Marly Youmans is an American poet and writer. Her novels include The Wolf Pit, A Death At The Camelia Orphanage, and Glimmerglass. Her poetry collections include The Throne of Psyche and Thaliad.
What is your earliest reading memory?
I remember sitting on the floor with my mother showing me flashcards of words and me reading them. There was a blond coffee table next to us.
And when I was four or five, I recall the joy of being given the two Alice volumes in a slipcase by some friends of my parents. They still mean a lot to me.
Has writing been a conscious choice or a natural thing for you?
My mother says that she knew I would be a writer when I was in second grade (that would be age 5 and 6, as there was no kindergarten in Baton Rouge), so I suppose it was natural. An obsessed reader, I read books under school desks in the day and by flashlight at night. That devotion to stories and poems may explain any holes in my education.
Do you have any special habits or rituals when you write?
Not really. I tend to write on my laptop and later print out and blacken with changes what was written. Among my annoying-for-others but good-for-writing traits is a high level of concentration, so I don’t mind where I write.
Do you choose your stories/poems or do the stories/poems choose you?
I have often dreamed poems or pieces of novels, and characters feel to me as if they appear fully formed. What or who does the choosing when elements simply appear that way? Perhaps at some fundamental level of the psyche there is choice, but it’s not one I understand. For good or ill, I’m in the camp of instinctual writers, at least until it is time for revision.
What national books/authors do you enjoy re-reading and why?
I should say that I don’t tend to re-read books by my contemporaries because I’m so far behind in reading newer books and books by friends. (That’s what happens when you have three children. You fall behind.) I rarely read a novel by a living writer for a second time.
These pop into mind: Edward Taylor for mind-bending comparisons; Hawthorne for dream-power and dark-and-light and shapeliness; Melville for wild, unleashed Moby Dick; Cooper, the Leatherstocking tales for water burial and other mythic strangenesses; Poe for myth and mood and mystery; Frederick Douglass’s autobiography for deep desire for the logos and the inspiring spectacle of sheer, unbuttoned human striving; Dickinson for word-twisting, sound, surprise, infinite questioning; Whitman for breaking-free energy and sound; Frederick Buechner for the otherness of Godric; Ursula LeGuin, The Wizard of Earthsea and The Tombs of Atuan (reread on impulse last year for the first time in many years); Richard Wilbur poems for polish and sound and shape. I do read a lot of work by contemporary poets—Alicia Stallings, Dana Gioia, lots of others.
What foreign books/authors do you enjoy re-reading and why?
Homer (including Logue’s War Music re-working of the Illiad); Beowulf for Old English, strangeness, myth; Gawain and the Green Knight for foliate, springing myth and heroic quest; Old English and medieval poetry (occasional cravings); the Grimm fairy tales and other such collections (stories that know more than they can explain); Shakespeare, sonnets and plays; King James Bible, especially Psalms, Job, gospels, and Genesis; Rilke; Andrew Marvell for beauty and green thoughts; George Herbert for himself, for making what’s wise and shapely, and for his “honey of roses,” opposed to his directness and simplicity; Henry Vaughan for eternity like a ring of light; John Donne for structure and mad-metaphor and catching a falling star; Dickens for both round and flat characters, strangeness, caged birds, spontaneous combustion (I adore Bleak House); Austen for woman on the rack of social scale and propriety that runs from hell (where Maria Bertram lives with Aunt Norris on one of the better levels) to the heaven-on-earth of Pemberley; George MacDonald, for his fairy stories and Phantastes; Charlotte Brontë for her dreaming, fierce Jane navigating the wilderness of life; Lewis Carroll, the Alice books, for the other side of the mirror; Cavafy’s poems (still intrigued by how he handles historical events); Christina Rossetti; Wilkie Collins, The Moonstone, The Woman in White, for distinct voices and characters and surprise and facing the dark; Fielding’s Tom Jones for the energy, all pell-mell; Hoban’s Riddley Walker; D. H. Lawrence for his intense poems; Yeats, Yeats, always and ever Yeats, early or late; Borges, the clever stories and the poems (like Cavafy, he uses history in interesting ways in short poems); Calvino, The Baron in the Trees, etc.; Isaac Bashevis Singer, stories (particularly the marvelous “Gimpel the Fool”); Charles Causley; Garcia Lorca; Keats; Kipling, Kim, for its flood of energy and color and character.
Writers or books I re-read when younger but don’t now, though I suppose that may change again: Emerson; Maria Dermoût, The Ten Thousand Things; Patrick White, Voss; Coleridge; Wordsworth; Faulkner; Auden; Willa Cather; Flannery O’Connor; Jean Toomer’s Cane; Garcia Marquez; Gilgamesh; Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man; Neruda; Kafka; Woolf, Orlando and Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse; Ted Hughes (whose poems I found often unfinished, but they gave me new ideas); Gertrude Stein; Henry James; Thoreau, Walden; Robertson Davies, the Deptford trilogy; Laurence Durrell, the Alexandria quartet; Emily Brontë (for the moor-wildness); Robert Hayden; Sigrid Undset, Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy; Hardy’s Wessex tales; Virgil; Dante; Lawrence’s novels; Twain; Seamus Heaney; Sylvia Plath; Eudora Welty’s stories; John Cowper Powys, Wolf Solent and A Glastonbury Romance.
