Marsha de la O is the author of Black Hope, winner of the New Issues Press Poetry Prize, and the newly published Antidote for Night, winner of the Isabella Gardner Poetry Award. She and her husband, poet Phil Taggart, produce poetry readings and co-edit the literary magazine Askew.
Antidote for Night is so rich with imagery and characters and incident. It’s a beautiful book, but it’s also very dark. Thank you! Regarding dark material, I believe that any poet writes what he or she has been given. This is my material because this is what I was given. It’s important to regard the totality of your life as a gift, and important for me personally as a writer to feel that any experience can be rendered.
Along those lines, there’s a noir element to your poetry. It’s easy to imagine a character in a Raymond Chandler novel holed up somewhere reading Antidote for Night, a cigarette burning in an ashtray, a glass of bourbon sitting next to a loaded .38. That’s funny! I love to imagine that — maybe Marlowe himself, preternaturally alert, the book open on the divan, waiting out a long, tense night for what he knows is coming. Of course, above all Marlowe loved T.S. Eliot, and there’s no displacing The Waste Land or The Four Quartets. As for noir, it’s a literary form indigenous to Southern California, which has since spread all over the world, so why not draw from it as a natural part of our heritage?
Anyone who has ever heard you read your poems aloud knows that your voice takes on an incantatory quality. I almost feel as though you’re going into a trance. Do you imagine the poet as a kind of seer? Actually, I don’t so much imagine the poet as a kind of seer; I think the nexus of incantation is located in language, in the poem itself, and when the poet takes up and voices those words, we all might get to a different place. We’ve always asked language to perform in multiple ways, specific functions that differ from the ordinary. Magic is precipitated by special language, by magic words, by incantation. And what is incantation? Well, it’s related to song, related to the power of music; cantar is right there in incantation. However, when I was an elementary school teacher, I took a series of workshops on storytelling in which each of us had to present a tale, and the storytelling leaders said, “Oh, you’re a trancer …” And I asked if that was bad. And they said, not necessarily.
It’s always interesting for me to think of you as a former schoolteacher. I don’t associate the startling immediacy and rawness that I find in your poetry with elementary school. But then again, maybe that’s shortsighted on my part? There’s a real compassion in your work, and children can be pretty honest at times. It’s not shortsighted at all. There is a fundamental contradiction between being a schoolteacher and pursuing a writing life. One subsumes the other. Teachers give 110 percent of themselves to their classrooms. It wasn’t until after I left that job that I was able to turn toward truly honing the manuscript into something that could become a book. On the other hand, I want to acknowledge that teaching gave me insight into the courage and dignity of the lives of children and families in my classroom.
Can you talk a bit about the difficult business of selling a book of poetry? Poetry is a niche community, an aural art in a visual age, but it’s also an ancient art, one that connects us to our beginnings, one that still carries potential mythic power. Yet, with the disappearance of the bricks-and-mortar bookstore, the simple act of picking up a book of poetry, opening it to a page, realizing that something there speaks personally, that essential tactile encounter can’t happen as much. That’s why I’d like to acknowledge Chaucer’s Bookstore here in S.B. It’s a cultural treasure, supports local authors, maintains shelves of poetry, and everything else. Antidote for Night is available at Chaucer’s — what an honor!