Poet Jean Monahan.
I like to write my poetry amidst the din of a café—the atmosphere for some reason makes me able to focus. Poet Jean Monahan needs quiet. For her poetry is a form of meditation—and at times painful meditation.
Monahan, is a single mother, works a full time job, and tries to write when time allows.
She is the author of three books of poetry: Hands (chosen by Donald Hall to win the 1991 Anhinga Prize); and Believe It or Not and Mauled Illusionist, both published by Orchises Press (1999 and 2006). She has received several awards and an artist residency at Yaddo. Her poems have appeared in numerous journals and magazines, including Poetry, The New Republic, Atlantic Monthly, and Salamander, as well as in several anthologies. Her MFA in Creative Writing is from Columbia University’s School of the Arts.
I talked with her on my Somerville Community Access TV Show Poet to Poet Writer to Writer.
Doug Holder: In the manuscript you sent me Pomegranate you write a lot about fruit. You could say it is a kind of a fruit bowl of a collection. What is it with you and fruit?
Jean Monahan: (Laugh) Maybe I am a fruitcake. I have always liked to use inanimate objects and just let them speak for themselves. Something like a pomegranate has so many historical references. One thing that I read was that some people consider this fruit to have been present in the Garden of Eden. With all the seeds inside this fruit it could represent the galaxy. Fruit, of course can be pretty metaphorical. I was working on this manuscript and I began to realize that I had a number of poems that dealt with food. Food has a lot of associations for me.
Doug Holder: When you lived in East Cambridge you wrote in a small, separate room. Now, in your house in Salem you have a room to write. We know that Virginia Wolf talked about a writer having a room of one’s own. Do you need a room to write—to write well?
Jean Monahan: It is interesting because there are so many ways people work. When I am ready to work I have to be in a meditative state. I need quiet—absolute quiet. When I used to be in the East Cambridge apartment I used to put on a fan or something to create a low level buzz or white noise. Writing can be excruciating—so you need to eliminate the distractions and just focus. The room I have now is wonderful because it is a lot bigger than the little alcove that I had. I am less focused now than I was then because my life is different.
Doug Holder: In an interview I read you say for you—poetry is a form of meditation.
Jean Monahan: Yes I don’t formally meditate. But I find when if I am writing a poem that is going to work as a poem inevitably I will get into a meditative state where the poem comes out of my unconscious rather than my conscious state. That’s hard to do. And since I have not been writing much the last few years it is harder to get in that state. When I was writing regularly I knew the poem was going somewhere when I didn’t know what was coming next.
Doug Holder: You went to the Columbia University MFA Progra. Who did you study with there?
Jean Monahan: I studied with Richard Howard. Tom Lux was there briefly. A lot of people would come in for a week or so and then we would have the regular faculty. I had Bill Matthews—he was a big influence on me, as well as Molly Peacock. Dan Halpern was running the program. The stuff I learned there was great. The environment was stimulating. Very competitive. A lot of people in the program had degrees in English. My degree is in Psychology. There were a lot of conventions and understandings about writing that I didn’t have. In a way that helped me because I wasn’t overly influenced by some of these notions. And yet there were a lot of things I needed to know.
Doug Holder: You have described writing like mud wrestling with a pig.
Jean Monahan: I think even when I wrote regularly—and more at ease with it; I found it very hard to get to the place where it was working.
Doug Holder: You taught in China around the time of Tienanmen Square Riot in the late 80’s. Did you know poets then? Was there more powerful writing because of the danger of living under an oppressive regime?
Jean Monahan: I was teaching English to university students. I helped them speak English. If someone was writing powerful poetry they didn’t tell me about it because things were quite oppressive then. One of my students told me Mao was a poet. He wrote in the tradition of the poet/warrior. So Mao utilized poetry—metaphor to convey his ideas. He wrote in a tradition of recognizable metaphor.
Doug Holder:There is often an element of surprise in your work.
Jean Monahan: You can’t engineer it consciously. Sometimes you write a poem and you are surprised. A thought can come about in the writing process that surprises you—but it rings true. I like it—it doesn’t happen often. When I don’t see it coming—that’s a thrill.
Doug Holder: What is a poem?
Jean Monahan: Richard Howard said to me: ” A poem is a made thing.” There is a very big difference between poetry and journalism, as well as diary writing, a letter, etc… A poem is the initial impulse and then all that shaping and crafting.
Life After Water
In the life before water, we were rock.
Molten. Singed. The heat was in our mouths:
it took our words away.
Now we swim in the lake of vowels. I and you.
Water is about drift and change.
The trick is to embrace what absorbs
and dissolves you, let each stroke pull
the shadows into light.
When you step on a fish, you take on its power.
The edge of the lake is where we end.
In the life after water,
wind speaks with a louder voice,
the sky is white with dying stars.
Only those with water in their ears
can hear them fall
originally published in Two If By Sea MIT Oceanographic Institute newsletter–Archives, Summer 2000 and both appear in Mauled Illusionist