An Interview with Jane Mead
A friend of mine posed a question on Facebook: "What is water?" Jane Mead, author of the new poetry collection MONEY MONEY MONEY |WATER WATER WATER, might have the answer. "Clearly, I'm obsessed with water in various ways," says Mead, whose earlier collection is entitled House of Poured-Out Waters. Mead's new poems force readers to confront the multiplicity of water -- how it cleanses, nourishes, gets polluted, and can also claim us -- as well as bringing us face to face with actual nature by way of language.
Jane Mead is the author of four collections of poetry. She is the recipient of a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship, a Completion Grant from the Lannan Foundation, and a Whiting Writer's Award. She teaches in the low residency MFA program at Drew University and farms in Northern California.
What role does nature or ecopoetry play in contemporary society?
Well, beneath this question is the deeper question of what role poetry plays in contemporary society, and it's hard to say. You hear all sorts of arguments about how irrelevant poetry is, which I don't accept. Neither, however, would I argue that poetry is of central cultural importance today, as it may have been at other times and in other cultures. I think that art of one kind or another -- music, poetry, painting, dance, whatever -- is important to every life as a way to connect the large mystery inside to the large mystery outside. And I think everybody makes that connection through one kind of art or another, but would I say poetry per se is crucial or central? Probably not, not for most people. Yet, somehow, I know we need it in the world -- that much I will say, although "we" might be a relatively small group of people. It is important to say, on the other hand, that poetry is alive and well: there is so much energy in the world of contemporary poetry, however small that world might be -- so many aesthetic avenues being explored, so much cross-pollination among traditions. I find it an incredibly exciting time to be writing.
What other poets do you think have done a skillful job at reporting poetically on the current state of the environment (whenever they were writing) and humans' role in it?
Lucia Perillo comes to mind immediately, because she goes all the way down through the tragedy into the comic absurd, and certainly we live in the world of the absurd, not the least in how we treat our environment, and the political machinations we will go to in order to protect the economic interests of the few for the short run. She was a park ranger in her young adulthood, and has remained a serious student of the natural world. You never get the sense, in reading her poetry, that the "natural world" has been sought out as material for the poem, yet it is central. It is all bound up in the way she thinks about things.
One of the most striking things readers notice first about MONEY MONEY MONEY | WATER WATER WATER is the small poems in the lower left corner of the left-hand pages. Did these poems arise concurrently with the full-length ones?
At some point in the writing of the poems in the book, a more interior voice started coming to me -- these little fragments which often arose independently of the poems to which they are now linked. Some of those fragments are found poems too, from agricultural journals, and that kind of thing. In any event, I started seeing that they were a part of the conversation that the poems were having with one another, and formalized them structurally for that purpose.
You frequently use repetition in your poems, which I find intriguing. When I consider the value of repetition, I think of how it makes readers confront the same language twice, but with a somewhat changed vantage. What draws you to repetition?
I'd say the attraction is both musical, which is to say physical, and temperamental. Musically, the return of the similar but not identical sound is very appealing. And I think I am by temperament inclined toward repetition as a structuring element, one that tempers the adventure, structures the movement toward the unknown.
Based on a few poems (mostly "Cove"), I'm forced to consider whether or not poetry can be a way to preserve nature in some way. How do you see poetry and the natural world interacting?
To the extent that poems can stir feelings of awe in the face of the natural world, or emphasize our place within it, the interconnectedness, that can be very powerful. And of course the political and the environmental are linked increasingly closely, there is no way back to the simple pastoral. As you know, there's increasing discussion about ecopoetry -- the question of how that is defined, even though it is a term that has been around for quite a while. Given the nearly complete destruction of an entire planet, the overpowering by greed of any sense of the basic logic of survival, or valuation of beauty -- it would be odd if the urgency of this situation were not reflected in our poetry. I haven't read the recent debates about ecopoetry, but I'm sure there are a lot of truly smart people with smart things to say about it -- and how could that not be a great thing. But poetry has the potential to move people, which is where the potential for growth and change of a certain kind enters the picture.
When you were working on this book, was there anything you were determined not to do?
