Politics Can’t Interfere with Love or Border Crossings
An Interview with Moira Egan
by Bryan R. Monte
Moira Egan (b. 1962) is the author of three books of poetry, Cleave (2004), La Seta della Cravatta/The Silk of the Tie (2009)and Spin (2010)and the co-editor of the Hot Sonnets (2011). In 2009, theSpecial Prize from the Premio Napoliwas given to Un mondo che non può essere migliore: Poesie scelte 1956-2007, a selection of poems by John Ashbery, which she worked on with her partner, Damiano Abeni, and Joseph Harrison. Egan has been a Mid Atlantic Arts Fellow at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts; Writer in Residence at the St. James Cavalier Centre for Creativity, Malta; a Writing Fellow at the Civitella Ranieri Center; and a Fellow at the Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Center. Most recently, she was awarded (along with Damiano Abeni) the Premio di Poesia “La Torre dell’ Orologio” for the vol-ume, L’uomo che cammina un passo avanti al buio, (Oscar Mondadori 2011), a major selection of the poems of Mark Strand.On 14 August 2011 she was interviewed in Assisi, Italy where she answered questions about her educational background, favourite poetic themes and forms, issues related to translation, writing discipline and future projects. Ms Egan is an adjunct assistant professor of English, creative writing and translation at John Cabot University in Rome.
Bryan Monte: I understand that you’re the daughter of a poet and academic and you grew up in Baltimore and attended Bryn Mawr College. Tell me, what was that like?
Moira Egan: Growing up with a father who was a poet was probably the most formative thing for me as a poet, because there was always the sense that there was both a lot of joy and a lot of work involved in writing poetry. One of the things that we three kids, (I am the oldest of three), knew was that, when daddy was down in the basement working, we had to be quiet.
BM: So it was serious work down there. He went downstairs to his study where he wrote poetry. It was as if he had a workshop down there and he was making all sorts of things.
ME: Yes. That’s exactly what it was like. So I grew up with the idea that there were books on the shelves that needed to be read because that was the raw material that you made your poems from. These books would influence what you wrote and that was a serious process—maybe too much so, but that’s a different question.
BM: And why did you decide to study at Bryn Mawr?
ME: I went to Bryn Mawr for many reasons. I fell in love with the “collegiate gothic” campus, and I was happy that there were no sororities there at all, not even Phi Beta Kappa! I might have gone to Columbia, but it was (believe it or not) not yet co-ed in the undergraduate College, though I did end up going to graduate school at Columbia. I didn’t study classics at Bryn Mawr, although, if I could go back and redo things, that might be one of the things I’d do differently. I was a German literature major, but that also had its advantages. I can read Goethe, Rilke, Hesse – those writers – without having to bother with translations.
BM: And when did you first discover that you wanted to write?
ME: When I was about three, I guess. I started making rhymes and people would write them down. It’s a little embarrassing, in some basement in Catonsville, Maryland, there’s some little archive of my rhymes with drawings alongside them. I wrote poems and stories through high school and then I took a break from writing altogether in college because it just seemed I met too many poets who were following the path of Dylan Thomas. I thought: ‘I don’t want this for my life,’ so I stopped. I did other things. That was one of the reasons I was a German literature major, when I was an undergraduate, not an English major. I just wanted to stay away from it. But then a few years after college I thought: ‘I’m stuck. This is my fate.’ And since my name in Greek (Moira) really does mean fate, it seemed to make sense. But maybe that’s just a coincidence.
BM: You have certainly established yourself as a poet. You received the 2009 Special Prize from the Premio Napoli for your John Ashbery poetry translations….
ME: I share that with Damiano Abeni, my husband,and Joe Harrison. I had never really translated before, though I had studied other languages. I married a guy who is an extremely well-respected translator of American poetry into Italian and now I work with him on translations. It’s been a very interesting process – and one way that I started to learn Italian was reading my own poems that Damiano had translated into Italian.
BM: And you were a Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation Fellow, a Writer in Residence at St. James in Malta, a writing fellow at the Civitella Ranieri Centre…
ME: Yes, Civitella is right down the road….
BM: …And a resident of the Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Center.
