Brave: an interview with Nancy Mitchell, Poet Laureate of Salisbury, Maryland
Updated: Jan 23, 2020
If someone were to write a book about Nancy Mitchell the title would have to be Brave because that is what she is, in her life and in her writing. Mitchell has seen some things and has faced them head-on, eyes wide open. This interview focuses on the poems contained in her three books. She writes about relationships, addiction, loss, and always in the end, hope and love. There is no posturing here. In her poems, Nancy Mitchell opens her heart to us. And aren’t we the fortunate ones?
Broadkill Review: Let’s start with your first book, The Near Surround (Four Way Books, 2002). Isn’t the title a term used in science? Why did you choose it for your book?
Nancy Mitchell: I had another working title for the book and the day before I sent it to Four Way Books to begin the editing process, I saw the term in an article about quantum physics for the unified field around us that we feel but can't see. I thought it was a better title as the book is about palpable felt presences and longing.
BKR: The first poem, “What About”, ends with the line ‘the silence of cold spoons”. Spoons are utensils that feed us; though made of cold metal they are a symbol of nurturing. Why did you choose this strong image to end a poem that doesn’t hold a lot of nurturing?
NM: I'd been meditating for about six months and started to experience the objective perspective of "the observer" which opened a short gap of detachment—the "what about?"—between what I observed or experienced and my personal emotional response. The lines frame this suspension. I must have opened a drawer to get a spoon and for a moment seen them nesting quietly and wondered about the possibility of their sentience, and a life outside of human utility.
BKR: There is something unpleasantly slippery in the poem “The First Return.” Because the subject of the poem sees their face “among the masks/your mother made” is there a fear that the whispering and spit will be passed on?
NM: You know, I've never thought about the poem in quite that way, but it makes a lot of sense that the daughter fears she'll inherit her mother's controlling spirit implicit in her art; the spit and whisper animate the clay— "eyes" to see and "kind ears" to listen to dreams. Yet, to the speaker the masks are spies for the sly mother rather than "guardians.” And because the speaker sees herself among the masks there is the fear the mother has the power to turn her even against herself.
BKR: In the eponymous poem “The Near Surround” who are you talking about? It feels like the shape at the edge of the field that “suggests itself/but not enough to begin” is the woman who is the subject of the book, the woman who is becoming.
Interview continues here.
NM: This is fascinating question, to which the answer, after long consideration, is yes. The poem was written during a long and excruciating estrangement from a beloved whose body, in my longing, I projected onto every shape in my field of vision. As time went on the imaginative energy required to sustain this waned. What became more worthy of consideration is "that which gathers between us"—the formation of the self "the you" as she is better able to separate the "me" from what was never the other, the "what is not you."
BKR: There is a path through this book, a path from enduring what is dealt to a bursting forth of self. You start the book with a quote from Rainer Maria Rilke: “What seems so far from you is most your own.” The last section of The Near Surround circles back to that quote. That section feels hopeful and something the book is running toward. Was that your intent?
NM: Absolutely. In the poem "Today I conjure your spirit" the speaker has moved beyond grief to the point no longer needing mementos of the relationship so close to her:
from the nightstand
stuffed in the dark
no longer among the first
things I will save
And, in the event a memory of the lover should arise, it will be fleeting:
it will be like that shadow
against these white blinds:
a bird, a leaf
or some other bird.
Yes, the last section is hopeful; in the last poem of the book, she is running into the light— "that sun"— of a new life.
BKR: The poem “Sister” in your second book, Grief Hut (Cervená Barva Press, 2009), is an accurate description of sister rivalry and you set the tone of the poem instantly with the first word, cocklebur, but then immediately follow, in the same line, with the words “my heart”. The reader knows with that first line (Cocklebur, my heart) that there is strife buffered with love. The poem ends with hope. There is such balance in this poem: the words of the first line, then the travel through strife to hope. Is that what you were seeking when you wrote this poem, balance in relationships?