Absolutely not. I actually never think that way -- in fact, I try to keep myself open to anything, try to go wherever the poem takes me, or wherever I have to go to follow the poem. For some reason, that's hard -- I have often to quiet the internal critic. But when the writing is going well and intensely -- then it is easy to "learn by going where you need to go," as Roethke would say in that great villanelle. I guess that is to answer your question in terms of individual poems, but in terms of the book, I'd say the same thing. It's an organic process for me, that of putting a book together, and I try to keep my willfulness at bay. As with writing a poem, in the organization of a book my process is one by which the necessary structural elements are discovered intuitively and then emphasized. This all relates back in some way to your questions about what I call "the foursies" and also the question about repetition. It's about finding structure as you go.
I have had some trouble with this book's speaker. Most of the times the "I" surfaces, there isn't much information given about the speaker, and I feel I feel like the speaker is a nonspecific entity. But then there are poems like "Tamoxifen" that are very intimately about your own mother. How do you see this book's speaker?
For the most part, the "I" is just me, but of course that doesn't imply a consistent distance from or angle on the subject. Sometimes the voice talks about something; sometimes the voice enacts what's going on, in which case voice is a much more integral part of subject. Also, sometimes I'm speaking in the context of personal narrative, and sometimes the "I" is more lyric, and the narrative is only implied. And a poem like "We Approach Magna Carta" is grounded in cultural imagery and the thinking process. "Dorothy and Jane in Tesuque," on the other hand, is based in personal narrative and its imagery. Voice gets really complex when you start analyzing the different elements that contribute to it, and the different combinations thereof. These are great questions -- you are making me think about stuff I haven't noticed before in my own poems. In the end, I'd say that for me as a reader, there are two categories of voice: a) that which one believes and trusts, and b) that which one does not believe or trust. For me, as a writer, an important part of the process is finding, for each poem, the voice (meaning distance and perspective) from which I can engage the subject matter honestly. If you can do that, then you are doing your part in earning your reader's trust.
Your earlier poem "Origin" concludes: "My greatest desire -- / to exist in a physical world." Can you unpack that in relation to the work you do in MONEY MONEY MONEY? Unless you don't believe the two are linked.
Both the titles of House of Poured-Out Waters and MONEY MONEY MONEY |WATER WATER WATER reference water, of course, and water is often a theme in your work. When you mention water in a poem, are you always going for the same meaning, or is it a versatile signifier for you?
Clearly, I'm obsessed with water in various ways, and I suppose that obsession is getting more and more literal. It's an easy thing to be obsessed with, extremely archetypal, and therefore tricky as well. In House of Poured-Out Waters the reference is a Biblical one -- it is one possible translation of the name of the pool at Bethesda where Jesus is said to have healed a man. In the title poem of that book, the biblical nature of the reference comes into focus in a way it doesn't in the rest of the book. In MONEY MONEY MONEY |WATER WATER WATER, on the other hand, the economic and political relationship between money and water underlies a lot of what's addressed. Bottom line? I love real fog. I love real rain. I love real water. From the handful of times I've been scuba diving, I can tell you I feel a much better sense of equilibrium underwater than above -- I love it under there, from where we all come. I feel really at home underwater -- the deeper the better. It's freeing and quiet.
I feel like your poems are often cartographies of a liminal space. In one poem, you write, "neither nor nor." In another, you say, "I am neither here nor elsewhere." Do you think it's important to have poetry be written in the cracks between the notes, as some jazz players might say?
Absolutely. In writing the two books previous to MONEY MONEY MONEY |WATER WATER WATER, I had a deep desire to go as far into uncharted waters as I could without losing communication with the mainland. In this most recent book, that reach is most apparent in some of the "foursies," and the biggest reach may be between the right and left hand pages (the "foursies" and other poems). This reach is "the cracks between notes."
How do you feel like this book continues or does away with growing seeds you've planted in other books?
I think that this book, more than my others, is founded on a spiritual confrontation with the world that's based on an intellectually framed worldview. To say it another way, this book, more than those previous, engages a part of myself that trained in economics and has thought some about politics and the environment. Another way to get at this would be to say that in this book there's a parallel between personal and cultural narrative that's not so apparent in the earlier books. And when I think about it further -- thank you for asking -- I think each of my books moves further out into the world. I don't have them with me, in front of me, but that seems right.