BM: That’s quite an impressive list for someone in her early 40s.
ME: Well, thank you, but you’ve misdiagnosed me by almost a decade.
BM: My apologies. May I ask, why do you write so often about classical themes and characters? I mean with all the things in the world to write about – automobiles, airplanes and computers in the 21st century, why is it in Cleave, that you’re writing “To My Muse” and “Sappho’s Grapefruit” and then in Spin about Circe, Penelope and your Muse again. Why do you choose these classical subjects and characters?
ME: I think that those ancient Greeks had it all figured out. There’s a lot of basic, human, psychological wisdom in Greek mythology. There’s a lot of wisdom in mythology, full stop. I guess it was the Bryn Mawr influence, among other things, but I’ve always loved Greek mythology. It’s beautifully dysfunctional, with all of its strange family and love relations. I have always been attracted to it. I lived in Greece for three years and a lot of the poems that you are referring to from Cleave were written in Greece or just after my time in Greece. I was going out to the country house of a friend of mine on the Pelion peninsula and she said: “Well, you know that’s where the centaurs were.” And there was a certain metaphorical truth to that, ‘Well, yes, OK. That’s where the centaurs lived.’
BM: Proximity, in other words?
ME: No, that’s the area where the centaurs came from. In the modern world, we don’t really believe in centaurs, but you often hear statements of that sort in Greece. The stories about centaurs came from that area. And when I lived in Greece, I could actually see Mt. Olympus from my apartment balcony on clear days. So you can’t help but think about where all those myths came from and their importance and human archetypes and an understanding of how people work. It’s all expressed in the myths.
BM: Well, I can understand your focus on classical themes then, but why did you choose classical modes for expression also – the sonnet, the sestina, the tercet, etc.? Why this emphasis on formalism in your poetry?
ME: A very good question. It partly comes from my father, who was a pretty formal poet, though he did not write in as many received and invented forms as I do. I enjoy the sense of control and containment. I always say to my students, for example: “A novelist might become a best-selling novelist and make a movie out of the book and become well off enough to buy a house, but we poets have line breaks and we have rhyme to play with.” To me that’s the challenge and also a lot of fun. I also think that writing in form is a way of avoiding the total anxiety of looking at the blank page or the blank screen because you know that, once the poem figures out what it wants to be – it’s going to be a sonnet or a sestina, for example — that much of the blankness is gone. I know where it needs to go and then I can play with it, almost like a puzzle. That actually allows for a lot of freedom and creativity because working with form often causes you to do things that you wouldn’t normally do, which to me is a lot of fun. It stretches you.
BM: What’s you favourite poetic form?
ME: The sonnet.
BM: Hands down. Right away you know that.
ME: Hands down.
BM: Could you explain to me why?
ME: Obviously it’s this beautiful, compact form that’s been around for quite a few centuries. Its historical position is that it was traditionally written in a male voice, addressed to an unobtainable, beautiful, fabulous woman. Women have also been writing sonnets for centuries, but one of the interesting things of the last century or so is that women have been having great fun subverting this tradition. As you have read, and you’re going to ask me some questions about the really naughty sonnets, part of the fun of that is subverting the trope of, say, Petrarch talking to Laura. “You, beautiful blonde creature, whose footsteps cause tulips to sprout up in them” and Dante to Beatrice, the unattainable. So a lot of women poets have been flipping that tradition on its head and writing good, strict sonnets about the other thing. They write about earthly issues rather than an ephemeral and unobtainable love. Shakespeare is a good model for this kind of subversion when he writes: “My mistress’s eyes are nothing like the sun.”
BM: Do you write in any other genres besides poetry?
ME: Yes, sometimes I write essays, and some of them have been published here and there. They’re mostly about writing and teaching. And I have written a novel — I still have to figure out what to do with it — and some short stories. But mostly I’m a poet, which is sad, but true.
BM: So that’s where you live as far as being a writer is concerned.
BM: Good. I was going to ask you a question before we go into all those poems where you flip the traditional paradigm on its head. Why, for example, do you have two books with one-word titles – Cleave and Spin? Then, why have you organized these books around all the definitions of those words and their permutations? What possessed you to use that as an organizing principle?
