I write very erratically anyway, so it’s not a steady discipline. I’ve been working on a book for about four years that tormented me. Then in late July and August, I unexpectedly wrote some new poems, and suddenly saw how I could shape this manuscript and finish it. It was a miracle. The usual feelings of euphoria and relief were compromised by Covid, because I had to do battle with my daily terror and the necessary limitations on my daily life.
What is the new collection about?
Falling apart. There’s a lot of mourning in the book. There’s also a lot of comedy in the book, and the poems are very surreal.
I’ve written about death since I could write. Literally when I was 10, I was writing about death. Yeah, well, I was a lively girl. Aging is more complicated. It isn’t simply the fact that you’re drawn closer to your death, it’s that faculties that you counted on — physical grace and strength and mental agility — these things are being compromised or threatened. It’s been very interesting to think about and write about.
A lot of your work draws on classical mythology and weaves together mythic archetypes with more intimate contemporary verses about family bonds and relationships. What draws you to those mythic figures, and how do those stories enhance what you are trying to explore and communicate through your poetry?
Everybody who writes draws sustenance and fuel from earliest memories, and the things that changed you or touched you or thrilled you in your childhood. I was read the Greek myths by my visionary parents, and when I could read on my own, I continued to read them. The figures of the gods and heroes were more vivid to me than the other little children on the block in Long Island. It wasn’t as though I was drawing on something acquired late in life to give my work some kind of varnish of learning. These were my bedtime stories. And certain stories particularly resonated with me, especially Persephone, and I’ve been writing about her on and off for 50 years. And I think I was as much caught up in a struggle with my mother, as ambitious girls often are. I think that particular myth gave a new aspect to those struggles. I don’t mean it was useful in my daily life. When I wrote, instead of complaining about my mother, I could complain about Demeter.
Some have compared your work to Sylvia Plath and described your verses as confessional and intimate. To what extent have you drawn on your own experience in your work, and to what extent are you exploring universal human themes?
You always draw on your own experience because it’s the material of your life, starting with your childhood. But I look for archetypal experience, and I assume that my struggles and joys are not unique. They feel unique as you experience them, but I’m not interested in making the spotlight fall on myself and my particular life, but instead on the struggles and joys of humans, who are born and then forced to exit. I think I write about mortality because it was a terrible shock to me to discover in childhood that you don’t get this forever.