A Conversation with Honor Moore

honor moore vertical by laura rooseveltLast December, the New York Times asked Honor Moore — poet, memoirist, feminist, peace activist, daughter of Episcopal Bishop Paul Moore, and seasonal Vineyard resident — to write a couple of poems inspired by reading the newspaper. The result was a triptych of poems referencing the Ebola virus and Guantanamo Bay prisoners. (See nytimes.com/times-insider/author/honor-moore/.) Arts & Ideas asked Laura Roosevelt to talk with Ms. Moore about the intersection of poetry and politics. Their conversation follows.

LAURA ROOSEVELT: How did the assignment from the New York Times work?

HONOR MOORE: They asked me to read the paper as a poet and then somehow find a poem or poems within it. I found two stories: One was about the evacuation back to the U.S. of an incredibly heroic Ebola guy [a U.S. doctor who had contracted the Ebola virus while treating patients with the virus in Sierra Leone], and the other was about the release to Uruguay of some prisoners from Guantanamo Bay — two situations in which people were being released. I thought, “This is the experience of reading the newspaper; the coincidence of these releases is probably not going to be on the editorial page.” So I made three poems, juxtaposing these two things. The paper mentioned that after working with Ebola patients in Africa, the doctor would have to pour the sweat out of his boots. What an amazing image. And then I thought of the free men walking through the streets of Montevideo, and what kind of poison they would have to pour from their shoes. That’s the place where the poems happened.

LR: Do you often write political poetry?

HM: I think that all poetry is political, in a sense. Poets speak in voices that are usually hidden; every human being has a kind of hidden consciousness, and poetry is a verbalization of that. Often, poetry can say things that can’t get said in any other way.

I get tired of the so-called split between political poetry and poetry poetry — it’s a very American thing that doesn’t really happen elsewhere. For instance, in 1982, Jonathan Schell published “The Fate of the Earth,” in which he said that you have to imagine — personally imagine — a nuclear holocaust, and then you can be against it in a deep way. So I did: I wrote a poem called “Spuyten Duyvil,” in which I imagined a nuclear holocaust in New York City. I thought, “If you really imagine yourself in these circumstances, then you really have to oppose nuclear weapons.” I had the idea, then, in 1982, that I wanted to put the idea of nuclear holocaust into every poem, because we live with that threat every day. Now, since we’ve had these wars that just keep going and going, and people have become numb to them, war keeps edging into my poems.

LR: In your memoir The Bishop’s Daughter, you discuss how, in the 1960s and 1970s, women needed to begin finding their own voices — distinctly women’s voices — in poetry. Can you talk about the politics of that?

HM: The old framework for poetry was dominated by men, particularly white men. The black feminist poet Audre Lord wrote in an essay that, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” In other words, if you want your poems to change the world, you must come up with your own tools.

I did an anthology in 2009 called Poems from the Women’s Movement that contained poems written between 1966 and 1982. It’s as if a wind blew through women writing poems. My friend Carolyn Forché said that in the past, there was always the blue velvet chair for the one woman poet in the photograph of all the guys … and then suddenly, there were hundreds of us. That’s what the book addresses — what happened in between.

It’s not necessarily that there is a “woman’s way” of writing poems, but if you look at all the most powerful woman poets, from Emily Dickinson, Elizabeth Barrett Browning in “Aurora Leigh,” to Adrienne Rich, Muriel Rukeyser, and Jorie Graham, you will see that all of these people, while not necessarily calling themselves feminists, are attempting to make new forms. That’s the politics of it — how we free ourselves from the constraints of “the master’s tools.”

Of course it didn’t only mean form; it also meant subject matter. One of my very early poems, called “My Mother’s Moustache,” made facial hair a metaphor for female power and memory.

LR: What do you think made you become a political person?

HM: I was born to it. My parents were not, but they became political. It was a part of my growing up to go to demonstrations, and for several years we lived in a low-income black neighborhood in New Jersey. But I would say that I really became political when it was my own life which was on the line.

