Remembering Marthe Reed

Editorial note: We were saddened to learn of Marthe Reed’s passing last spring, and in the weeks following her death, Jacket2 editors reached out to Linda Russo, who with Marthe is coeditor of the recent volume Counter-Desecration: A Glossary for Writing Within the Anthropocene. Linda responded by sharing with us excerpts from a panel that convened at the October 2018 &Now conference in Notre Dame, Indiana, devoted to Marthe’s work. A note on Marthe’s work and those panel excerpts appear below. More on Marthe’s poetics and legacy will appear in Dusie Kollektiv— Kenna O’Rourke

Note: Marthe Reed (1958–2018) authored six books, including Nights Reading (Lavender Ink, 2014), (em)bodied bliss (Moria Books, 2013), and the collaborative Pleth (Unlikely Books, 2013), with j/j hastain. She copublished and served as managing editor for Black Radish Books, and her poems have appeared in Jacket2, Tarpaulin Sky,  New American Writing, and elsewhere. The coedited Counter-Desecration: A Glossary for Writing Within the Anthropocene appeared with Wesleyan University Press in October 2018. The Operating System will publish Marthe’s Ark Hive along with an Ark Hive/Archive memorium and is currently seeking submissions. And what would you say if you could, a chapbook memorium, is available by donation from Frog Island Press. Below are excerpts from a panel presented at &Now 2018, which reflect Marthe’s spirit. — Linda Russo

On paying attention

I first read the intro to Harryette Mullen’s Urban Tumbleweed only recently, and thought it an appropriate place to begin. Among other things, in the intro, Mullen writes:

What is natural about being human? What to make of a city dweller taking a “nature walk” in a public park while listening to a podcast with ear-bud headphones? What of a poet who does not know the proper names of native and non-native fauna and flora, who sees a “yellow flower by the creek” — not a Mimulus?” 

Mullen offers a poetic meditative lesson in paying attention, that beauty and learning can be found in unexpected places and moments, and even what seems to some not-beautiful can teach us about ourselves and the world. 

Marthe referred to Urban Tumbleweed during our Round Table: City as Place, a conversation that begins with Ed Roberson’s City Eclogue. This is what poetry, and poets, do: circle around, make connections, find beauty and/or critique, make us think more deeply. 

We lost Marthe way too soon. Her work in the world left so incomplete. Her kindness and generosity lingering in the stories told remembering her. She had so much more good to still do. As a white middle-class person, Marthe, it seems to me, felt responsible to work for change where she could. To combat economic, racial, environmental, political injustices. She paid attention. Practiced social justice in publishing others’ work, in her own work, in her political activism and community involvement. 

We’ve collected some work by and about Marthe into a small chapbook, available here, that speaks to a depth of feeling she carried through the world, and that shows in her writing, her social engagement, her concern for others, and her focus on the hope or potential for a different and better world. —  Jill Darling 

Marthe Reed, an unlikely revolutionary

Marthe Reed was in the world in ways that I did not always understand, consistent and understated, the kind of person that, if you weren’t careful, you could take for granted. That would be a mistake.

As an activist, Marthe challenged and disrupted injustice on various fronts. Counter-Desecration is one example. Her editorial and poetic work with Black Radish Books is another. Her teaching and parenting are still others. Her support of political campaigns is one more. There are many.

Marthe’s advice often was the encouragement people needed to get on with a project, to move ahead and keep going. Since her death, I have heard this from so many poets. She nurtured their art, their political engagement, their work — whatever it was. She didn’t have to try.

And Marthe was fiercely inclusive. She diligently supported women, the trans community, writers from all backgrounds, children — not as a political statement, but as a human one.

Marthe made us all — every friend, colleague, artist, activist, student — feel visionary. She told us that we were capable. She read and valued our work. She gave us a publication date. And through all of this, Marthe maintained her own writing practice. She wrote, collaborated, taught, managed a press, crafted reviews and letters of rec. She baked pies that were one third Norman Rockwell, one third Julia Child, and a third Wayne Thiebaud. She traveled, she gardened, she loved.

