Exclusive Interview With Poet Martha Silano

Some of the poets I’ve interviewed for this blog were sought out by me; some have been recommended by other poets; and some have come to me on their own. In the case of Martha Silano, author of Blue Positive (Steel Toe Books, 2006), it was kind of a combination of these events.

In my interview with Julianna Baggott, Martha Silano was mentioned as a new poet she took a shining to. I started to check out Martha’s work, but then I got sidetracked on some other projects. Next thing I know, Martha is introducing herself and mentioning that Julianna sent her in the direction of my blog–and would I be interested in interviewing her? Anyway, one thing led to another, and wow! Silano is a great new (to me, at least) poet.

There are many excellent poems in Silano’s Blue Positive collection, but the one that really grabs me is the following:

Harborview

By the roots of my hair some god got hold of me
–Sylvia Plath

By the roots of my hair, by the reinforced elastic
of my floral Bravado bra, by the fraying strands

of my blue-checked briefs, some god’s gotten hold of me,
some god’s squeezed hard the spit-up rag of my soul, rung me

like the little girl who rang our doorbell on Halloween, took
our M&Ms is your baby okay? Why did they take him away?

Some god’s got me thinking my milk’s poison, unfit
for a hungry child, some god’s got me pacing,

set me flying like the black felt bats dangling
in the hall, some god so that now I can’t trust my best friend’s

healing hands, the Phad Thai she’s spooning beside the rice (ditto
to the meds the doctors say will help me sleep) Poison poison!

as if the god who’s got hold of me doesn’t want me
well, doesn’t want my rapid-fire brain to slow,

wants this ride for as long as it lasts, wants to take it
to its over-Niagara-in-a-barrel end, which is where

this god is taking me, one rung at a time, one ambulance,
one EMT strapping me in, throwing me off this earth,

cuz I’ve not only killed my son but a heap of others too.
Some god’s got me by my shiny golden locks, by my milk-

leaking breasts, got me in this hospital, wisps like white scarves
circling my head, wisps the voices of men back to bed you whore!

Some god till I’m believing I’ve been shot, guts dribbling out,
till I’m sure I’ve ridden all over town in a spaceship, sure

I’m dead, a ghost, a smoldering corpse, though not before I’m holding up
a shaking wall, urging the others to help me (a plane about to land

on our heads), though soon enough thrown down by two night nurses,
strapped to a bed, though for weeks the flowers my in-laws sent

charred at the tips (having been to hell and back), clang of pots,
hissing shower, the two blue pills my roommate left in the sink,

all signals of doom, though some god got hold of me,
shook and shook me long and hard, she also brought me back.

 

And with that, let’s get into the interview.

What are you currently up to?

 

I’m working on a book of poems–it’s almost finished, I hope–tentatively titled The Little Office of the Immaculate Conception. It’s about this mother who gets knocked up, considers fleeing, fights with her husband, almost gets a divorce, has the baby, gets seriously depressed, and continuously (alternately) screams at and revels in/adores her two children. Betcha can’t wait to read it!

 

I’ve also recently begun a series of poems (I would like it to be a chapbook) about body parts. And I’m working on another full-length collection about space aliens, extra-terrestrials, Galileo, ants, space junk, the universe, and related subjects–but this one probably won’t really get going till my youngest starts kindergarten, when I plan to apply to every writer’s colony in the country.

 

I recently read in an interview that you had to suffer through postpartum psychosis to write your collection Blue Positive. Could you elaborate on that experience? For instance, I’m interested in how it affected your daily life and whether you were still able to write, etc., as you went through postpartum. Also, I’m wondering how it was initially detected.

 

Oh gosh, that’s a big question. Thanks for being bold enough to ask it. I’ve encapsulated what happened during those first six months of my son’s life in two essays; one appears in the April ’08 issue of Redbook, the other in Poets on Prozac: Mental Illness and the Creative Process, just out from Hopkins U. Press.

