“She acknowledges the circle. / There is no obvious beginning”: An Interview with Jami Macarty
Feb 20, 2020
Jami Macarty is the author of three chapbooks of poetry—including Mind of Spring, winner of the 2017 Vallum Chapbook Award—and is the recipient of grants from the Arizona Commission on the Arts and British Columbia Arts Council. She lives between Tuscon, Arizona, and Vancouver, British Columbia, where she teaches creative writing at Simon Fraser University. Macarty’s latest collection of poems, The Minuses, is now available from The Center for Literary Publishing. Managing editor Jess Turner had the pleasure of working on the collection; she reached out to Macarty to learn more about her experience writing The Minuses.
Jess Turner: As part of the team working on The Minuses, I was given the opportunity to intimately navigate and travel throughout the world of the collection—a world that offers both tenderness and violence. There is the Sonoran Desert; there are blossoms, owls, and nests; there is prayer. But there is also loss—within the natural world and within the speaker; there are bruises; there is absence. Could you speak to this simultaneity and its function in The Minuses?
Jami Macarty: First, thanks and bows to you, Jess, for being willing to be intimate with The Minuses. That willingness, yours, is a precious gift a reader bestows on poems. That willingness also suggests the intimate relationship possible between a reader and a poem. My view is that readers have to prove and reveal themselves to the poem just as much as the poem has to prove and reveal itself to readers. In other words, the intimacy and connection between reader and poem is not solely up to the poem. In what relationship does one-sidedness work? Perhaps only within hierarchies. The relationship between poet and reader, poem and reader is never inherently hierarchal; always there is the promise of an interdependent co-arising, an encounter of equals. The poem exists, arises with and between the poet and the reader; the poem could be thought of as the meeting bridge. In the poems of The Minuses, the punctuation mark the colon (:) enacts the bridge for the meeting. Your reader’s willingness to be intimate with, to “navigate and travel throughout the world” of the poems is an act of simultaneity, even an enactment of simultaneity. Simultaneity is the undifferentiated experience of movement and time in and of the world. The poems’ stream is ongoing, perpetual. When a reader determines to join the poem’s stream, then that which is flowing through and arising in the reader’s life merges with the poem’s life, as at the confluence of the Little Colorado River (Hopi: Paayu) and the Colorado River. Isn’t it also the case that the lives of animals, insects, and plants engaged in and through the enactment of the poem and a reading of it flow into and across the planet and the galaxy beyond—all of it simultaneously. Nothing stops or ends. Even death floats and streams through the life awakened and inveigled in a poem. Even when there’s a minus—a dear one dies—life keeps living itself. This is the ethos informing the poems of The Minuses.
JT: The Minuses is often described as an ecofeminist text. Would you consider yourself an ecofeminist? If so, what does ecofeminism mean to you, and what do you find in it?
JM: Labels come after; descriptions about the poems may be for others to make. I want to be careful here—not to suggest that I set out to be any particular way or to write poems according to any particular mandate or positioning. I don’t know about you, but I can’t set out to do anything and assume it will occur—as I planned. Setting out in a particular direction or according to a predetermined position is not part of my writing practice or process. Through the living of my life and through the writing of poems, I came to recognize that my poetic response to what’s arising in the personal, public, social, political, and artistic spheres is a feminist and ecologically-minded response. To me, ecofeminism means that I live my life through, and as an expression of, my love for Earth’s ecology, an appreciation for the planet’s women/women-identified, and for the Divine Feminine, the expression of the feminine within all genders and the Goddess responsible for life. It also means that I recognize a connection between the violence perpetrated against women and the violence perpetrated against the Earth’s biosphere and beyond. Rather than willful positionings, these are natural inclinations, arising organically out of my being. Now, I would agree with the description that the poems have a place, and that they are in good company if located in ecofeminist aesthetics.
JT: I’m drawn to the formal play in your collection; your poems often take advantage of white space, allowing your words to breathe, sing, and sometimes haunt. Too, you use both the colon and the double colon (::) throughout—sometimes as a section break, sometimes as punctuation, sometimes as pause. Could you speak to these formal choices in terms of how they were chosen to assist your content?
JM: My penchant for the colon goes back to an affinity with verbal analogies and mathematic equations. Though, at the moment, I don’t recall the precise advent of the colon asserting itself within the poems of The Minuses. That likely means it spontaneously arose and that I trusted its appearance. I wouldn’t say I chose the colon. I do recall that, as the poems developed, the colon claimed more and more attention, even doubling itself (::) to demark sections within poems and the collection. There’s just something about the colon that captures my attention. When I consider the colon, the feeling of it within my body is an excitement. I think that has to do with its two-way, bridging, equalizing quality. The colon points in both directions; as I said earlier, it acts like a bridge. Also, it acts like an equals sign. The colon tethers two separate elements, making a third thing. That third thing, embodying at least the possibility of an illustration or expression of unification—of twoness resolving to oneness. The poems of The Minuses are filled with verbal analogy and comparison—enactments of “I” is to door as “you” is to door. The poems also use the colon as it is used within mathematics—to express ratios and various formulas and equations to delineate, to denote, to mean, and to give name to. The poems of The Minuses use the colon to extend and support the expression of mathematics within the title and the collection. That is, to express dyads, to suggest an extended field of meaning, to redefine A as B or A and B as C.
