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Mary Jo Salter

Photo of Mary Jo Salter

Photo: © Mike Malyszko

About the Author

MARY JO SALTER was born in Grand Rapids, Michigan. She was educated at Harvard and Cambridge and taught at Mount Holyoke College for many years. She also served as poetry editor of The New Republic. In addition to her seven previous poetry collections, she is the author of a children’s book, The Moon Comes Home, and a coeditor of The Norton Anthology of Poetry. She is Andrew W. Mellon Professor in The Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University and lives in Baltimore.

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Author Essay

From the April 2001 Knopf Question-a-Poet Contest
1. When you began writing the poem "A Kiss in Space", did you compose the basics of the poem beforehand, or did it write itself when you looked at the photo? –Holly Williams
Mary Jo Salter replies:
"A Kiss in Space" was a rare poem for me, in that I remember its inception exactly. I would never have written it if I hadn’t seen the photo in the New York Times of the Russian astronaut on Mir welcoming our American astronaut with a kiss. I think it was the blurry quality of the photo, even more than the moment it captured, which gave me the uneasy, though happy feeling that I was about to write a poem. Somehow, a sharp picture would have been much less evocative of the distance between us and the astronauts–and would have given me much less freedom. Because the photo happened to be reproduced in a newspaper, the image of clipping an idea down to size presented itself. Most of the poem’s details–seraphs, sonograms, Atlantis, Plato–came barely consciously. I did make a willed decision to give the stanzas of the poem a blurry shape, to imitate the feeling of looking at the photo. I wrote this poem before the "first" poem in the book, "Fire-Breathing Dragon," which describes another elevated kiss, in a hot-air balloon. Believe it or not, I didn’t remember "A Kiss in Space" at all until I was finished writing "Fire-Breathing Dragon." Only then did it seem inevitable that they should occupy the first and last (though inverted) positions in the book.
2. After many readings of your lovely poem "A Magnet" two questions come to mind: does the rhyme scheme come to you with the first writing or does it develop after many drafts? I particularly love the three rhyming verbs that knit together the three stanzas: "stamped", "slipped" and "crossed". The second question is this: In Italian there is a word, "scarto" that describes how a poet "discards" a particular word in favor of another word. It’s not quite like a Freudian slip, but works somehow similarly. (both consciously and subconsciously). A scarto occurs for me as I read the first line of the poem: "Since she was two, it had held up her end", where my mind continues to want to read "hand" in place of "end". Did this occur to you as you were creating the poem, or is it just something that’s happening to me as reader? Finally, I appreciate how you utilize details to make the poem come alive; they make it believable, palpable, real! Thanks for sharing it and your other poems with us. –Adeo Nicolai
Thank you so much for giving me the handy term "scarto." I didn’t know the word before, but I have long wanted a word for exactly the technique you describe. In an essay about Emily Dickinson, I noted how often she uses what might be called "unwritten puns": for instance, when she writes, "All the Heavens were a Bell," she may also want us to think that all the Heavens were a Hell. I’m assuming that Dickinson usually did this consciously–though I may be wrong. I am honestly not sure whether or not I intended "held up her end" to suggest the held-up hand as I first started writing the poem; but yes, I did mean that by the time the poem was finished. As for rhymes, although I love very off-off-rhymes I’m not sure I would classify "stamped," "slipped," and "crossed" as rhymes. I did intend them to have a parallel effect–but do we have a precise word for that effect? On the other hand, I very much hoped the reader would hear "crossed" and "fist" as an off-rhyming couplet, to suggest that the scattered and irregular rhymes of the poem are moving toward closure, like the two hands joining.
The process of finding, or choosing, or making, the title for a collection of poems is different for each writer. The titles for your collections, to date, have been memorable. What is the process you go through to finally end with a title for an upcoming collection, and how do you determine when a collection has achieved the wholeness you are working toward? — J. Martin
I’m glad you find my titles memorable. I keep a little list in my head of titles by other people that I wish I could have used first: for instance, A. Manette Ansay’s "Read This and Tell Me What It Says." Title-writing is sometimes a separate skill from book-writing, I find. Some of my favorite authors employ very bland and interchangeable titles; other writers I don’t care for much have come up with some winners. I do think that titles, both of poems and of books, are key opportunities to convey all sorts of things–very often, ironies–to the reader. I would never title a poem "Untitled".
I’ve never been sure early on what a new book was going to be titled. I worried with my first book, "Henry Purcell in Japan," that since Henry Purcell never went to Japan I might seem ignorant to the readers I didn’t even have yet. But the title conveyed strangeness, and much of the book concerned my own feelings of strangeness when living in Japan. My second book’s title, "Unfinished Painting," came fairly naturally; one poem described a real unfinished painting by my mother–whose own life might be considered "unfinished," as she died young. "Sunday Skaters" was perhaps the hardest title to come up with–I remember worrying that it might seem too cheerful and leisurely for some of the darker poems in the book. Again, though, it focussed the reader’s attention on poems set in another country–this time, Iceland. "A Kiss in Space" was fairly inevitable, once I’d noticed how often in the book I took an aerial view (whether literal or figurative) on experience. I have no method or process for titling books, though perhaps I should. Basically, I come up with a few alternatives and poll my most trusted literary friends, including my very friendly and helpful editor, Ann Close. And I hope that no title sounds too much like my others.
How many drafts of a poem do you typically write before the poem is finished? –Barbara Blossom Ashmun
Your question is interesting but hard to answer, as I imagine every writer has a different idea of what "draft" means. If you mean to ask how many drafts I write of a poem after I have a whole, complete version, I’d say pretty few; I tend not to make sweeping changes at that point. But along the way I write dozens of what you might call half-drafts. I was comforted to read in an interview Richard Wilbur gave that he does what I do: after he has written a few lines or even stanzas and isn’t sure where to go next, he copies the very same lines over again, hoping that the next time he’ll be propelled forward. It’s like getting a running start on a diving board, and then not diving, and going back and running again however many times you need to before you dive.
The least time I ever took to write a poem I liked well enough to keep was a single afternoon. The most time I’ve taken has to be the 12 years I carried around a folder with drafts toward a poem meditating on the Book of Job. In the end, that folder shrank to just a few lines within a poem set in Australia, "The Seven Weepers."
When you finish a poem, what do you find that you have learned in the writing of it? –Joe Coberly
I suppose the first thing I learn when I finish a poem is that I was able to finish a poem. I don’t mean to reply flippantly: I mean that I genuinely fear when I write a poem that there won’t be another one. I gather this is a very common experience, even among writers so distinguished and prolific that you’d never guess they had such fears.
The second thing I usually feel is elation that the poem is a good one. I don’t see how you can go on as a writer if you don’t allow yourself this brief luxury of elation. Usually, no more than 24 hours after I finish a poem, I begin to feel all too aware of its limitations. Balance between euphoria and despair sets in if you begin to believe genuinely that this is the best poem you were capable of for now, and that this is OK. That’s a personal wisdom to strive for, apart from learning new ways with language.
Sometimes, I "make myself" read poetry that I normally would not like, or that is outside my comfort zone. For example, one of my favorite poems is "When You Are Old" by W. B. Yeats. It is short, but full of imagery and evokes great feeling. I read other things like e.e. cummings that are totally different in style and feel.
Do you do anything similar such as read things that are "outside your comfort zone?" If so, what? –Ken D.

