The 'process notes' pieces were originally solicited by Maw Shein Win as addendum to her teaching particular poems and poetry collections for various workshops and classes. These pieces and process note by Linda Norton was part of her curriculum for her Poetry Workshop at University of San Francisco in their MFA Program (https://www.usfca.edu/arts-sciences/programs/graduate/writing-mfa) for Fall semester of 2022.
Norton on her poems for Fanny Howe and Bill Corbett; and on writing Wite Out: Love and Work
Thank you for reading and sharing and teaching my work, Maw, and for inviting me to reflect on it here. I'll start by talking about the two poems you mentioned in your email to me (they are connected by way of Boston, Bill Corbett, Fanny Howe, John Wieners, and painting, which makes me wonder why you chose these two out of so many. Did you see or intuit these connections?).
"My Mystic" is of course a list poem; it's a love list about and a love letter to the poet, novelist, memoirist and filmmaker Fanny Howe. Though of course I have friends who've given me encouragement and feedback, I consider Fanny Howe the only writing mentor I've ever had. Our relationship started long ago when I solicited a manuscript from her for our New California Poetry series at the University of California Press, where I was an acquisitions editor. Slowly I came out of the closet as a writer, and Fanny became my great reader and advocate (tart, skeptical, fond, and encouraging).
Fanny and I have nothing and everything in common. She is older than I am, and grew up in a Boston Brahmin world that fascinated me when I was a kid on the other side of the tracks in Dorchester. She is a Catholic convert and I am an apostate. She is a poet, whatever she is writing, and I identify as a writer more than as a poet, even when I am writing poetry. We are both Irish, she through her Anglo-Irish mother, the actress Mary Manning, and I through my father and his mother, an impoverished Catholic immigrant to Boston from County Kerry. We’ve both lived in Boston and New York and California and have spent a lot of time in Ireland. We're both single mothers, romantic solitaries surrounded by children and, now and then, men. I wanted in this poem to capture the dynamic between us—the love and comedy and contradictions and occasional disagreements and misunderstandings, and our New England-ish spirits.
This poem owes a debt to a poet and book I love a lot: Patty McCarthy's marybones. I reviewed the book for Jacket2 because I just had to; it seemed written for me, and I knew I could appreciate it in a way that maybe no one else could. (That said, I once heard Paul Hoover give a page-by-page explication of the book that caught all sorts of things that I missed, perhaps because I was too close to the subject matter and feeling of the collection.) History, womanhood, motherhood, abjection and delight—these are my themes, too. "My Mystic" owes a debt to McCarthy's propulsive rhythms in marybones, and these lines in particular refer to a passage in the book that I found brutally moving:
mystic might have been named Affliction or Delight if born at sea in 1620.
Or, two centuries later, out of Cobh and mad in steerage: perhaps Theresa.
I like the fact that everything in "My Mystic" is rooted in actualities and specifics of my relationship to Fanny, anecdotes we've shared, things I have noticed and written in my notebooks over the years (she really did buy a plot in Mt Auburn Cemetery, which made us both look forward to her death for a minute—it's one of our favorite places! But I think she has changed her mind now about where she wants to be buried). Despite the factuality, the poem reads as a bit of a fairy tale, perhaps because Fanny is a mystic and I am not? And because we are always laughing while talking about loneliness, suffering, and the profane.
I struggled with every word of this poem, and with the lineation, and especially with the last two lines (I had to research the Gnostics and the Cathars to get at what I wanted to say about me and Fanny and religion).
I don't think I have much more to say about the "My Mystic" except that there's a tricolor Irish flag embedded in it; can you find it?
Fanny Howe and Linda Norton, Zinc Bar, NYC, 2019. Photo by Katie Ebbitt
My mystic is not old enough to be my mother.
She yells "No!" when she laughs at my jokes.
She can’t keep anything down and doesn’t drink, except for whiskey, wine, and water.
My mystic is her father’s daughter.
My mystic has her own monk, a hermit who had his own monk.
Out on a boat on
the Atlantic with a friend, tossed around, my mystic screams
with laughter when they don’t drown.
My mystic has an
early edition of Proust in a closet with her sheets and towels.
