issue #4 / spring-summer 2008
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Tess. Lotta
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Discursive Grace: An Interview with Poet Sarah Maclay  


As French philosopher Jacques Derrida views it, communication via language is a chaos of unhinged signifiers, unstable concepts, and sounds, representations that hijack absolute gist on the road from point A to point B. Taking his part in a bitch fest started by Plato, who privileged speech over writing as the optimum vehicle for delivering a concrete meaning, Derrida views both as equally lame for delivering fixed meanings because grunts and marks are just that. But, there is beauty in this mayhem. As Derrida shows, it is both the talker/writer and the listener/reader that create meanings (make order) out of the sounds and symbols—Hollywood hipsters, for example, all come to the party with their own interpretations of grunts and marks. And, while Derrida’s idea of différance certainly explains why most hipsters at that party are engaged in conversation only when talking about themselves, his take on the mercurial and exploratory nature of communication elucidates the very qualities of language and form that Sarah Maclay transforms as poetics.


In person and on the page, Maclay emits an addictive luminosity. She is simultaneously elegant and earthy, just like her work. In conversation, Maclay is that rare person who devotes herself to the exchange at hand, investing in each sentence as if the talker is saying the most important thing in the world. This exchange is all there is at this moment, she seems to say in the concentration of a raised eyebrow or an encouraging nod. This meticulous, seemingly effortless linguistic poise, this appreciative engagement with not only the art of communication, but also the artist, is the magic substance Maclay applies to her work.


As Maclay says of her approach to poetry, “I like to think of drafts as a kind of fabric—now that we have the fabric, what do we want to do? There’s a pleasure in the freedom of throwing all the lines into the air, like scarves, and letting them come down in different ways.” Instead of seeing a tangled poem as an obstacle, for instance, Maclay sees opportunity, a viewpoint she brings to the workshop space. “I try to set up an environment in which people can feel safe to take creative risks,” she explains. “My teaching is based on developing a sense of community, intimacy and fun—a good group gel, from which we can wander out onto the skinny limbs.”


I interviewed Maclay to try and parse the workings of her formidable discursive grace, captured most recently in her new collection The White Bride (U of Tampa Press, 2008).


TL: I have heard you say that you have explored a few forms of artistic expression, including painting, dancing, and music. How did you come to poetry, and when did you discover writing as your creative voice? Was it a choice to pursue the writing life? Or, did it just find you?


SM: I was lucky enough to grow up being read to every night, and so I fell for words early—for story, for poetry—and I think this experience was also connected to intimacy. It was an intimate ritual, a nightly ritual. So, I was eager to read, and to write, and I plunked out some very early effort when I was seven or eight on a manual Smith Corona—a very adult tool, which thrilled me. I really got the poetry bug at age thirteen after going to Zeffrelli’sRomeo and Juliet, which still felt taboo enough that it was almost a coming-of-age ritual. After this, I began to get stricken by poems at night, so I came to expect them. They started with a bow to Shakespearian language but quickly grew more contemporary—they rhymed and then they didn’t. Many of them, it’s embarrassing to admit, were love poems in disguise. Others were existential. I found my bailiwick early.


TL: Teaching appears to be an important component of your life as a writer. Am I off? Is it just a day job? Or, does mentoring other poets and teaching poetics enhance your own process?


SM: It is an important component, actually, and increasingly so—and no, it feels nothing like “a day job,” something I can say, having had many day jobs. It forces me to keep sharing, to keep exploring, to keep learning, to keep making connections between things.
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photo: Mark Lipson