A Conversation with Cate Marvin
BY KEITH KOPKA
Cate Marvin is a recipient of the Kate Tufts Discovery Award, the Whiting Award and a Guggenheim Fellowship, and the author of four books of poems, the most recent of which is Event Horizon (Copper Canyon Press, 2022). She is a Professor of English at the College of Staten Island, City University of New York. She also is the proud mother of a trans nonbinary kid, with whom she resides in Scarborough, Maine.
Keith Kopka: Cate, I’m so excited to chat with you about your stunning new collection, Event Horizon. In science, an event horizon is a theoretical boundary around a black hole, but more colloquially we think of it as a kind of a point of no return. The poems in this collection seem very interested in the idea of boundaries, especially the artificial ones that we create for ourselves and for society—things like gender, patriarchal structures, and domesticity. However, the titular poem also seems to point toward an origin story for a speaker who finds agency and empowerment on the other side of the boundary line. How do you see boundaries working throughout the poems in the collection?
Cate Marvin: It’s really exciting to talk with you about these poems, Keith, especially given how much admiration I have for Count Four. I should not be surprised, given the way your poems weigh in, that your question would be, how do I put it, so much question. So, here goes.
Space scares the hell out of me as does the entire concept of an event horizon. It is very hard for me to get my mind around what it is and yet it feels like something I’ve moved through. First, I am drawn to the theory because it scares me to death. It scares me the way death itself scares me. Ultimately, it’s an experience that cannot be withstood. And in thinking about the title poem, I realize that I was concerned with extremity. By which I mean I have been afraid, very afraid as a person, that I might disappear. Of course, like many fears nowadays, it’s not entirely unreasonable. People get canceled, people get killed on camera, people die of various causes, and, on a less dire note perhaps, people change and people lie. Objects in this book carry (and ferry) lots of metaphorical weight: discarded mattresses, ditch lilies, flatware, weeds. There are lots of ghosts in this book, and a lot of ghosting. In recent years I’ve felt myself positioned just outside certain experiences, as if I’ve died and come back to life. Maybe I’m a ghost by now too! My speaker surely is. This book is about coming out on the other side of experiences that would have at one time seemed unthinkable.
KK: Sorry to start off with such an intense question! But what you are saying is interesting. It seems like this is an interesting way to explore psychic distance through what I would agree is a truly terrifying idea.
CM: I also think of these poems as being positioned at the point in one’s life where everything has already happened. Like looking back at life as if it’s a pile of papers blowing away in a parking lot that you can’t retrieve.
For a long time, I was attracted to the term “event horizon,” just as a pair of words really. I love both words and they make weird music together. There’s something more than a little horrifying about their combined sense. And I had difficulty grasping the concept of the term with regard to space, a sense of vertigo in cognition that I expect mirrors the experience (or situation) the term is meant to convey. To me it means to be at a juncture, an in-between, a point of no going back, the point at which you see your past, present, and future self, and you know you will never be the same. I could say this is unique to my experience, but it is surely not. It’s the sense of vertigo we’ve all been hurtling through this past decade.
KK: This reconciliation of self is a huge task in the small space that a poem provides, and you do it so well throughout the collection. Do you see your poems getting bigger in, for lack of a better word, “scope”?
CM: My poems used to be interested in moments, and I think they are now (in this book, in any case) more interested in the space between moments. I used to think of poems as monuments to experiences and emotions, but now that I’m older I’m more friendly with narrative. I used to save mementos and tchotchkes and write lengthy journal entries about my feelings. I’m not so sentimental anymore. If the limb is gangrenous, chop it off. Now I throw stuff out. I toss the old letters. I don’t care! But there’s the ghost limb feeling that crawls inside the bed to sleep next to you sometimes.
KK: There is violence simmering underneath many of these poems. It creates tension in pieces that often concern themselves with the realm of the quotidian (I know this is kind of a catch-all, dirty word in poetry. I apologize). Recurring images of knives and broken bones continue to appear alongside instances of gardening and sunbathing or a walk around a lake. In other words, the world of these poems seems dangerous but also common. Can you speak a little about how you see this tension working throughout the collection?