Re-reads with children and also re-reads from when I was a child: Alice books, always and still; Susan Cooper, The Dark is Rising series; Alan Garner; Lewis, Narnia books (never met them until I had children, though I read his science fiction trilogy as a child); Grahame, The Wind in the Willows; Nix, Abhorsen books; Leon Garfield’s Smith (last book I read to all three children at once); James Weldon Johnson; Tolkien, The Hobbit and LOTR; Diana Wynne Jones, Howl’s Moving Castle, Chrestomanci stories and others (my daughter’s favorite writer); picture books by Hoban, Sendak, Steig, etc. I liked reading to my children in the evening before bed, so there are many more, and I also read a number of books because my daughter wanted to talk about her fantasy reading with me.
Most recent re-read: Tillyard’s The Elizabethan World Picture. Great little book.)
Thinking about re-reads has made me realize: I still have my same old bad memory; I ought to re-read more foreign books because there are lots of writers I barely recall, even though I loved reading them repeatedly, once upon a time (Yasunari Kawabata, Marguerite Yourcenar, etc.); I have a Russian hole and a Proust hole in my reading; I want to read more Ryūnosuke Akutagawa and Jeffrey Ford stories. The memory business bothers me; it’s discouraging to think that I cannot dredge up any details from a novel by Amos Tutulola or Chinua Achebe, say. I end up thinking that stories I’ve read too often revert to alphabet soup in my mind. Perhaps that’s all right. Perhaps stories return to primordial chaos before they are useful to a writer, who then turns chaos into order. Or perhaps I just have a lousy memory.
What is so important about fiction/poetry?
I don’t quite see how people navigate the world without writing and reading, and I feel lucky that I do see how to navigate the world with stories and poems. Making is joyful and lets me enter a state that abolishes time. Pushing words into patterns of sound and meaning is how I know what I know. It’s part of how I feed the transcendent part of me. Books are the tinder under the phoenix.
Flaubert says he was physically sick when he wrote Emma Bovary’s death. Are you empathetic with your characters?
I don’t blame Flaubert for feeling ill—tossing her aside with that dead-black, flung-open mouth! (And that is a book I will not re-read, no matter how polished the translation. I can admire but do not love Madam Bovary.)
Yes. How can it be otherwise? In some sense, characters are like tentacles of a writer’s being, reaching toward light and dark.
Can you cry writing your own poem?
When I write a poem in my sleep (which I haven’t done—or else haven’t remembered doing—in a long time), I can weep passionately. That has a comic element because sometimes the poem is not worthy of the tears; in sleep we must be more vulnerable to words, or else we experience the poem as it should be, deepened and perfected.
Surely, trying to pluck the silver apples of the moon and the golden apples of the sun is worth a glass of tears.
Who is your ideal reader?
Alice? I’ll take the one in the books but when she’s older and can handle books without pictures (although some of mine have illuminations by Clive Hicks-Jenkins. She would like that.) But not Alice Liddell.
Or maybe not book-Alice, either.
Wandering Aengus? But he’s probably too busy chasing his trout lady and striving after the timeless realm of silver and gold.
The ideal reader has become a kind of fetish, hasn’t it? We’re living in a time when criticism has often tossed out author, the truth of authorial intent, and the autonomy and harmony of the created work in favor of attention to the reader and a politicized act of reading.
So I am not sure we should be reaching for the ideal reader. Perhaps that simply confirms a kind of deconstruction, where the truth of the book is no longer important. I’ll be content to dance with anyone who picks up a book of mine, and not complain if they tread on my toes.
Here’s a pleasant anecdote of a reader. Two of my books (the two Southern mountain fantasies) were written specifically for my daughter, who asked for them and babysat her little brother every day until they were finished. And that was a thrilling experience—to have an eager, open-hearted reader gathering up the fresh pages and running to leap onto her bed and eat them up, every day. Wouldn’t that be a wonderful way to write all the time?
Should writers be embraced by society or should they be exiled?
As far as I can tell, neither choice is particularly good for a writer, though self-exile can be useful.
Note: being unseen and ignored and without funds is also difficult for a writer. Common state. Perhaps that, too, is a kind of exile. An internal exile.
Is there a God or are there gods for writers?
Having had experiences that tell me that there is a great deal more to us and the world than we commonly know, I am standing with those who seek after God every day. Because I want more of those moments. Because it is, for me, a path into larger, more abundant life.
The great, essential archetypes in the bible narratives powered our literature for centuries. It’s hard to grasp the world of letters in the West without them.
