HER KIND welcomes Karen Biscopink and Maria Maloney to the conversation. Meeting each other for the first time, they share what it means to be a twenty-something emerging writer, living in the San Francisco Bay Area, and a middle-aged writer, mother, and organic gardener in the desert of El Paso, Texas. Read on and leave room for the unexpected.
Karen Biscopink: I struggled just now to create a subject line for our email conversation. I feel so certain that this will be fluid and energetic and beautiful. To title our correspondence (before it has begun) felt premature and scary. So for now, I’ll open simply with a hello and a virtual hug, with a sense of excitement to now know you.
The last several weeks have posed an interesting challenge to my poetry. I’ve begun a new job at a start-up in San Francisco. The days are rigorous and lengthy, and the parameters of my job require me to exercise intense organization, supreme focus. In essence, the hours I spend in the office are a constant embodiment of the verb “to control.” An office manager and executive assistant, I need to keep the machine oiled and, if it the machine does break, I must minify the disruption as quickly as possible.
My coworkers, who know me primarily in the context of our office, are both aware and supportive of my dual life in poetry. A few have asked how these two (seemingly) dichotomous aspects of my identity function together. The answer to this question, I feel, is so perfectly embodied in the quote Arisa sent us:
“To enjoy freedom we have to control ourselves.”—Virginia Wolfe
The restraint and intensely left-brained focus of my workday has resulted in a beautifully separate writing space. It is in fact because my job is so supremely of “control” that my poetic life has begun to flourish after hours. My psyche craves the balance of creative release after a day at the office, and the time I capture at night, in my studio apartment, becomes a verdant, nurturing thing. There is an intricate hinge between freedom and control, and for me, it is called balance. To have discovered this has opened my poetry in surprising ways.
I wonder, Maria, about your writing life—how it interacts with your daily life (or if they are one and the same), how control factors into your poetry, what motivates your creative explorations. . . . I feel that I’m uncovering new truths about process and form on a daily basis, so I’m really excited to learn with and from you.
Maria Maloney: It is early as I write this. The house is quiet except for the hum of distant traffic and the chirping of waking birds. I woke up with a sense of urgency after realizing it is now the 11th and I’ve yet to tackle the subject of freedom and self-control—subjects that seem to elude me at the moment as I struggle with the distracting aspects of middle age. It appears that I have finally reached the perimenopausal milestone, and my body, this body that I have known so well is suddenly a stranger.
I find myself “out-of-control” as I struggle to keep my body and mind connected, because there is no freedom when the body and mind disconnect from each other. Anxiety over the aging process quickly demoralizes the body, as I am quickly learning, and while I am no stranger to milestones and transitions, I am suddenly left with the uneasy feeling that this circumstance will require more than a change of diet and exercise. It will require purposeful thinking and serenity—agents that demand a sense of sense-control.
Here is where I stand at this point in my life, Karen. Add three growing children, a husband, a press, a house, a garden. The act of self-control, therefore, becomes imperative in my life if I am to enjoy the abstract connotations of the word freedom, and if I’m to continue to create an artful life.
I will write a bit more later, and to answer your question, Karen. There is so much more here to shift through . . . .
And I wonder, Karen, what truths you are uncovering?
KB: Maria, I have been thinking about your email all day. It came at such a good time.
The relationship between age and control (personal, artistic) has also been very present in my consciousness lately. I feel like we are approaching the same challenge from shifted landscapes. What you said rings so very true, and I find myself nodding aggressively at my computer screen: “Anxiety over the aging process quickly demoralizes the body.” On Monday, I turned 27 years old. As you mentioned, these types of milestones are laden with meaning, and every year I find myself reflecting heavily on the ways in which I transition as a woman and as a writer.
Inspired by Yoko Ono’s “Grapefruit,” I’ve been writing a poem at 11:59pm each year, one minute before I am “officially” older. (This year the poem was, of course, called “turn 27 as you write this poem.”) The poem itself is a tangible marker of a self-evaluation I find important. What I’ve noticed, in reading these poems consecutively, is that I find myself suspicious of my mind’s clout. What could I, at 27, possibly say with certainty?
I have read often that people consider their twenties to have been entirely without control, a period of time that they shudder to recall. Certainly, I have been no stranger to the ridiculous missteps of the urban twenty-something, and I find that I judge myself harshly for moments when control has been lacking. This intense awareness (fear?) of my age plagues my writing as well; themes of uncertainty, self-censorship, and shame recur like the chorus of a hymn.