CM: For me, the common is dangerous. Even assuming anything is common is dangerous. Yet, as a white-bodied woman, my sense of danger is limited to my particular experience. The poem “Sunbathers” addresses the queasy comfort the speaker partakes in lying on a beach by a lake. I’ve always been astonished by the vulnerability of sleep. It’s incredible to me, as an act, that people will lie down on beaches and sleep in public. But then I realize how complicated it all is: can I lie on a beach and doze off because I live in a white body and know that kind of safety?
I personally took refuge in sleep for several years: both “The Teacher Says Poems About Dreams Are Boring” and “The Maine Motel” explore sleep as escape, or sleep as a means of burrowing down into one’s experience, to the extent that one conjures the past enough that it parallels the present.
In the act of sleep (which is the experience of poetry) I can live in 1994 and 2022 simultaneously. But it’s also like a drug. But if you really want to know, I’ve spent a lot of my life not feeling safe. The poem, “In the Future, a Robot Will Take Your Job” is about being violently pushed out of one’s bed. (This happened to me.) I can’t help but get personal here. All poetry is, to me, deeply personal. One of the major battlegrounds in my life is the fight I have with and against cishet white men as a cishet white woman. These conflicts take place out in the open, and they are commonplace (see “Breaking A Face”). I find myself drawn into these kinds of fights in my lived life and in poems, because I want to be seen; however, fighting like this, on a practical level, I have learned, is unproductive. And dangerous.
I always want to get into the thick of it and fight. Prove my own reality. But the fact is the person I’m fighting is fighting for an altogether different reason. They are NEVER going to see me. I also think (and worry) that while the violence you describe in my poems is intended to work against patriarchy, it does in fact stem from the patriarchy. I worry that it’s men’s anger and energy (all steeped in white supremacy) that is trying to claw its way out of the grave that is my body.
KK: “The grave that is my body” is an incredible image to describe the struggle that you’re undertaking in these poems. I’ve always been fascinated by the ways in which images recur in poetry collections. You have quite a few in this book. Do you notice these images beginning to recur as you are writing? And do you ever write toward that recurrence? Or is it more apparent to you later when you’re organizing the collection?
CM: Yes, yes, and yes. I discovered after years of writing poems that there are central images that reappear throughout dozens of poems. In this book it was faces. It’s always like that. I think of these images as pinning down central themes. Faces. How weird are they? I never realized how much they troubled me until writing this book.
KK: There are also ghosts throughout this collection, both figuratively and literally. They become a vessel for an interrogation of the self, nostalgia, family, and memory. However, the one thing that they never become is a cliché, which is something that an archetypal image like a ghost can often become in the context of a poem. Can you speak to how you were able to use the archetypal without entering the realm of the overdone or expected?
CM: I don’t believe in ghosts, but I want to be able to. I sure do wish they would come through my walls right now. I long to speak to a friend who died about 20 years ago. He’s already missed out on so much history! I always long for our conversation. Much of this book reaches out to friends I have lost. Apparently, I am REALLY bad at losing people, which makes me wonder right now how we can better appreciate one another right now, in real time.
I was sitting in a poetry reading when this person I’d lost a very long time ago came to me as a feeling. I wasn’t expecting him to show up at all. By that point, I’d given up on hoping he’d ever appear. But at this reading, I felt him right next to me. It was quite strange. It is this sensation my poem “Rendezvous With Ghost” attempts to describe.
What do poems do? They help us to feel real. They operate as mouthpieces into worlds we cannot reach without the aid of dreams. We don’t want to wake up from dreams because we know we will lose the scraps of what they meant. A poem is a means by which we can say what happened. Through the poem I can say: I’m always going to know that moment, that person. The poem and that person, they are always part of my DNA.
The problem with people dying is that you can’t go back to speak with them and affirm you remember things right. The relationship dies on the vine. There is a phone on the other end of the line waiting to be picked up, but no one is there any longer. That breaks my heart.
