Monday, June 21, 2010

Poet Marilyn Jurich: A poet interested in all things bizarre and unremunerative.


Poet Marilyn Jurich: A poet interested in all things bizarre and unremunerative.

By Doug Holder

Marilyn Jurich is a poet after my own heart. She is interested in the bizarre, and she doesn't make much money. Jurich, a winner of the Ibbetson Street Press Poetry Award, and a professor at Suffolk University in Boston, has written about lusty wenches, and rogues in literature, as well as other characters of this ilk. In 2009 she released a collection of poems "Defying the Eyechart" ( Mayapple Press) that deals with her near brush with total blindness, among other topics. In spite of her condition Jurich continued to teach and live her life under severe duress. Marilyn is a scholar/poet and has written about children's literature, the Jewish experience, Science Fiction, to name just a few subjects. I talked with her on my Somerville Community Access TV show " Poet to Poet: Writer to Writer."

Doug Holder: You had an harrowing experience with the eye condition Macular Degeneration,that was the theme of your poetry collection "Defying The Eye Chart." How has your experience with blindness affected your poetic vision?

Marilyn Jurich: First, the poetry collection DEFYING THE EYE CHART is not really about my own visual disability / "challenge" as people might say more euphemistically or favorably. Only the first three poems in the book discover the condition, and that "discovery" is slant (as Emily Dickinson might say). I dislike confessional poems -- unless they are wild like Plath's or recognize something outside of the eternal self and that pain and misery so associated. Thus, in "Resisting Blindness" I look at sightless scorpions, Cyclops who only had a single eye, at how a landscape painting looks to one visually compromised. I end this poem with this stanza:
Ghosts created by imperfect eyes
lift us into others' memory
connecting who we are.

There are several other poems on eyesight -- one concerned with madonnas and children in paintings, for in most the Virgin Mary and Christ child do not look into one another's eyes. There is a poem about my mother's death and the funeral director who wanted me to give her eyes "away," another poem called "Oedipus Visits the Ophthalmologist." And, of course, having a certain affliction makes you more aware of many circumstances that you might never have considered.

You ask how my poems, my poetic vision was affected by my loss of sight (now regained in one eye as a result of cataract surgery). Well, of course looking at eyes, creating imagery related to eyes and to vision was a fairly direct response. Other responses (at least consciously -- may be more unconscious ones) numerous: I actually saw things with limited vision I would not have seen before --totally ironic and rather wonderful; I developed an ear (my hearing always keen, this not a result of vision loss) for voices -- dramatic monologues; I am a failed musician and transferred a musical sense to the poems; I felt a keen sympathy for handicapped people, a need to be angry and strong for them; the fantasy of sight (especially when I was hemorrhaging) and the fantastic encounters with those I consulted, both conventional doctors and atypical healer types, gave me a new perspective on the world -- total insanity and vast incompetence. Of course, I was also angry -- that gave me a strong voice and a courage I never had, INCLUDING the courage to write poems.

DH: How did you manage to teach with this disability?

MJ: I managed to teach classes with little sight and with no ability to focus or to see faces. (Nor could I make out the letters on the front of trains and frequently arrived at the wrong destination.) Well, when I look back at this "adventure," I don't know how I did it. I think I must have been crazy. I also feel very smug about this. Not one student knew that I couldn't really see. I distinguished students by gesture, by curve of body, by voice (though lots of students do prefer to remain silent). I graded papers by an accumulated 1000 watts. I read slowly and painfully, frequently adjusting the angle of chair, lamp, my own posture. Hardest, and still hard, are walking down stairs. I edged along each stair, surreptiously feeling for a decline, frequently counted the number of stairs in the buildings I frequented. Often I felt that I was ignoring someone in the hall or on the street who may have been smiling or nodding a "hello." Social contacts were very difficult. Some still are, as the right side is often too blurry for me to make out the face I should know.

DH: How do you feel about the academic world and book biz and how it promotes, interferes with creating literature, art, and honest expression?

