“Poets should always take public transportation”: An Interview with Maureen Thorson

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MetroDCIn her second book of poems, My Resignation, Maureen Thorson immerses us in the story of two people figuring out how to start a new life together. Her poems are finely textured, moving, and often humorous. She has a keen appreciation for the quirky natural detail or odd snippet of conversation that perfectly captures a moment—and her work shows us again and again how those moments add up to our lives. Maureen is also the author of a previous book, Applies to Oranges, as well as a number of chapbooks, and the founder of NaPoWriMo, an annual project in which poets attempt to write a poem a day for the month of April.

Matthew Thorburn: Would you talk about your process for writing the poems in My Resignation and putting this book together?

Maureen Thorson: The poems grew out of little notes and quotations that I jotted down in the months after my husband and I first moved in together. I knew I wanted to make something out of them, but I also wanted to preserve their “present-ness” by not reworking the individual snippets very much. So I ended up typing all the notes into 11×17, four-column sheets, trying to preserve as much as possible the formatting of the original, handwritten notes. Once I had four sheets filled, I printed them out and started drawing circles between bits and pieces that felt emotionally or narratively connected. I refined the poems by adding interstitial stanzas, or remixing bits of separate snippets together. For the final section of the book, which takes place three years after the moving-in period with which most of the poems are concerned, I relied less on this collaging process, but wrote more directly.

It took about five years to put the book together. Many of the first drafts I discarded, or folded together in trying to get a narrative arc that wasn’t forced, and which felt true to the sometimes fractious emotional process of becoming a couple.

Thorburn: More broadly, how does a poem start for you?

Thorson: Generally, they do start with little notes. I keep cheapie notebooks on me at all times, and will sometimes just stop in the middle of walking somewhere to get a thought down. (I find if I don’t write it down as soon as I think it, it just disappears). I don’t ever really sit down and write a whole poem. I sort of build them up over time, riffing on something I’ve jotted down, and coming back to it over and over and adding pieces or taking them out or rewording them.

Thorburn: In addition to being a poet, you’re also a lawyer—as well as a publisher and book designer. How do you balance these different pursuits and make time for poetry? And do you ever find that your poem writing and your legal work overlap or influence one another?

Thorson: I’m less and less of a publisher and book designer these days! It’s about all I can do to keep up with my day job and still write poetry. I mostly write by making use of “interstitial” time—my commute, for example. I think poets should always take public transportation. You can’t write while driving, but you certainly can write on a subway or bus! The writing process I’ve developed—that of collaging and remixing notes—has been shaped by time pressure. I don’t really have the luxury of sitting down and thinking about a poem for several hours at a go.

I used to think that my legal work didn’t influence my writing, but lately I’ve been working on lyric essays that use a lot of the same structure as legal arguments—citation, quotation, etc. And every once in a while, some random factoid that I’ve come across at my job will find its way into a poem.

Thorburn: What are you working on now?

Thorson: Right now, I’m mostly working on those lyric essays—they all center on a quotation from Aristotle, and deal with women, eyes, mirrors, dreams, illness, truth, authority, memory—the topics seem to keep expanding! Bloof Books recently published three of them together as a chapbook, and another one will be coming out this summer in Drunken Boat.

I’m also tweaking a manuscript of poems that rely a lot on internal rhymes—they’re feminist, and kind of pre-apocalyptic. I’m sort of interested in the Victorian didactic model of poetry—where you wrote a poem because you had some sort of specific lesson to impart, and you made it rhyme to make it easier to remember. These aren’t exactly didactic, but I think of them as anti-lyrical, in that they are not trying to be ambiguous or delicate.

Thorburn: What have you read recently that moved you?

Thorson: Fani Papageorgiou’s Not So Ill with You and Me and Kathleen Ossip’s The Do-Over. Both books are concerned, though differently, with grieving, with “moving through” a loss. I admire how both poets make logical and attentive connections that don’t feel overwrought—you don’t feel hammered into their poems’ conclusions; rather, they guide you into insight, and into recognition. They reproduce the act of thinking—although with better phrasing than actual thoughts would have!

Read two poems from MY RESIGNATION here; view a video of one of the poems here.