Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Coffee Chat #5: Meghan O'Rourke

I first met Meghan O'Rourke over 5 years ago when we were both at Warren Wilson's MFA Program for Writers.  I didn't know who she was but sensed there was something really special about her.  Five years later, I, and the rest of the world have had the good fortune of reading her wonderful work in all genres.  With each passing word, I really love her work more and more.  She has a new book coming out called The Long Goodbye about grief and her mother's passing.  I've talked with her many times before but really wanted to dig deeper and find out more about her, demystify her and her work in a way.  I think our culture has a weird way of elevating people, then putting them down because of their "success".  There's always so much more to the story and the person.  She was gracious enough to indulge in my curiosity.


VC: I feel like I've known you for years, yet I don't feel like I really know you that well.  Interestingly, I get this same feeling when I read your poetry--there's a sort of combination of openness and hiddenness.  Do you agree with me and if so, is this a conscious decision?  If not, why not?

MO: I was a pathologically shy child, and I always think that is embedded in the work in some way.  From a non-biographical, aesthetic point of view, I’m drawn to the mysterious way cadence is such a powerful too for making us feel things we can’t name.  Cadence works on our limbic system in ways that nothing else does. I love poetry for the way it creates a language for what can’t be accessed through the rational alone.  I’m interested in what can’t be said straight, or “the hum of thoughts evaded by the mind,” as Stevens put it.  I think many of our deepest feelings or intuitions feel like this to us.

Is it conscious? God, who knows. I’m not sure any of it fully is. I think it starts unconscious, and becomes conscious. You learn to work with what you have, your own predilections and tics.

VC: You have always seemed to me to be so incredibly ambitious.  Where does this ambition come from?  And do you ever get tired of it (I ask this, because I do of my own ambitions)?

MO: Hmm. People do sometimes tell me I am “ambitious.” I confess I don't quite know what it means, and I often wonder whether this would even come up if I were a man. In other words, I always hear embedded in that word a kind of critique. Do you? Maybe I’m crazy.

I don’t exactly think of myself as ambitious, per se. I think of myself as “driven” or perhaps more accurately “hounded.” Writing and reading help me keep anxiety and dread away. I work hard, but I do so because I’m calmest when I’m working. And yes: I tire of this reality!  

I was very lucky in my career and I think that’s part of why some may think I’m ambitious. I stumbled into a lot of good jobs. and to be sure I’m really invested in our writing about our culture, in critiquing certain elements of the media discourse about culture, and so on. But it’s not very strategic.
VC: You seem so incredibly skilled at so many different genres.  Was poetry your first love?  What attracts you to the genre?

MO: Novels were my first love, actually. When I was very young I wrote novels and stories--mostly bad science fiction about unicorns in space, that kind of thing.

Then, when I was 16, I read Wallace Stevens and Elizabeth Bishop and fell hard in love with poetry. The two poems that did it were “This Solitude of Cataracts” and “In the Waiting Room.” What I love about it – again – is that sense of mystery, the way poetry can crystallize a hard-to-identify intuition. These were the lines of Stevens’ that sealed the deal—the way the poem invokes the illusoriness of a mind finding “rest / in a permanent realization” yet also seems to crystallize it, to make monumental the sensuousness of a minute moment:

He wanted his heart to stop beating and his mind to rest
In a permanent realization, without any wild ducks
Or mountains that were not mountains, just to know how it would be,
Just to know how it would feel, released from destruction,
To be a bronze man breathing under archaic lapis,
Without the oscillations of planetary pass-pass,
Breathing his bronzen breath at the azury center of time.

VC: Why did you decide to bypass the contest route when you published your first book and go with Norton?  Or did you actually send your manuscript out to contests prior to working with Norton?

MO: I didn't actually make a conscious decision. I liked some of Norton’s poets so I put my manuscript in an envelope and sent it to them. I liked that they did criticism and poetry and I wanted to be published by a house that did both. I got lucky –Jill Bialosky read my manuscript and liked it.

VC: A long time ago, I read an article on the Gawker titled: "Why People Hate Meghan O'Rourke" and it talked about you being the symbol of "privilege".  How did that make you feel and how in general do you deal with that kind of open criticism of you and your background?  And how do you deal with peoples' envy and jealousy of you, your background, or accomplishments?

