Jul/Aug 2011  •   Reviews & Interviews

An Interview with Molly McGlennen

Interview by Kimberly L. Becker

I believe poetry is one way to begin to dismantle or unsettle normative narratives because of poetry's ability to "speak" to people at the seam where emotion and reason cross, where powerful eruptions of motivation and deconstruction can happen.

Molly McGlennen was born and raised in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and is of Anishinaabe and European descent. She is an Assistant Professor of English and Native American Studies at Vassar College. She holds PhD in Native American Studies from UC Davis and an MFA in Creative Writing from Mills College. Her scholarship and poetry have been published widely. McGlennen's first poetry collection, Fried Fish and Flour Biscuits, was published in 2010 by Salt Publishing and is part of its award-winning Earthworks series.


KB     Molly, I so enjoyed meeting you at AWP. Congratulations on your book, which I thoroughly enjoyed. It is very "filling," from the title, Fried Fish and Flour Biscuits, to the many food references in the poems. In your preface you state that "poems are what nourish us." Could you say more about that?

MM     It was a pleasure meeting you as well. It is wonderful to know you were "sated" by the book! I wrote the preface well after I wrote most of the poems and after I'd sat with the manuscript for a good deal of time. It came to me that in so many of my poems there were food images, memories of preparing food, our reliance on particular foods depending on where we live, and the connections to food that underscore our connections to family and community members. It occurred to me that poems are like food, and in a lot of ways, poems are like recipes for preparing food because I believe they are meant to be delivered to people, "served up" if you will, to encourage others, to teach others, to literally feed others. I believe poetry can be that mechanism for outreach.

KB     You also mention poetry as "community-building." How so?

MM     Poetry is one of the ways I know I can continue to engage in positive relationship building in my life. When my collection was finally published, my extended family were the first readers of the book. Some cried reading certain pieces, others laughed at particular moments; overall, they told me they appreciated the stories being told. At readings I have given, audience members have told me that certain poems resonated with them or moved them in some real way. These connective moments are the type of triggers I try to build into my poems, because for me poetry without these connective elements seems less valuable. So, I'm always trying to write looking outward from the center. That means that as much as poetry is an interior journey (as I look within to imaginatively piece together images, memories, rhythms, the words themselves), poetry is also an exterior journey, meaning the context in which the poem is situated is always shifting and always renewing itself and taking on different meanings and moments of connection (from the book itself, to other individual readings, to audiences of listeners).

In addition, I know that I have been informed by a number of writers who have in various ways exhibited great generosity in sharing their stories and paving the poetic paths that I now try to follow. While I'm indebted to that generosity, I also feel it's my responsibility to forge new trails. At the same time I try to create an entrée into the circle of contemporary poets, I also must forge unique and interesting points of departure as well. Poetry allows us to build those networks or pathways, from connection to family, to connection to other writers, to connection to our home, especially when we live a great distance from our places of origin and kin.

KB     You seem to indicate a yearning for your place of origin when you write, "If I need markers, I locate northern lakes, / lilac bushes."

Could you talk about landscape and how it informs your work, from "knowledge only the mountains could sing" to "the vigor of a river"? What do you mean when you write, "My landscapes are in my mother's hands"?

MM     Now that I've been living on the East Coast for a few years, I was asked recently if I'd started to write any "East Coast" or "New York poems." My answer was (and still is) no. I feel that I don't know this place intimately enough to even begin to write about it, depict it, render it. If I did, I couldn't be entirely honest: I'd imagine born-and-raised New Yorkers reading my work and wondering "who's this lady?!" For me, Ojibwe territory (or Minnesota), its lakes, rivers, cities, woods, roads, sounds, animals, and peoples wholly inform my understanding of who I am. All my family is from there and continues to live there. A great deal of the stories that inform my life live there. This is not to say I don't imagine other places through writing (I do—I have some "California poems" in my collection), but the landscape of my home is what pieces me together and pieces my work together. While other places where I've either lived or visited do creep into my poems, they do not inform my sensibility of who I am and the personae I attempt to create and build in my work. At least, not thus far.

