Every God Will Leave Us
An interview with Marilyn Krysl by Farideh Hassanzedeh
FH: You write, “Life is not a right but a privilege. I am a mortal animal, dependent on the generosity of others.” In some of your work there is an atmosphere of the spiritual, and I have come across biblical references too. Do you believe in a monotheistic God? Has your thinking about religion changed over your lifetime?
MK: I believe in the biosphere. Its wholeness and interconnectedness are fact. I can’t harm part of it without also harming myself, and this is humbling. The only single thing, Thich Nhat Hanh said, is everything. Conscious recognition of the wholeness of the biosphere naturally fosters an ethic of nonviolence, of love, of mercy, but the key is to be conscious of this. Every day my task is before me: to rememberto feel--that I’m not separate from the creation. That is my religion.
My Presbyterian grandparents read the Bible aloud, and the language of that book mesmerized me. But at thirteen I decided Christians were hypocrites and I quit the churchand ever since I’ve missed ceremony and ritual. Later I began to practice meditation, to cultivate staying consciousbecause when we go unconscious it’s easy to hurt someone or the world around us. I like the ritual quality, the ceremonial quality of the sit. Conscious attention gradually cleans the junk out of the mind, and at the same time conscious attention feels like worship.
Though I say I quit the church, I will still go into any temple, any cathedral, any sacred shrine anytime anywhere and give the deities thereif there are deities, and if they are theresomething. If I walk the land and come across piled stones, I give the shrine somethingthe way the Masai feed grass to the river before they cross. Giving something expresses a gratitude I feel for being alive.
When I do this, I feel I’m paying attentive respect to the universe, and I like the feel of the ritual itself. It satisfies me and makes me feel full, and it binds me into the universal mesh.
In my home are images of many gods, each given to me by friendsa Sakti, a Ganesh, the Virgin Mary, Aphrodite, Buddha, the Serpent God. I like Emerson in his "hitch your wagon to a star" passage. He said let us not indulge "in paltry works which serve our pot and bag alone. Let us not lie and steal. No god will help. We shall find all their teams going the other way: every god will leave us.” I don’t want my gratitude to leave me, and these household images of gods remind me of that, so I feed them. Right now Buddha is holding a Bosque pear on his lap. It’s good to give Ganesh money. Whatever fresh food I buy I give first to these imagesreminding myself how lucky I am to be alive. And it’s good to have serpent energy in the house, that symbol of continuing renewal. Sinuosity reminds the dreaming psyche that we are in flux, phenomena each moment falling out of and into place.
FH: When did your interest in writing begin and how did you discover poetry?
MK: My grandparents raised cattle, wheat, corn, sorghum, and I spent much of my Kansas childhood with them. Morning and evening they read the Bible aloud. Listening to that utterance rolling from their tongues was like listening to Adam and Eve speak. I heard the Old Testament’s grandeur made immanent in waves of sound. My first consciousness of repetition and variation began then. I like anaphoric repetitions. And Jesus said. And Paul said. Thou shalt and Thou shalt not. There is a time to sow and a time to reap. And the Song of Solomon. “As the lily among thorns, so is my love among the daughters. As the apple tree among the wood, so is my beloved among the sons.” I listened to the rolling cadences’ energyraw, beautiful, alive. And the voices of the prophets possessed an authority that declared I know whereof I speak.
I imagined that words came out of the ground and were lifted by wind into our mouths. I walked the fields and heard words emerge from grasses, the Russian olive trees, the pond’s water. When words came to me they were not my words but given, and I understood I was to pass them on. I sang songs to birds and whispered stories to a rabbit that sometimes sat near me. I told cows what I thought.
My grandmother had been a teacher. She read me many things, and I especially liked Longfellow's "Song of Hiawatha." When I learned to read and write, I made small books, binding pages with needle and thread. I read War and Peace when I was nine. In fifth grade I read Moby Dick, then The Brothers Karamazov and The Secret Garden and Nancy Drew mysteries. At ten, I lost the hearing in one ear from a case of mumps. The wound threw me off. I felt I was a cripple--and my parents didn't know how to help me adjust. When we moved to the west coast, uprooting even my grandparents, I felt ripped from my birth landscape, and wounded by partial deafness.
