Mary Jo Salter photo by Marina Levitskaya

Passionate intensity, quiet unfolding, excited language -- whatever the formal elements, it's a poem's particular energy that stays with me. Fragments of my earliest reading materialize in memory's ear, kinetically intact, sometimes even intensified. This kind of memorable energy courses through Mary Jo Salter's chain of sonnets "The Surveyors."

As fall gave way to winter, and winter to more winter, Mary Jo and I exchanged emails about her writing and her life, the multiplicity of endings in poems, time-jumbling, the sonnet as ramble, and poetry's particular remembering.

SUSAN GILLIS: How did you first come to poetry?

MARY JO SALTER: Through my parents.  They were both literary, in oblique ways.  My father was a master's degree dropout in the English department at Berkeley, before turning to the advertising business--another way of working with words--by the time I was born.  I used to love trying to come up with slogans, really fast ways of saying something snazzy, the way he did.  Thanks to him, I never looked down on puns--I still love them.  My mother was actually the more literary parent, though she wasn't a writer until, in her last bedridden years, she started writing Emily Dickinson-like poems that went straight to the heart of life.  She had always foisted books on me, eye-opening books like "The Catcher in the Rye" was I was 12.  My mother was a painter and sculptor, but she was the one who walked around with poems in her head, and who wasn't afraid to quote them--Robert Louis Stevenson and Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll.  She wouldn't say, "It's time to do your homework;" she'd say, "The time has come, the walrus said, to speak of many things..."  She was also, I see now, a model for me of the legitimacy of being a female who created things.

Never once did my parents make me feel that I was wasting my time when I wrote a poem (the first one at age 7) or played the piano or drew a picture.  Never once did they ask me how I was going to make a living doing such useless stuff. They took me to museums, to the theater and to the opera before I could understand what I was seeing or hearing. Only now do I realize how rare that was.

SG: “The Surveyors” begins with an excerpt from a letter that describes a poem the letter-writer dreamed you had written. “Does this poem exist?” your friend asks.

In the poem’s opening lines, you look back over the landscape of your life – a rich one, lived and literary – from a point in time as though from a point in space, and confess that the poem your friend has dreamed is not one you have written.

Or is it? As the poem develops, “the chain / gone taut, then running out, over and over,” your poetic attention sweeps panoramically across the landscape of memory and imagination, settling finally on the present, at which point you aver that although you’re sorry to say it, “ The Surveyors’ does not exist.”

With this paradox, the question that occasions the poem has become the question that haunts the poem: what does it mean, to exist? Does taking stock, surveying, provide an answer to that question, or is the paradox itself the answer?

MJS: I’m going to take a circuitous route in daring to answer this question.  “What does it mean, to exist?” is a particularly thorny question for poets, because we tend to live in the moment less successfully than other people.  We’re obsessed with both mortality and immortality. 

Mortality is expressed by poetic technique itself, because poems draw attention to explicit endings—of the syllable, the foot, the line, the stanza or verse paragraph, the “Book” or chapter, the whole.  We can never discount a poem’s measurements—and finitude; and if we’re reading the printed page, that finitude may be visually perceived (especially in short lyrics, where we can survey beginning, middle, and end in one glance).

Not only that, the entirety of what we poets produce is mortal.  Poems (even the longest ones, like the next-to-immortal Paradise Lost, which I write about in “The Surveyors”) do end, and so, in time, does their seeming relevance for most readers.   Despite plenty of evidence in the contemporary world that poetry does not matter and will never matter to most people, we poets who are not Milton continue writing in the hope that at least a few of our poems will exist—that is, will not be forgotten by absolutely everyone on the planet forever.  Life may be a sequence of moments that exist and then pass—life is the present; but a poem is a wager betting on the existence of the future.   And a future that remembers the past.

What I love about the form of a sonnet crown—in which the last line of each sonnet must provide the first line of the next, and bear repeating in some new way; and in which the first line of a long poem is, from the outset, projected as its final line—is that it asks us to honor past, present, and future, though not necessarily in that order.  The sonnet crown is a form that seems almost overdetermined, and yet allows you to ramble—a sense of wandering I wanted in “The Surveyors.”   Rambling can be funny, and I hope that here and there my poem is amusing.  Existence isn’t lived in one mood; the nearly slapstick moment near the poem’s end where I say goodbye to my adult daughters (“My children jumping too high on the bed, / landing on college campuses”) made me laugh through tears as I was writing.

