An Interview with Plum Ruby Review's Featured Poet

Margaret Muirhead

Margaret Muirhead is, as of yet, a relatively unknown poet, with her work appearing in only a handful of journals, most notably the South Carolina Review and the excellent Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet. Margaret's poems are carefully constructed scenes, giving the reader a peek into a keyhole world of beautiful ideas, surging emotions and a familiarity so comfortable that it may also be just a tad bit disconcerting. Her poetry conveys a sense of agelessness—each piece enables the reader to become both child and adult, remembering the playfulness of a toddler, the angst of puberty, the hindsight of wisdom and years passed. Her poetry draws directly upon the human experience, creating an accessibility that will doubtless endear her with what Plum Ruby Review suspects will be an ever-widening and highly appreciative audience.

Plum Ruby Review: Tell us a little about yourself. Who is Margaret Muirhead?

Margaret Muirhead: I'm a freelance writer and editor who lives in Arlington, MA. I grew up in New Hampshire in an old house that my parents sold a few years ago, which is now rented to a fraternity. The beer-soaked Lazy-Boy recliners on the front porch kind of break my heart, but I think I'm digressing. I took a lot of fiction courses in college (one with Lorrie Moore, whom I adore). In my twenties, I lived in San Francisco and worked for a small, independent book publisher (which paid a pittance but offered a lot of free books). Then I moved to North Carolina to attend the writing program at UNC Greensboro and I received an M.F.A. in 1995. (I lived in Virginia for a while, too). I moved to Boston in 1998 with my husband and just recently started writing poetry and children's picture book stories. My son Abe was born in 2000.

PRR: Why do you write poetry?

MM:I think of myself mostly as a fiction writer, because I started writing poetry only in the last four or so years. I always loved reading poems, however. I'm sorry to say but I think I write poetry when I'm feeling crabby and kvetchy and in a generally bad temper. I just want to sit there in my dyspepsia for a while and really enjoy it. Writing is a nice chance to be unfriendly and bleak—all the things a polite person (like myself, really) is not supposed to be.

PRR: Why the late start?

MM:I was suspicious of poets, having grown up as a fiction writer. In grad school, there was a clear distinction between the two. As fiction writers we seemed to think we were tougher and more clear-headed (something about writing plots?) and regarded the poets as people who were generally sexy with slinky hair and interesting drug problems. Secretly, I snuck out all of the handouts from the poetry seminar so that I could read what the poets were writing. Basically, like a lot of people, I love to read poetry and eventually that made me want to write it.

PRR: What has kept you inspired?

MM: Mostly reading, but riding the bus is a good source of inspiration, too.

PRR: Are there particular poets that you admire?

MM: Lowell and Bishop, Alan Dugan, Thomas Lux, Ellen Bryant Voight, Christine Garren. Also my friend David Blair, who is local and runs a reading series at the New England Institute of Art and Communications. He writes beautiful, and also crass, poems, which is an excellent combination.

PRR: Did, or do, you have specific mentors?

MM: I thought Harold Bond, who taught at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education was a wonderful teacher. He died in March 2000 and I really miss him. I have since met former students and fans of his at random everywhere. I wrote "Continuing Education" with him in mind. I also think of Jim Clark, who runs the MFA program in Greensboro, NC that I graduated from in 1995. A great teacher and barbequer, which is probably not a word. Also Samuel Mockbee, who was an architect and painter, who ran the Rural Studio in Alabama that designs and builds houses for families in Hale County, AL—a big-hearted person who used art to make life better (and more fun) for people.

PRR: Why was Harold Bond such a strong influence for you? Has his passing affected your writing in any way?

MM: He was an old-school critical reader and a bit cranky, and at the same time, very encouraging. I liked how matter-of-fact he was about whether a poem was or was not good.  And he created a bit of a community through his classes and poetry readings and you could take his class for not a lot of money, which I really appreciated. Harold died the same week my son was born, which has always seemed like a strange turn of events to me. I'm not sure his death affected my writing, but it did take me a while to find some new readers that I can trust to tell me if something is awful or decent.