ME: A terrible demon possessed me.
BM: Most people would come up with different things to maybe give a varied palette, but you kept homing in on different aspects of the same word. So why did you do that?
ME: Well, with Cleave, it is one of the best words in the English language, and untranslatable in every language that I know of anyway. This was my first book as you said, and, like many first books, it has several very disparate threads. So how do you bring these disparate threads together? Having fallen in love with the word “cleave,” an auto-antonym which means both to stick to, to adhere to something, the way you cleave unto another, while it also means to separate, to cut something apart drastically, violently. This book comes in five sections….
BM: ….for the same word, by the way, for people who don’t understand that….
ME: ….for the same word, yes. It also has these more subtle meanings than those. The poems that I had been writing over years – some of those poems are now nearly two decades old – are about different things. But the word cleave brought them all together.
One of the things that I write about a lot is the creative process – the ars poetica poems. How does this mysterious, painful thing happen and why in the world do I think I can do something like this? One of the minor definitions of cleave is “to make one’s way through cutting as through underbrush; to penetrate; pass.” That definition embodied poems in which I was figuring out and I’m making my way as a poet. Then there’s this “falling in and out of love at the same time” set of poems, which is not too surprising, given what I write about. (Egan reads). “From the 14th century on, the inflective forms of cleave, to part or divide, have tended to run together with those of cleave, 2. To stick; adhere. The two verbs having thus become identical in the present stem were now actually confused in the other inflections.” The persona and it’s not always me here, although she is part of me of course, doesn’t really understand the difference between falling in love and falling out of love. This conflation of sticking to and breaking away very violently, that worked very well. And then there’s another section of Greek mythology poems in here as you noted whose narratives really interest me, though they’re not about me. One of the definitions of cleave is “to intersect or fissure in position.” So there’s that whole section. And then there’s a section of elegies for my father, who was a poet. “Cleave, to part or divide with a cutting blow; to hew asunder; to split.” That pretty much sums that one up. And last but not least, “In a wider sense, to cling or hold fast to a principle practice; to remain attached or faithful to,” the poems that contain the possible hope of actually holding fast to something, or someone. So, these are the five major themes of the book. How else do you put together elegies for your father, falling in and out of love, mythological themes, and figuring out that you’re a poet and how to deal with that — happy love, dysfunctional love, all of those things. When I realized that I could bring it all together under the “umbrella” of Cleave, it became a book.
BM: Everything fell into place.
ME: Yes, and with Spin, I think this will be the last time I do this. Again, in Spin, there are lots of different kinds of spin. But Spin is a much naughtier book than Cleave. There’s a lot…., well the Bar Napkin Sonnets are in Spin. That’s all I need to say in terms of its naughtiness.
BM: Yes, Kim Addonizio said those poems were: “about looking for love in all the wrong places” according to the book’s back cover blurb. We’ll get to that in a moment. I would like to go on to my next question about one of the most common themes in your poems — sex and whether you have still got it. “Who will I be when I’m no longer pretty?” is one of the lines from your poems. In these poems you describe your transformation from an awkward bookworm in her twenties, to a beautiful, self-aware woman in her forties.
ME: I never said “beautiful, self-aware woman in her forties.” I never said that, but thanks.
BM: Well, that was my impression from reading the poems. And you’ve got these tag lines like: “I leave my bad girl signature behind,” “Things happen when you drink too much Mescal,” “beast/and beauty, lime and salt — sweet Bacchus’s pards — .” The rhythm in that line really brings the action of the poem across. How much of this is your persona, how much of this is you, and how much do you want to reveal?
ME: I can’t tell you.
BM: Nothing? Not even a little bit?
ME: Well, persona means mask.
