Interview with Maureen Thorson

How a Freedom-in-Structure Applies to Oranges and Other Symbols, Arcs, and Poems: a Conversation with Maureen Thorson

by Dan Gutstein

Conducted from February to April, 2013

Maureen-Thorson-Author-Photo-150dpi-1Maureen Thorson is a poet, publisher, and book designer living in Washington, D.C. In addition to Applies to Oranges, her first full-length collection, she is the author of a number of chapbooks, including Twenty Questions for the Drunken Sailor (dusie 2009), Mayport (PSA 2006), which won the Poetry Society of America’s National Chapbook Fellowship, and Novelty Act (Ugly Duckling Presse 2004). Her poems can be found in many anthologies and journals, including Exquisite Corpse, Hotel Amerika, LIT, The Hat, and 6×6. She is the founder of Big Game Books, a poetry press which publishes short runs of chapbooks and “tinysides” (small poetry pamphlets).  She is also the founder of NaPoWriMo, an annual project in which poets attempt to write a poem a day for the month of April.


Dan Gutstein: One of many things that I admire about you is that you’re busy. You organize a virtual space for hundreds of poets in NaPoWriMo, you co-host the (live) experimental reading series In Your Ear, and serve as poetry editor for Open Letters Monthly, not to mention that you hold a demanding job outside the academic sphere. I will come out and say it: You are a Renaissance Writer! Can you say a few words about the rigors and rewards of keeping up such a schedule? How do these activities enrich your dealings with other writers?

Maureen Thorson: O rigors and rewards! I’m always up to my ears in rigors and I think the main reason is that I’m very easily bored. I can take about half an hour of relaxation before I come up with a kooky time-filling project, like making twelve pints of marmalade (Note: this was an actual, recent project). Having a lot of plates spinning in the air can feel exhausting, but also very satisfying. cannedstuff-1I won’t say exhilarating—I come from Midwestern stock and distrust exhilaration—but I like a constant sense of purpose. As for enriching my dealings with other writers, I’m not a natural social butterfly: I wrote poetry “for the drawer” for years, and when I moved to NYC at 23 and actually had the guts to email Shanna Compton, who I didn’t know at all except I read her blog (remember those?) and asked her where someone might meet a poet or two, and then got an answer, and then actually went and met people, it felt to me like I was a home-schooled nerd asking the captain of the football team to prom. But it’s all become easier with time, and the various poetry-world projects I’ve taken on makes it easier still: working with someone on a review, providing the space and idea for a project, or hosting a poet at a reading all provide opportunities not just for friendship, but writing. I think a lot of poetry starts at the bar or the reading or when you are just shooting-the-you-know-what. Ideas and opinions that arise from those interactions end up in my poems, my reading, and my thinking.


DG: I agree with you that Community (with a capital C) is important, not just in carousing with pals, but for the germination of ideas. If only the government would recommend Five Units of Community per day, then we could subtract Five Units of Aimless Swatting. But I digress. I appreciate the story about Shanna, and how she helped you locate a cohort. Who were some of the first writers (living or expired) to matter? Are there a few poems to which you frequently return? What is it that some of these writers were getting toward—in language, in structure, thematically—that may have spurred or accompanied an evolutionary process in your own poetry?

MT: It took me a while to really get excited about particular poets, as opposed to poetry in general. My parents owned several anthologies of poetry, and my interest in them was rewarded with further anthologies. I was probably 15 before I realized that any individual poet had ever written, say, more than four poems. Perhaps as a result of this, I still lean much more toward favorite poems than toward favorite poets. I very much admire the incantatory in poetry—Diane Wakoski’s “Blue Monday” is one of the first poems that really discombobulated me. I also return often to Robert Lowell’s “For the Union Dead.” I memorized a number of poems from my copy of “Immortal Poems of the English Language,” so that I return to those, too—but in my head. I should pull out the book someday and see how the words of poems have migrated about over the years that I’ve been reciting them to myself.

I read Don Marquis’ work voraciously—he was an early twentieth century humorist who started writing poetry as an efficient way to fill a twenty-inch newspaper column. And—ahem—many of his poems are written in the voice of a free-verse poet reincarnated as a cockroach. It was exactly the sort of thing a solitary, bookish teenager with a chip on her shoulder would adore. I haven’t entirely grown out of being that teenager, but I’ve added to my repertoire of favorite poets: Theodore Roethke’s plants and rhymes and odd music; Marianne Moore’s persnickety perfections; and Charles Olson’s attempt to put an entire world and way of life in a book. And of course, my friends and peers—I have learned a lot from reading Shanna’s poems, as well as those of erica kaufman, Kate Greenstreet, and Jennifer L. Knox.