This film is a short tribute to Marthe’s memory and a work in progress. The poets in this clip are (in the order of appearance) Laura Mullen, j/j hastain, Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, Thomas Moylan Keck, Sarah Rosenthal, Linda Russo, Jennifer Firestone, Jesse Nissim, and myself. If anyone would like to send a thirty-second video, I will gladly add your work to the tribute. Marthe would have liked that; her work still brings people together. — Dana Teen Lomax

Marthe Reed’s making in and as boundary layer

Robin Wall Kimmerer writes of mosses and of the advantages of being small, of being able to coexist in the boundary layer, the layer of life closest to the earth’s crust, where one is sheltered by grasses from wind, by tree canopy from sun. In the boundary layer mosses find stillness that is not stasis and little pockets of shade, often their own, where transpire little drops of water. The boundary layer is our first and last line of protection; it is the first and last site from which we will resist. As I thought about the two-year process of making Counter-Desecration, I realized that in Marthe’s ethos was the architecture of the boundary layer that was crucial to its realization. In “boundary layer” there is “our.” In her afterword to Counter-Desecration Marthe writes: 

When we dwell on individual experience and awareness, we lose track of the rich connectivity that characterizes all life from the interaction of cyanobacteria, minerals, water, and light in the biochemical accretionary structure of stromatolites to the dynamic flow patterns and cross-currents of a crowded city street, its sidewalks and denizens. Indeed, each distinct network is enmeshed in all the others, behaviors and responses recalibrating within surrounding activity, always in flux. The sustainability of life-as-we-know-it demands that humans focus their attention away from one self, one community, one species, outward into the vast net of being.

Marthe was always ready to be a “we,” to make possible an “our.” She lived her individuality as a powerful smallness that was the largeness and largess of a boundary layer. The glossary is but one of the many ours that got life because of her creativity, advocacy, and compassion, and for these, for her, I am grateful. — Linda Russo

Swerves into poethical pedagogy and the spirit of Marthe Reed 

I’m afraid to write because I don’t know what to write. I’m afraid what I write will be wrong or less than Marthe deserves. Actually, I know what to write and it’s too painful.

Dear Marthe, I miss you, your eye, its manifolds. 

“Chandeleur Sound” changed me — how it yoked art and action, poetry and citizenship. It spoke about the relationship between the natural world, human endeavor, and corporate recklessness. It showed me how a poet can occupy the world and how poetry can constitute values and manifest the world.

A complex realism (cf. Retallack) requires complex pedagogy. A poetics of complex realism requires a pedagogy of complex realism. A pedagogy of complex realism requires a praxis that entails feminine forms and motivations (cf. Retallack’s “:RE:THINKING:LITERARY:FEMINISM:”).

I remember Marthe’s poetry workshop at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette where we read Negro Marfil, Humanimal, and Shot. Necessary books. I think about how Marthe’s sense of poethics helped curate a space — transitional, interrogative, playful, open, destabilizing, metonymic (cf. Retallack) — that allowed each participant to find, compose, their own poems, own selves. It allowed for figuring out, breaking down; the mess of time and place, language, being. It was where I started writing poems that felt like me, or the me I wanted. 

Dear Marthe, I agree that writing, thinking, and teaching are “inherently political.” How can they not be? I agree that “we all have the same obligation … to make our choices conscious and explicit, informed and compassionate. To see our actions as part of a web of associated choices and actions.” (“12 or 20 Questions”) 

A poethical pedagogy focuses on how creative writing and the literary arts not only express but also foster the character, the humanity, of both the writer and the reader; moreover, it focuses on how creative writing and the literary arts can work to turn writers, and readers, outward, to enact their humanity, and to construct the present, a “(chaotic) continuous contemporary” (Retallack), not only as writers and readers but also as citizens.

Dear Marthe, I’m here because of you. You were exactly the mentor I needed. And will continue to need. Thank you. — C. S. Carrier