On October 27 in New York City, First Things will host its fifth annual poetry reading, featuring poet Maryann Corbett. RSVP here to secure a seat.
Corbett holds a BA from William & Mary and a PhD from the University of Minnesota. Though trained as a linguist and a medievalist, she ended up rejecting academia for a family and a career in public service.
Corbett did not turn seriously to poetry until later in life, but then quickly made up for lost time. She has published four books and won many prestigious awards, including the Barnstone Translation Prize and the Richard Wilbur Award. The Richard Wilbur Award was particularly fitting, as Corbett’s attention to form and the signs of grace in everyday life often seems to echo Wilbur’s timeless work.
I recently sat down with Corbett to discuss poetry and the writing process. The resulting interview has been edited for length and clarity.
—A. M. Juster
A. M. Juster: Thank you for doing this interview! I have always thought that you and I have a lot in common. We are both late bloomers as poets. And we are both translators, medievalists, and public servants, although I am afraid the consensus is that you are much more charming than I am. Can you talk a little bit about how a delayed entry into the poetry world can actually be an advantage for a poet?
Maryann Corbett: Well, delay and silence may be necessary if one wants to keep one’s job. My work for the Revisor’s Office in the Minnesota Legislature had strict rules about nonpartisanship and had no civil service protections, so that was a big reason I stayed quiet for a long time; I had to avoid saying anything in public that might be even slightly controversial. If I’d had the good sense to write under a pseudonym, as you did, things might have been different.
But as it was, there were poems about the experience of working for the legislature that I didn’t publish for a long time. They will finally be included in my fifth book, which is called In Code and which should come out from Able Muse Press next year.
AMJ: Okay, besides staying employed, are there advantages to a late start in writing?
MC: Well, certainly. One of them is that in later life you know who you are, and you’re not likely to feel forced into a stylistic mold by a teacher or a program. So nobody ever ordered me not to rhyme, or not to write in form, and that was a blessing.
I think the biggest advantage, though, is that poets who wait have more life experience to draw on, as well as more reading. When I finally started writing, there was a sort of pressure cooker effect of those many years of silence. I titled my first book Breath Control—which is an allusion to singing, my other passion—as a nod to that feeling of restraint and release. Once I started writing, I wrote like mad for quite a while. After fifteen years, I may finally have caught up with the backlog, and the poems come at a calmer pace.
AMJ: When you were first writing for publication, who were the poets who inspired you?
MC: There are different kinds of inspiration. There’s the sort that comes from reading a poem, seeing how it works, and feeling a sort of electric charge, so that you say, “I want to do that!” I got that sort of charge early on from the work of Jacqueline Osherow, especially from her use of terza rima, and the way she lets rhyme lead her to meander around a subject, circling the point slowly. My poem “Maintenance Work” was born of that sort of inspiration.
The work of Marilyn Taylor, the former poet laureate of Wisconsin, got me started writing sonnet crowns like “University Avenue Sonnets.” I also fell in love with the work of Catherine Tufariello, whose gorgeous poems about early motherhood set me to mining memories from the years when I hadn’t been writing.
One other sort of inspiration is the kind that pokes and prods and tests your work to make it better. That’s the sort that came from the many poets at online poetry workshops like Eratosphere and The Gazebo. I’m still grateful to those poets, and I’m still in contact with many of them. I owe a special debt to the late Timothy Murphy, the North Dakota poet of hunting, farming, and faith, for his early encouragement. A. E. Stallings and Rhina P. Espaillat were also participants back then and were huge influences.
A third kind of inspiration is the example of friends “in real life,” not online, about persistence in the daily work of poetry. Anna George Meek, my fellow Twin Cities poet and fellow choral singer, helped me enormously during my first years of writing. She’d give me rides home from choir and I’d pepper her with all manner of embarrassingly basic questions about writing and submitting.