JT: One of my favorite poems in your collection is “Site Record,” the last line ringing so true: “Your absence what is left to eat.” Is there a poem in this collection that you feel closest to and/or most proud of?
JM: Thank you, Jess. I bow to Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton whose poetics influenced “Site Record.” I don’t know about “closest to and/or most proud of.” Keeping pride in check, I’ll spin off from “closest.” I’m grateful that more than one poem springs to the foreground of my attention, because that indicates to me a fascia that both envelops and connects poems. “By Virtue of And” came to the fore first. Its first line: “Honey given : Honey taken” illustrates relative simultaneity, verbal analogy, and mathematic equation. This line might also be read: “Honey given” is to “honey taken.” “Honey given” and “honey taken” are not necessarily equal, but they are equivalents. That is, equivalent integers co-arising within the whole. Beyond that, this is a poem within the collection that expresses acceptance of reality’s paradox—“By virtue of and / we divide and separate:”—and, as the poem continues it blends the flora with the human, expressing a unification of a tree’s branches with the brain’s cortical branches, and the natural inclination of the mind to fixate—on separation, limitation, and repetition, among other things: “branching into / palo verde: green stick tree / precipitating yellow blossoms: / green tree, yellow blossoms: a mind sticks / on certain images, certain colors:” All of this all at once—simultaneously—connected by the colon.
JT: In general, what is your writing process like? Do you regularly schedule time to write? How do you find your inspiration?
JM: The call to language is a simultaneous stream to all other things within my life. All I have to do is answer the call. What makes me answer the call? My love of language. I approach the writing process in the spirit of experimentation and discovery. My notebook’s an open field, welcoming everything just as it is. I like to write things down, so I’m rather constantly doodling/ noodling in words—what could we call that: “woordling”? Most of the time, it’s a case of my hand starts moving, shaping letters, then words, and the words take me. I write from the body; there’s always something unfolding or arising within it. In this way, there’s no end to what’s there to be written about. I tend not to bypass what’s present, but instead use it as the prompt from which to write. For example, if the sensation of frustration is in the foreground or in the way of my interest in writing about mariposa poppies, then frustration is there to be written and has to be before it’s possible to fully attend to the words for poppies. I write because I love to write; writing is filled with the potential to surprise, to make the unknown known and the known unknown. I love to read, too. Since 2018, I’ve been conducting a personal big read (#mypersonalBigRead), wherein I intend to make reading a daily practice. This project started when I noticed growing anxiety at the number of books rising like floors in a skyscraper around my desk. I seemed to be collecting and coveting books more than I was reading them. Now, I’m reading more than collecting/coveting: in 2018, I read 300 books; in 2019: 303. I read everything—books of all sorts, my mood, my sweetie’s face, the quinoa box, the northern mockingbird’s position on the telephone pole, the sky at dusk. Inevitably what I read influences words to come to the page.
JT: How did you find the process of writing and publishing a full-length manuscript versus a chapbook?
JM: The writing of each form wasn’t much different . . . other than, umm, longer. Ha! While generating material isn’t particularly a challenge for me, organizing it can be. One of the reasons for that is that I, and therefore my poems, can tend to stay on one thing—a subject, feeling, form, whatever—until it breaks free of itself, morphing into something else or resolving to oneness. For me, developing a tolerance to withstand exploration of a single subject or feeling for a sustained period is a meditative practice. A chapbook is well-suited to the sustained focus/meditation on a single subject and/or feeling. With the shorter form, the continuum of the thought and feeling related to a singular subject can be revealed. Not all readers, however, are interested in sustained attention to a single subject/topic. So, in the longer form, I was challenged to consider how to sustain the singular intensity of a meditation while offering breaks and allowing for gaps. Breaks and gaps are a natural arising within life, as they are within a practice of meditation. With the full-length collection, the order of poems creates a rhythm of offering poems on the primary subject, interrupted by poems that offer a chance to look away from that subject. This rhythm allows for and enacts the natural arising of interruptions/breaks/gaps and adds an elliptical quality to the accumulating movement from poem to poem. I didn’t plan this, but arrived at it organically, intuitively by staying with and with, and by listening to, the poems.
JT: Was there a particular moment when you knew you wanted to write poetry? And along those lines, what do you take away from poetry? What do you want readers to take away from The Minuses?
JM: For as long as I can remember I’ve been writing things down. Between age eight and nine, I became more conscious of taking dictation from my observations, thoughts, and emotions and began recording them on the page. The idea of consciously wanting to write poems sparked in the first year of high school. A remarkable high school English teacher opened a door to language’s possibilities that’s stayed open for me. Poetry is the site of a love affair with language. I endeavor not to take anything away from poetry, but rather to give it everything I’ve got—my complete devotion. I’ll be ever grateful if readers bring their beautiful, open selves and senses to the poems of The Minuses. Beyond that, I don’t want to interfere with or impose on the reader’s relationship with the poems; that’s the reader’s intimacy to have with the poems.