Jan/Feb 2007  •   Reviews & Interviews

An Interview with Jennifer MacPherson

Interview by Diane Lockward

The world of Jennifer MacPherson's poems is a world of bone, breakable and imperfect; a world of loss and mystery, of desire and hope. Meticulously made, not a word too many, not a word out of place, the poems dare to ask "the heart's mad questions." Finally, they are a tending toward prayer—a rosary, perhaps, or a "singing at the execution," a marveling at the resiliency of the human spirit.

Jennifer MacPherson's newest poetry collection is Rosary of Bones (Cherry Grove Collections, 2007). A previous full-length collection, In the Mixed Gender of the Sea, won the 2004 Spire Press Poetry Book Award. MacPherson is also the author of a third full-length collection, A Nickel Tour of the Soul (FootHills, 2004) as well as two chapbooks, Stuck in Time (Pudding House, 2002) and Greatest Hits (Pudding House, 2001). Her work has been published widely in such journals as Poet Lore, Calyx, Connecticut Review, Louisiana Literature, and South Carolina Review. A founding editor of The Comstock Review and a former school psychologist, she lives in Syracuse, N.Y. In her spare time, she is a gourmet cook, amateur gardener, ballroom dancer, and obsessive reader of everything.


DL     My eye was immediately drawn to the cover of Rosary of Bones. It's elegant in its simplicity. What role did you play in the cover design?

JM     I submitted the photograph of the climbing rose painting, by Colin Page, to Cherry Grove Press with the express request that it be the main visual focus of the front cover. I bought the painting in Camden, Maine, in the summer of 2006 and it now proudly hangs in my bathroom. It harmonizes with the wallpaper and my bathroom is really big so it doesn't look as strange as it sounds. The color and lettering are creations of the press. So I would call the cover a collaborative effort.

DL     There are sixty poems in your collection. That's a substantial number, yet you did not break the book into sections. What made you decide to avoid sections?

JM     I know most books are divided into sections. It is my preferred way of working. But somehow, this book seemed to require the more circular effect achieved by omitting sections. For one thing, the poems didn't fall into categories easily or lend themselves to artificial divisions. And I'm a risk taker in my writing life.

DL     Aside from the decision not to use sections, what other structural decisions did you make? What was your organizing principle or strategy?

JM     At one point, I tried to organize the poems in some sort of rosary-like order. For example, a thematically important "bone poem" followed by ten regular pieces and a persona poem, then the next set of twelve, and so on. It didn't work. I ended up loosely organizing the poems in cycles of three: body, family, and nature, and imposing some chronology within the subtext, then smoothing it out. Reading it now, there are maybe three poems I'd change the placement of, but, overall, I think it works.

DL     At what point in the book's development did you realize that bones would be your central motif? Were bones an unconscious obsession realized only after the poems were written? Or did you deliberately write bone poems with this book already in mind?

JM     One of my friends remarked that I used a lot of bone images in my work. This caused me to write the first bone poem. For the next ten years, I added to my bundle of bone poems. The resulting collection was first named Bare Bones and then Necessary Homework. Eventually, a repeated phrase in two of the poems gave me its final title. Of course, the book changed markedly with time. Some of the family tales went off to make a poetry chapbook, Stuck in Time. Another group of more erotic work became In the Mixed Gender of the Sea. New poems that were added mirrored the bone motif. Two of the last poems written are the ones that begin and end the book, "Credo" and "Rosary of Bones."

DL     Your interest in bones manifests itself in a variety of ways. Sometimes you move into the past, rattling the skeletons in the family closet in such poems as "Grandmother and the Barrel of Rattlers," "Photo Caught in the Back of a Drawer," and "Why I Cannot Give the Piano Away." Could you comment on the role factual history plays in such poems and the role invention plays? Is there an interplay between fact and fiction?

JM     I base the poems on fact, but I add many fictional elements so that the poems, finally, exist only in the imagination and then, on the page as well. For example, my grandmother, as a child, used to love to visit this old man's farm because he had rattlers. She used to get regularly spanked for hanging over their enclosure. I did find the photo of my parents caught in a dresser drawer and it looked as I described it. And my mother did play the piano at midnight the night of my grandmother's death. But there the facts end and the poetic imagination begins.

