It is midday on Monday 31 July, and I am one of around a hundred people who have gathered in Te Marae at Te Papa to hear visiting American writer Marianne Boruch in discussion with Chris Price. On the way in I meet up with my friend and fellow IIML student Mia. We’re both elated and windswept from our brisk bicycle rides through the city to get here. Outside the wind is ferocious, making a high-pitched whistling sound against the building and pushing clouds out of the sky, letting multi-coloured sunlight to pour in through the stained-glass windows in the marae. After an introduction from Chris, Marianne steps up to the lectern and says she thinks the whistling is a good spirit. Te Marae is peaceful, warm and light. It does feel full of good spirits.
Opening with an acknowledgement of spirits is appropriate at a marae, and even if Marianne doesn’t know that, I feel immediately that she is, for all her international success, an utterly humble writer. She wants first and foremost to let us know that even though it seems we are here to talk about her, she is putting herself aside.
Today’s talk is called The Little Death of Self, which is the title of her new collection of essays published by The University of Michigan Press earlier this year. But this notion, the death of the self, relates to all her writing, and today she continually comes back to the idea of removing the self/the writer/the personality from the writing, and allowing its own life, or spirit, to come through.
She talks about her poetry collection, Cadaver, Speak, in which the poems are in the voice of a cadaver. In 2008, as part of a faculty fellowship at Purdue University in Indiana where she is Professor of English, Marianne took an anatomy class in the medical school studying corpses. She was drawn to one cadaver in particular, the body of a 99-year old woman. The result of her study was the collection of poetry, published in 2014 by Copper Canyon Press.
At first, she tells us, she struggled with voice in the Cadaver poems, which were all in third person pronoun. It felt wrong, she said, like she the writer was speaking for someone, rather than letting them to speak for themselves. She wanted a ‘self’ there, but it was the wrong one. A simple but profound switch solved the problem: she changed the poems to first-person pronoun. Suddenly it was like the real cadaver’s voice coming out, and the poems seemed to live on their own.
She reads us three poems from Cadaver, Speak; an essay on audibility; and a hilarious section from her memoir The Glimpse Traveller (Indiana University Press 2011), in which a high school nun gives her and her friends dating advice for keeping boys “at bay.” The advice that is so absurdly unique it is almost surreal, such as carrying around a little bag of stones to drop in any puddles one has to step over, in order to break the reflection.
She tells us that her memoir is really a “we-oir,” because it’s not just her story, it’s the story of a generation in 1970s America. Here again she’s putting the ‘me’ aside. She talks about the idea of intention as almost worthless in writing – intention can get you started, she says, but the work has to be allowed to be what it wants to be. Get the self out of the way. Let the spirit of it out.
It strikes me that this idea of intention as inherently selfish, and the idea removing the self, are both about allowing for empathy. They are both about putting yourself, whether you are the reader or writer, through feeling and imagination, into another’s shoes.
I am one of this year’s Masters students at Victoria’s IIML. My background is all in theatre, which I’ve studied and worked in for the past decade, and this year I suddenly find myself trying to be a non-fiction writer. At first it felt alien, but more and more I’m struck by the core values that cover all art forms. For me, theatre is also all about empathy. Marianne is a poet, essayist and memoirist, all seemly different forms. I’m beginning to see that you can switch between forms and mediums and be effective in them, but only if in every instance, you get rid of the ego and let the self die.
The wind is still whistling when we finish, blowing in from the harbour. I hop on my bicycle and the gusts push me all the way home, back to my desk and the spirits waiting there.
Claire O’Loughlin, August 2017