is certainly mythic. Myths really are the experiences of mythic characters. Writing in the mythic vein also allows the poet to take situations far beyond what would be permitted in reality writing.
Are there specific religious influences in your poetry?
Much of my poetry has a religious element, but not in any denominational sense. The two “Thomas” poems are of course from that gospel, which is composed strictly of the sayings of Jesus, without unnecessary commentary.
In the final section of the book, “seconds quicken,” you have wonderful poems about people, ranging from St. Thomas, Jesus, Mary MacDonald, the Monster of Florence, to the queen’s hairdresser. In each there is a sense of illumination, even when you are writing about a mass murderer or a jihadist. It’s almost as if a light shines off the pages. Is this how you actually see the world?
I see the world as composed of many hues and shades of light. But darkness provides a strong counterpoint to the light. Every person, object, and happening in the world (or out of the world, for that matter) can serve as a source of illumination–even, as you say, a mass murderer or jihadist. The poet Iain Crichton Smith, for example, can take a horrible situation (e.g. his poems “In Belfast” and “The Country of Pain”) and use it as a point of illumination. This ability may be the poet’s strongest talent.
I love the title poem, the final poem. I wonder if you would post it here and maybe tell how this poem occurred to you?
The poem “How They Fell” is about the events of 9/11/01 in New York City. I wrote it close to the time of the event, when images of those falling from the towers were still being broadcast. Like everyone else, I was shocked and horrified at these images and the only thing I could think of doing was to write about it. Here it is:
One dove, as from a high
board, arms welded, an arrow
aimed at earth as if he thought
it water and he’d pass through.
A man and a woman held
hands, sweethearts in an alley,
until their grip frayed. Blue
shirt of a child billowed
and tore right off. Two girls
embraced, bodies wrapped tight.
All the ties whipped upward.
A waiter’s apron broke loose,
its strings trailing behind.
An old man wrenched open
his mouth and tried to sing.
Someone clutched a broom.
Who covered her eyes? Who
hummed? Who held his head
as if hands protect? Who stepped
off lightly? Who clenched teeth?
Many wept, or cursed, or yelled,
or prayed, in many languages.
Some counted the seconds
as if they controlled something.
A toddler laughed. No one fell
straight. All of them tumbled.
What is your writing process? How do you usually compose a poem?
This often varies. Sometimes it is immediate and quick. At other times, it may take many days. In many cases, I don’t so much write the poems, as become seized by them. For example, in my first collection (“Becoming Bone”, 2005) I set out to write a novel about the 19th Century poet, artist and saloniste Celia Thaxter, who grew up on a desolate lighthouse island off the coast of Maine. Instead of novelistic scenes, what came out was poems. In the face of this strange phenomenon, I quickly abandoned the novel idea and started putting down the poems.
What is the biggest challenge for you as a poet?
My biggest challenge is finding the next poem. It may come overnight or it may take weeks. When it appears, I must scurry to get it down.
What inspires you? Who are your primary literary influences?
I have mentioned Iain Crichton Smith, who had a huge influence on me. Hugh MacDiarmid, whom I met while at St. Andrews, was also seminally important. The visual arts are also inspiring to me, as in the example of the paintings of Caravaggio, which were the subject of my third volume (“This Caravaggio”, 2012). I am always surprised by what inspires me: I don’t know what it will be until it happens. My surroundings also inspire me, particularly people, including my husband Will (who is also my amanuensis), students, friends.
What are you currently working on?
Right now, I am taking a rest, although the occasional poem still slips out. When I am ready to really start again, I’m sure I will know it.