Maryfrances Wagner is exceptionally active in the Kansas City poetry community and contributes countless hours and energy supporting, directing, and generally overseeing innumerable activities and events at The Writers Place. I know her to be a dedicated, passionate individual and have had the genuine pleasure of working with her on a few projects. She is as serious about fundraising as she is about teaching and writing, has a witty sense of humor and, being a woman after my own heart, enjoys a glass of wine after a job well done. Please enjoy today’s featured interview following a selection of Wagner’s poetry from her collection Light Subtracts Itself:
On The Wheel
See, she hissed when he broke
his nose. Feel the tongue’s lie?
When the iron singed an arm,
she nodded. God punishes.
At the ocean, we don’t think
about the absence of ocean,
the deep hold of darkness
swallowing us over and over.
Here’ the broken toe from sneaking
out the window, the severed tendon,
the chipped tooth, debt picking up
interest. For every lost promise,
every tingle and rush, every night
of slipping further out, of looking
back, waiting for the ghost to pass
through the wall, the wheel turns.
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What are the origins for the poems in your “Red Silk” collection?
Most of my poetry comes from what I experience and what I observe. Red Silk is divided into sections. One section involves teaching and students. I taught composition and creative writing for many years. Another section, and where the title of the book comes from, is about the experience of being married to a Viet Nam vet. Poets have written many poems about war, but these poems try to address what happens after the vet comes back home and has to adjust to life after war. The poems try to show the effect war can have on loved ones and relationships, especially in a war that had so many casualties and didn’t honor its soldiers when they came back. My ex-husband, Gale, received three medals, including the Silver Star, and they were mailed to him without a ceremony. He came back wounded and spent three years on and off at Fitzsimmons military hospital in Denver. Gale returned from war a changed man that had years of emotional and physical stress.
After you published your first book of poetry, did you ever doubt that you would complete and publish a second?
Well, I think most writers would say that they have already written quite a few new poems before their book gets published. It usually takes at least a year before an accepted book gets published. My book Salvatore’s Daughter took almost three years. By that time, I had enough material for another book. My first two books, now out of print, were actually chap books during the early stages of writing. Salvatore’s Daughter was my first full poetry book, followed by Red Silk, and Light Subtracts Itself.
Describe your process for ordering poems in a collection.
The process varies. I’ve actually done the ordering of poems for both of my husband’s books as well as a few other writers. I read all of the poems through, and then I read them again and start to sort them into piles that seem to flow together. The third time through, I arrange what I think serves as a logical or chronological order. Sometimes this might be what seems a chronological flow if most of the poems are narratives, or it could involve a logical order of ideas as they unfold. A book, to me, should unfold throughout. Sometimes I group poems into sections that seem to fit together and carry similar themes or subject matter. To me a book needs to come together in some way, not just be a collection of random poems. At the beginning of the book, I tend to put one or two poems that carry a theme, symbol, or idea that represents much if not all of what the book adds up to say. At the end, I try to put poems that finish or close the book. At the same time, I think the book ought to open with a strong poem that engages the reader and makes him want to read on and a closing poem that leaves an impression that lingers.
Can you talk bit more about your experience working with Robert Bly?
I think every writer ought to have a great experience and connection with a significant writer. It can be so energizing. At least, that was the experience I had with Robert Bly. He was probably the most dynamic and engaging person I’ve ever met. I took at class with him over the summer, and we met for five or six hours every day, sometimes longer. Every day was a new surprise whether we were walking along a beach or pounding away at the difficulties of translating a poem. I don’t think I could do justice to how amazing the experience was or include all of the experiences we had. As a Jungian scholar, Bly had us recording our dreams every night with the instructions that we were to record them only, not read them afterward, and he had us doing writing exercises that elicited the subconscious. He also put on persona masks and recited poems in the voice of different people—like the politician, the philosopher, or the executive. He was always trying to shut off that logical, thinking brain to get us to the “third brain.” From the beginning he told us that he was not going to workshop our poems or help us edit them. He said, “I’m going to teach you how to work, how to create material for a book. When you leave here, you should have enough material to produce a book.” We wrote three rough drafted pieces each day, and he always wrote with us, so he was creating his own manuscript of work. Two of the three poems we wrote each day he stimulated with assorted exercises, and the third we wrote at night on our own. Each of us did have enough material to develop a book by the time we left. He told us if we were stuck or needed more input, then we should go back and read from our recorded dreams.
