Thursday, January 01, 2009
Marguerite Bouvard: "MY ASHRAM IS MY STUDY"
Marguerite Bouvard is a soft-spoken, contemplative woman, but don’t be fooled. She is a poet, writer and scholar who is committed to questioning women’s role in society, how we approach illness and death, and political injustices at home and abroad. She has published 15 books that cover everything from feminism to aging, and the role of prayer in hard times.
Bouvard is presently a resident scholar at the Women’s Studies Center at Brandeis University. She has written a book: “Healing: A Life With Chronic Illness” about her experience living with “ interstitial cystitis” among other illnesses. Her latest poetry collection is; “The Unpredictability of Light.” I talked with Bouvard on my Somerville Community Access TV program “Poet to Poet: Writer to Writer.”
Doug Holder: Can you talk about the Women’s Studies Research Center at Brandeis University, and your role?
Marguerite Bouvard: I have been doing research for a lot of books and periodically I give presentations. I go into classrooms, and I am part of a study group called “World Cultures.” There are all kinds of study groups, artists, poets, and scholars from around the world at the Center. We meet in groups and share our research. And it really centers on women’s experiences.
DH: Politics and Poetry can be a lethal mix. Often political poetry becomes mere polemic, not art. Is it impossible to write good political poetry?
MB: Not at all. I was born in Eastern Europe. I read widely the Eastern European poets. Much of their political poetry was wonderful.
DH: What American political poets do you read?
MB: I don’t like American political poetry-- it is polemical. The Eastern European poets have a sense of humor. They know how to take on the “system” in a very humane way.
When dissent is stifled, and I think it is being stifled in our own country, poetry is a point where you can be free with your thoughts. In fact, I just wrote a chapter for a book that is coming out: “Post 911,” My chapter is on poetry dissent.
DH: You have lived with chronic illness for a while now. Has your writing helped you cope, is it healing, a balm? Has the illness been a muse?
MB: It hasn’t been a muse. My writing is a raft—a rickety raft on a huge ocean. It’s what keeps me going. Sometimes I can work one or two hours a day. I can do more in an hour than most people can do in a day. I’ve learned to focus intensely. Once you become ill you become part of suffering humanity. I identify with people in China who are hungry, the victims of the school collapses, etc… It is a blood wedding. You marry a dangerous situation and you accept it, you embrace it.
DH; You talk about the importance of spacing in your poems. Do you have any formal meter in your work?
MB: I don’t.
DH: Can you describe your writing?
MB: My nonfiction comes out in gushes from one side of my brain, and my poetry just finds me. I’m very imagistic. It is sparked by something I see or hear. In my new poetry collection: “ The Unpredictability of Light”, one of the poems deals with a teenager who committed suicide. It really touched me because she was the daughter of one of my friend’s colleagues. I tried to get into her mind and discover why she did it. It came to me all of a sudden. I thought I understood what happened and that’s what sparked the poem.
DH: You have said that men are praised for venturing into multiple fields, and women are criticized. Why? Any examples?
Mb: When I first got my PhD I was one of the few women who were doing this in the field. In the 60’s women were portrayed as too emotional. This was really a male oriented society and it still is in many ways.
I can contrast this. My husband is French and when we were first married and went back to Paris I found his friends’ wives were physicists, lawyers and doctors. I couldn’t have got into law school or medical school at the time.
Women are not allowed to age, we must always be young. We are not given much social space. We are not supposed to be multidisciplinary. It was ok for Wallace Stevens to be an insurance executive and a poet, or William Carlos Williams to be a doctor and a poet—but for a woman, well, she is not supposed to do that.
DH: You studied religion extensively. There is so much strife attached to organized religion. Do you think religion can bring healing?
MB: I would like to bring a distinction between religion and spirituality. They are very different. I grew up as a Catholic. I left the church. I consider myself a very spiritual person, but I don’t like to be in any organization that’s telling me what to think and what to do. No thanks. So my ashram is my study. I meditate every day. I worry about organized religion because people are killing each other over it.
DH: You talk to the dying what do you say?
MB: I listen. There is no set conversation. People don’t know how to converse with the ill and the dying. You tell them how sorry you are for what they are going through. You ask them how bad is the pain, and speak to their condition. Our society does not want to give them space.
DH: When a dying person tells you that he is frightened of death and what happens after, what do you say?
MB: I had all kinds of experiences while meditating and also in dreams. I feel there is another world behind here, and the dying will find peace. What’s frightening is not the other world but the passage.
DH: Do you have a conception of what the afterlife is?
MB: Well, that’s very personal. I have had intimations of it while meditating. But I do not want to get into the specifics because that’s when we get into organized religion.
DH: Do you fear death?
MB: No. When people are very ill it is a great relief to be away from pain. Life and death go together. Death is all around us. In nature it is cyclical. You see animals dying, you see flowers die. If society was healthier we would see people die. We would accompany the dying, (not avoid them) and they would pave the way for us. When my mother was dying, I held her hand, and we spoke and that was very important.
I arrived here on a river
of thorns, harsh mother
who taught me
how to invent mornings, how to
clear paths in the thickets
of my head.
I threaded my way among
travelers pulling their carry-ons
and speaking on cell phones, their faces
shuttered, their steps erased
by the crush of other steps.
I skirted a woman struggling
with her cane. Mine
Now in this green kingdom
I listen to the grass telling
its stories to the rain as if it too
had just arrived and was busy
unrolling its parchment
of roots and wings.
--- Marguerite Bouvard ( Poetrybay 2002)