Getting to Know Janet Macfadyen and her book Waiting to Be Born: American ghazals &other journeys
When did you first encounter poetry? How did you discover you wanted to write poems?
I have written poems ever since high school, and encountered them much earlier. I don't remember wanting to be a poet, and it wasn't until I was in my thirties that I took my writing seriously.
Do you have a writing routine? A favorite time or place to write?
I don't really have a routine; writing comes in cycles… there are long fallow periods, followed by fertile ones. When things are flowing I do a lot of rough writing at night, when the analytical brain has quieted down and the dream world is awakening. I write longhand. I love the feeling of the pen on paper, my illegible handwriting. The physical act of writing reels out lines of ink into the subconscious where poems are coaxed into being. In the morning, when my editing half is wide awake, I input the draft and start chopping away at language, imposing order and logic on the chaos. I do many many drafts — usually too many to keep count.
For this book, though, the raw material came differently. It was drawn from travel journals I kept from trips all across the country, and I wrote wherever I was: on a trail, in the tent, on the plane. My husband is a nature photographer; while he took pictures, I wrote, taking in and processing whatever was around me.
Where do your poems most often come from—an image, a sound, a phrase, an idea?
Hmm, my poems do come from images and sounds, but more fundamentally from the process of journeying and dreaming. The current book started from a residency on Cape Cod during a major storm. That kindled my fire, because when I travel — as when I dream — I end up in unknown landscapes and other ways of seeing. Journey gets me out of myself and fully into what I'm experiencing moment by moment: out of my safe, known trusted world into uncertainty, and then all the pores and senses are wide open. Being on edge, not knowing where I belong, or who I am — when my sense of routine and safety is shaken up, wonder and confusion have room to enter, giving birth to poetry.
Which writers (living or dead) do you feel have influenced you the most?
For this book, Robert Bly's non-traditional ghazals influenced me most directly, as to some extent did Allen Ginsberg's Howl. I was reading both at the Provincetown dune shack where the collection had its birth, and the energy of their poems spilled over into my own work. Audre Lorde, Natasha Tretheway, and Adrian Oktenberg also have influenced me in giving me courage to speak out, my slow turtle evolution towards political writing. I turn to Tomas Transtromer, Mary Oliver, and Rumi for their breadth of human spirit and psychological acumen; Mark Doty for depth of journey and sheer beauty. I return to Aracelis Girmay when a poem-in-progress is too constrained, to loosen me up when my tendency to tie things up in a pretty bow has gotten the better of me. Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Elizabeth Bishop, Seamus Heaney, and Walt Whitman. Blake and Keats. I return to all of them.
Tell us a little bit about your new collection: what's the significance of the title? are there over-arching themes? what was the process of assembling it? was is a project book?
This was not a project book, nor was it assembled, except in the sense that I pieced it together from travel journals. The book was born out of necessity, out of an emotional, spiritual, and literal storm that I experienced, starting with the 2011 Halloween nor'easter when I had a dune shack residency in Provincetown. The storm was just short of a hurricane: the wind shook the shack violently all night, blew the sand sideways, pried open a window, and caused the wood stove to howl. There was no way out other than a lengthy hike across open dunes. I was reading Robert Bly and Ginsberg, wondering if I was going to die and unable to write except for disjointed journal entries. But that same disjointedness led me to the ghazal form, which uses synaptic leaps between stanzas. I harnessed the core impulses of classical ghazals — standalone stanzas, dialog with an unseen Other, ecstasy, and duende — to my own core material of travel, landscape, and displacement. In order to fit ghazals more easily to a conventional western book format, Bly had used 12-syllable triplets instead of 18-syllable couplets; I followed that format in some of this work, which disciplined my writing.
The title, Waiting to Be Born, is from a poem by the same name: "Was that me, sleeping in my own mind's eye? / Was I waiting again to be born? Through the window / of a ruin, the sea is so blue I could dip my brush in it." But more deeply, it simply reflects the reality of where I was then, which was less than a year before my father died and released me from 60 years of silence and complicity. Since then I have reawakened into a new world. The storm — both actual and metaphorical — was a wakeup call to start living, to let go of deceptions and see myself and the world for what we really are. So overarching theme is: Wake up! Our lives are short and inconsequential, but the natural world is stunningly beautiful, harsh, instructive, unpredictable, and deep; and we humans are just along for the ride. We have each other, let us learn from each other.
Read an excerpt from his book here:
Coyotes hold court every morning outside our bedroom,
disposition and sentence unknown. All day
we feel their eyes upon us. All night, we are lovelorn.
How much remorse can the world stand? The wind
pounds on the walls, tugging our coat sleeves, shouting
wake up, when will you learn?
I tell you, someone has been hammering on the eaves.
Someone is snapping up his pants, tattered and hollow-eyed,
trying to shake more rain out of the air.
This shack isn’t empty! Who cut the framing into squares?
Who poured the waters of the sea in my ears?
Who made this dollhouse then threw away the roof?
Holy the wind! Holy the rain! Holy the tooth that gnaws
through the floor! Holy the open, upturned brain! And now,
whose mouth is this kissing mine, whose hand at the door?
The universe does not petition the world.
Janet, open those coyote eyes: it’s your body there,
splayed out like an angel in the sand.