Any house sitter could steal it, but no one does.
My mystic picks at her croissant in the dark, Swann’s Way in her lap.
My mystic wants to
know all about my men, so I tell her and she groans,
and then we talk about the new Pope. She thinks he has a humble face.
From her apartment
we can see an orange neon sign across the Cambridge green.
At dusk it tints the dirty snow. My mystic used to run in and
out of that hotel lobby with her best friend, stealing candy.
Now children crawl
all over my mystic. In the pockets of her vest
(the color of their red toboggan) they find hard candy.
My mystic is a sister. Is lilacs. Is toast.
My mystic has
already bought her plot.
My mystic is both the crone and the infant in the fairy tale.
My mystic is a
fairy. She flies everywhere but leaves no carbon footprint.
My mystic has a device. Children text my mystic from L. A., Dubai, Oxford, Paris.
My mystic might
have been named Affliction or Delight if born at sea in 1620.
Or, two centuries later, out of Cobh and mad in steerage: perhaps Theresa.
My mystic has lips
the color of a rose named for the Cathars, who had but one sacrament:
"Begin in Blue"
"Begin in Blue" is a poem for Bill Corbett,
my publisher and an old friend of Fanny's. He was the center of the poetry
world in Boston for decades, and a mentor to many terrific writers including Fred
Moten, Maureen McLane, and Jhumpa Lahiri. He died in 2018. Bill loved
Sienese painting; so do I (my favorite is Sassetta). Bill and Fanny were also
friends with the great Boston poet, John Wieners, who grew up a few parishes
over from me in Boston, where the puritanical
Sunday blue laws were enforced until not so long ago.
Robert Creeley comes into it because I knew him (we published him at the University of California Press) and he knew Wieners. My brother Joey's name belongs in any gay poem about Boston and John Wieners (RIP, Joseph A. Norton, poet, who died of AIDS at 24 in 1986).
The first poetry readings I ever attended were given in small rooms at Yale; Creeley read, and Ashbery. I remember being confused about where their talking ended and their poems began. And whether I even belonged in the room. "Begin in Blue" is just talking in poetry and prose.
That's all the backstory except for the actual
inspiration for it, a visit by poet Laura Mullen to
the Bancroft Library where I worked in the oral history office for fifteen
years. I was on the front desk when Laura came looking for material about the
eucalyptus grove on the University of California campus in Berkeley. She was
doing a project for an eco-poetics event. I found some materials for her and then
sat down to read Wieners' chapbook Pressed Wafer (for which Bill Corbett named
his press, where he published my first book, The Public Gardens: Poems and History, in 2011).
Fanny Howe and Bill Corbett in NYC (photographer unknown).
Begin in Blue
The blue of her robe . . . reads above all as a flat silhouetted shape—a deep infinite midnight blue, large enough to lose ourselves in . . . this very dark blue creates unparalleled effects . . . almost of hypnotic trance; it is as though we are being invited to worship not so much the Madonna as the Blue.
Timothy Hyman, Sienese Painting
I’m reading John Wieners’ chapbook, Pressed Wafer, at one of the giant tables upstairs in the archives where I work, when a visiting scholar asks for help with research. And that’s how I learn that, in 1882, landscape architects at the University of California designed a eucalyptus grove for the Berkeley campus (a grove through which I walk once a week). Tasmanian blue gum trees were planted as a windbreak for the cinder running track. They grew and grew, non-natives making themselves at home. To one who’d never seen a eucalyptus tree, the grove smelled like cough drops.