I had no idea, beginning the poem, that this jumping-on-the-bed image would occur near the end of it.  But I did know, very soon after Matthew Yeager asked me whether the poem he’d dreamed about, “The Surveyors,” existed, that I wanted to write about Adam surveying the future, with the help of an angel, from the high hill in Paradise Lost.  “Survey” in my poem was going to mean what it means etymologically, seeing from above.  I’m not the first reader to call blind Milton’s vision cinematic in its sweep and in its swooping “up” and “down” in the cosmos, but let me say at least that this vertiginous tumbling act has moved me for many years.   I’ve always loved, viscerally, goose-bumpily, the way Milton uses the literal height of a hilltop (space) to survey time (the future of human beings).  Your question got at this perfectly—almost telepathically!—when you said I wrote “from a point in time as though from a point in space.”  “The Surveyors” was, among other things, my opportunity to salute Milton for doing this, and also to steal some of his time-upending tricks—so that, for instance, in the poem I give birth to my daughters before Eve gives birth to her sons.

As I implied in the poem, Matthew Yeager is a much younger friend; he could be my son, if I had one.  He gave me an excuse to clue the reader that I know that the world I remember (America before cappuccino) is already too long ago for some adults to remember.  And even though my poem is lengthy by most standards, I hope its time-jumbling suggests the speedy leaps of the brain in remembering any too-short life, not just mine.  In the poem, I relive a Sunday morning at age sixty, walking around Zagreb with my second husband, a few stanzas before describing a vivid memory (inaccurate, it turns out) from age three.

“What does it mean, to exist?” is what you asked, and I went immediately to the question of whether certain poems might exist after the poet’s life.  But I also have to stress that for me, existence is inextricable from literary experience.   I can’t place myself, in the second stanza of “The Surveyors,” in that coffee shop of my college days without sooner or later picturing a volume of Henry James in my hands.  To read is, for me, at least as much an experience as the most extreme physical activity.   Yet I acknowledge in “The Surveyors” only a few of the writers who are essential to me.  Good grief, where’s Dickinson?  In a truly Dickinsonian paradox, I’m sort of glad she’s not there—because I never wanted to write a poem too conscious or too planned or too hierarchical a summing-up of what matters in my one existence.  It would be a bad poem.

You were struck by the final assertion in my poem—that “The Surveyors” doesn’t exist.  But of course now such a poem exists; the first line of the poem denying its reality told the truth, but when the line recurs, it lies.  Poems do that; strangely, we like not being told one truth that excludes other truths. What this particular poem’s ending asks warily, almost superstitiously, is that IF a poem as summary as “The Surveyors” existed, would it only confirm the poet’s fast-approaching non-existence?  Am I close to finished surveying my life through poetry—finished with the literary work I have (so far) identified so strongly with existence itself?  It’s bad enough that I’ve had to let a particular poem, this crown of sonnets, go.  However complete, however “full circle” the poem may appear, I’ve left so much out.  And that’s true of any person’s life, too—it leaves so much out.

SG: Do you find it hard to leave things out, to decide what to leave out? Does what's left out speak sotto voce from the shadows? Or is leaving things out more like carving away excess to reveal an illuminated whole? And then, does leaving things out open the way for new poems?

MJS: I do view leaving things out as “carving away excess to reveal an illuminated whole.” What is being illuminated, then? It’s the shining fact of a thing to be paid attention. Our attention in daily life is of course dulled and diffused by habit, even when we think we’re alert. Painters sometimes help me understand this better than poets. Even a Vuillard interior, a flat-surfaced, busy paean to 19th-century French bourgeois daily life, in which the patterned wallpaper clashes with the textures in the old woman’s dress and the designs in the china teapot and the Oriental rug, is leaving things out. And so we must pay attention to what’s “left in.” I love Vuillard partly because he’s so abstract, celebrating those piled-on colors and textures in themselves, forcing us to watch them swim against each other, with no “meaning” imposed; and yet I love him also because he conveys, wordlessly, an exasperated love for humankind’s complacencies.