ME: Personare means “to sound through; to speak through something,” so the thing with the Bar Napkin Sonnets, and all of the lines you just quoted are from the Bar Napkin Sonnets, was that I was having a rip-roaring good time for about a year writing these sonnets that were loosely based on things that had really happened to me and on things that might have happened to me. They also embodied a kind of stance, a kind of not macho, because I’m not a man, but macha stance of “What the F**k!” I had been working with a group of women on collaborative crowns of sonnets and I got very strongly into this sonnet mindset. It was a fun, lovely group of dirty-minded women, who were writing about these things. We were having such a good time that I then thought: ‘So many stupid things happened to me in bars and in life, that why don’t I just celebrate crazy adventures of my life thus far and the fact that I managed to get through them?’ That’s the kind of weird macha stance that is in there. It’s not necessarily me. Some of that stuff is true and some of it is completely fictional. A lot of it is bent or completely made up to meet the requirements of the rhyme and the meter. I have an entire fiction in there about the English guy, which I think is a really funny poem. That incident never happened. The amusingly terrible statistical thing is that I met my husband-to-be when I was 43. I had started dating, more or less, when I was 13. Doing that math, that indeed gives me three full decades (yikes) of silly things and poignant things, thirty years of the whole dating adventure to write about – so I did. It all got wrapped up in the Bar Napkin Sonnets.
BM: But even in addition to the Bar Napkin Sonnets, you’ve got that one poem, the anti-Jane Austen poem, “Letter to a Young Friend.” Could you please talk about that one for a moment?
ME: I think one of the joys and one of the responsibilities of being a writer is reading carefully the people who have come before you and who’ve done work that is touching and interesting and funny or meaningful. Jane Austen, I think, is one of the funniest writers ever. I just love her and Helen Fielding had a field day (so to speak) with Pride and Prejudice. That poem comes out of an experience I had with a very young woman, just post-breakup, who was saying: “I’m never going to meet my Darcy.” And I said: “No. You’re probably not.” What is it called? Letter to a Young….
BM: It’s called Letter to a Young Friend….
ME: And more. The title is so long that it had to be printed with the subsequent lines looking like an epigraph, but the entire title is: Letter to Young Friend, Recently Overdosed on Bridget Jones & the Novels & the Movies Based on the Novels of Jane Austen. And when you start to examine how things can work out in fairy tales or Jane Austen tales or whatever, although Bridget Jones is a lot more….
BM: It’s sort of anti-tradition….
ME: …anti-tradition although the plot ends up being the same because that’s the plot line people want.
BM: She gets the man in the end.
ME: You get the person you want in the end. That’s the plot line we all want. When I wrote that poem, before I was 43, I truly did not believe in that plot line. I believed it was something they fed you, Hallmark Holidays and Cinderella. You know, like a drug.
BM: OK. How did you find this type of writing liberating, the kind of bad girl writing about “I’m going to go out there and have some fun?” In what ways did it open up perspectives or viewpoints that you hadn’t previously thought about? For example, when you started the Bar Napkin Sonnets you knew one thing, when you finished them you knew something else.
BM: What happened? What did you discover along the way writing those?
ME: I’m trying to think of how to say this. I discovered at the end: “OK, Basta!” as we say in Italy.
BM: Which means?
ME: Which means “enough.” I don’t want to do this anymore. And seriously, writing the Bar Napkin Sonnets was an important part of this learning experience. I have a friend who can attest to this — one of the sonnet girls I was collaborating with. “OK. This is enough. I think I don’t want to do this anymore and certainly don’t want to be doing this when I’m 57 as opposed to in my early forties.”
BM: So would that be your answer also as to how you found it limiting writing these sonnets.
ME: Oh, no. I didn’t find it limiting at all. I mean the writing of the sonnets was like a funny little novel in verse, seriously, because a lot of it is fiction.
BM: Oh, so they’re not autobiographical!
ME: I thought I already said that. A lot of it is fiction.
BM: What about the one about the Englishman?
ME: The Englishman, right. That never happened. No, there are many parts of the Bar Napkin Sonnets that are not true, or that I bent, or I broke. The funny thing is (that is in the one that I can’t find right now), she’s sitting at the bar, she’s doesn’t mind eating bar food. Notice that I say “she” not me, because she’s “she,” not me.
BM: Not the I, so you’re using the third person.