MO: The only way to deal with such things is by focusing on your work, I suppose, as it’s the only thing you have control over – someone will always dislike you, no matter what you do, and we all do stupid things or rub someone the wrong way at times.

That particular post was upsetting because it suggested things about my life that weren’t true, which bothered me. I have been educationally privileged, but I was not financially or socially privileged in the sense that the post suggested; my parents were poorly paid teachers. (Of course, it’s hard to talk about not being privileged without sounding extremely privileged –by comparison with most of the world, I certainly am.)  I spent my childhood in a kind of wonderland my parents invented for us because we didn’t have much money. I felt like an outsider, a feeling I think most writers need to experience in their lives.
VC: Related to that question, things seem to come so easily for you from an outside perspective.  Do you feel this way?

MO: No, it doesn’t feel that way, except when it comes to editing. I do feel that I am a good editor; it’s a way of being useful to the world (and to the word, which I originally typed by accident). Everything else feels very hard.

VC: Because you live in New York, how much weight do you put on the "po-biz" work that goes along with promoting your book, meeting the right people, getting the right reviews, etc?  And how do you separate the creative process from that po-biz work that seems to be increasingly necessary to have any readers at all?

MO: I think that all that is pretty poisonous when you’re trying to work. But I can see that it certainly helps, and that it likely helped me to be in New York, and I guess it is important for writers to think about such issues in this day and age. But like a lot of writers I find that all this stuff creates a kind of noise in my head which gets in the way of writing. A  friend of mine keeps telling me to leave the “fetid cesspool” that is New York in his mind. Since I left Slate a few years ago I’ve spent about half of every year in small towns or places outside NY, because I need to get away from that noise, into the private reality of conjecture, imagination, discovery that has nothing to do with the “professionalized” world.

I don’t think it’s useful to stress getting the “right” reviews because so much of reviewing is accidental. It’s kind of pheromonal – like dating.

VC: Sound seems important to you as a poet, as does imagery, what else is important to you in your poetry?

MO: What else is there? Just kidding. I’d say syntax. Syntax can make or break a poem. and wisdom. That matters to me, hokey though it may sound.

VC: What is your writing process like for your poems?

MO: I start with a kernel, a line, an intuition. The poem gets drafted. Then I revise the draft obsessively over a period of weeks, months, sometimes years. Mostly I expand and contract, expand and contract. like an accordion. Hopefully, it gets more precise, more sonorous, more complex, even if it begins to look simpler. Usually the poems need a few months in order to take shape. And I do mean “take shape.” They’re blobs of language at first.

VC: Did you have trouble putting together your first book?  I somehow remember talking to you about how you felt you had to write additional poems to complete the manuscript once you started putting it together.  Is that true?

MO: I wanted Halflife to develop thematically as you read it from front to back. And yea, I felt some things were missing from Halflife in my first draft - elements of feeling and perception that somehow weren’t there. It was an intuitive sense of something being missing, rather than a really describable one.

VC: What kind of poems are you working on now and do you have a second book coming out soon?  How do those poems differ from your poems in your first book?

MO: I just finished a second book, called Once. It’s different: sparer, a little more disillusioned, and more direct. But I imagine if you read it you’d also see a lot of continuity. It tries to weave together different kinds of loss – loss of childhood, loss of civic innocence, loss of love – into one tapestry. I began writing it when Bush was in office. I was thinking about forms of complicity – the guilt of surviving, of being a citizen, when atrocities like Guantanamo were going on. I was thinking about the guilt of being healthy as your mother is dying. And so on.  It’s both more allegorical and autobiographical than Halfife, whose first-person poems were based less on my life than it might have seemed. It’s not the book I would have “chosen” to write but life forces itself on you sometimes. I think it is much balder. The poems kind of insisted on their methods.

VC: Many poets I know are poets and they teach, occasionally writing a review here and there.  You write poetry, criticism, culture pieces (on all kinds of topics), and now a memoir.  I am grateful you do all of the above, but do you ever feel like you are doing too much and not focusing enough?  

MO: Of course I worry. But I have to make a living. Then, too, the idea that we should focus on one genre is a historically recent one, borne partly out of the professionalization of something that used to be a vocation. Everything both takes away from and feeds your work, whether it’s teaching, or writing journalism, or baking bread.