What about the demonic? It occurs to me that writers battle with those forces that we used to call (and maybe some people still do, but not most people) powers and principalities. Publishing can become a power, and media, and academia and government. Organized protest and isms that embrace partial truth can start out with good intentions and then transform into powers. We can say that criticism in the past century often became a demonic power that attempted to deconstruct and usurp the writer’s self and work, to place itself above both. Pilfering from William Stringfellow, the signs of the negative presence of powers are “denial of truth, doublespeak and overtalk, secrecy and boasts of expertise, surveillance and harassment, exaggeration and deception, cursing and conjuring, usurpation and absorption, diversion and demoralization, and the violence of babel (including verbal inflation, libel, rhetorical wantonness, sophistry, jargon, incoherence, falsehood, and blasphemy.)” So powers and principalities become at times the writer’s enemies, and a good reason that the pen sometimes has to be a kind of sword, and the writer a person who must try to be the hero who marches against dragons, small and pesky or great.
I like that odd lens. People in the past looked at the world and how to act in it in ways that functioned and held meaning, that turned chaos into order. We don’t appear to be any smarter than they were, as disorder and chaos still afflict human beings. To live in a place where people can make books (another way of turning chaos into order) is a wonderful thing.
What makes a writer a writer?
The surest but least pleasant way is an intense love of playing with words combined with a major family trauma (a death) and consequent difficulties in childhood.
A writer is a person who reads and writes. Passionate readers may become writers.
Tell us about your fiction/poetry.
I’ve never been any good at the descriptive pitch for my books. My Southern ancestors look at me with pinched, indignant faces if I put myself forward. They bore a hole right through me with their gimlet eyes and insistence on good manners.
People often note that my books are varied. Perhaps I am easily bored. Perhaps I am just plain old myriad.
Three of my four poetry books are collections of formal poems—I am fond of the old tools that distinguish poetry as poetry and prevent it from being a subset of prose. Growing tired of both the dominance of small lyrics (give me narratives, odes, chants, epics, etc.) and the dominance of free verse, I have pursued the kind of freedom and energy that meter or meter-and-rhyme can give. Form is generative and makes the writer fly off to unexpected places.
Perhaps the strangest of my poetry books is Thaliad. One summer day I woke up with a long post-apocalyptic epic burning in my head—it was a most inconvenient time, but these things make their insistent demands—and I’ve been pleased and surprised that a book-length blank verse adventure with lots of characters continues to find new readers.
My nine novels… Yes, I’m definitely not the sort of novelist who has one story to tell and tells it in different-yet-similar ways. You may call my books a bouquet or a downright hodgepodge, I suppose, depending on whether you like variety. (Many people do not.)
In both stories and poems, I’ve frolicked in various times (seventeenth, nineteenth, Depression era, my own day) and tend to view past time as a place that I may enter. But I can travel successfully only if I abandon ideas about the constant nature and beliefs of human beings…
I want to say that there is no realism, that all stories and poems are created and on some kind of tightrope running between the attempt at holding up a mirror to life and the unleashed fantastic. In stories and novels and poems, I’ve played along that tightrope. But in the end, it’s all made up, and the joy in writing for me comes from making, bringing to birth the new.
Am I answering this question properly? You know, I dislike those summations on the back of book jackets. Because if a book is best summed up in 200 words, well, then it should be only 200 words. So I’m not terribly good at boiling down what I do to a bouillon cube of meaning. (If you would like to see other people’s bouillon-cube comments, hop to my website website, http://www.thepalaceat2.blogspot.com. It’s packed with the usual braggadocio of review clips and author comments.)
I’m not really satisfied with what I’ve said about my books. Let me try and sum them up in another way.
The creation we inhabit is alive, stirring with energies. When I make something—a story or poem which is, after all, borrowing bits of the larger creation—I aspire to capture something of those energies in a net of phrases. That is, I want to make a new thing out of words that is convincingly alive, that captures some of the energy of life.
What is the purpose of your writing?
To click words together until they sing.
To cover the grit in me with pearl.
To jump off the edge of my known world-of-words
and find new earth under my feet.
To deep-dive, as Melville would say, and bring up treasure.
To make little worlds so I and others may travel in them.
To dance with readers.
To find solace, to fetch balm.
To be a Wandering Aengus, never stopping.
To make something out of nothing.
How do you really feel about recognition and fame? Are you a satisfied mind or always craving for more?
When I was younger, I found it bothersome that publishing appeared to be a rigged game, with the Big 6 (now Big 5—maybe it’ll be Big One eventually) choosing lead books and pushing only those, with only the occasional black swan flying up out of obscurity. But I was well warned against feeling overly disturbed by the example of people I knew who appeared to be broken irreparably by a lack of recognition. I did not wish to resemble them.
With three children, I was probably too busy and too grounded to travel that path, all shattered glass, but nevertheless I paid attention to those cautionary examples. I also understood that I was not a commercial writer—that whatever I was as a poet and maker of stories, it was not that.
Given how brief a life is, I want something simple: to make the best narratives and poems I can for as long as I can. By being true to that desire, I am helping to create my self—still a work in progress, full of liveliness and blots and capable of revision.