PRR: If you think of yourself primarily as a fiction writer, how would you characterize the types of stories that you write?

MM: Character-driven, often about families, probably far more earthbound and humorous than any poetry I write. I also write manuscripts for children's picture books, which I am drawn to for reasons similar to why I like poems—they can be compact and deliberate like a poem and the best are unsentimental, but they emphasize humor and you can spend a serious amount of time considering whether the skunk or the possum should ride a skateboard or pogo stick—the kind of writing dilemma I can really sink my teeth into.

PRR: Many fiction writers write poetry, and in fact, there is quite a bit of fiction writing that could be described as poetic. How do you see the two genres tying together and interrelating? What is the correlation between your fiction and your poetry?

MM: Narrative poetry is a lot like the little moments in a story, but in a poem, you don't have the same restrictions. You don't have to stick to what a particular character would do or what makes sense for a plot—you can change point of view, scene, or image instantly. I think lineation—and what poets can do with it—still mystifies me. I basically rely on the structure of sentences over lines or rhyme to make a poem. I just like a sentence—it makes such solid grammatical sense. I think when I write fiction, I can spend an unhealthy amount of time working on the sound of a paragraph. But you can spend that kind of time on a poem—it's not as ridiculous.

PRR: The poems featured in this month's Plum Ruby Review are often tied to a sense of place, that of New England and the Boston area. Do you find that this is true of much of your poetry?

MM: For me, everything is about place. Not just New England , but upstate NY with all those Greek Revival towns and mineral spas and also California and the South, where I've also lived. I have a real tendency to confuse houses with living beings. I usually write about places after I've left them and I start to miss them.

PRR: How much of your work tends to be autobiographical? Why?

MM: Most of it is at least somewhat autobiographical. But even when it isn't, I like to write from the first person or address someone specific to me.

PRR: What is your philosphy regarding poetry in general?

MM: I don't really have one, except that I don't care for poems that are really prosaic in language and sound. I think if you want to write a sentence, just write a sentence. Why squander an opportunity to use sound and weird words you don't get to use when you're writing prose?

PRR: Your poetry has a wonderful specificity and attention to detail. How do you capture these moments?

MM: I have a good associative memory, so I generally remember details like the statue of St. Francis in the corner of the back yard of my best friend from kindergarten and the little metal rivets on her favorite pants that I thought were nails and hoped weren't hurting her legs—details that are utterly useless except in writing. I can't remember dates or the names of actors or baseball players or movies, which would be useful. I think I use detail when I write because I am trying to capture something (a weird feeling, a smell), but can't, so details are as close as I get. Smells hit such a primitive part of the brain and they are almost impossible to describe.

PRR: On the average, how long does it usually take you to create a poem from thought to completion?

MM: Five minutes. I'm just tempted to say that. Really maybe a day or two and then I put it in a drawer and let it grow mold and then rewrite. I'm just learning how to be a re-writer, which I think is a separate skill from writing. I've killed a lot of things from over-tending.

PRR: Do you feel that poetry comes more naturally to some people than others...or is it a skill that can be taught?

MM: They aren't exclusive of each other. Some people write more naturally, just like some people have a better ear for music or a better memory for the names of plants or are good at needlepointing. I think there are a lot of skills that can be taught and if someone wants to learn, why not? For me, I think reading things I like is probably the best way to learn how to write.

PRR: Could you tell our readers about your writing process and practice?

MM: I am erratic and inconsistent about writing, which I don't recommend because it isn't particularly careerist, but I still like to be that way. If I get an idea, I'll stop doing whatever else I'm doing to write. I switch back and forth between writing poetry and fiction and essays. If I'm stuck on a story, I'll work on a poem. If I'm stuck on a poem, I'll work on something else and so on, until I'm stuck on everything. Then I'll have a bowl of cereal.

PRR: And probably the most difficult question of all—in general, why do you write?

MM: I would probably just be a talker because I love to talk, but there are a lot of moments in the day when everyone's too busy to chat, so that kind of leaves me to my own devices.

Read Margaret Muirhead's poetry here.


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