I like your notion of a "comfort zone." Interestingly, though, the poem you mention as one you didn’t expect to like, Yeats’ "When You Are Old," was one of my favorite poems when I was very young. (He wrote another poem very much to the point, "The Folly of Being Comforted.") At the age of eleven I began copying out into a notebook some poems I particularly wanted to memorize. Another Yeats poem I copied out was "After Long Silence." Thinking back, I’m amazed that I went for a phrase like "bodily decrepitude is wisdom." Or maybe I just whizzed past that one so that I could arrive at "young/ We loved each other and were ignorant." I think I must have been dazzled by anti-sentimental words, like "ignorant," planted in a poem of such strong feeling. Certainly, decrepitude and ignorance were beyond my comfort zone–and yet I read that poem again and again, along with other unlikely lines like Robert Frost’s couplet "The old dog barks backward without looking up./ I can remember when he was a pup." Why in the world, I wonder, was that child reader worrying about aging?
As an adult I’ve had ample opportunities to read outside my comfort zone–as a college and grad student, following somebody else’s syllabus; as an editor, reading poems by strangers; as an anthologist, walking a fine line between favoring my own touchstones and acknowledging the historical importance of certain "great" poems I don’t like much. Sometimes the poems we don’t "like" turn out to be turning points. It’s good for us to read this way, don’t you think? Better for us than oatmeal or exercise or all the other uncomfortable things we’re supposed to like.
When you write, do you find that your words appear through formless inspiration and in between consciousness and sleep, or do you make use of literal memory and actively aim to document an idea or an emotion in the most concise diction, syntax, and meter that you can create? –Gil Soltz
Much has been written about the importance of dreams to the making of poetry, but I’m even more interested in that blurry time you mention "between consciousness and sleep." I’m jealous of everybody who regularly remembers dreams. I rarely do remember them, unless I’m awakened suddenly by a loud sound, say, or by a nightmare. Because I don’t remember many dreams, I’ve become particularly attached to the illogical thoughts one has in the minute or two before sleep or after waking. Only this morning, on an overnight trip, I woke up in a hotel and had absolutely no idea where I was for a full two minutes. It’s during such moments–as I write in a poem called "Wreckage"–that I try to elongate the fuzziness, and the attendant weird metaphors and wordplay, for as long as possible. All too soon the normal world, with its morning news and its coffee and its to-do lists, can suppress one’s imagination. (One nice thing about reading the newspaper early: sleepy readers are more prone to misreading, and sometimes the misreadings jump-start poems.) So, finally, in answer to your question…I guess I’d say that I do use literal memories in writing, and I do apply my conscious mind to crafting that artificial thing, a poem–but I hope that I have gotten myself thoroughly confused first.

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