Part of Something Infinitely Larger: An Interview with Marty McConnell
By Rochelle Hurt
Rochelle Hurt: Your new book, when they say you can’t go home again, what they mean is you were never there, won the 2017 Michael Waters Poetry Prize. The collection weaves together themes on language, the body, race, gender, love, grief, and—notably—apocalyptic thinking. The book begins in “what light is left,” directing our attention toward an already-encroaching ending if only to reject its invitation into pessimism. This simultaneous preoccupation with and defiance of apocalyptic thinking characterizes the entire collection as you guide us through various intersections of the personal and the political.
One of my favorite poems in the book, “disasterology: how to survive the apocalypse,” seems to fuse the personal and political. The language doesn’t distinguish between an intimate “you” and a public “you”; they are one and the same here:
…If distance is a myth and we
are neighbors, or the same creature with multiple
faces, breathing the common, unspeakable air
which has us in pieces, I’m nothing
I’d love to hear your thoughts on how this sense of connectedness acts as a means of survival—and in what ways language serves, as you write in the book’s title poem, as both “vehicle / and impediment” to this kind of survival.
Marty McConnell: Obviously on pretty much every level, we as a species need human connection to survive. On a practical level, at least for the moment we need more than one human to make more humans. And generally speaking, that involves some intimate connection. In a larger sense, and I know there are studies on this that I have not read, we need meaningful person to person connection in order to thrive as individuals. So those are the basics. The trick is, we’re not so great at it, and it’s complicated.
Language is one of the crucial ways we share meaning, and I am fascinated by the ways we stumble and soar in our use of it. My friends and I are pretty diligent in stating that we love each other, which is important to me and affirms our deep, familial connection. At the same time, “I love you” can become conflated with “good-bye,” for example at the end of a phone call. So that’s wonderful in the sense of it being a standard affirmation, but not so wonderful when it becomes so rote that I say it to, for example, the Comcast customer service rep just before hanging up. (True story.)
So the struggle is to stay truly present in our connections, and I think that poetry helps us do that. In any case, it’s the work I’m trying to do in these poems—to survive better through language.
RH: The notion of connectedness is a noticeable part of the book’s five diagram poems, each of which takes a loaded concept and charts its connections to other ideas and objects, almost like a constellation or mind-map. These seem to serve as interludes between sections of the book, and their foci are light, time, death, anthropocene, and body, in that order. I was surprised to find these not listed in the table of contents, which made me wonder about their status—are they poems? Do they attempt something different from a poem in tracing connections without syntax or a line structure? What do you think the value of this non-linear method is, and how does it speak to the book’s resistance to apocalyptic thinking, which is necessarily linear and forward-moving?
MM: I love how poems find their right container, how sometimes nothing will click with a set of text until it flickers across the page or gets tucked into a hospital-corners prose box. I spent a weekend sequestered in a garage apartment locally referred to as the Taj Garage in Lincoln, Nebraska, after giving a talk at the local college, and losing my mind around what to do with this manuscript. What did it want to mean? What were its most sacred concerns, and how did those constellate? The concept map is my go-to way of understanding anything complex, so I started drawing these out by hand and plastering them around the space. Yes, they are not poems. No, they are poems. They are interstitials. They are star maps to the wild interior.
I subscribe to the notion that chronological time and human existence are only apparently linear—that these are useful illusions which allow us our shared functioning on the seemingly real plane. Is apocalyptic thinking necessarily linear? I think it’s cyclical, or overlapping, and I both resist and embrace it. It’s happened, it’s happening, it will happen.
What ghosts behind this book is a previous version of the manuscript where subsets of text travelled to a footnote space or a right margin, and where many more of the poems engaged in the mechanics of reversal or abecedarianism—all practices that eventually revealed themselves as revision tools rather than final forms for most of the poems that made the book. It is a book of resistance, much of which is invisible or mostly interior, but the diagrams invite a different way of entering and engaging resistance to our standard viewing/reading practices. There is a dream version of this book in which the poems are three-dimensional, sort of like a hologram but tactile, able to be touched and moved around. I’m convinced that in some other universe, this is the norm.
