Shallow roots and a deep heart: A conversation with poet Marcus Myers
Updated: Mar 15, 2019
The best friendships are those that are built on a deep understanding, something often not even verbalized. Maybe it's a fault of mine: I tend to seek these connections only. Maybe it's because I am an only child. Whatever the reason, I tend to make friends that are more like siblings... I think Marcus is one of those.
I connected with Marcus Myers because I felt somehow I knew by second sight the world in which he grew up even though we only met in recent years. I know he feels the same. We both came of age in the woods, running rivers and ridges, trying to spy nature before it spied us. We both grew up reading and on the outside of things. We wanted desperately to fit in, and yet we prized our oddness.
Below, Marcus and I talk about his writing inspirations, his teaching life and his roots. I hope you come to enjoy his mind as much as I do.
Haines Eason: You’re from Hot Springs, Arkansas. Your father ran a DUKW tour business for some decades. You’re a hiker and backpacker, a father. Talk to me about your roots.
Marcus Myers: My family’s roots in the South are shallow. Neither of my parents are originally from there—mom’s from Kansas and dad’s from New Jersey. They met in college, and they ended up liking the lakes and rivers, the rolling woodland hills and the main-street feel of Hot Springs enough to return there after dad’s stint in the Army. Plus, my mom’s parents had moved there from Kansas, and as new parents, proximity to grandparents was a selling point. All of that is just to say that I, whose family was from the Midwest and Mid-Atlantic, always felt like an outsider-insider when hanging out with friends with Scots-Irish, pre-Civil War settler roots. They spoke differently, and they had local folkways ingrained in them in ways that fascinated me. This engendered a sort of cultural fluidity in me. At home, I noticed the differences between dad’s clipped Jersey and mom’s flat Kansan speech, and at school I listened to the hills and valleys in friends’ and teachers’ voices. When in my friends’ homes, I could draw out my vowels and use a biscuit to sop-up my chocolate gravy almost as well as they could. But I never felt like I belonged to their world of y’all, deerwoods and fixin'-to. Still, I was a student of their speech as well as my mom and dad’s different ways of speaking. By age 10, I could imitate any accent I came across, including those of our teachers and principals, and soon I found a way to fit in by making my friends laugh. This helped me develop an ear for language, I think. People have commented on the musicality and natural rhythms of speech in my poems. My parents were both teachers who had to supplement their income with second jobs in the summers, and by the time I was in high school, my dad had opened a tour business in which he took visitors on tours of historic Hot Springs, the National Park, and nearby Lake Hamilton on restored amphibious trucks (DUKW, which is a military acronym meaning “duplex, utility, wheeled”) known affectionately as “Ducks.” Working for dad in his downtown ticket office gave a broader view of the world and humanity than any prior experience had, and I think this is when I became interested in identity, personality and what motivates people. This was also when I started writing short fiction and poems. Downtown, I saw tourists from all over the country and world, and I became fascinated with how everybody, from every walk of life, chooses his or her identity from the limited menu existence and circumstance offers them. On lunch breaks, I read the Beats and wrote my first horrible poems. The summer after my senior year, a friend and I started a weekly poetry reading for teens at a local gallery and coffee shop. We were lucky, actually, that a town as small as ours had some access to the arts.
HE: I talk about you being a long-form poet in my discussion of "The Next Day Opened Curious Windows." How do you feel about that characterization? Even if you feel the shoes don't quite fit, talk to me about your use of the long form—what brought you to it?
MM: It’s funny you should mention this inclination in my poems. For a while I resisted narrative poetry in favor of lyrical, which seemed far sexier. As I’ve gotten older and have read more, I’ve realized both lyrical and narrative elements can hang from the armature of a longer poem. So, I won’t resist your characterization of me as a long-form poet. Even though I don’t have the sequential mind or world-building, heavy machinery required for writing fiction or long-form creative non-fiction, I definitely feel the narrative impulse. In my poems, I want to say what serious things have happened to me, in what order, and to express what it means now. Since narrative writing pushes against compression (see Homer, Frank Bidart or Spencer Reece), my poems often push beyond a page and need all the extra space they can get to say it just so. And even though my poems sometimes lean toward abstraction, I want my poems to represent what it is to live, to remain awake to the world, to the self and others, through a self-reflexive language. One of the best ways I know to show the many-faceted self is to tell stories. These stories, though, don’t exist as tales told around the campfire, or even spoken on air as David Sedaris essays do. These stories exist as notes dictated to consciousness by the self’s inner voices as they surface from the depths of memory; they come up wet with imagination and emotion, from where they hope to assert a different, more opaque kind of clarity or truth about existence than reason can.
HE: I know you've been exploring some less overtly personal forms of late, like the cento, but in general, you seem to be a poet who draws heavily from his own life and direct experiences. Are you a confessional poet? How do the confessional poets sit with you as a reader?