 

Let’s just say my daily life was quite different. I don’t remember much about the first week at all; I was actively psychotic–hallucinations, delusions, the whole kit and kaboodle. I mean, I thought I was in cahoots with the Unibomber. When the drugs put a stop to the active psychosis, I was left with paranoia, extreme insecurity, acute anxiety, agoraphobia, and severe depression. “Writing” consisted of scribbling down a few notes about the guy down the hallway who was out to get me. When I got home from the hospital I was still in pretty bad shape–afraid to venture down to the basement, take my son on a walk. I was also prone to gut-wrenching panic attacks. Worst of all, I’d forgotten how to laugh. I remember going to see the movie Best in Show, and not being able to figure out what was so funny (I saw it a year later and laughed my ass off).

 

As far as the detection issue, that was pretty much a comedy of errors. After my first panic attack (ahem, slip into psychosis), I was diagnosed with sleep deprivation and given a prescription for tranquilizers, which I never took because, of course, the doctors were trying to poison me. The next time I got hauled into Behavioral Health they finally began calling what I had postpartum depression (semi-true) and put me on antidepressants, the worst thing you can give to someone who’s manic. Three cheers for modern medicine! The Paxil actually sped up the process from mania into full-blown psychosis, landing me in the ER that much faster.  

 

More doctors and nurses are beginning to understand there’s a connection between the postpartum period and bipolar disorder, but in the year 2000, at Harborview Medical Center, in the very progressive city of Seattle, I was treated like a “crazy person,” not a new mom suffering from PPP. For instance, I got a wicked urinary tract infection because my hoo-ha was still bleeding and they didn’t remind me to take my requisite daily sitz baths.

 

The collection Blue Positive seems to me to be a collection celebrating life–it covers topics such as sex, pregnancy, motherhood, and food. How did you go about assembling the poems that would go into this collection?

 

I hadn’t thought of Blue Positive as a particularly celebratory book, but—psychosis be damned!—it’s quite a mirthful romp, isn’t it?

 

The oldest poem is “Salvaging Must Lead to Salvation”–an I-want-to-get-married piece I began in 1998. For months I was writing these pathetic (very ordinary) little square-shaped poems that were going nowhere, and then it was like the levee broke and this voice came out–not quite “me,” more this potty-mouthed gal who both thoroughly adores and completely despises this man she’s going to end up marrying. I knew this poem didn’t fit with the manuscript I was sending out at the time (What the Truth Tastes Like), so I guess it’s when I knew I had another book in me—always a relief.

 

Then I got hitched, knocked up, and wrote all the preggy poems (“Getting Kicked by a Fetus,” “What they Don’t Tell You About the Ninth Month,” etc.). Then I thought the book was done (2000), and sent it out to a dozen or more places the week before I went into labor with my son. What a joke! When I “came to” after my 6-month trip through crazy-land, I realized, duh, I had actually only written a 1/4 of a book–okay, 1/2 at best. So I kept writing, and of course all the poems were now about being a mother–“While He Naps,” “Explaining Current Events to a One-Year Old,” “His Favorite Color is Green,” etc. Urged by a friend, I sent a revised version off to the National Poetry Series; it was chosen as a finalist.

 

Once I knew I’d even slightly enticed a neutral reader (i.e., not my mom or sister), I kept adding, cutting, and shaping. It took two more years to (1) write the title poem; (2) figure out that I needed to begin the book with my own childhood, then move chronologically through adolescence, courtship, marriage, pregnancy, and the birth of our son; and (3) be awarded an 8-month writing residency in the wilds of southern Oregon’s Rogue River canyon, so I could get knocked up again and write the thirteen poems that close the book. And that’s how it finally got finished.

 

Motherhood factors into a lot of your poems. How do you work in time to write around being a mother and teaching? Do you have a writing routine–or just write when you can?

 

Oh, goodness, I envy those people who can write whenever they want. But actually I was always poor with time management. I like rearranging junk drawers, pouring over old photos, gabbing, etc. So it’s actually turned out that I write more now than ever. But okay, here’s a little secret: self-imposed writing retreats. I’ve done three in the last year. The first two were paid for by a grant (thank you, Washington State Artist Trust), but the most recent one cost me less than $100–two nights in a friend of a friend’s beachfront studio. It didn’t have a stove or a bed (I slept on the floor), but hell if I cared.

 

Otherwise, I write when I can: on the kitchen floor while my 3 year old plays with her dinosaurs, at the dentist’s office, in traffic (yes, in a moving car), at the beach, on airplanes and on fishing docks, during snack time, while they’re sleeping; in between all the rest. 

