"I don't know what "great" means. I don't care! I am happy to stumble upon poems anywhere that are great-to-me."

More Perihelion:

Bob Sward's Writer's Friendship Series

Book Reviews

Need to Know



Issue 11: The Necessary Eye

Issue 10: Out on a Limb

Issue 9: The Missing Body

Issue 8: The Lily

Issue 7: Passages

Issue 6: No More Tears

A quick list to poets featured in this issue:

Melissa Ahart

Sommer Browning

Sarah Busse

devin wayne davis

Karen D'Amato

Yaakov Fichman

Donna Johnson

Vera Kroms

Li Bo

Li Qingzhao

Ander Monson

Christopher Mulrooney


Todd Samuelson

Maria Terrone

Mihai Ursachi

Sophie Wadsworth

G.C. Waldrep

Martha Zweig

Featured Poet:
Martha Zweig

Martha Zweig is the author of two full-length poetry collections, What Kind, Wesleyan University Press, 2003, and Vinegar Bone, 1999, also from Wesleyan. Powers, published by the Vermont Council on the Arts, is her chapbook. She received a Whiting Writer's Award, and her poems have appeared widely in literary journals including: Northwest Review, Manoa, Boston Review, The Journal, Ploughshares, Literary Imagination, The Gettysburg Review, The Progressive, Field, and The Beloit Poetry Journal.

Joan Houlihan: Martha, I first saw your work in What Kind and had a huge, positive reaction to it, went looking for more. It's rare, it's original, and it's daring in its use of sound and imagery and in its unabashed communion with emotional life. It is a real union of art and craft. My first question is about the process that enables you to do this: is your process sound-driven? Are you sometimes surprised to find lots of internal rhymes in a draft? How about revision—do you revise toward sound? Something else?

My process is indeed sound-driven, driven also by the associations among multiple meanings and other vagaries of idiom that happen to strike me. I keep a list of words and phrases that take my fancy, and read through the list from time to time. (That would be one: "from time to time.") Stuck mid-poem, I often find that a noise or some wordplay will suggest a next phrase or two, which will in turn take a direction I'd never have thought of otherwise. Years ago I had an aesthetic of the subject matter, poem as act-of-reverence towards its subject. But I ended up thinking too much, even faking feeling, so that finally I was sitting there seized up for hours at a time, writing nothing. I seem to write better when I don't know where I'm going, when the gossip of words among themselves carries me along. I tell myself, irresponsibly, that the poem made me do it! Details in my poems surprise me all the time. Sometimes I do revise towards sound. Occasionally I will alter meaning in order to get a better sound. But I should confess that I don't do revision in what I'm told is the usual way. I seem to be incapable of completing a first draft, then going back and making the whole thing better. I revise as I go, line by line. If I feel only so-so about what's already on the page, I can't go on. It's got to delight me right now, or I'll abandon it, boring, yuck. One disadvantage of this method is that I can find myself painted into a corner: by the time I understand what the subject-mmter is, 2/3 through the poem, say, it's often maddeningly difficult to pull together an ending. Perhaps I should start with endings.

How did you get to this point in your life: two books published and going strong?

I'm 61. Two books published (3 if you count my chapbook) lags far behind the usual trajectory. I dropped out for 15 years or so. In the 60's, with a Masters in English from the University of Michigan, I was beginning to publish poems respectably in magazines. I was also active in the radical left, trying to re-imagine myself as a revolutionary, willing to abandon privileges that most people never have in the first place. My comrades thought that writing poetry was one such privilege, though I didn't agree; surely no more self- indulgent than hours and hours on dope and at rock concerts! I differed on certain other matters with the group my husband and I worked with most closely-- for instance, I was then and am today in favor of gay rights and opposed to abortion. I became an embarrassment to the group. So my (now ex-) husband left me and my daughter, then 3, and I brought her to a trailer on land in Vermont we'd originally bought as a camping spot. Because I resisted divorce, she and I were poor. I worked 22 years as a teacher aide, garment factory operator, and advocate for seniors. I wrote nothing. Then, after I'd taken care of my daughter's college, it occurred to me that I could resume poetry. A support group, No limits for Women Artists, helped get me going.

