I first encountered Jane Mead’s intense, hypnotic poems when I was twenty two and read her extraordinary first collection, The Lord and the General Din of the World. It was the book that I physically carried with me for years, as a guidebook for how I could approach writing poetry and, more deeply, how to live. I’ve read each of her successive books with astonishment and gratitude. She sounds like no one else. When you look up from one of her poems the world feels both stranger and clearer. There is an openness and flexibility within them, a lyric responsiveness, which allows them to be reread each time with new intelligence and pleasure. I’m grateful to talk with Jane about her newest collection, World of Made and Unmade, and about poetic process, privacy, intimacy, and childhood.
Jane, I’ve read your beautiful, overwhelming fifth collection World of Made and Unmade several times now, each time almost with held breath. It feels so holy and true and quiet and intimate, clear-eyed on all fronts, and brave. And let me say, foremost, how sorry I am for the loss of your mother. And so recently, too. I hope that you’re doing okay. The book could not be more beautiful.
To begin, I wanted to ask about your decision to have the book as one single poem, if you could talk a bit about your composition process. I love how suspended the poem feels in its various parts, how symphonically it moves, how its fragments come together like petals on a river.
And a quality that I’ve always loved in your poems, across all of your books, is the sense of intimacy, almost like the speaker’s thoughts are being overheard. And this intimacy extends even in the placement of stanzas at different places on the pages, so my eyes scan the paper like a face. Could you talk about how you’ve developed this frequency in your work?
Well, it speaks to the adventures and misadventures of creative composition to say that this book began as a villanelle(!). When my mother was first in the hospital, I tried to contain the emotions of her being sick by working on a villanelle about the experience, talking back to Dylan Thomas’ famous villanelle about his father. It was in all ways a bad idea artistically, and not at all intimate, but as I say, it served an emotional purpose.
Once it was determined, however, that she was actually dying, my mother came home with me and I was completely overwhelmed by the caretaking and the complexity of emotions. I also felt ashamed even to be writing in my journal about her; it seemed that recording her sickness was cold and vulgar, that if ever I should be a participant and not an observer, this was the time. But I did write down some of the things she said anyway, of course, and some notes out of the surreal swirl of my thinking – some of which did contribute to this book. Without those notes I’m not sure I could have written about what was for her a long process of dying. It was a transition, not an act. I didn’t understand the extent of that possibility before.
Several months after she died I began writing some of the lyric fragments that became sections of this book. First it was a few pages, but it just kept growing; I couldn’t stop it. The fact that it feels so intimate to you may have something to do with its origin in journal writing. I don’t know. If my poems seem intimate in general it may well be because I don’t usually begin them as poems. They start as a non-verbal musical invitation or a scribbled thought. Sometimes (rarely) I go back to my journals and find almost whole poems that were written as notes to myself. More often I shape and revise forever, but that initial informality of tone stays with me.
I can talk about this more later maybe, but this seems like a good place to turn to your new book which has a remarkable intimacy of a very different kind. Unlike some ekphrastic poems, the poems in Swallows and Waves, based on the Edo paintings and prints, move beyond the description of the image with grace and power, and the results are both surprising and seemingly inevitable. It seems a rare gift to me to be able to layer realities, to go from an image based in another culture and time to an abstraction or universality, or to work your way into a representation of a moment until you thoroughly possess it. You manage to both respect and go beyond the moment of the images, and to do so effortlessly. Sometimes ekphrastic poems feel too limited by the image to which they refer, but these poems are all sparked into a greater place. It is energetic and beautiful. So, I’m wondering what it felt like to begin with a fixed image and move into its resonances, and why you think the images of this time and place spoke to you as a group so strongly. And I’m curious about how you began and when you knew there’d be a whole group of these.
Compared to your more narrative poems, these are blocky, tending toward a sonnet shape, and I am also wondering if that is an impulse you think you will be following beyond this set of poems, or one which feels limited to this subject matter.
I love the expression ‘musical invitation’. I’ve never thought of those first few trance-like, impulsive rhythms that way. What first captivated me about your work, which has sustained me for almost twenty years, is that sense of privacy/inclusion, but also that you’re a true visionary, such a pure lyric poet, and the way the visions move through you, and are shaped by you, feels so resonant and true.