VC: I've read some of your pieces on the passing of your mother and her illness.  Even as I write this, I still don't know what to say to you.  Is that kind of unsayable relationship our culture has with death and grief part of why you wanted to write this memoir?

MO: Yes. I wrote THE LONG GOODBYE because I became interested in the fact that grief is a space of embarrassment and silence today. I felt very alone with my sorrow after my mother died, craving rituals or communal space in which to observe my loss. We can talk about loss in art or memoir safely but alone in a room with each other we often find ourselves ill at ease.

Then, too, writing is how I make sense of the world. And in this case I think I wanted to carve out an insistent place to mourn and feel and think and reflect – rather than merely move on.

VC: What was the most challenging aspect of writing this memoir?  

MO: Writing the memoir was one of the rare times in my adult life when writing felt easy, natural, and right. It was remarkably fluid. I think this is because I had to write the book in order to survive, in order to stay intact; the pressure of necessity obliterated my normal self-consciousness.

Revising was hard. There were a few scenes I’d described where I hadn’t put enough down the first time around, when it felt natural to reflect on a scene, necessary. So a yaer and a half later I had to go in and try to make myself remember how painful a certain afternoon was. That was very hard.

But perhaps the hardest part was writing about other real people, and dealing in my heart with that, and what it meant.

VC: Does anything make you uncomfortable as you anticipate the publication of your memoir?

MO: I am a private person so it was hard to expose certain sides of myself, certain feelings or things that happen. But it was necessary if I was going to do justice to the real experience of grief – and how identity-shaking it can be. And because I knew there were others out there like me I felt the imperative to tell it like it was, so to speak.

VC: Prose seems to just flow out of you so easily.  Is that how you write prose or is it a painstaking process?  How about poetry?

MO: No; it’s painstaking. I revise obsessively. Sontag said that she was an ordinary thinker and writer; what was extraordinary was that she was willing to revise.  If anything seems fluent, it’s because of how much I revise. The same is true of poetry. I find poetry much harder, though, perhaps because I revere it so.

VC: I remember being very excited that you were married to a business journalist, Jim Surowiecki, who wrote this really really great book, called "The Wisdom of Crowds" because I have a business background and write business things too.  I was saddened to hear that the marriage had ended.  How did all of this coupled with the passing of your mother affect you as a writer, a person?

MO: That’s a question it will take a lifetime to answer. Both things have utterly changed my life, and me. He and I remain very close. I guess I can say for now that I’m much less interested in the noise of professionalism or on making “plans.” And I am much more interested in living each day in whatever way I choose. I daydream a lot more and spend more time walking and with my friends. I feel deeply aware of the smallness and futility – what Ecclesiastes would call the vanity – of human venture! So life seems to be more about love, and work, and kindness. Also, existence seems much funnier and more preposterous. (Jim is happy to hear his book called “really really great,” by the way.)

VC: As I'm sure you know a lot of poets, how do you separate the reading of their work to knowing them on a personal basis?  Was that a strange position to be in when you edited poetry for the Paris Review?  Why aren't you editing poetry for them anymore?  

MO: Great question. It was very strange, and often painful, when I was at the Paris Review. I had practice in it, having worked as a fiction editor at the New Yorker. There is a kind of way in which you are suborning your personal feelings to the magazine and its needs . I never loved that element of it. But on the other hand you feel a sense of fidelity to the work. And you really do want to publish the poems that move you most, and you only have sixty -some slots per year. So that makes the separation of the friend-self and the editor-self possible.

VC: As you envision yourself at the age of 60, and look back at your life, what does that picture look like?  Or said another way, what do you want to achieve in your life, professional and personal?

MO: I would feel extremely lucky if I were able to keep making a living by writing and reading. When my mother got sick, at the age of 52, it changed the way I deal with the world in that I don’t envision anything beyond the next day, and haven’t been able to for two years now. To the frustration of friends and colleagues, I suspect. That’s changing a bit. But at this point what I want is just to feel that I was present, every day, not planning or worrying or missing out on the utter intensity of being alive  - the natural world all around us, the joy our friends bring us, and so on.


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