KB     Not only places, but people are also important influences in your work. From the preface: "Voices from an array of people have lived in the poems even before they were ever written down. They are there, shaping the design of the poem and encoding their messages." Your maternal grandmother, especially, inhabits many of the poems, and you say in the dedication that she is the "progenitor of [your] words and... creative spirit." I was sorry to read that she passed away before your book was published. What do you think her reaction to your book would have been?

MM     I think she would have loved to have had a copy of her own. I hope I made her proud with the collection. As some of my poetry hints at, my grandmother was dealing with dementia in the last years of her life. Our visits together were bittersweet because in so many ways she was the same as I always remembered: quick to laugh, smiling constantly, and in love with her grandkids. But, she had changed in many ways, too: she no longer remembered which grandchild I was, which child my mom was, and never really "knew" my daughter, her great-grandchild. I, however, had several chances to see my daughter Ellia and her interact, and it was fantastic. Though she was in a confused state, my grandmother absolutely loved Ellia, and Ellia her. For this collection, my grandmother is a root out of which the poems grew, whether she was literally referenced in the poem or not.

Another thing I think about with the publishing of this book is that my grandma finished school after the fourth grade, my mom graduated from high school, and here I am only a generation removed having the good fortune to complete an MFA and a PhD. While my degrees indicate a certain type of acquired wisdom, it is still limited in many ways. The levels of formal education my grandma and mom have in no way indicate their tremendous wisdom and intelligence about life, about people, about family, about cultural and political connections, and so on. They were my first teachers (as with my father, aunties, uncles, etc.), and I'm indebted to all of them for what I've achieved in my life today.

KB     I imagine your grandmother shared many stories with you. Your collection is redolent with story: "tie stories to fingers so you do not forget;" "stories... stitch the days together;" "stories revealed in dreams." Why write poetry and not fiction or creative non-fiction? Is poetry a vessel, a "bowl for tears"? Do you also write across other genres?

MM     I do not write much across other genres. I feel like I'm still learning how to be a poet! For me poetry has the ability to do what fiction and creative non-fiction do. I'm attracted to poetry as a form because of its capacity to do incredible amounts of work in relatively small spaces. I'm attracted to the way poetry works like a giant jigsaw puzzle scattered out before you. Whether you are writing a poem or reading someone else's, that puzzle is there, prompting the process of pulling the pieces together. You must work to see where those edges line up and meet, and you may not even know what the final "picture" will be. So, you are using your whole self to figure it out, not just your eyes, because at times you will be in the dark. But when those jagged or smooth edges join, something really exciting happens, and gaps in understanding all of a sudden become closed and we are illuminated. Poetry, in this way, is a place of limitlessness. And in this freedom, I feel I am able to call upon all that I am informed by, different voices—past and present, different images—imagined and real, different rhythms—staccato and lengthened. For me, poetry enables a process of craft that allows for my belief that everything is "storied."

KB     In your work as a professor you teach "'story cycles" and "multiple narrators." As a mother, you also teach your values (the same poem, "Coming Back Round," has the affecting line "Daughters remember your fullness"). By remembering and passing on stories, do you teach both your students and your children to engage stories critically? Is it true that "a good story has no moral"?

MM     It's through Anishinaabe writers like Ignatia Broker and Basil Johnston that I've come to understand what stories mean in our lives. For instance, in Ojibwe Heritage, Johnston reminds us that stories (in whatever form) provide guides for human behavior. But he also says that it's not enough to just listen to the stories; we must live them out and make them a part of us. So, for me "living out" the truths found in stories (via poetry, art, song etc.) teaches us tolerance and patience of "becoming" over time, that stories are built on the communal knowledge of those who have gone before us and built for those who are yet to be born. Thus, as much as I believe our ancestors have left encoded messages for us to guide us, we at the same time are casting messages and guidance ahead with our story-making and story-living.