It’s remarkable that this book began as a villanelle, something so neat and contained, and then the “process,” as you put so truthfully, sort of shattered that, or fragmented it. Now that I know this, looking through the poem again, I see anew the repetition of lyric moments. I’m thinking particularly of the “blue thread” binding you to your mother, even as the narrative moves forward. Perhaps I’m projecting here, but the poem does seem to have that musical backbone, the casting out and drawing in, of the villanelle. And where Dylan’s is incantatory and demanding/pleading, yours feels complex, lacy, shot through with different moods, even dark humor, which I love. And I love knowing how this poem developed, in fragments, breathing in a notebook, allowed to rest and wander, and then coming together when called for. That feels very human. I’m recalling now the first line of your first book, one that has always stayed with me, ‘Jesus, I am cruelly lonely . . .’ Your new book, all together, evokes for me a glimmering spiderweb or a swaying rope-bridge.
I think it’s interesting that both of our books are intimate, seemingly private, and maybe this is something we can return to. I want a poem or book to be a permeable membrane, where reader and writer are slipping through to the other side, as much as possible.
Thank you for reading Swallows and Waves so closely. Your words on it mean so much to me. This book was such a surprise, like a surprise baby. The curiosity began when I was living in Paris several years ago on the Amy Lowell Poetry Travelling Scholarship. I was visiting Cezanne’s studio in Aix-en-Provence, and I read on one of the placards outside it that he had been influenced by Japanese Edo-period artists. I hadn’t known that he and so many French artists of that period had been.
When I came home to Pennsylvania, I needed a break from the poems that I’d been writing in France, but felt a huge energy to write. So I began researching these Japanese artists, looking at their work in huge art books from the library, and was hooked. There was an immediate familiarity and fascination, and the depictions of birds, insects, people in their daily lives, felt open, welcoming. It felt like a huge relief to be in their company, to focus and see what spoke, to listen to them and to myself.
Something that I have to try and do – that I’ve heard actors say – is to relax as much as possible when writing, to stay open to all possibilities and not ‘close up’ when I feel panicked. So my process was looking without judgment, note-taking, listening for a line, and then trying to relax through a first draft.
I could feel myself growing as an artist and a person, feeling like a vessel or a wind for the poems – wherever they were coming from – to ride in or through. I became addicted to that feeling of being emptied but also of tapping into something universal, which were sometimes painful thoughts, realizations, and also the struggle with each poem not to repeat myself too much in terms of approach. That got very challenging toward the end.
When I had about forty of these, I wondered if they could be a book unto themselves. At this time, I was still writing poems for my ‘France’ manuscript and kept returning to these Japanese artworks. It felt right that the Japanese poems come first, be published first.
As far as my impulse toward a sonnet-like structure, I think this particular shape, for the moment, feels very specific to these Japanese artworks, but the experience of doing this, of returning to the form again and again, almost like performing a play, has opened something in me that wasn’t there before. I feel more like a vessel for the poem and less its creator, and that feeling (I hope) continues through my new work.
Something that I adore about your work, that has made me feel close to you through your books, is the recurrence of loved people and animals. Ramon and Sylvia have appeared in earlier books, as has their dog Luna and your own dogs. They appear without explanation, and yet who they are is very clear.
One of the most starling moments in the book is this:
Somewhere in Mexico a father
pays half the ransom and gets
half his daughter’s body back
And then so tenderly later:
When this is all over
Ramon and Sylvia say
We will take you to visit our home
That’s so beautiful, so exquisitely gentle.
The way you wove together Mexico and New Mexico was so well done, so delicately and beautifully braided. Can you talk a little about including these passages, this aspect, into this book?
Yes, beyond being a book about family and death this is just as importantly a book of a time and place. It is inhabited deeply by the family with whom I run this vineyard. Ramon and Silvia Rodriguez and two of their three children live on the property with me; the lives of our two families have been woven together for almost thirty years now and we are very close. So, when my mother was dying, I leaned on them a lot, and they held me up.
It is also true that with my mother’s farming in New Mexico, and my own in California, the recent Mexican immigrant is a big part of the picture, and this is a complex situation about which I have pretty strong feelings. These are people who endure incredible hardship and peril, and who sometimes get treated disgracefully here. This is a political problem that touches many of us indirectly because we are all parts of various and interlocking economies, but it is very close to home in my case. Bottom line, I feel that treating people fairly is part of the cost of doing business.