I wasn’t aware that this was part of my work until I was enmeshed in my thesis, something I worked on ceaselessly and more lovingly than any other endeavor in my life. The rift between mind and body, then, became my obsession. My mind yearns for a place of control, which I have always associated with age. But my body is participating in a decade of (hyperbolic) disaster, which perpetuates a sense of childishness.
Someone pretty recently told me, “You will be a great writer when you stop trying so hard to grow up.” I think about this too frequently, and while I’m not entirely certain I have untangled its meaning, the advice did open a tiny door in my writing. I am trying, as many do, to sit within myself, to be present and mindful of the current “Karen” that is poet, that is person. The result has been surprising, in that my poems have become more outward facing. Environment plays a greater role than confession for me now; observation and abstraction have taken over for emotional unloading. In short, there is a new peacefulness in my poetry, which has formerly been fraught with an undercurrent of worry, worry, worry.
I love the determined, solid way in which you speak about what lies ahead. Your call to arms for “purposeful thinking and serenity” have given me a great feeling of encouragement—this, too, is exactly what I need to channel.
Will you tell me more about your press, your garden, and your poetry? I imagine that there is much beautiful linkage between all of the rotating pieces you’ve mentioned, and, after waking up to the gift of such a thoughtful email, I’m really excited to hear as much as you have time to tell.
MM: I smile as I read your email, for you touch upon a subject that is ageless—the relationship between age and control, and the desire to constantly re-evaluate the self and one’s writing. The latter is perennial, and with every calendar year upon my shoulders, the writing becomes a reflection of my years. The law by which I govern my daily life is re-evaluated and re-negotiated. What I deemed important yesterday no longer applies today.
It is evident, then, when I reflect upon my writing how much I have changed. This doesn’t trouble me as much as it used to. I accept that “change” cannot be controlled. I accept that part of being in control is giving oneself permission to feel out of control. My day is filled with such moments, and my poetry reflects it. I leave room for the unexpected—cognizant that I can pull it back together, if needed. I don’t think I could do what I do if I didn’t balance my day with such moments. I don’t think I could have reached my middle years, sanity intact, if I had not allowed room to meddle in and around confusion. Even as I tackle (often impatiently) some of the most distressing aspects of middle years, I am aware that my mind-set, negative or positive, will ultimately determine my quality of life.
To answer your question, I started Mouthfeel Press (MFP) four years ago, not only because I’m a poet and I love poetry, but also because I have a publishing background. Furthermore, I was aware of the under-representation of certain groups in the poetry-publishing world and the lack of publishing opportunities in the Texas borderlands. With this in mind, I set out to create MFP, and my world. Inspired by Gloria Anzaldua’s Borderlands: The New Mestiza, I wanted MFP to reflect, or be a metaphor for and of open borders. MFP was created precisely with the word “freedom” in mind. Freedom to push the boundaries of form, language and subject. (And I will write more on this again tomorrow.)
I garden early in the morning. It is impossibly hot after 9am. Also, gardening early gives me an opportunity to mentally schedule my day before my children wake up. I tend to my organic garden like I tend to my children and poetry—tenderly, lovingly and patiently. There is a sense of order and disorder in my garden. I mix and match, group opposites together, flowers grow alongside vegetables and giant sunflowers shield the more fragile plantings. My garden is what I would call an “intuitive garden.” I do the opposite of what the gardening experts advise, and not because I’m a gardening rebel, but because gardening in the desert requires highly intuitive and drastic measures—in other words, a new set of rules.
I would love to read your birthday poems, Karen. Already, I love the approach and exploration of your method.
It takes discipline and self-awareness to be able to do what you have already done, Karen. I’m wondering how much time do you devote to poetry? How do you disengage from running an office to being a poet? How do you negotiate your roles?
KB: “I leave room for the unexpected.” I love that you say and do this. Your quote reminds me a lot of Kathleen Fraser and her poetry, which incorporates “error” as something exciting, surprising. Her work has been really influential for me; she writes about trying to break her habits as a poet by constantly shifting techniques, approaches, and writerly rituals. Using her work as an invitation to explore the unexpected, I was able to extend my understanding of poetry well beyond the realm of the narrative. Leaving room for the unexpected seems so akin to the joy of poetic experimentation!
