Interview with Mary-Sherman Willis

A Different Kind of Calculus: Mary-Sherman Willis Explores Motion and Distance Between Mother and Son in Graffiti Calculus 

By Marcene Gandolfo

Mary Sherman Willis -- originalMary-Sherman Willis’s book of poems, Caveboy, was published by Artist’s Proof Editions as a limited edition art book and an iBook for iPad in 2012. Graffiti Calculus, a book-length poem published in November 2013 by CW Books/WordTech, was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her poems and reviews have appeared in the New Republic, the Hudson Review, the Iowa Review, Shenandoah, The Southern Poetry Review, Poet Lore, The Cortland Review, among others. They have been featured in Ted Kooser’s “American Life in Poetry” and in several anthologies. She has received fellowships and residencies from the MacDowell Colony, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and the Sewanee Writer’s Conference, where she was a Tennessee Williams Scholar. She serves on the board of the Folger Library’s O.B. Hardison Poetry Series. With an MFA from the Warren Wilson Program for Writers, she teaches at George Washington University, and splits her time between Washington DC and Rappahannock Co, VA.

Marcene Gandolfo: Could you tell us about how Graffiti Calculus came about?

Mary-Sherman Willis: The poems kind of snuck up on me. Around 2007 I started some poems trying to make sense of my son’s graffiti tagging six years earlier when he was about 15 and becoming hard to find. By that time I had some evidence of events: I’d taken a sequence of photographs beginning in 2001 of his tags around our neighborhood in Washington DC. Even if I didn’t know where he was, the tags showed me where he’d been, and the photographs over time documented it. They led me into parts of the city I didn’t know. I felt as if I was hunting him, recording his tracks. I made a map to show his range of motion. To kind of fix him in time and space.

I had also taken notes about that hunt and even interviewed him about what he was doing. And then I realized I had a working metaphor for our relationship, a son distancing himself from his mother, a writer and an artist leaving their marks.

When I had about 10 of these poems, I got a fellowship at the MacDowell Colony to see how they would develop. I thought I’d be graffitiCalculuswriting poems set in the city, all grit and depravity, but the moment I sat in my writing cabin in the woods the whole project took a surprise turn. This Paleolithic teenaged hunter/cave painter emerged from the trees! So I wrote a long series about him and his mother, and then went back to DC to complete the urban poems.

MG: How did you embark on a sonnet sequence?

MSW: Sonnets have been my go-to form when I’m trying to think. It’s a form that’s an argument inside a frame. Its compressed energy excites me.

But I needed to modify the frame and make it mine. A tagger makes a gesture of his name, which stands for him, in code. He practices it over and over, until it becomes an extension of his body. I wanted a free elastic line like the lines of his tags. The alternating long-short lines were something I admired in Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red, though I indented the short lines for more energy.

I wanted to repeat the form over and over on the blank page like tag on a wall. Or like a prayer. So one led to another, and kept going!

MG: What advice would you give a poet who wishes to write a book-length poem?

MSW: That’s a good question. You often don’t know you’re going to do it, until you’re doing it! So to begin, I’d say, load up a metaphor and launch it! See where it takes you. Research it and follow every lead. Collect words, and let the words guide you. That applies to individual poems, but it really pays off if you’re going for the long haul.

I was lucky that the graffiti as a practice kept giving me such rich imagery and language. These images and words gave rise to refrains and echoes.

I should say about book-length poems that it’s tricky to get individual poems published in advance, as is the custom in poetry publishing. So consider publishing parts of the poem as a chapbook. I was able to publish the Paleolithic cave art portions as a caveboyseparate book, Caveboy, a year ahead of the full-length collection.

MG: Do you see the poem as a journey?

MSW: Yes, exactly! I had come to think that’s what our children do for us—to take us to places we’ve never been (or hoped to avoid). In researching the poem, one thing naturally led to another. So just as the tags were leading me to discover new parts of the city, the warrior language of graffiti (busting, bombing, killing, burning) led to the Kilroy story, to Bruce Chatwin on nomads, to Sheppard Fairey on Heidegger and phenomenology, and inevitably to the Odyssey and Dante’s meander through hell and heaven.

Cave art led me to R. Dale Guthrie’s theory about teenaged boys in the caves, Jose Ortega y Gasset and Michael Pollan on hunting and perception, and William Matthew’s insights into “boys in molt” in his poem “Cheap Seats, The Cincinnati Gardens, Professional Basketball, 1959.”

Though I hadn’t set out to write a book-length poem, eventually I saw that I had a quest narrative on my hands. So I deployed the craft elements of fiction—plot, character, scene, point of view, exposition, place, time management, and so on—to shape the book. For instance, as I saw two parallel plots emerging, two parallel journeys, one set in present time and another 40,000 years ago.

I should say that I grew to love the process of discovery that this book became. Even though the material was often painful, I had some distance on it and could allow the subject to bloom open and take me with it. It was fun!

MG: Throughout the book, you utilize a good number of mathematical terms. Could you say something about how mathematical language impacted your diction?

MSW: Since I was thinking about two bodies in motion, the mother and the son, I remembered that calculus is the mathematics of motion. The word calculus is Latin for pebble, so I appropriated that image, and saw graffiti tags as points in a trajectory. Other “calculus” words—limit, continuity, integer, function—made themselves useful in the poem.

I’ve been told the word “calculus” in the title is off-putting for some readers with math PTSD. I’m not particularly good at math, but I was lucky to have a good calculus teacher in college, who began the course with Zeno’s paradox, a story, which hooked me.

MG: How did your own reading serve as a source of inspiration for this project?

MSW: Mary Jo Bang, Anne Carson, Louise Gluck, Martha Collins, C.D. Wright, T.S.Eliot, Whitman, and Les Murray are just some of the poets whose book-length poems guided me. And we all draw from the epic poets who were the first spoken word storytellers.

MG: Are you currently working on a new project?

MSW: Somehow the long-form poem continues to yield rewards. I’ve been happily toiling on another sequence in the voice of Emma Darwin, wife of Charles. And a recent trip to France reminded me that I speak French. So I’m tackling some translations of poems by Jean Cocteau, Appoggiatures, which I stumbled on in a little bookstore. Short surreal prose poems—so not me! I love them.

For More Information

Visit Mary-Sherman Willis’s website.

Read an excerpt from Graffiti Calculus, the poem The Phenomenology of Your Name, published earlier in Southern Poetry Review.

Read Mary-Sherman’s poetry online at Beltway Poetry Quarterly.

Read the poem “Kilroy” at The Cortland Review.

Read her essay, Emily’s Pocket, at The American Scholar.


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