 

How do you decide where to submit? Do you have a particular process for deciding where to submit and when your poems are ready to go out?

  1. Under most circumstances I don’t send to a place unless I’ve read a back issue/perused their online offerings or am a subscriber.
  2. I’ve gotta mostly completely love the poems, the fiction, the art work, the layout, the whole shebang, or no thanks.
  3. I avoid submitting to mags where I don’t have a prayer (I’m not talking long shots, I’m talking completely different aesthetic).
  4. When a poem is getting close to feeling finished, I email it to a poet/editor friend or two, just to make sure I’m not about to make a total fool of myself. If I skip this step, and sometimes I do, it feels risky, sorta cocky–I mean, how the hell do I know? I’ve sent things out too early–who hasn’t?–but mostly I try to sit on my hands as long as I can, even if it feels like a poem is finished. I can’t always wait a year, but usually a month or two at the very minimum allows me to find all the stupid little mistakes, OR to realize the poem is actually a piece of sh*t. 

I’ve enjoyed reading your Blue Positive blog where you deal in equal parts personal and poetic. What are your thoughts on blogging in relation to your writing? Would you recommend blogging to other poets?

 

I can’t say I recommend blogging, though it IS a blast. It might be keeping me away from the real writing, but so far it hasn’t interfered much. I like writing about magazines and writers I’m stoked about, asking questions, sharing personal stuff that’s not quite poem-worthy, keeping my prose muscles toned. I really haven’t thought about whether it’s beneficial to my writing in any way; it’s just stuff I would have told a friend or written in my journal, so why not put it out there? It reminds me a little of being a DJ at a tiny college radio station in Iowa. I would say these outlandish things, make little jokes, purposely mess up the PSAs–probably only a few cows were listening, but that was half the fun of it.

 

Could you name a couple poets you’re currently enjoying? And why you’re enjoying them?

 

The hard part is keeping it down to a couple. Here’s five:

  1. Heidi Lynn Staples—wacky, wild, mind-blowing leaps;
  2. Matthea Harvey—startling line breaks and imagery, lots of surprises;
  3. Jenny Browne—I love how her poems are both grounded and surreal;
  4. Sandra Beasley—oh man, has she ever changed how I see the world, but especially cherry tomatoes;
  5. Lee Upton—her music is sump.tu.ous. Here’s a gal who knows how to edit down to the bone.

As mentioned earlier, you teach English at two community colleges. Do you feel teaching has helped or hindered your writing?

 

My students bring satchels and satchels of enthusiasm, excitement, and adrenaline into my life–our conversations wind me up and set me spinning. I love holding back on what I think and instead asking more questions. I love how they talk to each other, teach each other, teach me. Without them, would I still be writing?  I grow old; they stay young. I grow set in my ways; they kick me in the pants. It’s an incredible honor to teach, a calling, really. If I didn’t love it, if it didn’t feed my creativity, I wouldn’t do it. So, the short answer: helped.

 

If you could impart only one piece of advice to other poets, what would it be?

  1. Ignore all oracles.
  2. Don’t be too cocky or too humble.
  3. Figure out the poems you were given to write, and get to it. 
  4. When an established writer gives you the critique you begged for, listen carefully and do your best to keep mum.

 

*****

 

To find out more about Martha Silano, check out her website at http://www.marthasilano.com/.

 

The site includes poems from her collections Blue Positive and What the Truth Tastes Like (Nightshade Press, 1999), as well as ordering information.

 

 

*****

 

If you’re a poet or publisher interested in setting up an interview (or just a poetry lover, who wants to make a recommendation), then check out my Call for Poets. It worked for Martha Silano, and it could work for you.

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2 thoughts on “Exclusive Interview With Poet Martha Silano

  1. S.E. Ingraham

    I’ve been meaning to post my thanks here also Robert. Martha’s work is fresh and exciting, and I guess in some poems I feel like she could be writing down the bones of my own life (apologies to Natalie Goldberg)which endears her to me all the more. Again, much gratitude for bringing this person’s wonderful work to our attention. Sharon Ingraham

  2. Barbara S

    Thanks Rob for putting me onto Martha’s work. She’s a woman after my own heart – six kids and how I don’t go crazy sometimes, but for writing. Lovely to hear her methods of acquiring writing spaces, and of course to read her poem, ‘Harborview.’

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