But, back to Ramon and Silvia, I know it sounds somewhat suspect to say, but we really do think of one another as family. And someday, when Mexico is less dangerous again, they will take me to Michoacán, from where they come. But, as you know, the stories of brutality coming out of Mexico and South America are as bad as almost anywhere in this poor beat-up world; a lot of the Mexican families from Napa, who used to go home at Christmas, don’t anymore, or not with their kids anyway.
Your first book, The Lord and the General Din of the World, was selected for Sarabande’s poetry prize by another California poet, the late Philip Levine. Could we talk a bit about him as a presence in your poetry life, and what it was like to have been selected by him, if you stayed in touch after?
He was my first workshop teacher in NYU’s MFA program, which was exhilarating and a bit scary early in the first few weeks, as he had a reputation for being tough . . . quite tough. I found myself really tapping into what might seem to be masculine elements: Appalachia, coal, trucks, the blues, maybe because he felt like the right audience for them, but also, I’m sure, because I wanted to impress him. He was lovely and generous to me and my work. His death was so sad for me because Phil really loved life, everyday life, and he got such kick out of people. Another teacher of mine, Galway Kinnell died around the same time, and his passing felt somehow easier, maybe because he seemed so curious about death, the shadowland between, and was kind of mystical in his approach to life.
Phil was so wonderful, and so kind and supportive to so many young writers. I’ve heard that he could be tough in the classroom, but I think a lot of his students came to appreciate the honesty at the root of that. I was never his student though. I came to know him and his wife Franny after he chose my book for that first Sarabande contest. We had a mutual friend and I stayed with them in New York and Fresno a few times. They were so so kind to me – I was painfully shy when I first got to know them, and they just took me for who I was, and of course his selecting my first book was an enormous confirmation in itself – it was very nurturing. I’d be happy if I had the energy to give even half that much to younger writers.
But I also had wonderful teachers. Tess Gallagher, who was my teacher at Syracuse, had a very different manifestation of that tough and nurturing combination that Phil had. Like him, the toughness came out of being no-nonsense, so refreshing really. And she was very nurturing to anyone she knew was serious and worked hard. She had her workshops in her house, and I can still remember the special kind of tea she served. She was a great role model, and is now a dear friend. I am still learning from her, just by watching her approach to life. I’ve been fortunate to have a good handful of teachers who were important to me. As you know, it makes all the difference, and in my own teaching, which is somewhat limited now by my other work, I always hope to pass on something akin to what I received from my own teachers. At best, I think of teaching the writing of poetry as a huge privilege – it’s an invitation to mentor in the deepest way.
The poems in your new book show a great capacity for empathy. Over and over, you take a piece of art that depicts a moment and you enter that moment in different but always extraordinary ways. Do you think that the struggles of your childhood contributed to your being an artist? (I do realize that this question is well-worn, but I am interested in what you think.)
I’ve actually never been asked that before, and it’s interesting because I’m fascinated by how people are shaped by their childhoods, the idea of it almost as a separate physical place, the day-dreaminess of it, the out-of-control-ness of it, all of the fear, sometimes a mortal fear, that goes . . . where? Even my second book is called The Children, I’m so obsessed by these questions. Jane, sometimes I feel so bewildered, so un-grown-up, and I imagine all of the “real’ adults walking around with their expertise, whether in being parents or being doctors, etc. But then I think somehow that not-knowingness can serve the poems, and then that’s what I’m here for: to serve, to stay open, innocent, and be completely filled by a subject, by that hidden music, by language. In short, yes, totally. I think my two main feelings as a kid were fear and wonder. I was agog at everything. Aside from my family, I know I was shaped most by the woods (hiding, pretending, learning to make metaphors), the library (reading, discovering a love of language, the larger world), and church (myth-making, the syntax of prayer, spiritual concepts). Now I’m incredibly curious how your childhood shaped you as a poet.
I’ll begin with a story: when I was in ninth grade one of my teachers asked my older sister if I was able to speak. That’s how quiet I was. I think I was a shy child by temperament, but this quality was reinforced by a stepfather I lived with from the age of twelve onwards and by his really creative and vicious violence of the kind that silences people. I also suffered from deep clinical depression, and these two situations combined to make speech seem either, in the first place, treacherous or, in the second, wholly irrelevant to some more primal struggle with being.
