01 October 2009

Interview with Jane Satterfield

By Lori A. May

Jane Satterfield is the author of Daughters of Empire: A Memoir of a Year in Britain and Beyond (Demeter Press, 2009) and two books of poetry: Assignation at Vanishing Point (Elixir, 2003) and Shepherdess with an Automatic (WWPH, 2000). She is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Literature and three Maryland State Arts Council grants in poetry. For nonfiction, she's received the John Guyon Award in Literary Nonfiction, the Heekin Foundation's Cuchulain Fellowship for the Essay, the Florida Review's Editor's Prize in Nonfiction, and the Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Society’s Gold Medal for the Essay. She lives in Baltimore with her husband, poet Ned Balbo, and her daughter Catherine, and teaches at Loyola University Maryland.

Why a memoir? Why Daughters of Empire?
Good question!

I'm probably what you'd call an "accidental" memoirist. Although I've always loved reading memoir and have been drawn magnetically to any work of nonfiction by poets, I didn't initially "set out" to write one. I started writing essays in response to questions other women writers asked about my experience of pregnancy and birth in the UK and because Jamaica Kincaid's essay "On Seeing England for the First Time" struck me so forcefully: like it or not, I was a "daughter of empire" and I'd given birth to one.

I also found prose to be a welcome break from the lyric intensity and narrative compression of poetry. To my delight, people enjoyed reading them and wanted to publish them. So the book grew organically out of conversations I had, out of interests and subjects I wanted to think through. The essays, of course, differed in length and form, but were linked by a unifying ambition to make sense of the cultural forces that shape women’s identities and lives. I've looked to find intersections between my own family history and that of the larger culture and to tell the truth of my experience. Along the way, I lingered a bit in guilty pleasures, hoping to offer readers a lighter glimpse of mid-'90's Britain with an eye toward its music (the skiffle rock of my mother’s youth, Oasis vs. Blur!), popular culture (football, stone circles!), along with literary detours on the Brontes, Sylvia Plath, as well as the late Angela Carter (for whom I served as babysitter in my Iowa grad school days). The current popularity of memoir, I feel, is less about a writer's desire to "tell all" or the reader's desire to "know all" than it is about discovery and engagement: tracking the journey toward a changed consciousness. 

You explore the concept of 'home' within Daughters of Empire. How significant is a sense of place for one's identity? For the identity of a poet?
Place is crucial--there's the visible reality a writer seeks to honor and the less visible histories that inform and shape both place and inhabitants. Place is the source of our remembering, the site of our witness. As a person with "transatlantic" roots, I've often felt pulled between multiple places and definitions of home. It's easy to think that this is simply a "new world" condition, but it isn't. At the end of the book's title essay, I reflect on a colleague's well-meaning statement: if you've lived in America your whole life, isn't the "exile" metaphor contrived, little more than a "romanticized longing" that should be put aside? Marina Tsvetaeva wrote that "One's homeland is not a geographical convention, but an insistence of memory and blood." In some ways, the book's a meditation on that observation.

How does your poetic voice and style converge with your prose writing?
When I was working on my second book, Assignation at Vanishing Point, I was working back and forth between a highly condensed epistolary poetry and a much more discursive line of thought in prose. Different forms for different moods and meanings. I'm certainly not the first to recognize that poetry is certainly more "portable" than prose: you can carry images and lines with you during the day and, with a bit of luck, revise as you go. It's tougher to drop and then re-enter analytical prose--to sustain voice, narrative, train of thought . . . These days, though, with a teenager, I'm more pressed for time and write shorter, more lyrical prose. I'm working on a new book of poems and have found that I'm writing with greater attention to a narrative arc, something I've learned to do while writing Daughters. I'm also writing more deeply about American places, American experiences, thinking, for instance more about visits to the FBI and Civil War battlefields as a Girl Scout than visits to the moors!

Many emerging writers are told to focus on one genre at a time. How do you respond to that as someone who has successfully established herself as both a poet and non-fiction writer?
The idea of apprenticeship, in the style of the Old Masters, is for some writers, I suppose, very appealing. But I've found that each form extends your ability as a writer and a thinker and I'd recommend it. Musicians, I think, are a good model: they're very steeped in specific traditions but also thrive on exploring rich new veins of material. I wouldn't want to write the same poem or the same essay over and over. I can do that with grocery lists.