ME: The funny thing is that she sits there and she’s listening to the music and this guy comes up and here, this is a great thing about writing in meter and form. I knew this was going to happen because the last line of the poem before it, which is how a crown works of course, says: “I wasn’t sure which worm he meant, the one I ate? the one that eats at me alone.” OK, so the first line of the next sonnet is: “I don’t mind bar food, sit and eat alone.” And I’m not going to read all of this, but anyway, she’s sitting there listening to all the stuff, smelling the smoke and the men in bad cologne and then the guy walks in he says: “Though you look comfortable alone, I’ll sit here, if you have no objection, Love.” And because I wanted it to be as iambically pure as it could be, he comes out with: “I’ll sit here, if you’ve no objection, Love.” An American wouldn’t say it that way, so he became an Englishman because an Englishman would more likely say it. And so then the poem goes on to say: “Were Irish granny here, she’d first go numb/Then tell this handsome Englishman ‘Go home.’” And then it goes on to say: “I got her temper, hot, and her beliefs/But politics can’t interfere with love / or border crossings of this sort. These wings / you’re eating love, how are they? Extra heat / and spice, I warn him. He’s oblivious./Delicious sauce. He licks it from my fingers.” This is complete fiction based on truth. I mean I had an Irish grandmother, who, if I told her how many Englishmen I had “been friendly with,” would have been very upset. So, I never told her. But because I have to make the meter of this poem, he becomes an Englishman, and then that brings up my grandmother and then I invented this story that ends up that “Politics can’t interfere with love or border crossings of this sort,” but the story is completely made up. Not to say, however, that the bad girl persona who’s in here would have been unfamiliar with making compromises, like that, let’s just say.
BM: OK. Now I have a better perspective on the poems as far as biography versus fiction is concerned.
ME: Fiction, there’s a lot of fiction. It’s not just fiction, but it’s also stance. It’s OK for boys to be bad boys and to write about doing this and doing that. I don’t think it’s fair that only boys get to do that and maybe I have been a bad girl and gone out and done whatever, but also I think it’s just fun to write about that stuff and flip these Petrarchan tropes, to make it as utterly anti-Petrarchan as I can because there have been too many centuries of men doing stupid things and women just letting it happen to them. So this voice, and she’s not always me, is saying, and sometimes ironically, I should add: “I’m going to do the same stuff. Yo.”
BM: OK. Now that we’ve talked about your two books of poetry, I would like to talk a little bit about living in Italy and the influence this has had on your poetry and writing because this is something very interesting to my readers who can speak two and possibly three or more languages. What influence has living in Rome, abroad, in a different country, had on your writing and its subject matter?
ME: Well, I can’t really write Bar Napkin Sonnets anymore because I’m a happily married woman. That’s first and foremost. I mean I could, but I wouldn’t feel right doing it. Although my husband translates them and, God bless him for being such a good translator of poems. And that was something he was doing long before he came into my life. Linguistically it’s very interesting to live in another country and be a writer. This has happened to me before. I lived in Greece for three years. I went in 1998 and what I began to internalize then is that English is this wonderful, promiscuous language that just takes in everything. Our English-language words come from everywhere. I noticed, living in Greece and now living in Italy, that I really think about the source of the words. Latinate words are a completely different ball game than Anglo-Saxon words and sometimes you want to keep a stream of purity there and sometimes you want to mix it up. So, who am I to say that Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowolf annoyed me, but it annoyed me because he popped in this word, “anathema.” Now, that is a super-Greek word in an Anglo-Saxon epic and I just thought: ‘No, no, no, no.’ I don’t think I would have been as sensitive to that until after I had lived in Greece and was surrounded by Greek words. It makes me more conscious of the source of every word I use. But the other thing about living in a language that you don’t write in is how it affects communication. I would say that living in this language affects my interpersonal communication more than it affects my writing.
BM: So, could you be more specific about the interpersonal aspect?
ME: I could be more specific. One of the most frustrating things about being a person in her mid-to-late forties and moving to a new country and learning the language – I never took Italian lessons and I’m not going to take Italian lessons so I’ll just have to learn the complicated verb tenses on my own — but I’m a reasonably funny person in English. I can go into a store and make somebody laugh by saying something goofy. But in Italy, when I go into a store and I say something that I think is funny and kind of goofy, they just look at me as if I’m a lunatic or a criminal. So the fact that you used to be a witty, verbal person and you could go out into the public and charm people and like “Oh, ha ha ha, isn’t she funny!” — to lose that completely in the middle of the journey of your life is not a fun thing. So that’s really the biggest and worst thing about moving to a new land and a new language later on. What do you think about that?