NM: Yes; I was most definitely seeking to find balance in this relationship— in the poem, if not with my sister, —which has always been plagued with rivalry for the love, attention and approval of our parents. I also think we both struggled to find an identity beyond "the girls" as we were often referred to collectively, and sometimes that meant pushing each other away. I'm the elder sister, and enjoyed a few, but very few, privileges of that status, but in this poem I speak through the voice of the younger sister in an effort to imagine that perspective. The fact that we haven't been able to really reconcile is heartache for me; in the poem I wistfully recall the times we could agree were often nourishing to both of us.
BKR: Grief Hut is a difficult book to read at times, especially section two which deals with addiction. How difficult was it to make the decision to write about your son's addiction? And then to write about it head on?
NM: While my son was at the Hazelden Recovery center in Minnesota, I attended the family program for a week. I learned so much about this genetic disease and how family shame perpetuates it. I promised myself I'd do all I could to share what I'd learned in hopes of bringing this disease out of the shadow of shame where it flourishes. I didn't have a concrete idea of how I'd do this, but as poets will, I began writing poems to sort out/explore my tangled feelings. I took Shakespeare's advice to "Give sorrow words" to articulate my feelings of guilt—what did I do to cause this—and anger—how could you do this to me—and sorrow for the loss of my boy, for his suffering, my suffering due to our ignorance of the disease. I had to accept that he did not belong to me, that none of this was about me, and that his disease had nothing to do with the mother I was, and that his decision, even if it was to continue down this road, was his to make. I had to face I had been selfish in projecting a future for him that he did not want to or could not fulfill, and face that I could not fix him. Lots of revelations to process. I never planned on publishing the poems—in fact very few were published before the book came out— but when I had written almost half of what became the manuscript for Grief Hut I sent it to my son, and he urged me to continue. He told me to "Tell it all, tell it true; maybe we can help somebody." And we have, we really have.
BKR: “Years of It”, the second poem in section two of Grief Hut, is a perfect poem. The sounds and rhythm, the line breaks, all help you control how the poem is read. And the choice of couplets feels organic, as if the poem demanded this is how it should be written. Some poems do that, instruct the author in their creation. Was that the case with “Years of It”?
NM: Yes, absolutely. Each couplet slowly builds to the mother's realization that all along the evidence "track marks" of the true cause of what the son claims is "just the flu" has been "lying in the blue of your tattoos."
BKR: “Wasn’t You” is a terrifying poem written with directness and without flinching. How is it that a mother can face such an unvarnished view of their child’s addiction and then find that place that allows them to write about it?
NM: In an effort to fully impress upon me the ruthlessness of full blown addiction in which a human being loses all connection to humanity, any moral compass or free agency, and to answer my bewildered, incessant question of how could you? my son was brutally honest with me. He shared examples—not necessarily of his own behavior— of how far an addict will go to avoid withdrawal symptoms and, more crushing, the shame of facing the wreckage the addiction has made of a life, of lives. In the insomnia of the early days of sobriety, those memories arise incessantly in "3-D, looping on an I-Max screen/of everything I'd ever do/to everyone including you/to keep on using…" I learned that shame, more than the physical pain of withdrawal, often drives an addict to use again to obliterate it. But I was a slow learner; in the poem I used the anaphoric "Wasn't You" as a mnemonic device to internalize this information and as a shield against the horror of as I learning it. My son was amazingly honest with himself and with me, but warned "don't ask if you can't take the truth." I guess the psychological place that allowed me to face it and write about it was that I really got that the monster addiction made of my son wasn't him, "wasn't you."
BKR: In the book’s title poem, “Grief Hut” women are assisting another woman give birth to her grief. Would you talk a little about this poem?
NM: In the weeks after my son checked in to Hazelden, I suffered extreme emotional exhaustion; I felt heavy, oddly physically encumbered, pregnant with grief if you will. I was talking about this sensation with my friend, the poet Malena Morling, and half joked about how great it would be if there were a refuge where midwives could help others "birth" their grief. The next day during a meditation session I saw the hut as it's described in the poem, and I wrote it in my notes from which the first poem and title of what later became the book. "Grief Hut" is both metaphor and literally the book itself, which houses the poems chronicling the stages of grief—this particular grief and others. The book opens with a descent "Nine Flights Down" and closes with an emergence into light and hope with "Holy."