MJ: Well, if I were the out-going, well-adjusted, uninhibited, at-ease, "hail female, well-met," I might think differently. Since I not the person just described -- nor was I ever even with "normal eyes -- I cannot self-promote, make contacts, network, market, push. While I often like to read some of my poems -- like to dramatize -- I am frequently uncertain of my own delivery. I am also over-nervous. It all depends on the group, of course. At the sessions at the International Association of the Fantastic in the Arts (a member for umpteen years), I am relaxed. All the others are as zany as I am -- we share the same interests and we trust one another. They are interesting in forming meaningful, well-expressed poems and in sharing ideas and criticism. We know we are not "getting ahead," filing up credits, appealing for distinction, awards, position. Also, we are all basically "poor" -- won't make anything on what we do. What was absolutely appalling to me was the absence of ANY response to my collection of poems. It did receive an honorable mention from the New England Poetry Club; it did receive a very few nice comments from e-journals. That's it. No one else commented -- no accolades desired here, just a "Oh, I really could feel . . ." or "Why did you use-----in that poem?" or "You know, I think you should have ended that poem at. . . ." Actually, I wrote to several critics and urged them to HATE the book. Absence and indifference are apparently worse for children than cruel parents or parents who are argumentive with one another. I want a community of writers / poets who are not solipsistic, narcissistic,contemplating their next cocktail party in between contemplating their superlative navels.

DH: In 2005 you got a faculty development grant to study English chapbooks of the 18th century. Can you tell us a bit about your study and the history of the "chapbook."

MJ: True to my tendency of being interested in all things bizarre and unremunerative, I am infatuated by chapbooks (which, by the way, exist all over the world and are kept in archives). My answer will have to be abbreviated here. Chapbooks have a very long history; these are unbound books are a variety of subjects both factual and fictional, prose and poety. They were carried in packs on the backs of chapmen. (Chap comes from ceop, middle-English for "cheap.") Costing several pence, they were affordable by the lower classes who could also understand the plain-spoken words and the subject matter. Of course, since literacy was limited, many had to be recited by several in the village who had the skill of reading. In fact, it is widely thought that the very existence of chapbooks led to literacy. Also, many of the stories told of small men who "made good"; in this sense, the chapbook encouraged a spirit of advancement, praised effort and ambition over class privilege and aristocracy.

The books are often humorous, satirical, sexy; chapbooks also preserved all the old fairytales and myths -- are considered the first form of children's literature. They also reprinted versions of Defoe and Swift, works of Tom Paine, as well as take-offs on Shakespeare. While conventionally, such materials are printed as 8 page sheets, there are chapbooks that exceed 100 pages (as The Life of Mahamet ). Especially interesting for me are the rogue tales, the depiction of other cultures through some of the travel adventures, the strong images of women who are capable and speak their MINDS.

I have collected what I consider the best of these materials (though frustrated by the many more that I know must exist); I need to write a book, but what will happen to the POEM??? If anyone is interested in doing such investigatory work in this field, let me know. And there is also the 17th century English chapbook and the American chapbooks of the 19th century!

DH: I know you have a new collection planned. What are we in store for?

MJ: I'm a little superstitious here and that mums me; but I am also uncertain about what I am doing. I have several long poems I may want to include. I'd really like to write a verse drama for the book. I also have children's poems and some more to write. I used to write a lot of funny poems and want to gain or regain this facility. Also, there is the "personal life" and how this can / will fit in. All this in the stage of unknowing -- and sometimes thinking about writing a poem in a world that is unworlding or at least stumbling in that direction seems pointless and conceited. I need someone to tell me "It's okay."

Reading the Eye Chart

by Marilyn Jurich


Trick the gullible eye --
Lines stick out their tongues, diagonals curve.
Vipers hiss from Druid stones under a white sky.
Advancing shadows dance or die,
trick the gullible eye --
embracing fitful ghosts, longing to tie
circle-line to sense before they swerve,
trick the gullible eye.
Lines stick out their tongues, diagonals curve.

This is the alphabet of ferns
singing between the passages of wind.
Dream language of the lover who yearns
for echoing syllable as he gently turns.
This is the alphabet of ferns.
Whoever learns to see one code, design… listen and rescind.
This is the alphabet of ferns
singing between the passages of wind.

Unraveling my soul by what I see
you count how close I come to hold desire,
gauge my level of normality
according to whether I call the shrinking letter E,
unraveling my soul by what I see,
convinced the eye uncovers mystery --
omphalos to everything we can aspire.
Unraveling my soul by what I see,
you count how close I come to hold desire

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