This is part 2 of an interview with Martina Newberry, in which she offers us two new poems and speaks about her recent book, What We Can’t Forgive.
J: Great. Okay, now I’ve got some questions that I’d like to ask you. First, I’d like to ask about your recent pieces. Are there any favourites that you’d consider reading now?
M: Absolutely. I just finished a poem that I’ve been working on for weeks, it just wouldn’t come right. So finally I put it away and thought finally this is going under “failed poetry”. But I picked it back up because a title came to me. When I got the title I thought I could fix this poem.
Anyway, I found a title for this poem and it brought the whole poem into focus. It’s called Guerilla Whining.
This poem is pounding on the door of your perceptions,
groveling at the knees of your conscience.
I offer you the precarious kiss of reality:
the work of the homeless—to survive one more night,
the limiting nature of nuclear incident,
the criminality of our prejudices,
the arrogance of our wealth.
The monsters of commerce call to us and we respond,
choking on $12.95 wine and caraway crackers.
The whites of the world’s eyes
are blushing with exhaustion.
Good people have calloused lips from sucking the blame
out of the tall, frosted glasses
held by congressmen and princes.
We want to be dauntless in an era that begs us to forget,
to ignore Iraq, Abu Grahib, New Orleans.
The fragile white palm of a politician’s hand,
forever urging the bloody adventures onward,
waving as the world’s warring stride off to meet,
is the palm no one touches. We only imagine it and still it
pushes, directs, encourages and waves “goodbye.”
Larry Levis says that “terror is a complete state of
understanding.” I get that. I agree with that.
Politics is a meaningless famine; it gives us
the necessary vocabulary to discuss our new myths.
It is compensatory collateral that makes of us
sheep children, floating in nameless liquid,
in clear glass jars on the shelves of freaking hell.
J: I see.
M: Yes. (laughter). I’m perennially angry about America’s politicians and I was trying to write about that and I couldn’t verbalize it and then came the title and I thought: Oh yes, I know what I want to say.
J: Amazing it just focused the energy for you, yeah? And helped you with the phrasing?
M: Yes, it did. And that happens to me. I usually start poems as untitled. I call them Untitled. It seems as if once I can title it, I make little changes and the poem just comes to life for me.
J: Interesting. I remember that at one point I had a title. A title came to me. I had nothing else but a title and I knew I wanted to write a book with that title.
M: I love it. What was the title?
J: Thistles and Marigolds.
M: Oh, I love it. Definitely deserves a book.
J: I did one, a chapbook a long time ago. But first I had the title. At the same time, a friend of mine said that she wanted to write a book but she only had a cover picture. Neither of us had content. I thought we could take my title, her cover page and steal content from the internet. No one would know. Kidding!
M: No one would know (laughter)
ed.note – We both take our poetry very seriously and the idea of plagiarism would never occur to us. Only we can express what we want to say, so that’s why the laughter.
J: In the end, nothing was stolen! But suddenly things come to birth of their own volition.
M: They do, in their own way.
J: Yeah, and each one’s different. The last book that you just came out with. What’s it called?
M: it’s called What We Can’t Forgive.
J: Yes and how did that come into being?
M: Because I tend to get very impatient or angry with the injustice of things and I also try to think of ways to forgive. I think about forgiveness a lot. I try to read what wise people have written about forgiving and about how we can and what we can’t forgive. And very often it comes to me.
I saw this movie called Magnolia. And in the movie the director, at the beginning or at the end, says that it’s all about what you can’t forgive. And in thinking about that and in the nature of forgiveness I was struck by how often I think of things I can’t forgive rather than what I can forgive. It’s very simple for me to forgive nice people and people who don’t mean to do the wrong thing, but reaching for forgiveness in somebody you know meant to do a bad thing is a difficult concept. And I thought I bet it’s difficult for a lot of people and so some poems came of that and finally a book.
J: I see.
M: Do you find forgiveness easy or simple for you.
J: Oh, God, lately this kind of question makes me very embarrassed. I’ve been studying now in a course of NLP in which people talk about the problems they’re dealing with and I’m embarrassed that at this time of my life, I don’t really have any problems and I’m almost afraid to say it. I don’t feel I have forgiveness to do. I’m off the chart these days for these kind of questions.
M: Oh, that’s great. I’m just interested in what you thought about it.
J: The only traumatic events I’ve had in my life, I kind of dealt with them at the time so much that there wasn’t really a lingering issue.