But there are also people (lovers and friends) who are still very much alive, yet who have been lost. (Think of them out there, living without you.) This is an experience I find highly upsetting. Just as my speaker notes in “Friendship Ghazal”: “You can’t hold onto everybody like a bag of grapes / won’t promise every grape is attached to the wine.” I personally want to hold onto everyone I’ve loved. But that is not possible. Several poems in this book are concerned about that particular horror too.
But as for your question, which I have managed to avoid, the way I try to avoid cliché is through channeling (choosing) concrete images and employing a lower (more innate, visceral, hot and true, and intimate) diction. You avoid cliché by telling the harder truth. It’s the words you choose that will do that work for you. The best advice I have is to tap into your own inner collection of symbolic objects and images and get them on the page. I always have to remind myself, after all these years, to tap into the FIVE SENSES! Really, there’s no other way.
KK: Throughout the collection we find ourselves located in larger spaces like New Mexico, the year 1994, or Maine, but also in smaller, more intimate locations like the speaker’s car, a neighborhood, or a garden. Although liminal space is often the grounding force in these poems, the pieces also resist the kind of banal ways in which place can often become the easy stand-in for emotional argument. How do you think of “place” as a poetic tool? Is it simply a way to locate the reader and move on, or is there more to it than that?
CM: I don’t think I can overstate how crucial, how significant, how vital setting is to the creation and enactment of a poem. Setting is also incredibly challenging in its execution. But it’s also a solution in so many ways: how do you get your poem to create an immediate atmosphere for your reader? Setting. It also provides metaphorical bedrock for a poem. And you know what’s so great about it for the writer? It’s immediately on hand. You don’t need to make anything up. Your job is simply to describe it. (If only it were that simple.)
I think back to how, a few years ago, I was commissioned to write a poem for the New York City Ballet. They gave me free tickets to witness one of their performances and write about it. This sounded like a great opportunity because I needed merely to write something that described the place and action. I also considered this assignment quite the honor. Yet it turned into a bit of a nightmare, as depicted by “My Mother Hangs Up.” It turns out that I have a serious imposter syndrome when it comes to the ballet. This poem took several agonizing months to write. I hated how very personal it got. I should note that the reason I hated this is because it was very difficult for me to create effective line breaks given the poem’s plainspoken diction.
The New York City Ballet folks weren’t too happy with “My Mother Hangs Up” because it ultimately wasn’t about ballet. They’d insisted that they’d be happy with whatever I wrote. But then they were like, “Actually . . .” So I wrote another poem for them that more explicitly expressed the joy I felt at viewing this specific performance, after which it is titled: “I Am In The House and I Have the Key.” And that poem is about the joy of making art.
Oddly, that poem, while it is about a ballet I’d watched and appreciated, deals with very common household objects, namely cutlery. This is an example of setting doing its thing.
KK: You’re working in couplets through a lot of the collection. This is a formal choice that I often connect to the elegy. Can you speak to your choice to keep returning to this lineation? Do you feel like there is an elegiac force moving through these poems? Perhaps, not in a traditional sense, but in the exploration of past relationships or different versions of the self that have been left behind.
CM: When I was what Kenneth Koch called a “baby poet,” I thought everything was about craft. And I still cleave to that ideal. Because craft is about intention. One of my favorite mentors, Adam Zagajewksi, died a year ago last May. He did the work of raising me as a young poet.
I was lucky enough to study with him at the University of Houston’s M.F.A. program in the mid-90s. He would ask you if your poem absolutely needed to exist. He seemed an extravagant person to us young poets because he was foreign and eccentric, hilarious and loving, and an antithesis to all that was American. But he loved us. I realize now how deeply practical he was in his advice. Does your poem need to exist? He wasn’t a terribly formal poet.
The poems in Event Horizon, especially those in couplets, are more conversational than those in my previous books. The language is a bit looser. The couplets, which are employed throughout, are not tight or jagged. I was aware of using a longer line than I typically employ, and that I was letting myself be more talky and less dense and decorative with my language, especially as regards the series of ghazals. Maybe it’s a pandemic thing, allowing oneself to get more casual. A poetic form of wearing yoga pants around all the time.