RH: I spent a lot of time thinking about the relationships between these five ideas (light, time, death, anthropocene, and body) in the book, and the significance of ending on body. Could you talk a little about some of those relationships and the book’s movement through them?
MM: I made the terrible error of reading some commentary on my first book on Goodreads a while back, and one of the criticisms was about my “constant use of the word bodies to mean people,” which the commenter said probably had a point but in their opinion served only to put on airs. Which I love! I didn’t even realize I was doing it! But truly, when I say body I mean (my wife hates it when I say this) meat luggage for the soul. I mean this thing we steer around and experience this realm through. It’s what we use to experience all of those other concepts. Light is the way we measure time, at essence—daytime and nighttime, rotations around the sun, tides… And time, what’s time but increments between birth and death? I have a concept map around birth, but that’s another book that has to do with motherhood/unmotherhood. And death, for whatever it’s worth, carries me to the anthropocene, this era during which human activity has been the dominant influence on climate and the environment—why does death bring me here? Probably because I see us sitting at its edge, and the likelihood of a larger death, an extinction (reading to us as apocalypse) of our species as we know it. The end of these bodies. Which is, by the nature of things, the start of something else.
RH: Violence—state-sanctioned, culturally accepted, socially ignored, and politically charged—is a big part of this book, and the otherized body is the locus of that violence, “locus of (other) control,” as you write in “white girl interrogates the Oklahoma bill banning the wearing of hoodies.” This poem comes from a series that uses the figure of the “white girl” in order to address racialized violence and otherization. Many writers have advocated for the interrogation of whiteness by white writers, and yet race still remains in the background of most work by white writers, while writers of color take on the task of addressing racism directly. What is the effect of a conspicuously white role for the speaker of your “white girl” poems? How do you interrogate whiteness in this book while managing to avoid the pitfalls of self-indulgent white guilt?
MM: Do I avoid it? I’ve tried. It felt deeply necessary for me to call out my whiteness, to put it on the line or under the microscope, in these poems at this time. The problem is, there is no way to do that without also re-centering a white perspective. So my options were, or seemed to be: avoid the topic altogether; address it obliquely, or as background; use historical or ancestral information as an entry point (and cushion!); or get in the muck of it and make a lot of mistakes. I chose the final option, with the addition of wonderful, patient, rigorous editors who helped me cull and shape and refine, calling me in to the most useful of these attempts. Let me tell you that I wrote at least three times as many white interrogation poems as are included in the book, probably double that counting discarded drafts no one ever saw. I wanted very badly to make sure that I couldn’t be misunderstood or seem to be ignoring something crucial, which of course is an impossible standard, and hubristic. Of course I’m going to miss something, of course the only way to create anything useful is to open myself to rightful criticism. This is my job as a white person, to try to be useful and put myself at risk. Maybe my only job.
RH: The speaker of these poems inhabits not only a clear racial category, but also (in these and other poems) a queer woman’s body and subject position. How did you use your body on the page to approach intersectionality in this book? What happens to a poem when more of the speaker’s body and intersections are revealed?
MM: I would say that my goal is always to bring my full relevant self to the page. So while calling out my whiteness, I also needed to call out my female-bodiedness, and my queerness—and in calling those forth in language, what comes along is a series of privileges and vulnerabilities. The dangers in approaching large subjects are that we can easily over-compartmentalize, caricaturize, dehumanize by distancing or intellectualizing or oversimplifying. My way of attempting to avoid those pitfalls was to ground the work in my actuality, the benefits and risks of being who I am, bodied and spirited as I am.
