Sunday, June 07, 2009
Wendy Mnookin: A poet who writes from ‘the dailiness of life.’
David Wojhan writes of local poet Wendy Mnookin’s new collection of poetry “The Moon Makes It’s Own Plea,” “Wendy Mnookin’s poems arise both from the small joys and the larger reckonings of domestic existence—from what Jarrell called ‘the dailiness of life.’ ” From learning a new language, to the wisdom of a domestic cat, Mnookin brings the reader closer to larger ontological truths.
Mnookin is the author of three previous collections. She is a graduate of Radcliffe College and has an MFA from Vermont College. She has won a book award from the New England Poetry Club and a poetry fellowship from the National Endowment of the Arts. I spoke with her on my Somerville Community Access TV show “Poet to Poet: Writer to Writer.”
Doug Holder: Seth Mnookin, your son, a well-known writer, wrote in an article for Salon.Com, that he bonded with you through writing and reading. This is a story I hear quite often. Why is this a good way to bond?
Wendy Mnookin: Well, certainly with us it was really good way because he was a reader like me. We were the two readers in the family. He was the kind of person who on any given day would pile up some books and read. For us it was a way to share an interest we both had. In terms of a way of bonding, reading is what I love to do. So if someone else likes to do that then there is an immediate bond. So there you are…sharing a bond. But is amazing the amount of people that don’t read. What’s really fun for me is to talk to people who are reading, reading and reading.
DH: Your son was a Harvard graduate and also a heroin addict. Drug abuse, mental illness is all too common a story among writers. Your take?
WM: He thought he was becoming part of a “creative community” when he first started taking drugs. And now that he is not using, sober and writing, I think he is aghast at the idea he had that the use of drugs would make him into a writer. He bought into the Hunter Thompson thing. He was a journalist like Thompson. But Seth is the first to say he got his best writing done clean and sober.
DH: “The Moon Makes its Plea” is a new direction for you. How does it differ from your other collections?
WM: The challenge of the previous books was to take a single experience that transformed my perception of the world, like my father’s early death, or my son’s drug addiction. These books cohered around some kind of story. Both my method of writing and my method of putting together the book were different. In my new book I wasn’t trying to tell some story. I was trying to see where the poems would lead. So it developed differently.
DH: In your title poem you write: " Nothing gets done except existence.” This sounds very Beckett-like. His two tramps in perpetual stasis. Yet later in the poem you write" Let me stay!" So you don't feel the futility?
MW: So far I feel it would be hard to get to the point where I would let go of things. "Nothing gets done except existence", to me is not a statement of futility. It is a good thing. The dailiness of things. That is what gets done. But I guess it could have two meanings with one tone of voice or another.
DH: Many poets I know obsess about what is factually accurate in a poem. Do you feel getting the facts straight is important in a poem?
WM: I really thought about this a lot because I was writing that book about my son's drug abuse. I was struggling with if it was ok to be factual, or not to be strictly factual. Where I come out on this is I don't have a lot of loyalty to facts. I don't want to make things up for no reason. What you are after is the truth of experience and the facts don't always convey the truth of the experience.
DH: I've been told to be a writer you must be able to insult your mother if your work requires it.
WM: When I wrote the book about my father's early death, I tried not to be hurtful. My mother read the entire book and said, " I knew you were angry at me." I had tried so hard not to hurt her. Family members read things the way they already see them. I did not feel that the book was angry towards my mother, but if she is looking for it she will find it.
DH: In your poem: " And So I decide to Study Hebrew After All" you use the conceit of Hebrew words as kibitzing Jewish uncles. Does language bring out strong familial feelings?
WM: I was learning Hebrew at the time. And one of the ways I could learn letters was assigning them personalities. I don't know if I feel that way about English because it is so much more routine for me. But I do feel certain tugs to certain expressions and ways of speaking. But in learning Hebrew I had to give personalities to the letters or risking losing them.
DH: In the poem: " The River Scrapes Against Night" you write:" I'm not fooled/ by steady breathing. / We are this small/This brief." Could you have written this in your 20's?
WM: Sometimes I think how I came to writing so late. Everyone got this stuff done in their 20's. I think, yeah, but who knows what I might have written? You might want to have taken it all back! In your 20's you don't feel small and brief. I certainly didn't. I felt the center of the universe. I had my life ahead, even though intellectually I knew I was going to die eventually. It is different now when you have most of your life behind you.
MAYBE I MADE THIS UP
My mother said, Yes, you can
wheel your baby sister
that far, and back.
The baby blew fish kisses
with her small round mouth
while I pumped high on the swings,
and higher. Hello! I waved
when I hung by my knees
on the jungle gym.
Yippee-yeah! I called
when I herded the cattle
over the seesaw, around the sandbox,
past the distant fountain.
At home my mother asked
Where’s your sister?
and the world shifted
there were clouds,
they fled. If birds,
I can only tell you
the truth as I know it.
Last week an ice cream store
opened in my town,
and I wrote to my kids
about another opening,
years ago, when they were allowed
to walk four blocks
for free ice cream,
and each of them wrote back,
one at a time,
no, I was twelve,
I was seven,
it was summer, or vanilla,
I raced with my mother
to the park and found
my sister, batting
her toys in the carriage.
Just before my mother
grabbed her, my sister
looked at me, she
saw who I was, she
didn’t look away.
--- Wendy Mnookin
-----Doug Holder/Ibbetson Update
For more information about Wendy Mnookin go to: http://wendymnookin.com