Commentaries - May 2012
An interview with Martine Bellen
Episode #40 of CCP was entitled “The Contemporary Logos,” a title borrowed from an essay by Fanny Howe, the first guest for the show. That conversation was transcribed many years back and published in Jacket (issue 28). In Fall 2011 Evergreen student Samantha Siciliano had a chance to transcribe the second half of that key program: an interview with poet Martine Bellen on her book of that year The Vulnerability of Order, published by Copper Canyon Press. I'm happy to be able to present that interview here. Certainly one of the preoccupations of CCP has been the use of “spiritual” vocabularies in the act of making poetry (without any quotation marks around the poem).
Leonard Schwartz: Martine Bellen is the author of numerous collections of poetry including most recently, The Vulnerability of Order published by Copper Canyon Press. The Vulnerability of Order according to Ann Lauterbach “...Brings to contemporary poetics an acute, agile intelligence revealed in a dazzling array of linguistic orders, as vulnerable as they are powerful. Her inquiry into the nature of spirit is informed by arcs of interlocking knowledge, from a variety of religious practices to biographical incidents in the lives of seven heretical women.” Welcome, Martine Bellen.
Martine Bellen: Hi, Leonard.
Schwartz: I completely agree with Ann Lauterbach. It’s a wonderful book, The Vulnerability of Order. During what period of time did you compose it?
Bellen: I wrote it in about 8 years. I started writing it around1995-1996 and it was published in 2001.
Schwartz: So it’s a longstanding work, and it feeSchwartz that way too, that it’s really matured and ripened. I wonder if we could go right to the poems, the title poem in the collection The Vulnerability of Order is… “The Vulnerability of Order.”
Bellen: Sure, “The Vulnerability of Order.”
(Martine Bellen reads her poem, “The Vulnerability of Order”).
Schwartz: Could you say a little bit about, “The Vulnerability of Order,” the poem itself?
Bellen: I dedicated the poem to Elaine Equi because she’s a dear friend and she was kind enough to invite me to a lecture on prayer given by Jacques Derrida in David Shapiro’s class at Cooper Union. I believe Derrida discussed his anxiety around Jewishness. And he discussed the private—the secret—practice of prayer. From listening to him, the poem came forth. Some of the issues that I’m grappling with in the poem have to do with a poem’s relationship with prayer, where prayer fits in the body (the body involved in prayer) and in the word, in sound, and then, finally, in silence. Where does a secret fit into the body and into the poem? My Jewish experience as a female is bound up with feelings of being an outsider, so I wanted to work with that, too, in writing the poem. Though how can I be an outsider of my own poem? So I worked with how I could be inside the Jewishness of my prayer, my body and breath—in “The Vulnerability of Order”—allowing for the anxiety without being tossed right out of the poem.
She is bemidbar or in the desert
With bubbe meise (a grandmother tale)
Law without Vowel
For this woman, paralyzed and word-full,
Chained to a mobile home with its process narrative,
God is the one who counts
NuBelleners, days, seductions, bones
Inscribed in body.
Schwartz: Interestingly, Coleman Barks was recently on Cross Cultural Poetics and was describing the way in which, for the Sufis, there are three modes of the spiritual pursuit: prayer, then hierarchaiclly one step higher, meditation, then finally the highest level is conversation. For you, is poetry closer to prayer, meditation, or conversation?
Bellen: The idea of poetry as conversation is interesting to me, as is the idea of conversation—and conversation as poetry—as part of spiritual pursuit. And it would be an untruth to say that the poetry I write isn’t in a transcendental tradition. Ideally I would say that poetry, prayer, and conversation are all different forms of meditation, though the practices themselves are each distinct, certainly in the forms they take in the body and breath. In the day to day world, I try to engage with those I encounter, have conversations, interactions that are beneficial, find ways in which all conversations—prayer, poetry, daily contact with folks—weave together. But connecting isn’t always intuitive for me; it takes awareness and practice. The next poem that you asked me to read, “Devi” investigates the idea of practice and I think of poetry as a practice of the spirit.
