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3/6/2008 [ interview ]

Interview with Martha Silano, Author of Blue Positive

by Rebecca Lehmann

Martha Silano grew up in New Jersey and was educated at Grinnell College and the University of Washington. Her previous collection, What the Truth Tastes Like, published by Nightshade Press, won the 1998 William and Kingman Page Poetry Book Award. Her poems have appeared in the Paris Review, Beloit Poetry Journal, Green Mountain Review, Fine Madness, and various anthologies and journals. She teaches at Bellevue and Edmonds Community College and lives in Seattle, Washington. Martha Silano's newest book, Blue Positive, is available on Steel Toe Books.

Q: Your new book, Blue Positive, deals heavily with issues of pregnancy and motherhood, and the truths and myths associated with pregnancy, childbirth, and raising small children. How has becoming a mother affected your writing?

I write faster, my concentration is better, and I have more stamina (Rocky theme song in background). Seriously - I used to have these "needs" - the special pen or notebook, the study with a door that closes. Silence. Huge chunks of time. Now it's more like: ooh, lookie, a red light. There's also no more oh, I think I'll straighten my desk or I'll clean the kitchen and then I'll start - you know, avoidance techniques. I don't play around any more.

Then there's the subject matter. It's pretty much all kids all the time. And even when it's not overtly about kids, mommy consciousness is almost always seeping into my work. Whether I'm writing about body parts, inequality, or aliens, I'm thinking about what life will be like for the next generation. Or when I write about war, or eternity, or death I'm thinking how a child might grapple with these concepts. I didn't consider this stuff much at all before I was a mom. Basically, my brain's been totally rearranged. " I'm not the one I was," says Heather McHugh. Motherhood has reduced the odds that I'll write poems that begin "Here I stand / looking out my window / and I am important" (that's from The Poet's Companion, A Guide to the Pleasures of Writing Poetry, by Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux). I used to be the center of the universe. Now it's more important what my son's favorite color is - I don't even know or care what mine is anymore.

I've also taken the Artist Date to a new level. I write at science museums (while my kids take turns crawling into a plaster cast of a Hadrosaur footprint), at the park, the beach, while they're "camping" in the display tents at REI.

Q: What is the biggest myth about having children that you'd like to bust?

That it won't change your life, restructure every cell in your body.

Q: One thing I really enjoyed about your book is that when I sat down to read it I felt as though I was sitting down to a literary buffet. Descriptions of food saturate this book, from Polish delicacies, to sugared skulls, to all manner of fruits. Was this "buffet effect" deliberate, or one of those very pleasant unconscious coincidences that pop up in writing?

Food imagery . . . yes, there's quite a bit of that. I can't say exactly if the "buffet effect" was deliberate. It's more that I grew up in a home where food was way more than sustenance. I mean, it wasn't something you dumped out of a can and into a pot. I'm half Italian and half Polish, so I grew up with Neapolitan pizza (my father made the dough and cooked the sauce from scratch), chicken cacciatore, lasagna, veal parmigania (from my dad's Italian side) and stuffed cabbage, perogies, kielbasa, and all order of homemade bread and nut rolls (my mom's Polish side).

When my dad's two sisters returned from a month-long trip to Italy, they arrived with a suitcase loaded with pastries. They immediately pulled in the driveway and insisted we join them in a sugar-fest. My dad kept going on about the old country and i raddici ("roots"), how we wouldn't eat anything like this for the rest of our lives. It was like the pastries were members of our family. We were expected to honor them, treat them with respect. It would insult the cannoli if you passed them up.

My father grew basil in our backyard, and it was like he was hanging out with all his dead relatives out there. I think he was also mourning the loss of his culture, his first language, the father he'd recently lost. He would keep saying over and over as he watered that's the basilico. He wanted us to know the Italian word for basil. His saying it aloud - both of my parents reveled in language - heightened my interest in words as little musical compositions: sfumatore, cappicola, bacala.

No, I wouldn't say any of this is coincidence. I'm pretty much food-obsessed. Luckily, I married a foodie, so the tradition of elevating food to ridiculous heights of significance continues.

Q: What is the oddest food item you've ever included in a poem? What is your favorite thing to eat before/during/immediately after writing?

I wish I could say haggis, but I haven't been as lucky as Robert Burns.

In "The Sausage Parade" there's a Braunschweiger, but my vote goes to "the perpetually grieving Linzer-Torte" in a poem called "To the Woman Who, When I Went to Heat My Pizza in the Office Microwave", asked me "Who Are You?"

