A GLIMPSE OF MOLLY MCQUADE
Molly McQuade was generous enough to grant me an hour of her time on a recent Saturday to talk about her books and her work. There have been enough interviews and reviews of her life and work on the Net to render the usual Where-Have-You-Been-and-Where-Are-You-Going sort of questions drearily redundant, and I didn’t want to waste the time she had granted me asking them. I was curious, however, about this woman, whose critical sense was so exceptional and whose essays had provided me with such a veritable banquet of ideas. For Molly McQuade is no staid academic with a Xeroxed agenda. In her essays and in her poetry, she has approached all her subjects with intelligence, compassion and a lively interest. I was eager to hear what she might have to say on any subject that might arise. So, at 10:00am, the appointed hour, I threw my scripted questions into the trash, poured a fresh cup of coffee, and dialed a long-distance number.
Erica Erdman: Good morning…er…well, good afternoon, to you!
Molly McQuade: Hi! How are you?
EE: I’m okay, albeit nervous…I haven’t done a lot of interviews. I couldn’t resist this one, though.
MM: Oh, well, really..it’s just like a conversation.
EE: Okay. I feel that I am in the ears of a professional. Thank you for the opportunity to talk to you. I want to start by telling you that I keep two of your books, “By Herself” and “Stealing Glimpses” within reach, in my house. They are bloody good, and I like to pick them up from time to time, just to browse. I’ve only been able to read some of your poetry on the Net, though, because your book of poetry, “Barbarism”, isn’t easy to find out here. Your style rather reminds me of Sylvia Plath.
MM: Oh! …thank you. She’s one of my favorites.
EE: It shows. The title poem, “Barbarism”, was on the Net, along with “Egret”, and “Queen Anne’s Lace”, “Born”…and one I really loved called “Under Us”. It appears to be about worms…?
MM: Oh. Thanks! Our unsung hero, the earthworm. (Laughs.)
EE: All hail the worm! We’ve seen a lot of them out here, lately, because of all the rain…they come crawling up onto the pavement, naked and vulnerable, like poets. You know, you’ve had a hell of a lot of things come out in rather a short period. First, “An Unsentimental Education”, the collection of essays…then “Stealing Glimpses”, your own musings, which I like very much…and “By Herself: Women Reclaim Poetry”, which ought to be a textbook, I think…and your book of poetry, “Barbarism”.
MM: Yeah, I know it. It seemed a good opportunity, but I don’t think I’d recommend to anyone else publishing more than one book within a year or two. I thought it would be no big deal, but for some reason it can be kind of draining. I don’t know why.
EE: It must be difficult to deal with. You must have had a lot of people trying to examine many of aspects of you, all at once, trying to come to a conclusion…You know, I haven’t seen a copy of your first collection yet, the one titled “An Unsentimental Education”.
MM: Well, that was a different kind of book. It was essentially a book of interviews with writers who had some tie to Chicago….so there were people in it like Philip Roth, and Charlie Simic, Susan Sontag…it’s hard to remember them all.
EE: You had a chance to work with those guys?
MM: Yeah…I interviewed them all, which is one of the reasons why it was fun to do. The editing process for that kind of interview is kind of demanding, but the actual conversations were fun.
EE: I was introduced to Simic’s work back when I began to study poetry. I was getting all preeoccupied with forms and styles, and my teacher decided I needed exposure to something…different. (Laughs) She loaned me a number of books by Charles Simic, and I was astonished. I had no idea anyone could write like that. Simic struck me as such a marvelous character.
MM: Yeah, I think he is, too. Did you know that he can sing “Chattanooga Choo Choo” in Serbo- Croatian?
EE: No! But it doesn’t surprise me a bit.
MM: You are a poet yourself?
EE: I am…I enjoy writing poetry, but I believe that I do it because I have to…it’s rather a force-put. If I don’t write, I develop a sort of psychological disturbance. Where exactly do you live and work?
MM: I travel back and forth between New York and Baltimore, where I teach. I’m from New York, although I prefer, at times, to tell people I’m from Chicago, because I did live there for quite a while. I feel less like a New Yorker than like a Chicagoan.
EE: You SOUND like a Chicagoan. (sigh) Okay. Here’s a typical interview question; forgive my asking it…people have probably asked it interminably…but, when did you first start writing, and what did you write?
MM: I can remember the first poem I ever wrote, I don’t know exactly how old I was, but…it was about a goat, and it rhymed. (laughs)
EE: My hat is off to you. One of my favorite essays in “Stealing Glimpses” is the one about Kitzel, your goat. That was the piece that kind of sprang it for me, that you were a poet…I mean, a good critic, but a poet, nonetheless, because you go off into these metaphoric excursions that are a surprise; they are almost unsettling. I read that piece about five times, because the language was so peculiar to me at first, and then…perfect.