You've expressed a keen interest in the ways poetry can bring to life the experiences of women. What might you recommend, then, for young women exploring the poetic genre?
I'd recommend for young women exactly what I'd recommend for any young writer--looking to poetry as a broader way of seeing the world, not simply a way to "express yourself." Poetry is good for that, too, and many writers come to poetry initially to bring their experience to the page. But once you start doing that seriously, and you start sharing your work with readers, you realize your'e working in language and that your responsibility to language itself and the standards it asks for you are higher than you ever expected when you first sat down to the page or the screen. Beyond that, I'd say read, read, read--especially the women poets who open doors for you or suggest ways and mean for your own writing.

Describe your connection with Angela Carter. How has her work influenced you?
Carter was a visiting writer at the Iowa Writers' Workshop when I was there and I babysat for her young son--this experiences forms the backdrop of the chapter "Larger than Life." As a young writer, a poet, I must admit I was in absolute awe of Carter's fiction and her presence as a person of letters--someone involved in multiple conversations (on multiple fronts) about art and culture. Hers was the kind of essential influence exerted at a distance rather than through a close mentoring relationship. By the time my daughter reached toddlerhood, Carter’s prose had been collected into a single volume, Shaking A Leg. I was rather unglamorously divorced and teaching full-time without the security of tenure, beginning to write essays of my own as a way of making sense of my experience of motherhood, taking up conversations, staking out sides on the “mommy wars” (the old and tired arguments that pit working against "stay at home" mothers, as if one must choose a side). Whatever subject she touched (and her journalistic assignments, ranging from fashion to film, were many), her style--edgy, authoritative, ever-questioning--creates a powerful impression of a mind at work on the page.

How would you describe your experience at Iowa Writers' Workshop?
These days, I think back with great nostalgia to dollar gin and tonics after classes, to whole days spent reading and writing. Of course, there were rough days--hard work, self-doubt, blizzards. But there were wonderful teachers, wonderful workshops, and wonderful friends (I've been lucky to reconnect with old classmates, lucky enough to marry one).

You've experienced the workshop setting both as a student and an instructor. How would you prepare a young poet for the workshop experience?
I took a workshop about ten years ago with Dinty Moore, whose guidelines for workshop included two important imperatives. Participants were asked to 1) read each piece of professional or student work with the goal of answering the question "What can I--as a writer--learn from this piece?" and 2) be kind and honest (the two, Moore insisted, went hand in hand). These are important shared values in a workshop setting. The mutual admiration society and the relentless competition club are two equally awful extremes. As a professor, I run a textually-based workshop--reading work-in-progress is deeply connected to careful reading of literary works that serve as models for the kind of work students are creating. One of my colleagues, Shakespearean scholar Bob Miola, visited my First-Year Honors Seminar to discuss an essay he'd written for First Things. Like the students, he'd faced the uncomfortable challenge of moving from scholarly writing to autobiographical writing. He spoke frankly about the editing process--he felt, he said, that ultimately, "your readers improve you." That comment changed my students' perception (and fear) of workshop.

How would you describe your involvement in the literary community as a whole? What activities do you participate in and how would you recommend emerging writers find a sense of place within the writing community?
Aside from teaching and mentoring students, I've enjoyed working as a reviewer for Antioch Review for many years--a great way to think through my own ideas about craft and bring attention to the work of other poets. It's something I think that's well worth doing to help create and extend the literary community. Recently, I've taken over Rishma Dunlop's slot as literary editor for Journal for the Association for Research on Mothering. I'm enjoying the chance to discover vibrant work about all aspects of mothering. I think literary conferences are wonderful to help build community. I had terrific experiences as a scholar at Bread Loaf and as a fellow at the Sewanee Writers' Conference--the conversations, workshops, and friendships that took place were absolutely integral to my growth as a writer.

What are you reading now?
Since I've started practicing hot vinyasa, I've been enjoying Elizabeth Kadetsky's First There is a Mountain: A Yoga Romance. Also, Kate Moses' Wintering, Michael Ondaatje's In the Skin of a Lion, Christopher Ricks' Dylan's Visions of Sin, Paul Muldoon's The End of the Poem, and a terrific gift from my husband, Peter Terzian's Heavy Rotation: Twenty Writers on the Albums that Changed Their Lives.

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Lori A. May is the Founding Editor of Poets’ Quarterly. Visit her website at www.loriamay.com.