Welcome back to Lyric Essentials! This week Madeleine Barnes reads poetry from Michelle Maher and discusses maternal lineage, relationships, and inspiration. Thank you for reading!
Erica Hoffmeister: You were eager for the opportunity to share Michelle Maher’s poetry with our readers. Can you share why that is?
Madeleine Barnes: Michelle Maher is my mother! It’s a privilege to know her through her poems. I admire her as a person and an artist. In the poem “For My Mother,” May Sarton writes: “Today I remember / The creator, / The lion-hearted.” Sarton honors her mother as creator, committing her artistry and courage to memory. My mother is the lion-hearted woman who gave my sisters and me life, andthe author of an incredible debut poetry collection, Bright Air Settling Around Us (Main Street Rag, April 2020). When I was growing up, I don’t think I appreciated how much creative energy goes into motherhood, and how difficult it is to make time for writing while raising kids and working full-time. I don’t know how she ever slept. So it was really exciting when our first books were picked up for publication around the same time last year.
She’s not on social media and she’s averse to self-promotion, but her writing makes an impact on people. I want her work to reach as many people as possible because there’s so much we can learn from it. A few years ago, Toi Derricotte selected one of her poems as the winner of the Patricia Dobler Poetry Award. At the award reading, I had this experience where I both could and couldn’t believe the reader was my mother—her poems are a heartbeat. Her voice is the first poem I ever heard. In her work, I recognize the marker of poetry: a life not only lived, but deeply felt. She taught me that our legacy is who we love, who we support, and the meaning we make out of our lives.
EH: In our emails, you expressed the difficulty in choosing just a few poems of Maher’s to read for us–how and why did you end up reading the poems that you did?
MB: In the end I chose poems that ask difficult questions and address topics like grief. Her poems have the power to help a lot of people. “What would it mean to see with the eyes / of a woman recently returned from the dead?” she writes in “To Return is to Carry.” The speaker’s vision is a “flame that sears away everything inconsequential.” When we’re confronted with mortality, what truly matters rises to the surface. “To return is to carry a thirst so deep it seems like grief,” she writes. This line helps me recognize how loving life and loving the world is similar to complicated grief. What will outlast us? What would it be like to come back from the dead? A man walks past the woman and ignores her, assuming that she has nothing to offer him. My mother’s poetry honors people who are overlooked, and people who can’t do anything for us. The poem closes with the repeated question, “What lasts? What lasts?” It’s a question that all of us have to face, and the answer depends on the individual.
“Deep Blue Bowl” is a lesson in grief. After someone we love dies, we still feel their presence everywhere. This poem does something important—it addresses an incredulousness that can accompany grief. When the speaker sees an image of her mother, she senses that she’s is happy in the afterlife, and this feels upsetting. “Really? I want to say. / You left me with boxes of photos / and no one to call who will be interested / in my day, down to its tiniest detail. / I want to be somebody’s child again.” I feel anguish reading these lines. She captures how hard it is to feel left behind after someone so integral to your life dies. How could they leave us? Don’t they know how much we miss them? Even if we sense that they’re okay, we might selfishly wish they were still with us. I’ve read a lot of wonderful poems about grief, but to me, this one is stands out because it captures a moment in the grieving process that we don’t talk about enough, and it’s related to anger. The pain we feel over someone’s absence is directly proportionate to the amount of love we feel for them. The image of the deep blue bowl, and the feeling of being under something cosmic and heavenly, is so powerful.
EH: You and your mother write, collaborate and create together – even writing about each other and connecting familial threads throughout one another’s poetry. What positive impact do you think you and your mother have on the writing community as a writer’s family of women?
MB: My relationship with my mother as a poet is one that is founded on love and joy in each other’s accomplishments. She always rejoiced in my successes, and this showed me how to celebrate others. Now that I’m an adult, we’re artistic peers and collaborators. We’ve gone through hard times, and we’re not perfect in any way, but there’s a fundamental love and respect that seeps through. Our first community is our immediate family, and hopefully we carry collaboration and support into the wider world. We made a decision a long time ago to always have each other’s backs and support one another no matter what, because living any other way would be intolerable. It’s not a rivalry or a zero-sum game where “whatever you have takes away from what I have.” That mindset is extremely destructive. She says it would be strange to compete with me—she doesn’t see that as her role as a parent. We both had graduate school experiences where writers tried to tear each other down, and that competitive mindset is toxic. It destroys mutual health and friendships and support systems and love. So, we make the choice to continually lift each other up, knowing that support, encouragement, and community is what lasts.
She recently told me that she’s never been to a funeral where people say, “Oh, this person won this and that prestigious award.” What they remember is what that person contributed, who they loved, who they supported, and what meaning they made from their life. I think there’s sometimes a valorization of selfishness in art—we’re taught that it’s commendable if you put your art above how you treat people, and selfishness is somehow complex and admirable—she and I are both tired of that, especially under our current administration. We prioritize art and how we treat others, and we don’t buy into the scarcity mindset. We don’t agree on everything, but we never look at each other in a way that’s disappointed or stressed out. A win for her is a win for me. We want to lift other people up, too!
EH: Lastly, is there anything you are working on now that you’d like to share with our readers?
MB: We’re mulling over the idea of a collaborative chapbook—poems in response to each other, and in response to the urgencies of this extraordinary time that we’re living through. Our goal is to have it ready to submit by summer 2021.
Michelle Maher is is a professor of English at La Roche College and the author of the poetry collection Bright Air Settling Around Us. Her work has appeared in the journals Pittsburgh Poetry Review, Chautauqua Literary Journal, The Georgetown Review, Atlanta Review, U.S. 1 Worksheets, and others. Her poem, “At the Brera, Milan” won the 2012 Patricia Dobler Poetry Award, a national contest sponsored by Carlow University.
Purchase Maher’s debut poetry collection Bright Air Settling Around Us from Main Street Rag.
Read more of Maher’s poetry featured in Cordella Magazine.
Read this interview with Maher in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Madeleine Barnes is a poet, visual artist, Mellon Foundation Humanities Public Fellow, and PhD student at The Graduate Center, CUNY. Her debut poetry collection, You Do Not Have To Be Good, was published by Trio House Press in July 2020. She is the author of three chapbooks, most recently Women’s Work, forthcoming from Tolsun Books. She serves as Poetry Editor at Cordella Magazine, a publication that showcases the work of women and non-binary writers and artists. She’s the recipient of two Academy of American Poets poetry prizes, the Princeton Poetry Prize, the Gertrude Gordon Journalism Prize, and the Three Rivers Review Poetry Prize. Visit her at madeleinebarnes.com.
Purchase Barnes’ collection You Do Not Have to Be Good.
Read an interview with Barnes and Maher in The Brooklyn Review.
Check out Barnes’ feature in Sundress Publications’ The Wardrobe’s Best Dressed series.
Erica Hoffmeister is originally from Southern California and earned an MFA in Creative Writing and an MA in English from Chapman University. Currently in Denver, she teaches college writing and advocates for media literacy and digital citizenship. She is an editor for the Denver-based literary journal South Broadway Ghost Society and the author of two poetry collections: Lived in Bars (Stubborn Mule Press, 2019), and the prize-winning chapbook, Roots Grew Wild (Kingdoms in the Wild Press, 2019). A cross-genre writer, she has several works of fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, articles and critical essays published in various outlets. Learn more about her at http://ericahoffmeister.com/