MM: The short answer: yes, I am heavy influenced by John Berryman, Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath and others. Their poems keep the fire stoked through all the dark, cold and lonely hours. The long answer: yes, but with certain conditions or rules in place because I’m wary of the confessional poem’s pitfalls. Without the confessionalists, it’s true, I would not have found the door that must open onto a personal space for poetic expression to first happen. They made the utterances that sounded so much like the voice in my head. In a way, the confessional poem is the perfect triangle between speaker, listener and a disclosure. The disclosure reveals that which has caused a rupture in the individual; therein the interior absorbs the world’s external violence and suffering, and the speaker then gives voice to her or his own suffering through a beautiful song. In this way, the confessional poem is the ideal tragic mode in which both the speaker and the listener allow discovery, that which has been heretofore undisclosed, to unveil itself. In conversations I’ve had with other poets, however, I’ve come to realize how the confessional mode completely spun out of control in the ‘60s and ‘70s when poets began treating poetry as self-administered psychoanalysis with theater seating. These poems tended to give voice to the scripts psychoanalysis helped us read:
I’m so messed up because my father was aloof and my mother overbearing. I’m so messed up because our materialistic society taught me my self-worth depended on how valued I was by others.
While these scripts in fact do run through the psyches of most people, a poet writing about what really happened to traumatize her or him as a universal truth doesn’t make for good poetry. So often confessional poems lack fluidity—real surprise or discovery—because they follow the prescribed formulae of trauma and recovery. As Louise Glück points out in her essay “Against Sincerity,” many of these confessional projects allowed cultural biases to creep in, in that they were scripted out or had premeditated outcomes. In the confessional mode’s twilight, poets dove into the wrecks of themselves knowing exactly which oedipal skeletons they’d find down there to show the reader. Another pitfall is in forgetting a poem is a crafted, well-made thing rather than a verbal chain of disturbing memories and associations, as if spoken on an analyst’s couch rather than patterned on the page.
HE: In your working life you're a teacher and school counselor, and of course you also live a life of letters. You also teach a course or two a semester at the college level. Do these lives intersect? How, or how not?
MM: While my students keep me young at heart, which is essential for writing a poem that’s fresh and alive on the page, I don’t draw too much from my experience working with them. Perhaps I take ideas for poems away from our discussions, or the essays or works of literature I assign (Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” keeps rearing its bewildered head, for example), but since the work I do at school is performative, as writing poems is performative, teaching mostly competes for and saps my energy. At the end of the day, I need a break from verbal expression and meaning-making. In the summer, however, the daily routine of getting my brain and heart into high gear to plan instruction and facilitate discussion does not turn off, so I can then channel this performative energy into writing poems.
HE: I was once invited to a dinner with a world-renowned poet. I was young, and I was teaching and writing and trying to find balance. Like you, I found the doubly performative nature of my life draining and lamented that in conversation with him. He said to me, “Someday you’ll come to a crossroads and you’ll either go the way of a poet or a teacher.” He at that moment was still a teacher, by the way, though perhaps only incidentally. I.e., something must suffer. How does this strike you?
MM: Yes, I feel this, too. Though I feel compelled to teach and write poems, I don’t suffer through doing either. Though both are performative, both bring joy, and frustration, in different ways. Having my poems come across well to an audience, either on the page or before an audience, feels about as satisfying as having a lesson or lecture go well in the classroom. That moment of crystal clear, harmonious connection, like hearing your voice join the larger force of a circular chorus, feels electric. In terms of performance, these near-oceanic moments drive me. When in the flow of either, there’s the satisfaction of doing it, of surrendering the self to something larger and more important than the ego.
HE: You've shared with me a few draft manuscripts; each has its own bent. Relationships play prominently in your poetry as a whole, but in some projects you focus on your daughter, in others you focus on loves lost... Where are you now as a poet? What are your current themes, and what is shaping up at the present moment in your writing?
MM: My poems help me process life’s continuous losses. As a younger poet first starting out, I was fascinated with the poem as a register or ledger domain for romantic longing and personal lamentation. My voice and the mournful, sometimes joyous sounds it made unscrewed the lid on the rich, melancholic inner life I had kept preserved from my introverted childhood. When I was eight, nine, ten, eleven, I had a private place in the woods along a stream where I would listen to the water and birds, and there I would sing and think and dream. Occasionally, the world would intrude: once I looked downstream to find a coyote had come for a drink and had stuck around to get a surreptitious look at me; another time a water moccasin staked his claim to his shale ledge and charged my spot on the rock across the stream. By ars-poetic analogy, these intrusions remind me of how the real can appear in the compositional flow and disrupt a poem and add the element of awe, which I think is genuine epiphany (what Richard Hugo termed, in his book The Triggering Town, the “second trigger,” that moment when the explicit subject triggers the latent subject of the poem and causes it to surface). These surprises make writing poems fulfilling for me and, hopefully, for my reader as well. As a person in his early 40s who has fulfilled his biological imperative to have a child, now I’m preoccupied with mortality and death, on the negative side. On the positive, I’m starting to see parenthood and a person’s development along the lifespan show up in my poems. I’m interested in how our entire worldviews, at least before we enter the crucial phase of our teenage rebellions, are handed down to us from our parents, grandparents and older role models. As Larkin writes:
“They fuck you up, your mum and dad. / They may not mean to, but they do. / They fill you with the faults they had. / And add some extra just for you.”
I’m also more preoccupied since the election with ideology, institutions and their shifting discourses, power and the corruption of power, with appearance and substance, with masking and deceit. I see this passing down from parent to child as being entangled in ideology and discourse. And, I see the struggle against this patriarchal corruption and oppression as a form of righteous teenage rebellion against this miserable handoff. In my writing, this struggle is currently steeped in dystopic tones, in dread and gloom. I’m waiting for a layer of irony and humor over the absurdity of our current socio-political situation to creep in to balance the sour and heavy with some sweetness and light.