Wieners was a
Boston boy. Later, in San Francisco, he wore blue eye shadow and sold heroin
packed in matchboxes the size of a palette of eye shadow—false eyelashes, glued
one above the other on his forehead—cockeyed Caucasian—
Eyelids the color and shape of the leaves of the blue eucalyptus near the track where the beautiful athlete, also a Joseph, also a John, breathing hard after a sprint, does not look up at the plane from Boston passing over the track—
Boys in California know nothing of priests in long skirts shoveling snow, winters invented by Emily Dickinson—
The Blacks and the
the grove as artifice—
Robert Creeley recorded a version of "A Poem for Painters":
"With want of it"—
"despair is on my face"—
"showered by the scent of the finish line"—
The golden boys
protected by tall trees—
blue blood—blue eucalyptus—blue-lined paper—
"beginning with violet. I begin in blue"—
"My middle name is Joseph"—
"grove" (copse, thicket)—
A coppice—spinney—brake—for the broken—A grove: a stand of trees with little or no undergrowth—So here’s the floor, all clear and still, a thicket—"cold hell"—
Grave Love Leaves
Torn tickets in
the eucalyptus leaves, pants in the trees—
Who walks through the grove in winter rain? Pants decomposing in the decomposing leaves— pants, and a dog—
This was after the
picturesque era, before Free Speech— "Books in the running brooks,"
books in the trees—
roars with the snowmelt coming down from Truckee. The train back to Boston
leaves at 3:00.
Across the "enormous" country—passing a car filled with Beats, ascending, going where Beats don’t go—
Climbing into the
mountains he leans out the window, his ears pasted back like a dog’s—like a dog,
submissively free— submission is different
there’s no force.
In the Rockies they close the windows now because so many travelers have been decapitated leaning out to see the trees—but the windows were open then, so he
Wite Out: Love and Work: On Writing to Myself (For You)
story has to leave out nearly everything or nobody can follow it.
A musician named Sonny Rollins—see, if I were writing to myself
I would not be explaining that to myself . . .
Wite Out: Love and Work, like my first book, The Public Gardens: Poems and History, is a hybrid work of prose and poetry. But in Wite Out the prose is heftier, covering a much longer period of time (1997-2016). The themes of the book (race, African American culture and history, white supremacy, class, womanhood, trauma, religion, marriage and divorce, love and sex, motherhood, place, and music and books) become fairly explicit when woven through the narrative. Wite Out is 80% prose, 20% poetry and lyric essays; the prose is the bezel for the rest of the text. Implicit in the format and the poetics of the prose is my work in the visual arts (collage), documentary, and history.
I've had Marcella Durand's poem from the Brooklyn Rail taped up over my desk because I'm trying to write a craft essay about the choice to write my own books in the form of diaries—a form in which I can never "explain" things to the reader, because one doesn't explain things to oneself in a diary. Yet through indirection, foreshadowing, the comments of other characters, etc., I had to give the reader everything they needed in order to understand the characters, the narrative stakes, and the way the poems and lyric essays in the book relate to the prose memoir.
To Marcella Durand by Marcella Durand
Well, honest Marcella, how fare you now at
My view is of a bridge over water: I swear the world
has sped up. I write not to myself because who am I
but to you in the past dear John Clare a poet like myself
who is looking at a bridge that maybe you would
have been horrified or impressed by. A musician named
Sonny Rollins—see, if I were writing to myself I would not
be explaining that to myself—a musician named Sonny
Rollins treated the view from this bridge as a composition
sheet: he read the city lights (because now not only are
we electrified but we are everything electric) as musical
notes and from that found melodies, that is what it is like
to make art from the environment around me. Making
a composition from the city of others that is about me.
(Shared here with the poet's permission. The poem, inspired by "To John Clare", is included in Durand's book, The Prospect. You can find Durand's review of Wite Out, commissioned by editor Albert Mobilio for Hyperallergic, here.)
If I'd understood my own ambition for Wite Out at the start, I wouldn't have chosen that form—it was too
hard! But now that it's done, I think it's okay. I'll just do something
different for the next book. I keep a long list of all the things I left out of
Wite Out. The people, the incidents,
the twists and turns. Some relationships in that book lasted for a year or
more, but appear to be brief in the book (making it look like I was very
efficient about ending relationships); other important relationships aren't in
it at all. Sometimes it feels like a lie to write anything!
It was hard to write about race in such personal terms, and I was terrified and determined to do it. My editor said about the arrival of one character in Wite Out (in the year the narrator, me, turned 50), "Shouldn't you say, 'He is Black,' so the reader knows?" No. Let the reader figure it out. (“Eddie is white, and we know he is because nobody says so,” writes Toni Morrison, re: Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not, in Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination.)
