Intricacy & Inertia: An Interview with Margaret Ross

by    /  February 4, 2020  / Comments Off on Intricacy & Inertia: An Interview with Margaret Ross

Last fall, Margaret Ross took a break from rehearsing for City of Asylum’s annual Jazz Poetry Festival to chat with Sampsonia Way about time, the craft of writing, and the world around us. A Jones Lecturer at Stanford University, Ross currently resides in Berkeley, California. Her work has been published in POETRY, The Paris Review, and The New Republic, and has been recognized by a Fulbright arts grant, Wallace Stegner Fellowship, and residencies from Yaddo. Her first book, A Timeshare, was awarded the Omnidawn 1st/2nd Book Prize. 

I. On Beginnings

Before we dive into your book of poetry, A Timeshare, I want to talk about beginnings. How did you get into writing? Did you always have a sense of wanting to be a writer or poet someday?

Like a lot of writers, I more or less always wrote. It came out of reading. I wrote alternate versions of stories I loved and long corny letters to imagined people in what I believed was a literary voice. My grandmother liked Emily Dickinson and taught me some of her poems early on.“I’m Nobody!” made an impression. And I was lucky that my high school had a poetry class. That was where I first read Gwendolyn Brooks, Sylvia Plath, Li-Young Lee, Lucille Clifton, Kimiko Hahn, James Merrill. It was really wonderful. The teacher was a poet named Emily Moore and she was the first living poet I knew. I had always thought as a child that poets were dead so it was instructive just to be in her presence. I was in awe of her. There were potted plants at the back of the classroom which Ms. Moore had named after poets who’d died. That was where I realized how much I liked writing poems specifically.

Why do you write?

Maybe the most honest answer is just because I can’t imagine not writing. I’d be too lonely without it. Writing gives me a way of reading the world, of perceiving intricacy. And it lets me respond to the poems I’ve read that shaped me. In that respect writing is an extension of reading, and reading is a way of being close to other people, both living and dead. There isn’t another medium for me where the dead are as present. Reading someone’s lines you can feel the breathing cadence of their spirit, it’s so intimate.

I want to talk about the beginning of A Timeshare. The first word of the first poem is “countdown” and from that moment on, the passage of time is an ongoing motif. Could you discuss time and how it’s operating here?

I was thinking about time in relation to poetic form, a poem as a shape that marries different forms of time. I thought of the regular stanza as the measure of clock time (each minute uniform, no matter what happens during it) and the sentence — which can hurtle and enjamb and drag and twist against the stanza — as the measure of embodied experience, how slow or fast time actually feels.

And the title… I mean, a timeshare is such a creepy idea. It’s a place that’s at once communal and isolating. It seemed a kind of eerie image for the ways people can inhabit time and space together while failing to recognize each other, while feeling alone. The word also implies that time is a whole, which gets split into shares, apportioned. You have your allotted segment.

II. On Structure & Inertia

The book is divided into three parts. How did you come to these divisions, or even figure out what order to arrange your poems in?

I like things that come in threes. Three feels balanced but not symmetrical. When I was figuring out order, I thought about the first line of each poem responding to the last line of the poem before it. I wanted that conversation to happen differently as the book unfolded, to have range, so responses could be slant rhymes or rebuttals, questions, or they could reframe an image, shift tone.

In the third section, there seemed to be an escalated sense of uncertainty and urgency, especially in regard to identity. Could we talk about how you approach identity in your writing?

Yes, the poems in that section are obsessively questioning, trying to understand the bounds of a person. I was approaching identity metaphysically, maybe. I wanted them to pick apart the fiction of a circumscribed self and write into a visceral sense of continuity between people. Much of that effort is steered by the setting. The poems take place in various built environments — apartments, assisted living facilities, corporate parks, city blocks, etc. — and are scrutinizing their surroundings for the ideas of singular and collective life inscribed in architecture.

In later work, I’ve thought more narratively about identity, and have wanted particularly to explore the ways whiteness and gender and capitalism are communicated, explicitly and implicitly, to very young children. Children just learning to speak and parse adult behavior. To try to render that process and examine the subtler, ubiquitous forms of violence which masquerade as etiquette or tradition.

My favorite lines from A Timeshare are the last ones: “I can describe / inertia, I have been there, it looks / the same as here, the street / convincingly painted onto glass as if you could go.” Could you talk more about the word “inertia”?

I love that word! There’s something about the word inertia ending on an open vowel that makes it feel vaporous, atmospheric. And that it defines stillness as uniformity (be that uniform motion or non-motion) makes it a more lifeless word than “death,” which is by comparison an active transition.

III. Process & Practice

How do you think your poetry is different now?

I think the most pronounced difference is that the poems are more narrative. After A Timeshare, I was reading a lot of short stories by Isaac Babel and Alice Munro and Edward P. Jones and felt in awe of their velocity, how those writers fit a whole novel’s worth of life into a few pages. Also, how their stories seem completely precise and straightforward line to line but the lines add up to something almost ineffably complex and difficult. There’s a kind of vertigo you get reading them. It made me think of syntax not only as the music of the individual sentence but as the curation and juxtaposition of scenes. And it made me want to see if years could pass in a poem, and how that duration might trace cruelty and history and love between people.

Did you take a pause from writing poetry for a while?

No, I kept writing, but I threw a lot of poems away. Or I guess I shouldn’t say a lot because I write so slow! But some, a lot for me, pretty much everything I wrote for two years after A Timeshare. I was teaching myself to put a poem together differently, and so the work in those years just felt like private efforts, practicing.

What advice do you have for young poets and writers?

I personally really believe in memorizing other people’s poems — poems that you love or poems that are somehow mysterious or alluring to you — to memorize and keep those in your body. I’ve learned so much from doing that. The process teaches you how a poem is built and about the multiple conversations within it. Also, the poem becomes a friend you can recite when you’re waiting for the train or trying to fall asleep; it’s this other mind that’s with you when you’re alone.

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