M: Okay. I understand.
J: Yeah, but that’s another discussion.
M: Yes it is.
J: I wanted to know if while writing your book, some of these things came to a head. Did you go through a process while writing?
M: Well, yeah. I did actually. As I said, my immediate reaction was well, that’s just the way I am. But what I found was that in thinking about these kind of things, the longer I addressed them, the easier it was for me to say maybe I can forgive or if not able to completely forgive it at least I could put it away or at least revisit it less often. It was a really good process for me. And I asked friends: what is there that you can’t forgive; is there anything you can’t forgive? I got insights from them. And I found that most people are really very forgiving. They’re very willing to live and let live. And to say well, we’re all just working guys trying to get along. I was very surprised at that. I thought because of our economy, I’d meet or hear a lot of complaints or anger and impatience, but instead, most people were very: “Well, it’s a lot of people’s faults, not just one and it’s just something we’re going to have to work through.” So I thought, either they’re very forgiving or they’re just exhausted. One or the other.
J and M: (laughter)
J: Or they’re used to it. They found a way to deal.
M: They’re used to it. Exactly
J: And after you wrote the book did you feel a sense of completion? Did you feel you’d attained another level of digestion?
M: Yes, I did. I felt as if pondering it, exploring it was the right thing to do. That looking into it, rather than just saying that ‘that’s the way I am’ that looking into it actually was a mellowing experience. That it was a way to digest it, like you said.
J: Okay. Would you consider reading one of the pieces from the book?
M: Absolutely. Here’s the book.
The cover’s from a quilt. I like to use people’s quilt designs. Oddly enough the name of this poem is Untitled, Unfinished.
The darkness resonates with neon.
we could all escape this planet at the same time, rise up as quietly
as anemones open, and stare up to where we are going, driven into
the beautiful dark.
Imagine it: a herd of the nicest people in the world, floating upward,
whistling, humming, laughing, knowing it’s all a magic trick,
enjoying the drift. There will be questions and conversations:
Am I still tripping on the mescaline
I took at that gas station restroom in Poway?
Did I go into a coma when I slipped and fell on my head at
that ice skating rink in Merced?
We’ll hear a resounding NO.
we will rise until we engage ourselves,
until death all around us folds
like a fan, only to open again
when chaos rearranges us.
J: Oh Wow, ‘when Chaos rearranges us’ that’s a good one.
M: (laughter) Talk about feeling powerless.
J: No, no But you claim, you wait, you know Chaos is gonna do it. There’s something of power there.
M: Yes, it is. You know it’s gonna get you.
J: I was reading something that Iyanla Vanzant wrote. She said that one of our tasks in life is just to clean up the mess in life when we can. To just clean up the messes in life and to accept it.
M: I love that: “just to clean up the mess in life when we can. ” I love that. I’m so glad you told me that. I think that’s really great.
J: But you’re saying the opposite. You said the mess will rearrange us.
M: Yes, but she says the duty is just to go back and clean it up again.
J: Yeah, It’s a pendulum
M: It is that.
J: I wanted to ask you about digital books. I saw a wonderful talk on TED talks this morning about a digital book where you could actually play with the flat screen and pick out pictures, fold them, move them. You tap on it and you get audio as well. You can move it down to the bottom menu and read while you’re listening. Here’s the link: Mike Matas at TED talks.
So I wanted to know, would you consider putting out your books digitally or getting into it?
M: Yeah. Three of my books are on digital now available for Kindle. And I think I’m glad anyway if anyone’s going to read poetry. If it means that someone’s going to actually pick up a poem and read it and think, hey I don’t have to be a rocket scientist to understand this. If Kindle means that more people can do that, then yay, I’m happy for that.
The best experience at the reading the other night – a young man came up afterwards and said to me: “I’d never been to a poetry reading, I’ve never read poetry, and I’m going to buy my first book of poetry right now.” And I thought, somebody was introduced to poetry and I thought how wonderful because if he likes that he will explore other poets. So digital’s okay, it’s alright, if it means that people are going to read.
Personally I like a book. I like the pages. I like the way it smells, it feels. But you know, if people wanna read it that way, then…
J: I’m the same way. I agree with you though. There’s almost something underground about wanting to maintain paper.
M: Yes, there is. Can I use that in a poem? Underground… I like that
J: Yes, take it, take it.
M: There’s something exclusive about wanting our nice covers and turning the pages and fold one down, or write on them. There’s something about that.