But when gods take away they also leave a gift. My pain made me more sensitive to loss in others.
In high school I was lonely and read all of Faulkner's novels. One day I used a word I’d learned from Faulkner, the word "ligneous," and my teacher was delighted. I felt cared for by this teacher, and I've never forgotten her. Also in high school I wrote a story about a man who carries Christ's cross for a while to give Christ a rest. I sent it to a religious magazine which paid me $50.00. All my father’s life, he would say, "Why don't you write some more stories like that one you wrote in high school?" Some poems I’d written won me a scholarship to the University of Oregon, and there was one writing class, a 400 level, and the Professor, Ralph Salisbury, let me in. He was a kind man, and gentle, and I was naïve and untutored. How lucky to have him as a first teacher! He truly nurtured me, and I am still grateful.
I also heard William Stafford read that year, and he talked about being a conscientious objector, something I’d never heard of. Later Diane Wakowski read. I was finally living “the life of the mind,” and I loved it. My freshman year I published my first two poems in the Massachusetts Review.
FH: You write both free verse and traditional forms. How do you decide which approach to take?
MK: In the Sixties Modernism was in vogue, but I also liked poets like Millay. In A Formal Feeling Comes, Annie Finch reminds us that formal poetics once meant reactionary politics and elitist aesthetics, but not so now. In high school I'd learned that form is not confining but helpful and fascinating. In graduate school I read contemporary formalists, and was especially drawn to the work of Marilyn Hacker. I was drawn to rhyme and meter, accentual verse, non-metrical rhyming, repetitive chants. There is a delicious constraint in forms. Around the time I discovered Hacker’s work, form was again becoming almost a democratic institution. Even those who billed themselves descendants of Williams were using form in new and experimental ways.
I see traditional forms as part of a continuum. Even free verse is not freeand all works of art are shapely. Poems come to me as the aesthetics of a line. A line is a unit, and has its own beauty and rhythmic coherence determined by the rhythm of its sound patterns. As for traditional forms, Igor Stravinsky said this: “My freedom will be so much the greater and more meaningful the more narrowly I limit my field of action....The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one's self of the chains that shackle the spirit.”
Even the ocean, that symbol of formlessness, is constrained by terrain, by weather.
FH: Your use of both traditional and free verse forms carries over to your short stories. You write both traditional stories such as The Thing Around Them, and stories which are highly experimental, such as Mozart,Westmoreland and Me, and Extinct Species.
MK: When I wrote Mozart, Westmoreland and Me I was also writing sestinas, and people have remarked that the story resembles a sestina. In that story I also had the idea to energize the language by writing mostly short sentences which contained repetition of a phrase or repeated a sentence construction, and then to compliment these occasionally with longer sentences, not nineteenth century sentences, but sentences more filled out, though they kept the same repetitious touchstone somewhere in them.
I’m a great fan of satirists such as Fay Weldon, and here in the U.S. recently Ian Frazier and the master, George Saunders. When I want to expose our unconscious illusions, I cast a story as satire. Sons is satirical critique of mothering and a call to mothers to act against the pressure culture exerts to encourage sexist norms. The story How To Accommodate Men critiques sexism and satirizes co-dependency. You might at first think this story valorizes the woman at the expense of the male characters. But the woman, who is a control freak, is also in deep trouble. It's just a different kind of trouble than the trouble the men are having. In Extinct Species I address the fact that we live at the mercy of our own greed and ignorance, and in a way which is very destructive of other species, other human beings and our own personal well being. I tried to address this with satirical humor. I hoped through satire to lure the reader into grappling with his or her own conscious and unconscious failings in this regard.
FH: In The Thing Around Them which appeared in Best American Short Stories 2000 you write piercingly about political violence and nonviolence without seeming to. The character Radika is almost entirely unaware of the politics that led to Sri Lanka’s the civil war.