I went to Yale Drama School for two years, and then dropped out, be cause it felt as though the opinions [of some senior faculty] were the only ones we were allowed to have. It wasn’t useful after a certain point, in terms of an education. Someone told me that there was a new movement in New York City called “women’s liberation,” and I thought, “Oh. Of course.” So I went to New York in search of it. I found some people, joined a consciousness-raising group, then started my own group, then became involved with women poets, and it all just evolved. It was really that I was starting to find my own voice. That’s when I started writing.

I’ve always had the sense that no one who does anything ever does it alone. Blanche Wiesen Cook points out in her biography of Eleanor Roosevelt that yes, Eleanor Roosevelt was an extraordinary woman, but also, she was in a gang of extraordinary women. Even the great male artists were never just working by themselves. I am not the only woman poet who talks the way I do. And this is my politics as an artist: We come out of the culture in which we live with the ability to speak. Of course some people are wildly talented, but also, they’re somehow nurtured and allowed to speak.

LR: And you have spoken in memoirs as well as in poetry.

HM: Yes, I wrote my first memoir, The White Blackbird,
because — and maybe this sounds corny — I found I couldn’t fit my grandmother [Margarett Sargent] into a poem. I was interested in why she stopped painting, and what happened to her when she stopped, but I couldn’t make that happen on the page until I knew how and why she started painting, who her family was, why she didn’t marry until she was 28, what her bisexuality meant, what all the stakes were for her in making the choice to stop painting.

I really believe that we live inside of history, whoever we are. In that sense, memoir can be a very political, consequential form of writing. When I was a girl, the white men were writing everybody — women, Jews, black people, everybody. But then in the ’60s and ’70s, there came all the movements, and suddenly everyone was saying, “Hello, we’re going to write ourselves.”

Memoir is a developing literary form that has met with a lot of resistance. People say things like, “Oh, it’s JUST a memoir,” or “Oh, you’re writing a ME-moir.” But now that memoir is entering maybe its third generation, people are doing a lot of different things with it, the way writers did with the novel, which met with the same kind of resistance when it started in the 18th century. I see the development of memoir in the face of this resistance as political.

LR: What’s next for you on the literary front?

HM: Well, I’m about halfway through a memoir about my mother, and meanwhile, my poems kind of accrete. I don’t sit down to write a collection. In my recent poems, there’s some feeling about aging, and war, and a lot of them take place in locations other than home, because I seem to write poems when I travel. I’ll leave it to other people to figure out what the theme of my next book of my poems might be.

Digital

Sunday no sooner empty
than Monday begins to fill.
Color on a phone screen,
six released from Guantanamo

to Uruguay.  Hours later
another return from the
edge of death, an American
doctor airlifted home,

blood thick with Ebola,
lungs and liver crashing,
forty days, nights, his family
behind glass, as in his dream,

Africa: children play, brothers
whose names are Success and
Courage: in a dark place
they were little cracks of joy . . .

Hard Copy

At the door, Monday’s front page,
in color the American
doctor in Sierra Leone, giant
in white Tyvec, around him

children he helped save.
Though he nearly died, he wants
to go back . . . my skills
meet the need. In column six,

Uruguay release, no photo
till page twelve: black and white,
hospital where the freed
now rest. The president, once

a revolutionary, spent years
in prison, ten in solitary,
says when interviewed: The first day
they want to leave, they can go.

Footwear

He is careful when he goes
into the ward. He went
two or three times a day
for as long as he could stand it.

When he came out to cool off,
he poured sweat from his boots.
Nothing like that from
ex-detainees, though I’ve read

it takes weeks for a prisoner
to get back use of his legs
in freedom. I see a man
walk the streets of Montevideo.

What is the look on his face?
What does he carry?
And what is it that infects
what he will pour from his boots?

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