BM: Yes. I’m usually translating literally in Dutch so I miss some of the jokes, although I am getting better at it. I’ve been in the Netherlands now for about 18 years, so it gets better with time. The first five years, you’re just learning the territory. And between five to ten years, you begin to understand the word play in jokes. And after 10 to 15 years, you understand where the jokes come from, the traditions and the stories they belong to. It just takes time.
ME: No, no, no, they don’t get my jokes. I’ll try to make a joke here and sometimes it’s just not funny. In America, it might have been a bad joke, but if it was a bad joke, I meant it to be a bad joke.
BM: I tell my students that jokes are the most difficult part of language cross-culturally and that humour in one language is different in another. I know that my students have advanced from B2 to C1 level when they start laughing at the jokes I make in class. So when they start laughing and tossing their heads back, I think: ‘Congratulations, you’ve arrived,’ because that’s one of the most difficult and advanced aspects of language. But you know, you get there eventually. You just have to learn to make jokes in the local language where you’re living. Tell me, what about your bilingual book of poetry, La Seta della Cravatta /The Silk of the Tie. How did that come about?
ME: La Seta della Cravatta is a collection of poems from Cleave and Spin with one exception, which belongs to a book that hasn’t been published yet. These are the poems that Damiano had, up to that point, translated. At that time, I didn’t know enough Italian to be part of the translation, so those are his translations, although a couple of them — actually the last couple that went in there, I can tell you which ones they are – we worked on them together. That was the first time that we really collaborated on a translation. But those are all fairly old poems, I mean, the oldest poem in that book was written in 1991. They were the poems he felt good about translating because some poems aren’t so translatable, you really can’t do a good job with them. Poets don’t write with the idea of translation in mind. With my poems, it’s sometimes hard because there are so many specifically formal poems, which are difficult to translate. If you’re translating a sonnet, you have to think about a reasonable line length and a rhyme scheme, for example, not to mention to make sure that the volta is in the right place and that sort of thing. Those are aspects that aren’t so easy. If you’re translating free verse, of course, you want to get the music of the free verse, but it’s not like there are these specific, form-based constraints on you. Then, when you’re translating someone like John Ashbery in Italian, the running joke is something like: “Does this sentence mean this, or this or this?” And the answer is: “Yes.” But when you’re turning it into Italian, you have to make a choice. You can’t usually say, “Yes” to all three of the possibilities in English.
BM: OK. So the multiple layers are sometimes lost in translation then.
ME: Although, there are other things that are sometimes found in translation. There are some things that change in translation that are possibilities that you didn’t have in the original language. If you are sensitive to both of the languages, you can play with that and that’s very rewarding.
BM: Well, that was one of my next questions. What did you learn about poetry related to translation? What did you find doing it? What did you discover from translating your poetry?
ME: From translating my poetry?
BM: Or anyone’s poetry?
ME: Anyone’s poetry? Damiano and I teach a class on the art of literary translation at John Cabot University in Rome. To me, the most important aspect is a very close reading of the poem in its original. Then you have to figure out the closest way to approximate the poem’s effect in the target language. You have to make reading choices when you’re reading for translation. You can never reproduce, you can’t reproduce anything in another language, let alone poetry, but you can try to reproduce the effect and that’s what we try to do. I should tell you a good anecdote from a poet whose work we have translated – Charles Simic, who left Serbia for the US in the ‘50s. Obviously, he still speaks Serbian, but he only writes in English. And when people ask him why he doesn’t write in Serbian anymore, he says: “Because I don’t know the effect anymore of the words that I would say in Serbian on a Serbian audience.” So he writes in English because he lives in English and he knows the effect of words on his English language audience and I think that is a really important thing to think about.
BM: So in other words, it’s not always possible to reproduce the meter or the sounds….