Speaking of joy, I think of your question about navigating as an office manager and poet. I’ve found this interesting, humorous space where I let the two fully interact. In short, I’ve written poems about my working life since my first Silicon Valley job as a receptionist. I sent them to my co-workers as little, funny gifts and couldn’t believe the response. People loved them, printed them out, kept them in their cubes. I hadn’t anticipated this response, largely because non-poets frequently tell me they feel disengaged from the poetry world. But when I wrote a sonnet about flushing my security badge (accidentally!) down the toilet, I suddenly had a group of people clamoring to read more. My co-workers (past and current) have been so supportive of my writing, and that makes all the difference when playing these two (quite different) life roles.
Since finishing grad school, I’ve had to work hard to carve out a writing practice. Admittedly, there were a few months post-thesis when I barely wrote at all. I felt so satisfied with what I had accomplished, but also devastated to no longer have such urgency about writing a collection. And as so many had predicted, the loss of an immediately accessible workshop (or group of kindred spirits) left me feeling a bit “at sea.” It is only in the past few months that I’ve started gathering myself up again, striking out in the quiet of my apartment against a self-inflicted writers’ block. Finding a community, through conversations like ours, through readings and events, has made me feel welcomed into a whole new writerly scenario, one that extends well beyond the confines of a particular campus. Thank you for helping me feel this sense of community and conversation again!
I know we are reaching the end of this particular dialogue (which I hope will be one of many!), but I would love to hear about your interactions with other writers. I know you have the beautiful artistic community created by your press—does this extend to your personal poetry as well? Do you have a group of readers you keep close to you? I read a quote recently (whose source I regrettably cannot recall) that one should be careful in discussing writing projects, as the discussion can negate the need to do the actual writing. I wonder about this and would love to hear what you think.
MM: We have approached the end of our conversation. I hope we can continue in some shape or form our discussion. Feel free to write anytime the need strikes you. Part of the freedom is to write when the necessity of it is there.
I live in fragments, Karen. My day is filled with pockets, bits, shifts. I have been utterly lucky to have my community of poets who accompany me through this journey and who embrace who I am as a poet and as a person.
I’m uncomplicated and direct. I’m not a philosopher and my poetry does not pretend to be anything but of language, a recording, and presence—at least I hope it does. I embrace poets like Brenda Coultras, Julianna Spahr, Rosa Alcala, Emmy Pérez, Susan Briante, and Dolores Dorantes. I love poetry that has a sense of immediacy, where the language unfolds (or appears to) unfold organically, a pointing to—
I was never interested in pursuing a career in academia. I wanted my world and writing to flow outward and unfold into a larger, organic community. Here is where form takes place, and here is where our limits are tested, and it is so easy to fall prey into not writing. I have survived the outside, unsheltered by academic walls, by being part of a community of poets, and through my press, I have sustained my relationship and conversation with the academic community as well.
I applaud you for balancing your poetic life with your work at the office. How wonderful that your colleagues have stood steadfast with you and supported your poetry. In short, you’ve created a community of readers. Creating a writing life outside of academia can be taxing because the boundaries between writing and the quotidian are well-defined, and yet, it’s the space you’ve chosen to occupy and create.
Like me, our challenge is to blur the boundaries, to redefine our border, or embrace a borderless life.
Karen Biscopink is the managing poetry editor for Switchback. Having just finished her MFA in Poetry at the University of San Francisco, she is creating an intricate balance between dual roles as start-up office manager and poet. Her work has recently been published by the Hayden’s Ferry Review, and more of her writing can be found at her blog, Conceptual Reception, conceptualreception.blogspot.com.
Maria Miranda Maloney is founder of Mouthfeel Press. She is a poet and writer from El Paso, Texas. Her poetry and essays have appeared in various national journals and newspapers. She contributes regularly to the Smithsonian Latino Virtual Museum blog and organizes virtual writing and poetry workshops. Her chapbook, The City I Love, was published in 2011 by Ranchos Press. Maria is married and mother to three children. Between writing, publishing, and photography, Maria enjoys growing her organic, vegetable garden. She comes from a long line of women healers, entrepreneurs, and migrant workers. Maria has a BA in journalism and an MFA in bilingual creative writing.