I just finished reading Chantal V. Johnson's Post-Traumatic and I can't stop thinking about it. In an interview the narrator talks about upending the clichés of the trauma narrative, the big reveal, the wound. She writes with great humor (affording her narrator with a sense of the absurd, the comic, and the pathetic). I appreciate this complexity because it's what I do in my own life and writing. It's the way life is. And when I give readings, nothing makes me happier to hear the audience laugh.
I'm almost finished with Elaine Castillo's How to Read Now, a collection of essays. "Reality is All We Have to Love" is, for me, the highlight of the book. She considers a story by the great John Berger and some reactions to, or misunderstandings of, its subject, and questions "the subtle implication that the only way to write about abuse or trauma is through the courtroom logic of testimonial and confession, through the sensational drama of exposing a psychic wound… or through the finiteness and finality of judgment and denunciation." I remember struggling with all of these issues while writing early drafts of Wite Out; I really had to get out from under these tropes in order to try to make a book that is as impoverished and rich as my life has been.
Right now I'm completing the third book in my trilogy This will be a collection of linked essays focusing on the story behind my Irish citizenship (my grandmother's and my father's stories, and the stories of so many other Irish women), collage, the Great Depression and documentary. I don't think there'll be any poetry in it. It's a big project and I've been working on it for more than twenty-five years.
I've just finished writing a very short book called A Cloud of Witnesses. It's yet another hybrid work which includes an illustrated essay and thirty poems. They are centi, procedural poems I made from lines in the stacks of books upon which I perched my computer for Zoom meetings during the pandemic. I'm searching for a publisher for this baby. It was cool to write something short—2020-2022—instead of what I usually try to do (nineteenth century history to twenty-first).
Books, SFMoMA Open Space essays, Reviews, Interviews, Events, Poems and Collages
Wite Out: Love and Work, 2020 / The Public Gardens: Poems and History, 2011
Linda Norton is the author of Wite Out: Love and Work (2020), a memoir with poems, and its prequel, The Public Gardens: Poems and History (2011; introduction by Fanny Howe), a finalist for a Los Angeles Times Book Prize. She was born in Boston and lived in Brooklyn for many years before moving to Oakland, where she raised her daughter and met her foster son, who are the heart and soul of Wite Out, a book John Keene and Eileen Myles call a “masterpiece” and Norman Fischer calls “a gorgeous, courageous book.” (You can read excerpts from reviews of both books at the link below.) She is also the author of two chapbooks, Hesitation Kit (2007) and Dark White (2019).
She received a Creative Work Fund grant in 2014, the year she exhibited her collages at the Dock Arts Centre in Ireland with support from the US Embassy in Dublin. Her collages have appeared on the covers of her own books and books by Claudia Rankine, Julie Carr, and other writers. She was a 2020 columnist-in-residence at SFMOMA’s Open Space; you can read her five essays and see her collages and photographs at the link below, where you'll also find interviews, art, and videos of recent readings.
She has been a guest writer in many classrooms where her books have been on writing and literature syllabi (e.g., Fred Moten's class at UC Riverside, C. D. Wright's class at Brown, Katie Peterson's class at UC Davis, and classes at California College of Art, San Francisco State University, CU Boulder, and other institutions). Among the most moving things to occur in her life as a writer: finding a quotation from The Public Gardens in C. D. Wright's posthumously published book, The Poet, The Lion, Talking Pictures, El Farolito, A Wedding in St. Roch, The Big Box Store, The Warp in the Mirror, Spring, Midnights, Fire & All.
Norton is a dual citizen of the US and Ireland/EU and teaches online at the Yeats Academy at IT Sligo/Atlantic Technological University in Connaught, Ireland
Photo: Linda Norton, 2022, for Oaklandside
Maw Shein Win’s most recent poetry book is Storage Unit for the Spirit House (Omnidawn) nominated for the Northern California Book Award in Poetry, longlisted for the PEN America Open Book Award, and shortlisted for CALIBA's Golden Poppy Award for Poetry. Win's previous collections include Invisible Gifts (Manic D Press) and chapbooks Ruins of a glittering palace (SPA) and Score and Bone (Nomadic Press). She is the inaugural poet laureate of El Cerrito and often collaborates with visual artists, musicians, and other writers. mawsheinwin.com