KB     In your preface you share that one of your "favorite things is to read poems to people." Is a poem complete without a reader or, preferably, a listener? Is your poetry a continuance of the oral tradition so important to Indian culture?

MM     Though many might disagree with me, I believe a poem is not complete until its been heard or read (but preferably heard!) because that shared experience enacts the generosity I was referring to earlier. In part, this may come from my personal experience having grown up where sharing stories, anecdotes, jokes, and prayers were part of my day-to-day experience. But, this is part of many people's experience, no matter one's background or cultural affiliations. One thing that was impressed on me early on was that just as important as "having something to say" was the ability and practice of good listening. Almost every Sunday as a kid, we'd be at my grandparent's house with all my aunties, uncles, and cousins for dinner. As children, we cousins either had to be quiet and listen at the table as the elders in the family spoke, or "get outside" where we could be as loud as we wanted. But the lesson I learned in all of this was that respect for my elders began with humility and paying attention. I was the type of kid who often preferred to stay at the table and listen. This is where I got many of those snippets of stories, memories, and beliefs. I may not have understood everything that was being said, but nonetheless, those stories still shaped the way I recognized the world around me.

KB     The book includes a few prose poems. Did you intentionally choose this form for the subject matter, or was the work "born" that way? How do you know what shape a poem needs to take?

MM     It's difficult to say which way it went. I suppose a bit of both. The poems "wanted" to be that way, and at the same time, I imagined the subject matters taking a particular shape. Obviously for "Letter" and "Letter II," I wanted the poems to look like how a handwritten letter might take shape. It may have been that simple. For the prose poems in "Three Poems for Ellia," however, it may have been that in some ways I am leaving notes behind for my daughter, or it may be that the multiple layering of story that I was attempting to signify was better suited with long prose lines. In this way, the seams of story are less present, I believe. It's as if the poem encourages the eye and the ear to sort of pour into each level of story until the reader/listener is submerged in it all, in that big block of text. Thus, I felt that the narrative thread and the intended connections between stories were as much visual as they were linguistically implied.

KB     Some of your poems evoke visual references to your mixed lineage: "blue eyes and an Irish name;" "so, what are you anyway?"; "grandchildren... some with green eyes /... some with eyes / black as magpies." In the poem "Synonymous" you write about trying to explain your heritage to a stranger you meet abroad, explaining you are "una mestiza, una indigena... A-ni-shi-na-be / en el norte de los Eastados Unidos" to which the man "finally says, oh Indian / as he extends his finger on top of his head / an indication of a feather / and I/ only nod my head / in recognition / of its ubiquity." How often do you encounter stereotypes based on either your Indian or even perhaps your European (Irish Catholic) heritage?

MM     Stereotyping, whether overt or subtle, happens around me all the time. I used to think United States culture was particularly guilty of creating and perpetuating the romanticized noble or savage Indian figure. The representation of things-Native in this country serves many vexed purposes, some of which are to cover up its history of genocide and to provide a perception of ownership of "American antiquity" for white Americans. I have learned and witnessed that Indian stereotyping not only pervades into other places internationally, but it also grows out of many cultural landscapes around the globe and realizes its own specific form of currency in those places for different reasons.

So, in those poems when I present individual brushes with racism, I'm also in many ways talking about the hurtful and harmful and ubiquitous forms of stereotyping that help support global power structures—structures that maintain "first world/third world" narratives of oppression and that defend corporate interests over environmental crises, for instance. I believe poetry is one way to begin to dismantle or unsettle normative narratives because of poetry's ability to "speak" to people at the seam where emotion and reason cross, where powerful eruptions of motivation and deconstruction can happen.

KB     It occurs to me that your work honors the best of both Native and Roman Catholic spiritual traditions. Or is "to look for parallels... to miss the mark"?