ME: Well, no….
BM: ….But you can create the emotive effect, the emotion that is created.
ME: That’s correct. That’s a way to put it. I mean you can almost never reproduce the metrical effect because you can’t really do iambic pentameter in Italian. Italian just doesn’t work that way. You have an equivalent line that Dante and Petrarch used for their sonnets, for example – hendecasyllabics – but that’s not iambic pentameter.
BM: Right, well let’s move on then to your writing discipline. Do you have a schedule?
ME: No, I don’t.
BM: No schedule at all? But if you were to estimate how often you sit down and write during the week, how often would that be?
ME: It’s seasonal. It gets harder and harder for me to write when I’m teaching, unless there’s a poem that’s so strongly welling up inside of me that it has to come out, that will be written no matter what I have to do. But that happens less and less. So I write a lot in the summer and during the holidays. I teach a lot and my brain is very much occupied by that because I take my teaching very seriously. I need this little tiny still walnut of a place in the back of brain for a poem to happen. It’s very hard for me to get there when I have any given number of students in a semester needing me and I want to be there for them, so I am, and I don’t write. But in the summer, I am quite disciplined.
BM: During the summer then, how many hours per day do you think that you write?
ME: Per day, somewhere between two and five.
BM: And what types of things do you need to do before you are ready to write, before you are ready to sit down and start connecting with the page?
ME: Again, when I’m writing, I just need to have a poem in my head and then I go there. I mean I go to my desk and I write it.
BM: How often do you send work out?
ME: That also varies a lot.
BM: Could you give an estimate? Once a month? Once a quarter? Once every six months?
ME: It varies year by year. Sometimes it’s once a week. I sit there and I do what I need to do, which, by the way, is my least favourite part of being a writer. When I was living in the States, I used to do that on Saturday mornings. I’d sit there and put stuff together and send it out. It’s been very sporadic this past year; slightly less sporadic than the year before. But this year, I vow, I’m going to sit down and do it.
BM: How did you happen to create the Hot Sonnets series, the collection of 20th century American sonnets you co-edited with Clarinda Harriss?
ME: We decided that contemporary sonnets embodied a lot of hotness and we kept finding a lot of hot sonnets that we liked. We decided there needed to be a book called Hot Sonnets so we should do it because no one else, as far as I know, has done this before. We sent out calls to various places saying: “Send us your hot sonnets,” and we figured out which sonnets by dead people we wanted. So we got Edna St. Vincent Millay and e. e. cummings and Hayden Carruth and Thom Gunn and John Berryman and lots of hot sonnets from the very hot living.
BM: What are you working on now? What are your new projects for the near future?
ME: I have four manuscripts in search of a unifying theme. They’re four very disparate things. There’s no way I can cleave them together.
BM: And what are these four manuscripts about?
ME: One of them is a series of syllabic poems, each of whose central metaphor is a Mediterranean plant. I live here now so that’s one way that living here has affected me. And another is a series of ekphrastic poems based on the life and work of the painter, Suzanne Valadon. Another is what I call the Kitchen Napkin Sonnets after Bar Napkin Sonnets.
BM: So you move from the bar….
ME: ….to a life of domesticity. And then I’m writing Hot Flash Sonnets.
BM: Do you happen to have any of those that you remember off the top of your head?
ME: Do you mean the titles?
BM: Yes, or anything else.
ME: There are at least three mood swing sonnets, there’s one called a Hot Flash Sonnet, there’s one called Insomnia Sonnet, one called What the Flesh is Heir To Sonnet, a Clarity Sonnet and a Confused Complexion Sonnet. There are about 14 of them now. I can’t write all of them yet, because I haven’t begun to exhibit all the symptoms of the wonderful horrible things that happen. The poems are meant to be humorous but also serious meditations on: “Oh, I’m getting old now. I don’t really believe I am, but I am.”
BM: So that’s what you’re working on at the moment, then?
ME: Yes, all four of those things.
BM: So, memento mori is knocking at the door then?
ME: I wouldn’t say that. I would say memento menopause.
BM: So Moira Egan, thank you so much for your time today and I wish you all the best with your future projects.