You have a Masters in English but you returned to school to get an MFA from Warren Wilson college. Can you tell me what prompted that? Did/do you plan to teach? If not, do you think the MFA helped your own development as a poet? Why or why not?

At one of several writer's sessions at the Vermont Studio Center I heard about the Warren Wilson MFA program, which I finished in 1998. My teachers at VSC and especially at Warren Wilson made me address my poems as if poems mattered, and also let me be playful, subversive. They paid attention to my work, and made me do the same. Didn't I have to respect and enjoy poems as much as they did? It got to be fun to read and critique a poem, and to write one, even to change it. Giddy with praise and wily under criticism, I began to buck up into an attitude, and to tease out a voice that I could hear claiming to be my own. And my teachers have spoken up for me where it matters, particularly Heather McHugh, who shepherded Vinegar Bone and What Kind towards Wesleyan. I've never wanted to teach a class. I'm vastly ignorant, for one thing, and intimidated facing more than one other person. I do do well one-to-one, and carry on rich individual correspondences with a few fellow poets, commenting on each other's work. Last summer I got paid $100 by the library to teach a group of kids, age 10-11, to write poems. All my preparations proved dismally ineffectual, until I finally resorted to a game I'd played with my daughter as a child, which led to shrieks of delight from the children and, as I heard later, considerable dismay from some of their parents.

Do you think your relative isolation in rural Vermont—and even isolation from the internet—enables your poetry?

I don't know whether isolation encourages or inhibits my work. Probably some of each. I live as I do as a matter of personal taste. I got more than my fill of group dynamics and career imperatives during the 60's. An only child, I've always been happiest by myself, frequently fearful and/or bored in the verbal customs of social life. I've avoided the internet, though, because I fear addiction. Last year, visiting my daughter and her husband, I played Doom constantly. All kinds of trashy stuff out there that I would love! Terrible. I've thought to save the internet for when I am terminally bedridden, but I do feel myself weakening because I kinda should get a laptop anyway and so, as a practical matter, ought to include the technical capability for getting on the internet.

You are one of the rare poets working outside an academic environment. What do you do for a living and how does it affect your life as a poet?

I'm no longer employed. I live on about $18,000 per year income from the remainder of my mother's estate that passed on to me when my father died in 1997. During the years when I was poor (no such assets) I developed an efficient low-income lifestyle that is now part of my personality. I'm comfortable, even proud. People have too much money anyway, a disgrace! Though in theory I now have all possible time in the world to write, time makes less difference than I thought it would. I clean up the woods more, paddle in my kayak more, and watch more TV. But the low-income anti-professional lifestyle has everything to do with my generally irreverent take on things, my voice. It does bother me that I can't seem to make poems in the way I used to be able to produce at the factory. If I were truly competent, wouldn't I be able to do that?

Who, if anyone, had an influence on your being a poet? Or maybe it's a “what”?

Going to college, intending to be a writer, I assumed I'd write fiction. A Hopwood Award story of mine was published in Harper's in February, 1965. As I tried to write more stories, though, I realized that they had no plot and no characters; they worked by means of images. Meanwhile, when I wrote poetry, my teachers at UM, especially Donald Hall, had to kick the crap out of me, the purple excesses of sentiment, elegance, and pontification that I'd been brought up to revere. Hall noted that I was "Being Beautiful," no compliment. I remember laughing out loud during one of Hall's exams, when I first began to grasp that the poem we had to analyze had a lot of devious mischief going on. I like to think I eventually put myself under-the-influence of Hopkins and Berryman. More recently, I've begun to appreciate the early influence of my parents' lingo and diction: my father who tried to talk Wisdom like the Bible, and especially my mother, for her astonishing range, elegant lady to lowlife slut sometimes within a single sentence.

Who are some of your favorite contemporary poets and why? Do you think anyone is writing “great” poetry today? What would you look for to decide?