MM     In writing the collection, I was extremely aware of how both traditions cross in my blood and in my upbringing, sometimes at odds and sometimes in wholly syncretistic ways. I've learned that that's pretty much on par with most Indigenous people's experience with religion. While Native people in general have survived and even thrived because of an ability to adapt to, make sense of, and incorporate imposed traditions into their own life-ways, colonialism and Europe's attempted Christian conquest of the Americas has, of course, brought utter ruin to Indigenous peoples and their life-ways. I also think, however, that "both spiritual traditions" overlap in some beautiful ways (like retreat and meditation practices and fasting practices, and more generally, literature/stories that include a pedagogy for living well and balanced). There are also many places where the two traditions are largely contradictory.

I think by that line in the poem you reference I'm intending to say that absolute parallels do not exist because systems of power are always present and working to eradicate Native people's religious practices. In addition, Native religions provide a completely different land ethic than Christianity: a worldview based on reciprocity versus a worldview constructed by hierarchy. This, of course, is a generalization; nonetheless, I find myself attempting to work through these complicated convergences and points of departure in my writing.

KB     In the poem "Maneuvering Targets" you use the simile "like the anthropologist / who poses the native for / something other than truth" (reminding me of Curtis's controversial photography). As a Native writer, do you view your work as witness (especially when "textbooks don't explain [her] story, / history is not linear")?

MM     In many ways, yes. I believe that it is our responsibility to speak the truth, and poetry is a vehicle for truth-telling. This does not mean, however, my poetry has to be didactic or preachy, or that my sole onus as a poet is to re-write/re-right history. It does mean that part of the craft of poetry has to be dedicated to conveying the most honest images and narratives, and through that honesty, I hope, the reader/listener is able to understand something in a new way, or in a more tolerant way.

If western historiography has served the colonial purposes of imperialism, conquest, and the subjugation of particular groups of people, I believe that poetry can be one of the ways those purposes are not only exposed but also recomposed. I look at creative writing as a space that does not nail down the definitions, terms, and parameters of particular histories but rather opens up and complicates our shared and storied experiences.

KB     If poetry can be a place for recomposition, might it also be a place for reclamation? I'm thinking especially of your use of Native language, particularly in this poem:

Living the Language

She tells us the Ojibwe word for blueberry pie
is the recipe to make it:
as we pick the delicate fruit from each calyx
indigo bulb hanging from a perfect five-pointed star
a gift to relieve our hunger—
selecting each one, each star-berry staining our fingers purple-red.
We can't help but pop some in our mouths.
She had said the juice could cure a cough
and the leaves could be tea—would be good for our blood.
In the summers they'd dry them and store for long winters.
We trod through marshy ground searching for the next lowbush
can taste the pie already, baking slowly in her stove
can see her careful thumbs creating the wave that edges the crust
sliding the fork through the top in four directions
holes for breath
as we punch ours out now—blueberry hunting.
We are this language of progression, this recipe
renewed each time our pails are filled and
our fingers drip hard blood in gratitude at the end of days.

What a wonderful poem! By using Ojibwe in your work are you intentionally carrying those sounds forward as defiance against an era (of boarding schools) where Native language was forbidden? ("She strains with pencil in hand / carving a foreign language / as if she dripped paint from a brush / not the words her own mother spoke: / Choctaw—traditions based in story.")