MM: When I was little, I was interested in science; I got very inspired by things like the water cycle, but I wasn’t able to follow up on that interest professionally, so I wandered into editing.
EE: An odd sort of forest to wander into. How did that happen? And do you consider yourself an editor first?
MM: Nnnno, but I think it’s kind of half-and-half. I concentrated on editing in college, rather than the writing. I also began to work as a critic, in college, at the University of Chicago. School tends to encourage your cerebral part…
EE: Critical faculties. No pun intended.
MM: Maybe that’s why I was less interested in writing then. I began reading magazines and newspapers that were coming out in Chicago at the time, and decided I would try to freelance. I did that, had some editing jobs, after college, then found my way back to New York. I mean, I was writing all the time, but I actually returned to writing in a more full-fledged way after taking some classes at NYU, where I had some terrific teachers…and that experience practically re-made me as a writer. I do want to thank those teachers; they were Galway Kinnell, Bill Matthews, and Sharon Olds…
EE: Wow, you had the opportunity to work with Sharon?
MM: I really had more contact with the other two…but I did work with her; I don’t know if I would have written the essays in that book, “Stealing Glimpses”, if I hadn’t gotten to a class she taught at NYU, called “The Craft of Poetry”. It was not a writing workshop, it was more about reading poetry. But I think I began writing some of the essays in “Glimpses” at that time, where I picked up the idea that you can write about poetry in a way that is personal and at the same time, remain critically alert.
EE: So…why is it that you edit?
MM: This is not so easy to answer. When I edit myself, for example, it’s torture, yet, when I edit someone else, it’s not.
EE: An article in Utne Review last year reported that students today do not have the vocabulary they used to have. The idea presented by the article was that what we do not have language for, we cannot think about; what we cannot think about, we lose. In the end, we lose the ability to think about our own experiences. This was rather frightening to me.
So when I read your stuff, it struck me…here is someone who passionately loves their work, the work of words, and language, and communication. You are making it available to people, and you explain why it works, why it is important. I was so delighted to find someone who is so passionately and so effectively an editor.
MM: I will try to answer your question again as to why I edit. This reminds me of my experiences recently working as a teacher, and in editing my students. When I correct their papers, I think I handle it differently than other teachers. I don’t simply write comments; I try to make changes, right there. Its exhilarating to do that, especially with young students, undergraduates, because they have so much to say, and so much to kind of spatter down there, but they don’t know how to arrange it, and I do – so it is really great fun to try to do that.
Editing is fun, it really is. I have done many different kinds, by now…I’ve worked as a book editor, and I’ve worked as a magazine editor, and I’ve edited 200 word book reviews, thousands of them. But I’ve worked on books on medical ethics, and on oral histories, and everything in between – and I’ve worked on fiction and poetry as an editor, too.
EE: I hear something like…appetite. You really enjoy this, don’t you?
MM: You know, it’s game. It’s really like a game. There is the illusion that you can say something more exactly than the way it was said the first time. The exhilaration of naming things has to do with precision, to make something clearer than it was…and for a writer, I think, naming things is a big deal.
EE: It’s odd, because there is a lot of mythology about the importance of naming. Remember the film “The Never Ending Story”? It was about a child empress of a kingdom who was losing herself, and the kingdom, because she didn’t have a name. And the whole idea of the first task of Adam is that he gave names to things… it’s our own particular magic, as human beings…man is the creature that can give things names, that uses language.
MM: The fascination of naming has crept up on me, slowly. I would really like to teach a course, which I am scribbling notes on just now, called “Re-writing the Dictionary”.
EE: Ha! I’d LOVE to take that class.
MM: I’ve gotten in the habit of reading not just our standard dictionaries, but all kind of weird ones. I’ve been running around finding words that nobody uses anymore, and haven’t used for centuries. I’m currently teaching a class down at Johns Hopkins in which I am trying to get the dictionary into almost every assignment. I’ve been getting my students to use very old slang and technical terms and all kinds of things, and to make up new words…so it is a kind of obsession of mine.
EE: My mother is always gathering words; it’s a tradition at my house. We have a collection of dictionaries like those you mentioned, weird stuff…I love to look up the roots and origins of words. And sometimes, I go out and use them, the odd words, just for fun.
MM: Let me tell you my favorite recent discovery of a slang term…it’s a slang name for an actual place, a proper noun….it’s “A Marshmallow in Bondage”.