I love lingo-tangles, word nests that emotion makes while plucking at things. I like both an obstreperous pouring-forth and a chilly austerity. I like noise, mouth-feel and surprise. I prefer ornate and covert to the plain and "accessible." I like to be frightened. I like the feeling of something creeping up on me, even if it is not frightful. I don't want to know what it is right away. Excluding my teachers and personal friends and acquaintances, I love a lot of W. S. Merwin, Charles Simic, Albert Goldbarth, John Ashbery, Brigit Pegeen Kelly, Mary Ruefle and Dean Young. Mostly, though, I love particular poems by hundreds of different people. I keep a personal anthology in alphabetical folders. I'm embarrassingly ill-read and when I do read an entire book by a single poet, I find I genuinely love maybe 5 , or 6 of the poems, about the same as I would reading random poets in the periodicals I often get for free! Presumably there is some threshold of authentic quality in my taste, or in anyone's. But loving a poem is highly idiosyncratic, I believe. I don't know whether or not anyone is writing "great" poetry today, and I wouldn't look for anything to decide. I don't know what "great" means. I don't care! I am happy to stumble upon poems anywhere that are great-to-me. I suspect that literary "greatness" is a slogan of the academic and publishing industries, so that critical and professorial stars may rise and fall, and so that kids will think they ought to read the book and go to class. "Greatness" gets summoned into all too many occasions for high class people and politicians merely to puff themselves up with the anointing and presiding.

Please describe one of the poems you've given to Perihelion in terms of its process: how it came to be and what you want from it.

Decades before "Green Velvet" came to be, I listed for its assonance the phrase "upholstered boulders," which came to mind in my earliest cherishing of the Vermont land where I now live: moss on the big rocks in the stream. Flash-forward: on Great Hosmer Pond one fall I noticed patches of floating brown foliage dropped from the cedar trees, which reminded me of a brown lace dress my mother used to wear. Later, summer 1998, watching the mallards on North Montpelier Pond, I enjoyed the perversity of imagining a gown stitched up out of the males' green crowns. History is full of such exquisite atrocities committed for the adornment of the rich. How many mallard heads it would take? Apart from the style of the gown, how much surface area could you really count on per duck head, considering the necessary selvage? --and that number changed many times. Twenty-seven thousand is probably too many if you could end up with a green patch 2" x 2" from each head, but I'm guessing you couldn't, that the patch would be enough smaller than that to make 27,000 plausible for a full-skirted gown. The first version of the poem consisted of 3 stanzas only, free verse approximations of what are now #3, #1, and #5 (including something of the first line of present #4). I was terribly pleased with it, far too enamored of my own idea, one of my ongoing weaknesses. Comments received from the poet Muriel Nelson managed to get my attention: I had to admit more work needed to be done. Meanwhile, Agha Shahid Ali had been urging me to try Sapphics, which he approximated into English as /-/-/--/-/- /-/-/--/-/- /-/-/--/-/- /--/- This form proved highly stimulating, and summoned most of the words and phrasing. I gave up one of the images ("gown a duck can't think in") that Muriel and I had liked best in the first version, because I couldn't get it to fit. I changed the order of the stanzas, separated and expanded #4 and #5, and added #2 specifically to salute Muriel, who is a musician and singer. Finally, I had a terrible time over what noun to use for the boat! I really wanted Jane Kenyon's "coracle," but that one belongs to her for a while. "Kayak" seemed off- diction, not lush enough or exotic enough, plus I was hung up on a certain sentence-order, and on the article, such that "kayak" wouldn't fit the meter. For a long time I made do with "scull," though sculls have oars, not paddles. Then one day recently, in an ethical seizure of mere down-to-earth accuracy, I dropped the article and reordered the sentence to accommodate the kayak. The series of short a's in stanza #4 exemplify word-choice proliferating along a certain sound. In #2 "lily-paddles," a verb of no literal sense whatsoever, is the sort of thing that comes to mind in chains of conflation: the end of one word or phrase forming the beginning of the next, and so on, a great game for long car trips.

Thanks, Martha, for sharing your experience and insights with Perihelion.

Martha Zweig's poetry can be found here.