J: I’m even thinking of mimeographed copies like back in the day and having one volume of your work and mail it to one another around the world, so as not to cut down too many trees. There just should be one.
M: Yes, exactly.
J: Now, what else. What’s new in life that’s grabbing your imagination these days?
M. Oh, a couple of interesting things. We made a new friend whose partner is deaf and I started trying to learn signing. And it’s so much fun. I’m not very good at it. But it’s so much fun trying to learn and trying to memorize the different signs for things. So whenever I see him I I try to practice some new signing on him. And it’s been really exciting for me and a lot of fun.
J: It’s a new language. In Israel, the signing is different than in America.
M: Yes, I know.
J: I was once part of a puppet show called Kids on the Block that worked with blind puppets, retarded puppets, deaf puppets and I had to learn sign language. And I kept trying to do my homework by looking at my English sources, but I could never find the right signs because in English it’s not what it is in Hebrew. So, I never quite made it..
M: That was something was very interesting to me. I sort of had the idea that all signing was universal, but it isn’t. It’s very different. So they still have to learn a new language, either way.
J: and dialect
M: But I’m really trying to learn it. I’m having a lot of fun with it. If I never get past How are you and I love you, then I’ll be alright.
J: How do you say I love you?
M: (signs with pinky and index fingers up.) And I learned you’re handsome or you’re beautiful.
M: So I’ve learned a couple of things. It’s fun. I’m having a good time with it.
J: It’s kinesthetic. It’s another way of using your brain. It’s brilliant
M: It feels like dancing. I love watching two people signing. It’s just like watching a dance, it’s the most delightful thing. I love it.
J: I remember watching two people signing in a bus on either side of the aisle.
M: Yes, I love watching it and it’s fast, I love watching the fingers flying.
Idiocy and how to deal with it
J: Okay, here I have a question: What’s your favourite way, Martina, of dealing with idiocy?
M: These days, I’m more impatient with idiocy; however, I am more apt to not call attention to it. I think I deal more with idiocy now by writing about it. I didn’t used to. I used to leave that concept out of my writing. Now I think I deal with it by writing about it, because as the years go by and I meet more and more idiots, it seems less likely that my saying anything is going to help. (laughter) So I just sit down and write something about it.
I very seldom call it to anybody’s attention. I can come home angry about something and say to Brian “That guy’s an idiot!” But other than that, I think I deal with it with my writing, and the things that I consider most idiotic go into a poem because I just don’t have a whole lot to say about it anymore to the person.
J: Yeah, I know what you mean.
M: I used to think that if you called it, if you said to a person You’re being an idiot. That maybe that would do something, that maybe they’d stop and consider what they’d said. But never. I don’t think that’s happened once in my life yet. I think every time I said it, the person just got mad, so….I held off saying it. I don’t do it much anymore.
J: There has to be a way, there really has to be a way to make someone realize, to stop dead in their tracks, evaluate their entire life and switch on a dime. I’m sure there’s a technique.
M: Yes! I love it. There’s got to be some way to do that. I just haven’t found it yet. But I’m gonna keep looking for it.
J: Yes, meanwhile.
New Book Venture
So what else? Are you thinking about any more books. What do you see for yourself.
M: Oh yes, I’ve started a new book.
J: Oh wow!
M: Well yes. It’s funny. I work on poems all the time, and what I try to do at the end of the week or at the end of the month I look to see if a theme presents itself in any way and sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn’t. But I have a few poems that I’ve just started and I want to try working in some forms that I haven’t worked in before. I think I’ve written 3 sonnets in my life. I just wrote my very first ghazal.
J: Yes, I loved that. It was so wonderful. You invited us to participate. (ed.note – Martina posted her Unfit Ghazal in the Open Mic forum of Arcanum Cafe here)
M: It was the first time ever that I’d written one and I had such a neat time with the discipline. So this new book that I’m working with I’m going to experiment with some forms and some things I haven’t done before. And just see if a book comes out of that. I think it will but it’s new for me and I like taking my work to new places and see where I’m weak and where I’m strong, and can I get what’s in my heart out on paper in a more disciplined form than I’m used to. Make the brain work.
J: Good. Okay. Thanks, Martina. Is there anything else you’d like to talk about?
M: Yes, I have a question for you
J: Okay – let’s continue off the record!
Martina’s Blog: Roll With the Changes
Martina’s Blog on wordpress