BKR: In your most recent book, The Out of Body Shop (Plume Editions, 2018), you use forms that don’t appear in your first two books. For instance, “The Out of Body Shop” is a “fractured” poem, and poems such as “Work” and “The One I Called” take on the look of prose poems. It is almost like this book is a release after writing Grief Hut. Does it feel that way to you? You do refer to a cut umbilical cord in “The Out of Body Shop”.
NM: What a great point—thank you! Now that I think about it, yes, it was a point of departure. I was interested in experimenting with new forms, stretching myself, branching out into new territory outside of the more narrative Grief Hut.
BKR: What does the title, The Out of Body Shop, mean? What is it that you want us to know before we even enter the book?
NM: Like Grief Hut, The Out-of-Body Shop is a metaphor, which functions as a literal place. In this case it's a shop into which untethered psyches end up when their connective cord to the body—long frayed from successive shocks of childhood trauma, abuse, the loss of loved ones by death, addiction or abandonment, or to geography and time, and the distracting minutiae of life—finally snaps. In this shop, recovery or a retrofit is only possible if the splintered parts of the psyche can be recovered and reintegrated into the self— "…chances of a successful retrofit/to the body depend/on remembering—/most cases are too far/gone—the damage." Although I use the first person in many of the poems to collapse the distance between speaker and writer, these speakers are more often not I, but different personae—indicated by syntactical and dialectical idiosyncrasies— telling their story of how they landed in the out of body shop.
BKR: What are you thinking about in your poems since The Out-of-Body Shop?
NM: I'm writing a bit about the fifties during which I, and a lot of people, came of age during the cultural revolution of the sixties. I'm particularly interested in the culture of post World War II, and how the looming anxieties of that era—the atomic bomb, the cold war, polio, etc. shaped our language.
"Fallout" was published in a terrific new online journal The Shore started by the poet and Writing professor at Salisbury University John Nieves and some of his students. "Blame My Mother" and "Girl, Pre-Hendrix" was published in the recent issue of The American Journal of Poetry , edited by the poet Robert Nazarene.
Life’s Pictorial History of World War II, cans of beer that made Milwaukee famous sweat rings into cocktail tables. JFK's blood splatter black against Jackie's pink Chanel skirt—oh, that pillbox hat!—a Pollack painting in reverse. Friday's fish-sticks safely chafed, cafeteria workers wait for the air-raid siren to shut it's mouth, for the first and second graders to unfold knees, elbows, and crawl out from under desks and come to lunch—mushroom blooms looming the horizon forever to be paid forward—blasted, bombed, blown away.
Blame My Mother
if I could but the cocktail
hour was de rigueur
in the 50s—if you don't
believe me, go read
fist of fin and gills
I twisted in placental
gin. At five first tipsy
inch of whiskey Daddy
tumbled into my silver
dizzy, laughing, monkey-
bars, spinning and falling
from the stars—the beaded
spiral, my birthright, my own
DNA stairway to heaven.
Pearled neck, pink cashmere
sweater set, breasts in Hollywood
Vaserette, shirtwaist dress,
peonies matched to Pappagallo
flats. Indian(bleeding) madras
Bermuda shorts, nine hung-over
holes of golf with Daddy's law
buddy's boy Beau bound for Wake
Forest in the fall. Glamour Dos
and Don'ts, Grace Kelly's Breck
Shampoo ads, Mother's pilfered
slumber party Merle Norman face
masque. Boys in Banlon polos
tucked into khakis, hell-bound
in English Leather, imprint
of the brick wall they pushed
her up against assessed in the vanity's
three-way mirror. Tabu spritzed
silk pillow case. The Fleetwood's' Good
Night My Love, or, if she's lucky, Come
Softly on her solid-state transistor
The Broadkill Review wishes to thank Nancy Mitchell for her generosity and time. We are privileged to have had this conversation with her. Linda Blaskey conducted the interview.
Nancy Mitchell is the first Poet Laureate of Salisbury, Maryland. During her two-year tenure she will work with local schools and the public to enrich the City’s appreciation of poetry and the literary arts through readings, workshops, and City-sponsored events. She can be followed on Facebook at Poet Laureate of the City of Salisbury, Maryland.