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Transcript: Poet Profile - Linda McCarriston
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Linda McCarriston

The following is an excerpt from the Bill Moyers' book and film, THE LANGUAGE OF LIFE: A FESTIVAL OF POETS

MOYERS: You tell students that poetry is about "Saying what we don't want known; it's saying the unsayable." And you write often about the brutalities of domestic violence in your own childhood. How do you decide to write about such painful experiences? 

MCCARRISTON: Someone once asked me why I didn't choose to wite about the unsayable in prose, and my answer was that I believe I'm a poet — I think that's a given. I had stopped writing for many years for various personal reasons, then when I returned to it, I began to write poems that were modeled on the great poems — the canon — not on the voices of common people — men or women — and not about the anguish of the private lives of those at the bottom of various heaps. At the same time I felt driven to attempt to write poems from these very difficult experiences of my childhood.

The material was hard to handle, but in some ways a more difficult problem was that many people actively tried to discourage me from writing these poems. They felt that if I were to write them, the poems would be shrill or I might be identifying myself as a feminist or a radical. Because I knew that these experiences told in the first person woman's voice of outrage were not supposed to be poetry, I tried to write these poems in a way that was veiled. But when I veiled the voice or the experiences I put the fire out in them.

I tried again and again and again to write these poems, and I was really driven a little bit wild by the necessity to write them. I didn't know why I felt so compelled to write them, but when I finally found that I was beginning to write poems about these experiences that were standing on their own, that were good poems, I realized that I simply had to speak back to the culture that I saw as creating and sustaining the ideas that led to this violent situation in the first place. I really don't feel I had a choice. That was my material, and the difficulty was simply in waiting and leaning on the material long enough until a way came to me by which I could speak.

MOYERS: What is it about poetry that enabled you to do this?

MCCARRISTON: That's a very difficult question. Those who argue that poetry says the unsayable generally mean the unsayably beautiful or the unsayably profound, but the unsayable can also mean what people simply don't want said, ever. That's why poetry is extremely radical—poetry allows the individual experience to strike like lightning through the collective institutional consciousness and to plumb the depths of actual communal experience so that what people don't want said in fact gets said, and in a way that is unignorable. Poetry does this through the stature of utterance which characterizes it.

MOYERS: Utterance?

MCCARRISTON: Utterance. The simplest definition of poetry that I have is heightened speech. I think that poetry is truly inspired, truly vatic or bardic. It is extraordinary speech that at times comes through a poet with extraordinary power. It allows one to speak with a voice of power that is not, in fact, granted to one by the culture. In other words, as a woman in this culture I did not have the stature from which to speak those poems. I was simply a common woman — I was not authorized to speak in my institutional way, I was not a judge, I was not a priest; I was not a psychiatrist, I was simply a housewife — and yet the stature and authority of poetry itself visited me, permitted me, enlivened me, enlarged me, and those poems were written by me. If I had been a novelist, I think I might have been able to do something similar, but the fact that poetry does not respect institutional power and that it comes to all sorts of people means that I was permitted to assume a voice of stature to utter these poems.

MOYERS: Even women who have never been physically or sexually abused relate to your poems—they know what you are describing is true.

MCCARRISTON: I think the poems seem true and are true to many readers, even those who've not experienced the circumstances of the poems, partly because they know this experience exists all around them—it really is a common occurrence—and also because I think that each of the poems earns the ground it stands on in terms of its aesthetic making. The poems do not rest on any outside assumptions. Each poem builds its own case in the particular details of the situation so the conclusions that I draw are earned right there in the very poems in which they occur.

MOYERS: Some of your poems are suffused with healing— just the sound of your voice when you read it is a healing experience.

MCCARRISTON: I think that's what people respond to, that it is possible for the people who are damaged to deal. Many, many people suffer cruelly tragic childhoods, and many others who don't suffer cruelly tragic childhoods suffer painful childhoods, but they're all encouraged by the future just to grow up and get over it. So they have all this experience which they can't get over very easily, and it continues to be painful. At times when they begin to confront it, they feel that they're going to be stuck in it forever, and they don't want to be stuck in it forever. Then they begin to ask: Is there a way out? Can one heal? How does one heal? I think it's the possibility of healing in that poem that people have responded to.

Read more poems by Linda McCarriston

Reprinted by permission of David Grubin Productions
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