DL     It seems to me that "Why I Cannot Give the Piano Away" nicely exemplifies that fusion of fact and imagination:

After my grandmother died,
after the final wearing down of her body's lathe,
that final grate of gears,
after her remains had been taken to the mortuary
and I had come home,
my mother cast open the white louvered parlor doors
at midnight, seated herself at the grand piano
and played, loud and hard, what she knew best by heart,
as if to give her mother a triumphal march home,
as if to hear her chains dispersed by hammered chords
that made the anvils ring.

You speak as yourself but take an imaginative leap into your mother's heart. In other poems you take an imaginative leap into someone else's skin, becoming someone who is clearly not you. You take on that person's experience. "Charlotte Fears for Her Son" is, I think, a particularly gripping persona poem. Tell me about the genesis of that poem and the process used to write it.

JM     Yes, Charlotte is a persona who has a place in Rosary of Bones. I like the freedom that writing in persona gives me. My biggest gripe is that so often the poet is expected to be the person in her poems. But I am not the mother of a gay son. I have also written elsewhere a series of poems in the role of Snow White's stepmother, and I am obviously not she. Because I am a psychologist by training, I think understanding how other people may feel is a given. In a world permeated by, among other things, the AIDS crisis, I simply was wondering what a mother might feel if she had a child at risk, and the poem more or less wrote itself. And no, I do not agree with the chauvinistic "famous male poet" who said the real point about the poem was that the mother wanted to feel that ecstasy for which her son was willing to die!

DL     Now you've piqued my curiosity. Tell me more about that "famous male poet." Do I detect some animus here? Can you explain the cause of your irritation?

JM     This happened at a summer poetry conference. I don't wish to identify the poet in question, but he was supposed to review and comment helpfully on ten poems of mine. Nine of the poems, including about five bone poems, he dismissed as having been "done before." I think the actual comment was "We did these back in the 70's." He liked Charlotte, but complained I'd "missed the point." His manner was patronizing and he wanted mostly to complain about how the New Yorker wasn't taking his poems anymore!

DL     Sounds like his commentary wasn't useful. I'm glad you didn't let it discourage you from moving on. I noticed a back and forth movement in your collection between poems that focus on people and others that focus on nature. Storms, trees, and birds recur along with the changing of seasons. I understand that you're a bit of a gardener. How has that interest fed the poems?

JM     I have tended to use food images from my interest in things culinary more than conscious garden imagery, but, let's face it, everything we are comes out in our poems, conscious or not. I live in an area infamous for its winter storms, so taking the weather into account is an important activity for Syracusans!

DL     While a number of the poems reach back into the past, others consider the future. "Throwing the Bones," for example, delves into a strange fortune-telling ritual. Did you consciously consider the element of Time—of going back and forth between Past, Present, and Future—as you were putting the collection together?

JM     I wrote "Throwing the Bones" in New Orleans. I had just had an argument with someone over the necessity of being more exact with time, to which he replied, "What's fifteen minutes? Fifteen minutes means nothing." I retorted that there were people living now that would be dead in fifteen minutes. I wanted to write about that idea and there we were, in the New Orleans atmosphere! All else was fiction. Since Time is a concern of mine, yes, I considered its elements in the creation of the book.

DL     "Dinner for One: Detroit," "Fifty-Fifth Birthday Blues," and "The Cutting Edge" focus on the body's decline. "X-ray" ends with this stunning line: "Her bones flower. Such bright poisonous jewels." Certainly these poems fit in with the bones theme—our aging, crumbling bones—but I couldn't help feeling that there might be more to it than that. Am I right? Why this particular obsession?

JM     I think obsession with death is a common obsession for poets, and those of us in the second half of a century of living are experiencing a decline of our bodies' powers, the final result of which will be our own death. Most of us have recently witnessed the death of parents and now friends of our own generation: it's fresh, it's raw, it's visceral. And that's the slope we're headed towards. Writing these poems was a way to work through this, to come to terms with the eventual ending.

DL     In "Lost Babies" your speaker remembers a series of miscarriages, sadly noting the absence of memories of children. The poem ends poignantly: ". . . sometimes I dream / you became luscious fruit / my womb / bursting like purple grapes / wine / for the deceived heart." In "Destinations" you speak of the "slow incursion of loss." In "Without Trees" you envision a world suddenly stripped of trees. How do you explain this thread of sadness that weaves its way throughout the collection?

JM     It's my shadow side. Basically, I'm an optimist and I have so much serotonin I wish I could sell the overflow! "Lost Babies" was the first time I had ever written about my miscarriages, one of the great sorrows of my life. These are meditations on what life takes away. Other poems focus on the gifts. And aren't trees and babies also gifts?

