While the book itself is structured very much like a novel, even hooking the reader with a something of a mystery that sets the stage for the drama of the present time of the narrative, the poems are straightforward in the way they confront the truth.
In the poem "April 10, Växjö" we read:
My legs across Peter’s belly,
I said, “I love you both,” and he smiled,
held me. He said, “I love what is real.”
At this moment of the relationship, the speaker, while she is visiting a foreign country for an extended period of time with her husband Peter, has taken up an email correspondence with a former lover, who fathered her stillborn child. I want to point out that, for me, the honesty of the speaker is not in the confessions, but in the way the poet has touched on the complex, interconnected and contradictory nature of reality.
Today pop psychologists are telling us about the dangers of facebook and other virtual social networks that allow us to reconnect with romances from our youth. I can’t believe anyone could read Carta Marina and not be confronted by their own sense of the past, of past relationships and past selves and ask themselves how all of it relates to the present and to the “real”.
I have read the book several times now already and feel that each time I see new connections, new metaphors in regard to territories, languages, time and transience. I am thankful that the author took the time to answer a few of my questions...
Speaking with the poet, Ann Fisher-Wirth:
In the very first poem, October 14, section III there is a quote from a letter the former lover wrote to the speaker, which he says, “If you were not living in Europe/I probably would not have written you now…”
The man doesn’t say, “If you weren’t married”. On some instinctual level this makes sense to me. What do you think about how physical landscapes possess us?
How do you feel the experience of being un-tethered from your physical home affected your writing?
How do you feel that the time you spent being “the other” in Sweden affected your writing?
I am so glad you asked about that aspect of Carta Marina, because it goes so deeply into what made the book possible. The Russian word "ostranenie" means defamiliarization, or estrangement, and it is what makes art possible; it causes us look at everything around us with new eyes. Living in Sweden with my husband for an academic year -- where everything was familiar enough for me to negotiate daily life, yet different enough to bear strongly in upon my senses -- made me start looking around more intensely in the first place, and that is what led me, for instance, to spend time in the small dark room in the Carolina library gazing at the Carta Marina. But also, being away from home, away from our house, our friends, my full-time teaching, gave me time that I never have in my usual existence, and in that freed-up time my identity unmoored itself a little, and began to wander. In that state, already somewhat liminal, I received this message from a vanished lover from my distant past. I responded as one does, friendly but distant, and then received a second message, in which he revealed a
secret about our past that he had carried for over thirty years. This second message brought the enormous flood of unresolved grief that fills Carta Marina crashing down into my present -- and that released flood of grief brought, in its wake, all the other conflicts and emotions that the book struggles to express.
The other aspect of this process of defamiliarization was the weather. Carta Marina, which was written in real time, completes part of the circle of a year; it begins in October with brief flashbacks to September, and ends near the end of April. The darkness of a Swedish winter really pulled on me; it allowed me to move further and further into a liminal state in which my "monsters," as I called them, roved abroad, and the beloved dead could hover closer and closer to the living. Then the spring, with its nearly constant light, electrified me as love electrifies us. I don't remember who has said of poetry, "It was like being alive twice." But that is what that year -- for all its anguish -- was.
While this book is obviously personal and lyric, I see it as an objekt d'arte--while there is the impression, if not proof of spontaneous emotion, it is expressed within a framework of meticulous craftsmanship. I admire the combination of contrasting talents and wonder what your thoughts are on the marriage of the "liminal" state that you experienced, and the sense of identity and discipline that must have been necessary for the revisions and final form of the book.
Specifically, I am curious about your writing process. Anthropologically speaking, the linimal state will result in a reintegration with society, with a new identity. Since you wrote these poems over the course of a year, while experiencing anguish, how did their formal structure evolve and when?
I do not think the liminal state is a formless state, though such form as arises is liable to be very fluid, experimental, improvisatory, and at time chaotic. Liminality is openness, in-betweenness, a threshold time in which one may pass between worlds; one's "angels" and "monsters" are permitted to come forth and roam freely. It has great potential for anguish and terror, but also for healing.
Largely, Carta Marina launched itself forward poem by poem, day by day. I never knew ahead of time what I would write, whether I would write. I began at the beginning, sitting on the floor of the Carolina Libary one drizzly afternoon, looking at the huge map behind glass on the wall before me. Part I ended naturally at Samhain, All Saints' Day, a time of maximum liminal intensity. It ended with the prayers for the dead--both my own beloved dead, and the dead who are buried in the Uppsala University graveyard. A couple of weeks later, Part II began, as winter began to deepen in Sweden and the dark pulled at me ever more strongly. Part II is called "The Coming of Winter." It too ended naturally, just before the winter solstice--the day of greatest dark--when the self or soul would gladly surrender even the remnants of common sense because of some darker knowledge that is drawing close--a knowledge bound up with possession, and grief, and death, and the sacred, and sacrifice.
It was not difficult at all to write the first two sections of Carta Marina, but then there is a gap of nearly three months in the book, during which time the events of my life continued. I knew that I had a book, that it was not finished, and that I had to finish it while I was still in Sweden; I would never be able to add to it once I left the arc of that year. This is how "Les Tres Riches Heures" came to be, which begins mid-March and leaves everything still unresolved on April 20, when with every moment spring is gathering sweetness and the light is growing stronger and more encompassing.
Then, the manuscript sat. Part I, "Olaus Magnus' Carta Marina," won a Malahat Review Long Poem Prize. I made some efforts to publish the book as a whole once we returned to the States, but though it was a Finalist several places, it didn't get taken. Eventually, I had enough distance from the writing to realize that I did need to edit the book. This is the point at which I enlisted the keen editorial eye of Pat Fargnoli. Originally, Carta Marina had a short section called "Interlude" between Parts II and III, consisting of individual poems, and Pat advised me to take the section out, to save a few of the poems ("The Anatomical Theater," "There ought to be a poem," "I know how to find you") and weave them into the texture of "The Coming of Winter." Also she pointed out that the plot involving the resurfaced lover began too late in the book, so I moved that first email forward a few pages. Finally, I cut a few sections of the Key to the Map section dated October 26, which now skips from "C" to "H." That is just about the extent of the changes.
I am honored that you speak of the book's "meticulous craftsmanship." I've been writing and reading all my life, and I'm a person who lives in terms of language. So the language and form of Carta Marina were prepared for, without my knowing it, over a long, long time.
the book (and my life) have time to settle; I always knew I
believed in the poetry, but it helped to be able to see it
at some distance. No, that was the first time I'd worked
with someone, except that Beth Ann Fennelly (friend and
colleague) and I had traded MSS in the past.