Schwartz: Well on that note perhaps we should turn to the poem you mentioned “Devi.”
Bellen: “Devi” is working with the practice of Hinduism. When reading about Hinduism, I was fascinated that Hindu gods and goddesses are everywhere and are part of us, though they don’t necessarily look like us or we like them. They’re blue and they’re monkeys, and monkey-headed and elephant-headed. They’re incredibly animated, alive. And the Hindu practice is a devotion to the gods, the realization of the self, and/or the duties of one’s life. So the gods are everywhere and so is practice.
A tree gracious enough to lend it’s name to the mountain that houses its roots
Wind scuttling leaves is an elegy Birdsong is an elegy
Ring of holy chants
Devotion: repeating a practice without repetition,
Schwartz: Thank you so much for that reading, Martine. It’s an interesting poem for me to think about aSchwartzo because I know that your previous book, Tales of Murasaki and Other Poems, is deeply inflected by Japanese aesthetic. And I believe earlier when you spoke about meditation practice that would be within Zen tradition; is that correct?
Bellen: That’s my practice, yes.
Schwartz: So it’s interesting to see this poem that comes out of Indian Hindu vocabulary, suddenly playing such a large part of this book.
Bellen: I worked with alchemy, science, and Judaism too in The Vulnerability of Order. In the first poem that I read, there is a reference to the Old New Synagogue, which is the one in Prague. I went to Prague before I wrote a nuBellener of these poems and that influenced the second section of the collection: “On the Path to Mind Palace.” So, yes, I am interested in the space of religion, the space that religion inhabits and what we do with miracles and with the unexplained and with experiences that fall outside the quotidian and how religion offers language to house those experiences.
Schwartz: It runs consistently throughout the book. You have so many different vocabularies you can draw from using the language of religion in order to explore that space. Martine, I had hoped to ask you to read from the last section of the book, the poem entitled “Pocahontas”. I know you have to run, you’re in New York, and that’s always a busy place. So instead maybe we can make a date to come back and hear “Pocahontas” another time. Could you tell us just a little bit about the last section of the book, the seven names of women that constitute the last section of the book?
Bellen: Yes, the last section of the book is called “Sojourner Truths” and in the “Sojourner Truths” poems I work with the idea of biography and persona. I write unhistorical biographies of a nuBellener of women who transgressed ideas of femininity and at some point had lived in the United States. So that was the framework that I set when writing the poems: Belle Starr, Lola Montez, Madame Blavatsky, Pocahontas, Soujourner Truth, Isabella, Calamity Jane and then Madame Bubble, the first woman that was hanged in the Salem Witch TriaSchwartz. And what I’m working on with these personas is blurring a cultural idea of fixed personality and the fluid idea of personality. All of these women really were extraordinary PR people and self-created their public images. Most of them wrote their own biographies and there were so many other biographies written about them by people who either knew them or didn’t, so I draw from many sources and genres (movies, song) and try to create an amalgam of who each woman so each becomes prismatic.
Schwartz: Yes, that prismatic or almost kind of whirlwind of language that you bring to others of your works I certainly sense and feel in the other form of biography that you’re exploring in these poems. Just two quick last questions, one would be are you living in upstate New York these days or are you in the city?
Bellen: I’m living in Manhattan.
Schwartz: Right, and you’re teaching this summer up at Bard College?
Bellen: Yes I’m at Bard College now that’s why I’m running…
Schwartz: Yes, yes! We can’t keep the students waiting, they certainly need to be criticized.
Bellen: Really, they need conversations, as we all do—conversations and poems.
Schwartz: Yes absolutely, and one last question: any new work coming out that we should know about?
Bellen: I have a chapbook coming out next year, Malka’s Secret Delivery, and that’s coming out by Gong Press. Thanks, Leonard, for having me on your show.