Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Mary Jo Salter in "Measure"


The current issue of Measure opens with several poems by Mary Jo Salter, followed by an enlightening (and, as always, inspiring) interview between Salter and Dr. Baer. What we appreciated most about the interview was Salter’s unpretentious recognition of her audience, which she attributes to her time working as an editor for The Atlantic. There, she explains, she realized that poets “aren’t just writing for ourselves; we’re writing for other people.” Or, as she says elsewhere, “it’s the audience that truly matters.” As a result, “to this day I have very little patience for people with unintentional slowness in writing. I realize that some very great writers have a style that depends upon the slow accumulation of detail—writers like Henry James or Anthony Hecht, for example—but, for the most part, I feel that such writers create a comfortable pace within a gradual buildup. Their readers know that they’re getting somewhere, and they feel it’s worthwhile.” This outlook really should seem obvious, but the fact is that the desires to communicate and to capture the reader’s interest immediately seem unfashionable compared to the instinct to simply get one’s thoughts down on paper, and leave all the hard work to the reader.
Dr. Baer also asks her about the religious overtones of her work. Though she explains that she has “vacillated over the depth of [her] belief in God,” she explains that “I do feel, on some level, that there’s a force out there that teaches us how to love, or that, at least, makes it possible for us to love.” She continues by describing the connection between her poetry and her belief in “a God of love”:

It seems to me that much of the very act of poetry—making likenesses, and metaphors, and similes—is consonant with human love. That’s what Herbert thought poets were doing. Finding and acknowledging the likenesses in the universe. So even though I don’t go to church or feel part of any organized religion, I can’t either as a person or a poet, completely discount the yearning for something divine.

Here’s our favorite from the selection in Measure; it is also available here. (Unfortunately, because we're still tyros at this, we're unable to get the formatting exactly right: the second line of each stanza should be indented.)

“Erasers”

As punishment, my father said, the nuns
would send him and the others
out to the schoolyard with the day’s erasers.

Punishment? The pounding symphony
of padded cymbals clapped
together at arm's length overhead

(a snow of vanished alphabets and numbers
powdering their noses
until they sneezed and laughed out loud at last)

was more than remedy, it was reward
for all the hours they’d sat
without a word (except for passing notes)

and straight (or near enough) in front of starched
black-and-white Sister Martha,
like a conductor raising high her chalk

baton, the only one who got to talk.
Whatever did she teach them?
And what became of all those other boys,

poor sinners, who had made a joyful noise?
My father likes to think,
at seventy-five, not of the white-on-black

chalkboard from whose crumbled negative
those days were never printed,
but of word-clouds where unrecorded voices

gladly forgot themselves. And that he still
can say so, though all the lessons,
most of the names, and (he doesn't spell

this out) it must be half the boys themselves,
who grew up and dispersed
as soldiers, husbands, fathers, now are dust.

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