MM: It’s a slang name that the people in Vancouver have given to their sports stadium!
EE: That’s fabulous. No doubt about it…people ARE actively re-writing their language.
MM: You know, I am certain that this has been said before, but there is really no such thing as writing; there is only re-writing. Editing is another form of re-writing; only it’s more social, because you are not re-writing yourself, you are re-writing someone else, so you have a sense that you are not only looking over their shoulder, but you are their eyes, you are their brain…it’s the best kind of intimacy. I see it in my mind…there is my hand, and their hand, moving the pencil, or the cursor…and our hands are clasped.
EE: That’s a wonderful image. You know, when I read that Utne article, I was horrified; I thought, we are losing not only our ability to think of our own experiences, but to speak to one other.
MM: Like a species going extinct.
EE: Exactly. But tell me more about this class you are planning to teach.
MM: I got the idea, actually, from reading this book called “The Devil’s Dictionary”, by Ambrose Bierce. It’s a rather political book, less an opportunity to write about language than for Bierce to air his complaints about the culture of his day. But it’s a very instructive book, because he completely reclaims almost every word he chooses. I began by giving an assignment to my students to read some of his definitions, and then to write their own re-definitions.
In a more current class, I asked the students to write a fictional piece about being at a banquet, and being required, as a guest at the banquet, to name several words and then eat them. One of the best pieces that came out of this project included three words chosen by one student. The words she chose to talk about, and then eat, were “clandestine”, “onomatopoeia”, and “immortal”.
EE: And how does “immortal” taste?
MM: She broke the word up, using the “I” and the “M” first….I seem to remember that it was salty! But it was a fun exercise. In a sense, it was motivated by that same editorial appetite I was talking about before…that you can revise, and revise, and revise – not only your writing, or someone else’s, but your ideas, about absolutely anything. Language presents itself to us as something that is in constant change, and you can make some of the changes, as you wish.
EE: I was always struck, when I was at school, by the idea of a “dead language”, as opposed to a “living” one. Latin, for example, is supposedly a dead language, since it is not ordinarily spoken – yet we see its presence everywhere in the English Language; we see its roots in words whenever we open a dictionary. If I were to try to create a word…how do you have your students go about creating words?
MM: The first thing I did was to give them a list of obscure words that came from such places as the lexicon of Norse/Devon, published in 1707. I gave them words like that WITHOUT the definitions, and asked them to make up the definitions, by writing something that would include all the words. I went about it backwards, at first. But then I followed up with an assignment based on the work of a writer named Beth Shannon, who writes in invented languages and dialects. I gave them a short piece of hers to read, and asked them to make up their own dialect…not so much single words, this time, but the whole fabric of a language.
EE: You ought to give them “Riddley Walker” to read. That’s a book written in an imaginary dialect. It’s just been re-released.
MM: That sounds like it would be interesting; it would fit right in. Anyway, I was surprised at how well these assignments came out. They involved the taking of liberties I thought my students might be uncomfortable with; for instance, it was mandatory that they misspell everything (laughs) and that they concentrate on the sound quality of the language, in order to give an aural quality to their invented dialect.
It was the sort of assignment that a lot of students would shrink from…but I was glad they didn’t.
EE: Are you working on anything at the moment? Or have you put forth so much in such a short time…
MM: Well, I’m writing more about fiction lately; I’ve been writing some essays. I wrote one recently about Portnoy’s Complaint; which is one of my favorite books, primarily because it has that incredibly aural quality. I wrote something recently about the later writing of J. D. Salinger, which I find to be unspeakable wonderful.
EE: Post “Catcher in the Rye”?
MM: The one I was writing about was “Seymour: An Introduction”, which is probably one of his least-liked stories; it has no plot, it’s very philosphical; you could call it post-modern, but I think it’s better than that. I’ve wanted to write something about F. Scott Fitzgerald, and I’d like to write something about Faulkner. I’ve been writing some fiction of my own…mostly stories, nothing longer.
EE: I’d love to see what you come up with on Fitzgerald. I did some work on Fitzgerald and Hemmingway recently; it was a surprise to me. I think I would have liked meeting Fitzgerald.
MM: Yes…I think he would have been dangerously charming. Someone once asked me, if I were on a desert island, and could bring any writer dead or living, with me, who would it be? And I answered, well, it would be Fitzgerald – but I would sort of dread…. the outcome. (laughs) You know? ANYTHING could happen.
EE: I’m sure the two of you would invent a dangerously charming language. Thanks for sharing the word with me this morning, Molly.
MM: You’re welcome.