DG: Recently, we attended a national gathering of writers where we both produced chapbooks as part of a larger collective organized by a mutual friend. While you weren’t channeling a cockroach, your chapbook took on a form that reinvents—and revitalizes the concept of—the chapbook. Please describe your process in creating this collection, and please add a few notes about other projects that may fall outside the scope of writing, i.e., ’putting up’ pickled products or making a slew of jams. How do some of your other interests duplicate the rhythms of writing?

MT: My chapbook consists of loose index cards in a box. There are two reasons for this. First, I’ve always been fascinated with the idea of a book that you could read in any order. I’ve yet to make it work in an ideal sense—narrative or logical progression is as much a part of my writing as anything—but I wanted to at least pay homage to the idea. The chapbook itself comes out of a longer project based on Aristotle’s treatise, “On Dreams.” I’m not sure if that project is a book-length poem, a lyric essay, or a hybrid-y thing between, but so far it involves dreams, truth, women, mirrors, illness, insanity, vision, error, and poetry. Who knows what else will emerge by the time I’m done? dreams-1My writing process for this particular project also contributed to the index card approach for the chapbook. David Markson described his novel Vanishing Point as being comprised of various statements transcribed from index cards that the author kept in a shoebox. Emulating this, I’m writing my ideas down in a little notebook, and then transferring them, one at a time, to an ever-growing bunch of cards. Eventually, I hope, I’ll be able to shuffle all of them into a book.


Chapbooks Published by Big Game Books

My other interests—cooking, sewing, bookbinding, design—replicate the rhythms of my writing in that they are generally 100% or zero. I’m either making jam out of 95 pounds of figs, or not at all. I am either crocheting 10 afghans or none. I’ve actually put a lot more time and attention into ameliorating the extremes of my writing than I have into other hobbies/obsessions. Writing seems much more important to my identity than baking pies, and for a while, I was very worried that if I continued with the all-or-nothing approach to writing, I would somehow dry up. I’ve wanted to make it okay to write sloooowly. I’m doing better with the ‘feeling okay’ part, but I still go through bursts of writing, punctuated by long fallow periods. And while my writing is in hibernation, I can always make far more pickles than is desirable for non-commercial purposes.


DG: It makes a lot of sense that a writer would turn to other processes when in down time from writing—so, crocheting afghans, for example, would seem to offer you a kind of ‘manual consistency’ if that makes sense. I’d like to turn to your book of poems, Applies to Oranges, a collection that makes short-form piecesA2O cover out of what I’d call a vital correspondence (both witty and portentous) with upheaval and renewal alike. Did you arrive at these poems in a few bursts of writerly energy or were they collected from several sessions over a longer stretch of time? Also, can you describe the organizational principles behind the poems and the collection?

MT: Applies to Oranges came together over several years. I started writing with the intention of exploring how we put narratives together—and how meaning can inhere in symbols as the narrative develops, and how symbols can contribute to the narrative’s arc. Basically, I wanted to write a story “from scratch” by picking some object to be its focus, and without any particular idea as to how the narrative would develop, to let the object itself inform the story, and to add more objects as the story developed, and to let those objects both drive the narrative and become informed by the narrative. I had all kinds of other formal constraints for the project—I was very influenced (and still am) by the OuLiPo. I would have one word that appeared in every poem. The idea was that each poem would be the same shape (sonnet-like, short and squat) and they would tell a story—maybe the same story, from different angles—and I would write 100 of them. As with the recent “On ‘On Dreams’” project, I was also enamored of the idea of writing so that all the poems could be shuffled in order, and make just as much sense.


Chapbooks from Big Game Books

Anyway, I started with the idea of “oranges.” Then the island, the spiders, the satellites, the whole scene of the story came tumbling out. The story is hardly a story—it’s more like what goes on after a story. In this case, what goes on after heartbreak. They say that after heartbreak, one is “picking up the pieces,” and that’s what Applies to Oranges is, both formally and substantively—an arranging of pieces into a whole. My first “cut” of the story was, sadly, a bit bloodless. I had all these notions for process and form, but the story lacked emotional punch. I put the project aside. Then—gee whiz, whoda guessed?—I went through a breakup of my own, and returned to the poems as a means of working through my own grief, disbelief, anger, etc.