MK: Certain material asks to be cast in a traditional formand because that story is about a Sri Lankan woman, I felt that writing across cultures demanded realism. I learned to write an omniscient narrator mostly from Nadine Gordimer. Reading her novels, I began to see how it was done by a master. Her early books, and then A Sport of Nature and now her recent work have all been important to me in learning to a render third person omniscient point of view. With that point of view the omniscient narrator conveys the complexity of Sri Lankan politics going on around Radika, and at the same time portrays a village woman who isn’t informed politically, whose husband has been disappeared, who is struggling to survive and protect her children in the midst of war, a woman who is ignorant of the details of politics but who experiences the consequences of that politics first hand in the flesh.
FH: In Midwife and Soulskin and also in Warscape With Lovers you evolve from writer/ teacher into a human rights activist/witness.
MK: Teaching and writing are also ways of witnessing. When we write well and truthfully, we are caring for those who read. But my life expanded beyond teaching when I was offered a commission from the Center for Human Caring in Denver to write poems about nurses. I observed nurses and held their compassionate moments up to the light. Those poems became the book Midwife which became my best seller because nursing schools started using it in classes. Later I worked a month in Calcutta as a volunteer for Mother Teresa. I didn’t go with the idea that I’d “do good” and get material for writing. I went because I needed challenge, and I wanted to play nurse myself, to feel the shape and heft of that role. The Calcutta poems in Soulskin and in Warscape With Lovers focus on compassionate moments. Taking care of sick people blew me open, opened my heart, like a good and wild wind.
As for human rights activism, witnessing can work "against forgetting" by bringing news from the larger world beyond our personal "borders." The poetry of witness has been prominent in the last few decades because we have exported violence to the Third World and to other species, and this violence is coming back to us. I feel like Seamus Heaney, when he remarked the influence of the war in Northern Ireland. "From that moment," he wrote, "the problems of poetry moved from being simply a matter of achieving the satisfactory verbal icon to being a search for images and symbols adequate to our predicament...."
It’s important to me to be able to say I came, I heard, I saw, and I did not turn away. I am still here and I will tell others. But I’m mostly a coward. So I look for situations that force me to be brave. That’s why I worked in Sri Lanka in 1992 for Peace Brigade International. The Sri Lankan Bar Association had asked PBI to come in 1989 when six lawyers bringing human rights cases to court were murdered. PBI volunteers are unarmed bodyguards backed by an Emergency Response Network, and they have been highly effective in protecting human rights activists in Central America and Haiti since the early Eighties.
Check them out at PBI.org.
Being in a country torn by civil war and doing accompaniment work was another wild and good wind blowing through me. I honor the idea of “think globally, act locally,” but I also need to experience political solidarity with people in other parts of the world. I need to be near them, to be there in the flesh. The courage and daring of Sri Lankans living under a corrupt, repressive government was important sensory news for me. I hoped some of the courage of those I accompanied would rub off on me. “The Thing Around Them” and the other Sri Lanka stories in How To Accommodate Men are homage honoring them.
FH: You also address the witnessing of violence in poetry. I’m thinking now of Warscape with Lovers.
MK: The title poem and the long sequence in the middle of that book, Requiem For The Turn Of The Century, invokes both brokenness and wholeness on personal levels and at the level of culture. It's about moving from war culture to a peace culture, both privately and publicly. India’s Nobel Laureate Tagore writes, in "A Flight of Swans" of those times when immense violence holds sway. "Welcome Him now with all that you have/...and touch His feet with your forehead,/ Now the All--Destroying is come." My task was to get humaneness into the poemlove, actuallyand still grant violence its sublimity. Violence is, after all, authentic. Tagore called the interplay of these two “the eternal cycle”. I'm interested in how things swing from destruction to creation and back. Violence and love are each in their way extreme, and war highlights their complex interweaving. In places of great violence and great love I’ve felt I was in the presence of gods.
FH: As a witness, how do you manage to feel optimism amidst deliberate, calculated cruelties?
MK: Like all mental states optimism and pessimism come and go. Cruelty calls up anger and sadness and I mourn and go on.