AMJ: Have your influences changed, now that you’ve been doing this for a while? Which poets do you look to today for inspiration?
MC: I’m excited by all sorts of new work being done by younger poets—if I name some, I’m sure to leave out someone important, but here goes: Joshua Mehigan, Amit Majmudar, Caitlyn Doyle, Austin Allen. But because I essentially lost touch with poetry and didn’t begin reading contemporary poets until I started writing, I’m still discovering the work of older poets, too, those who were stars of what’s called New Formalism—like Mark Jarman, Maxine Kumin, Marie Ponsot, Mary Jo Salter, Marilyn Hacker, lots more.
AMJ: Do you have a “white whale poem”—one that you have been trying to write for a long time but can’t get on the page?
MC: I think I have “white whale subjects”—obsessions I return to over and over. I’ve finished many poems about them but never feel I’ve exhausted them or gotten to the heart of my meaning.
One of them is parenting, especially parenting teenagers, as in the sonnet “Waiting Up.” This era is long past, but I still brood about it; I think many parents do.
Not home. Not home yet. Four A.M. Unknot me,
God whom I less than half believe my help.
Damp down the pounding underneath my scalp.
Unhook the gut-tight line of fear that's caught me
listening for cars, oh me of little faith.
They've seized their own lives, laughing, “Go to bed!”
And God, I hate her—hate the hag in my head
who mutters, praying through her gritted teeth,
make them come home, come home. God, shut her up.
Let me believe the thousand times they've come
home safe will make the door click one more time
and lock behind them. Free me from the trap
of thinking your ideas of safe and home
might not (my God!) be anything like mine.
AMJ: And what are the other “white whale subjects”?
MC: Some others are my parents’ declining years, their deaths, and my sister’s death from cancer. Those are hugely important elements in my first two books, Breath Control and Credo for the Checkout Line in Winter. And the one that never lets up is the fight between faith and doubt.
At this point I may, just possibly, have exhausted the subject of Minnesota winters. But they keep happening, so who knows?
AMJ: You were trained as a medievalist. How has that been important to your own poetry?
MC: The one problem with studying very old poetry and linguistics is that it doesn’t leave many credit hours for contemporary poetry! So my ears were almost entirely trained by poems in meter, and I did little real study of free verse. That accounts for my habit of setting out in some sort of meter whenever I start to write a poem—turning the meter on like a spigot and letting it run.
AMJ: And some of those meters are pretty distinctive features of your poetry, right?
MC: Yes, the other big influence of the oldest English poetry on my stuff is the four-stress alliterative line. I disagree with the critics who claim readers don’t know how to hear that meter. I like to use it not just in translation but in my own poems as well. (There’s one of those, “Spoonspell,” on the First Things website.)
My third book, Mid Evil—the Wilbur Award winner—is a sort of homage to the years I spent studying medieval literature, and it’s full of medieval forms and themes, sometimes in original poems and sometimes in translation. Even the oldest translated poems have concerns that are relevant now. For example, the Old English poem “Deor” has a lot to say to anyone who’s been displaced from a job.
AMJ: You’ve mentioned your fifth book, and your first three. Does your fourth book, Street View, have its own particular obsessions?
MC: Street View was my first book to go to press after I had retired from the Revisor’s Office, so it was the first book in which I felt free to include poems on “public” subjects. So along with the constant subjects I’ve mentioned—which are private problems, even though they’re private problems many people share—Street View includes poems that touch on things like disruptive construction projects, real estate greed, underemployment, homelessness, mental illness, and the problems faced by immigrant communities. The title tries to get at that: It’s a view from the street.
AMJ: After five books, what’s the most important thing you wish you had learned earlier about writing poetry?
MC: To be calm when the poems don’t come for weeks at a time. I’ve finally learned to relax about it. Often a spell of translation will get me going again.
Maryann Corbett is an American poet, medievalist, and linguist.
A. M. Juster is the poetry editor of First Things.