KK: And the elegy?
CM: I rather think this is a book entirely composed of elegies. We’ve lost a lot this past decade: so many great poets. We’ve lost a way of being. My father died four years ago. I also got divorced. There’s been a lot of death and a lot of change. But, I always think of Tarot. Death does not simply mean demise, it means transition and change. I think of my kid sitting across from a tarot reader at Venice Beach last spring—this wild young fortune teller reading their future. Her eyes lidded with glittery makeup, the openness of that space, the beach beyond us, the fortune being spun. Nowadays everything is elegy.
KK: I always think the elegiac form can be uplifting in the ways that it employs honesty and vulnerability, which is something that the poems in this book are definitely practicing.
CM: There’s a lot more openness to this book, I think. I was not in such a great headspace during those years, and I slept a lot. I wrote a lot of poems about sleeping. Escaping the world through sleep. I wrote poems that I needed to write, and I rarely, if ever, sent them out. So, I was writing them to write them; in other words, I was writing them for myself, which is another way of saying I was writing them only because they were one of the few ways to communicate the shit I was dealing with in my life. It felt good, too, to be writing them for that reason. Then one day when I was taking a nap I saw all the poems in my head and realized they were about to come together as a book.
KK: Motherhood is also a strong theme in this collection. You explore, from a mother’s perspective, the transition of your child from identifying as female to identifying as nonbinary. You also explore external forces such as the speaker’s own mother and social conditioning that have helped form the speaker’s own identity. In some ways, motherhood becomes a foundational identity of the speaker over the course of the book. How do you see the theme of motherhood working in the collection? How do you see this theme working in relationship to identity?
CM: Motherhood is just such a mindfuck in the very best way. You’ve got your future and your past. You realize on becoming a mother, among many things, that you can actually remove yourself from the endless chore of self-absorption and discover joy in the growth and experience of another person—that their needs and differences pull you away from yourself in a way that ultimately makes your lived life far more pleasurable in its meaning. It’s elemental. But it’s also weird to be so powerful a figure within your own life, to be a person who holds up so much for others, and then see your role diminished and/or blatantly disregarded in the larger culture. So, yeah, that concern, along with the violence that is directed at women all the time, is central to my writing.
Event Horizon has lots of poems about being a daughter and having a daughter. When I think about it, exploring my experience of sexism in poetry had become familiar. I recognize now that I was stuck in that all too familiar and common cishet white woman myopia. Because sexism does not, when you come right down to it, compare (in intensity) to the experience of transphobia. Or to the experience of racism. As an English professor, I had never taught literature by trans people, and here I was raising a trans kid. How did this realization affect my writing? What changes me must change my writing.
One thing my child has taught me, which I think Adam Zagajewski might have appreciated, is that gender is meaningless. Or that what is meaningful about it is mean, definitely hard-wired, and a trap. Gender binaries are enormously hurtful. Even less than a year ago I had no awareness of how completely shaped I have been by gender as a construct.
Because there are so many poems about the daughter I had in Event Horizon, I had to transition my kid in the final poem and represent them properly as nonbinary.
Ultimately, what amazes me is how malleable language is. The pronoun changes prove it. At one time I would have whined about they/them being “incorrect grammar.” I am so done with that past self. Once again, the change, the recognition, is facilitated by language. And it was truly poetry that got me through and showed me the way on the deepest level.
When I was a young poet, I thought mostly of craft. I was obsessed with honing my skills. I worked on my line all the time. I rebroke and reworked my poems constantly. I wanted to learn how to create certain effects. It felt necessary for my survival that I learn how to make myself felt. If you had asked me at the time why this was important to me, I am not sure I could have answered you with candor or real honesty. I knew that poetry was the key to my lock. I knew that I had a preoccupation with the relationship between language and beauty.
What’s great about having that kind of obsession early on in life is that it serves you later in life when you need a poem to do some work for you on a very personal level.