I refuse cynicism. I want to be a bleeding heart. Every human being has two jobs. One is to see what's really there, to see through one’s own illusions, become conscious, learn to stay conscious each moment. Physicists have come to the view that we cannot know objectively beyond a certain point because when we make an observation we are part of that observation. So truth is necessarily subjective and experiential. Buddhists have been saying this for centuries, and artists understand this. The artist's work is to see “what's really there”, and to report on it subjectively.
Stafford, in his amazing poem "A Ritual To Read To Each Other," writes: "I call it cruel and maybe the root of all cruelty/ to know what occurs but not recognize the fact." His poem tells us how dangerous unawareness can be. "If you don't know the kind of person I am/and I don't know the kind of person you are/a pattern that others made may prevail in the world..." The poem goes on to say that "the signals we give each other.../should be clear: the darkness around us is deep."
The other human duty is to live an ethical, loving life. Plant trees instead of torching forests, help a new immigrant instead of slaughtering Indians. (It’s so easy to zone out, to go unconscious, and the minute I zone out there I am burning down somebody’s rain forest.) All Americans are immigrants or descendents of immigrants, and I say Praise be. We need immigrantspartly because lots of them are way smarter than we are, both intellectually and humanly, and I welcome them and learn from them. In Boulder I’m involved with Sudanese immigrants, and I know that some of them are going to become big players, ambassadors, even perhaps heads of statethey are that smart, that wise. I have the privilege of helping them a little bit with getting English down and understanding American culture.
FH: I feel that in Iran there is a difference between literature written by men and by women. Do you believe in the classification of masculine and feminine literature?
MK: The Iranian woman writer Shahrnush Parsipur’s Women Without Men is cast in a woman’s point of view, and the male writer Hushang Golshiri’s The Victory Chronicle of the Magi in a man’s. Parsipur focuses on personal relationships between men and women, Golshiri on political relationships among both. But we can’t extrapolate from this that even this “difference” holds across all of Iranian literature, or should. In the Sixties and Seventies the Women’s Movement here focused on detailing the lives of women which hadn’t been fully articulated by male writers, just as ethnic writers detailed their experience of their ethnicity. The issue of authenticity arose in both cases, and debate ensued. For me as a writer the crucial factor is the context I provide around a character who is not my gender or of my culture. I wrote about Sri Lankan women in third person because this allowed me to provide very detailed context which I’d observed and researched, but it felt inappropriate to render that in first person.
Parsipur and Golshiri do this too. The important point though is not who’s writing about whom but that we learn to imagine another’s context and to see how context makes their actions not necessarily justifiable but understandable. In informed imagining we recognize and honor others’ differences, and we can also recognize and respond to the fact that all human beings want love and want to love, and at the same time have the capacity to act destructively.
FH: What is the role of poets and writers in the age of mass media and global terror?
MK: You once remarked that many writers in the West seemed concerned with the self and only casually interested in things beyond their borders. I replied that many writers are ardently involved in global issues and named names. I think that 9/11 makes it imperative that all of us who are writers start admiring ourselves in the mirror less and addressing burning global issues more. And remember that the single most empowering skill anyone can own is their own articulateness. When you can say precisely what you think and feel, you’ve developed your power as a human being to the highest potential. Thought is by nature elusive, fragmentary, fuzzy, and inherently contradictory. If weall Americansdon’t command our language we won’t think clearly, we won’t feel deeply, and we’ll be exploited by slanted media reporting and by unscrupulous or deluded politicians. Democracy exists only so long as millions of articulate citizens defend it.
After 9/11, the novelist John Edgar Wideman wrote that a government of “a privileged few…is fabricating new versions of freedom. Freedom to exploit race, class and gender inequities without guilt or accountability; freedom to drown in ignorance while flooded by information…to drug ourselves and subject our children’s minds to the addictive mix of fantasy and propaganda, the nonstop ads that pass for a culture.” Wideman understands that terror is “the excuse for denying and unleashing the darkness within ourselves.” I’m in love with that powerful, articulate sentence of his, how he reminds us again that each of us has the power to unleash our darkness or to unleash our love. But a few articulate human beings aren’t enough to keep democracy truly democratic. Democracy requires all of us. All citizens need to inform themselves, and this is hard work, and work that we have to do every dayand it’s very difficult now, given corporate media and the voracious sprawl of globalization. Barry Lopez said that “like American television, globalization operates like cultural nerve gas.”