MM     Though I'm not sure I was consciously attempting to be subversive or resistant when I wrote those poems, defiance against the colonial agenda is most certainly present in a lot of my poems. In writing "Living the Language" where the Ojibwe word for blueberry pie comes in, I was fascinated with how Ojibwemowin carries stories within the words themselves. Ojibwemowin is a language comprised of approximately 80% verbs and is agglutinative, meaning prefixes and suffixes modify the core verb and thus create new words from it. So, in general, one can glean deep philosophical meaning from knowing and using Ojibwemowin. Ojibwemowin is a language of process and it signifies experience, as opposed to the English language (which is comprised of a majority of nouns and their modifiers) which suggests framing the world in naming, labeling, and therefore ownership. It makes sense that the language we use and how it's constructed fundamentally shapes the worlds around us. When a language is no longer being used (because of English-only laws or systems of colonialism like boarding schools and assimilation), a whole body of knowledge is lost. So, when I use Ojibwe words in my poems I'm in some ways attempting to stress the continuance of the language, but I'm also trying to unearth the stories embodied in the language itself. I have to say, however, I have only started to learn Ojibwemowin as an adult and am a beginning-speaker. The only two words I knew growing up were boozhoo and mii gwech (hello and thank you). But I am thankful for the little I have begun to learn. Those people who are dedicated to language revitalization work are truly inspiring as the practice often brings elders and children together and affirms Native sovereignty at its most fundamental level.

KB     In "To-Do List Before Writing a Poem:" you lay out several directives: recall, trace, build, feel, name, listen, evince, return. In the poem "Composition" you "assemble with the hands of a poet / who does not know the end / of her poem, ink is an afterthought." What are your writing rituals and how do they help you negotiate the space between inspiration and discipline?

MM     That's a wonderful question and an idea I think about a lot—what it means to hold in suspension the belief that poetry is (at once) a place of limitlessness and a place of complete dedication to craft. I think for me staying connected to my creative spirit means attempting to be in a space of openness. This does not and cannot be a space I can stay in all the time—there are too many other important dimensions in my life that need my attention, like my family, my job, my community. All of these "roles" demand different types of awareness. The creative space is a meditative space. As a creative writer you enter a territory that is composed of liminalities, that rides the intersections of imagination, the subconscious, and the surreal at the same time you are tapering and perfecting language. The creative space leans on the critical side of your brain as much as it lets go of reason and logic.

Can you have a ritual if it varies? Perhaps it's an oxymoron, but I do different things to inspire my writing. Whether it's smudging, quieting down, meditating, exercising (I love to swim), or reading other people's work, the "ritual" of entering into another space of consciousness is something I always practice.

KB     Thank you for your time, Molly, and best wishes with your current projects. In closing, I'd like to circle back to your theme of poetry as sustenance. You acknowledge that "the best recipes are ones we know by heart" and are "never spoken," yet in "How to Make Rock Soup" you give specific directions, interspersed with seemingly spiritual instructions such as "the song is your guide." In closing, would you be willing to share a recipe, either literal or spiritual, in full or in part, in English or in a Native language, with your hungry readers?

MM     Thank you, Kimberly. I won't leave you with a literal recipe, but I will offer up a story. One of the things I've learned, especially throughout the process of writing the collection, is that we all have to make our own recipes for living and that we are constantly in a state of remembering and re-doing those recipes. So, like with writing, we continuously re-visit ways of being and ways of doing.

My auntie told me this story when I was back home in Minneapolis. After she cooked a pheasant around Christmas time, she put the bones outside her house late in the evening. She could see them in the snow from a large window in the front of her house. My cousin (her 20-year-old son) was out late that night (as 20-year-olds often do) and she was worried about him and couldn't sleep. So when she heard the door, she got up out of bed. She didn't see her son, but when she looked outside the large window, the moon was full and very bright and it lit up the whole yard. There was a fox stepping around the bones, sniffing—it was almost like he was dancing, she said. The next morning she saw all the fox footprints in the snow and the bones were gone. Then she added, of course the crows were there, talking.

I really liked her story, and I couldn't say why at the time. I thought she was telling me about how she worried about her son, my cousin, how he's dropped out of school and running with some "not so great" crowds, but now I understand it differently—as an array of possibilities. Like those crows talking in the morning, we all have our perspectives on what happened. We come to story informed by our distinct affiliations to a particular landscape and a particular set of kin. And when we enter into creating story or carrying on story—whether following the recipe or not—the "dish" is never the same twice. Perhaps that is what makes poetry so exciting.


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