I’d written poems from a very young age, super rhythmic, like a lot of young people’s poems, but I also had an attachment to the pre-verbal elements of poetry that was more nuanced and musical, and maybe that was the thread I followed out of silence. Yes, I think that’s right. So poetry, really, was a lifeline back to speech. In one way or another, this may be true of a lot of writers. A lot of kids and adults naturally turn to writing poems when they are in troubled times – it seems like the language of poetry lends itself to the kind of expression that needs to take place under that kind of pressure. Also, of course, many writers have difficult childhoods, so it all fits together in different ways.
And, like you, the natural world was a wonder to me. It was a place where one could go and somehow feel a sense of belonging and peace. And that’s what it provides for me still. Maybe you could talk a little bit about what sustains and nourishes you in your adult life?
Jane, the circumstances of your childhood feel so resonant, and painful. The word ‘creative’ before ‘violence’ truly sends a chill throughout me, and I understand how all of these factors kept reinforcing each other. I feel the presence of this cruelty in your intensely beautiful second collection, House of Poured-Out Waters. And your description of speech being treacherous is incredibly powerful, and true. And pressure, yes, as a shaping force. It’s amazing how poems, in all of their strange flights, their mysteries, offer themselves up so perfectly to receive.
It’s difficult for me to even form these straightforward sentences. Something that I love so much about your poems is how interior they feel to me, how beautifully you interpret and shape these lyric moments, these visions. I was also incredibly shy, often spending my lunch periods at school hiding in the library. And like you, I couldn’t speak about what was happening in my home life, there was no way to acknowledge it, and I forget (on purpose) what it felt like to be so pained every day, to be living in chaos, and to have my self-esteem just wrecked. Poetry for me felt like going to another, private world, and to shape it, and to honestly connect to something that felt bigger and more soulful and filled with possibilities for learning about myself and the world than what existed in my childhood home. What sustains and nourishes me in my adult life is feeling the capacity to love and the action of love. I try to be gentle with myself, though it’s still very hard. What I’ve been grateful for with poetry is that it has opened me up to the world in a way that I never thought possible, to connect with other people, to be captivated by language, and to experience the world differently, more strangely, more tenderly.
I wonder if we could talk about the idea of numbing or relaxing as it relates to writing. My habit, lately, has been watching hair-brushing videos on the Internet, before bed and before writing, needing to feel safe and soothed before going into what sometimes feels like a dark and scary well – of being vulnerable to the poem and all the ways it can be frightening. Trying to relax beforehand is huge for me, while still keeping those pinpricks of excitement alive somewhere. And then after, feeling like I’m “waking up” and being a little afraid and having to do the most mundane things like dishes or looking at celebrity gossip online or anything to feel like a person again. Poetry, for me, feels very much like going into a trance, and I wonder how this is for you.
Well, for starters, every single morning since I can remember – since age four or five I’d guess – I have practiced something I can only call self-hypnotism. When I was a child I’d enter into it several times a day, and it was a source of great shame. In my adult life, I think of it as necessary for a kind of psychic organization and it keeps a boundary around a central, quiet space. I don’t know if there would be poems without that. We could give it a respectable name, like meditating, whatever – but skipping a day is not an option. While this is not something I do in preparation for writing, it is essential to the writing. No less essential is the need for extended periods of silence. My work life is often very fractured and increasingly my writing depends on getting away from home for an extended time, and sinking into silence. I’ve been pretty lucky to be able to clear times like this once a year or so, and I don’t have children, so that helps.
Jane, I’m completely intrigued by your self-hypnotism, and that you’ve essentially done this for all of your life. I’m called to your lines now, which conclude House of Poured-Out Waters:
For a long time now
I have known
I was going someplace impossible—
I have known.
Olive, willow, memory.—
This is for the hypnotic jasmine
that grows outside my window.
I think about those lines all of the time. And I’ve sensed in your work this vast, open, created space within yourself, where all of the elements of your poems come together so magnetically, with such eloquence and strangeness and delicacy. It’s interesting how we both escaped into our own minds as children to cope, and how those routes might be the same access roads for our poetry. And of course the relief of being alone. Through your example, over all of your books, you’ve helped make me feel more comfortable with being alone, in silence, to conjure all that needs conjuring. You’ve made me less afraid, in poetry and in life. It’s been such a profound pleasure and honor to talk to you like this.
Photographs © Patrick Mullen; Joanna Eldredge Morrissey (from left to right)