DL     In spite of the undercurrent of sadness and loss, there is also an ongoing expression of faith. "Credo" speaks of the "testament of bones." There's bargaining with God in "The Bone Poem" and "catalogs of hope" in "Physical Examination." The title poem closes the collection with the word "Amen." Is this a religious kind of faith or something else? How do you reconcile loss and faith?

JM     Religious, spiritual, call it what you will. It's my belief that there's Someone out there in this crazy world that has an answer to all my questions, even if I never hear any of them. I used the book as my own personal quest for reconciling loss and faith and yes, for me, it was effective. It's the emotional reconciliation that's the hardest. Nature's need to replace the old with the new is evident to logic and observation. But it's tough to be joyful and accepting when decline comes to your own body, or to those you love.

DL     Your opening poem, "Credo," beautifully expresses the reconciliation of sorrow and joy, especially in the last three stanzas:

I believe in the torso, ankles, spine, and those small
sticky ribs. I rejoice in my bones each morning,
rise from bed on legs that hold me straight,
walk me to the kitchen. I lift my coffee cup
with a slender filigree of fingers. My hat
fits my skull and I dare the world with my chin.

At night, my bones retract into a thin skin of dreams.
These, too, I believe. An undercut of sorrow
runs beneath. I accept the slow dissolve into mineral.
I touch my knees, my breastbone, feel the outward scars,
believe that mysteries are happening deeper than skin;
so soon bones diminish and fall away.

I believe nothing is wasted: calcium-crumble,
grate of shale, arrowheads once lost now found,
even shiny leaves, the pointed blades of grass.
Everything that has moved in the rain.

It seems to me a smart move to place this poem first as it lays the groundwork for the poems that follow. I'm also impressed by the economy of this poem and its craft, for example, the strategic use of repetition and catalog. Could you talk about how you came to be a poet? When did you begin writing poetry? How did you become educated in the craft? Who have been your mentors?

JM     My mother wrote poetry all her life and I started writing as a child, I suppose partly to win approval. Like her, I was drawn to rhyme and meter: Teasdale, Millay, Elinor Wylie, to name a few of my early favorites. I was mostly self-taught, with my mother my best editor and critic. I never joined a poetry group or workshopped a poem until 1985, the year my mother died. I started reading all the poets whose names came up in epigraphs or articles: Randall Jarrell, Philip Larkin, Weldon Kees, Meredith, Merrill, Lowell and so on. I read poets I thought I disliked, like Ginsberg and Bukowski. I always found something there to admire. I attended summer workshops and conferences, my favorite being a two-week class with Mary Oliver at Bennington back in the early 90's. I attended that both of the years it was given. Mary was a real role model for me as both a poet and a person. Molly Peacock and Marie Howe are two other poets who have been instrumental in my poetry life. And Patrick Lawler, who taught the very first formal poetry class I attended, back in the late 80's. I considered an MFA program but the expense and time commitment were too great, so I just read everything I could get my hands on and wrote a lot.

DL     You've been an editor of The Comstock Review for many years. How does that role affect your own poetry?

JM     It's been a tremendous positive to read much of what comes in and it makes one a more discriminating reader. I'm proud to have been one of the journal's founders in 1986. Of course, it takes away time I could be writing my own poems, but I think the fellowship I've gained with other active poets and reading all their glorious work more than makes up for that sacrifice.

DL     What's the most important piece of advice you could offer to a beginning poet?

JM     Read poets from all the Ages, especially the best of the contemporary writers. Read criticism to understand what's good and why. Write. Don't hurry the process. Join a group where you can get honest feedback. Don't let discouragement get you down.

DL     Your title poem, "Rosary of Bones," closes the collection. Let's give that poem the final word here too:

Easy to praise
when it's green and fresh
and the air smells ironed.
Easy to open hands,
spill seeds, tamp soil,
like my grandmother before me
who saw angels in the rain.

Now that I have become
my grandmother
I wrestle with weeds and words,
fling the rake around.
The world has evolved
into a truly stubborn place,
a curse of rocks to trip my feet.

I haven't seen angels for years
and I need them in my garden:
soil with its stony crop,
worms among the roses.
But here I count
the bones that work,
the springing summer hours.

I give thanks for leaves,
for autumn's bronze
and winter's grace:
snow's white confection
erasing even as it is erased.
This peace. This praise.


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