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Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Contributor Spotlight: Michael Marberry

Here are five notes on two poems (“first son” & “sixth son”) from my short project, The Seven Sons of Golden, featured in Hayden’s Ferry Review #54

1. I had an idea for a story: A young woman’s scandalous, unwanted pregnancy is unfortunately revealed when her belly begins to glow and change colors: an absurd exaggeration of a very real skin-pigmentation phenomenon that sometimes occurs during pregnancy. How do our bodies betray our secrets? The story, of course, never materialized; I’m not a very good writer. But the seed of the idea gestated and transformed into the short poetic sequence from which these two poems (“first son” & “sixth son”) are taken. The mother’s physical discoloration became, in the poems, something allegorical via her naming, i.e. “Golden.” Instead of only one pregnancy, she becomes a sort of grotesque baby-factory – churning out son after (figurative) son. [Interestingly, the two poems chosen for HFR #54 feature adopted, rather than biological, sons. The characters share a sort of geographical and also spiritual kinship.] I’m not a numerologist, but the choice of how many sons (7) for the sequence seemed obvious, given the number’s importance in mystical and religious history; if I were a numerologist, I’d be thrilled that son 1 + son 6 appear together in HFR. (Do the math.) I hope that the poems also critique, as necessary, any oversimplified ideas about motherhood and womanhood and that they don’t confuse the two. As we learn more about Golden through the stories of her many “sons,” I hope that we discover a character(s), who is both complicated and symbolic; but to what extent is that even possible?

2. As the project began, I knew that I wanted to write about a woman and a mother. I knew that I wanted to write about her children. I envisioned it as a type of “family drama”; however, I was wary of the temptation to over-sentimentalize (or even under-sentimentalize) those familial relationships. Like a lot of writers, film serves as a great inspiration for me, and I found a framing device for this particular project in the road-trip movie: a genre that typically follows a literal/figurative journey of some sort, featuring the diverse cast-of-characters that one encounters along the way. In the poems, I imagined the reader traveling on a road in a dark wood with a guide – in this instance, an annoying, pedantic guide – discovering and interacting with the sons (or their various incarnations) and hearing their stories and glancing at their photo-albums and even carrying their baggage from time to time. The dark wood should sound familiar: We have read it before, seen it, and experienced it firsthand. The reader is always already a character in creating and charging the text, so why not attempt to reify that in some, more overt, way? Granted, it may not work out in the end. C’est la vie.

3. For this particular writer, obstruction is beneficial and, oftentimes, even necessary to the process. I flounder without some structure and some obstruction. I flounder prolifically. The notion of the project itself, therefore, serves as a type of useful obstruction in principle: an impetus, a permission slip, and a modus operandi all in one. My favorite part of those old black-and-white films is when I see two people smoking cigarettes alone in an apartment on the couch, and I know that they fucked. Moreover, I know that the writers have created a code by which to inform me of just such a thing creatively in a context in which more direct communication was impossible: Obstruction is the true mother of invention. For the poems in this project, including “first son” & “sixth son,” I wanted to limit myself spatially on the page to the narrow, justified columns that one can see within the issue. (They remind me of newsprint or even filmstrip.) Another obstruction in the construction of these prose-poems was a consideration of linebreaks, despite the fact that there are no line/breaks (per se) here in the conventional sense. Still, as I wrote and re-wrote and re-wrote each sentence, I was very conscious that each “line” of prose and each line-end should have the same tension and control that I would demand of a line of more traditional poetry. (In thinking about this, Cole Swensen’s book, Gravesend, was extremely instructive. Read it.) One last obstruction that I’ll mention: Each of these poems, including the two in HFR #54, is 100 words long by Microsoft Word’s handy word-count feature. Thank you, computer! This word-limit obstruction forced me to try stuff against some of my natural inclinations and select each word with great care because I knew, like years and biscuits, there are a finite amount. (I straight pilfered this idea of 100 words from Joel Brouwer’s book of prose-poems, Centuries: another worth reading.)

4. Sound was my primary constructive concern in writing “first son” & “sixth son.” I wanted each son to have a sonic ambivalence: both sounding like and unlike each other simultaneously. That seems to happen within families, from what I can tell, despite differences of personality, politics, etc. Siblings share an inherited rhythm. Where did this rhythm come from? (The Anglo-Germanic, the Southern, the Poetic, the Academic, and so on...I am only speculating.) Regardless, for these poems and for this project, I wanted to try and elevate sound to a place equal-to-or-more-than image, idea, and story. Not that those things aren’t there – only that I was less concerned with them than with creating something melodic and/or dissonant to the ear. Sometimes I attempted to build the sound with syntax, sometimes with diction or meter or whatnot. I feel indebted to my superiors who seem, to my ear, to embrace the breath of their cadence. (I am thinking of you: Berryman! Beachy-Quick! Clifton! Hillman! Manning! & others!) Dear friends: Please read these things aloud.

5. Reading “first son” & “sixth son” again and in concert, after a bit of time away from them, I’m surprised by some of the thematic concerns that they seem to share, which I wasn’t fully aware of at the time of their writing. Does this suggest that the poems work for the best in spite of me? Maybe. In particular, I am intrigued by the interest that both poems and characters show for epistemology (the recurring “brain” in “first son”; the mantra-like insistence of “sixth son”: “I know...I know...”). Another resemblance occurs with the focus on identity (the uncertainty of origin for the orphaned and adopted “sixth son,” who knows only that he isn’t Golden’s; the certainty of being and presence for the “first son,” his “Is”-ness). I don’t often like the poems that I write because I don’t enjoy the experience of writing them: They’re a real slog, and I’m quick to hold that against them forever and then forever. But I’m moderately happy about how these turned out – again, maybe, in spite of me. If you’re still reading, I hope you liked them too.


Michael Marberry's work has appeared or is forthcoming in The New Republic, West Branch, Indiana Review, Bat City Review, The Cincinnati Review, and elsewhere. He has earned degrees from Ohio State University, the University of Alabama, and Lipscomb University. Currently, Michael is pursuing his PhD at Western Michigan University, where he will be serving as the Poetry Editor of Third Coast and Coordinator of the Poets-in-Print reading series in 2014-2015. He is working on revising and submitting his first poetry book manuscript.

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