While I'm writing I don't eat. Or I wait till I'm so hungry I can't stand it, then run downstairs and make a sandwich or quesadilla, cram it into my mouth, and get back to writing again as fast as I can. Eating food doesn't even occur to me when I'm in the middle of writing a poem. I think it was Anne Sexton who said something like "when the urge to write a poem arrives, drop everything and write it." I'm suspicious about getting up from my desk, breaking the mood unless I absolutely have to (child crying, etc.). Writing about food doesn't necessarily make me hungry for the food I'm writing about. When I wrote "The Sausage Parade," I wasn't even eating red meat.

Q: The idea of place seems important in this book, and many of the poems are located in very specific locations, such as "I'll Never be Dorianne Laux at the Laudromat" which is partially set in a Y workout room. How do you relate the idea of place and specific geographic locations to writing?

I was trained to be specific in my poems, so if something is happening or has happened in a particular location, I often feel the need to reveal that place: a gym, "At the Shorebird Festival in Grays Harbor County, Washington," "At the Sayres Park Rowing and Sailing Center, Lake Washington, Seattle." In Blue Positive, the title poem contains many specifics (the gannets are in St. Ives, we're at the Seep Lakes), but then again you don't know what town I was born in. Exact locations: it depends. Each line's logic and locus dictates how specific that line needs to be about place.

Q: Your poem "Forgetfulness the Great Bronchial Tree from Which I'm Swinging," is an ode to forgetfulness. I couldn't help but think of Elizabeth Bishop's "The Art of Losing" when reading this poem, and I notice that you've quoted her earlier in the book: "Should we have stayed at home and dreamed of here? Where should we be today?" Has Bishop been a large poetic influence for you? What is the role of forgetfulness or un-remembering in your work?

Yes, Bishop has been an influence, for sure. I don't think I'm alone in believing "One Art" is one of the greatest poems in the English language. Bishop's work has taught me about paying close attention, about the importance of trusting how you see the world, describing what you see with your own words, in your own voice and style. I remember in grad school when I came across Geography III, it was like I'd dug up a really cool fossil. But I've been influenced by a whole horde of fine writers: Dickinson, Whitman (okay, who hasn't?), Marianne Moore, Sylvia Plath, Allen Ginsberg, Gerald Stern, Albert Goldbarth, William Stafford, Sharon Olds, David Wagoner, Heather McHugh, Dorianne Laux, and it goes on . . .

The role of forgetfulness? That's a nice way of putting it. A not-so-nice way would be: I'm losing my short-term memory at a rapid clip. This cannot be good for a writer, but in another way it heightens my sense of urgency to commit words to the page - at the rate I'm going, pretty soon I'm not going to be able to remember where I put my pen and notebook (well, okay, that's already starting to happen . . .).

The following can be answered in a word, a phrase, a sentence . . .

1) Name a writer who is currently making you jealous.

I can't choose just one: Danielle Pafunda and Jenny Browne.

2) What kind of child were you?

Obedient. Shy on the outside, stand-up comic on the inside.

3) What is your relationship with rejection like?

Very platonic.

4) What book did you suffer for the most, and why?> I had to experience postpartum psychosis to write Blue Positive, so I guess you could say it would be that one.

5) What was the greatest surprise for you in your most recent writing?

That I can make mud pies with language ("Zounds-mound," "Ubbity-wubbity").

6) What writerly habit would you most like to break?

Complaining I have no time to write.

Lastly . . . (one random fact to top it off)

What did you have for lunch today?

I was driving back from the Sylvia Beach Hotel in Newport, Oregon from a three-day writing retreat and food-fest. I ate halibut in cream sauce, shrimp scampi, apple pancakes, pear tart, blueberry crumble, seafood gumbo. Lunch today: a handful of raw almonds, two string cheeses, and a Granny Smith apple. Even foodies have their limits . . .

Martha Silano grew up in New Jersey and went to Grinnell College and the University of Washington. Her collection What the Truth Tastes Like, published by Nightshade Press, won the 1998 William and Kingman Page Poetry Book Award. Her poems have appeared in the Paris Review, Beloit Poetry Journal, Green Mountain Review, Fine Madness, and various anthologies and journals. Currently she teaches at Bellevue and Edmonds Community College and lives in Seattle, Washington. Find out more about Martha Silano at her website.

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