FH: You speak as though ethics and morality are primary values. But isn't fiction, and to some extent poetry too, a form of entertainment as well?
MK: Articulate literature is inherently entertaining. But the word "entertainment" now suggests mindless fluff which challenges neither the status quo nor readers' minds. I feel like William Burroughs who emphatically said, “I am not an entertainer.”
FH: What are your aspirations for the coming decade?
MK: I want to become brave enough and persistent enough to keep challenging my government. I’m embarrassed by the way past and present administrations have built a huge weapons industry on the excuse that it provides employment. Psychotherapists in the West talk about “control issues.” The Pentagon is starting to build a world wide web for war which would allow marines in a Humvee in the middle of a sandstorm to open their laptops and “request imagery” of the enemy from a spy satellite. Is that not a perfect example of a control issue? How is it that some of us actually imagine and believe that 9/11 style attacks will disappear if we ourselves do something even more terrible? The revenge urgedamn, we’ll show them, they’ll never dare harm us again!no longer works. Toni MorrisonI think it was shesaid revenge is outdated.
I ask myself, do I want to be seen wearing yesterday’s flack jacket?
But to change our human, hard wired irrationality isn’t easy, especially when we zone out, give in to the tyranny of material comfort, give in to the subliminal programming of ad campaigns to consume away, and simply stop informing ourselves. I try to stay conscious and to keep abreast of my government’s latest atrocities.
Mairead Corrigan Maguire who won the Nobel Peace Prize wrote to her three year old son who would one day be subject to military enlistment, “it will not be easy for you to refuse to kill. It will take all your courage to walk unarmed.” If the arms manufacturers decided to go into some other business, say wind power for instance, they would become my heros. Because the truly courageous are those who refuse violence: the Israeli Refusniks, for instance. Rachel Corrie, for instance. All the conscientious objectors, and others who’ve signed on with the military, then changed their minds and said no, I don’t want to kill anyone. People like Mike Hoffman who founded Veterans Against The War, Camilo Mejia who Amnesty International declared a prisoner of conscience, Pablo Parades who refused to board his ship in protest against the Iraq War, whose application for C.O. status was refused, who was court-martialed and sentenced. And the young man (I’ve forgotten his name) who signed on to go to Iraq, got there and realized he simply could not kill another human being and so each morning did not load his gun.
And I have a new hero, a hero of a different sort, the kind who is willing to offer the ultimate sacrifice of her own life, a hero who was astoundingly, lovingly brave. I mean Elizabeth, the thirteen-year-old Amish girl who said to the milkman, “Kill me, and let the others go.” That’s the kind of courage Alicia Ostriker writes about so well in her poem “Poem Beginning With A Line By Fitzgerald/Hemingway.”
When I was writing about nurses I had the privilege of being present in the birthing room on four occasions when a child was born. This amazing event happens on our planet practically once a second, and the atmosphere in a birthing room is redolent of sacredness. You feel huge billows of love swelling and floating in the roomand there, out of nowhere, comes a miracle, not an imaginary miracle but a spiritual/material miracle.
Imagine if all statesmen, the Mandelas and the Margaret Thatchers both, the Karl Roves and the Obamas, went into the birthing room once a week. It would be like attending one helluva church. If they actually saw a baby miraculously coming into the world they might be transformed. And if they witnessed that miracle regularly, they might then find the courage to reject the revenge impulse, to actually refuse to kill.
And let’s require birthing room duty from all CEOs too, mandatory birthing room worship. Government can’t transform us. We Americans need to start transforming ourselvesand I’m including myself in this. I do not want every god to leave us, and I’m getting the feeling that some of them are just a little bit, shall we say, impatient with uswith me too.