He also invited a number of poets to visit our class and discuss something concerning the craft of poetry. One day he had a drummer come, and we listened to beat for hours. He had us translate and then share the translation. There were such differences in translations that we learned how hard it is to choose the right words and what part of the poem (the sound, the rhythm, the words, etc.) we were willing to sacrifice because it’s not possible to get everything the poet has done in his own language into English. We could really see it when eight people had eight entirely different translations.
We had lunch and dinner together, and all of his class sessions were engrossing. Most of the time we spent outside instead of in a classroom. One day we were walking along the beach, and he asked a fisherman if he could borrow one of the flounder he had caught, and the fisherman agreed. He threw it on the sand, where it started flopping. We all watched it die. Then we had to engage all of our senses in describing the fish and our experience in watching it die. It was powerful for us because he then had us comparing it to specific things that he named.
He has over a thousand poems of other people memorized, and he often asked us if we knew this poem or that poem, and he would recite them for us, always saying first, “Let me give it to you.” He recommended we memorize poems we loved and “give them” to people when we’re standing in grocery lines or waiting at the theatre. I think people would have a hard time getting the level of involvement Bly gave his students. He had a wonderful sense of humor, and if he thought we were taking him too seriously, he said, “Don’t write that down. How do you know that I know what I’m talking about?” Sometimes I felt like I was with a psychologist, a philosopher, or a poet. We never knew what to expect, but it was always a surprise. It was almost magical.
After I went back home to Missouri, I did start working on the poems, and they formed the book Salvatore’s Daughter. The day that I received my published copies, I sent one to Robert Bly, and about a week later, he sent me a copy of his new book that came out on the same day. His book had many of the poems we started in his class.
What projects are you working on now?
I am always working on the next poem, the next book of poems. I have about half of the poems finished for the next book. I’m always working on about a half dozen at a time at different levels of completion. I’m also arranging the poems of my husband’s new book and helping him edit those poems.
I am one of the co-editors of the I-70 Review, a literary magazine of poetry and short fiction, so that keeps me fairly busy too. We accept submissions from July 1 to Jan 31, so for anyone interested in submitting, he or she can visit our website at www.i70review.fieldinfoserv.com or friend us on Facebook.
I continue to work as a board member and volunteer at the Writers Place. I am the chair of the programming committee, and our goal is to help writers get the opportunity to read their work, whether at The Writers Place or at the Neon Gallery. A couple of years ago, we formed a partnership with Tom Cobian of the Neon Gallery, and four times a year, we have a collaboration of the arts. We call the event Music+Poetry+Art. Tom is a Neon artist and displays his work as well as the work of others, I supply the poets, and Martha Gershun and Rick Malsick supply the musicians. I’m also always helping with fundrasiers and grant proposals at The Writers Place.
I am in a writing group, and it helps keep me focused on writing new material. Sometimes it’s easy to get bogged down in endless revision. I also mentor writers, give readings, writing workshops, and do assorted freelance writing projects that are interesting. Lately, I’ve been collecting ideas and writing fragments of material for a possible memoir about teaching. I have had so many students with interesting stories, and I wanted to capture them in writing. I first tried doing it with poetry, but it isn’t quite working out because each story requires too much background. So, it may end up a mixture of poems and memoir. I never really run out of ideas, only time to do them.
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Maryfrances Wagner’s books include Salvatore’s Daughter (BkMk) Red Silk (MidAm) and Light Subtracts Itself. (MidAm). Red Silk won the Thorpe Menn Book Award in 2000. Her poems have appeared in literary magazines including New Letters, Midwest Quarterly, Laurel Review, Beacon Review, anthologies and textbooks including Unsettling America: An Anthology of Contemporary Multicultural Poetry (Penguin Books) and The Dream Book, An Anthology of Writings by Italian American Women (winner of the American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation). Work from that book was chosen for American Audio Prose and was translated into Italian for Trapani Nuovo in Italy. She is a co-editor of the I-70 Review.