I’ve repeated this kind of process (sans breakups, thankfully!) in most of my work. I start by coming up with an  elaborate system of constraints, then start writing, and then bits of the constraints come flying off as the project grows. Take the oranges, for example. When I’d finished with them, there was still an orange in (nearly) every poem, and they were all sonnet-shaped, but there aren’t a 100 of them, and I fell short of my ideal, that the poems could be placed in any order—the appeal of an emotional arc was too great!


DG: A while ago, I discovered a recording of the jazz saxophonist Gerry Mulligan, who was appearing on a TV show (“Jazz Casual”) in 1962. I guess the deal was—the guest musician would play a bit (with band present), and also participate in an interview. As one point in the interview, Mulligan says something to the effect of, “You can’t have freedom without structure.” This, in reference to what he might’ve termed “undisciplined blowing sessions” by other horn players, which may have lacked shape in his estimation, but which also may be an unfair assessment on his part. How do you feel about the idea of writing within a set of “rules” versus writing without guideposts at all? Do you think it fits Applies to Oranges or any other projects?

MT: Oh yes indeedy. I find it almost impossible to write without a list of constraints. Pure inspiration strikes me rarely, but I can write like a fiend if I can turn the act of writing into a sort of intellectual game. If I just try to write, say, a “love poem,” I end up with a bunch of doodles on my note pad. But if the idea is to write a love poem in strict iambic pentameter that references a historical event of the 19th century in every fourth line? Sign me up! I’ll have twenty pages to you by Tuesday.

That said, the formal conceits that I start with often drop away as a project gets going. They become unnecessary, and more hindrance than help. In Applies to Oranges, even one of the constraints that I was most attached to—that of having the word orange or oranges in every poem—isn’t total. There’s actually one poem in the book without any mention of orange or oranges at all.

In the middle of each project, I’ll often have a sort of crisis where it becomes apparent that certain ideas of structure or form that I started out with just aren’t working, and I have to sort of mourn them while charging ahead with what does work.


DG: Unless I’m wrong, the orange-less poem is (first line) “In a role reversal, the dramatis personae” (=56=) but I was hunting through the book for Variations in the Code. Speaking of which, what should fans of Maureen Thorson be looking for in in the coming months? What’s on the horizon for you, with writing and other creative endeavors?

MT: Yes, that is the SADDEST POEM. It lacks even a trace of an orange.

As for what’s coming up, I am shopping around two manuscripts—one of lurrrrve poems, and one of angry, rhyming feminist poems. I spent 2012 being very assiduous about submitting to journals; now I am trying to be very assiduous about submitting manuscripts. Hopefully, one or both of these will get picked up, and then there will be new! exciting! books! In the meantime, I am happily working away on the “On Dreams’” project.

Springtime has me very peppy and in a planning mood. I have recently been prevailed upon by my long-suffering husband NOT to pickle quarts of things like asparagus and minted onion rings. I have to concede that I have no idea what we would do with them once they were pickled, except foist them on our hapless friends and acquaintances. DAN, DO YOU NEED QUARTS OF PICKLED ONIONS? I’m just saying, that could be arranged. As a substitute for pickling large quantities of vegetables, I will continue with small batches of jam, and actual eat-as-you-go foods. Yesterday I made four wee leek quiches, for example. Two were dispatched summarily, and I fear the others are not long for this world.


DG: I’ve often thought that “lurrrrve” was a kind of pitch—like a curveball thrown with love. You know, when someone says that ‘love threw me a curve.’ YES TO THE PICKLE OFFER btw. And thanks for talking with me. I thought we could conclude this piece with an excerpt from Applies to Oranges, a representative poem that expresses the emotional torsion in the collection by way of startling connections (“satellites singing the binary hymns / of their ancestors”) and the ruggedness (“all the anger I can sing”) of journeying through renewal.

A sultry chorus overturns the river:
satellites singing the binary hymns
of their ancestors, slow murderous
chirrups, ditties without expiration dates,
like war drums, or hunting horns—
all catchy in their way. I resolve to exploit
these mnemonic boxes, their tapes
and reels and electric sparks, to transfer you
from one tune to another, spinning
like an orange into the cosmos,
lonely locus for twisting in the wind,
for recalling all the anger I can sing.


Three poems from Applies to Oranges can be found on Coconut.

Visit Maureen Thorson’s web site or the Ugly Duckling Presse page for Applies to Oranges (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2011). View a trailer for Applies to Oranges.

Drop in at NaPoWriMo web site for more information on that project. And visit Open Letters Monthly where Maureen Thorson is Poetry Editor.

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