RH: Your poems often look for joy in spite of their sense of impending (or present) disaster, and yet they are also keenly aware of the dangers of ignorance and inaction. You write that “white paralysis is a copout” and “discomfort is the weapon we bring to this / needful table,” even as you continue “pursuit of the shining / next.” It seems to me that redemptive or consolatory thinking stems from the same kind of oversimplification as nihilistic thinking, and your book avoids both. How do we (in life, in poetry) walk this tightrope?
MM: I suppose we do the best we can. And by that I mean we do the best we can—striving to be gentle yet rigorous with our good selves, to be patient but demanding as we move into and through our inevitable failings, to rejoice when we get it right and to keep on working. We’re in charge of our own solace, our own redemption, our own growth, no matter how wondrous our teachers, our beloveds, our higher power(s). And when we attach to that understanding, coupled with a deep knowing that we are inextricably and edgelessly part of something infinitely larger, it becomes impossible to despair, and easier to defy paralysis and refuse surrender. It’s not a linear process of course, not a one-time epiphany and then poof! transcendence. It’s daily work, sometimes minute to minute work to stay in that knowing and that connectedness, and to act from that place. If there’s a life work, I’d say that’s it.
RH: I’m interested in the cyclical and palindromic form of poems like “this world is going to end and it’s going to be fucking beautiful,” “July, when we didn’t burn the city down,” “the reckoning,” and others which make use of repetition, remixing, parallelism, and just hypermusical echoes. These poems depend upon patterns of sonic accumulation and buildup for tonal impact, yet their forms also move backward, returning to previous lines and phrases in that process of accumulation. How do you think these forms can speak to the book’s larger themes?
MM: All of life is accrual, right? We advance and retreat, circle back on ourselves, move away, move home, watch our parents age, walk into a room that smells like our grandmother’s closet and become five again for an instant… it’s how we work, it’s how the world works. Animals die and become fossils which become fossil fuels which become pollution which becomes an apocalyptic driver for our impending possible megafauna extinction, but it’s not quite that linear or simple, except when it is.
We have to parse experience in order to function, and that produces patterns. Poems are language patterns, ways we distill and organize experience to facilitate transmission. We need each other to survive, and that requires us to overlap. That overlap creates resonances, some of which are constructive and some of which are destructive. Create, preserve, destroy: the three great forces at work constantly and cyclically. Poems introduce a fourth and overarching force, I believe, and a uniquely human one: reflect. It remains to be seen what we are going to do with that force on a species level.
RH: The book ends with the poem “actual rapture,” which plays with the term’s meaning in a Christian apocalyptic context and its common denotation of pleasure. In doing so, the poem seems to reject doom and turn toward joy: “Day with no shouting. Day with no fire. / Bright-lensed day. Day built for singing. Day / nobody dies. Nobody dies.” I was trying to determine whether or not I thought of this book as ultimately hopeful, and it led me to the (very big) difference between hope and rapture. What is the difference, in your view, and why does the book end in rapture?
MM: Whether or not this book is ultimately hopeful depends on what you are hoping toward. Rapture to me means transcendence, to be transformed into light or what we call light because it has no name we can humanly make. To experience for a moment or for all time what some call the subtle body, the eternal in each of us. So by nobody dies, I don’t mean literally that no one leaves their flesh vehicle. I mean the book ends in rapture because that is to me, the highest end of human existence: moving through this suffering realm into another where other lessons, other existences, ones we cannot with our human grey matter imagine or name, await.
Rochelle Hurt is the author of In Which I Play the Runaway (2016), which won the Barrow Street Poetry Prize, and The Rusted City: A Novel in Poems (2014), which was selected for the Marie Alexander Series in prose poetry from White Pine Press. Her work has been included in the Best New Poets anthology series and she's been awarded prizes and fellowships from Crab Orchard Review, Arts & Letters, Hunger Mountain, Poetry International, Vermont Studio Center, Jentel, and Yaddo. She is Assistant Professor of English and Creative Writing at Slippery Rock University, and she runs the review site The Bind.