At the far end of the stylistic spectrum—minimalism would be one word for it—I think of a “conventional” but freshly observant Japanese sumi-e painter who paints in relatively few strokes a timeless, unnamed high mountain. He leaves untouched (as Vuillard never would) a lot of white space above the mountain—as if to say, I have no idea what’s out there, only that it’s big. Yet both of these painters are waking us up.

In my own poetry, I’m striving in the micro sense (that is, in the “frame” of the single poem) to leave out everything that is extraneous, as a way of paying attention, paying homage even, to some fact about life, or within life. In a recent poem, I was training myself to concentrate on the blossoming white dogwood whose petals took up the whole canvas, so to speak, of my bedroom window. Looking at it, thinking about what it “meant” to me, and thinking about words were all I was doing as I was writing the poem. And that’s right. But there’s something bigger I ought to be doing every day: thinking beyond any now-characteristic subjects…

“What am I avoiding?” is a good, hard question to ask. Fear and self-doubt and engrained habit are the not-so-admirable reasons we leave things out; we often limit ourselves for reasons that have nothing to do with being understated or elegant. I feel I ought to become more aware of the choices I make not to write whatever I have no idea how to write. While accepting my limitations, I should be working especially on poems I don’t know how to write.

SG: What's the funniest thing you've encountered recently?
MJS: Without a doubt, a newly-released book edited by Philip Hoy for Waywiser Press: A Bountiful Harvest: The Correspondence of Anthony Hecht and William L. MacDonald.  I’ll soon have a review of it in The Hopkins Review, if any of your readers would like a look.  I knew Hecht very well, and MacDonald as an acquaintance only: we were sometimes fellow guests at dinner parties in Hecht’s home in the 1980s.  Hecht is renowned for his dark poems exposing human cruelty, as exemplified especially in the Holocaust; MacDonald was an eminent architectural historian, especially of the Roman period.   But when not wholly engaged in their serious professional projects, they were both hilarious.  In fact, shockingly silly.  They wrote whole letters under fake identities and pretenses, as when Hecht refuses MacDonald an (imaginary) academic job because “What we really need at present is a nice Gemini and a couple of Scorpios.”  They ran for years and years a contest as to who could type their letters on the best and most offbeat letterhead stationery.  Everything from the Tom Sawyer Motor Inns to a glassmaking factory in France to an unwitting colleague’s personal letterhead was fair game.  So were rubber stamps: more than once, Hecht stamped letters he’d written with the legend WEIGHED AND FOUND WANTING.  I can’t remember a funnier book.

SG: What's inspiring you these days?

MJS: There is virtually nothing inspiring on the American political scene these days, but one of the few bright spots is the movement among schoolchildren—after the Parkland, Florida school shooting—to shame adults into passing stricter gun control laws.  Mass protests and walkouts and appearances on TV and op-ed articles are never enough; nothing is ever enough.  We probably will not see tremendous change.  Nonetheless, we must try, because too many adults have shirked our primary duty in life: to protect the lives of the young.  Let those young people shame us into action.

In an entirely different sphere, I’m inspired by watching the top tennis pros.  Another sport could have illustrated the point just as well, perhaps, but tennis happens to grab me, and here’s what it says: Never give up.  Inner pep talks don’t come naturally to me, as is evident for what I’ve said about gun control.  But I love the dogged resistance to the odds that a great champion embodies: you can be down 0-5 in the third set, but you don’t give up because the future hasn’t happened yet, and you are partly in charge of it.

I’ve written a poem of giddy infatuation with Roger Federer, but I’ve never succeeded in writing a poem about guns.  That’s what I meant earlier—we poets need to ask ourselves all the time: “What am I avoiding, just because I don’t know how to do it yet?”

Never give up.

Mary Jo Salter is the author of eight books of poetry, most recently The Surveyors (Knopf, 2017), Nothing by Design (Knopf, 2013), and A Phone Call to the Future: New and Selected Poems (Knopf, 2008). She is also the author of a play, Falling Bodies (2004) and a children’s book, The Moon Comes Home (1989). A British edition of her selected poems, It’s Hard to Say, was published in 2015 (Waywiser Press). One of three editors of The Norton Anthology of Poetry (4th edition, 1996; 5th edition, 2005; 6th edition, 2018), Salter was elected a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2013.  She is Krieger-Eisenhower Professor in The Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University, and lives in Baltimore.